LOUIS ARMSTRONG hit Britain in July 1932. Armstrong’s reputation and recordings had naturally preceded him, but the young trumpet giant still found himself way down the bill when he opened at the London Palladium on July 18. Some members of the audience, used to genteel dance music, walked out in noisy disgust at the American’s incandescent playing, and the enthusiastic young British trumpet brothers, Nat and Bruts Gonella, made a point of trying to trip them up as they huffed down the aisles.Armstrong toured the UK with local sidemen including saxophonists Harry Hayes and Buddy Featherstonhaugh, and Bruts Gonella. It was the first opportunity for budding British jazz musicians to play over a sustained period with an undisputed creative genius of jazz.
Some society bandleaders were appalled by what they saw as Armstrong’s indifference to good taste. But a growing coterie of local jazz fans were ecstatic. Nat Gonella called him an ‘inspiration, a guiding star.’ Armstrong remained in Europe until 1935, and shifted the jazz influence on British players away from fine but muted white models like Bix Beiderbecke toward the hotter black American style. In all that time, BBC radio allowed him only a single 20-minute broadcast. Duke Ellington also performed at the London Palladium – in June 1933 and on the same bill as comedy legend Max Miller. There was more of a positive consensus for Ellington than there had been for Armstrong, and British musician/journalist Spike Hughes (an authoritative enthusiast, he wrote as the columnist ‘Mike’ in Melody Maker) was uncompromising in his contention in the Daily Herald that Ellington was ‘the first genuine jazz composer.’ A Melody Maker editorial in 1933 proclaimed: ‘our education, woefully neglected, is being attended to. We now have everything to learn.’
Saxophonist Coleman Hawkins was next to visit, playing with Jack Hylton’s and his wife Ennis Hylton’s dance-bands (Jack Hylton was to become a major influence as a promoter as well as a bandleader), then violinist Joe Venuti. But by 1935, the window on a new musical world was closing again – the British Ministry of Labour was entering a dispute with the American Federation of Musicians that would eventually ban the jazz originators from these shores. Teddy Hill’s Orchestra (including a pre-bebop John Birks ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie), Art Tatum and Fats Waller were among the last under the wire before the outbreak of World War Two.
But British musicians were becoming increasingly jazz-aware, partly through listening to records and partly through opportunities to sit in with American visitors in clubs like The Nest and the Bag O’Nails, and on the informal ‘bottle-party’ scene.
HMV, Parlophone, Decca and other labels stepped up their jazz output, and began to issue the work of British jazz and dance bands including those of Ambrose, Jack Hylton, Nat Gonella and the trumpeter Duncan Whyte. Whyte was a significant figure, and a fine young Scottish trombonist, George Chisholm became part of that circle.
The great American altoist and arranger Benny Carter lived in the UK during the late 1930s, working as a staff arranger for the BBC Dance Orchestra - his encouragement to local players was incalculable. The shortlived Rhythm magazine was devoted to jazz-reviewing, and the largely classical Gramophone began to cover jazz. And the federation of the ‘Rhythm Club’ movement - a network of enthusiasts’ meetings to talk jazz, listen to records and even stage gigs - had 4000 members by the end of the ‘30s. Jazz was here to stay.
When war came an unexpected fallout from Nazi racism was a redoubled global interest in the work of the mainly black innovators of jazz, as an anti-racist rejection of fascism as much as a musical endorsement. The music of Bunk Johnson – a 63 year-old New Orleans trumpeter who had never recorded – was launched in the US in 1942 as a return to the music’s ‘authentic’ roots. An eager revivalist movement swept the jazz world.
Young British writers including Max Jones, Albert McCarthy and Charles Fox published the first Jazz Music in 1942, to reassert the pioneering role of the African-American, to emphasise the music’s social dimensions, and to attack the glossy commercialism of big-band swing. A similar publication called Pick-Up,launched in 1946 by writer Sinclair Traill, was eventually to become the still-active Jazz Journal International.
Whatever their preferences, the players still mingled on Archer Street, London’s open-air job centre and social focus for freelance professionals. But skilful young dance-band musicians like Ronnie Scott, Tony Crombie, John Dankworth, vibist/pianist Victor Feldman and the schooled and sophisticated pianist/trumpeter Denis Rose were restless for a new direction that would stretch their real love, improvised jazz.
All kinds of jazz and jazz-flavoured dance music flourished in wartime London, at the clubs, bottle-parties, Caribbean rhumba joints, hotels and restaurants.
American jazz musicians in Forces bands mingled with the locals. At the Feldman Club (later to become the 100 Club) an unlikely young alto sax playing military policeman called Art Pepper astounded an 18 year-old Ronnie Scott and told him, ‘if you liked that, you should hear Charlie Parker.’ Before the 1940s were out, Scott and his contemporaries did just that – at the Paris Jazz Festival in 1949 (when John Dankworth lent Parker his saxophone for an after-hours jam), and on a series of trips to New York which the impecunious British enthusiasts covered by taking dance-band work on the Transatlantic liners.
But the revivalists were on top in the late ‘40s, despite the hip cachet of bop. Where the boppers were dapper, ironic, professional and impassive, the revivalists were shabby, effusive, amateur and extrovert, and their swinging and accessible music was increasingly popular. Jazz began to get regular air-time, with BBC Jazz Club broadcasting from 1947. George Webb’s Dixielanders, based at the Red Barn in Kent, became the leading revivalist ensemble, with powerful soloists including trombonist Eddie Harvey and clarinettist/cartoonist Wally Fawkes. The ‘Hot Club of London’, in Tottenham Court Road, was a rallying point for the traditionalists. Edinburgh clarinetist Sandy Brown, Chris Barber, Mick Mulligan with singer George Melly, and – from 1947 – the increasingly charismatic Etonian former Guardsman Humphrey Lyttelton with a teenage trombonist, Keith Christie, launched a new era of confidence and authority in British jazz. So did the Australian jazz band of Graeme Bell, which boldly mixed classic Dixieland with original material. And though Musicians’ Union rules made it tough for the American heroes to be heard in the flesh, Sidney Bechet was smuggled in for a historic 1949 concert including Lyttelton and others.
Bu their often mocking rivals, the British beboppers, had not gone to ground. If their music was for more of a specialised coterie, they were going to find an appropriately bohemian home to play it in. Eleven alumni, including Ronnie Scott, John Dankworth and Tony Crombie, launched Club Eleven on December 11 1948. It was a landmark date in the history of British jazz, and the forerunner of Ronnie Scott’s Club.