THE ROW in the 1940s between the British Musicians’ Union and the American Federation of Musicians mostly denied UK jazz players close proximity to their American idols for over 15 years .
Some of the British musicians played dance-music on the Transatlantic liners as a way of getting to hear the pioneers on their home turf. But for the fans, access to the roots of the music was mostly restricted to recordings, and with postwar austerities, a dwindling supply even of those.
But jazz in Britain didn’t shrivel up. Young bebop devotees including Ronnie Scott, John Dankworth, Denis Rose and Tony Crombie, had already established one American-style modern jazz den (the Club Eleven) and dreamed of a better one. Scott and a young accordionist-turned-pianist called Stan Tracey came to wider notice working for the internationally successful swing-based Ted Heath Orchestra, which even took British jazz back to America itself.
The charismatic and gifted Scott formed a landmark nine-piece band that successfully blended a Mecca Ballrooms dancefloor repertoire with as much hardline bebop as it could get away with.
Meanwhile, a single-minded cornettist from Great Yarmouth, Ken Colyer, visited the shrine of New Orleans whilst in the Merchant Navy, and subsequently led The Jazzmen, which also included trombonist Chris Barber and clarinettist Monty Sunshine. But Barber soon began to inject blues and r&b into a highly successful modernised form of trad.
Trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton introducing saxophonists (never used in Ken Colyer’s classic New Orleans vision) to his ensemble. Outraged purists showed up with posters inscribed ‘go home, dirty bopper.’
Jazz started the 1950s as popular music, but was usurped after the whirlwind arrival of rock ‘n’ roll. The relaxation of the union standoff however, began to bring Americans in by the end of the decade. The local scene flourished - albeit in a more marginalised way - with brilliant modern sax bands led by Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes (the Jazz Couriers), distinctive piano groups from Stan Tracey and others, forerunners of world-jazz from imaginative saxophonist/bandleader Kenny Graham (the Afro-Cubists). West Indians Joe Harriott (alto sax), Shake Keane (trumpet) and Coleridge Goode (bass) began to explore a border territory between bop and a prototype free-jazz. And Ronnie Scott and his former alto player Pete King opened Ronnie Scott’s Club in Soho’s Gerrard Street in October 1959.
Scott’s club went on to be a big success, and in unintentional harness with Beatlemania and the booming British pop scene (which finally offered the American union an attractive labour-swap of local pop musicians for American jazzers) brought over a procession of American stars for long seasons, starting with Zoot Sims and Dexter Gordon and moving on to Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz – crucially teaming them with local rhythm sections, a huge boost for the UK scene.
Elsewhere, British free-jazz developed, through former Army bandsmen John Stevens, Trevor Watts and Tony Oxley, and a lapsed Manchester session guitarist, Derek Bailey. A popularised trad returned with the lively ensembles of Kenny Ball and Alex Welsh, and the blues-driven music of Chris Barber - Ball even had a chart hit with ‘Midnight in Moscow’. A creative new generation inspired by Miles Davis, Gil Evans and John Coltrane appeared - notably through the bands of Don Rendell, Ian Carr and Michael Garrick, and the adventurous young orchestra of art student Mike Westbrook, which included a typhoon of a new saxophonist in John Surman. But pop was hurting jazz economics. Stan Tracey, after years in the ‘60s working with the best in the world as a house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s, almost gave up to become a postman. When Scott’s went to Frith Street in 1968, and its Gerrard Street ‘Old Place’ closed, local jazz players felt they were losing a home.