This is the first part of a two-part interview with Professor of History, Kevin Morgan (Manchester) and Brian Blain (formerly of the Musicians’ Union and Morning Star). Brian and Kevin spoke to Elinor Taylor and Henry Stead about the Jazz and British Communism. The photo shows them both. The podcast was recorded on 19 April 2017 in the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture at Westminster University (London).
HS. Welcome back to Conversations on Communism. Elinor and I are joined today in our makeshift studio in the University of Westminster by Professor Kevin Morgan, historian of British Communism from Manchester University, and Brian Blain, the former jazz correspondent for The Daily Worker, Labour Monthly, and a number of other publications. Today we’re going to be talking about communism and jazz.
KM. Yeah. It’s a great pleasure to talk to you again, Brian, because we do have those things in common – an interest in communism and an interest in jazz – and I wondered in your case we’re going back to the 1950s, which was it came first? Was it as a communist or as a left wing person you became more drawn to jazz, or was that already there when you got your interest in politics?
BB. Well, when I was at school which would be in the mid to late forties when I was 14, 15, 16, then I got, not just me, but me and a tight little group of — if you like — slightly odd people, we somehow got hooked up on jazz, which was of the really traditional kind. It was all the old blues people – Huddie Ledbetter and all those. And then, obviously Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton and all that. That was normal. I can remember we had lots of hiking trips. We were members of a Scout troupe at the school we were at, which was Stretford Grammar School, and you’d go along whistling jazz things and sort of singing things. You’d spent hours listening to records. I was much more interested in the music than any political notions that went with it.
In fact, at that age I wasn’t that aware of political notions. The only political notions I managed to pick up were from my parents, who were kind of classic conservatives. So, then you’d rebel against that. You know, it was the ’45 general election and I remember going to all the candidates meetings and one was a Communist Party member called Hugh Scanlon. I don’t know it you know or remember that name. He became General Secretary of the Amalgamate Engineering Union I think. And he, to me as a young bloke, this is before I did my National Service, he stood out as a candidate. It seemed like “Oh, bloody hell, I want everybody to vote for him. He can wipe the floor with the others”. But it never actually worked that way. So the politics was simmering in the background, but they were not as important as the music.
KM. But then, this is the early fifties is it?
BB. It was the late forties, going into the fifties. Then I did my National Service which had been 1949-51. By which time jazz was on the cusp and was turning into bebop and modern jazz which took you further away from the idea of grassroots, folkish people’s music ideas, which all clustered around traditional jazz, although it wasn’t called that then, and which were actually much more acceptable to most people in the Communist Party that I began to meet, even before I was a member.
KM. What drew you to the Communist Party then, that was entirely different things?
BB. Yes, that was entirely different thing. That was quite simple really. I was trying to explain to Henry, to a degree. I was a teacher at this time. A primary school teacher in Salford. And there were two or three things but the most important thing is that there were two guys on the secondary school staff. I was a primary school teacher. We all had lunch together and there was a classic right-wing Labour Catholic teacher and then there was a real Tory guy. And there were these two blokes who had been in the army and they had both been Japanese prisoners of war and they seemed to be to clean up in all the arguments. There seemed to be no contest. They just wiped the floor with everybody when you were sitting around the table having lunch. So that’s what started to draw me towards the Communist Party.
The next thing was I met my first wife. My girlfriend at the time and her family were really staunch party members. I mean they were an incredible family in their way. They lived on a council estate in Salford. The father had been in the Eighth Army. And as I found out later, I mean he’d gone up obviously the length of Italy [as part of the Italian Campaign], and he’d made friends with communist members who were very important in the Italy of that era. And it became like a family joke that he would drive off on his holidays — or be driven on his holidays because he didn’t drive, or didn’t own a car rather — and go back on his own to Naples I think to hook up with the family. And I didn’t realise the connections – “Why does he go there? Why doesn’t he to Scarborough or something like everybody else?” – but this must have been something to do with it. So I was surrounded by communists during the day at school and in this new family that I’d encountered, the likes of which — working-class intellectuals, I suppose, or autodidacts at least — I’d never met before. And obviously that becomes very important when you’re quite young and you’ve only got a kind of vaguest of Tory backgrounds which you didn’t agree with.
