How jazz reinvigorated interwar Britain: Financial Times


https://www.ft.com/content/e40b4a4c-04fe-11e8-9e12-af73e8db3c71
 
How jazz reinvigorated interwar Britain
A new exhibition explores the social change that was afoot as the anarchic beat of ragtime hit London
February 2, 2018

Edward Burra’s ‘The Band’ (1934) © Lefevre Fine Art/British Council
They are not shoes for a quiet night in, or for a retiring personality. With high heels and glimmering gold-and-green uppers, they feature Art Deco buckles and diamanté detailing: a good time is practically guaranteed. It comes as a surprise, then, to learn that this glamorous footwear has a decidedly humble provenance — the Co-operative Wholesale Society.
It is through such objects that Rhythm & Reaction, a compact but ambitious exhibition at Two Temple Place in London, traces the far-reaching impact of jazz in interwar Britain. Curator Catherine Tackley’s multimedia approach, using artefacts from UK regional museums, looks beyond the music to social life, technology and design, yet also manages to put the jazz back into the jazz age.
The shoes testify to the music’s mass appeal. They date from the early 1920s, a period of gleaming new ballrooms, raised hemlines and the shimmies, shakes and kicks of new dance fashions. Footwear was required that could cope with the need for speed and for display — and in a quantity that attracted the attention of mass retailers such as the Co-op.
Nearby, William Roberts’s 1923 painting “The Dance Club (The Jazz Party)” is one of several evocative artworks that depict social dancing between the wars. Here though, the musicians glimpsed in other images — as in Thomas Cantrell Dugdale’s teeming “Night” (1926), where the faces of two black performers are all but eclipsed by a crowd of white dancers — are nowhere to be seen. Instead, Roberts’s dancers move animatedly to music playing on a phonograph, a couple of discs carelessly strewn on a table occupied by a group of men. Record-playing equipment had evolved into small, easily port­able forms that took it from the home into public venues.
To some, jazz was a threatening force. At first, it was often caricatured in cartoons and postcards (with greater or lesser degrees of racial stereotyping). WK Haselden’s 1913 cartoon strip opens on a man leaving the house “to escape rag-time scales” and concludes as he heads to the asylum.

Gold 1920s dance shoes © Northampton Museum and Art Gallery
To others, the music came freighted with licentious connotations — especially in certain contexts. In 1926 “The Breakdown” by Scottish painter JB Souter was commended at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. It showed a formally dressed black musician, seated on a toppled statue of Minerva as he plays saxophone. Next to him a naked white woman dances with abandon. The painting was removed within a week, after the Colonial Office complained that it “was considered to be obnoxious to British subjects living abroad in daily contact with a coloured population”. Souter destroyed the painting, and the work on display here is a copy that the artist made towards the end of his life.
Although many of those playing jazz in Britain were white, African-Americans had long toured Britain’s variety circuit with minstrel shows, revues and ragtime bands. During the banjo craze of the late 19th century even the Prince of Wales took banjo lessons. The exhibition has a scene-setting group of instruments, a plinkety-plunk soundtrack and clashing images of racial caricature and theatrical formality.
The date of jazz’s arrival in Britain is usually set at 1919, when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band — an all-white troupe of musicians from New Orleans — performed at the London Palladium and then at the newly built Hammersmith Palais de Danse. But the groundwork had been laid by the acts that came before.
To modern ears early jazz sounds a bit like ragtime, but with a lot more bounce. It has a quaint feel, even with the exhibition’s headphones up to the max. But at the time, nobody had heard instruments played quite like this before, and certainly not without a page of sheet music in sight. The ODJB’s gigs were a sensation and the idea of jazz — accurate or not — spread like wildfire.

A 1929 edition of Melody Maker © National Jazz Archive
The demand for jazz music, and hence musicians, soon outstripped supply. One solution was to import American and West Indian jazz musicians — here there is concert memorabilia of Louis Armstrong, looking snappy in plus-fours, and Coleman Hawkins taking afternoon tea. A more depressing image is also on show: Sidney Bechet’s police mugshot. The clarinettist, who came to London in 1919 with the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, was deported in 1922 after serving a two-week sentence for assaulting a woman. Bechet went on to introduce the soprano sax to the jazz repertoire, after buying one in London.
The mainstay, though, were British musicians drawn from the pit orchestras and dance bands of the day. So great was demand that Melody Maker magazine came into being as a trade paper for dance band musicians. Players learned their craft from recordings, or from socialising with Americans in Soho’s after-hours bars. That ended in 1935, when a Board of Trade exchange agreement in effect prevented American jazz musicians from working in the UK.
By then, the music had changed. The show’s soundtrack switches from the anarchic improvisation of the early years to smooth orchestral swing, and the dancing portrayed is less individualistic. Even the instruments evolved too. Drum kits such as the 1936-37 red-and-gold Premier Swingster “Full Dress” weren’t around when jazz first came into being. The paraphernalia of pedals, high-hats and stands was invented to help the music swing.
Rhythm & Reaction shows jazz feeding into broader changes too, with a visible effect on social life — from dance to home entertainment and design.
It’s a complex story but, thanks to a clear timeline and well-signposted narrative threads, the main points are clearly made. And crucially, the music gets its due: each room has its own soundtrack, tracing the evolving sound and adding depth to the displays. To paraphrase Duke Ellington, who toured the UK at this time to great acclaim, it wouldn’t mean a thing without it.
‘Rhythm & Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain’, to April 22, twotempleplace.org
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