When the MV Empire Windrush docked near London in 1948, it didn’t “just” bring the workforce that would become the backbone of the National Health Service and London Transport, it brought a group of incredibly creative and talented individuals who would transform British culture and how it was perceived by the rest of world.
To close this year’s Black History Month, we wanted to highlight the Windrush Generation’s contribution to UK Jazz and pay homage to some of the musicians whose arrival and presence marked the dawn of a new, multicultural Britain.
Lord Kitchener, The King of Calypso (Trinidad)
Better known by his stage name, Lord Kitchener, Aldwyn Roberts was a regular presence on BBC radio within two years of arriving in the UK, immediately building a vast following in the expatriate community of the West Indian islands, who saw themselves in his lyrics about home. His live performances were in huge demand in the UK and the US after his song London Is the Place For Me, written during his journey from Jamaica, became a hit. Lord Kitchener’s Calypso tunes would remain an important influence in British jazz for generations to come.
Mona Baptiste (Trinidad)
One of the few women onboard the MV Empire Windrush, Mona took it upon herself to perform and entertain her fellow passengers. A natural-born star, she had been singing on the radio since the age of 14. Mona would later stand out in the 1950s thriving black music scene in London as the voice of the Windrush Blues, leading her to become famous in the UK and Germany for her work as a musical actress.
Russell Henderson (Trinidad)
Russell Henderson travelled to London in 1951 to study piano-tuning. He originally learned music by ear, copying his older sisters. In the 1960s, his flair for merging Jazz and Calypso, and to go from percussion to the piano in a beat made him a regular performer at the Coleherne and the 606 Club. In 1966, when he started a procession with a steelpan around his neck, people followed. The crowd grew bigger and bigger every year to become one of the most important celebrations of multicultural Britain – the Notting Hill Carnival.
Shake Keane (St Vincent)
Keane started playing the trumpet when he was 6. By the time he was 14 he was working as a bandleader in St Vincent. His nickname Shake – from Shakespeare – came from his love of language, a passion he nurtured alongside his musical ambitions. After coming to London in 1952 Keane started studying Literature at London University during the day and playing in Soho nightclubs in the evenings. Kean played with some of the most influential musicians of his time, recording with Lord Kitchener and later playing the flugelhorn in Joe Harriott’s band. Harriott praised him as the partner he had always wanted and the two worked symbiotically to develop Harriott’s famous free form jazz. His prize-winning poem collections, The Volcano Suite and One a Week With Water were hugely acclaimed for his imaginative commentary on Caribbean society.
Dizzy Reece (Jamaica)
“The Kingston-born trumpeter who remains one of bop’s great enigmas”. Son of a silent cinema pianist, Dizzy described his career to Jazz Times in 2003 with a single word: “struggle”. His contribution to hard bop is said to have changed the genre. Before moving to New York in 1959 where he experienced the Big Apple’s jazz scene with all its highs and lows for a Caribbean born musician, Reece lived in London where he was working with the likes of Victor Feldman and Tubby Hayes. He was one of only a few non-Americans to be signed with Blue Note in the 1950s. With admirers like Miles Davis singing his praise, he became a cult figure among jazz fans.
Sterling Betancourt MBE (Trinidad)
Sterling’s influence in British culture goes well beyond his contribution to UK Jazz. As a member of TASPO (Trinidad All-Steel Percussion Orchestra) Betancourt travelled to the UK to take part in the Festival of Britain in 1951. Fortunately for us, he decided to stay. Sterling took his steelpan everywhere, and with it the Trinidadian Carnival tradition that would give us Notting Hill Carnival. He was appointed as a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in the New Year Honours 2002 for services to the steel band movement and in 2004, he received a Fellowship of the Royal Society.
Despite the hardships, the culture shock, the longing for home, and the unfair treatment they had to endure, the Windrush Generation immeasurably contributed to the UK’s rich tapestry of multiculturalism. Without them, British Jazz (and culture at large) as would not be possible.
We know! You’ve got your own favourite musicians that we didn’t mention. If you’d like to tell us who we missed and why it’s important we talk about them RIGHT NOW – just send us a message and we’ll get right on it!