Three score years and ten of British jazz

Article in Just Jazz, February and March 2020

The global spread of jazz as a music that is accessible and can transcend national and cultural barriers has been remarkable. Certainly it astonished its pioneers who found it difficult to realise that a music that was their own preserve in a small part of one southern USA city - New Orleans - had not only spread throughout the country but was played across the world. These ageing black musicians who had eked out a living from playing their music in insalubrious bars, often while holding down tough day jobs, suddenly found themselves lionised playing concerts in huge halls across Europe and even in Japan. Having had segregation long ingrained in their lives they were uncomfortable eating together with their new-found white jazz friends in posh restaurants and staying in hotels that treated them with the same courtesy that was shown to all their guests.

Curiously, because there had always been a few white jazz men around New Orleans and other American cities - indeed the English purist Ken Colyer had played there when he stayed in the Crescent City for some months in 1952 - they were less surprised that there were white musicians who could form competent supporting bands wherever they went and who could "jam" with them after hours. The very communality of jazz and the openness the music brings, plus the discrimination its exponents had to put up with in the deep South, encouraged British jazz musicians and afficionadi to regard themselves as "socialists". They were not particularly active politically, though quite a few joined the Communist party, but for a wider group socialism was a natural if non-intellectual affiliation, alongside a music that was culturally rebellious. Even though by 1960 jazz had a massive British audience, with a number of singles topping the pop charts, its core group of enthusiasts were almost masonic in their membership of particular clubs and their advocacy for particular bands. At that time they were also purists who deplored all deviations from the "true faith", such as the introduction of any saxophone, with the single exception of Sidney Bechet on the soprano sax which could be excused as "being like a clarinet".

The history of the music is relatively short. Jazz is arguably the only completely original musical form to come out of the United States and. in a form that would be recognised today it began just twenty years after the invention of the phonograph in 1877. It began in the Deep South, amongst the black citizens of New Orleans who bought instruments that had often been pawned after the Spanish American War of 1898 and were relatively cheap. They adapted on these instruments the blues and work songs that their families had brought with them as slaves from Africa, and added ragtime and marches to the mix. Over the generations New Orleans music embraced many different combinations of instruments but the classic instrumentation we know today was soon established: the trumpet playing the melody, the clarinet the descant and the trombone providing the bass line. The piano links the "front line" with a rhythm section of banjo or guitar, double bass and drums. What marked out the first jazz bands from their dance band counterparts with their arranged music was the improvisation on the harmonic structure by individual instruments and, uniquely, collectively by the three "front line" instruments simultaneously. This distinctive trademark sets it apart from other styles that come under the general title "jazz".

The first principal of the jazz course at the Leeds College of Music, Dick Hawdon, a very fine traditional trumpet player in his day, used to make his modern jazz students put together a traditional jazz ensemble for the College's annual festival. These were highly skilled musicians who were more used to arranged ensemble passages with solo space for individual instruments, rather looked down their noses at we old-fashioned time-warp players, but they had great difficult in coping with the polyphonic style and they ended up with considerably greater respect for the music.

It was very much a music that was confined to the black areas of segregated New Orleans and it is significant that histories of the city rarely mention jazz at all. Inevitably from around 1910 there were white musicians who ventured into those areas and who joined in with the local bands. Ironically it was a white band, the Original Dixieland Jass (sic) Band, which made the first recordings in 1917, although there is evidence that Freddie Keppard, the top black trumpet play of the day, turned down an earlier recording contract because he didn't want anyone to "steal my music"! By 1918 New Orleans musicians had taken the music to Los Angeles and to Chicago but it was still very much confined to black areas and the recordings they made were rather deprecatingly called "race records". This did not, however, prevent individual white enthusiasts, such as the greatest of all white cornetists, Bix Beiderbecke, frequenting the jazz haunts of Chicago. By the early 1920s New Orleans had produced two of the greatest jazz soloists, Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. Those of us who were caught up in the British jazz revival of the 1950s and who worshipped at the shrine of New Orleans, albeit at a distance, and who imbibed the romanticised accounts of the jazz pioneers, believed that the whole city revolved around its jazz. This was far from the case, in fact the reality was, and is, that in its early heyday jazz formed a very small part of the culture of New Orleans although the city has in recent years used the music as a promotional tool for tourism. Even more significant is that the effect of segregation was that the presence of a black community was hardly recognised at all in the wider city even though it formed a majority of the population.

