What did you say?
Alick West

“The goal then, for many, was equally cultural and political—to open the floodgates of the best that had been made and thought of by man.” (1969)

- Alick West

This is the second 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 Jazz and mainly British Communism. The photo shows Kevin reading. The podcast was recorded on 19 April 2017 in the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture at Westminster University (London).

KM. “Hand in hand, they prance, cavort, gesticulate, stamp, whirl, sweat and laugh with the most obvious enjoyment”. So this is The Daily Worker in terms of what’s going on in these places. Not necessarily with a sense of disapproval — that’s just a description of what’s going on there. But then you get these comments on articles like that: “Jazz singing is at its best an emotional display and as such is to be deplored. Jitterbugging is really the lowest to which anyone can sink. To turn oneself into a slobbering savage, a drooling, psychopathic horror, a jerking bundle of sensual emotions is the lowest one can go.” Those are attitudes that are also deeply rooted in a part of our national culture. I don’t know anything at all about the person that wrote that, whether it was to do with a non-conformist background, whether there were any particular reasons why they should have reacted so strongly but I think we sometimes sort of think, well that’s all coming from the USSR or from Zhdanov, but I think it tapped into something that was already here.

ET. Yeah, I mean, I think it’s that kind of paranoia that people might just be enjoying themselves! But I think it is a part of perhaps a wider Marxist or kinda leftist [dilemma of] not really knowing what to do with pleasure as an idea. You know, not quite being able to fit it into any kind of framework. So that part you were quoting from, another bit jumped out at me a bit later on which says that, “Dancing is a rather poor way of consuming surplus energy, and quite irrational from the point of view of personal efficiency.” You know, just that sense that pure pleasure can only be a bad thing because it doesn’t contribute.

BB. I remember a good friend of mine, a rock guy, a drummer, really good player and he said Brian, the great problem with jazz is, he says, “There’s no sex in it is there? Nobody cares about sex. It seems to be nothing to do with that world”. Whereas, he says, “Popular music, it’s all about sex, and that’s why it’s popular and why jazz isn’t”. I’d never thought of that before and I was already sixty five or so.

KM. I’m not denying that jazz was perceived that way by some of these people that are disapproving of it in the communist circles because that’s what they see as just letting go to these unbridled passions, but I think it’s quite interesting the notion of… I mean, the quote that you pull out in terms of, you know, it’s an “irrational way of using your surplus energy” and so on, I think it is quite telling because, and I’ve thought about this quite a lot with people, interviewing lots of communists and former party members and getting to know some quite well. And actually I think sometimes we can ourselves be quite prescriptive about when people are actually enjoying themselves.

Because, you know, I’m part of that culture, the later generation, so you must be enjoying yourself if there’s a lot of sound and you’re getting quite drunk and actually if you’re just sat there reading a book how can you really be enjoying yourself? And I’m convinced of people I know, people who could recite Shelley to me and so on, that this is not a sort of denial of themselves, this is an expression of themselves. But I think there’s always a sort of improving aspect to it, so it always does link with that sense that you’ve got somewhere at the end of it, you’ve just not wasted an evening reading Shelley or whatever it might be. And actually these were real tensions, not between the left and the world beyond necessarily but really right through the Communist Party.

BB. This mate of mine, my closest friend  at school. He was much more political than me. His dad, I don’t know if he was a Communist Party member, he was certainly a shop steward at Metropolitan Vickers. This mate of mine, Ernie Hall, he said would you like to play some records, give a talk to, funnily enough, the Labour League of Youth. And, they were all infinitely more left wing than I was. but, I could just about make out a case for the old blues guys and the People’s Music side of it. But that was nothing to do with Communist Party, that was just, this pal of mine who was in the Labour League of Youth saying, you know, why don’t you come, they’re always looking for people to give talks and that was it. And that was the first time I’d ever been… Two enthusiasms at one current. The other one to develop later, came together. A Labour League of Youth meeting. And I remember, when I was writing for The Morning Star, the Anglo-Soviet Cultural Society, or whatever it was then called, organised this little evening with a guy I got to know quite well called Miles Kington. Miles Kington was a Times columnist but he had the jazz spot on the times. He said it would be quite an interesting idea for you from the communist paper and for him from the Times to chaperone this guy around London and show him the jazz and the popular music scene or whatever you can do.

