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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.
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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.


Tony Palmer’s All You Need Is Love: Television’s first pop history April 3, 2013

Posted by wallofsound in Music History.
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Music doc

My colleague Dr Paul Long and I have been working on a project to analyse the way popular music history is represented on television. The latest stage of that project has been work on what is probably the first documentary history of pop music on British television.  That’s Tony Palmer’s All You Need Is Love.The chapter is first up in a newly published book The Music Documentary: Acid Rock to Electropop edited by Ben Halligan, Kirsty Fairclough-Isaacs and Rob Edgar.  You can find out more at the Routledge publisher page.

‘All You Need Is Love’ is a 17-episode documentary on the history of popular music. Expensive to make and expansive in scope, the series was originally broadcast in 1977 in a prime time Saturday night slot on UK commercial TV. It was written, directed and edited by journalist and programme maker Tony Palmer.

Palmer formed his filmic sensibility with the BBC’s ‘Monitor’ series as a documentarist concerned with high cultural forms. He achieved renown and notoriety as the ‘Observer’ newspaper’s pop music critic, suggesting that the form should be taken seriously, and for the controversial and impressionistic documentary on rock music ‘All My Loving’ (1968).

While his early film was an experimental filmic essay in comprehending contemporary music, ‘All You Need is Love’ developed and crystalised Palmer’s ideas about pop music – its origins, status, direction and value.  As Cordell Marks suggested in a preview article in ‘TV Times’: ‘Palmer will be to popular music what Lord (Kenneth) Clark was to Civilisation’. Such claims reveal the contemporary tendentiousness of treating popular music seriously at all, let alone dedicating to it the kinds of resources represented by this series.

In many ways Palmer established a type of approach that many subsequent popular music documentaries emulated (and indeed, his work is endlessly appropriated across televisual documentary). In its scope, use of archive material and original footage, as well as Palmer’s distinctive position on popular music, ‘All You Need is Love’ can be understood as an important moment in music documentary and a serious contribution to the historiography of pop. Nonetheless, although the series has been made available on DVD, and the accompanying book is back in print, this work, and indeed Palmer’s wider project, is little studied or even acknowledged in documentary or popular music studies.

Our chapter argues that ‘All You Needs is Love’ is a seminal documentary in applying techniques of television history to popular music, in interpreting a series of discourses about popular music’s cultural importance and modes of production, and in establishing pop as a suitable topic worthy of serious documentary investigation. We ask questions about the origins and implications of the programme content and form, both for television and popular music, apply questions about historiography to make assessments of the construction of the past in the series, and relate the editorial line of the programmes to the way popular music studies has changed over the last thirty years.  In particular we draw on arguments we have made elsewhere to examine the narrative structure, role of the diegetic and meta-narrator, and the relationship between existing stories about popular music and the visual and aural material out of which the series is constructed.  Fundamentally, we seek to demonstrate how seeing television documentaries as mediations of mediations of the past enables us to think beyond the usual approaches to understanding this document of pop’s past.

Studying Popular Music Culture [Second Edition] now available March 24, 2013

Posted by wallofsound in Music History, Music in the media, Music Industry, Publishing.
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Pop Book Cover

The second edition of my book Studying Popular Music Culture is out now.

At the publisher’s site

or at Amazon sellers

Here’s what the very generous Nathan Wiseman-Trowse had to say about the new edition:

Tim Wall’s Studying Popular Music Culture is that rare thing, an academic study of music that seeks to tie together the strands of the musical text, the industry that produces it, and the audience that gives it meaning. Wall acts as a wary guide to an industry that is currently in total flux, showing the reader how conventional histories of popular music are shaped by social, industrial and technical factors that ultimately leak over into the ways in which we listen to and interpret music. The new edition provides a timely account of the history of the recorded music industry as it responds to new technologies and industrial approaches, with an ever-keen eye on how industrial practice relates to the ways in which audiences consume and use popular music in a variety of ways. Wall’s lucid style provides a coherent summary of a cultural form that is never easy to grapple with at the best of times. Studying Popular Music Culture is a vital read for anyone interested in the changing nature of popular music production and consumption, whether as student, an industry insider or just a fan of popular music.

