Friday, July 13, 2012

Being Francis Newton in the Golden Age of Jazz

I found an old copy of a book called The Jazz Scene (1959) by a man called Francis Newton. The book’s previous owner bought it way back in 1963 for 4 shillings and its age showed from the sepia colour of the pages. Although I paid considerably more, I had to have it. I recognised the author as being Eric Hobsbawm the British intellectual and Marxist historian who wrote ‘The Age of Revolution’ – a book I had to read at school. I was curious to see if he would apply the same analytical mastery to the study of Jazz. In 2010 the London Review of Books published a piece by Hobsbawm covering his jazz period as Francis Newton. It turns out that he took the soubriquet ‘Francis Newton’ from a communist trumpeter who played on Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, and wrote a monthly jazz column for 10 years for the New Statesman. In fact, Newton was well placed to observe the rise of modern jazz in the UK in 1950s. During 1930s British jazz fans made do with 78 rpm records which they discussed passionately in upstairs rooms of pubs or ‘rhythm clubs’.  Newton described the followers as young, provincial, suburban and musically untaught - 'they were loving and propagandist critics rather than practitioners'. This group developed a liking for what became known as ‘trad jazz’ – a style that reproduced versions of New Orleans Jazz and Country Blues. It became clear to Newton that there was a gap in taste and context between jazz writers, and successful players on the one hand who kept to the tradition and style of the 1930s and 1940s, and a small corps of serious professional British musician who would later form the audience for ‘modern’ jazz on the other. For Newton it meant coming to terms with Bebop – the ‘modern’ period of jazz. Even the passionate jazz-conservative Philip Larkin had to give an inch when confronted with likes of Monk, Gillespie, Parker and Miles. Needless to say, Newton was fascinated by the musicians and their world – ‘jazz scene’ so to speak. He moved between the different jazz worlds of trad, swing, bebop and later modern jazz. These worlds were not entirely self-contained for there were overlaps between some of them. Being Francis Newton placed the great historian in the heart of the British jazz scene. His base was the Downbeat Club on Old Compton Street, not far from where he lived, and where musician and their hangers on chilled. Ronnie Scott had only just opened for ‘listening’ rather than a hanging out.

To be continued...

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