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Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra live on the BBC June 1933 March 5, 2016

Posted by wallofsound in Uncategorized.


In many ways it is intriguing that the Ellington Orchestra got the opportunity to broadcast on the BBC at all, and the decision to include both an interview with Ellington on the day of his arrival, 9th June 1933, and a forty-five minute performance by the Ellington Orchestra three nights into his week run at the London Palladium, really is noteworthy.



Mayfair dance bands, the London Palladium and the BBC’s variety output

The BBC written archives contains very few clues to explain how the Ellington Orchestra live broadcast came about, and published accounts of the event tend to place an emphasis on the chronology or logistics of his BBC appearances within the Palladium shows, outline what was played, or quote the reaction of jazz fans and general radio listeners to the programme at the time. There are no explicit statements about why and how the decisions to broadcast Ellington were taken. In place of such primary materials, we need to ‘read’ the meanings of the Ellington first broadcasts through the scraps of evidence that do exist, framed through a greater understanding of the cultural politics of the BBC in the Britain of the time. The key components here are the very different cultural positions of the entertainment offered by Mayfair hotels and British music hall, the roles of bandleaders Henry Hall and Jack Hylton, and the contrasting cultural sensibilities of ‘sprightful entertainment’ and ‘adorned sophistication’.

The BBC broadcast the Ellington Orchestra between 8.00 and 8.45 on the National Service; the prime time slot for music hall and variety entertainment within the corporation’s output. The very idea of a variety slot in the BBC schedule goes back to the inception of the BBC as a commercial company coordinating regional broadcasters, when it became a standard practice to transmit such programmes from about 7.30 to 8.00 on two or three evenings a week. In many ways this reproduces the tendency of any new medium to present the forms of the dominant media that preceded them[5] . By 1927 these programmes had taken a standardized form and consistent programme name of Vaudeville, and in 1928, the programmed slot was taken up by the BBC’s new national service broadcasting on longwave frequencies from the Daventry transmitter in the Midlands, and most often produced in London. In March 1930, when the new National and Regional services replaced the regional broadcasters as the way the BBC presented itself to its listenership, the survival of the 8.00pm Vaudeville programming signaled a continuity of BBC service, while also shifting the origination of the content from regionally distinctive programming to London’s leading variety entertainers. Up until 1932 Vaudeville had become one of the BBC’s most broadcast forms of entertainment, matched only by the transmissions of jazz and dance music ‘relayed’ from Mayfair hotels in London. The contrast between the two forms marked by the differences in the 8.00 pm and 10.00 pm transmission times was sustained throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. By 1933, though, the name and the format was used far less frequently as the basis of programming. In part this was because radio was itself producing its own forms of entertainment that, while drawing upon the music hall traditions, were evolving into something new[6]. The idea of radio musical comedy increasingly replaced Vaudeville in BBC schedules, and the idea of light music and entertainment – drawing together a range of accessible classical forms of music and drama with music hall stars – emerged as a dominant institutional form within the corporation[7] .

Interestingly, then, almost exactly a year before Ellington’s arrival in Britain, the BBC’s in-house dance orchestra, led by Henry Hall, started appearing on the roster of acts in the (admittedly, now less frequently) broadcast Vaudeville slot. To many jazz aficionados this would have represented all that was wrong with the BBC’s treatment of jazz and dance music. Nevertheless, Henry Hall had actually been key the wider dissemination of dance music in Britain, even if he had placed in more firmly in orientation to music hall traditions and to linked it to a longer process of centralisation of entertainment and culture that had been at the heart of BBC policy for a decade. A Londoner by birth, Hall became a major force in provisional dance music, establishing his career in 1924 as a band leader in the Perthshire Gleneagles Hotel and linking the venue indelibly to BBC 5SC broadcasts of high society entertainment events. He started broadcasts on both the BBC’s Regional and its National Services in late 1930 from Manchester’s Midland Hotel, strangely keeping the Gleneagles Hotel band name he had established in the mid-1920s. Pivotally, though, he took over the BBC Dance Orchestra in 1932, developing it as one of the signature sounds of BBC output. In 1932 and 1933 Hall’s BBC Dance Orchestra broadcast 631 times from the BBC’s London studios, and these programmes started appearing as frequently at 5.15 across the week on the National programme from March 1933; although the regular late evening broadcasts continued on the Regional Programme. What had significantly gone, was the relay broadcast from London’s West End, and the ideas of urban sophistication which it articulated, replaced by a BBC studio music that could be broadcast for the whole range of listeners at any point in the schedule and in any chosen format. The BBC 1933 Year-Book sets out an interesting justification of this move in terms of focusing on the needs of the broadcast over the needs of dancers, the avoidance of poor acoustics found in dance halls and independence from the financial enticements of song-pluggers. The statement also sets out a justification for a “progressive” approach, which while allowing numbers with a “hot style” would accentuate “softer playing … with perhaps special instrumental characteristics”[8].