Here’s the reviews of the first edition at Amazon:

I bought this book at request of my (soon to be) course leader at University where I will be studying Popular Music. I found the book very detailed and unlike a lot of these types of books not at all boring. Well written and divided into different sections focusing on many aspects of the Music Industry, with every subject spoken about in depth. Would definitely recommend to anyone wanting to study anything music related.

If you like the book once you read it, I’d appreciate an Amazon review if you can spare the time.

Here’s what’s in the book:

Introduction: Definitions and Approaches
1. Constructing Histories of Popular Music
2. Musical and Cultural Repertoires
3. Social, Economic and Technical Factors
4. Writing Popular Music History
5. An Overview of Popular Music Production
6. Taking Issue with the Record Industry
7. Popular Music and the Media
8. Form
9. Meaning
10. Representation
11. The Sociology of the Music Consumer
12. Listening, and Looking
13. Dancing
14. Acquiring, Organising and Sharing music

Prepublication review for the second edition of Studying Popular Music Culture August 31, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in Music History, Music in the media, Music Industry, Publishing.
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Tim Wall’s Studying Popular Music Culture is that rare thing, an academic study of popular music that seeks to tie together the strands of the musical text, the industry that produces it, and the audience that gives it meaning.  Wall acts as a wary guide to an industry that is currently in total flux, showing the reader how conventional histories of popular music are shaped by social, industrial and technical factors that ultimately leak over into the ways in which we listen to and interpret music.  This new edition provides a timely account of the history of the recorded music industry and the challenges it faces as it enters the twenty first century.  Readers are provided with ways to understand the changing nature of the music industry as it responds to new technologies and industrial approaches, with an ever-keen eye on how industrial practice relates to the ways in which audiences consume and use popular music in a variety of ways.  Wall’s lucid style provides a coherent summary of a cultural form that is never easy to grapple with at the best of times.  Studying Popular Music Culture is a vital read for anyone interested in the changing nature of popular musical production and consumption, whether as student, an industry insider or just a fan of popular music.

Taking Popular Culture Seriously: Public Service Television and Popular Music Heritage July 26, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in Abstracts, Music History.
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An abstract for a proposed article I have submitted to write with Paul Long

This article explores the ways in which the BBC has scheduled popular music programming on BBC4. Launched in March 2002, BBC4 was the Corporation’s first foray into the digital distribution of television programming. For the station’s originators the channel was a site for high-quality and distinctive programming, especially in music, offering a serious approach to its subjects in tandem with a commitment to myriad listening and viewing pleasures. Peter Maniura, the BBC’s Head of Classical Music charged with formulating the channel’s music policy, has said that his intention was to ‘broaden the mix and give more depth and volume’ and to give airtime to popular music genres not usually covered on ‘mainstream’ channels. Janice Hadlow, BBC4’s original controller, has said that the channel aimed to challenge viewers: its goals in music programming ‘allow people to enjoy what they know and love already, but also about introducing an intelligent and discerning audience to new and challenging music’.

The channel offers music-themed nights, or extended seasons of music programming, often acting as a testing ground for new approaches to music broadcasting by the BBC. Friday night has become the point in the week in which popular music programming, and music theming, is concentrated. An evening’s schedule will usually be built around a new BBC documentary production supported by rebroadcasts of material taken from the BBC’s extensive television music archive.

We ask: how have BBC4 programmers managed music commissioning and scheduling across broadcast, online forums and social media platforms? And in what ways is the material presented in the Friday night slot understood in relation to a wider set of practices around popular music heritage exemplified by magazine such as Mojo or Uncut and Simon Reynolds much-discussed Retromania thesis? We suggest that the ongoing ‘curation’ of pop’s heritage (which perforce involves a contribution to defining that heritage) and archival retrieval by the BBC of its own recordings, highlights a history of the treatment of popular music and ways of treating its forms seriously as behooves the public service remit.

