A Very British Winter…

Did The Beatles and Shakespeare help create modern European jazz?

There was a period in British jazz when musicians turned to the country’s distant past to help create a unique, modern and very British sound. The causes for such patriotic stirrings were the pop bands of the time, in particular The Beatles and their success across the Atlantic. The resulting music was often a strange mix – from Shakespearean lyrics over big band arrangements to Elizabethan Madrigal harmonies under post-Monk melodies – and its purpose was to broaden the appeal of British jazz so it could compete with The Beatles for America’s attention and respect. It didn’t quite succeed.

This is an article from 1964.

I find this article a fascinating insight into the mind frame of those on the British jazz scene in the 1960’s, when musicians believed their art was being further ostracised due the success of others. Staples’ insistence that for jazz to become popular again Big Bands must play electronic instruments, is a joy to read – a prophecy of Miles Davis’ rock direction, which would start 4 years later and be inevitably imitated by our own musicians, such as Ian Carr’s Nucleus – yet I want to focus on a line in the first paragraph…

“What a pity it isn’t English bands with an individual sound that are in demand over there.”

In the same year this article was published, the below album was released. What’s more English than Shakespeare?!

Musically the arrangements ARE inventive and original (for their time, I hasten to add) and Cleo’s voice is great throughout – she demonstrates great range, if a little stretched, on Take All My Love (Sonnet 40) for example – which is actually an adaptation of Ellington’s and Strayhorn’s Sonnet For Hank Cinq. What I like about this track in particular is John Dankworth’s arrangement of humour in the melody as Cleo, in unison with vibes, is taken on a roller coaster of pitch. Add to this a structural device of juxtaposing different musical sections, some noodling clarinet, and a final vocal note that’s both sustained and dissonant, and you have a quirky little number. Listening to this record in 2012 it’s important to consciously cast aside any initial thoughts of labelling this record as cheesy. It’s certainly not cool anymore (if it ever was), not even in a knowing, ironic sense, but there is some great music here.

I’m also drawn to Witches, Fair And Foul. The opening meandering piano accompaniment has a touch of Erroll Garner about it (it doesn’t fit in to the cool or bop school with its natural rawness, the chords subtly lay the beat, ascending and descending countermelodies wrap the melody etc.) and Cleo’s legato vocal line (smothered in reverb) only increases the intros deam-like feel. Humour, and some good use of technology, then interject as Cleo morphs and adapts her multiple vocals, which are also overdubbed, allowing her to sing three different lines at once. Her tone is unrecognisable as she performs all three parts of Macbeth’s witches in an am-dram fashion.

Humour.  It had a short lived affair with British jazz.

“At the beginning of the 1960s the British scene consisted mainly of a small, hip core of America-orientated musicians, who wore neat suits, were totally unflamboyant, and despised pop music.” – Ian Carr, Music Outside, page 25.

If you were to replace “neat suits” with jeans and converses and “America-orientated” with “Europe-orientated”, would that not sum up the 2010s?

I digress. With this album Dankworth and Cleo were trying to push the music forward in an accessible way, rejecting what their peers thought was the proper, cool way to play and compose. Also, by conserving the past they’d done it in a very British way. It wasn’t the first time they’d tried to evoke a British passion for jazz by utilising historical literary figureheads. A year previous to Shakespeare Dankworth had recorded the big band album, What The Dickens? And in 1959 Cleo had recorded four Arthur Young arrangements of Shakespeare settings, which were then re-recorded for Shakespeare.

10 years later a new(er) generation of British players gathered in Southwark cathedral to celebrate the Bard of Avon’s tercentenary. The list of players reads like a who’s who of the times – Stan Tracey, Gordon Beck, John Taylor, Kenny Wheeler, Norma Winstone, Pepi Lemer, Neil Ardley, Ian Carr, Mike Gibbs, Tony Coe, Trevor Tomkins, Ron Matthewson, Colin Walker, Kenny Wheeler and Paul Buckmaster. Times had changed. Jazz had changed. Yet British musicians were again turning to the countries favourite literary son as a musical muse.

I’ve discovered a great review of Will Power here. You can find John Fordham’s 2005 review of it’s re-release here.

These musicians had obviously read the words of Jimmy Staples! Electricity runs through most of these commissioned works, which are quite lengthy and indulgent at times (it was originally released as a double vinyl set). Sonnet’s intro, the 19 minute Mike Gibbs opener, has a modal, slightly middle eastern vibe, very fitting of the time. And yet, whether it’s simply because I know the inspiration behind this track or something more musical (the eery drones?), It stirs images of Shakespeare’s countryside. Vast open fields, dark swampy woodlands (at 3:06 you hear percussive scrapes reminiscent of frogs and toads).

Winstone’s and Lemer’s vocals are both startling and enticing. They trap you, keeping you listening, eager for some musical development, yet it would seem wrong to scroll the iPod. An aural test, perhaps? Once the beat and bass line steps in we have some post-Jack Johnson jazz-rock. The groove is solid and Wheeler really goes for it in a biting, stabbing trumpet solo. The piano solos don’t work. Chord cluster bombs are dropped across the keyboard carelessly, little rhythmic motifs fail to build any intensity, I sense not all musicians were fully on board. The re-introduction of the vocals at the 16:40 minute mark is reminiscent of the Dirty Harry soundtrack. As I said, it’s of its time.

