Jazz, dance and black British identities

Tackley, Catherine (2013). Jazz, dance and black British identities. In: Dodds, Sherril and Cook, Susan eds. Bodies of Sound: Studies Across Popular Music and Dance. Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series. Farnham: Ashgate, pp. 193–208.

URL: http://www.ashgate.com/default.aspx?page=637&calcT...


Dance has not always been given the attention it deserves by jazz scholars, although the response (or lack of response) to jazz through dance provides a fundamental indicator of the nature of the reception and understanding of the music. In the introduction I explore some reasons for this neglect. Ultimately, dance is an important factor in the burgeoning area of research which focuses on jazz outside America, especially if an aim of such projects is to try to understand what jazz meant to people, rather than to simply document its manifestations. This chapter demonstrates that studying dance is crucial to appreciating the social functions of jazz in different communities.

This chapter explores two different scenes in which jazz and dance were intrinsically linked as an expression of black British identities. In the 1930s Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, a dancer, and Leslie Thompson formed a dance band including West Indian musicians resident in Britain years before the well-known influx with the arrival the Empire Windrush. Through live performances, broadcasts and recordings the band raised the profile of the work of black musicians in Britain, which previously had been largely restricted to underground clubs. Resident at the Café de Paris in the West End of London from 1939-1941, the band brought American swing music and dance to prominence within the circumstances of this particular social and cultural space whilst also referencing their cultural heritage in music and dance.

In the 1980s it was a new generation of improvisers, this time DJs rather than instrumentalists, who were at the forefront of a revival of jazz as dance music. In contrast to earlier decades in Britain where live music was predominantly used for social dancing and records coveted by musicians and serious jazz fans, now it was recorded music which provided the impetus. In this part of the chapter, I focus particularly on DJ Paul Murphy’s sessions at The Electric Ballroom in Camden, north London from 1982-1984. Jazz was a fundamental part of the eclectic selection of music played in this club, which in turn prompted the development of unique jazz dance and live jazz performance, often reflecting black British identities.

These case studies of the Café de Paris and The Electric Ballroom show how black British identities were (re)presented in and constructed through dance as a kinetic response to the sounds of both live and recorded jazz. Although both scenes discussed here began with the idea of jazz as imported (African) American music and dance, the geographical and cultural distance from this allowed the British response to develop quickly from emulation via reinterpretation towards self-expression, resulting in manifestations which are distinctively black British.

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