Socialist Worker

A transatlantic history of musical fusion

A new television series tracks the fascinating history of jazz in Britain, writes Unjum Mirza

Issue No. 1935

The British jazz scene has often been overshadowed by its much larger American cousin. But a new series starting on BBC4 next Friday lifts the lid on the development of jazz in this country. In doing so, it offers a fascinating glimpse of Britain’s multicultural history.

The series opens in the years following the end of the Second World War. At that time British jazz was heavily influenced by the the trad jazz sound of New Orleans, in particular King Oliver and His Miners, and Louis Armstrong.

The spirit and structure of urban black music from New Orleans was captured by the urban poor in post-war Britain. For them the music offered “some certainty in a chaotic world... and you could hardly get more chaotic than living in the Blitz”, as Ronnie Scott put it. Trad jazz was the music of the dance halls. Big names included George Webb’s Dixielanders and Ted Heath’s band. They led huge gatherings in what could fairly be called the first youth movement in the celebrations after the Second World War.

Nevertheless, British jazz was caught in a bit of a time warp. Jazz had been developing at a frantic pace in the US. But the sounds of Duke Ellington and Count Basie were still largely unknown in Britain. The bebop revolution threatened to completely pass by the British scene.

One factor behind this isolation was the fact that the Musicians’ Union had a ban on US artists coming to tour in Britain. The American Federation of Musicians reciprocated the ban—and in the ensuing feud it was British jazz that lost out. It was only when the likes of saxophonists Ronnie Scott and John Dankworth decided to take up jobs on Atlantic liners in the late 1940s that things begun to change.

They finally got to hear the sounds of modern jazz as performed by the great Charlie Parker, Jay McShann, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Mingus. This was the bebop revolution that, unlike the big bands, offered a smaller set up that combined interplay between artists with solo work. Scott and Dankworth were blown away by the melodic lines of modern jazz and its soulful use of chord substitutions, ninths and flattened fifths.

It was this sound, brought back from New York’s 52nd Street, which produced the first true jazz clubs in Britain. In 1959, the year the Miles Davis Quintet recorded the masterly Kind Of Blue, Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club opened its doors in London.

But even at Ronnie Scott’s it was strictly British artists that played for the first couple of years. Eventually an exchange system was set up where if an American musician was invited to the club then a British musician had to go to the US. At first only solo artists came over to work, but they were soon followed by entire bands.

The Empire Windrush’s voyage from the Caribbean to Tilbury (1948) offered another contribution to British jazz. Musicians among the migrants sought to perform in the Soho clubs.

Excluded from much of the social and economic life around them, many of these talented musicians had to settle for jobs as “entertainers”. Others, such as the legendary Joe Harriott, refused to be entertainers and stuck more faithfully to their art. His alto saxophone exerted a powerful influence on early free jazz in Britain, if not across Europe.

Harriot’s 1960 album Free Form was inspired by a Picasso exhibition he visited in the 1950s. On seeing it Harriot explained, “That’s what I want to do—paint pictures.” British jazz has come a long way since these early pioneers and later episodes in this series examine the likes of Courtney Pine, who helped revive the British jazz tradition, and today’s electronic jazz fusion. The series is well worth watching—and remember to set your video recorder to capture some great footage.

Jazz Britannia starts on Friday 28 January at 9pm on BBC4. For more details go to the BBC jazz website at

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Sat 22 Jan 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1935
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