Part 4 | Black British Jazz: From ‘Snakehips’ Johnson to the Jazz Warriors (Part. 2)

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In our final post for Black History Month 2020 we explore the range of black diaspora music in the UK from the 1960s on; including Joe Harriott, the Jazz Warriors and the Blue Notes.

The arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush at Tilbury Dock marked the beginning of a new chapter in British history, where talented Caribbean musicians forged a black-British identity for future generations. But the 60s also witnessed a South African brand of jazz, which carried with it the struggles against the institutionalised racial segregation they experienced back home during Apartheid.

Joe Harriott

Initially a bebopper, Kingston-born Joe Harriott became a pioneer of free-form jazz. Harriott moved to the United Kingdom as a working musician in 1951 and became part of a wave of Caribbean jazz musicians who arrived in Britain during the 1950s, including Dizzy ReeceHarold McNairHarry Beckett and Wilton Gaynair.

Like the majority of alto players of his generation, he was deeply influenced by Charlie Parker. Harriott developed a style that fused Parker with his own Jamaican musical sensibility – most notably the mento and calypso music he grew up with. Even in his later experiments, Harriott’s roots were always audible. However, it was his mastery of bebop that gained him immediate kudos within the British jazz scene upon his arrival in London. 

The Joe Harriott Quintet – ABSTRACT (Capitol Records, 1962)

After several stints in a variety of bands and projects throughout the 50s, the 1960s saw Harriott take on a more abstract approach to his playing. What followed was a very distinctive form of free improvisation referred to as ‘free-form’, which was happening at almost exactly the same time that New York’s Ornette Coleman was developing his own experimental music, ‘free-jazz’.

Instead of the steady pulse of Ornette’s drummer and bass player, Harriott’s model demanded constant dialogue between musicians, which created an ever-shifting soundscape. The presence of pianist Pat Smythe also gave the band a completely different texture to Coleman’s, which had dispensed with the need for a pianist early on. Harriott’s own playing style underwent some changes during this period, dispensing with orthodox bebop lines in favour of more angular, cut up phrasing. What remained however, was his lyricism, searing tone and sense of attack.

Joe Harriott Double Quintet – Raga Gaud-Saranga (Recorded in London, Lansdowne Studios, October 10, 1965)

Harriott incorporated bebop, calypso and post-bop elements into his music and pushed the boundaries of jazz. He would go on to work with violinist John Mayer to pioneer a second wave of influential jazz called ‘indo-jazz’, involved a “double quintet” of five Indian and five jazz musicians (which you can sample in the video above). The project attempted to fused elements of jazz with traditional Indian motifs and Instrumentation into a rich musical tapestry. This involved a “double quintet” of five Indian and five jazz musicians playing together on a number of compositions largely conceived by Mayer.

Since his death, Harriott’s often overlooked contribution to the birth of free jazz has gradually been recognised. While he influenced important European free jazz pioneers such as John StevensEvan Parker and Albert Mangelsdorff. Despite the admiration of such figures as Charles Mingus, Harriotts legacy suffered mightily from lazy journalistic comparisons with Ornette Coleman, but many British players such as Courtney PineGary Crosby and more recently Soweto Kinch have openly acknowledged his influence on their own careers.

Joe Harriott & the Stan Tracey Big Brass pay tribute to Duke Ellington with “In a Sentimental Mood” (1969).

For more on Joe Harriott, check out Holding out for a hero: Soweto Kinch on Joe Harriott here!

Jazz 625

In 1964 the BBC launched a new jazz programme entitled Jazz 625. The programme began at the end of the dispute between the Musician’s Union and the American Federation of Musicians (see Part 3 for details). This meant that well known musicians from the United States could come to Britain for the first time since the 1930s. This permitted the programme to broadcast performances and interviews with great American artists like Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson and the Modern Jazz Quartet. It also showcased musicians in the new wave of British jazz like Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott and John Dankworth and helped promote the burgeoning scene to the British public.

‘Parisian Thoroughfare’ by the Tubby Hayes band on Jazz 625 (1964)

The Sounds of South Africa

In the 1970s South African Jazz found a home in London by way of musician Chris McGregor. Born in Somerset his family relocated to South Africa. By day he was studying European contemporary classical composition and by night he was listening to Abdullah Ibrahim (aka Dollar Brand) and playing the music of Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington

McGregor formed his own band ‘The Blue Notes’, a racially mixed ensemble, but due to the Apartheid laws that enforced the segregation of white and black South Africans the group was never accepted under the regime. In 1964 the band left South Africa bound for Europe. They would settle in London and their irresistible mix of hard bop and township music in the mould of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers was a real hit.

