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Exploring and understanding jazz and British radio in the 1930s February 27, 2016

Posted by wallofsound in British Jazz, Jazz, Music History, Music Radio, Uncategorized.

On the 14th June 1933 Duke Ellington and his Orchestra broadcast live from the BBC studios on the National Service as part of the band’s first tour of Britain. A few days earlier, the BBC had interrupted its usual flow of programmes to broadcast a five-minute interview between Ellington and the sponsor of his whole visit, the British bandleader, Jack Hylton. The broadcasts represented an important moment for both jazz in Britain and for the BBC. The live June 1933 broadcast is widely cited in Ellington biographies and histories of British jazz, but it has almost no presence in the literature on the BBC’s development. This post explores some of the background to this broadcast in the political economy and organisational culture of the BBC at the time.

Ellington Orchestra in BBC studio 1933?

Understanding jazz and radio in the 1930s

Radio and jazz emerged at the same time, and they were each significant in the development of the other. Susan Douglas explains this link between medium and music as cultural transformation:

“it is in radio’s relationship to jazz that you see the beginnings of this invention’s nearly century long role in marrying youthful white rebellion to African American culture”.[1]

For Stephen Barnard , in Britain, jazz was a ‘problematic’ music for the BBC, caught between categories of entertainment and serious music and between notions of American and British culture[2]. In his account, jazz fitted uneasily into the BBC’s drive to domesticate popular music as a form of post-work relaxation, to centralise its production in London and to tame, for British listeners, those elements of American and African American cultural exoticism perceived to pervade hot jazz. However, these more sophisticated takes on the radio-jazz relationship tend to be overwhelmed by more totalising narratives about their historical correspondence. As I show, it is common in histories of jazz to suggest that the BBC ignored jazz in the 20s and 30s, a contention easily contradicted by the evidence of its broadcasts. Likewise, histories of broadcasting have tended to position the BBC as an overly culturally homogeneous organisation (which is easier to sustain as an argument) but then leap to the assumption that it was therefore overly dominated by its first Director General and narrow and paternalistic in its programming. To understand the Ellington Orchestra’s broadcast we need a sophisticated sense of how the BBC’s music programming operated in the early 1930s.


The BBC’s treatment of jazz

Early British radio, and its institutionalisation in the British Broadcasting Company from 1923, and the British Broadcasting Corporation from 1927, tends to be presented as stable, sometimes even monolithic, driven by common professional practices and a single, often personified, ideology. Of course, in the case of the early 1930s BBC this is the proposition that the BBC was a paternalist monopoly broadcaster dominated by the ideas of its Director General, John Reith. From this perspective, chroniclers of jazz in Britain have tended to dismiss the prewar BBC’s treatment of jazz as “haughty”, “niggardly” and “aloof”[6] and even “suppressing the whole spirit of individuality that was to be central to the future development and longevity of jazz”[7] . Even Barnard, in his otherwise insightful discussion, mistakenly allocates the Ellington live 1933 broadcast to the regional service and so erroneously draws the conclusion that it represented a lukewarm attitude to jazz[8]. Reith only occasionally made public announcements on jazz and the BBC, and the interpretation that these represented an antipathy to broadcasting jazz is not supported by what he actually said. Most often his statements rhetorically assume that jazz and popular music are staples of broadcast output, arguing that such programming offers a respite from hard, morally-improving work, but nevertheless he proposes that such output should not be the only content of radio programming[9]. Such a position is reflected in the output of the BBC at the time of the Ellington band’s tour. Each of its regional and national services typical daily broadcast for 13 hours, featuring between 90 minutes and two hours of live dance band broadcasts and some presence of jazz in the 45 minute programmes the BBC designated as ‘gramophone recitals’. At around 15% of programming this is far greater than any other type of output, including the widely perceived to be dominant forms of cultural-uplift programming, even on the London-originated National programme.

