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The Fifties - A very British decade
Alex Balmforth

On Sunday the 9th of March 1959 at the Coliseum Theatre, London W2 the first of two ‘Jazz Benefit Concerts’ was held for the American bluesman Big Bill Broonzy. Bill was terminally ill with cancer and the concerts were held to pay Bill’s medical accounts. Amongst the luminaries on that day playing for Bill were George Melly with Mick Mulligan’s Magnolia Jazz Band, John Dankworth, Cleo Lane, Humphrey Lyttleton, Bruce Turner, Chas McDevitt… in fact so many ‘names’ wanted to help that a second concert was arranged to accommodate their generosity… all these musicians performed without charge. Oddly, Big Bill’s US profile was not high; in fact his name within white audiences was largely unknown. But here was a group of British musicians playing to an enthusiastic packed theatre, honouring a poor, dignified black man who sang the blues.

We have to ask the question, ‘Why?’

In the years after the Second World War, a quiet, albeit very British revolution occurred. Clement Atlee and his Labour Party had been returned with a large majority and a virtually bankrupt Britain had begun to rebuild. Moreover, the Great War was within living memory and the repressions, inequalities and social scars, which followed that conflict, had not healed. The dual concepts of ‘deference’ and leaving government to ‘our elders and betters’ were about to be tested. This time we were to have our say… the establishment was running scared and on this occasion would have to take a back seat. ‘Homes fit for heroes’ was the battle cry of the masses and every sector of life would be examined, picked over and irrevocably overhauled.

Within countless areas of endeavour the Second World War had encouraged innovation and most particularly innovations within the electronics industry had allowed the radio to become an affordable and essential piece of domestic furniture. The nascent BBC was flexing its muscles and the Yanks had demonstrated through the cinema and the recording industry that there really was an alternative to the starchy, restrained British attitudes to popular music and culture… now the public demanded a piece of the action. And as always… youth was revolting!

Traditional Jazz emerged blinking into British consciousness and was subsequently to become the music of the disaffected.

Earlier, in a pioneering move Big Bill Broonzy had been brought to France for a European tour and in September 1951 was booked to appear at the Kingsway Hall. Big Bill’s appearance was to prove a Damascene moment in the history of British popular music. His success led in January 1952 to a further performance at the Cambridge theatre… this time with the Crane River Jazz Band. This was truly music that the Great British Public could relate to, a black man singing songs of oppression in a passionate, unadorned manner… a fresh approach, lyrics that did not drip with sugar, lyrics that asked questions of authority, seditious and challenging.

Later in what was to become a seminal moment in the expansion of popular music on Saturday the 28th of June 1952 at the Royal Festival Hall Tony Donegan was booked to appear alongside the US blues and folk singer Lonnie Johnson. In a blunder that was to define an age of popular music Tony was inadvertently introduced as ‘Lonnie’ Donegan and the name proved immovable.

Meanwhile, in the US English merchant seaman Ken Colyer had jumped ship, overstayed his welcome in New Orleans and was subsequently thrown into the cooler. Upon his return (1953) to the UK Ken was feted, lionised and was forever to be the UK’s controversial voice of New Orleans Trad Jazz.

In the early fifties the mould had been cast, the cognoscenti embraced Trad Jazz and Country Blues…. Jazz became the music of the revolutionary left and it came as no surprise that a Jazz band led the first Aldermaston march against the nuclear bomb. Curiously the music they were championing came from the very country they were opposing.

The stream of US musicians arriving in this country became a river… the warring Sonny Terry and Brownie Magee, Muddy Waters, Miss Sippi Wallace, Josh White alongside more conventional Jazz musicians, Louis Armstrong, Dexter Gordon. Standards were high… equally just as high were the standards of home grown musicians who played alongside these men and women. In the vanguard, Chris Barber, Bill and Ken Colyer, Monty Sunshine, Tommy Whittle, Vic Ash, the Christie brothers, who would later to be joined by Diz Disley, Denny Wright, Bill Bramwell, Ewan McColl, Ottilie Patterson, Nancy Whiskey, Ike Isaacs et al.

Moreover the returning US musicians spoke highly of the British audiences, and were later to affirm that it was the British who introduced the blues to white America. McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters) became an unlikely Anglophile. And famously, Sonny Boy Williamson took to sporting a pin striped suit, cane and bowler hat. Within the US these musicians newly confident with expanding audiences began to question and press for their civil rights. The sword was out of its scabbard and the fight was about to commence.

The return of the Tories in 1952 probably assisted in the rise of the left and fearing a backlash many left leaning benchmarks were installed. At Stratford East, Joan Littlewood founded her Theatre Workshop, embracing the ‘Method’ school of acting, staging ground-breaking theatre and providing the foundation for the ‘Kitchen Sink’ era of theatre. Her ex-husband Jimmy Miller (Ewan McColl) established the Singers Club, which was to stimulate and wrest the British folk song from the censorious establishment. With a slant that was to astonish, Ewan with Peggy Seeger and the BBC producer Charles Parker devised the revolutionary ‘Radio Ballads’

Inspired by those visiting US musicians in the mid fifties came that short-lived populous phenomenon ‘Skiffle’. Anyone with a guitar and tea chest bass could join in, and they did in their thousands. Chris Barber included within his band a skiffle section in which included the genres’ spiritual leader, Lonnie Donegan, a band incorporating that most thoughtful of musicians, Ken Colyer and probably the finest jazz clarinet player this country has produced, Monty Sunshine.

The BBC was to introduce the innovative broadcaster and musician Ken Sykora, an influential, cerebral interviewer who fleshed out our knowledge of Jazz, Blues, Classical and Popular music with his engaging ‘Guitar Club’ introducing and championing home grown talent, Diz Disley, Ike Isaacs, Denny Wright, Bill Bramwell, all of whom appeared on his shows… alongside numerous US musicians who were sojourning in the UK.

I believe the UK in its own self deprecating way contributed hugely to the embryonic US Civil Rights movement by championing and allowing the voice of the oppressed a wider more appreciative audience, and ultimately alerting the US to its own neglected music. A music that indirectly led to fixing the political matrix of later musicians, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.

But sadly we neglect our pioneers, since they were ostensibly ‘amateurs’ …the 1950’s… a defining decade, and a largely forgotten era.

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