French TV captures South Africa’s Blue Notes in Antibes in 1964.

The Blue Notes embody the beauty of South African jazz in the 1960s, and the dynamics of its struggles during and against apartheid. The ensemble began in 1959 after a meeting between two of South Africa’s most revered jazz artists, both of whom died in exile. One was pianist and alto saxophonist Mtutuzeli ‘Dudu’ Pukwana, the other pianist Chris McGregor. By 1964 the other four members were cemented: Louis Moholo-Moholo on drums (the only surviving member), Nikele ‘Nick’ Moyake on tenor saxophone, Mongezi Feza on trumpet and Johnny Mbizo Dyani on double bass.

Unfortunately, their arrival in the mid-60s coincided with a downturn in the fortunes of jazz in the UK, as recording and gigging opportunities began drying up. There is also the suspicion that they were deliberately frozen out of the British scene by established local musicians, who considered them a threat to their own opportunities.

Louis Moholo in “The Blue Notes and Exiled Voices” with extracts of “Viva la Black” and “Brotherhood of Breath”.

The Blue Notes could be found playing almost exclusively at The Old Place in Gerrard Street, the former home of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club which had recently been transformed into a virtual laboratory for the emerging British avant garde jazz scene. Because of this, they are still considered a seminal influence on the new generation of British jazz musicians coming through in the late 1960s. Artists such as Keith TippettEvan ParkerJohn Stevens and John Surman have long hailed them as true pioneers and a massive influence.

They are now considered one of the great free jazz bands of their era, whose music was given a unique flavour by their integration of African styles such as Kwela into the progressive jazz ideas of the time.

McGregor also formed his own large ensemble ‘Brotherhood’ of Breath’ where he was reunited with former members of ‘The Blue Notes’, including saxophonist Dudu Pukwana and Drummer Louis Moholo. The band also included London musicians Evan Parker, John Surman, Harry Becket. It mixed South African Jazz with Free improvisation and was very vibrant and experimental.   

Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath (1970)

Loose Tubes

1980s was a period when British musicians were coming to the forefront and redefining the British Sound. ‘Loose Tubes’ was a collective of young British Musicians that had an eclectic taste in music and combined jazz with hi-life, samba, funk and fusion music.  It was the launchpad for the careers for Django Bates, Mark Lockhart, Julian Argüelles, Iain Ballamy and a many more musicians who would later start their own critically acclaimed ensembles.jar

Loose Tubes – Children’s Games

The Jazz Warriors

Another collective of musicians that would have a profound effect on the British Jazz scene was ‘The Jazz Warriors’. It showcased some of the most talented black musicians in the country including Courtney Pine, Steve Willamson, Julian Joseph, Gary Crosby, Jason Yarde, Cleveland Watkiss and Orphy Robinson. Heavily influenced by all music from the black diaspora their music fused jazz with South Africa music, funk, reggae. 

The Jazz Warriors – Out of many one People

The Jazz Warriors released only one album: Out of Many, One People, in 1987. They continued performing and touring under the leadership of pianist Adrian Reid, with the help of a committee formed from senior members of the Warriors, until formally closing in the late 1990s.

Certain new young members continued to gain national prominence and further highlighting the talent pool of young Black musicians attracted to the Jazz Warriors; these included Dennis Rollins, Winston Rollins, Robert Mitchell, Clarence AdooByron WallenRowland SutherlandTony Kofi, Robert Fordjour, Steve and Peter Lewinson, Tony Remy and Patrick Clahar.

“They told us the streets were paved with gold but instead they must have meant cold,” were the words my own father used to describe his culture shock after travelling to Britain. Meaningful employment, accommodation and the openly displayed policy of ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ all presented their own hurdles to settling in the ‘motherland’. Music always played an important part in the lives of the Caribbean people and influenced their well-being in these new surroundings. London attracted some of the best musicians, who in turn provided a high level of musicianship to enrich many genres of music in the UK to this day.”

Orphy Robinson, NYJO Vice-Chair
(Excerpt from ‘Windrush: Carried Way Beyond‘)

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading our brief history of jazz music this month. We’ve travelled from Congo Square, New Orleans all the way to the UK (via France the West Indies and South Africa), and look forward to bringing you many more stories of trailblazing artists who forged new forms of expression to reflect their own times.

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