Session 1 – Britain 1

Friday 2 September – 11.00-12.15 (Blue Note)
Chair: Tony Whyton

Andrew John Blake – The Almost Forgotten Case of British Jazz-Rock

In the later 1960s, as the first wave of guitar-based rock bands (whose practitioners owed much to jazz and blues), communicated with large audiences, jazz itself was in crisis, stuck between an ossifying post-bop orthodoxy and an avant-garde happy to exist beyond the fringes of commercial music. This paper will explore the new performance styles which arose in response to this crisis.

Categories such as “jazz-rock”, “fusion” and “jazz-funk” refer to the work of a large number of artists who could not identify with bluesy rock or the jazz avant-garde but who wished both to innovate, and to make a living. In Britain this included bands such as Soft Machine and Nucleus, whose work, c.1970, will be the focus of the paper.

Andrew shall discuss ways in which British “jazz-rock” performance differed from orthodox jazz and rock, whether in relation to aesthetic decisions made by improvisers, to the instruments and technologies used in assisting those decisions, or to the attitudes taken by musicians, record labels and concert promoters, funding bodies, and journalists, towards the cultural status and financial viability of work which deliberately crossed categories. Working from a very quickly sketched background of the long story of jazz in Britain, the paper will continue by exploring the “Britishness” of this music, as a deliberate counterpart Rob Young’s recent work Electric Albion, an impressive telling of a rather easier story of nation as expressed through folk-rock and related idioms. In conclusion I shall ask whether this almost-forgotten moment deserves to be rescued for a more fully nuanced cultural history both of jazz, and of music in Britain.

Tim Wall – Locating British Jazz Under Milk Wood

Stan Tracy’s Jazz Suite inspired by Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood” is often seen as a pivotal record in British jazz; the Guardian’s John Fordham even championed it as “one of the few legends of UK recorded jazz”. In the three-part BBC history Jazz Britannia, the recording is positioned as a metonym for the whole of what is British about British jazz: a synthesis of absorbed American influences and elements of British culture. In this case, the English pianist’s composition was inspired by a BBC radio play written by Welshman Dylan Thomas, and performed in partnership with Scottish saxophonist Bobby Wellins, who drew on the romantic influences of his music heritage, to produce (according to the programme) “one of the best British jazz improvisations ever recorded”.

This paper will explore both the recording and the media coverage it has received over 45 years in the wider context of narratives of British jazz. In particular, I will examine the way that notions of US and UK culture have been employed in the production of the music, and its mediation as a key moment in the British jazz canon. In addition, I will discuss how this particular narrative is being re-set into jazz education within British university and college programmes, and the wider practices of young musicians active within jazz scenes in the major British cities of Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham.

In doing so, I want to draw some conclusions about how national specificity has intervened in the understanding of jazz as an American (and an African American) form. This will include the moment in the 1960s when European players asserted a claim for equality as creative leaders of jazz music-making, and in more recent “post-modern” attempts to deal with both jazz’s past and present as an “organic” and “authentic” music.

George McKay – Community Music: Unorthodox Music Education and Improvisation in Britain

This paper considers the role of (free) improvised music from the 1960s on in the development of the community music movement in Britain. It recognises that community music has endured and to an extent thrived in the decades since then, and acknowledges the important role of radical jazz in that socio-cultural achievement. It draws on two main academic sources of mine: work first explored in the 2005 book Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain, and a current Arts & Humanities Research Council project entitled Community Music: History and Current Practice, its Constructions of “Community”, Digital Turns and Future Soundings (see I am interested in the ways in which free music contributed to the development of music pedagogy, the social and political assumptions of the music and education practice, the efforts not to locate and legitimate jazz in the academy.

View the full conference schedule.