The London jazz scene is thriving, with the city regularly playing host to major international players. London is now home to some of the most famous jazz clubs in the world, but it hasn’t been an easy ride to get here. From music bans to bad reputations and world wars, a lot stood in the way of getting this US import to Britain.
5 facts about the history of London jazz
Where did it all start… It started way back in 1919
It all started in 1919 when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band toured London. The band are widely considered as the essence of New Orleans jazz, introducing it to the world in 1917, with the first ever recording of a ‘jazz’ record. The band performed at the London Hippodrome on 7th April 1919 to roaring success. They were even invited to play at Buckingham Palace by King George V and Edward Prince of Wales. The band are still going today, obviously with an entirely different line up!
Jazz: the music of scoundrels or aristocracy? It was first considered to be the music of ‘scoundrels’
When American jazz first made it across the pond to UK shores, apart from the Royals, figures of authority were disgusted by it, thinking it was a bad influence and condemning it to the music of scoundrels. In the UK, dance music was still at the height of fashion so British jazz took more a smooth tone and to become more accepted by the upper classes. But that all began to change when the editor of esteemed music magazine, Melody Maker, began to support the American jazz movement in the early 1930s. This gave American jazz a more acceptable face in the UK and British musicians began to be inspired by their US counterparts.
The death of US jazz in Britain? American musicians were banned from touring the UK in the 1930s
But in the 1930s, a ban was put on American musician’s playing in Britain by the Musicians’ Union in order to nurture British talent. This proved to be detrimental to the progression of British jazz, with musicians unaware of the trends forged in the US. With the outbreak of World War II and with the arrival of the American troops in Europe, US jazz musicians were invited to entertain them and remind them of their home. This helped bring British musicians regain exposure to the genre and start to put their mark on the jazz map.
Avant-garde sounds from the Caribbean and Africa made their mark in the 1960s
British jazz has been heavily influenced by mass migration to the UK, especially in the 1960s when musicians such as Jamaican Joe Harriott, arrived from the Caribbean and Africa. Harriott helped create the avant-garde notion of ‘free jazz’ in Britain. Free jazz was all about breaking down traditional music conventions and utilising unconventional sounds or unusual instruments.
South African musicians also made their mark on the British jazz scene, bringing their revolutionary styles to the UK. Back in apartheid South Africa, white and black musicians began to play together, creating their own brand of jazz. They bought their unique styles to the UK, and this combined with free jazz from the Caribbean began to create an entirely new breed of jazz, separate from the popular bepop in the US.
The beginning of the future of British jazz – Ronnie Scott’s opened in 1959
The ban on US musicians was relaxed in the 1950s, just in time for London’s legendary Ronnie Scott’s club to open on 30thOctober 1959. The club was opened by saxophonists Ronnie Scott and Pete King. Ronnie Scott was well known on the London jazz scene, having started playing the circuit as a saxophonist at just 16.
The club is widely considered as having revolutionised the British jazz scene. Scott, although a prominent saxophonist on the London circuit, hadn’t been exposed to much American jazz because due to the ban on US musicians. He was desperate to find out what it was all about so he visited New York in 1947 and was blown away but what he saw. The electric atmosphere left Scott inspired to set up his own club, although it wasn’t for another 12 years before he managed it.
Ronnie Scott’s club is now one of the most well- known and respected jazz venues in the world, and has hosted everyone from Miles Davies to Nigel Kennedy, Count Basie to Kurt Elling. Today the vibe of the club is unchanged, intimate and revolutionary, featuring visionary artists and hotly-tipped rising stars as well as the top in modern-day jazz acts.
Clerkenwell London has teamed up with legendary Ronnie Scott’s Club for an exclusive event combining the best of the London jazz scene with wine, at a special performance and wine tasting in our intimate Piano Lounge. Tickets available from £45.