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Interview with Ned Bennett – The Harlem Meer Cats

Ahead of The Harlem Meer Cat’s performance on Saturday 20th May on the final evening of this year’s Dulwich Festival, we caught up with one of the Meer Cat’s, clarinetist and saxophonist Ned Bennett. He told us about his early interest in jazz music and what audiences can look forward to in their performance.

How did your passion for music begin and what are your musical influences?

I remember being very young. My parents always listened to music, mostly classical as it happens. My mother had piano lessons for a while and I’d hear her practising, and my father used to sing a lot. My brother played clarinet, and I had violin lessons from the age of 6. When I was about 11, I was looking through my father’s record collection, and stumbled on an old LP of the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert from 1938. I put it on, not knowing what on earth it was, and BOOM…that was IT! I instantly became hooked on jazz, and demanded more and more jazz records from the library. Fats Waller, Ben Webster, some English “trad” bands, and of course Duke Ellington. I started to play sax from 14 years old, totally self taught, mimicking my favourite players, and learning to play jazz by ear, and with the encouragement of the Ipswich jazz fraternity, particularly two sax players, Tony Radford and the mighty “Slim” Hopgood.

Who are The Harlem Meer Cats and how did the band come about?

The Harlem Meer Cats were founded when Dulwich Festival first asked me to put something together for the 2015 festival. I wanted to do something special, that would appeal to die-hard jazz fans as well as, well, everyone really. We are 6 professional freelance musicians, all with a passion for Ellington’s music, and a desire to play it with authenticity and energy. Duke Ellington is one of the greatest of all musicians of the 20th Century. He led a band continuously from the 1920’s (the Washingtonians) until his death in 1974. Some of the musicians in the band stayed with him the whole time, such was his vision and charisma. The Meer Cats plays the music of his earlier years, chiefly when his band was resident at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem district, New York. Many of the pieces are in the “Jungle Style”, reflecting Ellington’s tribute to his African heritage. This featured Bubber Miley on growling trumpet, “Tricky Sam” Nanton making the trombone “talk”, and Sonny Greer creating African rhythms on drums. The pieces from this era are sinister yet seductive, mysterious yet soulful.

How often do you play together?

We’re having a good year with the Harlem Meer Cats. I did a lot of work on promotion recently, and we have played at the Camberwell Crypt, The Crypt at St Martin in the Fields, The Bull’s Head in Barnes, some Swing Dance events in Central London, and soon we’re at the Spice of Life in Soho, and further afield we have the Swanage Festival in July.

What do you enjoy about coming to play at the Dulwich Festival?

I live very close to Dulwich, (Forest Hill), and I teach in Dulwich. I do my shopping in Dulwich, and go to Dulwich Park with my wife and children. I know some of the artists in the Dulwich Festival Open House scheme. I also drink at Dulwich pubs. I know therefore we are guaranteed a great welcome by the wonderful people from all walks of life that I meet around Dulwich. Also as it’s a local gig for me, I’m looking forward to being able to play to some of my many friends who live around here.

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