A little difficult to grasp: 1961 – The British Perspective by Simon Spillett
Not so long ago, the unlikelihood of the Briton as a jazzman would have been perfectly expressed by thinking of him in a bowler hat. Result: complete incongruity, like Mrs Grundy dancing the can-can.
Philip Larkin, The Daily Telegraph, July 15th 1961
It’s hard to work out what caused the biggest noise in British jazz circles back in 1961. Was it the one and only UK visit of John Coltrane, the first bona-fide American avant-gardist to play to an English audience, whose London début was dismissed in Jazz Journal as “the low water mark of jazz in this country.” Or was it the installation of a new espresso machine at Ronnie Scott’s club, “the most out-of-tune contraption of its kind in all of Britain,” according to Jazz News, issuing “steaming sibilance…guaranteed to blast almost any soloist out of audial existence.” Then again, perhaps it could have been the clamouring wheels of the Trad bandwagon, pushing its way up the mountainous slopes of the popular charts?
Actually the big story of the year wasn’t one at club or concert level, although both appeared to be doing well. Despite the predictions of nay-sayers and the odd spat with other West End promoters (“From Monday to Thursday, the Flamingo quietly folds its wings and drops dead,” observed Scott in December 1960), Ronnie Scott’s had survived for just over a year, its successes coming in fits and starts not unlike the splutterings of its new espresso maker. The coffee machine was a good sign though, as was the long-awaited installation of a bar at the premises in April 1961, an event only made possible by the formation of the club’s own “wine committee”, of which Benny Green made a puzzled secretary. Ronnie’s was by no means the only London modern jazz spot doing well. Regardless of Scott’s jibe, The Flamingo continued to pull the punters, pressed into what one magazine called its “dark, Turkish-bath, but always swinging, atmosphere.” Further afield there was success too; opened in January 1961, by November of the same year Klooks Kleek in West Hampstead boasted a membership of 1600, no mean feat for a venue promoting solely local attractions.
On the touring package front, things also looked to be on the up. A welcome relief from what had already begun to seem like a veritable carousel of mainstream and big band artists, the visits of Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk and Coltrane had shown a distinct shift towards the modern, with their respective bands introducing then largely unknown new stars such as Elvin Jones, Eric Dolphy and Wayne Shorter to local audiences. Each of these visits caused moments both controversial and thought-provoking, some less well-publicised than others, including Elvin Jones’ memorably Dadaist sit-in at Scott’s, which brought delight to some (Tubby Hayes) and dismay to others (a well-known British trumpeter who was moved to scoff “that man can’t count four bars!”).
Another US visitor that year – bassist Charles Mingus, in England to appear in the jazz-does-Shakespeare film novelty All Night Long – hung around long enough to get more of a measure of the parochial scene, holding court in a series of interviews which found him unafraid to confront what he saw as the failings of the UK’s jazzmen. “The trouble here, so far as I can see, is that everyone’s listening to records and taking their cues from these,” he remarked perceptively. “It seems to me if our records weren’t issued in Britain, the British cats would have to think for themselves.” Balancing this critique, Mingus had been quick to praise those local players who he did think were onto something of their own, including Ronnie Scott and Joe Harriott (“he’s got a good sound”) in whose free-form experiments he recognised the spirit of a fellow maverick .
As cutting as Mingus was, his remarks about “our records” had an almost laughable irony to them. The label to which he was then signed – Candid – hadn’t yet found a UK distributor. Indeed, local modernists weren’t nearly as up-to-date as their album-chasing legend might have us believe, something rammed home early in 1961 by the arrival in the UK of the Blue Note catalogue, arguably the finest on-record representation of modern jazz to date. If the label had long exemplified the height of hip to US jazz listeners, its message had taken an age to find English ears. Hitherto available as super-inflated imports or sailor-smuggled luxuries (Tony Hall recalls paying an astronomical £4 per LP in the late 1950s), a deal struck with Central Record Distributors meant that from February 1961, Blue Notes were now regularly available in the UK for the first time. Regardless of a still-expensive price tag (49/9 each, 12/- more than an average British 12” LP), the demand was ridiculous, with Doug Dobell’s famed London record shops’ initial stock selling out in less than ten days. Within seven months, Blue Note had sold four times as many albums as they’d budgeted for, good news for record retailers and fans but a further kick in the teeth to those trying to sell local modern jazz on record. The timing couldn’t have been more bittersweet. Shortly after Blue Note began to appear in the racks, Tony Hall finally threw in the towel at Tempo, the label that had almost single-handedly documented the harder end of UK modernism for close to five years. Tempo’s final modern jazz release – The Jazz Five’s The Five Of Us – had received good press, but as a commercial commodity it had been a dead loss. “When you can buy a Miles Davis LP for a couple of bob less, can you really afford to buy, say, Tubby Hayes’ latest, however much you dig British jazz?” Hall had asked ruefully in Jazz News.
