December 21, 2012 7:17 pm

Swinging in the rain

How rapid social change shaped British jazz

Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers: British Jazz, 1960-1975, by Duncan Heining, Equinox, RRP£29.99/$45, 500 pages

 

In truth this revealing exploration of British jazz covers a near quarter-century, rather than the advertised 15 years. The Dirty Bopper of the title refers to the alto saxophonist Bruce Turner, who in 1953 joined Humphrey Lyttelton’s traditional jazz band, only to be confronted at a Birmingham gig by a banner unfurled by fans scenting a sell-out to modernist tendencies: “Go Home You Dirty Bopper”.

What those traditionalists would have scrawled if faced by the abstract daubs of the “free fusioneers” lurking down the line, one dreads to think. In less than 20 years, British jazz was to act as a midwife to rock, develop an indigenous free music strand, rage at inequality and draw inspiration from both the Indian subcontinent and the bucolic pastures of the folk revival. And more was to come.

Duncan Heining’s meticulously researched book explores these rapid changes, bolstering a mass of archive material and data with 75 new interviews, some conducted as recently as February this year. As a narrative history of jazz through the so-called swinging sixties, it rings true, and his appendix of 100 essential British jazz records is exemplary.

Yet Heining is critical of those who make too much of divisions within jazz, preferring to emphasise continuity. We soon learn that the sectarianism voiced in Birmingham, though great copy, was an aberration, certainly for most working musicians. They mingled and mixed, drew lessons from one style and transported them to another. Thus, somewhat surprisingly, such figures of rock as Cream’s Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce started off playing in traditional jazz bands. Heining quotes Pete Townshend: “You hear some very weird shit in The Who’s sound, and some of it has got to do with the fact that we used to play a lot of ‘trad’ jazz.”

Of course, the rapid aesthetic changes Heining so accurately captures were fuelled in part by what was happening in the US. But the author, who has previously written about the late American pianist and composer George Russell, shows how British jazz had its own lineages and dynamics. Indeed musicians of all stripes were extraordinarily driven in their search for personal authenticity.

When the book opens, jazz is both promoted on variety bills and lurking in pub back rooms. By the book’s end, a college circuit has come and withered, and musicians are scrabbling for Arts Council grants.

Heining relates these changes to the broad sweep of society, and sets up the aesthetic narrative with chapters on class and education reform, immigration and political involvement. And yes, there is a potted history of the Arts Council.

His unavoidable investigation of addiction is described through first-hand accounts as well as factors ranging from aping the Americans to personal insecurity. Details such as Tubby Hayes having a “thin” wardrobe for while he was on heroin and a “fat” one for when he was back on the booze are set against a background of political turf wars, over-prescribing medics and corrupt West End policemen; the especially zealous Sergeant Norman “Nobby” Pilcher was later jailed for perjury.

Heining describes his perspective as a “socialist one, rooted within the ideas of Marx”. Too often Marx’s insights get suffocated under a flannel of jargon, but this writer is cut from more classic cloth – he quotes in detail from the late historian Eric Hobsbawm, writing under his jazz critic pseudonym of Francis Newton – and the relevance of the sociology, intrusively basic at first, becomes apparent.

A final chapter, moving deeper into cultural theory, is pitched at too abstract a level and seems out of kilter with the rest of the book. Heining is at his best capturing the jazz milieu in constant motion adapting to changes in popular taste and a fast-moving social environment. And, right at the centre, is the music that gives it purpose. A must-read for anyone interested in British jazz, and a thoughtful assessment of a radical period in British history.

Mike Hobart is the FT’s jazz critic

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