JAZZ ON THE MARCH
In Up The Lamb, the affectionate and hugely entertaining memoir of his working-class childhood spent in a Welsh mining community during the 1930s and 40s, the poet and critic John Ackerman writes of how the street gang he ran with was opposed by one called "The Crown Arabs":
Up The Lamb, which was brought out by the Welsh publisher Seren in 1998, ought to be a minor classic, and I wish I had more space to write about both it and its author, an utterly delightful man whose decline into Alzheimer's began not long after the publication of his Memoir. As a result, he was unable to enjoy the praise it brought him from his friends , among whom I count myself (As far as I know there were precious few reviews.) Here, I can say only that the words quoted above inevitably reminded me that during the 1984-5 miners' strike so-called jazz bands frequently led strikers' marches in North Nottinghamshire. (And for all I know elsewhere.) In truth these bands were for the most part made up of miners' children, and they played on a mixture of kazoos, paper-and-comb, tin trumpets and drums, as well as the occasional bugle and snare drum. Very few had proper brass or wind instruments , and while they blew and thumped with a will you couldn't really call what they played jazz. So why, I wondered, as I followed one of these bands through the streets of Worksop one Saturday, did they think jazz was the right word for their music? the only answers seemed denigratory. The sounds were rough, improvised, even unskilled, and anyone could join in. Not much of a recommendation.
But a few years later, when I began researching for the book that would eventually become The Radical Twenties, I found that reports of marches by the unemployed during the 1920s also made mention of these being led by jazz bands. And one press photograph, blurred though it was, showed that the musicians leading this particular march were blowing through kazoos, paper-and-comb, rolled up newspapers...Do-it-yourself music, all too plainly. But what had it to do with jazz? The question needed asking because as a jazzman myself as well as a socialist I'm well aware that the jazz I love best - "classic jazz" as it's sometimes and I think misleadingly called - is nowadays often played by musicians whose political opinions would startle Vlad the Impaler. But clearly that wasn't so when "jazz" music put a spring in the step of 1920s marchers, nor could it apply to the many genuine jazz bands that led CND marches and socialist rallies during the 1950s; and those who played for the miners in 1984/5 were on the side of - what exactly? Protest? Liberation? Yes, certainly. And also, or so I want to imagine, a hedonistic openness to joy. The words may look strident, but after all "The Crown Arabs" were a pub band, which I suspect means that they were formed from musicians who drank in the same pub rather than played in it. (Pub bands in this sense came later, in the 1950s, and began a tradition that is still going strong.) As Up The Lamb makes evident, working-class life was built round the pub, and in the Ackerman case, this included women. More typically, however, pubs were an overwhelmingly male preserve, and because they were off-limits to "respectable" middle-class life they could also be seen as a source of radical politics. (The Cato Street Conspirators were arrested in the upper room of a pub.) I have always been convinced that the 19th century Temperance movement had as much to do with fear of radical politics as with worries about the connection between the demon drink and the break-up of working-class families or the unholy (ie unproductive) honouring of Saint Monday. Hence, the increasing surveillance of music hall acts, the licensing - and therefore controlling - of pub premises where such acts took place, and the gradual evolution of music hall theatres where drink could be separated from the auditorium and every performer scrutinised for lewdness, disrespect for authority or the flag or any other threat to the nation's well being. By the 1920s jazz was widely considered to pose such a threat. And "The Crown Arabs", to return to them, while they may possibly have been indifferent musicians, were without doubt socialists.
Why, though, did they call themselves Arabs? Not, I think, because of the phrase "dirty little Arab", still current when I was a boy, which was what mothers called children who grubbied themselves in play, and which could obviously be applied to miners fresh up from the pit. The word implied something altogether more exotic. "The Sheikh Of Araby", an immensely popular song of the 1920s, was inspired by the appeal of Hollywood's first heartthrob, Rudolph Valentine. The song, widely recorded, could be played on portable gramophones, without which no picnic or house-party was complete, and it would have taken a more than usually incompetent ukulele player to fluff its simple chord sequence. Inevitably, jazz bands took the song on, often sending it up (there's an especially riotous version by Fats Waller),and renaming it "The Shriek Of Agony". Moreover, it soon became standard practice to wreck the would-be heartfelt lyrics by adding the phrase "with no pants on" to each line, this being shouted by the entire band or as many of them as could remember the words: viz: "I'm the Sheikh of Araby" (With No Pants On), "Your love belongs to me" (With No Pants On), "at night when you're asleep" (With No Pants On) etc.
