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Jazz Timeline

Pre 1900

The origins of jazz

The music we now know as ‘jazz’ is thought to have its roots in nineteenth century America, when black music and entertainment became popular following the abolition of slavery. African-American work-songs, blues and melodies, spirituals and rhythms naturally fused with European music and instruments to form a new type of music. In 1873, an Afro-American capella group, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, visited the UK on a fundraising tour and was asked to sing for Queen Victoria. They were followed into Britain by a variety of Afro-American performers, including minstrel shows and revues.

Image: The Fisk Jubilee Singers c1890s © Fisk University


New Strands, New Sounds

Ragtime became central to the development of jazz in America and Britain around the turn of the century. It was named after its syncopated or ‘ragged’ rhythm. The availability of printed sheet-music meant that Ragtime became available for performance by dance and theatre orchestras. Early rags like Charles Johnson’s ‘Dill Pickles’ and George Botsford’s ‘Black and White Rag’ were also widely performed by parlour-pianists at home. Scott Joplin became known as ‘The King of Ragtime’ and wrote many of the genre’s most famous compositions, including ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ in 1899.


A Unique Genre is Recognised

During this decade, ‘jass’ or jazz became established as a musical genre. It drew on a rich variety of sources including ragtime, blues and popular songs – and was based largely on ‘improvisation’ rather than reading from a musical score.

New Orleans became the home of jazz thanks to a thriving community of musicians. The music was played at a wide variety of social functions such as dances, picnics, street events and even funerals, and quickly gained popularity across the USA. February 1917 saw the release of what is believed to be the first jazz record, ‘Dixie Jass Band One Step/Livery Stable Blues’. It was recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, who arrived in London in 1919 along with the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. These bands inspired a community of musicians and fans in Britain and helped launch our own ‘jazz age’.

Image: Original Dixieland Jazz Band programme from The Palladium, Argyll Street, London, 1919. National Jazz Archive.


The Dawn of the British Jazz Age

By the mid-1920s, jazz was thriving in Britain. Its popularity was boosted by the Melody Maker, a music newspaper which first appeared in January 1926, as well as by radio programmes from the recently launched British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Jazz records from America became more readily available in Britain. Although early records were mainly by white artists, those by Afro-American players such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington soon followed. Aspiring British musicians primarily working in dance-bands were able to learn from American jazz performers on record and in person. Home grown British jazz stars such as double-bassist Patrick Cairns ‘Spike’ Hughes also achieved prominence at this time. 1927 saw the publication of the first British book on Jazz, ‘The Appeal of Jazz’ by R.W.S Mendl.


Influence and Establishment

The arrival of influential American jazz musicians was a massive boost for the London jazz scene. Louis Armstrong came in 1932, Duke Ellington in 1933, and others followed setting challenging standards for their British counterparts. These included saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter and, later, pianists Art Tatum and Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller. Another visitor was the brilliant Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt who, with violinist Stéphane Grappelli, played in London in 1938 with their Quintette du Hot Club de France.

The BBC regularly broadcast live events from London hotels which helped introduce jazz to a national audience. London nightclubs like the ‘Bag o’ Nails’, ‘Nuthouse’ and ‘Nest’ provided outlets for jazz musicians to let off steam, away from their usual dance-band employment. By the late 1930s many British musicians, including trumpeter Nat Gonella and his band the ‘Georgians’, had built important solo reputations.


Divide & Conquer

The danceable and highly-skilled music of the Swing Era (1935-45) as played by Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and others, helped carry Britain through the Second World War. Nightclubs were as popular as ever. New performers like George Shearing and Harry Parry arrived on the scene and broadcast on the BBC, and Britain’s jazz community was further enriched by the influx of West Indian musicians.

At this point, jazz divided into two musical groups: modern jazz (or Bebop) and traditional jazz Revivalism. Bebop, whose most enduring American icon is alto-saxophonist Charlie Parker, expanded the possibilities of improvisation, while Revivalism sought to re-engage jazz with its traditional New Orleans roots. Prominent post-war modernists in Britain included John Dankworth and Ronnie Scott, while high-profile Revivalists included George Webb’s Dixielanders and Humphrey Lyttelton.

Image: Programme from Queensbury Jazz Club, 1942.


Transatlantic Exchange

The 1950s was the last decade in which jazz remained a youth culture. It produced a galaxy of British jazz stars and groups, including Ronnie Scott’s nine-piece group, Humphrey Lyttelton and his band, and the ‘Jazz Couriers’. Ronnie Scott opened his Jazz Club in London’s Gerrard Street in 1959, moving to Frith Street in 1967, while other clubs flourished across London and the UK. In 1956 the government’s ban on American musicians performing in the UK was finally lifted after 21 years. Stan Kenton and Louis Armstrong played in London that year, and others to follow included Lionel Hampton and Sidney Bechet. Traditional jazz band leader Chris Barber sowed the seeds of what would become a major musical revolution in the 1960s by popularising Skiffle and touring with blues and gospel artists, including Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.


