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Socialist view of British jazz - Don't let it put you off!
on 21 December 2014
In his introduction the author makes clear that his approach to telling the story of British jazz from 1960 to 1975 a socialist one – “rooted within the ideas of Marx but aided by those of later theorists” of the Frankfurt School. When first I read this my heart sank. It’s a long book and the prospect of ploughing through nearly 500 pages of lumpen Marxist prose filled me with dismay. However the book was a birthday gift from my wife so I gritted my teeth and plunged in. I’m glad I did. It is a good book. The author provides an excellent account of developments in jazz over the period , it is clearly written and, for the most part (see below), the Marxist theoretic is worn lightly. Indeed in the early chapters his analyses of the social and cultural background of the principal musicians, and the class context, are genuinely informative.
The author has based his narrative around extensive interviews with the main participants and this first hand testimony gives great authority to his account. He is particularly strong on the developments in modern and free jazz, where his sympathies clearly lie. These are his strongest chapters. His evaluations are just, for the most part unswayed by sentimentalism or partiality. His assessment of Joe Harriott is objective and particularly good. His account of the development of the music into the outer reaches of free jazz is as full as we’re likely to get, though sometimes his enthusiasm gets the better of him in some overlong commentaries on the early LPs of Michael Garrick and others. I am grateful to him for reminding me of the talent of Mike Taylor, a star dimmed too soon.
I have one quarrel with the author. Developments in traditional and mainstream jazz after the end of the Trad boom in 1963 are ignored – nothing about the Lyttelton bands, the various incarnations of the Alex Welsh bands, or the continuing survival of traditional jazz. And for me the unforgiveable omission from serious consideration of one of the greatest and most original British jazz soloists, Bruce Turner. Turner is mentioned three times, two of these merely in passing. Compare this with getting on for a hundred pages in which John Surman (a no greater player) is mentioned. Indeed if one looks more widely, there is but a handful of references to Kenny Baker, Digby Fairweather and Wally Fawkes, one mention for Brian Lemon and none at all for John Barnes, Roy Williams or Dave Shepherd. All great players within the mainstream tradition.
I think this omission derives from the theoretical approach through which the author seeks to interpret the evolution of British jazz. To put this very crudely, it seems to me that the author views the evolution of British jazz as a process whereby the simpler harmonic and musical forms of traditional jazz give way to the increasingly complex and sophisticated forms of modern jazz and free jazz as the shackles of pre-existing musical forms are progressively shed. The process is seen not only in purely musical terms but as a process of increasing political and ethical enlightenment. The history and stubborn survival of mainstream and ‘non-progressive’ forms of jazz doesn’t fit this evolutionary picture.
It’s in the last three chapters that Heining sets out more fully his analysis and conclusions derived from the Marxist theory that underpins his approach. I don’t feel competent to comment on this, except to say that, while it is interesting, I don’t feel under any compulsion to accept it. And I find it difficult to connect it with the particular experiences I have when listening to the music itself. These are words and before the music words fall away.