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I enjoyed reading writer / musician Dave Gelly’s AN UNHOLY ROW: JAZZ IN BRITAIN AND ITS AUDIENCE 1945-1960 (published by Equinox) all the way through. I am a difficult audience for most books of jazz history that propose to cover a period of the music in a larger context (as opposed to a biography or autobiography).  Most times I find such books engaging chronological collages at best that never capture a larger world. Gelly’s quick-moving book has many good stories in it, covering those intense years in 167 pages, but his tales are all wisely connected.

His writing is also a pleasure: the book is not a series of quotations knitted together. One hears his voice: witty but not cruel, stylish but not self-absorbed. Here is part of the book’s opening chapter, an autobiographical fragment from which the book’s title comes:

I think there were five of us, all aged about fourteen, gathered in the ‘games room’ of a substantial family villa on the leafy southern fringes of London. We were equipped with musical instruments — battered cornet, decrepit clarinet, miscellaneous bits of a drum kit — and were doing out best to emulate our heroes, Humphrey Lyttelton and his Band. We had been at it for some time when the door burst open to reveal our unwitting host, the cornetist’s father. ‘Will you kindly stop making that unholy row?’ he demanded, in a voice more weary than irate, and withdrew.

The 1950s, as we are often reminded, was an age of deference. Accordingly, we shut up at once, abashed but not entirely surprised. By any standards, ‘an unholy row’ was a pretty fair description of our efforts, but even if we had been competent musicians, even if we had been Humph and his Band themselves, I wouldn’t mind betting that, as far as the cornetist’s father was concerned, it would still have been an unholy row. The whole thing was offensive to ears attuned to the BBC Midland Light Orchestra or the swing-and-water piano of Charlie Kunz. 

I could have gone on reproducing Gelly’s prose happily, but this brief bit (and he is rarely so autobiographical as the book proceeds) will do to convey his accuracy, charm, and subtlety.

I began taking notes on my reading early on, and find that I have too many of them to even hint at here. Gelly is understandably fascinated by the great individualists in British jazz of the period — famous (Humphrey Lyttelton, Sandy Brown, John Dankworth, Ronnie Scott) and less so (my new hero Spike Mackintosh, George Siprac) but the book is not simply a series of portraits.

Gelly, a fine cultural historian, is curious about artistic movements, not necessarily those as defined by the journalists of the time, but as manifested in groups, recordings, and seismic shifts of taste and commerce. Sometimes these movements are given names: “trad,” “skiffle,” “blues,” “rock,” other times they are only apparent in hindsight.  Much of this might be familiar, even subliminally, to listeners and collectors who know the period, but where Gelly is invaluable is in his awareness of redefinitions within audiences.

What happens to an art form that is — of necessity — enacted in public in front of audiences — when those audiences change, develop, grow older? That, I think, is Gelly’s larger question, one which transcends the names of the music, the players, the clubs, the measures of popularity.  Even if you weren’t deeply involved in British jazz of the period, the question not easily answered.  His thoughtful inquiry makes this book well worth reading, with no hint of the classroom, no pages of statistics, no Authorities beyond the musicians and listeners who were there on the scene.

But I must backtrack and write that when I was only a few pages in, I suddenly had a small stammer of anxiety: “What if the only reason I am enjoying this book so is because of my essential US ignorance of the UK scene? What would an UK reader who knew this as native culture and experience think?” And a few days later (as I was happily reading) the answer appeared in the shape of Peter Vacher’s enthusiastic review for thejazzbreakfast. Here is an excerpt:

gelly cover[Gelly] is, and has been for many years, the jazz correspondent of the Observer newspaper, has written perceptive biographies of his heroes, Stan Getz and Lester Young (the latter also published by Equinox) and of even greater moment plays jazz tenor saxophone professionally and well. Born in 1938, Gelly embraced jazz and began to play during the very period which the book covers. So his is a commentary informed as much by first-hand knowledge as it is by his extensive research.

The subtitle suggests something more than a strictly chronological account of jazz in Britain during the cited decade and a half and that is what Gelly delivers here. He’s good at capturing the mores of the times, as Britain moved from a war-time economy to the first awakening of the ‘never-had-it-so-good 1960s’.

This was when jazz found an audience among the young, newly-liberated from the stifling conventions that had marked their parents’ lives, sometimes to their seniors’ despair, hence the title of the book. He’s even-handed about styles, understanding the sincerity of the early revivalists and tracing the rise and rise of traditional jazz and skiffle before moving over to consider the passionate espousal of the modern style promoted by the collective known as Club Eleven and the more aware dance band players of the day.

He rightly emphasises the role played by the open-minded Humphrey Lyttelton and John Dankworth, two men who largely shook off their early American influences as they sought to produce distinctive music of their own. There’s social history here but it’s British jazz history too, neatly caught and clearly expressed. No fuss, no over-elaboration, all appropriate quotations included . . . . 

Peter is typically correct; it was a relief to know that I book I was so enjoying had much to offer readers who knew the terrain by heart.

Early on in the book, Gelly chronicles a number of what he calls “the Armstrong moment” — that instantaneous conversion to jazz experienced by listeners and players.  (The late US pianist Larry Eanet wrote of the moment when some records by Louis and Earl Hines “hit” him “like Cupid’s arrow.”)

AN UNHOLY ROW gave me a literary version of “the Armstrong moment.”  I am now a Gelly convert, and want to read his other books.  I predict you will, too.

May your happiness increase!