Talking Jazz

By Sholto Byrnes
Friday 28 January 2005 01:00

Over the past year or so, the subjects of a British jazz revival, and whether there is such a thing as specifically British jazz, have had a greater airing than the music is wont to receive in this country. There have been two strands, not really connected, to this. One has been Gilles Peterson's heroic work in unearthing forgotten releases from the Sixties and Seventies on his two Impressed! compilations; the other, the success of crossover acts such as Jamie Cullum and Amy Winehouse.

It is the former that is the main focus of an excellent three-part series starting on BBC4 tonight. Jazz Britannia traces a journey from when British jazz was represented by the post-war orchestras of Ted Heath and Geraldo, through the creative turbulence of the 1960s, up to today, ending on the current young hope, Soweto Kinch.

The series, which is tied in to a weekend of concerts at the Barbican (12-13 February), paints a portrait of a scene that enjoyed brief moments of popularity. When, for instance, the trad revivalists Kenny Ball and Acker Bilk made the charts (with "Midnight in Moscow" and "Stranger on the Shore", respectively) in the early Sixties; or in the preceding years when dance music still ruled. But it never shirks from exploring the sudden lows that have regularly deprived jazz musicians of a reasonable living.

The hard years are etched on the face of the saxophonist Peter King, who talks of how the R&B explosion removed many of the beboppers' venues. The Cavern in Liverpool, he says, was theirs until The Beatles came along; likewise, the Marquee in London and The Rolling Stones. (Michael Garrick pops up here: "It was like the invasion of the orcs.") Jazz rock left King unmoved, and by the mid-1970s, he says, "the work dried up completely".

During the Eighties revival, when many British musicians were signed up by majors, his negotiations with a label ended when he was told that he was "not good-looking enough, and too old". Never mind that King's one of the UK's leading alto saxophonists.

Others vocal about the tough times include Stan Tracey, who thought of becoming a postman in the Seventies; and Keith Tippett, who picked potatoes in the Eighties.

Particularly fascinating are the recollections of those, like Georgie Fame, who are now mostly to be found playing in jazz venues, but were originally treated with disdain by purists. When his combo was on opposite a bona fide jazz group at the Flamingo Club in the 1960s, Fame wasn't allowed to use the grand piano - it was reserved for the others, and he had to make do with an upright.

On the flip side, Jack Bruce, best known to the wider public as the bassist in Cream, started off as a jazzer. Cream, he somewhat implausibly claims, was "a free jazz trio, with Eric [Clapton] being Ornette Coleman - we just didn't tell him that's what he was doing".

Jazz recovered from the Seventies, spearheaded by Courtney Pine and aided by the fertile ground of his big band, the Jazz Warriors. The Dingwalls jazz-dance scene led on to acid jazz. Record labels signed up many young acts, including Guy Barker, Julian Joseph and Orphy Robinson. Jazz as a marketing term, however, proved stronger than its home market, and the big labels lost interest.

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The series is summed up by a magnificently grumpy Stan Tracey: "Over the years, there have been 'jazz revivals', but I've never noticed it."

What has sustained British jazz? The late Joe Harriott appears at one point. "If jazz is art," he begins, "and it is..." That belief may have been all there was at the lowest points. But it was enough.

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