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1940s - War clouds and silver linings

During the Second World War entertainment was needed to maintain morale.

The danceable, virtuoso music of the Swing Era (1935–45) was provided – for both American and British ears – by famous bandleaders such as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Harry James, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller.

Thanks to radio, records, film and vibrant publicity in the popular press, they were the equivalent of today’s rock stars. Miller enlisted in the American Army in 1942, and led his American Allied Expeditionary Forces (AEF) band in Britain in 1944 before his aircraft went missing over the English Channel.

The Squadronaires, formed in 1940 as the principal dance orchestra of the RAF, starred many of Britain’s best-known jazz musicians, achieving national fame and continuing playing until 1964.

During the war many musicians were drafted into the armed services, so opportunities opened up for women instrumentalists to take the places of the men in the dance bands. The band of saxophonist Ivy Benson was the most notable all-women orchestra, and some of her players went on to have enduring careers in jazz.

Similar opportunities existed in the USA on a larger scale. But, with the ending of the war and the return of male instrumentalists, most of these opportunities for women in the dance orchestras rapidly disappeared.

Wartime night clubs thrived and, in 1942, Feldman’s Club at 100 Oxford Street in London opened. Under various ownerships it would feature jazz for more than 60 years.

Pianist George Shearing and clarinettist Harry Parry broadcast on the BBC, and Britain’s jazz population was further enriched by its community of West Indian musicians. Some were survivors from ‘Snakehips’ Johnson’s orchestra which had suffered a direct hit by a bomb while playing at London’s Café de Paris in 1941.

The Café specialised in Afro-Caribbean bands but was an upper class club for predominantly white audiences. However, such nighteries as Jig’s Club and the Caribbean Club promoted cross-cultural interaction between Afro-Caribbean and British jazz performers and audiences.

Image: Programme from Queensbury All Services Jazz Club, 1942. National Jazz Archive collection.


The big schism: Revivalism and Bebop

During the war, jazz began to split into two sharply contrasting – indeed, violently opposed – musical orientations; modern jazz (known initially as bebop) and traditional jazz ‘Revivalism’.

The term ‘bebop’ was (probably) first coined at Minton’s Playhouse in New York where young innovators developed new revolutionary approaches. Bebop’s most celebrated icon was alto-saxophonist Charlie Parker (1920–55).

The music was characterised by complex, fast-moving melodic lines, new rhythmic ideas, exploratory harmonic approaches to improvisation, and fierce instrumental prowess. After the war bebop developed into various (usually less frenetic) modern jazz styles.

Its first musical base in Britain was the Club Eleven, a London group of musicians including saxophonists John Dankworth and Ronnie Scott. Some players gained experience in bebop by enrolling as dance band musicians on transatlantic liners and hearing its innovators first hand in the clubs of New York.


Humphrey Lyttelton Band on riverboat shuffle, 1948

Image: George Webb photograph of the Humphrey Lyttelton Band performing at a 'Riverboat Shuffle', 1948. Lyttelton features, playing the cornet in the front centre. Archive collection.

Implacably opposed to the revolutions of bebop was the Revivalist movement, which sought to re-engage jazz with its traditional New Orleans roots, thought to have been lost in the Swing Era.

In America the movement was headed by New Orleans originals – clarinettist George Lewis and trumpeter ‘Bunk’ Johnson – and younger admirers. Prominent revivalists in Britain after the war included pianist George Webb’s Dixielanders and trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton (a former Webb sideman).

Amid these opposing movements pre-war musicians were largely marginalised.

Trying to map at least some of the stylistic diversity, new publications appeared (sometimes with only brief existence). Jazz Journal, Britain’s longest-running jazz periodical, began publication in 1948 and continued as a print publication until 2019.

Download the full British Jazz Timeline written by Roger Cotterrell and Digby Fairweather

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