There is an intriguing mention in the Detector’s Melody Maker review of the live Ellington broadcast that earlier that week Henry Hall’s BBC Dance Orchestra had played Ellington’s ‘Best Wishes’, presumably in his 5.15pm broadcast on the 10th April[9]. The Ellington band played it themselves in their BBC broadcast and Detector claims it was dedicated to Great Britain. This may be repeating a claim Ellington made himself, because in an article published after his departure from the UK he asserts that he wrote the song while in the UK and played it for the first time in his BBC broadcast[10]. Of course, Detector may well have been wrong about the performance of the number by Henry Hall’s orchestra but, as the song had been recorded in New York the previous year, Ellington’s claim is rather undermined.

The Vaudeville programme title is itself interesting because, while French in origin it became the widespread name in the US for a public entertainment form that was more often called music hall or variety in Britain. The BBC department responsible for the Vaudeville programming actually took the more British name Variety, which tended to be used more widely to refer to the form of entertainment rather than the institution in which it was presented. The American-ness of Vaudeville was a constantly debated issue amongst senior staff within the BBC and, from memos stored in the BBC Written Archive it is clear, that for these managers, jazz and the wider body of music entertainment termed dance music, was located in this institutionalised space. As Kate Lacey puts it “the specter Americanization haunted the minds of many involved in shaping the output of the BBC” [11]. By 1933 these particular qualms had been neatly resolved in the new concept of light entertainment. This was a self consciously contrived ‘British’ rebuff to the perceived American-ness of Vaudeville, drawing upon selected scenes from Shakespeare, operetta, Noel Coward and popular dance bands to create an accessible radio culture. There was even a place for jazz soloists like Tatum as long as they played Tea for Two (No, No, Nanette)[12]. And Henry Hall was central to this development of light musical entertainment, no doubt drawing upon his experiences of organising the entertainment for the wealthy clients of the expensive provincial hotel chain in which he had learnt his craft.

Into this cultural politics of live and broadcast music sailed the Ellington band, docking at Southampton on 9th April 1933. Although Ellington and his band had developed their music in a very different kind of establishment, The Cotton Club Black and Tan, in the UK the band’s main performances took place in the fading grandeur of the best-known British music hall, the Palladium. By programming Ellington in its own ‘music hall’ slot, the BBC not only positioned his music as a particular form of entertainment, it drew on a whole set of institutionalised assumptions about what his music meant and how it would be presented and heard.

It is easy to imagine the alternative physical and cultural location into which the Ellington Orchestra could have been placed for its broadcast. Given the band’s strong association with The Cotton Club, it could have been booked to appear at one of the Mayfair hotels and particularly easy to envisage the BBC broadcasts being based upon a relay from the Savoy hotel; the mainstay of the BBC’s dance band remotes through the 1920s. Both the relay and the jazz age Mayfair hotel music venue seemed to have been in decline by 1932, but far less so than music hall, with its nineteenth-century origins. And while the palm court ambience of the Savoy was somewhat removed from The Cotton Club’s slave plantation-themed setting, it fitted exactly with the ideas of English aristocratic sophistication that Ellington had assumed as a personal persona and increasingly asserted in his compositions. I have argued elsewhere that Ellington’s success in the US can be seen as a product of his ability to negotiate the competing tensions of American ethnic and cultural discourse[13] , and we can see a very different version of this in relation to his meaningfulness to British audiences as well. I do not intend to suggest that he had the ability to be something to everybody; by 1933 he had, in fact, become a highly controversial figure within fields of both US and European cultural discourse of the time. Instead, I propose that his personal and musical meaning seemed to embrace the paradoxical and often contradictory tributaries of musical and cultural value that were in play at the time. From this position we can better make some speculative contributions to exploring this moment, and informed by a rich understanding of this cultural politics of music in the Britain of the 1930s and its institutionalization in live venues and broadcast organisations we can begin to tease out what Ellington meant in Britain at this time.

[1] Parsonage, Evolution of Jazz in Britain.

[2] The Radio Times 15th June 1925, pnk

[3] Duke Ellington, Music is My Mistress (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973), 122.

[4] Godbolt, History of Jazz in Britain, 98.

[5] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973).

[6] The analysis of BBC out put presented throughout this chapter is derived from the information provided in The Radio Times and made available through the Genome Project (http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk).

[7] See Simon Frith, “The Pleasures of the Hearth – the Making of BBBC Light Entertainment.” In Music for Pleasure: Essays in the Sociology of Pop (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988).

[8] BBC. “The British Broadcasting Corporation Seventh Annual Report.” (London: BBC, 1933), 166.

[9] Detector, “Radio Reports.” In The Duke Ellington Reader, edited by Mark Tucker, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 78-79.

[10] Duke Ellington “My Hunt for Song Titles.” in The Duke Ellington Reader, edited by Mark Tucker (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 87-89.

[11] Kate Lacey, ” Radio in the Great Depression: Promotional Culture, Public Service, and Propaganda.” in Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio, edited by Michele Hilmes and Jason Loviglio, 21-40 (London: Routledge, 2001), 27.

[12] The Radio Times listing 15/02/33.

[13] Wall, “Radio Remotes”.

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