Tag Archives: trad

THEY WERE BOILING WITH MUSIC: “AN UNHOLY ROW: JAZZ IN BRITAIN AND ITS AUDIENCE 1945-1960,” by DAVE GELLY

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!

IT HAPPENS IN MONTEREY (March 7-9, 2014)

These two worthies found love at the Jazz Bash by the Bay:

I am not proposing that everyone who goes to this year’s festival (March 7-9) will come away with the Love of His / Her Life — maybe you are all already spoken for.

But the music will be wonderful. And I write this as someone who’s been there since 2010.

For me, the Jazz Bash by the Bay was a transformative experience.

I had not been to California since having been conceived there . . . . insert your own witticism here. And when I had the notion in March 2010 of going to see and hear the people I so admired in their video appearances, I expected to have a good time in a new jazz setting, perhaps make a few new friends.

It was a life-altering experience: I came back to New York and said to the Beloved, “I’ve never had such a good time in my life. Do you think we could spend the summer in California?”

Fast forward to 2014, where I am writing this from Novato, with serious plans to make the Golden State my retirement home.

So if the Jazz Bash by the Bay can make one couple find love; if it can make a native New Yorker say, “I’ll move to California,” I think its powers are . . . powerful.  But enough personal narratives.  What’s in store for you?

As always, a wide variety of well-played music.

You can visit the site to find out if Your Favorite Band is going to be there, but here are some kinds of music that will be played: blazing stride piano in solo and duo, boogie-woogie, sweet singing in so many forms, rocking small-band swing, New Orleans ensemble polyphony, trad, Dixieland, blues, zydeco, gypsy swing, classic songs from the Great American Songbook, Jazz Age hot dance music, ragtime piano, stomp, swing, music to dance to, San Francisco jazz, washboard rhythm, music to hold hands to.

And the stars?  Well . . . Ray Skjelbred, High Sierra, Carl Sonny Leyland, Bob Draga, Rebecca Kilgore Trio, Dan Barrett, Ivory and Gold, Ellis Island Boys, Marc Caparone, Le Jazz Hot, Jeff Hamilton, Dawn Lambeth, Virginia Tichenor, Marty Eggers, Yve Evans, Katie Cavera, Paul Mehling, Clint Baker, Stephanie Trick, Paolo Alderighi, Frederick Hodges, Jim Buchmann, Eddie Erickson, Jason Wanner, John Cocuzzi, Howard Miyata, Big Mama Sue, Ed Metz, the Au Brothers, Bob Schulz, Pieter Meijers, Brady McKay, Tom Rigney, Royal Society Jazz Orchestra . . . and more, and more.

Important links.

The BAND LINEUP.

The all-important too-Much-Of-A-Good-Thing-Is-Wonderful SCHEDULE, which calls for careful planning (“If I go to see X, then I have to miss part of Y, but it puts me in a good place to be right up front for Z.  Anyone have a Tylenol?”) — with four or five sessions going on at the same time.

And most important — with a Sidney Catlett drum roll or a Vic Berton tympani flourish — the GET TICKETS NOW page.

I try to hold down the didactic tendencies that four decades of standing in front of sleepy (good-natured) young men and women have solidified, but I hope readers will permit me this basic logic exercise.  Festivals where people buy tickets last forever.  Festivals where people don’t vanish.  And then there is a wailing and a gnashing of teeth — very hard on the neighbors and harder on the dental work.  I think of the California festivals that have moved into The Great Memory even in my short acquaintanceship with this state.

(Or, as William Carlos Williams — or was it Philip Larkin? — wrote: “Want it to stay?  Do not delay.”)

So I hope to see throngs of friends and even strangers at the Jazz Bash by the Bay.  Anything that makes live jazz in profusion go on is a good thing.

P.S.  Need more evidence?  Go to YouTube and type in “Dixieland Monterey,” or “Jazz Bash by the Bay,” or the name of your favorite artist.  I, Rae Ann Berry, and Tom Warner, among others, have created many videos — enough to while away the hours in the most energized ways.  Proof!

May your happiness increase!

“WHAT DO YOU CALL THAT?”

With some regularity, I get an email note from a sincere, curious JAZZ LIVES reader or viewer who has encountered a stirring, perhaps unclassifiable musical performance: “What style is that?” or “What do you call that kind of jazz?”

The questions make me sad.  Sometimes it seems as if listeners are made nervous by the music’s potential to surprise, as if jazz had become a little dog, very sweet-natured, that could turn around and bite badly.

Uncertainty makes us tremble, but I didn’t think that the need for certainties would have so infected our ability to love the music on its own terms.  Some people with good hearts and ears will only be truly easy and happy when they know that a performance of ATLANTA BLUES is “down-home,” “Mainstream,” “pre-bop,” “trad,” “neo-retro,” and the like.  Pick your terminology.  It reminds me of those charts in INTRODUCTION TO JAZZ books with everyone neatly listed, either in tables or in timelines, from Buddy Bolden (he was “New Orleans,” we knew) to Charlie Parker (safe at home in “be-bop”).  Roy Eldridge gave birth to Dizzy Gillespie, and so on.  I always found those charts annoying because of their conservative narrowness: were Ben Webster and Lester Young “Swing” players who weren’t allowed to go out of their front yards?  And the charts left so many people out: I never saw Joe Thomas anywhere.

Although I am an “academic” by profession (I have taught English to college freshmen and sophomores for longer than Bix Beiderbecke’s time on earth) I blame the academics even before there were Jazz History courses, in their attempts to standardize, categorize an organic art form into something teachable — with final exam questions to be determined later.  Charts and boxes, timelines and categories are attempts to quantify something that threatens to spill out and over the edges.  These restrictive mechanisms have governed literary anthologies (organized by “schools” and arranged by the birthdates of the writers being studied) for many generations.

It’s a tribute to any art — jazz, poetry, painting — that such well-meaning acts haven’t killed it dead.

Then, of course, jazz is a music that blessedly stirs up fierce allegiances.  That’s a good thing!  I love to see people who hug their music to their hearts: both they and the music are fully alive in such moments.  But allegiance devolves into party skirmishes and ideological statements: my music is PURE; yours is COMMERCIAL.  Mine is THE TRUTH; yours is CORRUPTED.  The journalists and critics saw good copy here and thus we had DIXIELAND versus BE-BOP and the like, the ancient doing battle with the new.  The musicians knew better and respected each other: Baby Dodds and Max Roach weren’t at war.

But the need to name, to classify, to take big living entities and force them into little boxes — a chilling process — hasn’t gone away.  Too bad.  It gets in the way of our ability to sink deeply into the collective creativity that jazz offers us if we’re wondering what to call what we’re hearing.

Let us be guided by Eddie Condon: WE CALLED IT MUSIC.