There was a precedent for Ellington’s 1933 tour and BBC broadcast, in a similar tour by Louis Armstrong exactly twelve months before, and the continuities and comparisons are useful in grounding our understanding. Parsonage’s study positions the arrival of Armstrong and Ellington as a culmination of a half-century of the Evolution of Jazz in Britain, and provides just such a detailed contrast of the reception and meaning of the two tours[10]. However, these visits perhaps better represent a rupture in the way that jazz was understood in Britain. These two innovators of jazz subsequently came to personify the two main trajectories in which jazz played out in European culture through the 1930s and into the war years. Put succinctly, Armstrong was increasingly taken to represent the notion that jazz was a folk music which needed to be understood through its origins, while Ellington was constructed as a modernist, and jazz as a new art form. These two new discourses became the dominant perspectives of British jazz fans. As I detail below, within the BBC a third trajectory is apparent in the BBC, in which the early elements of jazz form were incorporated into the BBC’s idea of light musical comedy, which itself would form the basis of the later idea of light entertainment.

It was Armstrong’s semiotic legacy that came to define jazz in the immediate post-war period but, as I will show, in the meantime it was to be Ellington’s approach which dominated both live and broadcast notions of jazz in Britain for a decade. The small group Chicago sound, which was extricable linked to Armstrong through his early 1920s recordings, became the foundation for the jazz fan Rhythm Clubs, their radio recreation in the BBC’s Radio Rhythm Club, and subsequently the distinctly European post war trad jazz movement. However, as I detail below, the BBC’s role in using Ellington as the reference point for a model of symphonic jazz created what became the prevailing notion of jazz in Britain in the 1930s.

Both Armstrong and Ellington went to the UK relatively early, and yet at key points in their rising US careers. Both were relatively poorly known in the UK only months before their arrival. Armstrong had already left behind the small group Chicago music he would be linked to so strongly by British jazz fans, and by 1930 he was recording with Dickerson’s band on Okey, had become a noteworthy performer in legitimate musical theatre and major Harlem dancehalls and adopted the crooning singing and recording style pioneered by Big Crosby[11] . As the 1920s turned to the 30s, Ellington had made appearances in two films, taken on Irvin Mills as his manager, extended the reach of his live radio broadcasts and signed an exclusive deal with Brunswick records, and in 1931 he left his residency at the Cotton Club to tour ballrooms and theatres across the US. When the Ellington Orchestra walked into the BBC studios in London just before 8.00pm on the 14th June 1933 they did so with the full weight of all these economic, cultural and musical practices swirling around them. What the next 45 minutes, and the following six years would mean for Ellington, jazz and the BBC were rooted in all that had come before and all that things could mean in the future

[1] Susan J. Douglas, Listening In : Radio and the American Imagination: From Amos ‘n’ Andy and Edward R. Murrow to Wolfman Jack and Howard Stern (New York, N.Y.: Times Books, 1999), 90.

[2] Stephen Barnard, On the Radio: Music Radio in Britain (Milton Keynes; Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1989).

[3] Michel Foucault and Colin Gordon, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980). Michel Foucault and Alan Sheridan, The Archaeology of Knowledge (London: Tavistock Publications, 1972).

[4] Foucault and Sheridan, Archaeology of Knowledge.

[5] The BBC’s Genome project, which makes full programme listings from The Radio Times available in an online searchable database (http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk) is an invaluable source for rich data source of information on planned programming and the way these programmes were framed by the BBC.

[6] Jim Godbolt, A History of Jazz in Britain 1919-50 (London: Paladin, 1986), 98, 109, 200.

[7] Catherine Parsonage, The Evolution of Jazz in Britain, 1880-1935 (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2005), 49.

[8] Barnard, On the Radio, 13.

[9] See, for instance, John C. Reith, Broadcast over Britain (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1924), 18.

[10] Parsonage, Evolution of Jazz in Britain, 221-260.

[11] William Howland Kenney, Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, 1904-1930 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) , 164.

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