There has never been a single universally agreed definition of jazz but, apart from the ultra purists most of us rather regarded the music as one single style, albeit evolving into playing more sophisticated and complex tunes. I've always said that I find anything after 1929 modern but this is very simplistic in that it does not refer to the date of the tunes themselves as it possible to play many recent numbers in a pre-1929 style. It also only refers to a musical style in that later and contemporary tunes can be played in the earlier mode. And, of course, there were also those who remained behind in New Orleans and continued in the original style, but my date remains a handy shorthand. What then is the nomenclature for this style of jazz? The purists would say, "New Orleans" but this begs the question of the genuine validity of the style in Chicago, for instance, where arguably the King Oliver band of 1923 is the ensemble most of us would love to have heard. How about "classic" jazz? Fine, but it tends to denote the brilliant but more sophisticated white jazz of Bix Beiderbecke and his colleagues of the mid-1920s. There is always the generic term "traditional" jazz but all too often that refers somewhat pejoratively to those, particularly in Britain, who made up the jazz revival of the 1950s and '60s. The problem with the term is that not only does it cover a multitude of performance skills - clunky banjos, wayward chords and plodding drummers - but it gets abbreviated to "trad" which was the ubiquitous term for every cynical band that climbed on the back of the genuine article, often wearing some curious band uniform which arguably diminished the inherent integrity of the music itself. The term "trad" is therefore rejected by pretty well all the true believers. I tend to stick with "New Orleans" for want of anything more sympathetic though I use "traditional" whenever addressing a wider audience.

Why not stay with the one word "jazz", you may well ask? Very simply, because there is a whole sphere of "modern" jazz lovers which would be deeply upset to be bracketed with all us oldies. I do not believe that these days it applies the other way round: those who identify with New Orleans, classic or traditional jazz do not tend to deny the word "jazz" to the modernists, even though they see very few points of contact. Essentially, modern jazz with its complex ensemble passages, usually written out, interspersed with solos, is more cerebral. The chord sequences of modern jazz tend to be much more complex than those of the older jazz and, therefore, the soloists have to be technically much cleverer in musical terms than most of us still playing our old jazz. On the other hand there is hardly any "polyphony" in modern jazz, with a number of instruments improvising collectively. The evidence is that the modernists find collective improvisation extremely difficult and the old timers characterise modern jazz as a music of the head rather than of the heart.

All this would not matter unduly apart from one crucial fact: that, despite it being a minority interest within the broad jazz genre, all the media attention is given to modern jazz and there are no previews, reviews or broadcasts of traditional jazz. It is as if there is one sole version of this music. And yet scores of jazz clubs operate every week across Britain and there are annual jazz festivals from Kircudbright to Cornwall. The only significant recent television broadcast was an hour long retrospective on BBC 2 at the end of April 2016 which treated traditional jazz as if were a long dead museum piece rather than a vibrant music still enjoyed today by many hundreds of musicians and by thousands of fans. Apart from occasional press obituaries of particular jazz characters and jazz record request programmes by presenters such as Alyn Shipton, the wider public would not be made aware of the music's continued existence. The traditional jazz community maintains its own, almost masonic, existence serviced by our monthly journal, Just Jazz. This elitist attitude from the wider media is not universal. France, for instance, treats the traditional style seriously and it is included as such in the serious festivals. Even so, this more open French attitude is, typically, not reported in the English press. For instance, the June 2017 edition of France magazine had a page publishing "3 of the best jazz venues" in Paris. All three promote modern jazz whereas the excellent venue "Petit Journal Saint-Michel" which has traditional jazz could easily have been included. A letter from me pointing this out was published and, the following month, there was a grateful response from a couple who had not known about "Petit Journal St Michel" had been there and thoroughly enjoyed their evening.