If the question was somewhat academic, there were nevertheless some signs of a welcome change of pace. At the eye of the Trad hurricane, in February 1961, Johnny Dankworth’s incessantly catchy African Waltz three-foured its way into the popular charts, selling a staggering 24,000 copies in a month. Barely had this news broken than Tubby Hayes put his moniker to a contract with Fontana, “the first British modernist to be signed to a major label in some years,” reported Melody Maker excitedly. Indeed, the big noise in British modernism that year wasn’t in the clubs, at festivals or on the radio – it was on record.
And, like all things in British jazz, it was a tale of equal parts triumph and disaster. The latter were all too easy to under-sensationalise: the end of Tempo, Blue Note’s dismissal of its one ex-British artist (Alfred Lion: “the public did not really take to our recordings of Dizzy Reece”), the Musicians’ Union putting the block on Dizzy Gillespie recording in London. After all, hadn’t this been the story for years now? But, for once, the triumphs seemed to be coming in greater numbers; that year the US Riverside subsidiary Jazzland licensed recordings by The Jazz Couriers, The Joe Harriott Quintet and The Vic Ash-Harry Klein Jazz Five for Stateside release (“MUST HAVE!” Jazzland’s Bill Grauer had cabled Tony Hall on hearing the Ash/Klein tapes); pianist Dave Lee’s album ‘A Big New Band From Britain’ spent six weeks in the famed US ‘Cash Box Top Ten’; and Don Rendell found himself the first British modernist signed exclusively to an American label – also Jazzland – (“Forgotten Jazzman nets big disc deal” Melody Maker), effectively resuscitating his career. Rendell wasn’t the only beneficiary. Almost overnight, it was as if the lifeblood had been pumped back into British modernism. Cool, it seemed, was well and truly out. “Filling the void is something which should inject a new life into the whole modern scene,” wrote Melody Maker’s Bob Dawbarn that summer, “- excitement”.
It was hard not to sense a burgeoning confidence beginning to infuse the music. All of a sudden, local modern LPs began to receive rave reviews, with one – Tubby Hayes’ initial salvo for Fontana, Tubbs – named Melody Maker’s Jazz LP of the Month in July 1961, succeeding none other than John Coltrane’s Blue Train. There was even sign of an end to the closed shop mentality that had for so long kept British bop hemmed in. Hot on the heels of signing Tubby Hayes, Fontana had also bagged twenty year old Dick Morrissey, a saxophonist whose precocious ability came close to that of Hayes himself. “I’m still trying to find a really serious grouse with the whole thing,” wrote Jazz News’s Kevin Henriques reviewing Morrissey’s debut disc, as if it just wasn’t cricket to favour the local lads.
Even those not generally sympathetic to contemporary jazz styles had at last begun to yield. In late 1961, Denis Preston – Lansdowne studio’s maven of mainstream and a leading architect in building the Trad Boom – recorded the Emcee Five, a frighteningly accomplished “territory band” from Newcastle upon Tyne, the mere existence of which said everything about how deeply modernism had taken root throughout the UK.
Where it should venture next was obvious. Having successfully exported recordings by its leading exponents – Harriott, Scott, Dankworth – to the US, it was now only a matter of time until we exported the real thing, a pipe-dream that became a reality in September 1961, when Tubby Hayes inaugurated a UK/US soloist exchange deal enabling American players to appear at Ronnie Scott’s club while their English opposites played New York. Earlier that year, Hayes had complained, “the British scene is very limiting. It is difficult to get beyond working around the Wardour Street-Gerrard Street area.” Now, he was working Hudson and Spring, attracting audiences including Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley, a sure fire sign that British modernism had finally made the biggest leap of its short-life – one as much cultural as artistic. The story of this transatlantic détente was set out on record for all to hear: Hayes recording in New York with a band including Clark Terry, while Zoot Sims was taped over several nights at Ronnie Scott’s club, sounding just as comfortable with his English accompanists as Hayes had with his US ones. It was the ultimate victory. “Even five years ago, [this] would have seemed like wishful thinking,” summed up Benny Green in his sleeve note to Tubbs in N.Y. “Even after hearing [this record] I find it all a little difficult to grasp.”
What Hayes and has colleagues had grasped though – in essence the nettle of opportunity – was to prove particularly awkward to hang onto in the year ahead. Indeed, far down among the provincial undergrowth lay a threat few would have thought serious at the time. Yet it was there all the same. Reviewing the club scene in Liverpool at the end of 1961, Jazz News cautioned “you would be quite surprised at the ‘jazz section’ of the evening paper. Some of the groups that appear are called The Beetles [sic.], Undertakers and the Galvanisers…” The Beetles? The name said it all: this was to be one hard-shelled opponent.