In my youth I occasionally travelled up from the provinces to hear jazz played in the West End. The lure of the big city proved irresistible and later, as an art student in central London, I got to know the galleries, cinemas, clubs, record shops and food stores of the area far better. Those were formative years.
The starting point for this series, however, also resides in the town where I presently live. In the late ‘thirties a refugee artist named László Moholy-Nagy made a small group of photographs to illustrate John Betjeman’s book An Oxford University Chest. On Oxford High St., Moholy photographed the figure of a large white dog, which to this day props up a clock above a jeweller’s shop. I seldom pass the spot but don’t think of the bespectacled Hungarian, with his beret and his Leica, on the run.
Jazz was from the beginning a migrant’s art, following the great river from the Deep South northwards, and eventually crossed the oceans. Some have satirically suggested it was otherwise; Soviet jazzman Leonid Utesov used to assert that jazz originated in Odessa, and more recently Gilad Atzmon’s alter ego, Artie Fishel, made similar claims for Tel Aviv!
But for many of the musicians arriving at Liverpool or Tilbury Docks, travel was more than touring, it was escape. The reasons were individual and diverse, but their stories speak of greater displacements due to war, poverty, racism and colonialism.
In the recent Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy, there was a watercolour entitled The Ramparts of Paris, which contains two ghosts. Against the solid city walls a couple is drawn without substance, sketched with a few contour lines but without corporal density. As if to highlight this, a sturdy figure walks away from them, casting a blue shadow. But the ethereal couple has no shadow.
As with my uncanny feeling when passing Nagy’s white dog, Van Gogh’s ghosts exist in the present and past simultaneously, united with the living in space but separated by time.
My West End is inhabited by the spectre of musicians past and sounds lost. But are they really lost? Picasso said that great art always exists in the present. This is because each viewer, reader or listener, remakes the work by entering into dialogue with it.
But the fabric of the world changes over time and many of the concert halls and clubs of the West End have long gone. The entrance to the Philharmonic Hall is now a Chinese restaurant, and Maidenhead Passage, home to the Abalabi Club, was demolished to make way for the incongruous housing block named Kemp House, which towers over Berwick St market. But I’m convinced that on a quite night, towards dawn, the attentive listener can still hear the strains of Rent House Stomp or Yolanda as they walk by.
Amongst many sources I consulted, key is ‘A History of Jazz in Britain 1919-50’ by Jim Godbolt (2005, Northway Publications, London). Proper Records brought out a box set (4CDs) to accompany the publication (Properbox 88). Bill Moody’s ‘The Jazz Exiles’ (1993, University of Nevada Press, USA) provides an historical survey and includes many interviews with musicians. The late Ron Simmonds’ ‘Jazz Professionals’ website is a mine of information, as is David Taylor’s ‘British Modern Jazz’ website.
Amongst some useful, though occasionally dull accounts of musician's lives, two autobiographies stood out; Ronnie Scott’s ‘Some of my Best Friends are Blues’ (1979, W.H.Allen, London), a book infused with his wit and dry humour, and Laurie and Art Pepper’s ‘Straight Life’ (2000, Mojo Books, Edinburgh) which offers a searing account of a creative life.
The series provided a welcome excuse to buy a shelf full of CDs, many of which the reader will probably already have. I’d like to mention a few slightly more obscure historical compilations, which I found illuminating. ‘ Black British Swing; from the Jazz Collection of the British Library Sound Archive’ (Topic Records TSCD781) brings to our attention some excellent though neglected bands. ‘Alpha Boys’ School, Music in Education’ (Trojan TJCCD179) tells the story, through music, of the orphanage that produced many of Jamaica’s finest musicians. Finally, if you haven’t heard them, the three CD volumes of ‘London is the Place for Me’ released by Honest Jon’s Records, London, will be a treat.
I am grateful for the support of the Digital and Material Arts Research Centre (D-MARC) at the University of Derby, whilst making this work. Thanks also to Geoff Wright at Derby Jazz and Every Second Jazz Festival.