Jazz, particularly jazz of the early period, delights in parody, in send-up, in bawdy, in - if we wish to be solemn - subverting bourgeois ideology. Hence the Cakewalk, that ripely exuberant thumbing the nose at decorous white dancing steps, all jutting bums and mincing postures. Hence, Louis Armstrong's "Struttin' With Some Barbecue", the title of which caused the Czech saxophonist Josef Skvorecky such difficulty when he came to translate it into his native language in the mid-1930s. As he records in The Brass Saxophone, having applied himself to an English-Czech dictionary, he eventually came up with "Walking Pompously With A Piece Of Animal Carcase Roasted Whole". Not bad.
Jazz also delighted in tongue-in-cheek exoticism, including orientalism. Hence, such classics as "Hindustan", "Love Songs Of The Nile", "Algiers Strut" and "Chinaboy". And this opens up the connection between jazz and drugs: hash is celebrated in "Viper's Drag", "Viper Mad" and "If You're A Viper", opium in "Chinatown", "Willie The Weeper", "Kickin'The Gong Around", and of course "Chinaboy" itself. I don't suppose "The Crown Arabs" took drugs, but they would inevitably have known that drugs were linked with the music. Because as I soon discovered when I was working on The Radical Twenties, from the earliest post-war days the popular press was busy lamenting the "decadence" of the young, and as Marek Hohn points out in his brilliant book Dope Girls. The Birth Of The British Drug Underground, where jazz was found, drugs were not far behind. He quotes a Daily Express reporter who in 1922 intrepidly penetrated a jazz dive with "futurist" decor (futurist being indiscriminately applied to art or furnishings in any way contemporary and therefore foreign and therefore decadent). He found himself in a desperate place. "Round us danced... under-sized aliens, blue about the chin and greasy, the same predominating type of girl, young, thin, underdressed, perpetually seized with hysterical laughter, ogling, foolish....." Then matters take a turn for the worse.
Hohn cleverly sets these extracts beside the description of a visit to a bebop dive in the early 1950s, which was undertaken by an equally intrepid reporter from the Daily Graphic. Same shock horror. To this could be added a shuddery piece by Julian Maclaren-Ross called "Bop", published in 1956, although his objections are focussed less on the booze and drugs ( not surprisingly when you consider his own predilections) than on the dress sense of the habitués: drape suits and skiing trousers with white gym-tunics. (Really? Where can he have been?) And I myself recall a newspaper's "truthful" account of abandoned hedonism said to have been prompted by an all-night rave at Cy Laurie's club on Windmill St in the mid-50s. To give credence to the report there was even a photograph showing a young woman stretched out comatose under a grand piano, a considerable achievement given that the only piano the club possessed was a battered upright.
Drink, drugs and dancing to the Devil's music, as during the 20s jazz was frequently called. An unholy trintity to be stopped at all costs. (Note that the Daily Express reporter speaks of emerging from the underground dive on Monday morning: ie he'd gone down on Sunday night. And the Cy Laurie rave took place at Easter. Patriotism may be the last refuge of the scoundrel but Christianity comes a close second.) Even the cinema was recruited in the war against the new forms of decadence. Those being the days of silent flicks there was little they could do to demonstrate the wicked power of jazz, but drugs were a different matter. In 1922 the Birmingham director Jack Graham-Coutts took six weeks to make a documentary-style film, Cocaine, about the kinds of cellars, basement clubs and dance venues where drugs were on offer. I gather that prints of this film survive, though I've never seen it. At the time, however, it was granted a limited licence. Banned in London, it was nevertheless shown in various provincial cities, including Cardiff, whose Chief Constable argued that as the city had no night-clubs or "dope-dens", the facilities or drug trafficking were so limited as to be non-existent. For all I know, "The Crown Arabs" were in the audience when Cocaine hit the Welsh capital.
Then came the talkies and with them The Jazz Singer, in which a blacked-up Al Jolson sang and mugged in a manner that had little to do with jazz but everything with making the music safe for white consumption. "Safe" meant denying the music's rootedness in black experience, its connection with slavery and oppression. And so, when Louis Armstrong was featured in the early 30s Hollywood films, he was dressed in a tiger-skin and made to ham his way through scenes for all the world as though he was a poor man's Al Jolson. The bitter irony of this hardly needs pointing out. What does, is that when Armstrong subsequently came to London to appear at the Palladium the audience left in droves. They were there for entertainment. He was playing jazz. I tip my hat to Nat Gonella, one of the first British jazz trumpeters, who was in the Palladium audience on that occasion and who made it his duty (and pleasure) to trip as many of the well-heeled punters as he could when they made for the exits.
