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Discovering Black British Jazz

What is different about the jazz played by black British musicians? Where did it come from? And to what extent do those playing recognise it as an established category of jazz?

These were some of the questions explored by an AHRC-funded Open University project, What is Black British Jazz? Routes, Ownership and Performance.

”It’s a music that expresses triumph over adversity,” explains lead researcher, Dr Jason Toynbee, senior lecturer in media studies at the Open University.

“Black migrants coming mainly from the Caribbean after World War II were channelled into the lowest paid jobs. That makes the achievement of the musicians who got a toehold in the British jazz scene all the more remarkable. Work, huge creativity and a politics of emancipation — these qualities have been at the heart of black British jazz, and they’re the reason I wanted to investigate it. What we uncovered is a tale of outsiders moving in, and infusing British jazz with cosmopolitanism.”

The main research took place between January 2009 and June 2011. As well as delving into archives, the researchers conducted extensive interviews with jazz musicians, promoters, managers and audience members. The project focused on three main areas: the routes by which black jazz musicians arrived in Britain; how those origins are played out in performance; and ownership of the music, both in a cultural and an economic sense. Research outputs include academic books, journal articles and conference papers, as well as those that take the project to a wider audience, such as a film, in collaboration with Metal Dog Productions, podcasts and concert recordings.

For Dr Catherine Tackley, a senior lecturer in music at the Open University, one of the project’s priorities was to establish a chronology. In the 1920s and 1930s, jazz was recognised as an African-American music and an expression of African-American identity. But in Britain, it developed in quite unique ways and the following period saw the emergence of a consciously black and proud British jazz, she explains. This was largely due to the fact that, up until the 1950s, industrial action by the musicians’ unions on both sides of the Atlantic made it difficult for musicians from the Unites States to perform in Britain. “There was a hole that needed to be filled and black British jazz evolved to fill that void,” says Dr Tackley.

The project focused on significant figures, such as Joe Harriott, a Jamaican who arrived in Britain in 1951. An intellectual and aesthete, Harriott was ahead of his time, both musically and conceptually. His improvisation techniques gave birth to the free form revolution, which relied more on group improvisation than on a soloist, with musicians constantly playing off each other.

While most black jazz musicians had roots in the Caribbean, the project’s research in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay found that the area’s rich maritime history meant that Brazilian and South American influences also entered the mix. And the 1960s and 1970s saw the introduction of ‘township jazz’ played by black musicians from South Africa.

“These many different styles influenced the way they were playing jazz, but it’s also about what the music represents,” says Dr Tackley. “It’s an expression of their roots elsewhere but also the way they have asserted a particular identity within the context of Britain. It’s a musical adventure but also quite political as well.

“What made a real impression on me was how useful the musicians found the history. There’s a sense of connection with that, even for second or third generation immigrants.”

In 1986 a new wave of British jazz emerged in the shape of the all-black group, the Jazz Warriors, which included now-prominent figures such as Courtney Pine and Gary Crosby. “When the Jazz Warriors started playing, young black musicians were struggling to get work on the white scene,” says Dr Mark Doffman, a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Oxford, who looked at the performance aspect of the project. “They felt they were on the outside looking in so they wanted to do something for themselves. At that time, the term ‘black British jazz’ had a meaning and currency.

“But in the last decade or so it’s been more difficult to say that there is a black British jazz sound. The jazz community is much more plural than it was 20 years ago and bands are more mixed. There are now many who don’t have a sense of themselves as black musicians on a white scene. Its more about the networks you move in.”

Nevertheless, he adds, “There’s a confidence to be gained from being able to reference a cultural heritage that informs the way you play. It’s more a relationship to the sounds you are making as opposed to the sounds necessarily being distinct.”

One of the project’s outputs, the Working Lives report considered how black British jazz musicians made a living and how able they were to control their own careers. “The jazz economy is pretty small,” says Dr Mark Banks, Professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Leicester, who took charge of this aspect of the research. “Participation surveys show as many people are into jazz as are into opera or ballet, but it gets very little public funding. You don’t get paid much whether you are black or white.

“Part of what we wanted to do is to get the idea of jazz further into a cultural policy discourse. The arts are seen as vital to the cultural and economic health of the nation but jazz has never really been part of that. We wanted to make it more visible in artistic terms and try to get it recognised as a valued industry. The cultural history is an important part of that.”

For Dr Toynbee, the conferring of Research Council status ten years ago signalled a move towards more diversity in research funding. “We were the first research project on popular culture and black British arts to receive a grant. I was enormously encouraged by the openness of the Beyond Text programme under which we were funded. There seemed to be a real appreciation that the arts and humanities were actually broad and inclusive — not only the old and often elite forms, but culture which expressed the experiences and dreams of modern British people.”

  • The Beyond Text strategic programme was developed in 2007 following a period of consultation with the arts and humanities research communities.
  • The £5.5 million programme ran for 5 years until May 2012.
  • Over the 5 years the programme informed and inflected public policy relating to our cultural and creative histories and futures.48 different projects were funded as part of the Beyond Text Programme

Article by Caroline Roberts

Dr Catherine Tackley will present an event, Jazz Meet Pop: Reinventing the Hits, at Cheltenham Jazz Festival on Sunday 3rd May.

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