THAT WAS THE YEAR THAT WAS: 1963 – The British Perspective by Simon Spillett
“There is a new look to British jazz these days. The soloists are still going their own way but against a more saleable framework.”
Melody Maker, February 2nd 1963
“Rarely has a new year caught the British jazz scene in such as state of flux.” So began an article in Melody Maker on January 5th 1963, outlining what the paper thought might be likely trends within the music over the coming months. The Trad Boom – for so long the mainstream media idea of what British jazz was all about – it maintained was finally over, while Rhythm and Blues, the new style that had latterly begun to feature in London jazz hot spots like The Flamingo and The Marquee, had yet to truly prove its worth. Elsewhere in the same issue, R&B was the subject of a piece with the provocative strap-line Trend or Tripe, in which figures including Alexis Korner and a nineteen year old called Mick Jagger debated what the music’s likely impact might be in the near future. Having now got its foot firmly in the door of two of the country’s leading jazz clubs, was it possible that with Trad now on the wane, this might be the next real threat for Britain’s tight clique of modern jazzmen? Not everyone thought so. To the surprise of some, Pete King, manager of Ronnie Scott’s club believed R&B could “definitely assist modern jazz”, adding that when played by jazz musicians the new music “sounds really good.”
King’s comments were the latest in a series of indications that, after a decade of cool indifference to public tastes, the capital’s modernists were starting to thaw out. Indeed, as the country froze in the grip of the coldest winter since 1947, there were even signs of them melting. “The modernists are beginning to move backwards towards less-complex, more easily assimilated music”, Melody Maker concluded, a prediction borne out by the launch the following month of The Seven Souls, a co-operative band headed by John Dankworth, which aimed to “please the dancers” with “uncomplicated arrangements and a strong beat.” The band’s début gig was a roaring success, with Melody Maker’s Bob Dawbarn postulating that the group might even shake the British record industry out of its almost total indifference to local jazzmen. “If [the producers] had heard [them play] Hoe Down they would have had the contracts out on the stage,” he gushed.
Sadly, the musicians knew just how unlikely this pipe-dream was.
Despite the predictions of writers like Dawbarn and Benny Green (who in an article in Scene magazine in October 1962 had even gone so far to suggest that “the prospects for British modern musicians…so far as recording studios are concerned, are…better than they have been for many years”) things had fallen ominously quiet on the album front. Although Fontana had made some in-roads into recording local modern jazz during the previous two years – signing both Tubby Hayes and Dick Morrissey in 1961 – there was little resulting windfall on other labels. In fact, looking at the number of British modern jazz recordings reviewed in the pages of Melody Maker, Jazz Journal and Jazz News and Review during 1963 reveals the story in stark black and white. MM reviewed a dozen such LPs and EPs, JJ thirteen and JN&R just eight discs, a meagre ratio when set beside the space allotted American albums, and a statistic also somewhat skewed when one remembers that “modern” back in 1963 could still take in certain fringe artists, such as Steve Race. But this wasn’t just the old conundrum of local press prejudice – the problem was Britain’s modernists simply weren’t recording. In fact, in this regard, 1963 was a truly dismal year. Modern jazz recording sessions in London over those twelve months could almost be counted on the fingers of one hand; a couple of Dankworth dates, one by Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin, a session each for Dick Morrissey, Michael Garrick and Joe Harriott, but little else. “The [record] companies have virtually closed their doors to modern jazz,” complained saxophonist Don Rendell in an interview in March, believing “only US records will sell well here.”
Painful as it was for men like Rendell to hear this, the record labels had a point. Some thought money an issue; in October of 1963 Ronnie Scott suggested that British jazz might sell if “available on record at prices lower than those charged for American LPs” a suggestion also made more than once that year in Melody Maker’s Mailbag (Scott himself briefly tried his hand at record store management, opening a short-lived shop in Soho’s Moor Street in May 1963). But this had already been done, disastrously as it turned out, by the SAGA Company back in the late 1950s. A cut in record prices from all the major UK labels – following Purchase Tax relief in January 1963 – hadn’t helped much either. No, what was needed was an ingenious way to drip feed the work of London’s modernists to the record buying public; in other words – the jazz single.
The success of the 45rpm of Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd’s Desafinado the previous year (lifted from the Grammy-nominated album Jazz Samba) was all the argument needed to prove that just occasionally modern jazz could find favour with popular taste. And although bossa-nova’s insinuating mood of gentle romance hadn’t moved everyone who heard it (Jazz News’ critic Patrick James had dismissed it as “a curious Latin-American scrubbing sound”) nobody could deny its commercial potential. For a jazz recording, however diluted, to reach the Top Twenty was nothing short of a minor miracle. Surely Britain’s jazzmen could cash-in too?
And so they did – or rather they tried to, with the new Brazilian rhythm inspiring a small wave of singles by British artists over the winter of 1962/63 – Shake Keane, Vic Lewis, Elaine Delmar, Johnny Scott – each hoping that a little of the Getz magic might rub off. A few of the locals even went for the expedient option of refitting existing material to meet the new groove, like Bill Le Sage, whose composition Autumn in Cuba dated back to the late 1950s but whose title – post-October 1962 – now had a delicious irony to it. In spite of their good intentions, none of these discs really hit the spot, with Melody Maker’s review of one – Vic Ash’s Banco – more or less encapsulating the fate of them all: “haunting on repeated spins but we can’t see it scoring highly.”
