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International Jazz Day

Let us inject a bit of jazz into your day as we celebrate International Jazz Day today (30 April).

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The designation of April as Jazz Appreciation Month  began in 2002 under the auspices of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Back then, posters proclaimed the slogan ‘Jazz. Made in America. Enjoyed Worldwide.’. In 2005, this was altered to become ‘Jazz. Born in America. Enjoyed Worldwide.’, a subtle shift in emphasis, perhaps in recognition of the way in which jazz is being ‘made’ in different ways across the globe, not just in its ‘birthplace’. Since 2011, Jazz Appreciation Month has culminated with the UNESCO International Jazz Day  on 30th April, a global extension of the Smithsonian’s annual celebration of jazz. Events are staged all over the world but with a particular focus on a host city; previously Istanbul, Turkey and Osaka, Japan and this year Paris, France. Broadly speaking, a similar extension towards the global has occurred amongst enthusiasts for jazz; with increasing awareness of the work of musicians from outside the USA, and recognition of the history of the music in different locations.

The organisers of International Jazz Day state that they want to use the day to ‘highlight jazz and its diplomatic role of uniting people in all corners of the globe’. This is a laudable aim, but it potentially over-simplifies the role that jazz has played in global and local culture over the past century, romanticises the politics of the music which can be more readily associated with struggles for freedom than cultural diplomacy, and denies the richness of the different ways in which jazz has evolved and developed across the world over the past century.

Equally, fans argue that as an improvised music, jazz can relate, in the moment of performance, to identity of the musicians and circumstances in which they find themselves. As a result, some recent writing on jazz in particular geographical settings has over-emphasised the presence of national characteristics in the music but it is important to keep the ‘local’ in proportion. Pianist and jazz critic Leonard Feather’s version of the folk song ‘Early One Morning’ recorded in London in 1938 might be considered an obvious expression of Britishness. However, the ‘jazzing’ of folk songs was a common contemporary trend amongst swing musicians in America. In the previous year, for example, American jazz clarinettist Benny Goodman recorded a version of the Scottish folk song ‘Loch Lomond’. Jazz, as an American music, has also enabled local realities of Britain to be transcended - consider the disillusioned ‘lost generation’ and ‘Bright Young Things’ dancing to jazz in London clubs in the aftermath of World War One to the prolific revival of swing dancing across the country in more recent times.

National studies with an uncritical bent towards advocacy often seek to deny the importance of the American roots of the music. Recognition of the American-ness of jazz is fundamental to understanding how the music operates in other places – whether it is emulated, rejected or reconfigured by musicians on that basis. Throughout history the roots of jazz have contributed to the appeal of the music for some audiences and its equally passionate rejection by others. But from the outset it was also clear that jazz could not be ignored, even by the newly-established British Broadcasting Company (as it was then). The BBC, through its in-house ensembles and careful choice of bands from the capital’s upmarket hotels and restaurants, shaped a distinctive ‘middle-of-the-road’ popular style incorporating jazz. This ‘dance music’ was considered acceptable for mainstream British audiences but also ensured that the output remained up-to-date. Although often not considered as jazz, dance music is important in demonstrating how the British cultural establishment responded to the music. On this Pathe film, Henry Hall and his band indulge in a cricket match and then perform their signature number, ‘Here’s to the Next Time ’. 

As a distinctively British form, ‘dance music’ was often considered to be an improved or even ‘civilised’ version of American jazz between the Wars. However, for black musicians resident in London in the wake of visits of prominent musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, it was the emulation of emergent swing allowed them to capitalise on the increasing appeal of jazz as African American music. Under the entrepreneurial leadership of Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson the West Indian Dance Orchestra, which also incorporated black British musicians, achieved great success in Britain in the 1930s. As well as swing, their output reflected Cuban rhumba and Trinidadian calypso, styles which were considered ‘exotic’ at the time. This musical combination reflected the blurring of black cultural identities in British society. You can hear the band playing ‘Snakehips Swing’ via the playlist below. 

These three examples from the 1930s demonstrate different and complex relationships with jazz in a British context. The UK National Jazz Archive’s website provides a useful Story of British Jazz  if you want to discover more about them and other musicians. UNESCO International Jazz Day clearly has an important role in promoting the understanding of jazz, a significant modern art form, and its global reach. But that should not be at the expense of highlighting the complexities of this. Although jazz does have the power to unite, the opportunities it provides to recognise, appreciate and understand cultural difference might be more valuable.



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