Race, identity and the meaning of Jazz in 1940s Britain

Tackley, Catherine (2014). Race, identity and the meaning of Jazz in 1940s Britain. In: Stratton, Jon and Zuberi, Nabeel eds. Black Popular Music in Britain Since 1945. Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series. Farnham: Ashgate, pp. 11–26.

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During the Blitz, on 8 March 1941, a bomb fell on the Café de Paris, an exclusive London nightclub, just as the Guianaian-born bandleader Ken “Snakehips” Johnson and his West Indian Dance Orchestra were in full swing. Johnson and saxophonist Dave ‘Baba’ Williams were killed in the blast, which also marked the demise of this successful group. The Orchestra was dedicated to reproducing emergent American big band jazz, but contemporary reports (if not extant recorded performances) also suggest the influence of calypso and rumba. Similarly, even prior to the arrival of the Empire Windrush, which is often characterised as heralding the start of mass immigration, a vivid mix of black music styles could be heard in London clubs. This diversity reflected cultural importations from the Empire and beyond, including jazz, which was being increasingly identified globally as black music. In Britain, black musicians were necessarily fluent in a variety of genres, irrespective of their particular cultural roots. Indeed, the members of the West Indian Dance Orchestra were not all from the Caribbean, or indeed America; the band included black musicians that had been resident in the UK for some time, more recent immigrants, and some members that were British-born.

The pervasive hybridity of the London scene suggests a generalised perception of black music commensurate with blurring of the black identities of the musicians, which is perhaps characteristic of the black British experience. But also there is a sense in which jazz-based fusions, as demonstrated by the West Indian Dance Orchestra, were very particular responses to jazz reflecting the complexities of race and identity. Continued immigration and the corresponding representation of diverse national musics, as well as the emergence of indigenous popular styles, is indicative of the multicultural backdrop for the investigation of the complex and ever-changing meaning of jazz with respect to race and identity (particularly black British) in post-Second World War Britain. This chapter examines the subsequent careers of surviving members of the West Indian Dance Orchestra and proceeds to relate their experiences to those of contemporary jazz musicians in Britain, interrogating an apparent dichotomy of (imported, or closely derivative) jazz in Britain and (native, with original elements) British jazz. The chapter draws on interviews from the (UK) National Sound Archive’s ‘Oral History of Jazz in Britain’ collection and those conducted as part of the AHRC-funded project ‘What is Black British Jazz?’.

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