Something Quieter: 1962 – The British Perspective by Simon Spillett
As for our own jazzmen – stick to listening in the clubs. They are twice themselves there.
Readers letter to Melody Maker, October 6th 1963
It was an affront! Nothing less than an insult! An unnecessary and totally incongruous modernistic excrescence arbitrarily grafted onto what was one of the nation’s favourite radio programmes. How dare the BBC tinker with this hallowed ground, trying to tart it up to make it more in keeping with contemporary tastes. If the change to the programme title were not bad enough, then what was this?! – a new signature tune, all garish jazzy harmonies and such. Whatever next?! Outraged of Tunbridge Wells wasn’t merely upset, he was incandescent!
So went public the reaction to the BBC’s re-branding of Mrs Dale’s Diary as The Dales in February 1962. The show’s new theme music – an offending burst of modern big band jazz – had been written by none other than John Dankworth, then riding high on the recent success of African Waltz, the chart-friendliness of which had thrust him – always one of the more palatable UK modernists – further towards the realms of the establishment. Indeed, profiled in Melody Maker the same month as The Dales first aired, it was clear that at least for Dankworth and his wife, vocalist Cleo Laine, modern jazz was now providing a living far removed from the starving-in-a-garret clichés normally pedalled by the press. “The couple live in Woburn Sands, Bedfordshire” the paper reported, “and run two cars – an A40 and a Zephyr…”
Although the BBC were to junk his new theme to The Dales within a matter of months, following an avalanche of letters requesting “something quieter”, Dankworth’s radio commission was the latest sign that modern jazz in Britain was at last finding its feet. Those same feet were now also gaining ground across the Atlantic. A Melody Maker headline at the beginning of the year shouted America is Booking British, detailing how the Anglo-US exchange deal begun the previous autumn was now gearing up to return Tubby Hayes to New York, soon to be followed by Ronnie Scott, Jimmy Deuchar and Ronnie Ross. Barely a few months before, all this would have seemed impossible. And it wasn’t only the British who’d welcomed the trade-off. Even America’s jazz bible DownBeat noted the wisdom of the exchange; “If England’ll accept, I’m all for sending Noel Coward back and taking Tubby Hayes,” wrote one of its columnists. “Come to think of it, I’m all for sending Noel Coward back whether they give us Tubby or not.”
But for the Englishmen back home in London it was to be an all too brief moment in the noon-day sun. In May 1962, just five months after it had proudly unveiled Dankworth’s new Dales-theme, the BBC summarily banned what it termed “uninhibited modern jazz” from its Light Programme scheduling, partly a reflection on the audience figures the network had accrued when latterly presenting traditional jazz bands, partly out of a fear that modernism was a pernicious force undermining the corporation’s strict, Reithian edicts. “I’m not asking Tubby Hayes to make a commercial sound like Victor Sylvester,” said producer Terry Henebery, as if in mitigation, “but there are limits.”
The almighty row that exploded in the pages of the jazz press following the ban – in which Dankworth himself compared the BBC’s policy to apartheid – was also accompanied by an on-going one about how these same modernists presented themselves in public. The argument was an old one, namely that Britain’s modern jazz musicians appeared to believe the world owed them a living. “Whose fault if no-one wants modern jazz?”, asked one Melody Maker piece, laying the blame squarely at the feet of the players themselves. Sam Kruger, boss of The Flamingo, had had enough of the studied indifference displayed by many of those he employed, railing against the way “[they] dress in a slovenly way, smoke on stage and play endless choruses”. The musicians tried to fight back. “We must present ourselves properly and have more confidence,” remarked the Jamaican altoist Harold McNair, as if waking to smell the coffee. “It doesn’t mean lowering standards – just more communication.” Even those who might not otherwise have appeared to give a damn about Brit-Bop waded in, with one, Trad demigod Acker Bilk, providing a characteristically pithy piece of advice. “If British modernists saw [Gerry] Mulligan,” wrote Bilk after a trip to New York, “they would understand that modern jazz is as much a part of show-business as trad or pop.”
