AN UNHOLY ROW : JAZZ IN BRITAIN AND ITS AUDIENCE 1945-1960
By Dave Gelly
Equinox Publishing. 167 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-84553-712-8
Reviewed by Jim Burns
In 1950 I was fourteen and I heard a Dizzy Gillespie record that changed my life. Well, perhaps it didn’t actually do that, because I still had to go out in the morning on my paper round and then dash off to school. But it certainly opened up a whole new world for me, one which revolved around the weekly Melody Maker and the occasional jazz record I could afford to buy. Jazz wasn’t at all respectable in 1950 and bebop in particular was frowned on or laughed at, even by many jazz fans. I’d come to it straight from listening to big-bands on the radio and getting hold of a few Les Brown and Gene Krupa discs. Traditional jazz didn’t mean much to me. Bebop was what I was interested in. The American poet, Gilbert Sorrentino, once said that bebop was for him an entry into a whole new world of culture and that prior to it culture had meant doing your homework every night and going to the opera. It was, perhaps, a slightly tongue-in-cheek statement, but I knew what he meant.
Those reminiscences were triggered by Dave Gelly’s short but excellent survey of jazz developments in Britain and the way in which audiences responded to them. As he points out, when the war ended in 1945, the radio played “an immensely important part in everyday life.” With regard to music, the influx of American troops into Britain had an effect in terms of altering the approach of British bands as close contacts with American musicians in the Glenn Miller and Sam Donahue orchestras introduced new ideas and sounds into their musical thinking. There were radio programmes, too, that brought British and American musicians together. And the radio stations set up by the American Forces Network (AFN) often featured the latest records by the best American bands and musicians. British jazz and big-band enthusiasts frequently listened to these stations rather than to the BBC.
It is true that a lot of the music heard over the radio wasn’t necessarily pure jazz. But styles mixed easily and Gelly states that “some of the most popular records of the first few post-war years contained a strong element of one kind of jazz or another.” He mentions records by Pee Wee Hunt, Nellie Lutcher, Frankie Laine, and Louis Jordan, as examples. There were others and though it might be moving the timescale slightly around Gelly’s it sticks in my mind that plenty of swing records by the likes of Charlie Barnet and Tommy Dorsey could be heard on the radio. Barnet’s Skyliner was the signature tune for one popular AFN record show in the late-1940s. And around 1950 or so even Woody Herman’s bop-flavoured Lemon Drop sometimes cropped up on the Family Favourites programme. Older listeners were perhaps less thrilled by it than I was. I recall seeing Gene Krupa’s band playing Lemon Drop in a musical short that accompanied the Western I’d gone to see at a local cinema, and the baffled reaction of many in the audience, young and old, to the bop vocal and saxophone solo, and the sight of the band in berets and dark glasses. I’m not convinced that the handful of examples Gelly uses, or the few that I’ve added, indicate any important trend in popular music in the late-1940s and early-1950s. Most popular music was mediocre and had no jazz content.
There were, of course, many jazz fans who were not interested in big-bands, small groups playing swing, and later bop, or performances which might have a kind of jazz tinge. These were the dedicated revivalist purists, often referred to as “mouldy figs,” who thought that the only true jazz came from New Orleans and Chicago and that anything else wasn’t worth considering. They were fanatical in their devotion to documenting the music, tracking down recorded examples, and playing their version of it. As Gelly notes, “commercial” was, for them, a term of abuse, and he goes on to provide a quick summary of the kind of attitudes, including a suspicion of professional musical skills, that the more extreme revivalists might display at times. The problem was, of course, that those attitudes could lead to revivalist jazz often being “badly played, out of tune, and because the players could only manage to get around in a limited number of easy keys, monotonous.” The hard-core fans of this kind of jazz were predominantly male, though the fact that, whatever its faults, the steady beat made it ideal music for dancing, or jiving as it was called, meant that couples did frequent the clubs where the bands played. As I recall it, there was often a link between local amateur jazz bands and the local art school, with the students being enthusiastic supporters of traditional jazz, if only because they associated it with having a good time. And it seemed slightly rebellious and colourful in the world of austerity Britain.
The post-war period also saw the birth of bop in Britain as the new sounds slowly trickled over from America. Bop required greater musical skills so appealed largely to professional and semi-professional musicians who were employed in dance-bands on a national or local level. Gelly neatly sums up the differences between the worlds of traditional and modern jazz: “The earliest stirrings of revivalist jazz in Britain took place in suburban front rooms and the back rooms of pubs. Those of British bebop are to be traced to the peripheries of the dance-band world and long-defunct musicians’ hangouts.” The history of British bop still hasn’t been written in full and is mostly to be found in scattered articles in jazz magazines, sleeve notes for LPs and CDs, and passages in books by or about people like Ronnie Scott and Johnny Dankworth. But Gelly does provide a useful account of the major events, such as the determined efforts of Scott, Dankworth, Hank Shaw, Laurie Morgan, and a few others, to get to New York so they could hear Charlie Parker, and the founding of the Club Eleven in 1949. He also rightly points to the little bands organised by Tito Burns as among the first to try to incorporate bop into their repertoire. It may be that Burns aimed for what Gelly calls “pop-bebop,” but he did employ forward-looking young musicians.
