Session 6 – British Black Jazz

Friday 2 September – 14.45-16.00 (Sweelinck)
Chair: Tim Wall

Panel Abstract:

This panel, from the AHRC funded research project What is Black British Jazz? based at The Open University, examines routes in an out of British national identity. The panel does so by focusing on the Caribbean diaspora and the early history of British jazz; on problems of form as negotiated by young musicians entering the genre; and by focusing on the recent emergence of, and responses to, a reflexively black British jazz tradition.

Byron Dueck – Jazz Endings, Ideology, and Public Culture

The title of this paper contains a representation of an iconic jazz ending: the final bars of Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Take the A Train’. This fragment is often called the ‘Ellington ending’ after the composer and musician for whom Strayhorn’s piece became a signature tune. Despite the close motivic relationship between the ending and the song, the ending long ago became detached from its original context to circulate independently as a musical tag. Contemporary musicians employ it in a variety of situations to signal musical closure. Varying degrees of playfulness in performance and embarrassment in conversation suggest that, for some, the formula has grown a little stale.

This paper examines how one group of young British instrumentalists undertake the collective work of arranging an ending, trying out the Ellington tag and others in the course of rehearsal. Their discussions reveal how amateur musicians make use of aesthetic ideology (including ideas about authenticity) in everyday musical interactions. This provides an opportunity to discuss how intimate, emplaced music making stands in relation to larger jazz imaginaries. It also allows a consideration of transnational aspects of this relationship, specifically how some British jazz musicians locate themselves in relation to African American musical practice.

Catherine Tackley – West Indian Roots and Routes of Black British Jazz

The formation of a West Indian Dance Orchestra in Britain in 1936, which became most strongly associated with Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, brought these diasporic musicians to attention of the general public before the arrival of the Empire Windrush heralded the commencement of mass immigration in 1948. In fact, West Indian musicians had been active in Britain in increasing numbers in the 1920s and 30s, in parallel and intersecting with the development of jazz.

The West Indian Dance Orchestra’s role as a purveyor of American swing in Britain has been widely acknowledged, but its repertoire was wide-ranging, reflecting the influence of both British and West Indian traditions of popular music. Similarly, the musical backgrounds of its West Indian members were often dominated by British traditions of military music-making which extended beyond the barracks, alongside indigenous musical traditions and influence of American popular forms. These traditions of performance provided the basis for early, typically distanced, encounters between West Indian musicians and British audiences through Empire Exhibitions and recorded sound; the success of which influenced subsequent migrations. Drawing on oral histories and other primary source material, this paper will investigate the migration of West Indian musicians (focussing on the pre-Windrush period) and their subsequent activities and reception in Britain. The paper will assess the changing role of jazz in the musical lives of these musicians and the impact of their cultural roots and migratory routes on developing ‘black British jazz.’

Jason Toynbee – Race, Class, Nation and Black British Jazz

Black Britons have always made up a minority of players in British jazz. Yet they have had a major impact in the scene, well beyond what might have been expected in terms of their numbers. This paper explores that impact but also goes beyond it to undertake a symptomatic reading of what black British jazz (BBJ) reveals about the making of British identity in and through music. On the one hand, since the 1980s BBJ has been embraced as part of a cosmopolitan story about multicultural Britain. On the other hand, there has been strong opposition in parts of the jazz ‘establishment’ to the very idea that BBJ exists as a distinct tradition. This dichotomy is complicated by the fact that black Britons are predominately working class (they have formed a racialised fraction of the working class as sociologist Robert Miles suggests), while the British jazz scene is predominantly middle class. The paper concludes by attempting to make a social-theoretical explanation of the contradictions at stake here.

Part of the evidence used has been gathered by the research project, What is Black British Jazz? Routes, Ownership, Performance based at The Open University, 2009-2011. Part also comes from responses to the project from jazz musicians, critics and academics.

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