The nature of this programming is exemplified by the Britannia documentary series and one-off films which concern the history of musical genres and related cultural activities in the UK. Beginning with Jazz Britannia in 2005, subsequent contributions include similar treatments of folk (2006), soul (2007), dance music (2007), pop (2008), prog rock (2009), synth (2009), blues (2009), heavy metal (2010) and lately punk (2011) (see: Long & Wall, 2010; Wall & Long, 2011). With notably high production values, extensive archival research and interview schedules, such programmes utilise an impressive wealth of media sources, as well as many original contributions from performers and critics. Original documentaries are screened alongside repeats from the BBC TV vaults such as complete episodes from Jazz 625 (1964–65) or compilations of available performances from series such as Monitor (1958– 65), Colour Me Pop (1968–69) or The Old grey Whistle Test (1971–87).

Music Heritage May 2, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in Music History.
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Heritage refers to those things that we inherit from the past, often to those things which somehow define or represent us. The idea that we have a popular music heritage – material goods which stand for the past of pop music – has been an emergent idea within museums over the last 20 years. Academics who have studied this phenomenon usually suggest that this represents as change in these institutions, which were originally established to protect our classical heritage, as a desire to take popular culture more seriously, and a commitment to making museums more accessible and relevant to a wider group of people. The notion of popular heritage represents the more substantial shifts in history as an academic study which we examined in chapter one, and a greater emphasis within history on popular experience and memory. It is interesting to see how these connected ideas have informed the development of different forms of museum and archives devoted to popular music. Chapter two briefly touched upon the establishment of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which clearly demonstrates how ideas of a canon of music greats has been extended to the idea of representing the history of country music in terms of objects representing the music’s heritage. This section briefly discusses four other examples: the short-lived National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield UK; the EMP Museum in Seattle USA; and examples from a city in the English Midlands, the Home of Metal, Birmingham Music Heritage, and the Birmingham Popular Music Archive. In essence this is an evaluation of two physically-located institutions which celebrate local and national popular music history, with three regionally-based projects, in either a temporary exhibition or a virtual archive, which celebrate the detail of one particular city’s music heritage.

In spite of their geographic distance, there are some striking similarities between the National Centre for Popular Music (NCPM) in Sheffield and the Seattle-based Experience Music Project (EMP). They were both established at the turn of the twenty-first century, they were both housed in striking postmodern buildings (the EPM designed by the architect of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Frank Gehry), and both featured state-of-the-art electronic displays and interactive technology to investigate popular music culture. They also both struggled to cover their costs because visitor numbers were so much lower than originally projected. The Sheffield NCPM stayed open little over a year, while the Seattle EMP survives to this day, after many struggles, and in much adapted form. Taking analyses of the NCPM by Tara Brabazon and Stephen Mallinder (2006: 98-103) and of EMP by Chris Bruce (2006) we can start to draw some conclusions about institutions which present music heritage in this form. Brabazon and Mallinder suggest that the NCPM’s failure was in part due to its location and wider problems in establishing a ‘cultural quarter’ to regenerate an area facing the problems of post-industrial decline. Although the nearby northern English city of Bradford had successfully hosted a museum for photography, film and television, Sheffield certainly lacked other attractions in the area, while the EMP was built within an area of Seattle which included existing tourist attractions like the Space Needle.

