Jazz Invasion of London Nightlife: The Birth of British Jazz

by Nick Jones on April 28, 2015

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In the early 20th century music started to change. In America, black musicians in New Orleans started a new, hot sensation called jazz. Jazz started to explode and resonate around the world. Europe felt this wave of jazz and many different nations were inspired by this jazz music. One of the cities that got hit with the jazz explosion was London and from this birthed British Jazz.

In the late 1910’s London was exposed to American Jazz for the first time by a touring band, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band played for the first time in London at the Hippodrome, which was a theater first opened in 1900 to host performances and shows [1]. Following this exposure to jazz, London’s music scene slowly started to change over the next couple of decades. Musicians in London started to listen to American Jazz records and became influenced by them, and in turn learned to play jazz themselves [2]. Clubs in London would encourage these musicians to come out to the bars after hours to jam and get a few drinks; this was the first introduction to jazz that London nightlife had seen. The jazz that these musicians mainly played was known as hot dance music, a.k.a. ‘hot jazz.’ This infiltration of hot jazz in the 1920’s and 1930’s made groups such as The Nat Gonella & His Georgians and Bert Ambrose & His Orchestra popular. Bands like this traveled through London more frequently and started to gain popularity.

However, it wasn’t until the 1940’s that jazz started to gain popularity in London. This popularity occurred despite the fact that World War Two caused many of the musicians that had been playing jazz to join the war effort. As a result many clubs faded away, as did the hot dance music fad. Even though many clubs went out of business a few were able to stay afloat. A club called the Feldman Swing Club, now called the 100 Club, opened in 1941 and was considered one the first ‘jazz clubs’ in London. The Feldman Swing Club obviously hosted swing music and played a big part in the jazz scene. “It was an instant hit and adopted a socially liberal door policy which made it a unique melting pot. American GIs stationed in the capital to await D-Day loved the place – not least because it let them dance the jitterbug, which was outlawed in many other venues [3].” These relaxed rules attracted the black community to participate and go to the club. Now these jazz clubs in London were attracting American jazz artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Art Pepper, and Duke Ellington etc. Jazz was on the up-rise in London.

Americanization was also taking effect in London. “The earliest modern British jazz of the late 1940s and early 1950s was strongly influenced by American Bebop [4].” American Bop artists would tour in London and influenced artists in the area through their unique style of playing. In addition, during the 1950’s there was a mass emigration into England that brought many players from the Caribbean such as Harry Beckett, Dizzy Reece, and Joe Harriott etc. Clubs such as the Flamingo Club and the Feldman Swing Club became a true melting pot of race and music [5]. It was in the clubs that the combination of Caribbean influence and hard bop style from America began to fuse to become the start of British jazz.

British Jazz is currently still alive with jazz musicians such as Django Bates, Julian Argüelles, Iain Ballamy keeping it afloat. There are many venues playing jazz in London still, just a quick search on the web and you can find many such as Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. There are also jazz festivals, which happen in downtown London every year such as EFG London Jazz Festival. British Jazz is still alive and well, check out some of the artists recommended above.
[1]The London Hippodrome, Hippodrome Corner, Cranbourn Street, City of Westminster.” The London Hippodrome, Hippodrome Corner, Cranbourn Street, City of Westminster.

[2]Time Line – British Modern Jazz.” Henry Bebop. N.p.

[3]The Blues Club That Can’t Pay the Bills.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, n.d.

[4] Dr Jason Toynbee; Dr Catherine Tackley; Dr Mark Doffman (28 August 2014). Black British Jazz: Routes, Ownership and Performance. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. pp. 96–. ISBN 978-1-4724-1756-5.

[5] Ibid

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephen Cibik April 30, 2015 at 10:25 pm

Interesting read. Its funny to think about doing the jitterbug in preparation for D-Day. I think its also interesting that both sides of the war were growing a taste for jazz, guess we’re not so different after all. The melting pot theme in the clubs is cool, I guess jazz did originate in the world’s most giant melting pot. Everyone loves America, they’re just afraid to admit it.

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Miklos Billings April 30, 2015 at 8:20 pm

It’s interesting how British jazz seems to have some element of British humor to it, particularly the likes of Django Bates. I don’t know if I’ve just been conditioned by the sax from the Benny Hill theme song but there’s something very reminiscent between the two.

I wonder: how big of an influence is rock/blues on British jazz players, particularly guitarists. Many of Britain’s most talented became rock musicians (likely for economic reasons). With all that focus on guitar rock, does it carry over to jazz across the pond?

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