Jazz Development in Britain 1924—1974

15. Summing Up


  The History of British Jazz

Writing, as I now am, early in 1978, some three years after the end of the period actually covered by these recollections, it would seem that the point for summing up has been reached.

It can, I think, be claimed with every justification that the development of British jazz performance and composition between 1945 and 1974 reached a level far higher than at any time previously. Good performances of jazz were by then in abundance, as indeed they are today, and the present problems facing the progress of British jazz result, not from any laok of interpretation, but from inadequate exposure. This is perhaps especially applicable to the big bands, for reasons that are not difficult to assess.

In pre–war days, the most successful big bands were to be found working mainly in hotels and restaurants that catered for those wealthy enough to afford their charges, although some excellent bands were to be heard on the stages of many variety theatres and in some ballrooms. These, of course, were not jazz orchestras as such, although they frequently included some jazz in their repertoire but, as vehicles of regular employment for musicians, served as developing grounds for many musicians who had the aptitude for playing jazz.

Hotels such as the Grosvenor House, the Dorchester, the Savoy, the Waldorf and the Piccadilly, however, that in pre–war days often employed a minimum of twelve musicians, now employ, with the exception of the Savoy, smaller numbers and even solo pianists, whilst others such as the Metropole, the Cecil and the Carlton no longer exist. Variety theatres, of which there were hundreds, are today non–existent apart from a mere handful. Many ballrooms are, of course, still in existence, each employing an average of around ten musicians, but their music is of a hybrid kind, frequently dependent upon electronic effect, that hardly lends itself to jazz interpretation. It nevertheless must be said that,, when given the opportunity for playing jazz, the musicians concerned can invariably demonstrate that they know what it is all about.

With the exception of Ronnie Scott’s, which has made and continues to make a most significant and specialised contribution to British jazz development, presenting as it does both big bands and small groups, the vast majority of jazz clubs today do not operate on more than one or two nights each week, very often on public house premises, and present mainly small groups.

There are also many public houses where the management, without extra charge to their patrons, present some of our finest performers of jazz on anything from one to six nights each week, examples being the Leather Bottle at Merton, London, where I have heard such musicians as Kathy Stobart, John Dankworth, Kenny Baldock, George Chisholm, Betty Smith, Tony Coe, Joan Cunningham and the Tony Lee Trio; the Yorkshire Grey, in London’s Gray’s Inn Road, where Harry Gold leads a first–rate group on Sunday evenings and as previously mentioned, the Festival Inn at Trowell, in the Midlands.

In the field of big bands, we have enjoyed the concert performances in recent years of such orchestras as those of Bobby Lamb and Ray Premru, one of the finest but all too seldom heard, Syd Lawrence, Don Lusher, the Million Airs, founded by the late Malcolm Lockyer, Jack Parnell, again all too rarely, and the now defunct New Paul Whiteman Orchestra of the American cornetist, Richard Sudhalter, who spent a few years in Europe.

The last–named orchestra certainly took us further back in time than have those based upon the Glenn Miller sound but, because it boasted a magnificent ensemble that bristled with modern soloists, it managed to make the numbers from the old Whiteman book sound musically fresh and entertaining. I found that people around me in its audiences were not only listening out for solos from the bass saxophone of Harry Gold, the violin of George Hurley, the trombone of Keith Nichols, the saxophone of John R. T. Davies and the ‘Bix’–style, but not copied, solos of Sudhalter, along with others in all sections, but were enthusing about the overall tone colours produced and the good showmanship.

Sadly enough, however, Sudhalter ran out of sponsors, so vital to the presentation of a first–class personnel of around twenty–eight in number in these days of high overheads, and returned to America. If such an orchestra could have been enabled to continue its existence it would, I believe, have won scores of young people. for jazz, as can the orchestras to which I have here referred.

Such orchestras need far greater exposure on television and radio. For example, in the Parnell orchestra we have one of the finest anywhere, which includes musicians of international status but, whilst it is heard unseen and un–featured with some regularity, the viewing audience rarely enjoys an opportunity for seeing how the sounds are made and by whom. When allotted a television series of its own in 1975, it came across as a refreshing experience to many viewers to see, as well as hear, a band of apparently normal human beings producing good music; big band jazz at its best, instead of the mind–bending electronic racket, to which no music lover can ever become accustomed, belted out by non–musicians as an alternative to music.

