A musical correction to a false note

July 02, 2019 10:36
For those seeking to enjoy Dixieland jazz in an unpretentious setting, Ned Kelly’s is the place to go in Hong Kong, our columnist says. Photo: YouTube

Recently, a friend brought to my attention an article in The Standard Newspaper. Written by someone who claims to have the interests of people at street level at heart, it was plainly intended to be a commentary on the lack of live entertainment for Hongkongers of modest means.

The writer waxes lyrical about the delights of Macau’s casino entertainment scene and talks in sorrowful tones of the absence of comparable venues in Hong Kong

The article was illustrated with a large color photograph which I immediately recognized as the interior of Ned Kelly’s Last Stand in Ashley Road, TST.

But here is the curiosity: in the body of the article there was not a word about Ned Kelly’s!

Now, anyone who enjoys Dixieland jazz in an unpretentious setting knows that Ned Kelly’s is the star venue in the firmament of live music.

Under the direction of that great Geordie showman, Colin Aitchison, from 9.30pm to 1.0am every night of the week and Dixieland jazz from Tuesday through to Saturday night, the most polyglot collection of people to be found anywhere, let alone Hong Kong, are entertained to live music.

The most important word in that last sentence is “entertained”. Joking with members of the band and the audience, Colin holds center stage, singing and playing a variety of instruments, most notably a teapot.

His “laicha” version of ‘Amazing Grace’ which finishes a complete octave higher, turning his face purple with the effort, brings screams of delight from the audience.

Audience members’ birthdays are celebrated with a New Orleans version of ‘Happy Birthday’ and a free glass of the infamous ‘North Sea Oil’ which has to be downed in one, to the rapturous applause of all those present. Though the tradition, as Colin informs the birthday boy or girl, is for them to buy a drink for everyone in the house – an announcement that receives an ecstatic welcome – to my knowledge, no-one has ever honored it.

And what an audience. Whereas in years pre 2002 the regular aficionados at Ned’s – as it is known to its familiars – were predominantly Hong Kong-based expatriates, under Aitchison’s guidance, it now caters to an incredible mix of nationalities of all age groups, chief amongst which are young Hong Kong Chinese.

Anyone who thinks that Dixieland Jazz has no appeal to today’s young generation has never spent an evening at Ned’s. Many in the audience even know the words of the songs and sing along with their favorite numbers.

Nowhere else in Hong Kong, or anywhere that I have ever been, enjoys this extraordinary ambience in which total strangers enter into lively conversations with those sharing a table. Language suddenly ceases to be a barrier and visitors learn more about Hong Kong in one evening at Ned’s than they could ever glean from any other venue.

The catalyst for this melding of nationalities and personalities is music, the sole medium of communication across languages. Jazz, particularly Dixieland, also called New Orleans or Traditional, has a universal quality that bridges even the musical divides.

My opinion, for what it is worth, is that the reason for the appeal of jazz is that it correlates to human rhythms, which is evidenced by the way that people feel the urge to get up and dance.

With the exception of “the Blues”, it is also joyful, lifting our spirits. This is frequently evidenced by the permanent smiles on the faces of those listening.

Another element which engages with an audience is the process of improvisation as the musician takes the basic melody and plays with it, constrained only by the chord structure. In this way, the listener shares the sense of freedom with the musician.

Now add to the fundamental appeal of jazz music the showmanship, razzamatazz and cheeky chutzpah of Aitchison and you begin to have some understanding of why Ned Kelly’s is Hong Kong’s foremost and longest lived, live entertainment venue.

Its longevity is also due, in part, to its founder Tom Parker who purchased the building. He achieved what many entertainers could only dream of, establishing a venue which combines food, drink and theater.

Hong Kong owes Parker a debt of gratitude for having maintained Ned’s using essentially the same format of jazz, blues, fun and booze for almost 43 years. All this with a house band of five musicians and no cover charge.

At a time when another much loved live entertainment venue, Grappa’s in Jardine House, is being closed down by the philistine board of directors of Hong Kong Land, men with not an iota of music in their corporate soul, the particularly special value of Ned Kelly’s to our nightlife needs not only to be recognized but nourished.

When the various iterations of the Bauhinia medal are awarded, instead of human dross like the Secretary for Security, it is people like Tom Parker and Colin Aitchison who ought to be recipients of Grand Bauhinias.

Though we can only dream that the genuine contributors to the quality of life in Hong Kong will ever be recognized by a soulless government, we, the people, can and should continue to enjoy the actuality of live performances by the outstanding musicians in the showband setting of Ned Kelly’s Last Stand on Ashley Road.

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