Dank, smoke-filled cellars, side-street bars, neon lights, drinks clattering amidst dulcet conversations, gentle brushing, subtle horns, wind and double bass. It might be a bit of a romantic idea, but all these things are synonymous with Jazz, at least in Andy Richardson's opinion.
UK jazz vs US jazz
It always awakens in me nostalgia for a past I never had: that free swing; that twinkling piano line; those blue notes; the spontaneity; the beat. Arguably elements lacking in popular music today; meaning that nowadays there’s an occasion for jazz for sure.
Like the actual playing of jazz, listening to jazz requires a certain intricacy where timing is everything, you have to get a feel for the day, the evening, the weather, are you drinking coffee or something stronger? and when that feeling is right, outcomes Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker, Charlie Parker or Miles Davis. But where are the British Jazz players?
They’re here all right! Yes, ‘the greats’ are by and large synonymous with the USA, which is fair they essentially reorganised the musical ideas of the African/African American song style to provide continuity, variety, logic and coherence to spontaneous musical expression. We can give them that.
And you can’t really talk about jazz without mentioning the forefathers of jazz; Jelly Roll Morton or Sydney Bechet. And while we’re there, it’d be silly not to visit Ella Fitzgerald, Glenn Miller, Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Django Reinhardt etc. etc.
But, early encounters with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in London in 1917 inspired a new breed of musicians who over time would, consequently, shape a British jazz movement of its own; crystalising its ideas, refashioning the approach to the rules and developing an impulsive musical language for Britain.
Here are a handful of British jazz artists who really shook things up and proved the Brits could do it just as good. And hey, you can add these cats to your vocabulary for the next time you’re doing the Charleston.
Ronnie Scott (b. 1927, London)
Let’s start with Ronnie Scott OBE; one of the most highly rated and universally recognised British jazz musicians. Although he experimented with free-form jazz, Scott helped to popularise bebop to British audiences, working tirelessly throughout the 1940s and 1950s with countless musicians, bands, orchestras, quintets, boptets etc. all over the country including, Ambrose’s Orchestra, Club Eleven Band, Johnny Dankworth, Hank Shaw, Lennie Bush, Tony Crombie and Denis Rose (Scott’s Jazz ‘guru’).
In the late 50s, Scott had gained enough traction of his own to solidify a burgeoning career with recognition in the states for his quintet, The Jazz Couriers (modelled on Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers). Around the same time, Scott began what he is arguably most popular for; his eminent jazz club in Soho, the aptly named Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, which he opened with fellow saxophonist, Pete King, in 1959.
Despite changing location in 1965, it was the place to be for jazz players and lovers alike in England, providing a major platform for the American jazz titans such as Stan Getz and the Buddy Rich Big Band.
As a tenor saxophonist himself, Ronnie would also jam with the clientele there. You may have heard of a few; Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone… The list goes on. And Charles Mingus once likened him to Zoot Simms. High praise indeed. Oh, he also played the sax solo on The Beatle’s ‘Lady Madonna’ (1968).
For fans of: Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.
Listen to:‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’, ‘Fools Rush In’, ‘With Every Breath I Take’ and ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing’
Stan Tracy (b.1926, London)
With a career that spanned six decades, Tracey has been a highly influential and stimulating musical talent since the beginning. His bio states that his piano playing “combine[s] the percussive melody of Thelonious Monk with the robust lyricism of Ellington” in a highly distinctive style.
As house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s club, and like Ronnie himself, Tracy had the somewhat arduous privilege over his seven-year tenure of playing with many of the leading US and foreign jazz artists visiting the UK. Of all the big leaguers, Tracy cites his personal favourite sessions to be with Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Dexter Gordon, Freddie Hubbard, Zoot Simms and Al Cohn.
He has also divulged who was particularly ‘difficult’ to work with too, but I’m not here to bring up old grudges. All things aside, it was these encounters that really ignited Tracey’s imagination setting him composing prolifically.
