The history of the jazz opera is nearly a hundred years old, arguably beginning with George Gershwin’s experiments with the opera format in the 1920s. For one reason or another, however, it has never risen to prominence within the fields of jazz or opera.

It has also been a source of controversy in the past, Ernst Krenek’s Jonny Spielt Auf being a famous early example. This 1927 opera is the story of Jonny, a black jazz violinist, and was a polemical statement at the time which was eventually banned under Nazi rule.

The jazz opera is the perfect vehicle for the Hackney Music Development Trust’s Shadowball, on March 15th. Written by author Mike Phillips and jazz pianist and composer Julian Joseph, the show tells the story of black baseball players’ struggle against racial segregation in the early part of the 20th century, and of their counterparts in jazz music. The connection between black jazz musicians and baseball players is well known, with Louis Armstrong owning a team in the negro league and Bo Jangles known to tap-dance on the roofs of dug-outs, where the players waited to take the field. In both trades the story is of triumph in the face of adversity, and Shadowball serves as a motivation to young people today to strive for similar achievements.

The show is also an excellent opportunity for newcomers to jazz to become acquainted with the historical story and discover the beauty of the music and the talent of black jazz musicians. Jazz music as a genre can often seem daunting and imposing to the uninitiated, with such a rich history and developed traditions. By coupling the music with a stage show, detailing an important aspect of jazz’s history, Phillips and Joseph make the music accessible to any audience.

Shadowball is linked to an educational programme for schools using sports and the arts as a way to encourage young people to achieve great things despite adversity. The project explores the same themes as the performance: the struggle of black athletes and musicians in the 1930s-40s against racial discrimination and the great things they achieved.

The show is undoubtedly an exceptional endeavour both for Phillips and Joseph as its creators and for its young cast. It is a brilliant chance to see the story of jazz told through the experiences of their athletic counterparts, and it promises to be an inspirational experience. It is an opportunity for people of all backgrounds, experienced jazz connoisseurs or first-timers, to get to know this uplifting story.

Shadowball is being performed at the Hackney Empire on Thursday March 15.

Adam Tait