One of the things about jazz was the fact that it was American and there’s the real link. The real link is that they didn’t have this ludicrous notion of a royal family. Now we don’t want you to go into all that. But republicanism was nothing to do with left-wing politics. It was just a feeling, like you have about religion after a while. But this is just nonsense. Why do people believe this? It’s just idiotic. It is actually neither left nor right although it’s assumed to be a left-wing position. But it’s a position that drew you towards American culture if you like. Jazz was part of American culture, but that’s not all. That was the time when I was reading. It was a time when you were seeking out the really good American films of which there were quite a lot in the early fifties, which are now cult films that show at the BFI. Usually Noir films but not always. And if you didn’t have a cultural background there was a huge vacuum to be filled.
KM. And what sort of books?
BB. Oh well obviously Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis, you know, the one about Chicago stockyard and so on. We used to around in a coffee bar in Sale, which was the posh suburb, that actually had a coffee bar, and talk about things like that. And right over the road was a ballroom, Sale Lido, and this is the other strange thing, whilst there was, if you like, as I discovered from a distance a very left-wing basis in the New Orleans revival, because of its connection with folk music and the oppressed negro — as they were always called then — our actual consumption of live jazz was always in a ballroom. There were always people in the band who were good.
Now I discovered this later but there was always a point in the evening when the bandleader, if you like, would give the jazz people in the band their head and so they’d be allowed to improvise and play kinda swing, bebop, or whatever, or quicksteps which were the only things that would fit. Or a slow foxtrot. And it was there, not jazz clubs at that time that you imbibed live music. In fact there was very little New Orleans revival jazz. And the friend I mentioned earlier, the trombone player who went along to the academy, he was a trombone player in Manchester’s first ever real jazz band, and they were called the Delta Rhythm Kings. And I remember hearing that on a Sunday afternoon in a record shop just on Albert Square called Hime and Addison’s. And Hime and Addison’s was the mecca. It specialised in selling jazz records. And it had this little room. And the Delta Rhythm Kings [played there], that was the first time I heard any live jazz played. And, as they always say, it really did just blow me away, and I became, I suppose in an unhealthy way, almost addicted to all this stuff. That and the American cultural patterns generally blocked me off to things that I couldn’t come to until later like classic English novels and so on.
KM. You mention names like Jelly Roll Morton or Leadbelly — and when I was doing the research into this a few years ago the thing that struck me was that this type of traditional jazz — jazz as a folk music, jazz as a music that had come up from below, that was really so much identified with people, with its scene — was usually on the left. Often there were communists that were actually promoting it, organising these little magazines. There was the Challenge Jazz Club that was, you know, a product of the Young Communist League basically. So that’s what I’m finding since researching the centre. Are you sort of saying that growing up there in Manchester, that actually you’re not really aware of that aspect of it until later?
BB. That’s right. I only picked up any notion of it through the magazines that you started to buy. And then you could pick up a little vibe that made you think… When I read the chapter again in Weapon in the Struggle book, there are certain names and the main name was a guy called Albert McCarthy and the ones that you read, they used to come up to Manchester. I was in this Manchester Rhythm Club — if that was the name of it — it may have been called something else. We met in a room in Deansgate. It just seems incredible now that people would come from London on the train just to play records and talk about them. And you kind of went along and this was like seeing a star live performer. But he was just a record recitalist who had access to more records than you had and he knew more about it than you did. And there was a kind of weird mixture of sort of good-time Charlie in the ballroom and then this rather studious, beard-stroking (except we didn’t have them) kind of way of listening to the music, listening to the real thing. You know, it was something that you took very seriously.
KM. But what you seem to be saying is that it wasn’t such a niche music, if you and just the other people you knew at school knew about Jelly Roll Morton and Huddie Ledbetter. These aren’t like the big dance bands or the big popular bands of the day. Was it a bit of a cult thing, or a subculture?
BB. It was very much a cult thing. I mean, what is interesting is that music was the real cult music, blossomed into a sub-genre of pop music in the early sixties which was actually, young people can’t believe this, was actually massive. I mean, in other words, something like Humphrey Lyttelton, who’s a name probably known to us all in here, actually had a hip record, you know, that ‘Bad Penny Blues’, which I used to play. I used to do record recitals for students at the college in West London, at Ealing. It was a course of British culture and one evening was always for foreign students. Lots of them were Americans. And my job was to show how jazz survived the onslaught of rock and roll. I sort of lied a bit ’cause I don’t think it really did. But I did my best to make a case.
But the thing is that the ‘Black-penny Blues’ track that I always used to play, they were almost amazed that it was so authentic-sounding and yet was in what came to be later known as the charts. So like, this cult thing blossomed into that. Now the modern jazz, the bepop thing, didn’t. It could only ride on the coattails of the more jazz-inclined big bands of the day. But, at this stage, politics really didn’t come into it for me.
