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In the nineteenth century, the nascent United States of America—like the once rebellious adolescent who comes to appreciate their parents anew—took its cultural cues from the Brits. The British Empire still flourished, and its epicenter was London. The fads, fashions, and artistic inclinations of Victorian Londoners were circulated and emulated all over the world. Charles Dickens was the Taylor Swift of his day, though he went through fewer boyfriends.
This state of affairs didn’t last into the next century. The American government claimed everything beyond the Appalachians short of Russia, backed the right horse in a couple of World Wars, and the cultural flow was reversed. The cultural flow also grew more substantial with the concurrent leaps forward in communications technology. Whatever cultural storms were brewing in America around the turn of the century would be brewing in London before long. As it happened, a unique community of African American musicians were coming up with the basis for the next hundred years of music.
Image: Scott Joplin sheet music cover (public domain)
Jazz was the amalgamation of African American rhythms, work-songs, and blues with European music and instruments. It began with ragtime artists like Scott Joplin and was established as a genre by the famous improvisers of New Orleans in the 1910s. The impact of jazz on modern American music is widely recognized, but how did it make its way to cosmopolitan London?
On a ship, actually. The sadly forgotten Southern Syncopated Orchestra (SSO)—comprised of twenty-seven musicians and nineteen singers from the likes of New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Guyana, Barbados, Antigua, and Ghana—arrived in London in 1919 and took its prim music scene by the scruff of the neck. Though they never recorded, contemporaneous reports would suggest that they were hot. They popularized black music and transformed the British club scene. Thusly, British jazz was born.
Image: Advertisement for the SSO in The Times, 13 Dec 1919 (public domain)
They settled in South London, and many band members married local women. Thanks to renewed interest from genealogists, their descendants are still being uncovered today. At first, jazz was besmirched by the authorities and the upper classes in Britain as having a roguish affect on its purveyors’ behavior—causing them to become rowdy and insubordinate. One imagines that they were missing the point, somewhat. They did eventually loosen their cravats, though. The Prince of Wales invited the SSO to play at Buckingham Palace, and they obliged.
Tragedy meant that their fame was short-lived. Most of the members of the SSO died in 1921 aboard the SS Rowan, which sunk on its way from Glasgow to Derry. Their successful tour of Britain ended, but their legacy cannot be understated. In 1932, Louis Armstrong played residencies in London and Glasgow. The Duke Ellington Orchestra followed shortly after. The recently launched British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) began broadcasting jazz music live from London nightclubs and hotels, and gave jazz a national audience.
World War II brought more American jazz musicians to Britain, as they toured with military bands. There was also a marked increase in British bands describing themselves as jazz groups. However, as American jazz branched off into bebop and its own traditional jazz revivalism, British jazz began to take on its own identity. The post-war influx of West Indian immigrants brought West Indian musicians with their own style of music. These musicians brought their own flair to the British jazz community. American musicians were briefly banned from performing in Britain around this time, which also served to let British jazz go in its own direction.
Video: A look at Ronnie Scotts in London by AJazzFan100
By the mid-1950s, the ban was lifted and the transatlantic jazz exchange enjoyed its best years. Louis Armstrong returned to London, with Lionel Hampton and Sidney Bechet following suit. The stars of British jazz were bigger than ever, particularly Ronnie Scott and his nine-piece group. Scott opened his famous jazz club on Gerrard Street, then moved it to Frith Street where it stands today. The jazz musicians of the 1950s laid the foundations for the musical revolutions of the following decades.
Barring a few fleeting spurts of reenergization, jazz in London was largely shunted back underground after this—playing second fiddle to emerging genres like rock and roll. Of course, the legacy of jazz music in these new genres is apparent. That being said, jazz aficionados will find plenty of jazz clubs in London, and the best in the business still sell out theaters. Some of Britain’s best music conservatories offer full-time degrees in jazz. A new generation of musicians are exploring electro-jazz, which has a more recognizably jazzy flavor than other genres that draw on jazz. Though it has fallen out of the mainstream, British jazz is alive and well.
Transatlantic exchange of music and musicians is taken for granted nowadays. It is worth harking back, though, to the pioneering American jazz musicians who packed up their horns and boarded ships to bring their music to London. The brave souls of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra are all but forgotten. But without them, the delights of jazz music may not have made it to these shores with the veracity that it did, and that would have been to the prodigious detriment of British music.