It is also the case that traditional jazz is played across the world, often in the most unlikely circumstances. Over the past twenty-eight years I have been largely involved professionally in assisting new and emerging democracies. In the course of these travels I have led or been a member of over fifty missions to thirty-five different countries. I have carried my clarinet with me on all these travels and have almost invariably found a local band to join with. In St Petersburg it was a group of students at the local conservatoire who were playing evenings in coffee bars to pay for their studies. In Malawi it was a group of mainly expats whereas in Jakarta it was a band of local Indonesian enthusiasts. In every case it was easily possible to join them because the essential basics of traditional jazz were globally known and understood, and playing visitors welcomed. What other music offers such opportunities?

It is true that apart from a brief dozen years or so up to the early 1960s, jazz has been very much a minority, almost cult, interest in Britain and is still living to a great extent on those remarkably pervasive and participatory days of half a century and more ago. With a few honourable exceptions, such as the Rich Bennett band, not only have we all aged but, by and large, we have failed to inspire enough new players to keep the music alive. Attending jazz sessions with bands that one remembered fondly from half a century earlier can be a disappointing experience if the ability to cope with their instruments has waned with the years. Not all musicians are noticeably in decline: in Leeds the trombonist, Ed O'Donnell was still blowing strongly right up to his death at the age of 88 - and booking gigs for months ahead! In the USA, pianist Eubie Blake commented on his 100th birthday, "If I'd known I was going to live this long, I'd have looked after myself better!"

I have a 22 year old grandson, Simeon, who is keen to play jazz clarinet and he comes to me for a "lesson" and to play duets most weeks, often using backing tracks from the excellent Keith Nichols series of CDs. He has reached the stage when he needs to have the opportunity to "sit in" with a band so as to be surrounded by the sound in a way that he can never get from playing with backing tracks. The house journal, Just Jazz, regularly bemoans the lack of young players to carry the music on and I therefore wrote saying that it was all very well stating the obvious but asking what was being done practically to enable interested young players to develop. I had just one response from a local band who kindly offered Simeon the opportunity to sit in with the band at its forthcoming session at our local jazz band. This was generous but represents a step too far. Before being thrown to the wolves of a public audience he needs to be able to try out and to get used to being within a full band in private. But the band in question, in common with other old-timers, never now rehearses and consequently there are no opportunities to join the band to play without an audience. Thus we are thwarted - and the survival of the music seriously threatened with extinction. In my young days, now all too distant, leading a band at the age of seventeen, I was by no means unique and there were scores of bands with whom one could sit in and rehearse. We discovered the art of musical survival together and, indeed, we tackled and played complex tunes because did not realise that they were difficult. For some of them I would need hours of practice if I was to play them today. The point was, as is needed today, that to start a band and to play jazz was a natural thing to do in the late 1950s. There is no inherent musical reason why that cannot be replicated today. The music is inherently no more difficult and it is just as accessible.

The burgeoning of this particular form of jazz in Britain in the 1950s was a curious phenomenon. Why, at least initially, did it follow the narrow New Orleans jazz revival in the USA and not any other trend? Or indeed, why did it not evolve into an entirely new version? The American revival itself took off from the research work of a small group of white enthusiasts, who would today be regarded as "nerds" or "anoraks". Between them they wrote the seminal book Jazzmen, published in 1939, which for the first time treated the origins of the music seriously, albeit somewhat romanticised. The success of the book encouraged this coterie to investigate further and they began to investigate the contemporary musical world of New Orleans. They discovered that, contrary to the received truth, not all the city's black jazz men had moved north to Chicago and New York or west to Los Angeles, and that jazz was still being played in its home city. What is more, the style being played was very much the same as that they knew from scratchy old 78 rpm disks. These enthusiasts, after years of listening to swing bands playing "hot" arrangements and saxophone dominated smaller groups, were startled and enthused by the music and declared it the real, pure jazz.

Next followed a suggestion from Louis Armstrong that they should "find Bunk Johnson", who had been a reputed jazz pioneer. They found him in New Iberia, 130 miles west of New Orleans, working in the sugar cane plantations, having given up on trying earning a living from music and had had his instrument destroyed in fatal fracas in a club a decade earlier. Bunk proved to be a splendid raconteur and a gold mine of information on the early days, much of it somewhat unreliable, and he became the idol and icon of the revivalists. Bunk was a very proud man who resented the success of such stars as Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet of both of which he regarded himself an equal. He also added ten years to his age in order to add credence to his claim to have been in the band of the first jazzman, Buddy Bolden, whose career ended when he suffered a sudden mental breakdown on a parade in 1908 as a consequence of alcoholism.