Bop mostly attracted a different kind of listener, though it’s difficult to be too specific about this. He makes a passing reference to skilled working-class males as being among bop’s audience, and I have a feeling he may be right. But I suspect that genuine bop was always a minority interest, attracting individuals rather than groups, and it might be almost impossible to pin down exactly who did listen to it. There were few clubs outside London and some other major cities where bop was played. My own experience as a young enthusiast in the early 1950s saw me grabbing at any chance I got to experience music that I thought had some relation to bop. As a sixteen-year old I scraped enough together in 1952 to spend a few days in London so I could get to the Studio ’51 Club and hear British modernists like Johnny Rogers, Dizzy Reece, Kenny Graham, and Eddie Blair. I saw Sarah Vaughan at a Sunday afternoon concert in Preston in 1953 and recall that also on the bill was a British band that had won a Melody Maker competition. A small group within it played a version of Dizzy Gillespie’s The Champ, a tune which most British bands, including those led by Ted Heath and Jack Parnell, recorded. Ronnie Scott’s fine nine-piece band came to a local dance-hall one Friday night and I was one of those ignoring the dancers and crowding around the front of the stage. Many years later I had the opportunity to tell Benny Green that I remembered him and the other musicians chanting “Oo-shoo-bee-doo,” though I doubt that he wanted to be reminded of this concession to popular taste. The big thrill was in September, 1953, when I was one of the five thousand fans who crossed the Irish Sea to hear Stan Kenton in concert in Dublin. Kenton wasn’t bop, but the 1953 band had musicians like Conte Candoli, Lee Konitz, Zoot Sims, and Frank Rosolino (who had performed the bop vocal in that Gene Krupa film mentioned earlier), and Gerry Mulligan had provided some of the more-modern arrangements. We had to go to Dublin because there was a ban on American bands playing in Britain. And there were experiences which provided snippets of jazz within mostly commercial frameworks, such as the occasional instrumental numbers that leaders like Teddy Foster and Joe Loss had in their repertoire and which might feature a tenor-sax or trumpet solo by some young musicians paying their dues in touring dance-bands. Most of all there were bop records on labels like Vogue, Esquire, and Melodisc, and I collected those avidly.
Jazz generally increased in popularity in the 1950s. Gelly attributes this, in the revivalist and traditional jazz fields, at least, to leaders like Graeme Bell and Humphrey Lyttelton playing for dancing. The purists were not happy with the growing popularity, and their suspicions about “commercialism” were justified in some ways as entrepreneurs moved in and began to organise concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and similar locations. New names began to come to the fore, including Chris Barber and Acker Bilk. And Trad Jazz, a watered-down version of New Orleans, soon began to dominate the pop charts. It was music that had none of the raggedness of the revivalist bands, and certainly none of the complexities of modern-jazz, the term that had taken over as bebop spread out and changed in the 1950s. Gelly says that “trad was never the kind of music which set out seriously to alienate parents or the older generation.” He’s insightful and fair to Bilk in particular and stresses that he was an excellent musician who made some attractive records which appealed to a wide audience. There was nothing wrong with that, even if diehard supporters of traditional, as opposed to trad, jazz looked on popular success with suspicion.
The audience for modern jazz also grew as the 1950s saw the ban on American musicians finally lifted and the Count Basie band came to Britain, as did package shows like Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, and another one that went under the name of Jazz from Carnegie Hall. British audiences could see and hear Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, J.J. Johnson, Coleman Hawkins, and others in these star line-ups. There also were tours by individual groups led by Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk, with British groups like the Jazz Couriers or Joe Harriott’s often opening up the concert. And Ronnie Scott’s Club in London brought in Zoot Sims, Dexter Gordon, and others as soloists backed by British musicians. It could have been that the audiences for the larger touring groups, and especially the package shows, were there because of a few names like Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald, and that the interest in most of the soloists was largely confined to a relatively small circle of dedicated jazz fans. London may have been able to provide a jazz audience of a reasonable size, but elsewhere it was often difficult to sustain enough interest to have a jazz venue open on a regular basis. There were always exceptions, of course, in places like Manchester and Birmingham, but they often had to bring in American jazzmen, or an established name from London, to get enough customers to keep going.