He was the editor of a magazine in Moscow called Literary Gazette. We spent the whole evening together. We went to The Marquee Club in Wardour Street, we went to the 100 Club here on Oxford Street. We didn’t get to Ronnie’s but I think we went to one other place, but we ended up at The Roundhouse and The Roundhouse was all kind of psychedelic and freaky and we spent this whole evening with him. And what was interesting was, and the reason I’ve just brought it in, was how much he knew about, not jazz so much, but American popular music and how much of it was actually played in kind of hotels and night clubs and so on in the Soviet Union. And he said ‘it’s nothing like you lot think it is’. I mean, I’m paraphrasing but that was a bit of a revelation to me. I mean, I’m not saying that makes it all wonderful but it was more complicated. I’ve always been, I suppose I became a communist in the first place because there’s a side of me which is quite puritanical and the puritanism meant that I didn’t really embrace the whole notion of underground rock.

KM. If you’ve got this puritanical outlook and jazz is being denounced as being this hedonistic (overtalk) saturated good, I mean from official communism, and actually particularly the modernists… I mean, the bebop weren’t seen as being puritanical at all. So, was that also a tension you felt about the way people used to describe the jazz cult, it was like in seedy nightclubs…

BB. The whole normal boundaries of theatre and music, jazz was always outside of that. And my puritanism, there, was focused on the idea that these people were worth more than society actually accords them.

KM. Some of the earliest things that I can remember in the 70s like Mike Westbrook… Before we had the People’s Jubilee which was the Communist Party alternative to the Jubilee in ’77, there was a band, one of the first bands I’d ever saw was called Red Brass, which were people, Chris Biscoe, they were a sort of jazz rock theme but brass and they’d got sort of left lyrics and it was the left lyrics of the time so it was different in that sense but it was more overtly political.

BB. Well Tony Haynes founded Red Brass. we used to be great friends when I was in the union, the MU, and in a position maybe arguing the band’s case for, you know, funding, because we had funds to help music, that was my job. Basically I wasn’t there as a journalist, I was there as an administrator of a kind of arts fund. He was the first to jump into the whole multicultural notion of the seventies and the eighties and even people like Courtney Pine got their first jobs in his band. He always had a mix. And also he would have Indian musicians, Asian musicians, and that’s always been the guiding philosophy of the thing. But Tony Haynes would never be a communist because it was too late.

KM. In terms of reconciling those different elements, there’s the kudos of Americanism, there’s the interest in the sort of jazz as a black music from below, there’s the music of communism and the music of the Soviet culture. You’ve not mentioned Paul Robeson who might be the one figure who might bring those together. Was he a big figure for you in the eighties?

BB. He was a universal figure. Even my mum and dad loved him. They didn’t actually know he was a communist, he just had a fantastic voice. But the one time he made a record with the Count Basie orchestra, by which time, I was left wing, it felt terribly disappointed, because it was fairly awful. I mean he wasn’t, he had no jazz time at all. They just didn’t have it. I mean, that just wasn’t what it was about. I mean, he was like a classical bass baritone singer but he wasn’t seen by most people as a communist figure. It was later that I discovered a book by Howard Fast and he was an American Communist writer who wrote Spartacus, didn’t he, and I think he wrote this book. It was really like a long pamphlet about Peekskill, and Peekskill… I think Robson performed there and it was a kind of – where would it be held, Kevin? – it’s fresher in your mind than mine. Somewhere out in New England somewhere, wasn’t it. And it was obviously a big festival of the left. And it was completely smashed up and broken up by American fascists and anti-communists who, you know, were very dominant at that time. And that marked the end of the American left Labour movement, really, that period. And even Robson couldn’t, him and the two figures who were kinda major figures that we clung on to as, ‘Well look they’re on our side’, were Charlie Chaplin and him.

KM. Other people I’ve spoken to have said that for them he was like the symbol of the other America and because, you know, in a sense he was suffering in the McCarthy era, and so on. Yeah and he was the symbol of the alternative America which, it sounds as if for you that jazz in a way was partly that.

BB. A good friend of mine who’s dead now was a guy called Frank Howling [?]. I met him down here, and he sort of sought me out because he used to read my stuff in The Daily Worker or the Morning Star and we got to know each other and we got to be good friends and he was a tool maker, a fitter. He worked in a factory in Trafford Park and by the time we got to know him his sight was beginning to go and gradually he became blind. Now the point about Frank was that he was one of the most dedicated jazz fans I’ve ever met. He went to live in America in the mid-fifties because of his jazz mania. And whilst he was there he got to know an awful lot of musicians and one of the people who he became really friendly with was Dave Brubeck, and when Brubeck used to visit Manchester he would go and visit him and his funny old Salford mum, in their terraced house and he would have tea.

