Documenting Jazz 2019

Ian Patterson By

Sign in to view read count
Though jazz is often associated with film noir, Gabbard said that it was more TV shows like Peter Gunn (1958-1961) and Johnny Staccato (1959-1960) that used jazz more liberally to create atmospheric effect. Gabbard showed a clip of a Super Mario game with a jazz soundtrack, clips of films such as Whiplash (2014), La La Land (2016), The Terminal (2004) and Collateral (2004) -all of which use jazz to signify very different things. Jazz, as experienced by millions of people around the world, is associated variously with rare virtuosity born of obsessive dedication; nostalgia and exuberance; utopian transcendence, and hipster cool.

The uses and myths of jazz in popular culture in the twenty-first century, Gabbard noted by way of conclusion, are rooted in the twentieth century.

Nearly all of Gabbard's examples of film makers and authors who have used jazz to color or situate their work were male. Examples of women authors that came from the audience included Kerry Greenwood, Australian author of the Phryne Fischer detective series, and Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Eudora Welty, whose short story Powerhouse was inspired after seeing a Fats Waller concert.

As an addendum to Gabbard's presentation, it's perhaps also worth adding, that for millions of people, thanks to the likes of coffee-shop chains, jazz is merely background music—a not unpleasant soundtrack to conversation. Small wonder then, that some people might see nothing wrong with chatting all the way through a performance in a jazz club.

Jazz as Popular Culture

In its early incarnations around the world, jazz was essentially dance music—an exotic mongrel that took elements of local music and mixed it with US influences. In his paper Jazz, The Body and Popular Culture, Seán Shanagher of Ballyfermot College of Further Education, turned the spotlight on a rural community in County Roscommon, Ireland, were early jazz was experienced in relation to, and mixed with, local music in the 1930s-1950s.

Shanagher's research was based on oral histories of forty-five musicians and dance-goers—small farmers all—who frequented the rural dance halls in those years. Photos of the rural halls showed extremely modest, cottage-like buildings, that have since reverted in the main to agricultural usage, if they haven't been reclaimed by nature. Foxtrot, quick-step and waltzes, which were equated with jazz in Ireland at that time, were the popular dances.

Ireland was in a process of nation-building after the turbulent years of the independence struggle, civil war and partition. Consequently, cultural nationalism was widely promoted and encouraged. Shanagher mentioned the Anti-Jazz campaign led by Father Peter Confrey in County Leitrim. For the Catholic Church, jazz—which effectively meant modern dance imported from the US— represented immorality, and Father Confrey led three thousand people through Mohill with banners proclaiming 'Down With Jazz' and 'Out With Paganism'.

Shanagher made the point that one young man interviewed who went to rural dances had turned out for the Anti-Jazz march, not as a participant, but just to see what all the fuss was about. This raises the question as to just how many in attendance were outraged by 'jazz' and how many were simply along for the craic.

The bands at these 'jazz' events, Shanagher related, would play ceili dances, sets of traditional music as well as popular songs by the well-known singers of the day. One musician interviewed recalled the use of clarinet, accordion, fiddle, trumpet and drums combined, a hybridization of traditional Irish and modern instrumentation, though unfortunately, no recordings exist. Little documentation in general exists about these dances, which, Shanagher suggested, is perhaps due to a still ongoing process of cultural nationalism in Ireland "that doesn't necessarily make room for a slightly messy, hybrid form of jazz-Irish."

The focus of most documentation, Shanagher said, has been on the suppression of jazz/modern dance in those decades and not on the cultural practices themselves. This was the first post-independence generation in Ireland and Shanagher made the point that Irish youth then were negotiating a complex cultural landscape of modernism and cultural nationalism.

Irish cultural nationalism, in all its forms, can only be fully understood in relation to the so-called transgressions—as defined by the Catholic church and government—of rural dances that embraced modernism. More research on this fascinating aspect of the arrival and gradual adoption of jazz in an Irish society in flux would be most welcome.

Professor Catherine Tackely of the University of Liverpool, in her paper entitled Finding Jazz: Jazz as Popular Culture in Interwar Britain, argued that jazz had an impact on the local culture that was not directly connected with visiting American jazz musicians or specific jazz forms. Specifically, she looked at the dance bands of the time, which, not unlike the Irish dance hall bands of the previous presentation, played an important role in introducing notions of jazz to the British public. The dance bands would incorporate elements of jazz that fitted in with their popular form of entertainment.

Variety shows were all the rage in the interwar years, with a balance between music and dance, comedy, acrobatics and novelty. Tackely's focus was on the West Indian musicians who began arriving in Britain in the 1930s, and in particular Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson, who was originally from what was then British Guiana.

Johnson, a dancer, joined and later took over the band of Jamaican trumpeter Leslie Thompson. The success of the band, which played a mixture of jazz and swing, saw it broadcasted on the BBC and hold down a residency at a London nightclub called Café Paris. Unfortunately, during The Blitz of 1941, German bombs struck the venue, killing thirty-four people, including Johnson.

