I want to spend New Year's Eve at the Savoy Hotel in London dancing to the Savoy Orpheans. But they're long gone. The Orpheans were the resident dance band at the Savoy from 1923 to 1927, and on and off thereafter throughout the 1930s. Unlike most British bands that played jazz early on, the Orpheans got it. The band swung (within the Jazz Age's bouncy sense of swing), and managed to sound rich and raucous at once; a very neat trick. They also had that burnished British dance band bottom that resonates across the ages on otherwise tinny 78 records; a dual "brass bass" (tuba) -led rhythm section that vroomed like a 1927 Rolls Royce engine.
The closest you can get to the Savoy Orpheans at the Savoy today is the room they played in, which is swell, to say the least, though it's a room that registers the Orpheans' echo but faintly. I'm speaking about The Beaufort Bar at the Savoy, which, as I understand it, was known as the Winter Garden when the Orpheans were in residence. The band's footprint is still present in this lavishly realigned lair; the bandstand that the Orpheans occupied (in fact, rose up on, hydrolically, from the basement below) has been repurposed for the Beaufort as the site of the bar itself, which is appropriate, since the bar is now the star of the show.
I spent a late evening there not long ago. The place is a deco riot of fluted columns and arched niches all dressed in black and edged in gilt. It is shamelessly lovely.
The Savoy Orpheans were the first band to broadcast regularly on BBC radio, beginning in 1923. The BBC's first studios were just next door to the Savoy at Number 2 Savoy Hill. In 1925, George Gershwin played the British premiere of his "Rhapsody in Blue" at The Savoy, with the BBC broadcasting live. I am quite certain that Fred Astaire and his sister Adelle performed in the Winter Garden around this time. Winston Churchill's history with the Savoy Hotel is long and languorous but is centered on the Savoy Grill just down the corridor. I'll bet his son, though, Randolph Churchill, one of between-the-wars London's leading ladies men, fox-trotted his way around the Winter Garden in step with the Savoy Orpheans on occasion.
Today, drinks at The Beaufort Bar are as theatrical as the history of the space itself. The specialties of the house are laid out in a spectacularly produced, limited edition, pop-up book (1000 copies, designed by British "paper engineer" Helen Friel and the illustrator Joe Wilson). Inspired, I was told, by a pop-up map of London uncovered in a 1938 promotional brochure preserved in the Savoy's archive, the drink book is a knockout, as are the libations within, a series of "Character Cocktails," each inspired by a different high-octane celebrity who once stayed at the Savoy; from Marlene Dietrich ("The Blue Angel:" gin, Cointreau, Dom Perignon, sorbet, and "gold dust," to Hemingway, Matisse, Chanel and, my drink of choice for the evening, "The Old Blue Eyes" of Frank Sinatra.
"The drinks are laid out going light to dark," the Beaufort Bar's manager, Anna Sebastian, informed me. "You start out with very fresh, light style drinks and, as you move through, they get more complex, very interesting combinations of flavors, ending up with some very luxurious style drinks."
"Old Blue Eyes" starts out with Jack Daniels, of course, Sinatra's drink, then some dry curacao, a splash of the the Italian aperitif Cocchi Americano and the Italian liqueur Benedictine, (harkening back to Sinatra's Italian heritage, according to Anna Sebastian) with a final, leavening dash of orange bitters. "It's a stirred drink," Anna points out, as opposed to shaken.
Orange, I know, was Sinatra's favorite color. Sinatra wore a lot of orange, and decorated with orange heavily at his home in Palm Springs. My concoction was mixed for me tableside and included the ceremonial singeing of some orange peel by my server, who was charmingly loquacious about the whole process. "Old Blue Eyes" went down as smoothly as a Sinatra ballad and the orange did light up the bourbon rather eloquently. The price tag: 40 pounds sterling (about 60 bucks) was equally electrifying.
"We had Frank Sinatra's son sing here two years ago," Anna Sebastian noted. "It was simply enthralling.
Ah, yes, the music. The music at the Beaufort Bar on my evening there was so much less than it could be, if not, should be. A nice-looking baby grand piano was played by a nice-looking young man from South America who vocalized nice approximations of Billy Joel and The Beatles, while occasionally pulling out a guitar from under the keyboard and accompanying himself on some nice Bossa Nova. The result is first-class background muzak -- as well done as such music can aspire to be. Once a month, on the first Sunday of every month, a top-flight burlesque show is presented. I have yet to catch it, and I'd actually like to.
In New York, this New Year's Eve, two of my very favorite Broadway babies, Marin Mazie and Annaleigh Ashford, will perform early and late shows, respectively, at Feinstein's/54 Below. I can so easily imagine them cabareting in The Beaufort Bar of the Savoy, filling that glamorous room with glamorous song. But they're not there, yet. I can also easily imagine The Savoy Orpheans at The Beaufort Bar. But they're not coming back at all.