The big-band culture which had enabled many musicians to survive was steadily declining in the late-1950s and early-1960s. And the few bands that did manage to get enough bookings to pay their way had to compromise by featuring singers (Ted Heath had three, if memory serves me right, when I saw his band during a summer season in Blackpool in the 1950s) and including a lot of commercial material in their performances. That had always been true, of course, because a big-band playing modern jazz wasn’t going to have widespread support. I went to a Sunday evening concert by the Johnny Dankworth Orchestra in 1954 while I was waiting to be sent to an army camp in Germany, and I remember being disappointed by the fact that so much of the programme was, to my mind, commercial. I’m thinking back sixty years so I can’t be specific about what I heard. But it may be significant that a minor hit record, Experiments with Mice, that Dankworth had in the 1950s was, in Gelly’s words, “a superior kind of novelty.” I’m not in any way condemning Dankworth or any other bandleader for having to compromise in order to make a living, and just want to point out that the audience for a big-band playing only modern jazz was far too small to support it on a full-time basis.
Gelly says that the “audience for modern jazz in Britain not only grew substantially but matured” in the late-1950s, and he attributes this to many young people – “sixth formers, undergraduates and the like” – becoming bored with trad jazz. He also credits the rising interest in the Beats as having an effect because of their liking for jazz and their frequent references to it in their novels and poems. The jazz musician had become a kind of hero in the style of the bohemian, someone living the sort of life that separated him from the general population and often prepared to make sacrifices, perhaps even die, for the sake of his art. Along with this there was the way in which jazz, especially of the modern kind, had achieved acceptance among intellectuals and was written about in Sunday newspapers and weekly journals like the New Statesman. Before I went into the army in early 1954 I read about jazz in the Melody Maker and Jazz Journal, and none of the people I would have thought of as intellectuals took it seriously. When I came back to Britain in 1957 the intellectuals were telling me that jazz was art because they took it seriously. I admit to feeling resentful because I’d always known what Charlie Parker’s true worth was and I didn’t need someone writing for a posh paper or magazine to explain it to me. Curiously, I had much the same experience with the Beats and other writers, whose work I found for myself long before it became widely-known or popular, and when it was often sneered at and dismissed. Later, I was told that I ought to take those writers seriously by intellectuals and academics who had suddenly decided they were worthy of attention. I was more amused than resentful that time around.
It needs to be said that in the early-1960s modern jazz almost collapsed in terms of popularity. Trad jazz still continued to have an audience for some years, but the rise of rock’n’roll in the late-1950s had started to pull away young people who were looking for music that went along with dancing, having a good time, and perhaps provided a kind of revolt against older generations. When rock music began to broaden and take on intellectual pretensions, along with its relationship to forms of social and political protest in the 1960s, I think it appealed to those who may at one time have been inclined towards jazz. It may also be true to say that after 1960 or so developments in free jazz and other experiments took modern jazz even further away from any kind of popular appeal. I doubt that the audiences that went to hear Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, and the Modern Jazz Quartet, would have wanted to listen to Albert Ayler or Archie Shepp. Things did pick up in the 1970s and 1980s and I heard a lot of good jazz throughout both decades, though mostly in small clubs. And there were jazz festivals, though I never could really adapt to listening to jazz in the open air and with the musicians some distance away. And I wonder how many genuine jazz fans there are now. There are still a couple of nationally published jazz magazines, though I suspect that for one of them the circulation may be declining as old age creeps up on the readers. And coverage of jazz elsewhere tends to be sporadic and rarely in depth. It’s not true to say that jazz is dead, and there is still plenty of activity of one kind or another around the country, but it certainly has much less of a broad appeal than it once had.
Gelly’s survey only takes us up to 1960, though he does have something to say about jazz today. And the question arises of whether or not much of what now passes for jazz is truly jazz. As he says, it might all depend on how you define jazz. I’ve got to admit that the predominance of singers tends to incline me towards relying on my CD collection and old LPs for my jazz entertainment. I’m not suggesting that the singers are bad, nor that they often use good material, and that their accompaniment is provided by competent musicians with jazz inclinations. But the end product doesn’t really get through to me as jazz. Nor does a lot of the purely instrumental music that now claims to be jazz. These doubts may well be due to my own blindspots, limitations, and prejudices. Perhaps I’m still hooked on the atmosphere of the days when bop was relatively new to me, jazz was where you found it, and it was exciting to discover new records and musicians? Nostalgia can become a problem. Still, I was talking to a friend recently and told him about hearing Dexter Gordon in Ronnie Scott’s original club, the basic cellar with just plain chairs lined up in front of the musicians. In response, he told me about a recent visit to the current club with its high admission charge, expensive but average food, and overpriced drinks. And I thought, it’s not a place for an old man who remembers what it was like fifty years ago. And could they now feature anyone of the musical stature of Dexter Gordon?
All that aside I want to say how much I enjoyed Dave Gelly’s book. It’s well-written, gives an intelligent and informative summary of the period concerned, and is short and to the point, something to be welcomed in an age when big books seem to be taking over. It has a number of entertaining anecdotes, and there are relevant notes, a short but sufficient for the purpose bibliography, and a useful guide to available CDs. I’d recommend An Unholy Row to anyone wanting a brisk account of jazz in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s.