Johnson's West Indian band was a novelty, and although famous for his 'snakehip' dancing, the climax of his show was dancing up and down a flight of stairs to a backdrop of swing music. Johnson's band, like others, Tackley noted, had to adapt to cater to changing tastes and fads. Jazz, swing, calypso and rumba were all part of the band's repertoire, while a choir was employed for radio broadcasts.

Racial stereotypes, both in the presentation and in the reception of Johnson's music, were ever-present, particularly in the regions, and followed on from a tradition of minstrelsy in British variety halls. It is worth noting, however, that a review of Johnson's Orchestra from a Belfast newspaper in the 1930s remarked upon "a thrilling demonstration of how swing and jazz should be played."

It was more entertainment dance bands, such as Johnson's, and not jazz records, jazz magazines and visiting US artists, argued Tackley, that has enabled jazz to remain in popular culture in the UK to this today.

With Liverpool Hope University's Mike Brocken unable to attend, the paper entitled Liverpool's Hidden Histories of Popular Music, Gender and 'Sweet' British Dance Band Music: A Case Study of Mary Daly Hamer at the Grafton Rooms, was presented solely by Laura Hamer of Open University. The presenter made the disclaimer from the off that the Mary Daly Hamer of the study was not her grandmother, or indeed any other sort of kin.

Like Shanagher and Tackley before her, Hamer's focus was on the dance-band culture of the inter-war years, which, like most other forms of popular music in Liverpool has been overshadowed to a large degree by scholarly attention to The Beatles. Thanks largely to The Beatles' global fame, Liverpool was named a UNESCO City of Music in 2015, though as Hamer demonstrated, there is another musical history in Liverpool besides Merseybeat and The Fab Four.

In a period when theatre, cinema, boxing and all manner of neon-lit venues were popular, Hamer underlined the fact that dancing was the most popular form of entertainment for young people, with the city boasting ten dance halls by 1934, with dances held at various times throughout the day. But if dance-hall music culture in inter-war Liverpool has largely been ignored by musical historians, then even more peripheral have been the stories of the women who played a role in that world.

One of the biggest dance halls was the Grafton Rooms, frequented ion the main by Liverpool's second-generation Irish community. The focus of Hamer's study was the dance band led by Mary Daly Hamer, one of the only examples of an all-male band led by a woman during that period. Daly Hamer—a pianist and exhibition dancer—took over the reins of the band when her husband, Wil Hamer, died in 1936. Thereafter she led the band under the banner Mrs Wilf Hamer and Her Boys, until the mid-1950s. The 'Mrs' in the band name was more than a tribute to her late husband, Hamer explained, and represented "a cast-iron guarantee of respectability."

Daly Hamer directed the band to play 'sweet' dance-band music, according to the wishes of the audiences, even though her band urged her to let them play 'hot' jazz music and jives. Although this was a golden period for all-girl bands, it was still very unusual for a woman to lead an all-male band. Also unusual was that Daly Hamer tended to wear jackets and trousers. Her attire, the presenter noted, could be interpreted as an attempt to downplay her sexuality, or to show who was 'wearing the trousers,' so to speak. It may also simply have been a question of practicality.

Playing what the public wanted made Daly Hamer's band one of the most successful dance bands from the 1920s to the 1950s, though their success and relevance in terms of popular culture has been relegated to the margins of popular music history in Liverpool due to the attention given to The Beatles, from its inception in the early 1960s until today.

Jazz and Photography

Photography has played a very particular role in documenting jazz over its first century, going some way to mythologizing some of jazz' best-known practitioners. Photography, however, plays an important role in documenting time and place, providing evidence of the conditions musicians play in, the audience make-up, dress codes, venue type and seating arrangements—all of which speak about jazz's socio-cultural roles at any given place and time.

This panel began with a presentation by Isaac Maupin from the University of Kentucky entitled Photographing the Carnival of Swing: An Immigrant's Perspective on the First Jazz Festival. The first jazz festival, according to Maupin, was the Carnival of Swing, which was held in Randall's Island Stadium on May 29th, 1938. Twenty-three thousand people turned out, between 10am and 5pm to watch and dance to twenty-five swing bands.

A stellar line-up included bands led by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stuff Smith, Vincent Lopez, Artie Shaw, Chick Webb, Woody Herman and Gene Krupa. Benny Goodman featured on the festival poster but, due to another commitment, did not, in fact, appear. Each band played for ten minutes. Proceeds from the festival went to the New York Musicians Hospital Fund.

Documentation of this historic event was limited at the time to a review in The New York Times and silent news reel. In 1969, however, a collection of photos was donated to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. These photos, which captured the bands on and off-stage, as well as the public, were taken by Otto Hess, a German immigrant who became a professional photographer in the United States.
About Count Basie
Articles | Calendar | Discography | Photos | More...



Jazz Near Dublin
Events Guide | Venue Guide | Get App | More...

Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.