My grandad owned a banjo, but I never heard him play.
James Joseph Turley was a blue-eyed Irishman, born in Carrickmacross in 1905. He made the crossing to America when he was 22, spent some years working in the coke ovens at Ford in Detroit. He invited his childhood sweetheart, Sarah, to join him, and married her on the Canadian border. In time he took a job at Ford in Dagenham, and settled with his wife and kids in Hornchurch, Essex, in a terraced house near the bus garage. He brought his banjo along with him.
That banjo always struck me as something rather exotic. Not what you’d expect in a typical suburban Essex home. To a child it suggested misrule and parties, late night ceilidhs and communal singing by the fire. And yet after my grandfather’s death, it continued to sit in silence on my granny’s sideboard.
My heart skipped a beat when I was greeted by a selection of banjos on entering an exhibition about ‘The Age of Jazz in Britain’ (‘Rhythm and Reaction’ at Two Temple Place until 22 April). It transpires that the banjo was something of a fashionable instrument in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. African American musicians played the banjo on variety bills and in clubs. Sales of the instrument boomed, banjo academies were set up, and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) learned to play. In its wake the banjo brought most Britons’ first taste of American popular music, of ragtime and subsequently jazz.
The arrival of jazz in Britain is often fixed at the visit to these shores in 1919 of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. They were an immediate sensation. Jazz particularly resonated with the young of this country - with a generation recovering from the shock of the First World War, disillusioned with the old guard, keen to break with the past, yearning to embrace the new. It offered escape, disruption, rebellion. You could find release in its fluid structures; get lost in its syncopated rhythms; get intimate to its unconstrained dance steps.
Britain’s enthusiasm for jazz was also fuelled by technology. Transatlantic liners brought over musicians, instruments and sheet music. First the pianola, and then the gramophone and the radio, took jazz into British homes. Enthusiasts gravitated to dedicated shops and record clubs; to specialist publications such as Melody Maker.
But jazz’s growing popularity in Britain inevitably encountered some headwinds. The establishment was confused, sceptical, threatened. The popular press mocked the public’s enthusiasm for the new music; ridiculed its passion; insinuated that its association with underground clubs implied drugs and decadence. African American musicians were often represented in caricature, and the Colonial Office wrote concerned memos.
Jazz brought with it the shock of the new, the thrill of the unfamiliar, the fear of the unknown.
Nonetheless, gradually local musicians learned to play and perform jazz. Somewhat diluted, it was accommodated into the repertoires of orchestral dance bands. And it was in this form that many people encountered the genre through the early broadcasts of the BBC, or at their local Palais de Dance.
Ultimately jazz succeeded in winning over the hearts and minds of the British public. ‘Jazz’ entered the dictionary as a synonym for ‘modern.’ Stylish clothes were described as ‘jazzy.’ Hosts were encouraged to ‘jazz up’ the evening. Jazz became an aesthetic, an attitude to life.
In 1927, in ‘The Appeal of Jazz,’ the first British book on the subject, RWS Mendl wrote:
‘Even if [jazz] disappears altogether it will not have existed in vain. For its record will remain as an interesting human document – the spirit of the age written in the music of the people.’
In many ways the story of jazz’s arrival in Britain is a case study in change: an audience yearning for something new; early adoption by the young opinion leaders of the day; revolutionary technology on hand to fan the flames of discovery; a resentful establishment mocking, carping and complaining; and yet, in time and with compromise, broad assimilation. And, critically, at the heart of it all, a great idea in tune with the zeitgeist.
My grandad passed away when I was six, so sadly I have only the vaguest memory of him. But I’ve found that a photo of a blue-eyed young man looking out from the past, a story of a hijacked bus, a recollection of a flat cap hanging on the door, and of a banjo lying on the sideboard, are enough to fuel the imagination. Maybe I can just about hear him play.