Oxford Jazz
I went up to Oxford in October 1951. Freshmen were immediately besieged by representatives of scores and scores of special interest clubs. I chose one that appeared somewhat anti-establishment and non-political. At the first meeting of the club I suffered a life-changing revelation - I discovered live music the like of which I had never experienced before. I was immediately converted by the sheer exuberance of the music. The band was clearly in love with it, and they would have gone on playing with the same devotion with no audience at all.
It was of course the Oxford University Jazz band, made up of Oxford students, several of them reading chemistry, as it happened. The music they played originated in street bands or honky-tonks in turn-of-the-century New Orleans. By a lucky stroke of fortune my four undergraduate years coincided with a sudden explosive revival of interest in jazz, before it became more widely popular. Many of the new followers reported a similar commitment - once they heard jazz for the first time they were hooked for life.
A typical jazz band consists of three main instruments: cornet (or trumpet), clarinet, and slide trombone, backed by a rhythm section. All three principals played together, weaving the different voices in a way that suggested some magic telepathy between the players. There were solos, but there was no main soloist, each took a turn. I later learned that these modes are known as collective or solo improvisation. The audience seemed entranced, paying rapt attention - there was no dancing; one just sat and listened.
A few dedicated enthusiasts had already discovered 78-rpm records recorded in the early 1920s by musicians who had moved from New Orleans to Chicago, for example Louis Armstrong. An acquaintance from St Hugh's College lent me the key book 'Jazz' by Rex Harris that also listed all the important jazz records. As it happened, that period corresponded with the appearance of records by Humphrey Littleton, an old Etonian, a much more technically accomplished musician than most of those playing in the amateur jazz bands of the time. Each month his band released a new Parlophone record; this was where I started my collection.
In 1951 a jazz trumpet player by the name of Ken Colyer had an epiphany. All the music being played in this new jazz 'revival' was based on records made in Chicago in the 1920s, whereas the 'real thing' (the turn-of-the-century origins of jazz) had not been recorded. Colyer realized that the early jazz musicians would still be playing in their original style in New Orleans, where the likes of George Lewis and Bunk Johnson were still active. In 1952, he re-enlisted in the merchant marine, worked his way by ship to Mobile, Alabama, jumped ship, and caught a Greyhound bus to New Orleans. He sat in with the George Lewis band by midnight of the day of his arrival. He was suddenly in his heaven, completely entranced by the music he heard. Unfortunately he had a shock to come; he was arrested by US immigration for violating the terms of his visa, and in early 1953 he was deported back to England. There he formed the 'Ken Colyer Jazz Band' with trombonist Chris Barber. He named the new jazz 'traditional' as opposed to 'revivalist', and for the rest of his life kept a firm belief that the music of New Orleans was the true genuine article. It was more 'primitive', tended to keep closer to the main musical theme, and lacked the more sophisticated improvisation of the later revivalist jazz. Recently I discovered a New Orleans group ('buskers') playing today, and known as 'Tuba Skinny'. They concentrate on the early New Orleans style and are so popular that they have played to jazz enthusiasts all over the world - Europe, Australia and Japan.
The O.U. Jazz club met in various small rooms in the city. The 'loud noise' was not popular in these environments, but the Oxford Union president, Michael Heseltine, offered the perfect venue, a disused cellar of the Union and that became a permanent home. The Jazz Club, by its very nature, had an anti-establishment streak. Today it is hard to believe quite how oppressive were some of the University rules. Colleges were locked tight after 10.30 pm; 'climbing in' then became the only means of entry. In the case of Lincoln College, this was achieved from the wall of the Rector's garden and through our chemistry tutor's window, having arranged beforehand to have this window left unlatched. In the 1950s the University authorities actively discouraged fraternization between male and female, although weekly 'dances' were tolerated, provided that they were only advertised as 'social evenings'. This rule later led the Proctors to ban the Oxford Jazz Club for an entire summer term for the unforgivable sin of calling one such get-together a 'Jazz Band Ball'. In the event we met surreptitiously at a pub on the Cherwell, the 'Vicky Arms'. Inevitably the most popular piece there was that well-known jazz tune 'Mama Don't Allow No Jazz Band Played in Here' with the obvious substitution.
This golden age of the jazz revival was rather short-lived, although the general popularity of jazz itself throughout the land grew enormously as television became involved. But nothing lasts forever. Gradually some musicians became tempted by the alternative 'modern jazz' that had originated in New York, the only common denominator being the concept of improvisation. There was a trend away from 'Trad' jazz. For example, Humphrey Littleton's band brought in an alto saxophonist to replace the trombone - inclusion of a saxophone being the ultimate sin to a jazz purist. Louis Armstrong enjoyed a meteoric career as a popular solo trumpeter and soon left behind his jazz origins that gave us his iconic 'Hot Five' and 'Hot Seven' records. 'Skiffle groups' appeared, based on guitars, washboards and homemade double basses, spear-headed by Lonnie Donnegan. A performance during the visit to England of that talented New Orleans musician, Sydney Bechet, triggered an explosive expansion of popular interest in jazz throughout Britain; that only lapsed with the arrival of the Beatles. A small nucleus of committed New Orleans Jazz enthusiasts remained unshakably faithful to their first love, and these musicians went back to playing in the small pubs and clubs where they had started.
Even today, small new traditional jazz bands are being formed around the world. I recently found a young group in Japan, known as the "New Orleans Stompers" or the "New Orleans Jazz Hounds" playing mainly in small bars, with tiny audiences. They exhibit that typical exuberance; the musicians play for their own sheer enjoyment, while the audience appears to be of secondary importance. Led by a gifted clarinetist, this band experiments with unconventional instrument combinations. Surprisingly, the rhythm section often plays improvised solos.
So the spirit of traditional jazz lives on . . .
Ray Freeman FRS
Ray Freeman
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