KM. And to speak in more general terms, in terms of that sort of interface between music and politics, there was this sort of almost a civil war within the jazz world. You’ve got the Moldy Old Figs on the one hand, and all those on the other. Are you saying that it was really that the left sort of aspect was more the Moldy Old Figs than the modernists in musical terms, that saw things like a folk music…?
BB. Yes, I am. Because when I came to live in London, it was the first time I’d met a significant number of Communist Party members. I was in a branch in Wood Green and I found myself living in a bedsit next to a guy called Laurie Green and his wife Jean. And he was a really big jazz fan. I mean, a very serious communist. I think he went on being a civic, community kind of activist for the rest of his days in a way that I haven’t, I must confess to that. But his idea of modernism, the only bit he would accept was Billie Holiday and Lester Young because you could not disentangle the two, and the young Ella Fitzgerald.
There was a wonderful woman communist teacher on the same staff as me, and a man, both of whom are dead now. That was in a primary school in East London. And she couldn’t understand how I could like this stuff but she could understand the folkish, early traditional music. The same with the male, but he was deeply embedded in the folk scene. I remember going to the dreaded Communist Party social, which Mark used to sing in, even in those days, and one of the main guys, he died a few months ago, and that was a guy called Fred Dallas, who became Karl Dallas. Karl became quite famous. When it became the Rolling Stones era and all that, he switched completely to that whole rock thing and then fashion, and became a pot-smoking kind of evangelist, you know. Like, “repeal the marijuana”… And he was actually a terrific guy and then I noticed towards the end of his life he’s swung back to left-wing politics again.
But what I’m saying is, when you went to these socials, and my friend Nigel, who played the guitar and sang, and was a lovely, lovely guy and terrific teacher, this was their world and they just thought that what I liked was Chinese [read “so foreign it is incomprehensible”] music, almost. It was so incomprehensible that you would actually be more excited by these sounds. Now drawing a connection between those sounds and left politics was very hard to do until I read — that lightbulb moment, the key book of the time — Jazz: A People’s Music by an American Marxist, you heard of him, called Sidney Finkelstein. He was, like, a polymath. He was a scientist and a musician and a scholar. And his book unravelled the whole thing.
He was the first real Marxist thinker — Marxist in the sense that I came to think was the reason Marxism was important: a flexible way of looking at everything… And, he went through the whole story of jazz which I’d read by this time in other books probably. But he was able to relate the new people who were considered to be degenerate by your classical communist, and he could show that they weren’t degenerate, that they were part of an amazing tradition. And very few people, in fact I didn’t know of another one, that book, by the way, the Finkelstein book was probably in 1948, which gives you some idea of how revolutionary it was. Nobody at that time would write anything like that, and the nearest thing that came to it was a few years later by the English Marxist Eric Hobsbawm, The Jazz Scene, which I guess must have come out late fifties, maybe. I have a copy but I couldn’t find it on my shelf.
KM. ’59 I think.
BB. Yeah, it was Francis Newton. And we didn’t know at that time that Francis Newton was, in fact, Eric Hobsbawm. And I used to read his pieces in the New Statesman when I would occasionally buy the New Statesman. But he was a different kind of Marxist. He was the one to whom most of us who had no profound musical knowledge drifted to. That is, analysing the social class and groups from which the music was actually played. ‘Cause it was later that you realised that, even though it wasn’t like popular music, it wasn’t like Vera Lynn and so on, it clearly had its routes in “ordinary” people. That’s not been the case for a long time now. So many of today’s musicians, even rock musicians — like young actors — are clearly from a kind of privileged background.
But when you me these guys, and they were mostly guys, let’s be honest, at the time, who could sort of roar through bebop changed and play all that kind of music, they were invariably ordinary blokes. And so you had a class identity, even if you didn’t realise it, with this stuff. It was not something other. It may have been other to your mum and dad but it wasn’t other in the sense that you… I got to know a lot of musicians at that time. And it was interesting. They weren’t ordinary blokes, obviously. They were exceptionally talented, but they weren’t schooled talented. They were playing the most complicated jazz there was at that time. Needless to say, the public hated it. It was quite funny. A musician friend of mine, like most of my friend he’s dead, he used to say to me, “The only bloke who ever made any money out of bebop, was Cecil Gee”. Does anybody remember who Cecil Gee was? Cecil Gee owned a big clothing store on Charing Cross road and they specialised in Spearpoint collars and drape suits and everything else. All the fashions that the bebop musicians wore. Like all the Americans wore drape suits and all that, which is what we all aspired to wear ourselves.