On a Sunday afternoon he would have perhaps a Free Trade Hall concert the night before or maybe it was gonna be the Sunday night. They became really close friends and he knew a few others like Bill Evans, and quite a lot of New York musicians. Now the point is he became so disenchanted with the American way of life that he decided to come back to England, but he came back via the Soviet Union. He made some kind of journey to Australia and across to, I don’t know, and then he spent some time in the Soviet Union and came back, and joined the Communist Party here. He had a kind of like an incredibly road to Damascus type thing. The Soviet Union didn’t seem to put him off at all, but later when we used to chat and play records and play some music in the car if we’d been to a gig or whatever and we’d chat, more, he never made any connection at all between his jazz thing and his communism. He went to America because of jazz. He became disenchanted with the whole American ethos. He became a communist.

But he never made any connection. He wasn’t worried about the class struggle, people’s music, music of blacks, nothing. He only was interested in the sounds, and yet, the other side of his life, he’d come to this extreme thing of moving to America and then moving back to join the Communist Party in England. That’s an interesting tale. It’s a pity he’s not here to tell it. Nothing fits quite a simple view of relating the music to the politics. The two things were always quite separate to him. There’s a guy called Chris Wellard who used to run a record shop in Lewisham. He was a party member and he had a jazz shop. Lovely bloke. Chris said “Come and give a talk. What do you want to do?” I said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll talk about Marxism and jazz”. That shows how long ago it was. And I really had a go at it, and of course it was full of Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler and the struggle of blacks and so on, but it was all, that was the only way you could make it work for an audience. I think that I came out of a different era and it was inevitable that somebody like me would have a different version of what a communist was supposed to do in relation to this music.

When I came on the Musicians Union scene in the late sixties, I knew about an assistant secretary called Harry Francis. Harry Francis was almost more famous than the General Secretary, which was a guy called Hardy Ratcliffe. It was well know that Harry was a Communist Party member and so before I got there I thought here’s a communist star at the top of the organisation, and that will be really useful.  But when I got there, and also I’d seen him once when I was on one of my Morning Star jaunts, reviewing, I went back up to Manchester, there was a big jazz festival up at Bellevue and Dizzy Gillespie was on the bill, but at a particular time I was just watching, having a coffee or a cup of tea or something and Dizzy walks up to Harry Francis and gave him a huge bear hug. And it were at the time when Dizzy was kind of, you know, he was not afraid to go to Cuba and he was playing afro-Cuban music and all that kind of thing. And I thought, wow, you know, Harry Francis, he knows who he is and so on and so forth. He was always going on about this Czech big band led by a guy called Gustav Brom. And Gustav Brom was better than Count Bacie because he was from Czechoslovakia. You know, a proper communist band.

KM. When I started thinking about researching the links between jazz and the left, which I was doing as a historian of the CP but also just as you’re describing, you know, could you bring music and politics together, also as a jazz enthusiast, I’d always known about this left-wing milieu of the late forties onwards which was people like Sydney Finkelstein, it was people like Eric Hobsbawm, it was jazz as a people’s music and it was a sort of, almost like an alternative culture of respectability ‘cause it wasn’t just like pop music, it wasn’t commercialised but it wasn’t like concert halls and straight orchestras, so you were challenging the establishment but at the same time you know, it had its own respectability.

So I knew about, you know, things like the 100 Club, you know, famous institution not far from here. I knew that there had been benefits played there and by this time it had gone into the kind of folk scene and it was a well-known venue that started off as a jazz venue. I’d known about the musicians that had played and the [??] marches and the links between politics and protest but then… And the musicians union didn’t enter into that at all, it was just actually a rather negative influence because it’s main, you mainly associate with it having stopped jazz musicians coming over from the states to come here for donkey’s years, which wasn’t the case by the seventies but that’s what you’d heard of in the fifties and such.

And then, actually doing the research, which is what really links it to what you were saying about the role of the MU, to suddenly find there was this whole layer of Musicians’ Union activists in the 1930s that I’d known nothing about, many of whom were communists. That was certainly the focal point of their activities. And actually I found out about them initially was going to work in the Mass Observation Archive, and then just coming across, they’d got this Topic collection on dance bands. The main researcher was Hugh Clegg who later becomes like the most eminent industrial relations specialist effectively you have in this country, an Oxford academic. But the young Hugh Clegg was a communist at that time, but he was working for Mass Observation and he was going round speaking to the musicians in West End Dance bands, again not far from here you’d got Archer Street where the musicians were congregating. Two or three hundred during the day time waiting for whatever work they could get that week or that night, going round doing the typical Mass Observation interviews with them and finding out how political they were.