Nevertheless, similar problems in attracting visitors motivated the EMP to reduce the space assigned to music and they added the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in 2004 to strengthen its appeal. Perhaps even more importantly this change represented a continued commitment of EMP founder and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen which allowed the building to survive, while the public funder of the NCPM could not provide funds beyond the initial capital investment. The NCPM’s reliance on new technology including a futuristic 3D surround sound auditorium introduced problems of reliability and, as Brabazon and Mallinder, highlight the technology placed an over emphasis on ‘music as a tactile craft’. Although the EMP uses new technology to feature interviews and performance footage, and most recently and ambitiously to play a collection of guitars, its offering is much more that of a traditional museum. Perhaps more importantly the EMP is firmly based upon the city’s connection to rock artists like Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana, and its strong association with grunge, which has been a strong feature of exhibitions within the ‘music experience’. By contrast, while Sheffield has a rich popular music history, and notable local musician Martyn Ware was involved in the development of the centre, Sheffield failed to signify either itself as the centre of a music culture to a large audience, or the obvious home for a national celebration of popular music. Unlike photography, film or television, music is often associated with distinct locales, and while Seattle has been successful at linking itself with a transnational culture of grunge, through Nirvana, and linking grunge to a longer history of rock guitar music symbolised by Hendrix, Sheffield’s scenes have tended to be smaller, and its successful stars have been understood as transnational pop performers. The NCPM’s emphasis in its exhibits and interactve technology on music as a commercial product, rather than a cultural interaction, exacerbated this difficulty further.

By comparison, the two case studies from Birmingham take a very different approach. Like Sheffield, Birmingham has a rich music history, but even when artists have become international names their origins in the Birmingham Music scene are not that well known outside the city. The city has been associated with heavy metal, a blues-based version of rock music which rose to popularity in the 1970s, and as the project name suggests Home of Metal tried to capitalise on that connection, making the rhetorical claim to being the genres place of origin. The focus for the project was a public exhibition in one of the City’s galleries exploring “40 years of Heavy Metal and its unique birthplace” which took place in late 211 (http://www.homeofmetal.com/events/events-list/birmingham-museum-art-gallery-home-of-metal/). Built around a huge collection of memorabilia, and strongly linked to the Birmingham-originated band Black Sabbath, the project engaged metal fans and the musicians to generate exhibition content, and reproduced much of the visual iconography of metal culture. The strength of the project was the simplicity of the concept, which attendees clearly strongly associated, and the diverse way in which the story was told and engaged visitors.  In comparison to the NCPM and EMP, the Home of Metal was relatively simple, and as it used an existing gallery for a temporary exhibition, it was far less costly in financial terms. The exhibition tied a relatively well-known story to the commitment of fans, their memories and keepsakes, and some regional promotion activity. It is easy to trace the ideas of disruption, margins and mainstream and roots within the exhibition, and many of the core narratives which people use to make sense of metal were presented rather than explored. For instance, the idea that metal reproduced the sound of the Midlands’ heavy industry (rather than their love of black American blues forms) is given prominence. The exhibition was, though, far more open than the narratives of television documentaries, and far richer than, say, the BBC’s Metal Britannia programme.

Birmingham also has a number of online archives, which aim to assert Birmingham’s importance in national and international popular music. The Home of Metal has continued as an online experience, and encourages continued contributions from fans. The Birmingham Music Archive (http://birminghammusicarchive.com) and Birmingham Music Heritage (http://www.birminghammusicheritage.org.uk) are both broader and even more rooted in the idea of music heritage and culture. The archive’s strap line is ‘Celebrating Birmingham’s Popular Music History’, and it offers a breadth of information and personal comment on past scenes that embrace over 200 bands and artists, tens of clubs and live venues and local recordings studios, radio stations and record shops. The emphasis is on attracting contributions and comments from music fans and these is no totalising narrative beyond the idea of a participatory culture. Fans themselves, though, do tend to use ideas of disruption in their accounts, and the idea of scenes growing from the margins into the mainstream is common. The Heritage site focuses on “untold stories” presented in a basic information format of text, iconic images and video interviews.

All these examples of music heritage share the idea of a localised, but global music culture, but each has presented and investigated it in different ways. In comparison to the television structures, all of the institutions discussed here try and engage music fans, but they all tend to very traditional stories of pop’s past. Perhaps what is most interesting about the phonomena of music heritage is the extent to which it takes popular music seriously, and the very different ways in which it is utilised for other purposes. Celebration, promotion, regeneration, engagement and storytelling pull in different directions, and the enterprises seem more successful when their scale is manageable, their focus local and their engagement with fans strongest.