KM. One of the things that Hobsbawm say in that book that’s quite interesting is that actually it’s not just the musicians but also the fans who were mostly young men. And actually in the forties they seem to have been. And to be honest, when I started going to things in the seventies it was mostly, not always so young, but they were mostly men. Yeah. Why do you think that was?
BB. Well, it’s not a good thing… but the thing was that, I think the music itself, the very sound of it is very macho. You can’t escape that. The bulk of it is quite aggressive and mach. There have been exceptions to that rule. So that’s the one thing. And, the terminology, the thing about talking about players playing with “lots of balls” for example, which is a normal way of describing a certain kind of really over-the-top hetero thing, it’s a macho culture. And women were only seen as singers in dance bands.
There were a few who became more than that like Chris Barber’s wife, Otterly Patterson. She was absolutely terrific I think. And later, looking back I thought being able to function in this environment like that must have been a very lonely place. On our side of the fence, Cleo Lane was just an amazing pioneer. I mean, not only was she black, she sang in the most, at the time, considered to be the most advanced, technically difficult, modern jazz band in England. I was very involved at the time, this is jumping forward to a completely different part of the story, with a band, and all-women’s band called the Guest Stars and I just thought they were absolutely terrific. I mean, they were all good players they’d got a terrific sort of, I don’t know, just an amazing confidence and they connected with audiences. And of course they attracted a lot of women in audiences and I still see remnants of that era today. One of the great survivors of this thirty-year-ago era, or maybe a bit longer who wasn’t part of the Guest Stars was a singer, a blues-singer-cum-rock-singer called Carol Grimes. And Carol is still going but when she does gigs at our place we’re always packed and we’re always packed with a big proportion of middle-aged — getting on to be older — women who got into the habit of going to listen to jazz, or jazzy music, because of this first group. They weren’t the first, the first one was a woman called Kathy Stobart. I’m talking about the English… She was in Humphrey Lyttleton’s band for a long time and she was just a really terrific saxophone player. It’s not a question of “… for a woman”. It was nothing to do with it. She was just tremendous. Now there’s a whole host of them. That doesn’t seem to have crossed over to young women followers in the way that that earlier generation I’ve just mentioned did.
KM. So you get these sort of, I don’t know, almost like an addiction to jazz. Entirely separate from that, you’ve become involved in the Communist Party at a time when one’s sense of it is that communism is still associated on the one hand with a degree of anti-Americanism and on the other hand with a sort of idealisation of Soviet culture and often official Soviet culture, and officially promoted folk and concert musics. Did that cause tensions for you? How did you, as a communist activist…
BB. The thing is I was, in some ways I must have been quite a simple bloke but my wife kind of says, ‘Well how could you possibly…?’ and then there was a list of things. How could you possibly… One of the things, I can remember going to a thing at the Free Trade hall in Manchester, organised by the, I think it was the Anglo-Soviet friendship society, it was one of those type organisations, and it was all folk dancing and accordions and balalaikas and everything else and I can remember sitting next there being actually bored shitless and thinking that this was what I had to do. I somehow had to acquire some empathy with this stuff because it was the Soviet comrades doing it. And so I was a rather conscientious little chap in a way, a bit of a goody-goody. So, I didn’t want to think ‘Oh God, this is boring’. I just didn’t want to admit I was bored. There was a tension. Well funnily enough I was with some friends the other night, and they had two more friends, a real old-fashioned dinner party the like of which we don’t go to anymore. But, this guy brought a name into the conversation. he was a musician himself but a craft man rather than a pro musician and he reminded me of somebody that I’d once seen a documentary film about. I think his name was Eddie Rosner. Have you heard of that name?
HS. I have yeah.
BB. He was a Polish guy who fled to the East at the time of the occupation and apparently was a fantastic trumpet player who could play “just like Louis Armstrong” — that’s what people always say isn’t it. “Oh he’s just like…”, you know. But apparently he was a brilliant jazz trumpet player and he became a commercial band leader. And he became a kind of superstar in the Soviet Union. He survived fleeing Poland, and not only survived in the Soviet Union but became immensely popular.
HS. He was approved by Stalin. Apparently he could play two trumpets at the same time and he was second only to Louis Armstrong.
BB. How did you find out about him?
HS. It came up in a book called The Dancer Defects by a man called David Caute. And he [Rosner] leapt out at me too. He was born in 1910 and sadly — and the story doesn’t end well — in 1946 he was charged with espionage and sent to Kolyma gulag in 1947.