1960s - A change is gonna come…
From 1960 to 1962 a popularity ‘boom’ in British traditional jazz (‘trad’) was headed by Barber, trumpeter Kenny Ball, and clarinettist Acker Bilk, all of them topping the record charts. But soon after, jazz began to fade from mass popularity. From 1963 the rock music revolution diminished jazz as a vibrant part of youth culture. Bands such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones became the focus of popular music as the decade progressed and many clubs transferred their focus to the new styles.
However, young British musicians began to develop new approaches to modern jazz, often now influenced by rock music and eventually also rebelling against Scott’s, Hayes’ and Dankworth’s reliance on American musical models. These approaches came to be called ‘contemporary jazz’. Young musicians created their own styles (often looser than the conventions of modern jazz), and no longer automatically followed American trends. British-based composers and band leaders, such as Graham Collier, Mike Westbrook, Mike Gibbs and Michael Garrick, emerged. They recorded on major labels and received reasonable public exposure despite changing musical fashions.
Jazz incorporated ideas from rock music in groups such as Soft Machine (1966–81) and drummer Jon Hiseman’s Colosseum (1968–71); correspondingly, rock included blues and jazz influences in groups like Cream. British contemporary jazz started to export: guitarist John McLaughlin and bassist Dave Holland were both working with Miles Davis in the USA by the decade’s end. And most established performers from the post-war era continued to perform regularly and reasonably successfully.
Alongside, incorporated in, or sometimes competing with contemporary jazz was ‘free jazz’ or ‘free improvisation’ which had emerged in the US but presented a distinctly independent outlook in Europe. In 1960, Joe Harriott in Britain had already recorded music that often dispensed with previously central elements of jazz – pre-determined rhythm, melody and harmony – to allow unrestricted improvisation. His approach, using harmonically-free improvisation, as well as chord-based and modal musical forms (all sometimes in a single piece), was unique and distinct from contemporaneous American developments. Artists who developed their own ‘free’ forms of jazz in Britain included pianist Mike Taylor, guitarist Derek Bailey, drummer John Stevens (with his Spontaneous Music Ensemble) and saxophonist Evan Parker.
Cross-cultural elements fed into the mix. The Blue Notes, a multi-racial sextet led by pianist Chris McGregor, arrived in London in 1965 as refugees from South African apartheid. They mixed South African rhythms and harmonies with free improvisation, to create an original, unmistakable style, which had a considerable influence on British players. McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath big band, with South African, British and continental players, later became a further vehicle for this style.
In 1965 the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) was founded by Bill Ashton, a musician and former teacher. Under his direction, NYJO provided the first official training ground in Britain for young jazz musicians and has continued to flourish. Among its hundreds of graduates many have gone on to successful musical careers. 1965 also saw the beginning of formal jazz education in Britain at the City of Leeds College of Music. From 1964 to 1966 BBC TV broadcast the important series Jazz 625, featuring both British and American musicians in concert. And in 1967 Humphrey Lyttelton first broadcast his BBC radio series The Best of Jazz which continued for four decades. American icons – including Armstrong, Ellington, the stars in Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic shows, and bandleaders such as Count Basie and Woody Herman – played in Britain to full theatres, while Ronnie Scott’s club continued to present American stars, a policy maintained up to the present.
Image: John Surman. Brian O’Connor photograph, 1989.