LECTURE: Prof.Catherine Tackley – Jazz in Britain: A New Jazz Age?

Professor Catherine Tackley, University of Liverpool
Photo courtesy of University of Liverpool

Professor Catherine Tackley of the University of Liverpool considers the contemporary resurgence of jazz and sets it in the longer term context, and jazz’s legacy of ‘constantly reinvent[ing] itself and remain[ing] modern’ . The text below is a short digest of a lecture which she gave yesterday evening 3 April 2019 in Liverpool, as part of the School of the Arts Public Lecture Series 2018-19: Movement, Place and Meaning. 

What should we make of the recent and well-reported ‘resurgence’ of jazz? For those with a longstanding involvement with the music, the richness, vibrancy and quality of jazz in Britain today will not come as a surprise. But lately jazz has achieved a particular resonance that extends beyond the places and spaces in which it is usually appreciated. Are we, perhaps, entering a new ‘jazz age’? The term ‘jazz age’ was popularised by American author F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose short stories Tales of the Jazz Age were published in 1922. Jazz, as a profoundly modern music that also had exotic and escapist appeal, had a special relevance in Britain in the traumatic aftermath of the First World War. Jazz dancing as a social activity encouraged the emerging division between generations, individual freedom of expression and the liberation and sexual freedom of women. As such jazz both attracted and repelled Britons. But as R.W.S. Mendl asserted in The Appeal of Jazz, the first British book on the subject, jazz clearly represented ‘the spirit of the age written in the music of the people’ (1927).

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Jazz came to Britain via pre-existing transatlantic routes into mainstream environments – variety theatre, dance halls and radio – where the public could easily experience it. The visits of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, from New Orleans, who arrived in Britain one hundred years ago this week, and the all-black Southern Syncopated Orchestra who followed soon after, were crucial to the development of jazz in this country. However, the idea of jazz, if not its musical characteristics, had already been well-established in mainstream popular culture prior to their arrival and this influenced their reception. During their time in London, the ODJB’s appearances on the variety stage reinforced the idea of jazz as novelty, comic music. On the other hand, the SSO’s concerts of repertoire including spirituals, ragtime and classical music as well as jazz features for Sidney Bechet and drummer Buddy Gilmore, demonstrated a connection between jazz and a heritage of African-American music which became better appreciated as the years went by.

But the main impact of jazz on the British public was as dance music, often alongside rather than separate from the continuation of popular dances such as the waltz. I have long argued for the presence of ‘British jazz’ as distinct from ‘jazz in Britain’ (visiting Americans, or straightforward emulation of imitation of American sources) from the outset. As well as appreciating the early British jazz pioneers, this means properly considering jazz as a component of British popular music more broadly. British dance bands introduced jazz to the general public throughout the country and across Europe – live, on the radio and on records – even took it back to America. In time, specialist infrastructures for jazz developed, but it also remained popular in the mainstream, especially as dance music.

Fundamentally, jazz is a musical form that constantly reinvents itself and remains modern, often transcending established boundaries of genre, format and context to maintain its relevance. This seems to be what has occurred recently: the same spirit of reinvention that propelled jazz into a prime position in the 1920s allows it to flourish today.

LINK: Biography of Professor Catherine Tackley

Categories: Feature/Interview

6 replies »

  1. Fundamentally, jazz is a musical form that constantly reinvents itself and remains modern, often transcending established boundaries of genre, format and context to maintain its relevance. This seems to be what has occurred recently: the same spirit of reinvention that propelled jazz into a prime position in the 1920s allows it to flourish today.

    No, I don't agree with this statement. Firstly, what are developments in Jazz? If you think of New Orleans Jazz, Chicago Jazz, Swing, Bebop and Post Bop, the developments were mainly harmonic and rhythmic. After Coltrane the so called developments were more about putting what had gone before into a current popular musical framework i.e. Fumk Jazz, Soul Jazz, Jazz Rock etc. Any musician can listen to these Post Coltrane idioms and recognise that they have not moved on but are just wearing different clothes.

    Listening to a contemporary jazz show on the radio only the other day I was invited by the presenter to “check out” one of the most innovative young musicians on the London Jazz Scene today. Yup, same old same old but against a backdrop of modern dance beats. Nothing new there. And to be honest, lets face it, there are only so many notes to be played, only so many ways of playing them. Every art form comes to a brick wall at some point. And thats fine because then there is such a rich bag of styles to use, adapt, meld together. And for me, thats the “new jazz” Having said that, Roland Kirk was doing this mixing from the sixties and into the seventies. Wynton did the same from the eighties onwards.

    Also, the idea that jazz was “reinventing itself” in the twenties is absurd! It was finding its feet. The reinvention….amd I don't think this word is suitable…came later. Jazz didn't reinvent iteself, it grew, developed and became more sphisticated. The good stuff, and lets face it there is a lot of drivel, always respected what had gone before and acknowledged it. You can hear King Oliver in Louis, you can hear Louis in Roy Eldridge, you can hear Roy Eldridge in Dizzy and so it goes on. Oh, and you can hear Louis in Dizzy too! That's not reinvention. Thats building on a solid foundation.

  2. Thanks for engaging with this. I think there’s plenty of evidence for jazz reinventing itself – including some of the aspects you mention above – including in the 1920s. This becomes particularly obvious when looking at the ways in which jazz was adopted in other countries. This might not always be primarily musical reinvention – it could be to frame the music in a different way, by changing the location, venue, radio station, record label etc through which it is mediated. With reference to the current scene, the interaction of jazz musicians with new audiences and new technology when the music is presented in different ways and in different spaces is surely significant to understanding why it is currently in the spotlight. Jazz history is quite a lot more complicated than linear progression towards greater sophistication (and I’m not sure how we can judge that reliably anyway) – its richness is derived from innovation and experimentation, but also embracing the past – both implicitly and sometimes, very obviously. And, on a micro level, isn’t reinvention a significant part of what happens in jazz performance?

  3. From my viewpoint, the popular music scene has been moribund for decades, so I don't see how Jazz can find new life by attaching itself to a dead body.

    The most promising UK development in recent years as far as I am concerned is Jamie' Cullum's Song Society project but this hasn't caught the public imagination.

    Any discussion of Jazz in the UK should recognise that Swing Dance/Lindy/Modern Vintage has become a major trend to the extent that ehe Albert Hall is now staging regular dances.

  4. Thank you for your comment. Although I can't agree with your assessment of the pop music scene, I do completely agree about the importance of dance. It was fundamental to the early reception and development of jazz, and continues to be key to the way in which many people experience the music, whether through revival of old styles or in response to new developments. Jamie's project is also interesting in the way in which it provides access to the processes of developing improvised performances – sometimes it's good to revel in the mystique of jazz performance, but it can also be really enlightening to discover a bit more about what lies behind what we hear.

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