Ron Matthewson’s bass playing is exemplary throughout. His counterpoint work saves the tunes at times, particularly on Neil Ardley’s Shall I Compare Thee. The fender rhodes playing is crisp and glacial, evoking and pushing the melody in an inventive and graceful way, yet without the weight of Matthewson, Shall I Compare Thee would risk becoming limp.

Much like Witches, Fair and Foul, Charade For The Bard utilises über dramatic vocal utterances. These improvised spasmodic announcements are reflected in the instrumentation, and it’s at this point you wish for the fender rhodes to be increased in the mix. They make way for a stereotypical funk vamp from the rhythm section, which, as quickly as it is introduced, then disappears for more quirky glottal shouts. This pattern of fading musical sections for non-musical sections repeats. The bizarre nature of it all reminds me of a horrible scene from The Devils, where a leading nun suffers the nightmarish torture of a confession. Not appealing to my ears.

Alas Sweet Lady is my favourite track on the album, which isn’t surprising as it’s a Stan Tracey ballad. I’m sorry to say but the vocals let it down. There’s a great Tony Coe sax solo within this tune, and gorgeous playing from all instrumentalists, then at the 4:52 minute mark everyone, apart from Tracey, makes way for some aural indulgence. The finale, Will’s Birthday Suite (again, humour!), a 30 minute Ian Carr epic, is in the Nucleus mould – tight jazz-funk riffs, strong melodies, sections fading in and out, Carr unafraid to give the musicians as much space as they need – and I particularly enjoyed the Stan Tracey on Rhodes open solo which starts at the 11:10 minute mark. It’s genuinely like a more sophisticated (British) Keith Jarrett exploration on Miles Davis’ Cellar Door Sessions.

The vocal theatrics make sense. These composers/musicians used a playwright for inspiration. Yet, whilst I don’t think it makes for great jazz I do recognise that these are important records in the British jazz canon. Both albums have explicit musical characteristics typical of their respective era, yet both were trying to develop their period simply by attempting to stir up the past. Unsurprisingly Kenny Wheeler, a figurehead of modern jazz, a man who epitomises the direction jazz and jazz education eventually went in Britain, wasn’t just present on Will Power, he was also on Shakespeare And All That Jazz!

Dankworth predicted the future of British, even European jazz. The idea of looking at ones own past, not trying to emulate another countries, to create a national sound. What Will Power helped developed was the modal, droning, vamping nature of modern Euro jazz. Jazz not restricted by typical chord changes, allowing simplified, more classical harmony to support the melody. The use of voice as instrument might have started with Ellington, but it was the likes of Winstone who adopted it, giving the technique a specific European feel.

Shakespeare and pastoral Britain didn’t disappear straight away. Little musical quotes that are reminiscent of an Elizabethan ayre or an ‘Ye Olde Folk Song’ can still heard in British jazz of the mid to late 70s. Here is an extract of a Stan Tracey Solo bootleg, recorded in 1978 at the Bracknell Jazz Festival. Home Counties jazz.

Cleo Laine did eventually get the highest form of American appreciation. in 1983 she won a Grammy award for Best Female Jazz Vocalist for Cleo at Carnegie: The 10th Anniversary Concert. No Shakespeare was heard, but Dankworth did utilise a more Germanic past. Again, humour. It’s not a bad thing.

There must have been something in the water during this period. Jazz wasn’t the only form of entertainment utilising the past to develop the present. British horror also turned to the pastoral, folky scenery of the British countryside to create some really disturbing imagery and scenarios. Witch Finder General, Bloody Judge, The Wicker Man and The Blood On Satan’s Claw all epitomise this short lived sub genre. Mark Gatiss discussed this on his brilliant TV series A History Of Horror. A website dedicated to this period of film making has also been created.

Was the creation of Euro jazz imperialistic? Was the idea that we had to have our own jazz, a British jazz, a white jazz that now falls in line with Europe rather than America, expansionist in it’s design to be a dominant force? It’s a difficult subject but I believe it is, slightly, but it’s also an inevitable occurrence. What I hate to imagine, and I’m sure it’s not the case, is that anyone was condescendingly trying to ‘civilise’ the music. Musicians simply wanted to have their own slice of the greatest art form produced during the 20th Century.

Whilst Shakespeare and jazz did not have a lasting relationship there was one record which, to quote Colm “Red” Sullivan, is for the ages – Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder, released two years prior to Cleo’s first foray with Shakespeare (and contains Sonnet For Hank Cinq). What a strange thought, the idea that Duke Ellington, black Americana incarnate, got there first! An even weirder consideration might be that had Duke not released this record, would any Brits had even thought about turning to the Bard?!

As previously stated whilst Shakespeare didn’t last utilising folk song, particularly from our European neighbours, did. The formation of a stream of jazz consumed by nationally internal escapism lives on. It is celebrated in all the broadsheets and is referred to in all the educational establishments. Jimmy Staples was right when he predicted a more overtly British jazz sound, and he was also correct when he said British groups need to adapt their instrumentation. I just don’t think it happened the way he would have wanted.

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About Will Rodway

what you hear, what you read...
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4 Responses to A Very British Winter…

  1. Pingback: Updates, Notifications Et cetera, Et cetera… | Sure, Nuff!

  2. Chris K says:

    I’ve not heard of Will Power, is there any way to hear it/download it or even buy it?!

  3. Chris K says:

    Reblogged this on Musings of an English Major and commented:
    Since I love Cleo Laine and British Jazz, I thought this was a particularly interesting read.

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