When the new purists ended up at his New Iberia home he claimed that he was still able to play the trumpet and produced a battered instrument on which he managed some shaky tracks on to a portable tape recorder. He accompanied this by an appeal to Louis Armstrong to donate him a new instrument - which actually happened. The white enthusiasts wanted Bunk to record with local musicians and believed they knew better than Bunk what the music should sound like. Bunk, for the sake of recording at last, put up with their demands and reluctantly accepted a selected traditional lineup which he regarded as old-fashioned and amateur, and he put up with old tunes when he would have preferred to play contemporary numbers. These recordings, starting in 1942, were hailed as the holy grail of New Orleans jazz and Bunk acquired a saintly reputation amongst his fans. The reality was very different; the recordings were primitive and the intonation was often suspect, but, no matter, whatever Bunk said and played was the received truth. It was only in 1947, towards the end of his life, when he was allowed to choose his own sideman and the tunes to play that we began to appreciate what he was really capable of. Partly out of frustration he became unreliable with bookings and increasingly addicted to alcohol so that even when Bechet wanted him to lead a band at a long residency in Boston, and even promised to play mainly clarinet rather than the soprano saxophone which Bunk disliked, he let the band down so often that he was eventually sacked.

The recordings of the Bunk Johnson band and others of the same genre filtered across the Atlantic and, despite being rough and primitive in the wrong sense, were regarded by the early British musicians as the only real jazz and, as such, were slavishly copied, clunky rhythm, heavy banjo and all. Epitomising this, though he was always more sophisticated than many of his contemporaries, was Ken Colyer who was so determined to get to the fountainhead of the music in New Orleans that in 1952 he signed on with the merchant navy and, as soon as he got within shouting distance of the city, he jumped ship and took a bus into town. He stayed for some months, playing and recording with many of his heroes and ignoring the colour bar, until the authorities realised he was an illegal immigrant and deported him. For the rest of his playing career until illness forced his retirement in 1987 this romantic story with its evidence of his single minded commitment, put British jazz fans in awe of him and gave him a justified reputation for having "kept the faith."

Britain had had "rhythm clubs" for decades. These were small groups of dedicated afficionadi who met in smoke filled rooms in pubs to hear a "recital" by a member drawn from 78rpm discs in his own collection plus occasional lectures. Disks of the classic 1920s bands, such as King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, had been imported into Britain but, until the New Orleans revival crossed the Atlantic, England's live jazz was big bands such as Sid Phillips, Roy Fox and Billy Cotton, with a few small groups such as those led by Harry Parry and Joe Daniels, with written arrangements and "hot" solos. In contrast with this rather tame music, the earthy, improvised small band jazz on records imported from the USA from the mid-1940s onwards hit British jazz fans between the eyes. This music was soon copied by British musicians, sometimes at the time all too slavishly with poor intonation, wrong notes and approximations of chord sequences, but it was lively, brash and certainly enthusiastic. It had an instant appeal and rapidly spread across Britain, aided by recordings and occasional broadcasts. By the mid-1950s every major city had its own local bands and jazz clubs. Very quickly it spread from being a narrow interest of a few enthusiasts into a "pop" phenomenon. There were tours by jazz pioneers - not just big names such as Louis Armstrong, but also less generally known New Orleans musicians such as George Lewis and Edward "Kid" Ory, who were astonished to discover that young white people in far distant Britain had embraced a music which, for them, was confined to bars and clubs in black districts of American cities in which they eked out a living. They were also puzzled to play in packed concert halls to an audience that sat and listened intently rather than in an intimate setting, replete with drinking, dancing and constant conversation.

