Rodney P’s Jazz Funk
(BBC Four. Filmed and directed by Denise Alder. Broadcast on 24 July 2020. Review by Brian Blain)
Rapper Rodney P Edwards’ Jazz Funk, shown recently on BBC Four, was quite a departure for the broadcasting colossus that thinks it is doing us all a big favour by occasionally showing a 55-year-old Jazz 625 from the ‘golden age’, the only time that I can recall that the Corporation has actually produced an original series of jazz programmes.
All too conscious of the opprobrium that the phrase ‘jazz funk’ arouses in a large proportion of the jazz audience, nevertheless just to see the four letter word in the Radio Times at all was quite a tantalising prospect. So… was the expectation fulfilled… and was the programme itself any good? As social documentary and history, it was excellent. As an insight into the music, not so much. For the documentary’s main objective was to show the growing influence of black culture on English life, from the early sound systems of the Windrush generation at the first Notting Hill Carnivals to the sound of Brit Funk dominating a large chunk of the popmarket ’80s.
Along the way it played a big part in changing the attitudes of a considerable number of the white working class – it was skinheads who first fell for ska, for example. A fascinating point was the contrast between the growing club culture of London and the South, with a growing mix of gays, blacks and and young white kids, with the white working class Northern Soul movement with its Wigan Casino flagship and loyalty to the black American soul music of the ’60s.
But in the South, dance culture became king and the footage of some of the moves, from The Nicholas Brothers to balletic episodes, was often breathtaking. For many, dance was athletic and competitive and it is strange to me that no one has commented on the parallel between this British phenomenon of the ’70s and ’80s and the American Swing era of the ’30s and ’40s where jitterbug dancing was equally athletic and proudly flaunted by those who were capable. And the music likewise aroused the ‘that’s not jazz’ wrath of the – largely, burgeoning European – critical fraternity.
Eventually, live black musicians began to appear in the story, with trumpeter Kenny Wellington telling how they wanted to emulate some of the sounds and how this influx led to the phenomenon of Brit Funk and and largely vocal groups like High Tension and Imagination began to reach much bigger audiences than the clubs could ever achieve.
However, it was at this point that musically the programme began to lose the plot. It seemed perverse to say the least that in all of the footage of acts on Top of the Pops, no comment could be found for the biggest instrumental funk hit of the ’70s, the Scottish Average White Band’s Pick Up the Pieces. One hopes that the reason was the inability to obtain copyright clearance, rather than reverse racism.
Coming down the popularity scale a little, how could there not be a reference to Incognito a mixed-race five piece out of the jazz circuit which got bigger with added brass, touring the world powered by drummer Richard Bailey who, like the great Frank Tontoh, son of an Osibisa musician, was black and a significant part of the jazz scene? I only mention this because of the whole agenda of the programme which was to emphasise the significance of black music and musicians.
Nor was there any mention of the band led by Dick Morrissey and Jim Mullen, a beacon of inspiration to many young aspiring musicians who did break into the club scenes of Essex and Kent as well as regularly filling three large London pub venues. Who could do that now? No mention of The Cricketers, a great jazz venue by The Oval, which, in keyboard player Mick Parker’s words, “regularly hosted an amazing number of jazz funk come all ye’s”, and where,I first heard electric bass genius Laurence Cottle and the brilliant guitarist Alan Murphy’s SFX. (Alan moved to New York in this period and, tragically, died at a very young age.) As the movement declined, along with the more commercial Brit Funk scene vibist Roger Beaujolais’ Vibraphonic with guitarist Tony Remy enjoyed some success on the Acid Jazz label and popularity on the American College Radio network led to quite healthy sales. A gig I saw at Hemel Hempstead Town Hall was packed with those elusive ‘young people’ that the jazz world has been dying to reach for years , but as Beaujolais told me years later, “When I tried to get work for the band I just got four responses from the whole of England.”
Conclusion? A curate’s egg of a programme: great on the multi-racial club scene which would be foreign to most jazz fans, with some wonderful footage of a changing Britain. On the music? Much weaker, because apart from the obligatory name drop of Davis and Hancock, there was little or no reference to the Eric Gales, Bernard Purdies, and Stix Hoopers, the kind of US funkateers who powered the American imports that helped to launch the careers of the first generation of Club DJs. In the end Brit funk faded, a curious parallel with the Trad boom that had preceded it: both were pale copies of American music that reached a vast number British young people. But there is no doubt about which movement has had the deeper effect.