But bossa wasn’t the whole story. Other influences were at play too, among the most pervasive that of soul-jazz, a music whose imprint could be felt in the work of several of the newer London jazz groups of the day, such as the John Burch Octet, one of whose members – Graham Bond – had done the impossible, signing a five year contract to EMI that spring. Bond had gone the whole hog, of course, abandoning his alto saxophone – and eventually jazz altogether – in favour of an earthy, R&B-driven mix of Hammond organ and vocals. This new “back to the roots” angle had also thrown a lifeline to those associated with older styles of jazz; Humphrey Lyttelton was now playing things like One Mint Julep alongside his otherwise solid diet of mainstream, while vocalist Beryl Bryden weighed into the singles market with a surprisingly effective version of Bobby Timmons’ Blue Note anthem Moanin’. Normally all washboard and Trad, Bryden re-emerged like a female Ray Charles.
Crass commercialism was still an ever present trap though, with some of the years British jazz output hanging unashamedly from the coat tails of others; Dave Lee’s Five To Four On openly aped Dave Brubeck, and the likes of Laurie Johnson (There’s A Plot Afoot) and Ken Jones (Dodgy Waltz) proffered a bastardised reflection of the latest jazz fashions more suited to Come Dancing than the floor of The Flamingo. The well-tried conceit of co-opting the songs of a Broadway show remained popular too, with Tony Kinsey’s How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying notable if only for the absolute mauling the group received when the album was reviewed in Jazz Journal, a critique describing the band as “highly proficient dance band musicians playing at jazz” whose performance was “unforgivably trivial.”
However, there remained one British modernist whose work seemed positively unassailable, and it was he who provided what was perhaps the biggest surprise of 1963. Yes, in the same year when Christine Keeler went to bed with John Profumo, Valentina Tereshkova went into orbit and Ronnie Biggs went to ground, Tubby Hayes went pop. Then the éminence gris of British jazz, Hayes’ bid for chart stardom began in February 1963, when the saxophonist’s recording manager at Fontana, Jack Baverstock, bolstered by the recent success of his label’s release of Take Five, suggested his recent signing take a crack at recording a single. Hayes agreed, taping four potential items, out of which Baverstock plumped for the highly unusual choice of Sally, former property of none other than Lancashire legend Gracie Fields. Nobody has ever quite been able to fathom what informed this selection; was it some sort of in joke? Had Hayes been given the most unlikely piece Baverstock could think of as a challenge? (“There you go, Tubbs! Try and make jazz out of that!”) Was it a reference to the early sixties’ cultural fascination with all things Up North? Was Lancashire being played off against Rio De Janeiro? Whatever the reason, to his credit, Hayes had actually managed to transform this most innocuous of English ditties into a rather neat Horace Silver-like arrangement, but beyond that – and in spite of some canny publicity from Fontana and an in-person airing on ATV’s otherwise pop-dominated Discs-a-go-go – the record wasn’t a success. “This one doesn’t stand an earthly,” said Dusty Springfield when she was played the record in Melody Maker’s Blind Date that summer. “It’s probably well done but I don’t like it. It doesn’t get anywhere.”
Indeed, the fate of Sally seemed to speak volumes about what a naïve folly it had been to ever believe British post-bop could score a commercial hit. The message from the pop world was clear: this is our turf, so leave us to it. With the monopolising force of the Beatles about to break through, advice like this was soon to be rendered academic. Nevertheless, one could see some sense behind the efforts of Jack Baverstock and co. It hadn’t all been about sales figures, it had been about keeping the music visible, a point driven home by remembering that not only had 1963 been a lean year for British modern jazz records, it had also been a particularly bad time for modernism on the radio too. For much of the year, players like Tubby Hayes had found themselves shut out of the BBC’s popular Jazz Club slot, the after effect of a ban on “weird stuff” initiated by the corporation’s Light Programme the previous spring. “Many of them just don’t play ball,” said Jazz Club’s producer Terry Henebery at the start of the embargo, shaming the hermetic “take it or leave it” attitude with which many of London’s modern jazzmen then regarded their art. The irony was laughable; the very things the modernists had so admired in their American role models – lengthy solos, ambitious original material and harmonic complexity – had actually cost them a valuable part of their already shrinking workload.
However, when the ban was finally lifted in the summer of ’63, it was clear that something had been learned in the interim, a lesson in part drummed home by the catchy and condensed requirements of the three-minute single. Indeed, it was telling that, on his first appearance on Jazz Club’s new Saturday slot that September, John Dankworth had included Hoe Down, the spirited slice of soul-jazz which Bob Dawbarn had predicted would turn heads back at the beginning of the year. There could be no resting on laurels though. “British musicians should try to find something that is individual,” Dankworth remarked in the final weeks of 1963, as if sensing the next great leap forward for UK jazz. “One shouldn’t say ‘I’m going to make this sound like an American.’ To me it should be completely the opposite.” 1963 had been a year of transition then – twelve months in which Britain’s modern jazzmen had gone from chasing hits and following fashion to realising their own worth. Where they went next would be quite a story…