Trad and pop, however, weren’t getting the brush off from the record industry. The top-selling UK jazz album of 1962 – itself an almost totemic representation of the entire Trad movement – was The Best of Barber and Bilk. British modern jazz LPs on the other hand continued to be rare as hens’ teeth. For example, that year, Ember released just two new modern albums by Tony’s Kinsey and Crombie, and while Fontana continued its valuable patronage of Tubby Hayes, for many other local jazzmen, the story continued to be one of A&R neglect. Nothing was clear cut though. Indeed, looking at recording activity covering the three strands comprising the fabric of modernism at this juncture – cool, bop and the blues-driven end of mainstream – there is as much contradiction as conformity. Again, some thought the music at fault, others the musicians. One unidentified record producer told Bob Dawbarn that he was now loathe to book “a modern jazz group three months ahead [as] I know I will see an entirely different band of musicians [on the session] – if the group still exists at all.” Another mover and shaker, Pete Burman, mastermind of the Jazz Tete a Tete concert packages believed too much emphasis had been placed on chasing the cutting edge of Hard Bop. “I wonder if this intimate, rather formal sort of jazz” he wrote of the music he presented – played by the likes of Johnny Scott and Pat Smythe – “isn’t perhaps the kind British musicians are best at.” He had a point; or maybe he didn’t. When Philips’ Johnny Franz signed saxophonist Tony Coe’s Quintet – a group able to straddle several stylistic camps – to a one-shot LP deal in summer 1962, Coe found no such reservations about what might sell, with his producer actively encouraging him to cover the gamut. “[He] was wonderfully sympathetic,” he said of Franz in a Melody Maker interview. “Musically he gave us our heads [and accordingly] most of what was used were first takes.” Coe’s relaxed experience in the studio was an unusual one for a British modernist, but with a repertoire incorporating Cannonball Adderley, Kenny Burrell and Sonny Rollins, his band was playing music typifying the definite shift towards harder, earthier playing that was now the trend in London’s jazz clubs.
However, regardless of how spirited the music in these venues may have been at this, the last point in musical history in which soul remained an adjective rather than a noun, there were those who continued to see it all as a phoney, fashion-fitting pretence. “A British jazzman must make a living, with audiences and colleagues largely conditioned to Transatlantic fashion,” wrote Kitty Grime in January 1962, explaining the dilemma faced by virtually every local modernist. Pianist Eddie Thompson – who having finally tired of the impediments of the UK jazz circuit, upped sticks permanently to New York around the same time – was even more direct. “You cannot afford to be original here,” he observed wistfully, “I could go no further in Britain.” Another English jazzman – one making the reverse journey after years in the States – bassist Peter Ind, also saw things with a refreshing clarity. “They seem to forsake their own originality for an imitation of whichever American jazz star is currently popular,” he said of the colleagues with whom he’d been reunited, “thus, we have many little Miles’s, Coltrane’s and Cannonball’s around, all vying for attention.”
Perhaps the most vociferous critic of all was Danny Halperin, Jazz News’ resident curmudgeon, who took every opportunity available to swipe at the locals. Having dismissed the London club scene in the autumn of 1962 as “a dreary succession of dimly-lit miniature steam baths peopled by drags”, he then delighted in tearing a strip off of several of the capital’s leading lights. “I wouldn’t give you a plugged farthing for any of them. Yes, and I mean that tenor man who runs changes till the cows come home. Also I mean that charming bandleader who plays the most wooden alto this side of heaven.”
But, as the year drew to a close, it was to be that same “charming bandleader” who was to prove himself more man of steel than saxophonist of wood. In fact, during the very same week that John F. Kennedy faced down the Soviets, John W. Dankworth stood up against an equally formidable foe – the BBC. Having relaxed its ban on modern jazz somewhat during the late summer months, the corporation had engaged Dankworth’s band to appear on its Jazz Club programme on October 11th. During rehearsal, one of the bandleader’s pieces – Freeway, a quintet feature for Kenny Wheeler – had been vetoed by producer Terry Henebery as “too advanced for Jazz Club”. Come the broadcast, Dankworth was asked to restore the piece to the show’s playlist, which he flatly refused to do – live on air – resulting in the programme under-running and a flustered response from compère Alan Dell. Was it a protest at the stylistic vacillations of the corporation? – a held-over response to their earlier outright ban on modern jazz? – or even a fit of pique over them scrapping his theme for The Dales? The answer was simple: Dankworth was standing up not just for his music, but for himself, showing the genuine grit which British jazz was so often said to lack. “If I am well-known for anything,” he had written earlier in 1962, “it is certainly not for obeying rules.” It was clearly a watershed moment, a very public display of the “more confidence” Harold McNair had thought was woefully absent in many local jazzmen. Indeed, at the end of the year – twelve months that had mixed controversy, confrontation and consolidation in equal measure – Britain’s modernists had come out stronger than ever. Battle-scarred but undimmed, now all they needed was a wider audience. Maybe 1963 would be their year, after all?
Simon Spillett July 2017