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Jazz on BBC Radio 1922 to 1959 May 28, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in Abstracts, British Jazz.

Here’s an abstract for a book chapter I hope to write if the editors get the green light from the publishers. It’s a development of an earlier proposal that went up to 1980. Your suggestions and comments are, as always, very welcome.

This chapter provides a detailed study of the ambiguous role that jazz has played in the BBC’s broadcasts from its inception as a broadcaster to its maturity as a corporation in the late 1950s. It will examine the institutional politics that lay behind programming decisions, the forms of jazz transmitted, and the programme styles that developed.

Both as a music and as a social practice jazz seemed to defy the cultural categories that the BBC used to organise its broadcast output. From the beginning, BBC staff were in conflict over whether the new American phenomenon should be classified as music or variety, and so whether it deserved to be treated as a new form of chamber music or a turn in an entertainment programme.

The BBC had a dance orchestra as early as 1928, but jazz was understood to be a foreign import: exciting for some, dangerous to British culture for others.  There were broadcasts of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington band performances during their early 1930s tours, and Alistair Cooke’s American Jam Session later in that decade, but the Radio Rhythm Club and Jazz Club programmes did not start until the 1940s. By the end of that decade, the BBC had reorganised its output around three services, and jazz was mostly allocated to the Light programme, where the trad jazz scene was championed along with nostalgic big band programmes.

An interrogation of this history brings into sharp focus significant aspects of the BBC role as a key institution within British life, and the corporation’s uneven relationship with British and American art and popular culture.

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