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Vintage Jazz

In 1924, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle wrote a stage show named ‘The Chocolate Dandies’. The show was unfortunately ultimately a flop because it failed to fit the stereotypical ‘fast dancing and negroid humor’. The name, however, lived on and was used by a number of different jazz ensembles from the late 1920s to 1940.

Don Redman, one of the first great jazz arrangers, was also a reed player and vocalist, appearing with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra until 1927, when he moved onto McKinney’s Cotton Pickers as well as working with Louis Armstrong and his Savoy Ballroom Five. In 1928, Redman brought together a small group of players to record with Okeh under the name The Chocolate Dandies. My 78rpm record is a pressing by Parlophone Records, headed at that time by Oscar Preuss.


Parlophone established a master leasing arrangement with Okeh and issued the Rhythm Style Series which included the two fabulous 78rpm numbers included here. Cherry was written by Don Redman himself and the vocals may be by him. Four or Five Times, written by Hellman & Gay, have what sounds like a quartet of voices including interjections in a woman’s voice. Note that on one side, the billing is The Big Chocolate Dandies and the other side The Little Chocolate Dandies!

In 1950, Oscar Preuss of Parlophone Records hired a young man named George Martin and five years later, Martin succeeded Preuss. The rest, as they say, is recording history.

With Vocal Refrain

❦ To listen to ‘Cherry’, click the audio player below ❦

‘Four Or Five Times’
With Vocal Refrain

❦ To listen to ‘Four Or Five Times’, click the audio player below ❦


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the shadows

Night brings different challenges for the photographer but also many delights. Stockbridge is on the edge of the New Town and many of its cobbled streets have lovely wrought iron street lanterns. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about Leerie the Lamplighter, who patrolled the streets lighting these gas lamps, now electrified.

This picture was taken in the winter months in a mews not far from me. The clock tower of St Stephens, only its illuminated face floating above the street, shows the time as ten past eight. A car is parked to the right, tucked into the wall. Doors hung with creeping ivy are deep in the gloom. A Victorian lamp attached to the upper floor of a mews house, where the windows are lit, casts a pool of light on the cobbles.

I’m chasing the moon, trying to include it in the picture – a perfect sphere hanging alongside the clock face of the tower – but it seems I can get either clock or moon in my viewfinder, but not both. Frustrated, I think about giving up. Then quite suddenly (I start a little) a figure steps from the shadows and begins to walk towards me. I can’t make out any details of his appearance and he hasn’t yet seen me. I click the shutter a few times.

The colours of the resulting picture were a mix of greys, browns and blacks – conversion to black and white was an obvious choice.

The man who walked out of the shadows that night is a local – I see him on the street almost daily. He has no idea that he was the crucial element that lifted the photo out the ordinary.

There’s a cut-through from St Stephen Street to Hamilton Place. It starts at the Stockbridge Market arch, goes past the old fruit stores, a row of tenements with pretty gardens and then into this slightly grim underpass area. The authorities and the tag artists wage a constant graffiti war on those blinding white walls.

Of course, it’s a photographer’s dream. That swelling wall to the left is actually the stairwell of the flats above. And at some point, concrete slabs have replaced half of the original cobbles. There’s two exits you can take here – the left is cobbled and the right slabbed. Bright daylight does lovely things in this space and at night, the wall lamps make it positively Hitchcockian.

As I snapped away, happy as Larry, I knew that what I really needed was a person. As a comma to all that blankness. But it had to be the right person. Some chattering teens were the first ones I rejected, then a scowly man with a chocolate labrador (how on earth can any man remain scowly with such an idiotic but adorable dog?). Then out the corner of my eye, I saw this lady. Mercy of mercies, she was a slow walker. Click – right there.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan


Waverley & Nothing For Sale

I was out around Princes Street with my Ilford Sporti, a camera from the 1950s. The Sporti was at the cheap end of medium format back then (using 120 roll film). Its controls are basic and this particular camera had a bit of a light leak, which gave the resulting pictures an ethereal edge. It gives 12 square pictures from each roll – and in this case, was loaded with Tri-X, my favourite b&w film.

As I turned onto Waverley Bridge, it seemed to me that the many layers of Edinburgh were laid out in front of me. To my left, a hideous 1970s shopping mall which has never really flourished – Edinburgh Council isn’t famed for the wisdom of its planning decisions. A taxi rank, not over-busy on a chilly, out-of-season January day. Tour buses parked up in a line more in hope than expectation of a crowd of tourists.

Then, down a steep ramp, the Victorian grandeur of Waverley Station. Rising steeply above the valley floor are the towering tenements of the Old Town (high-rise architecture centuries before the term was invented). And above all of them, the spire of the High Kirk of St Giles on the Royal Mile.

There is a truly extraordinary shop in St Stephen Street. I call it the Shop where Nothing is for Sale, because when I was new to the area, I went in and asked how much several items were. The reply to all my questions was It’s not for sale. I’ve since discovered that my experience is by no means unique.

The range of stock defies description. There are old patchwork quilts hanging near the top of the window, strings of beads and brooches draped over jewellery boxes, tiny china animals, miniature vintage toys, battered Dinky vans, and sets of silvered hair brushes to name just a few. The interior is darkly Dickensian and the whole shop is lit by just a few unadorned and feeble lightbulbs.

The shop is owned by a mother and son. The mother, very aged, often sits outside the door on an old bentwood chair, watching the world pass by. The son spends most of his days in one of the local hostelries.

I took this picture on a winter night, when darkness descends before the shops are ready to close. It was a little misty and the light in the window seemed to shine more brightly than usual.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan


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Just So

m_lamp repairs in colour
There’s a shop on Howe Street, tucked into a basement, which rejoices in the name of Lonsdale & Dutch. I believe that they are technically called tinsmiths, but I think of it as the lantern shop. For in the window are all kinds of outdoor lanterns and their fittings such are common in Edinburgh’s New Town. Figures can be glimpsed, bent over lathes, through a blue mist of dust and metal particles in the workshop. I’ve never had the nerve to ask if I could photograph inside the workshop, but I long to do so.

The window display (if display’s the right word) rarely changes – one rickety lantern replacing another and a fresh scattering of nuts and bolts. And while it’s fascinating by day, it’s at night that it really comes alive to evoke the spirit of an older Edinburgh. I’ve spent what feels like hours aiming my camera at the lit window on cold winter nights, only giving up when my hands were too frozen to continue. This picture is one of the results.


Once upon a time, I swore I’d never take what I call chocolate box pictures. But, you know, never is such a long time and pretty pictures are, whether we like it or not, all around us. And here’s an example.

You’d swear this is a carefully constructed composition for Country Living magazine. (Incidentally, that magazine is one of my guilty pleasures – it’s as good as eating an entire box of chocolates and almost as good as sex – well, as good as bad sex, if you see what I mean). The beautiful latticed ironwork of the table and chair, a birdbox placed just so, a shabby chic enamel watering can and planters and a garden fence to set it all off. A stylist would be in heaven – why all it needs is a faded Cath Kidston apron and a child with tousled curls named Imogen!

But it isn’t. I swear. On my mother’s life. OK Mother isn’t with us any more, but if she were, she’d have said now this is lovely – I don’t know why you can’t take nice pictures like this all the time, instead of that weird stuff. Yes Mum.

The location, by the way, was one of the handkerchief-size gardens of the Stockbridge Colonies – and yes, shabby chic is big down there, let me tell you…

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan


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