The 1950s was the final decade in which jazz flourished as broad youth culture.
It produced many British solo stars – traditionalists on one side, modernists on the other – and bandleaders. A new term ‘mainstream’ began to emerge for music caught in the middle of the traditional/modern jazz culture wars but trying to avoid rigid allegiance to either camp.
Women musicians such as saxophonists Kathleen Stobart and Betty Smith and trumpeter Gracie Cole became more established during the decade on the British scene, and English pianist Marian McPartland, who had moved to the US as a GI bride, began building an international career there from the 1950s
John Dankworth formed his successful touring group, the Seven, in 1950 to showcase his compositions and arrangements and from 1953 to 1964 he led his own full-time touring orchestra. His first performances in the USA in 1958 made him an early ambassador for British jazz.
Other leading ensembles included Ronnie Scott’s nine-piece group (1953), the Jazz Couriers (co-led by Scott and fellow saxophonist Tubby Hayes, 1957–9), drummer Tony Kinsey’s various popular modern jazz groups, alto saxophonist Joe Harriott’s modern quintet, and Humphrey Lyttelton’s band which gradually moved from traditionalism towards the mainstream.
During the 1950s immigration into Britain brought an influx of players from the Caribbean.
Amongst others, Joe Harriott, flautist/saxophonist Harold McNairn and trumpeter Dizzy Reece (all from Kingston, Jamaica) joined a West-Indian population of British jazz performers that already included trumpeter Leslie ‘Jiver’ Hutchinson (father of singer Elaine Delmar), pianist-singer Cab Kaye, bassist Coleridge Goode, and saxophonist Bertie King.
In 1956 Britain’s first jazz festival was staged in the grounds of Lord Montagu’s stately home in Beaulieu, Hampshire. This became an annual event until 1961 but in 1960, a riot between opposing modernist and traditionalist fans produced lurid headlines and when this was repeated a year later the festival series abruptly ended.
Ronnie Scott opened his own jazz club in Gerrard Street, London in 1959, moving it to Frith Street in 1967 where it continues to flourish as one of the world’s greatest jazz venues.
In 1956 the Ministry of Labour’s ban on American musicians performing in the UK was finally lifted after 21 years by establishing an exchange system (later abandoned). Stan Kenton’s orchestra opened in London in March of that year to a blaze of publicity and Ted Heath’s orchestra went to America in exchange.
Later in the year Louis Armstrong’s All Stars were similarly ‘exchanged’ for cornetist Freddy Randall’s British band, and other American visitors soon after were Lionel Hampton and Sidney Bechet.
During the 1950s traditionalist band leader and trombonist Chris Barber sowed seeds for what would become a musical revolution in the 1960s. He toured with American blues singers Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Sharpe, and from within his band (and from that of Barber’s former sideman, trumpeter Ken Colyer) came the folk-based skiffle phenomenon which later became a foundation of British pop music.
These blues and skiffle influences inspired a new generation of performers like the Beatles (originally The Quarrymen Skiffle Group), the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Van Morrison.
Image: Denis Williams photograph of The Tubby Hayes Sextet playing at the Co-op Civic Centre, Bristol, 1950s. Pictured are Tubby Hayes (tenor saxophone), Derek Humble (alto saxophone) and Jimmy Deuchar (trumpet). National Jazz Archive collection.