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Book Review: Duncan Heining Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers: British Jazz, 1960–1975

Duncan Heining Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers: British Jazz, 1960–1975
(Equinox Publishing. 494pp., £29.99p. Book Review by Chris Parker)

First, the good news (and it’s very good news): one of the most exciting and influential periods of jazz development, anywhere, has at last been meticulously documented by a serious and knowledgeable writer, Duncan Heining. There have, of course, been previous attempts at this, chief among them the second of the two pioneering volumes of UK jazz history (1919–50, 1950–70) written for Quartet by Jim Godbolt, but Heining’s is the first history of 1960s and 1970s British jazz that takes the following assumption (quoted from the book’s blurb) as its starting point: ‘The British jazz scene [was], arguably, the first outside America to assert its independence […], [defining] an identity that drew increasingly on sources from within its own culture […] and from its shared European cultural heritage.’

Consequently, Heining has produced a history refreshingly unhampered by the modest self-deprecation that all too frequently characterises similar studies, which (to take the most obvious example) routinely preface remarks about Stan Tracey with the words ‘Monk and Ellington disciple’. This welcome freedom from a restrictive (and distorting) inferiority complex, moreover, does not blind Heining to the genuine respect and passion for US jazz models felt by John Dankworth, Joe Harriott, Howard Riley, Mike Westbrook et al.; on the contrary, it serves to highlight, by setting it firmly and surely in context, the genuinely original innovatory character of the music produced by these pioneering figures during the period he’s discussing.

To this laudable end, Heining is exhaustively thorough, interweaving meticulously detailed history (the trad boom, Geraldo’s Navy, the R&B scene, the effects of the MU ban, the free-jazz movement, the Marquee and Ronnie Scott’s etc.) with original interviews and accounts of seminal recordings and concerts to form an astonishingly detailed account of a fascinating and uniquely important jazz era. All the usual suspects – the above-named seminal figures, plus Mike Gibbs, Ronnie Scott, Ian Carr, Maggie Nicols, Keith Tippett, Julie Tippetts, Stan Tracey, Graham Collier, John Stevens, John Surman etc. etc. – plus a host of unjustly neglected figures (Mike Taylor, Ray Russell, Kenny Graham et al.) are scrupulously documented, their work and opinions minutely examined, their achievements perceptively described and generously evaluated.

Now the bad news: the book is written from a Marxist perspective. This, it should be immediately emphasised, is not inherently a ‘bad thing’ (it is, after all, the one metanarrative that arguably makes sense of the current worldwide economic débâcle); it’s just that it is an over-rigid stance from which to view an artform so highly individualistic, idiosyncratic and protean. As a consequence, the text is littered with phrases such as ‘the pliability of bourgeois hegemony’; the social class and educational history of jazz practitioners are imbued with perhaps inappropriate significance; the supposed political aims of the music are often emphasised at the expense of its more immediately apparent aesthetic aspirations. This is not, of course, to downplay the genuine importance of the music’s social context, or – more importantly – the real and passionate political commitment of a number of its practitioners; it is simply that such an unyielding perspective often stifles and occasionally militates against subtlety, unpredictability and nuance.

Perhaps less significant, but none the less irritating: the book is disfigured by sloppy editing and proofreading, containing references to (among many others) John Godbolt, John Entwhistle, Pharaoh Sanders, Kitty Grimes, Alan Ganley/Holdsworth and Finnegan’s Wake; falling for sucker-punches by misspelling words such as indispensable, benefiting, minuscule et al., and containing numerous sentences such as (p. 373): ‘… British jazz was no longer a poor relationship of its American originator’. Such a valuable labour of love and scholarly insight surely deserved better from its publisher.

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