Book Review: Dave Gelly – An Unholy Row: Jazz in Britain and Its Audience 1945–1960

Dave Gelly – An Unholy Row: Jazz in Britain and Its Audience 1945–1960
(Equinox, 175pp., £25. Book Review by Chris Parker)

Immersed in the jazz world of 2014, with its relaxed attitude to precise definitions and its apparently unlimited hospitality to musical influences ranging from Caribbean and African music to classical and folk, it is all too easy to forget that, in the post-war years when jazz was widely regarded as the ‘unholy row’ of Dave Gelly’s title, the music’s acceptance as a legitimate artform was delayed not only by its sheer unfamiliarity and alienness, but also by the uncompromising nature and argumentative character of its few adherents, quarrelling (in another ‘unholy row’) first about what precisely constituted the genuine article, then about how it should be presented to the public.

Writers such as the historian Jim Godbolt (two volumes of UK jazz history, covering the years 1919–50 and 1950–70) and musicians such as Bruce Turner, Chris Barber, Humphrey Lyttelton and John Dankworth in autobiographical works, have already covered this topic, but Dave Gelly’s book is arguably the most thought-provoking and informative study yet published.

Like Barber et al., he begins on a personal note, describing his own initiation into the mysteries of jazz, but swiftly broadens his focus, describing in fascinating detail the formation of two rival camps – revivalist and modernist, broadly speaking – and their subsequent battle for recognition as the ‘authentic’ article, a battle involving skirmishes between a bewilderingly complex array of sub-genres of each style (traditional jazz, trad, Dixieland, traddy-pop versus bebop, cool jazz and hard bop, with swing, mainstream and jump-band music caught in the crossfire).

Like Godbolt, Gelly is clearly deeply familiar with his subject (both men were, after all, participants in the post-war scene, the former as a long-suffering agent, the latter as a writer and saxophonist), but where he scores heavily over the late historian is in his openness to and familiarity with all forms of the music, and his complete lack of an inferiority complex concerning the UK version of it.

Gelly is also open-eared enough to be able to discern the roots of current rock and pop music in 1950s jazz (via such figures as Lonnie Donegan and Alexis Korner), and skilful and wise enough to be able to describe all the controversies in a consistently accessible, compelling yet erudite style, treating the music and its internecine struggles with a seriousness leavened throughout with self-deprecating wit and enlivened by occasional flashes of more knockabout humour.

Thus, the initial hostility to jazz on the BBC’s part, the music’s role in transcending class and race barriers, its hospitality to personalities and talents ranging from its chief protagonists, Lyttelton and Dankworth, to the likes of Tubby Hayes, Sandy Brown, Ken Colyer, Acker Bilk and Stan Tracey, its attempts to serve its aficionados via such projects as Club Eleven, the Crane River Jazz Club, riverboat shuffles and the Ronnie Scott club – all this is described in scrupulous detail by Gelly, and the resulting book is not only compulsively readable and entertaining (packed as it is with anecdotes and perceptive pen portraits of the music’s characters) but also informative, even learned, enough to make it the most reliable guide yet published to a fascinating period in UK jazz history, a book that can be unreservedly recommended to anyone wishing to trace current British popular musical culture to its (often complex and subtle) roots in post-war jazz.

Categories: miscellaneous

1 reply »

  1. Dave Gelly is an approachable critic and a fine musician. Who better to chronicle those early days? From what I know, and the reviews so far, this is a must for my Xmas list.
    Brian Wood- The Song for Me

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