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Jazz in Britain – the road to acceptance

Jazz’s freedom of expression hasn’t always given it a good name …

Joe Harriot

In 1918, the British music magazine Encore heralded a ‘new American invasion’ - jazz had arrived on British soil. The word ‘invasion’ encapsulates the deep sense of anxiety and lack of control many in Britain felt when jazz so suddenly became an inescapable part of Britain’s urban cultures.

Although we may think of jazz simply as music, it was regarded by many in Britain as a symbol of sexual liberation, spiraling chaos, and the rising power of the lower classes and black self-expression. It was also seen as a symbol of the United States and its ascendancy to world power.

All these anxieties are exhibited clearly in a painting called ‘Breakdown’ by John B Soutar, which hung in London’s Royal Academy of Art’s Spring Exhibition of 1926. The painting depicts a naked white woman dancing to the music of a black saxophonist who is sitting on a crumbling classical Greek statue. It was removed after one day, due to public protests.

As a symbol of black American creativity and freedom of expression, jazz continued to be viewed as subversive in Britain until quite recently. In fact, it was an expellable offence to play jazz in some of the music conservatoires as late as the 1980s!

Now, jazz is fully accepted as an art form, and Britain has produced many fantastic jazz musicians to rival their American counterparts. Saxophonist Joe Harriot is one of the best of these. Harriott came from the Caribbean, and pioneered the free jazz movement in Europe.

This track was not composed in any way, all five musicians making up the music as they played from moment to moment. That is the key element of free jazz – you don’t have a set musical plan before you start. Instead, you are free to play anything you feel is right.

Notice in this track, that there is no fixed beat. This was very unusual for jazz at the time, and indicates how innovative the ‘free’ ideal was.

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