The chilli sauce bottle reads “Est. 1929 — The Gold Reef’s original watering hole and place for serious debate and cultural activity.” Thus far, the serious debate at our table has been the careful drawing of various reproductive organs on a serviette and then inconspicuously slipping them back into the larger pile, and the only cultural activity that I’ve partaken in involved ridding any biological cultures from my digestive tract with the sweltering chilli-filled ‘Josie Field’ pizza. Through watering eyes, I can see the ceiling fans are barely making an effort to clear the air of the thick heat, history and jazz that permeate through the beer hall with fedoras, panamas, bright eyes and dark sunglasses. It’s Sunday afternoon at Radium Beerhall, and Spring has sprung so hard that she just about leaped right into Summer.
Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of jazz. It all sounds exactly the same to me. Much like beer, I see its appeal, but it could do with a shot of tequila to liven things up a bit. So what am I doing at Radium Beerhall on the first Sunday of September, you ask? Trying to understand why I don’t understand jazz. Like the time I went to the German Beer Fest and tried to get drunk (it didn’t work, but I have more optimism for this project because it involves less physical activity on my behalf). Well, Radium is the Beer Fest of Jazz. And jazz, as I understand it, has to do with maturity, sophistication and generally being a ‘cool cat’.
So, on my initial checklist, I’m well on my way to completing this cultural experience. The audience members are (on average) double my age, I’m drinking a well-priced glass of white wine and there’s a resident black cat strolling nonchalantly down the aisles. Just then, the youngest member of Parkview Primary School’s aptly named ‘Young Cats’ stands up and blows all my assumptions down the brass tube of his trumpet with an astounding solo. The initiative, led by Tom Davies (smooth-talking, cream-panama-wearing grand-jazz-guru of Radium Beerhall), gets kids together on a Saturday afternoon to practice their ‘cool’ and today Radium is crammed with doting parents and awestruck regulars making this ‘cool’ hot and sweaty. There are squelching, tapping feet, slippery, clicking fingers, and sweat-beaded, nodding heads of approval in every corner.
After the ‘Young Cats’ comes the ‘Two Tenor Band’ and my mind wanders off to the newspaper headlines adorning the rear of the stage. Memorable one-liners pop out, such as ‘Lesbians Lose Appeal’ and ‘Situation Is Vrot With Danger’. My gaze continues to meander around Radium (as the theme tune to ‘Star Trek’ is jazzed down) to the old football photos and, eventually, to a sketch of this very corner (9th street and Louis Botha) — about a hundred years ago. And then it all falls into place. The two tenor saxophones are click-counted in, and with this sound, as in the picture, there is infinite possibility. Their final song ‘Winter Wonderland’ takes me down the dusty streets in the picture of this very city corner, glimmering with the hope of gold and the dry heat of both this afternoon and the one portrayed, with the contrast of a snowy landscape invading my ears. I realise that, with jazz, it’s up to you to create the story, the characters, and the scenery in your own mind. The music is just the picture-frame. With a jolt, I think I get jazz. But then the moment passes.
The spell is broken when I accidentally loosen a chilli with my tongue from my back teeth and I am forced to reach over to my table-fellows and gulp down the nearest available drink, which is inevitably a beer. Next Sunday, I will be back for the ‘Fat Sound 19-Piece Jazz Band’ as advertised, and perhaps I’ll sit by the picture again whilst being immature, unsophisticated and burning through my bowels with the delicious pizza. But most importantly, maybe I’ll understand jazz again — just for a moment.
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