Bruce Robinson reviews Circular Breathing: The cultural politics of Jazz in Britain by George McKay.
As it has spread from its American roots, jazz has been assimilated by many national cultures round the world. Circular Breathing deals with two aspects of the way this happened in Britain. The first is the importance of British jazz’s relationship to the left and a range of political movements such as CND and the anti-racist and women’s movements. So, for example, the adoption by CND of New Orleans-style marching bands in the Aldermaston marches of the late ’50s helped spark the “trad boom”, which fuelled a counter-culture with its own music festival at Beaulieu and eventually crossed over into the pop charts.
Alongside this, he detects an ambivalent relationship to jazz as an American “export culture”, asking how the left could adopt jazz when it opposed so much else identified with post-war American hegemony and looking at musicians’ relationship to US jazz, as they sought both to emulate American styles and to escape from this dependence in order to find their own distinct voice.
McKay emphasises both continuities and contradictions in the political aspects of jazz. In dealing with race, he traces a continuous black contribution to British jazz from the ’30s to the present, often with conscious reference to those who had gone before. He sees this as a by-product of London’s role as the erstwhile imperial capital where African, Caribbean and South Asian musicians could meet and play, while at the same time influencing British players. Particular attention is given to Jamaican pioneer of free jazz and “Indo-Jazz fusions” Joe Harriott, the South African exiles the Blue Notes and, more strangely, the West Indian honky-tonk pianist, Winifred Atwell.
Similar continuities can be found in attempts to promote women instrumentalists against a tide of discrimination. Here Ivy Benson’s all-woman big band played a major role in training women musicians and giving them a chance to play, from its origins in the ’40s through to the ’80s. Musicians from her band like trombonist Annie Whitehead and guitarist Deirdre Cartwright, inspired by the women’s movement of the ’70s, went on to play in their own women’s bands.
Yet each of these emancipatory strands in British jazz came up against opposition from within the music. Some early pundits of jazz in the UK sought to present jazz as a white music or extol its “primitiveness”. Male musicians opposed Ivy Benson when she won a prize slot on BBC radio. Free improvisers — another group McKay looks at in terms of their political commitment — met resistance from the previous generation of ‘revolutionaries’, the beboppers.
Perhaps the least well known and politically most interesting topic covered in Circular Breathing is the relationship between traditional jazz and left politics in the ’50s, particularly in relation to CND. The Young Communist League had been involved from the start in the New Orleans jazz revivalist movement in Britain, putting on concerts by George Webb’s Dixielanders. While there were problems both with the cultural politics of Stalinism and the presence of CP members unsympathetic to jazz on the executive of the Musicians’ Union, traditional jazz was boosted by the CP as a “people’s music”.
The purist New Orleans cornettist Ken Colyer was central to getting jazz onto the Aldermaston marches, with marching bands gradually being seen as an integral part of this event. McKay defends the revivalist jazz against accusations of political and musical conservatism calling it “leftist marching music of the streets” even though he admits traditional jazz also found an audience among the “angry”, nostalgic and conservative “young men” such as Kingsley Amis, John Osborne and Philip Larkin. Revivalism certainly was consciously musically conservative, Colyer rejecting anything not seen in the original New Orleans style — like saxophones!
McKay comments on the parallel between the ideological divides in jazz and left politics. These are graphically illustrated by Ken Wolpole’s memories of activities in YCND and the Trotskyist-led Young Socialists in the late 50s:
“Ken Colyer’s Club in Oxford Street was almost obligatory on Saturday night for any member of the Young Communist League... Traditional jazz camp followers were distinguished by their tight jeans, long baggy sweaters, duffle coats and down-at-heel suede shoes… Whereas the Trotskyists I encountered quite frequently were characterised by short, neat hair, Italian clothes and political ‘high seriousness’ which extended well into the most cerebral forms of modern jazz. If I said that I gravitated towards Trotskyism then because of its association with Cecil Gee clothes, people might laugh. But it’s true. I did.”
This poses the general issue that lies behind much of the book: what exactly is the relationship between musical forms and their attributed political stance? McKay recognises the complexity of this relationship, concluding that: “I have sought to trace jazzy inflections on, and direct incursions into, British communist organisations, the New Left, the anti-nuclear and peace movements, anti-apartheid and postcolonial identities and campaigns, anti-racist mobilizations, gay liberation, and the women’s movement, among others… This is not to say that the liberationist rhetoric of ‘political’ jazz should be accepted from any source, nor that my construction of such a social culture is all-inclusive or complete. Of course there are persistent and important obstacles and problems in any such reading, and I have identified and explored the limit points — jazz as American propaganda, exoticism and racism from its white British enthusiasts, anti-jazzisms in music organizations and cultural establishments, jazz as a consensual heteropatriarchal culture. But I have tried to alter the scape of British jazz understanding to include its compelling engagement with social activisms.”
This will make this book essential for Solidarity readers interested in music, though at times it is overburdened with sociological jargon.