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Interview with Ned Bennett from the Harlem Meer Cats

Next month sees the return of The Harlem Meer Cats at the Dulwich Festival. Recreating the music heard at the Cotton Club in the 1920s and 30s, these six fine musicians play the great hits of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway among others. We caught up with Ned Bennett who arranges the music and plays the saxophone and clarinet in the band.


You’re returning to the Festival for the third time, what is it about this event that you enjoy so much?


I love the whole atmosphere and buzz of the Dulwich Festival. Most of the Harlem Meer Cats are pretty local, so it’s great to see some friends (and even family) in the audience, along with the wonderful people who hail from Dulwich itself. The organisers are fantastic too, which makes it such a pleasurable experience!


The Dulwich Festival played an integral part in the history of The Harlem Meer Cats, can you remind us of how the group were created in the first place?


Being a local jazz musician, I was asked to play a gig at the festival 5 years ago. I spent a bit of time wondering what to do, to make it feel extra special, not just a run-of-the-mill gig. I also wanted it to appeal to as many people as possible. In the end I decided on a particular repertoire, then worked out how many musicians I’d need to create the sound I wanted. After that it was merely a case of weeks at the desk creating the arrangements, picking some brilliant musicians and hoping it was all worth while…which of course it was…and still is!


The Meer Cats not only have to gel as a group, but also excel as jazz soloists, how do you achieve this?


The musicians in the Meer Cats are all amazing. They all have to be great sight-readers (there is usually no rehearsal time: new arrangements are often sight-read in front of the audience). They all have to play in the correct style for this music too. And most important, they all have to be great jazz improvisers; we regard every performance as a jazzgigrather than a concert. A concert implies worked-out routines, set list, pre-conceived solos etc, whereas during a gig, anything can happen. I will choose to play a piece we’ve never done before perhaps, or the trombonist feels like playing a cadenza in the middle of one number, or something happens that brings an unexpected spark to one of the pieces. Great jazzersthrive on the unexpected, which undoubtedly brings every performance to life.


As a group, you favour the earlier music of Duke Ellington, what is it about these pieces that appeal so much?


I love Duke Ellington. In fact most jazz fans do, even if they generally prefer modern jazz. Ellington is like the Bachof jazz. The reference point, the grand-daddy, the main man. The Harlem Meer Cats play his music from the 1920s and 30s, which I feel includes some really daring and innovative stuff. Aside from the odd vo-do-de-opopular tunes (Doin’ the New Low Down etc), much of this repertoire is in the Jungle Style,which is characterised by growling trombone and trumpet, wailing sax and clarinet, African rhythms etc. The music both is sinister and seductive, mysterious and moving, but always really swinging.

Tell us about the process of taking Ellington’s big band jazz pieces and streamlining them to your group of six


This is the hard work. Ellington had twelve or thirteen musicians in his band. We have six. I will listen to some old recordings of his band. If there is a piece I like, I will first consider if it is possible to distil. Some pieces simply have too much going on, that it would never work. After I have chosen the piece, I will transcribe it, as accurately as I can (though sometimes I will take elements from different recordings and combine them into one arrangement). I have to be creative with the three horns we have, trumpet, sax and trombone. If Ellington wrote a section for three trombones for example, I will put the lead part on trombone, then have the trumpet and sax below it, knowing that we are very adept at blending our sounds, so the outcome will sound like a trombone section. It does mean that we all have to be lead payers, section players and soloists, and it is very demanding on the chops!



What can we expect from your performance at this year’s Festival?


You will hear some of our favourite Ellington repertoire: Black and Tan Fantasy, East St Louis Toodle-Oo, The Mooche etc, as well as some less well-known material. You can also expect to hear some of Cab Calloway’s music. Calloway’s band would replace Duke Ellington’s at the Cotton Club when Duke was on tour. Of course Cab Calloway was a singer, so for the first time folks, I will be singing some of our stuff without the use of a safety net! Whatever we play, you can expect some fantastic jazz.


You recently recorded your first CD, ‘Jungle Nights In Harlem’, can you tell me the story behind this


It was at the Dulwich Festival in 2017 that I had to apologize to the audience for not having any CDs to sell. I had been thinking of doing one, but hadn’t worked out how to pay for it: it’s not cheap. In the end I sold my old tenor sax, a Selmer Balanced Action from 1936, to an Italian cartoonist (he’s very good…at drawing cartoons at least), and with the money, paid for the CD production, and bought a Conn tenor from 1933. (Which I love to bits.) I’m hoping that everyone who wanted a CD then still wants to buy one this time around!


What’s next for the Harlem Meer Cats?


We have a busy year: as well as playing at jazz clubs around London and beyond, we are also appearing at the Keswick and Upton jazz festivals. We have a couple of private events in the book too. I’m keen to include more Cab Calloway as it’s great fun, and audiences do love to hear some singing. I’d love to record another CD featuring his music, perhaps entitled The Ghost of Smokey Joe after one of his songs that you might hear at this year’s Dulwich Festival.


Harlem Meer Cats

7.30pm Sat 18th may 2019 St Barnabas Parish Hall, Dulwich Village




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