Despite putting out forty albums and working on several commissions, Tracey is predominantly celebrated for his work, Under Milk Wood (1965) (inspired by poet Dylan Thomas’s radio play of the same name), which is regarded as not only a masterpiece, but the game changer that put British Jazz on the map; no longer existing as an imitation of its transatlantic cousin.
Tracey’s sparing piano and Bobby Wellin’s softly hooting sax, the rippling tone-poem ‘Starless and Bible Black’ is widely acclaimed as on of the great Jazz performances. You can feel in the atmosphere of tracks like ‘Starless[…]’ and ‘Darn That Dream’ that Tracey truly captured the freedom and inflection of Jazz, manipulating the dynamics of the jazz band that was full of contrasts and perfectly showcased his rhythmic and somewhat unconventional and emotive piano style.
Fun Fact: Stan Tracey recorded the soundtrack to the 1966 film, Alfie (starring Michael Caine).
For fans of: Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington
Listen to: Starless and bible Black (1965),
John Dankworth (b.1927, Essex)
Like Scott and Tracey, Dankworth was one of the crop of musicians inspired by the bebop revolution of the 1940s who took it one step further in discovering their own, unique voice to the saxophone and clarinet; shifting British jazz from skilful imitation to genuine independence.
By the end of the 1940s, at only 22, he was performing with Charlie Parker at the Paris Jazz Festival, leading to a short tour with Sydney Bechet and culminating in him being voted Musician of the Year in 1949. And rightly so!
By 1953, he had a big band which possessed the same character and merit that had made big bands successful many years ago—a clear tightness that only playing together for years can create; a swinging drive, discipline in solos and many sonic shades.
John took the big band aesthetic that the likes of Charlie Parker, Gene Krupa, Duke Ellington and Buddy Rich had created and added his own cerebral vision to its vast panorama succeeding as band leader and composer in his own right.
Dankworth characterised jazz as being akin to journalism saying that it caught the intense, characteristic moments of an era. In his 1998 autobiography, Jazz In Revolution, he concluded that jazz can “evoke tension, relaxation, laughter, tears. Surely jazz is truly the music of the era, combining stature, dignity and emotion with the highest musical ideas”.
For Fans of: Buddy Rich, Duke Ellington, Gene Krupa
Listen to: ‘Crazy Rhythm’, ‘Moonglow’
Humphrey Lyttleton (b. 1921, Berkshire)
Louis Armstrong once praised Lyttleton as being “that cat in England who swings his ass off!”. This care-free image is a fair summary of a man who, during the Second World War came ashore during the allied landings in Salerno, Italy, with a pistol in one hand and a trumpet in the other. It’s clear then, that this guy took his Jazz very seriously.
However, it was after his service that he met one of the catalysts of Britain’s post-war jazz boom, George Webb, he joined Webb's Dixielanders and began his career proper. Later, Lyttleton would be a forerunner in the revival of more traditional forms of jazz.
Recording with Sydney Bechet; making that low, bluesy jazz that drags its rhythmic feet purposefully; then creating the track he is best known for, ‘Bad Penny Blues’ (produced by Joe Meek who also produced 1962 hit 'Telstar'), a contrast to his work with Sydney, capturing a more upbeat, finger snappin’ personality but still with bluesy chords and his sharp, distinctive staccato trumpet work.
Moreover, it was the formation of his own, Lyttleton Band (who had composed his notable hit) that brought success to the Jazz revival on a national scale. Despite this being the peak of his career, Lyttleton remained active and, like Ronnie Scott, was an important ambassador for Jazz, not being swayed by popular forms and choosing to stick to his guns (with a trumpet presumably in the other hand).
For Fans of: The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Sydney Bechet
Listen to:‘Bad Penny Blues’, ‘Beale Street Blues’, ‘High Society’, ‘When It’s Sleepy Time Down South’, ‘Georgia On My Mind’