The attraction of this music was that it was very accessible and its settings extremely convivial. Its appeal was highly contagious and very quickly a huge network of fans established itself, rather like a youthful masonic order complete with its own rituals and language. These fans were a hardy lot enjoying all day riverboat jazz cruises, often in typical British weather, and all-night sessions which often required fans to go direct to their place of work the following morning. They also had their stylistic prejudices not least its abhorrence of the saxophone - excepting, of course, their own hero Sidney Bechet, the maestro of the soprano sax. When Humphrey Lyttleton, a band leader who always had an open musical mind, hired a brilliant alto sax player, Bruce Turner, and the band went to Birmingham to play a concert hall, a group of purists hung a banner over the gallery rail: "Go home dirty bopper"! All this was in the face of the reality that bands in their spiritual home of New Orleans, often included a saxophone, as indeed did some of the greatest recordings of the 1920s. Jazz clubs sprang up in every city and in many unlikely small towns and even villages.

Not only did these clubs have a regular local band in situ but they occasionally had prestigious international visitors. I recall hearing the French jazz violin virtuoso, Stephane Grapelli, playing a small jazz club in Kirkstall, Leeds. I also heard the great blues guitarist, Big Bill Broonzy, in the smoky depths of the Cavern in Liverpool, certainly the best known of all the clubs though not for its jazz origins. The Cavern was originally opened for a burgeoning jazz clientele and I went there regularly. It was not licensed and we therefore went out to a nearby pub in the interval, instead of staying to listen to local rock and roll bands whom we superior jazz addicts looked down on. Thus we missed these minor supporting bands such as the Swinging Blue Jeans, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and, above all, the Beatles! Bit by bit, as the pop appeal of jazz began to fade, the rock groups became the main bands and jazz was relegated to the interval!

Quite early on the record companies had spotted a niche in the market and a number of jazz records rose to the heights of the hit parade, including Humphrey Lyttleton's "Bad Penny Blues," the Chris Barber band's "Petite Fleur", Kenny Ball's "Samantha" and Acker Bilk's "Stranger on the Shore" - the latter always known to jazz musicians as "Strangler on the floor", being dismissive of the lush accompanying strings. Quite soon many of us young fans felt the need to move on to playing rather than just being a passive audience. In 1958 a group of friends at the local Southport grammar school decided that it wasn't enough to listen and that we should play. In total innocence we apportioned our instrumental preferences out, as if having made the decision to play an instrument, in my case the clarinet, meant that it just happened. Amazingly, looking back, we were playing gigs within weeks of forming the "Bienville Jazz Band" in Southport, the name being picked from a street map of New Orleans. Sixty years later I'm still trying to play it right!

During the intervening decades this late 1950s and early '60s generation carried on playing but, as the popular appeal of the music waned and tastes migrated to other pop styles, few new musicians came into the music but the existence of a continuing niche audience still populating the clubs and the weekend festivals, made us complacent about the future of the music. Its popularity and its ubiquity, even when it ceased to be the pop music of the day, came from its accessibility and the conviviality of most bands. It used very simple "head" arrangements, if any at all, and being based on set chord sequences it was easy for musicians to "dep" when a band regular was unavailable as well as making it possible to "sit in" for a few numbers when visiting a club. Unfortunately, as its wider public appeal waned and the basic knowledge of the structure of the music, such as the chords for "standard" tunes, was not passed on, traditional jazz became more and more a niche pursuit. As its audience aged, younger guests felt less and less at home. Eventually the clubs more and more resembled a pensioners outing and the obituary columns of Just Jazz expanded. Now, with the departure of many long serving players, those remaining play in several bands and some even struggle to play their instruments with enough facility, which is hardly surprising when their average age must be approaching eighty.

Unless rapid steps are taken to evangelise the music, such as offering free sessions at schools, colleges, universities and youth clubs, coupled with offers to demonstrate how it works and even an instrument bank to get young people started, traditional jazz as a live music will have survived just three score years and ten and will die out within the next decade. There will only be recordings left to bear witness to a music that enthused its practitioners and gave pleasure to its audiences. And my grandson will have nowhere to play his clarinet.

Michael Meadowcroft is a politician and writer and was the Liberal MP for Leeds West, 1983-87. He has led the Granny Lee Jazz Band for the past thirty years, playing clarinet and soprano sax.