HAVE YOU HEARD of “The Bird”? Charlie Parker, known as “Bird”, was a very great alto saxophonist and the major creative force in the jazz style known as Bebop. During WW2 he became widely admired and then idolised, in the United States, for his fantastic ability as an improviser. When that War ended his fame and the jazz style called Bebop immediately spread around the World. The effects of that explosion are still felt today. Here in Brighton jazz is enjoying a new surge of interest. Although the musicians and their music have a healthy variety, an influence from the Bebop era can be felt everywhere.
But Bebop wasn’t the only jazz style to emerge from WW2. Something very different was born, – and much of it was hatched outside the United States. No jazz of any recognisable style began before 1900. Then the early “traditional” style began to be played, most obviously In New Orleans.
More bands appeared, recording began in earnest and the centre moved from New Orleans to Chicago. By 1927 this early style, based on the interplay of trumpet, clarinet and trombone reached its peak. It then began to disappear back into clubs and bars. Very few young black musicians were interested in this style. They quickly took up their places in the new “Big Bands”. [Do not forget that racism in the USA meant that until well into the 1940s Big Bands were either white or black]
What happened in WW2 was a surprise. In Holland, France, in the UK, in Eastern Europe, in Australia, amateur jazz bands, often of self-taught musicians, began to attempt to play in what they believed was an early and purer style of jazz, unspoilt by the commercialism which dominated the “Swing” era from 1935.
In 1943 a pianist, George Webb, living in South-East London decided to relieve the gloom of the Blitz by forming a small jazz band. Its fame soon spread. In Nottinghamshire two enthusiasts who knew a great deal about the early history of jazz, James Asman and Bill Kinnell, had begun publishing a magazine to encourage interest in the origins of the music. They were very encouraged by the success of “George Webb’s Dixielanders” and promoted the band through concerts and commercial recordings. As the number of fans and other bands grew, musicians such as Humphrey Lyttleton and Chris Barber for example – came on the scene.
Then something awful happened for two reasons. The first was a lack of decent pianos, or any pianos at all. The second was a shortage of pianists able to play in the traditional style AND fit into a rhythm section which was supposed to swing. The result was the emergence of a very successful band led by Chris Barber without a pianist. The rhythm section was dominated by the banjo of Lonnie Donegan. Through no fault of his, and almost without noticing it, the band began to play with a kind of rhythm which bore little relation to early jazz. It also promoted a strange kind of jerky jazz dance which became very popular. Several other bands were infected. Then, somehow, this aberration became a total disaster. Someone more in touch than me can possibly give a date to it. I think it began in 1957, when Acker Bilk arrived in town and his band started a trend for uniforms which others quickly adopted. Soon there were bands dressed as cowboys, gamblers, waiters, city gents. Somehow this trend embraced the Banjo dominated music to become a monster. British “Trad” was born. There was immediate commercial success. The traditional jazz started by George Webb had become a major part of British popular music. Suddenly it inflated to become this ugly monster with little musical merit and no resemblance to the early jazz by which it claimed to be inspired.
In 1962 there was a film about it, “That’s Trad, Dad” but, as is often the case, the film was too late. The monster really had no substance and would not have sustained popular interest for very long. It was swept aside by the Beatles and the Stones and a whole new music driven by great energy and imagination. The music begun by George Webb was able to return to the care of semi-professional musicians in the back rooms of local pubs.