The arrival in London of seminal American musicians, especially Louis Armstrong (1932) and Duke Ellington (1933), inspired the British jazz community, generating excited publicity, popular and professional interest – and occasional controversy.
Visiting stars set challenging performing standards for their British colleagues. Among the visitors were pianist Garland Wilson (1933), violinist Joe Venuti, saxophonists Coleman Hawkins (1934) and Benny Carter (1936), pianists Art Tatum and ‘Fats’ Waller and singer Adelaide Hall (1938).
Another visitor to Britain in this decade was the Belgian gypsy guitarist – and phenomenal virtuoso – Django Reinhardt who created a style that has since become a living tradition within jazz and gypsy culture.
Together with violinist Stéphane Grappelli (regularly heard in the UK thereafter), he founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France, which played in London in 1938. Its music added something utterly unique and timeless to the jazz tradition.
However, in this decade restrictions were imposed on American musicians performing in Britain, which meant a greater reliance on indigenous musicians for jazz performance.
The No 1 Rhythm Club opened in London in June 1933 and over the next few years many more such rhythm clubs were formed throughout the country. They fostered interest in (and serious intellectual consideration of) jazz by holding record recitals, discussions and sometimes musical performances for their members.
The BBC gradually introduced jazz into its programming, and dance music (broadcast live from London hotels and clubs) reached a national audience – though uninhibited jazz solos were often considered too hot a property for general listening. London nightclubs like the Bag o’ Nails, Nuthouse and Nest provided informal outlets for British musicians to play what they understood as real jazz.
By the later 1930s, some British musicians were achieving high solo reputations.
With his Georgians, trumpeter Nat Gonella toured nationally as a bill-topping attraction in music halls and visited America in 1939 to play and record with American contemporaries. The local pool of jazz musicians became more racially diverse.
The dancer Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson formed his West Indian Dance Orchestra, an all-black London band consisting of recent immigrants from the West Indies alongside British-born black musicians.
Image: Nat Gonella. National Jazz Archive collection