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Culture Clubs: Part IV: When Jazz Met Europe

Karl Ackermann By

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On the north side of the English Channel, black American performers initially brought spirituals and gospel music to British audiences around 1903. Beginning in the late 1890s, ragtime sheet music was being published for piano and player-piano rolls, encouraging the British to re-discover the music for themselves. The availability of the phonograph, or gramophone in Britain, closely coincided with the release of the Original Dixieland Jass Band's recording of "Livery Stable Blues," the first "jazz" recording, and it caught fire with listeners. However, where Americans in France could open their own clubs and performing freely, the situation in Britain was considerably different.

The Amalgamated Musicians' Union (MU) was founded in 1893 and was a powerful force in Britain with membership in the hundreds of thousands and full support from the Ministry of Labour. When Paul Whiteman's Orchestra arrived in London in 1923, membership was already sounding alarms about an American invasion taking jobs from local musicians. A series of restrictions imposed a type of quota system on Americans, making it difficult for them to obtain work permits. At the same time, what the Americans were bringing in was dance music and the demand for bands was growing exponentially. The MU's ranks were heavily skewed toward classical and theater musicians and remained so until late in the 1930s. The substitution of British-for-American musicians in jazz performances was easier said than done.

American violinist Paul Specht was a popular bandleader who had signed with Columbia Records in 1922. That same year he toured in Britain and encountered permit problems that played out over four years and resulted in his filing a lawsuit against the British union. As a result of the MU and Ministry rules, even the Original Dixieland Jass Band was required to swap out their pianist for a British player—a critical personnel role in ragtime and an impractical face to put on the band. The ODJB faced another unforeseen—but serious—credibility issue as a result of playing outside the US. In Circular Breathing (Duke University Press, 2005) George McKay explains that ODJB publically and overtly denied an obvious truth—that their style was based on that of black ragtime bands. The claim generated a backlash in Britain, where the opposite reality seemed evident to many.

The densest concentration of British venues were located in the London area and until the 1940s, most were cabarets or theaters. The London Palladium is the most famous musical and theatrical venue in the UK. The two-thousand-plus seat West End theater hosted the ODJB in 1919, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong in the early 1930s, and, under new management, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra in the mid-1940s. Management, beginning in 1945, bucked the regulations on Americans giving them top billing and generating some controversy in the process. The Palladium continues to feature a wide variety of high-end theater productions and musical performances in 2018 but jazz performances are few. The Kit Cat Club opened in the eighteenth century and had changed it program frequently over the years. Singers, dancers, acrobats and jugglers were replaced by jazz dance bands in the 1920s. The origin of the club's name is not clear.

So called "Rhythm Clubs" were established in 1933 and were more informal settings offering performances one night per week. These clubs were seen as crucial in revitalizing the popularity of jazz in Britain after a downturn in acceptance in the late 1920s. Regular employment for jazz musicians remained elusive until clubs like the Flamingo, Marquee, The Dankworth Club and Studio 51 began to offer multiple-night performances. The Feldman Swing Club, (also known as the No1 Swing Club), opened in 1942 and was the first club in London to be dedicated exclusively to jazz. Saxophonist Victor Feldman, whose father and brothers founded the club, began his musical career at the club. Feldman's hosted most of Britain's top jazz musicians as well as noted Americans such as Benny Goodman and Art Pepper.


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