Gonella, who came from London's Jewish East End, was a socialist as well as a jazzman. And although this isn't the place to elaborate on the connections between jazz and radical modernism (but see the note at the end of this essay) it is necessary to make the point, obvious though it may be, that the appeal of jazz for some was what for others made it an object of fear and loathing: it was at once the music of an oppressed people and a declaration of freedom. In particular, it seemed to offer, even embody, a radical alternative to the inhibitions and discontents of Western civilisation. Although "For Sidney Bechet" wasn't written until the late 1950s, Philip Larkin's poem exactly captures this sense of "civilised" envy of such freedom when he only half-ironically imagines that Bechet's music licences "Everyone making love and going shares."
During the 1920s Bechet was an even more totemic figure than Armstrong, at all events for many European aficionados. He first came to London in 1919, with Will Marion Cook's Southern Syncopated Orchestra, and the daily concerts at the Philharmonic Hall at which he was featured, while they did not draw huge crowds, certainly fascinated musicians, who returned night after night to hear him play. Among them was Ernst-Alexandre Ansermet, conductor of the Ballet Russe. who was so thrilled by Bechet's music that he wrote a lengthy article about it for Revue Romande. In this, Bechet is called an artist of genius, and Ansermet concludes that Bechet's way of playing " is perhaps the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow."
Not if authority could help it. Civilization, the civilization which had been responsible for the Great War, was to be saved from the wild transgressions of hopped-up, sexually licentious, jazz-frenzied aliens. Bechet was soon deported - he was in truth a pretty wild character and even the French got fed up with him when some years later he was tried for shooting and wounding a pianist. (His defence was that he'd meant to shoot the banjoist.) But by then Paris had spawned a number of licensed jazz clubs, and some of the finest jazz musicians were heading for France, delighted to escape the racism of white America and play to audiences who understood and adored their music. No such luck in the UK. Dances clubs here were for the most part refused drinks licences, had to close at a reasonable hour, and were forbidden to open on a Sunday. Jazz was only safe when treated - for which read contained -as stage entertainment. I have in my possession a notice for The New Theatre And Hippodrome, Northampton, which promises as top of the bill for Monday 15, 1926, "The All-British Ladies Jazz Band". All British Ladies. Northampton's City Fathers could lie easy in their beds.
But then, three months later, the General Strike began, and in the small Welsh mining town of Maesteg the strikers marched to public meetings behind the "Crown Arab" jazz band as, it seems reasonable to assume, other strikers elsewhere across the UK, marched behind other jazz bands. All of them were marching for a better life, for freedom from bosses who shortened wages while they lengthened hours, and they were sustained by a vision that they might - why not? - have characterised as everyone making love and going shares. And then, after a pitifully short nine days, the Strike collapsed.
And with the end of the Strike the forces of reaction felt themselves empowered to begin again their deadly work of killing the Infant Joy. Censorship, of films, of theatre, of art, of literature, increased, and the licensing of clubs for dancing and music was made more difficult. When, after a brief visit to England to see family and friends, Lawrence sat down to write the novel that, after three drafts, finally became Lady Chatterley 's Lover, he poured much of his loathing of the nation he had left into a description of the mining countryside that had originally been, in his own words, "the country of my heart". I used to think that the passage describing Connie's appalled car journey through industrialised Notts, was unfairly dismissive — it was after all where her lover came from - but I can now see that when Lawrence has her think "It was as if dismalness had soaked through everything", he may well be alert to what must have been a terrible sense of defeat, of betrayal, among those who had hoped fro so much from the spirit the General Strike seemed both the engender and to embody, (one of Lawrence's great Nottingham friends was the life-long socialist Willie Hopkin), only for it to vanish in compromise and defeat. Baldwin conceded nothing, neither did the mine owners. And I imagine that at least figuratively the "Crown Arabs" disbanded, along with all the other bands that had led marches through towns and cities in the early 1920s. There was no jazz band to lead .the Jarrow marchers.
Indeed, jazz in the 1930s became a term implying decadence, for the left quite as much as for the right. On the "proven" meretriciousness of jazz Hitler and Stalin were agreed. And though UK intellectuals wouldn't at the time have been aware that Adorno condemned jazz as an intrinsic element of mass culture within advanced capitalist societies, they would almost certainly have approved his contention that "the authority of the written music is still apparent behind the liberty of the performed music." Jazz on this reading is merely evidence of the repressive tolerance that the Frankfurt School saw as vital to the underlying concerns of industrial capitalism: sweeties for docile children. It was left to a later generation, beginning perhaps with the American GIs come to liberate Europe, to find once again the connections between jazz and the transgressive, creative energies that ought always to be at the heart of socialism, and for which one very good word is joy, although to its shame joy is a word with which the Left in the UK has all too often been uneasy.
Note: The connections between jazz and modernism are sketched out in my essay "Modernism in Black and White: American Jazz In Interwar Europe", published in the Spanish journal Miscenalea, 1999. In the unlikely event of anyone wishing to read this, I can supply a photocopy.