The Durham Student’s Union Welcome Ball marketed itself as the grand finale to a jam-packed Freshers’ Week. It was an opportunity to mingle exclusively with Durham students from all colleges, and at the same time look good doing it in formal wear.
Fire-breathers, red carpet walkways, and an introductory glass of champagne guaranteed that from the get-go the atmosphere was one of sophistication. Milling about and posing for photographs were excited freshers, a bemused second-year friend who I had dragged along, and ecstatic me. Making a beeline straight for backstage, I managed to catch Alfie Leach, President, and Jason Kwan, Vice President of Basement Jazz, minutes before their performance.
So how are you guys feeling about your set?
Jason: Really great, because this year we’re taking our jazz stuff back. We’re bringing forth more funk and more jazz, alongside our usual pop set list. We have a new Music Director, Sarah Doyle, and she’s arranged really nice big band stuff for us this year.
How long has Basement Jazz been around?
Alfie: We were founded in 2012 as a college band. But then we started to develop more and we’ve got members from different colleges now.
Jason: We started off as an instrumental band, a pure jazz band, and we developed into a pop-jazz band with singers.
Who are your main singers?
Jason: I am the male lead. We’re looking for a female lead at the moment because our amazing female lead, Sarah Harrison, is doing a year abroad in Tokyo. She’ll be back next year though.
Have you performed at other Durham University events before?
Alfie: Yeah, we play a lot of college balls. That’s what we go for mainly.
Jason: We actually played the Fresher’s Ball last year so they have us back this year. We’ve also extended ourselves to bars, so we’ve played Fabio’s twice now. That’s been amazing.
Alfie: And we’ve played for the Vice Chancellor of the University.
Jason: And we’ve been invited back again this year.
Have you crafted your set to make it more cohesive with that of the other performers?
Alfie: We’re doing our own thing.
Jason: I mean they invited us back very much because of the reception last year and we bring out a really great jazz, pop, dance gig. We bring full energy so that’s what we’re here for.
Do you take inspiration from any jazz or pop performers?
Alfie: I like the Amy Winehouse pieces that we do.
Jason: I’m a big Freddie fan – Freddie Mercury. So I’m very theatrical on stage, you’ll see.
So what’s your favourite Queen song?
Alfie: It has to be ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, doesn’t it?
Jason: Oh, that’s so hard. I think ‘Fat-Bottomed Girls’ is pretty up there.
Alfie, what’s your favourite Amy Winehouse song?
Alfie: ‘Valerie’, just because we play it.
How long have you been preparing for this?
Jason: The whole week, every night. Most of our band members aren’t back, so, for example, our two female leads are deps [temporary substitutes].
How big is your band?
Alfie: It’s 15 players.
Are they all second and third years? Or do you have freshers?
Alfie: Well this year the band is second and third years because we obviously lost some of our third years from last year. But we will be holding auditions next week to get freshers in to fill positions.
Jason: It’s next Thursday at 19:30.
What was the biggest challenge preparing for this set, in particular?
Alfie: Well the problem was that we didn’t have much time to prepare, honestly. And we’ve had to substitute players because we’ve lost a lot and we’ve had to audition new ones.
Jason: But the exciting thing about this gig that we’re doing tonight is that we’re playing lots of new songs. We’re going to do ‘Wonderwall’, for the first time, and we’re doing ‘Fly Me to the Moon’. We’re taking the sound more big-band jazz.
What’s the next big gig for you?
Alfie: We’ve yet to book venues. I’m hoping we’ll do the Fabio one soon but we obviously need to get our band together and start practising and then get a decent set.
Jason: This year will be easier, I think, because we’ve established ourselves. Fabio’s will happen around the end of this term.
Anything else you want to add?
Jason: Look out for the biggest college band in Durham! The most popular one. No, I’m kidding, but definitely the highest energy.
The band started out strong, with a rendition of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Valerie’, sung soulfully by Niffi Osiyemi. Freshers eagerly made their way to the dance floor as the set continued and were soon accompanied by two feather-donning stilt-walkers, who mingled with the crowd. Meanwhile, some made their way to the bumper cars – perhaps not the safest idea for an alcohol-fuelled event – and those who didn’t want to brace the nighttime cold could play a casino game indoors. Although no real money changed hands, the anticipation remained high as those playing awaited their fates at popular games like blackjack and the roulette.
After Basement Jazz, DJ Fresh, the headline act of the night, took to the stage with a set of worn-out club hits that did not manage to move the crowd as much as he had hoped. Even the current hit song, ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ by the Weeknd, failed to make much of an impact.
Yet although the headline act was mildly disappointing, the ball finished earlier than advertised, and the venue was much too large for the amount of people who actually made it over – all was by far not lost. Basement Jazz gave a stellar performance, there was much to occupy the time, and the different entertainment was not overcrowded. From a personal perspective, as soon as I’d discovered on the next day that during the ball I managed to lose a family heirloom, bend my glasses out of shape, and was developing a large bruise from an unknown cause, I knew that it was definitely time well spent.
Photographs: Charlie Smith