A change is gonna come…

British Trad Boom stars - Kenny Ball, Acker Bilk and Chris Barber – topped the hit parade, before rock music redefined popular culture from 1963. But jazz continued to develop as an underground movement and American legends still toured Britain to full theatres.

Following the American innovations of saxophonists Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, British artists began to explore ‘free jazz’ which deliberately challenged the existing rules of improvisation. Jazz also responded to the new sounds of the rock revolution. In 1965 the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) was founded by Musical Director Bill Ashton OBE, and has since maintained its position as Britain’s university for young jazz musicians. British Jazz continued to consolidate its European identity, moving further away from its formative American inspirations.


Arrivals and departures

Throughout the decade, a variety of groups continued to fuse the genres of rock and jazz. ‘Nucleus’, a pioneering British band formed in 1969 by trumpeter Ian Carr, gained popularity playing and recording music based loosely on the jazz-rock innovations of Miles Davis. With the passing of icons such as Louis Armstrong in 1971, Duke Ellington in 1974 and others, jazz’s first-generation giants began to leave the scene.

Meanwhile multicultural ensembles including Chris MacGregor’s ‘Brotherhood of Breath’ and Dudu Pukwana’s ‘Spear’ continued to bring new and vibrant musical influences to Britain’s contemporary jazz scene. John Dankworth and Cleo Laine founded the educational ‘Wavendon All Music Plan’. From 1973, as a musical duo they would be the first to conquer America and Europe, and would do so for the next thirty years. John Dankworth was awarded a CBE in 1974 and a knighthood in 2006 for services to music.


Jazz is Alive and Well

A new generation of black British musicians helped to reenergise the UK jazz scene, among them pianist Julian Josephs and saxophonists Courtney Pine and Steve Williamson. In 1984, pianist-composer and arranger Django Bates became a founder member of ‘Loose Tubes’, an ensemble which presented a challenging and original fusion of most jazz styles. In 1987, it became the first jazz band to play the BBC Proms. Other significant new arrivals included Julian and Steve Arguelles and Iain Ballamy. The Association of British Jazz Musicians was founded in 1987 and the National Jazz Archive (by trumpeter Digby Fairweather) in 1988. In the UK, jazz recordings provided the basis for a new and flourishing jazz dance movement centred on London.


Jazz on the airwaves and beyond

The influence of jazz continued to spread. 1992 saw the launch of Jazz FM, Britain’s first radio station dedicated to jazz which continues to broadcast today. It was founded by pianist-composer Dave Lee. In the same year, Digby Fairweather founded the Jazz Section of the British Musicians’ Union. The Jazz Café opened in Camden, London, in 1990 and is still an active music venue. In 1997, singer Cleo Laine was awarded a DBE (Dame Commander), and Jazzwise Publications launched their award winning ‘Jazzwise’ monthly magazine. Female jazz performers flourished, among them singer Tina May and pianists Nikki Yeoh and Nikki Iles. Meanwhile acid jazz - combining elements of jazz, soul, funk and hip-hop and utilising looped beats – evolved in London dance clubs and grew in popularity across the globe.


A new century

By now, seven of Britain’s music conservatoires offered full-time degree courses in jazz. In 2000, Northway Books directed by Ann Cotterrell published the first of eighteen British-based jazz books.

In 2001 Humphrey Lyttelton’s band collaborated with Radiohead on their track ‘Life in a Glass House’. Classic FM’s sister station, The Jazz - dedicated to broadcasting jazz 24-hours a day - was launched in 2006 but sadly closed down in 2008.

Jamie Cullum made his first television appearance on the Michael Parkinson show in April 2003, and shortly after signed a £1m contract for three albums. Pianist-presenter Jools Holland also attracted a new audience for jazz and blues. Singer Clare Teal signed first for Alan Bates’ Candid label and then for Sony Records. More new musicians continued to refresh the British jazz scene, notably saxophonist Soweto Kinch and pianist Gwlym Simcock.

2010 -

The Future…?

After almost a hundred years of British history, jazz in every style continues to enjoy success despite limited media recognition. Black British traditions in jazz have been strengthened by the reassessment of long-neglected musicians such as saxophonist Joe Harriott and his collaborator, bassist Coleridge Goode. Dutch singer Caro Emerald’s jazz-influenced debut album ‘Deleted Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor’ set an all-time record on 20 August 2010, spending 30 weeks at the top of the Dutch album chart. Other established contemporary jazz musicians include pianist Zoë Rahman and saxophonist Karen Sharp, as well as groups such as ‘Beats and Pieces’ and the Manchester-based ‘Go Go Penguin’. Artists such as composer-saxophonist Trish Clowes continue to explore jazz’s crossovers with other areas of music.

In the words of bandleader Lionel Hampton in 1939, ‘Stand by for further announcements (and more good news)’.


If you'd like to read an indepth timeline of British jazz you can download one by clicking here.