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‘Since Tommy Atkins Taught The Chinese How To Charleston’: what is jazz in Jack Payne’s BBC Dance Orchestra 1928-32. October 14, 2018

Posted by wallofsound in Abstracts, British Jazz, Jazz, Music Radio.
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Here’s the abstract for the paper I will be giving at the sixth Rhythm Changes Conference Jazz Journeys, 11–14 April 2019, at the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz.

http://www.rhythmchanges.net

This paper establishes a case study of the mediation of jazz by British radio in the late 1920s and early 1930s through the music of the BBC Dance Orchestra under Jack Payne. In histories of jazz in Britain the BBC Dance Orchestra tends to be presented as the antithesis of a ‘true jazz’ which became championed by European jazz fans in the late 1930s. It is certainly the case that Payne’s Dance Band’s broadcasts presented a distinctly English form of music which synthesised British music hall and light music traditions with highly selected elements of what was then celebrated as American jazz. As such, though, the band’s musical programmes provides us with a brilliant case of how jazz entered British cultural life, what its main musical characteristics were seen to be, and how it was then, and later, received by the radio listening audience.

By moving the debate about how jazz was received in Europe on from ideas of the dilution of a vibrant form in a journey from black folk form to commercialised commodity, we can unpick exactly how a new music form like jazz was coded adapted and represented in a new cultural home. Using a number of recordings by the Payne band made contemporaneously with the broadcasts, the paper analyses the elements used to signify jazz and jazz culture within this music, and to explore more fully what it meant in British society of the time. The Orchestra’s broadcasts always featured Payne’s own very English singing style carefully positioned within a highly rehearsed band of impressive professional musicians. By examining three specific pieces – ‘I Love the College Girls’ (Regal 8864), ‘The Girl Friend’ (Regal 8983), and most wonderfully ‘Since Tommy Atkins Taught The Chinese How To Charleston’ – a rich picture of jazz’s place in Europe at this time resonates through.

In such a study the institutionalising processes of cultural institutions like the BBC are highlighted and interrogated, and the importance of the visual and written word for the meaning of this audio medium are foregrounded. From today, though, it is the sense that these sounds and images represent the journey that jazz was taking, the exact form of the global circulation of jazz in the 1920s, and its critical reception which shine through. Further, the passage of jazz in Britain from mainly American to mainly British musicians raises intriguing questions about how swiftly jazz was disseminated in its new home. This should lead us to question many of the traditional histories of jazz and provide a template for producing more incisive jazz histories.

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