Similarly, when the Syd Lawrence Orchestra was featured ,in the original Sez Les series, musicians sat up and listened. True it was that many of them had heard the sound long before, but it was a good sound, the musical validity of which was unchallengeable and, much as we have enjoyed the superb music of Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, in their various duo appearances in television, how much more enjoyable would it be to see them featured in front of a large Dankworth orchestra? Or how interesting it would be to viewers to at least occasionally watch the Lamb–Premru orchestra at work, for it is as modem as they come without ever indulging in the grotesque, or the Don Lusher Orchestra, or George Chisholm’s smaller but equally superb Gentlemen Of Jazz.

The development of sound radio in the early ‘twenties revolutionised the presentation of music of all kinds in Britain by taking it into the homes of the people, a development which very early in this account I described as one of my ‘milestones,’ and it is certain, for example, that it was radio and not the clientele of the Savoy Hotel that brought both fame and popularity to the Savoy bands.

In my opinion, available British jazz talent has now reached a standard which, if given regular and frequent television and sound radio exposure, could not fail to win large audiences for ‘live’ public performances such as we saw during the early ‘fifties, provided always that television transmissions occurred during peak hours, perhaps instead of some old cinema films, and that in both sound and vision the infiltration of fumbling noises that have no connection with Jazz, or for that matter any other kind of music, were discouraged.

Not without some justification, many professional musicians developed a sense of pessimism resulting from the commercial exploitation of pop, beat, rock and other “quick road to success” cults from the competition of which music has certainly suffered. But I do not share the pessimism of some other writers who think that jazz or jazz–orientated dance music died with the development of such cults for, no matter whether it is described as ‘punk’, perhaps the best description so far, or’ ‘new wave’, or what have you, this kind of nonsense, through its obvious limitations, cannot continue to hold the interest of the vast majority of young people, who are far more intelligent than the antics of a much–publicised minority might lead us to believe.

For several years, whilst still an official of the Musicians’ Union. it was my pleasure to attend the National Festival of Music for Youth. Sponsored by the Association of Musical Instrument Industries, this event took the form of an annual competition among schools’ music groups. This was during the early part of the present decade, but I can still recall the high standard of performance, according to age and, perhaps more important, the interest in music demonstrated by the youngsters.

The performances of some of the older ones, of between ten and sixteen, were positively impressive.

There were ensembles of all kinds ranging from very young recorder and percussion groups to symphony, chamber, wind and brass groups with personnels drawn from amongst the more senior students. I still have a vivid recollection of a performance, in 1973, of Warlock’s Capriol Suite by the Fitznell School Chamber Orchestra from Epsom, that would have done credit to almost any adult ensemble, and the Teesside Baroque Trio’s performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto in G Minor for Recorder, Oboe and Continuo, both of which stopped the show.

At the same event, however, jazz was beginning to creep into the scheme of things, and there were several big bands which proved to be equally popular with the large audience at Croydon’s Fairfield Hall. The instrument ensemble of the King John School, Benfleet, an enormous band drawn from both sexes, which sported a reed section comprising six saxophonists and two clarinetists, backed by batteries of trumpets and trombones plus the usual rhythm, gave a particularly good account of itself in “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, and the Chase Cross School Dance Band from Romford, of more normal big band proportions, made a really good job of “Basin Street Blues” and a number called “Beat Music No. 2”.

I learn from friends who are peripatetic music teachers in schools situated in many areas that there is no lack of pupils anxious to achieve perfection on brass and woodwind instruments and prepared to work hard to do so. Which, in view of today’s high cost of musical instruments, demonstrates a truly encouraging enthusiasm on the part of both children and parents.

It is all this and a fairly long experience in the music profession that simulates the confidence I feel about the future development of British jazz, and I can only regret that I am unlikely to be around in another fifty years or so to write the sequel to the account that I now bring to a close!