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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).

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

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