It was the time of Spain, the time of Popular Front. It all focused on rebuilding the Union. And these were top dance band musicians playing in top orchestras at the time but in just the way you’re describing. It had nothing really to do with the music at all, their politicisation. It was first of all as workers organising to better their living standards or to get better security and so on, combined with the fact that in many cases they’d come from, they were coming from sort of poor East London backgrounds. They were travelling to these swanky west end nightspots absolutely sort of, each evening you went to work there it sort of renewed your sense of antagonism towards the classes, whereby you and your type lived here and there were this lot living or spending their evenings in these conditions of opulence. And so that’s the way I got into it actually. There was, I think you mentioned Billy Amstell. You know, some of these people are still about. He was performing in the top Geraldo orchestra.

BB. Ambrose.

KM. Ambrose, beg your pardon. Ambrose. (Overtalk). And he was a good saxophonist as well. But he’d not been a communist but he’d been part of that milieu and he was telling me that he respected communists as union organisers. There was Douglas Hyde who I knew at that time. He was famous for his account, I Believed, his story of disillusionment in communism which was an international bestseller in the Cold War. One of the things that he told me was how he would be giving these classes on Marxist education to Musician’s Union activists and there were fractions. Ivor Mairants, Ambrose, Geraldo. Different orchestras. people like Van Phillips.

So there was this whole world which actually I’d know nothing about because if you look at the histories of jazz or of popular music, they don’t mention the political aspects at all because it wasn’t really bound up in the music, it was more to do with the conditions of work and the conditions of life, so in that sense I think they’re always, that sort of tension you’re describing, I think there always were these almost like two cultures. Because actually, when you started to get the jazz enthusiasts of the type who are sitting down, listening very earnestly to Jelly Roll Morton records, you know, the tradition that carries on for decades.

Obviously the music on which it focuses changes but that becomes that sort of jazz appreciation. But that lot, they didn’t really get on with musicians because they weren’t interested in this sort of synthetic, British dance bands and the swing-type numbers, they were interested in the pure music of revolt and alternative folk culture uncontaminated by capitalism and so on. And there are fantastic descriptions you can find in the late forties where they’re having… The collectors really, they collect records, and that’s what they want. They want to hear this proper jazz, but there’s this irony that they only ever hear it as performed on records.

So it’s a sort of folk music that never sort of exists in terms of real people performing. And they’ll listen to this for an hour of recital. Somebody will be talking through in just the way you’re describing, then they’ll have an interval, they’ll all clear off to the bar while then suddenly these swing-time musicians will start playing for twenty minutes, do their bit, and then they’ll only come back after they’ve finished playing and get back to the proper pure American “negro jazz” — in terms of what you were saying. So maybe that tension you’re talking about goes back a long way, basically.

I think jazz in that period, there was this more, they were what the jazz aficionado thought was jazz, which was a much more purist definition which could even exclude. I mean, they were famously, you talk about actually, if the saxophone was disapproved of under Zhdanov in the USSR the saxophone was also disapproved of my jazz purists. There was this famous character who wrote, he was part of that milieu, he wasn’t a communist, a man called Rex Harris. But, he famously or notoriously says that one of the leading jazz saxophonists, which was Coleman Hawkins, could have been a fine musician had he not played the saxophone because the saxophone was that broader world which everyone else thought was jazz, which was commercial light music of a certain type. And I think now the actually interesting thing about some of these dance band musicians in a way is that there were different musical personalities there sometimes trying to find expression.

There were two names I came across. This is in the early part of the war. These were communist-supporting, if not actually communist dance band leaders who did benefits for the People’s Convention. The People’s Convention was like a mobilisation of popular opinion around the communist demands of the day. And one of them is quite interesting in passing, that was Phil [Michael?] Cardew, because that’s the father of Cornelius Cardew, so there’s that sort of generational link to another  type of leftist movement which is sort of more avant-gardist in the sixties. So that’s just sort of quite interesting incidentally.

And the other was a man called Ben Frankel who is — I mean he certainly is — a communist because he leaves in protest against Stalinism in the early fifties, but he’s also been performing as a dance band leader but has serious pretensions as a composer. And in fact he becomes a highly reputable composer in quite a modernist, post-Schoenberg musical language as “Benjamin Frankel“. But it’s Ben Frankel at the time of the Peoples’ Convention, you know. I suppose that’s just what you did. Again, it was a way of making a living. So I think there are these split personalities.

ET. It’s interesting what you’re saying about the sort of privileging of the record over the live performance. It’s interesting because certainly in communist literary culture of the thirties there’s a lot of interest in performance and various kind of oral traditions like the pageant — and all that kind of thing — and mass declamation. And that kind of idea of wanting these kind of event type things, it’s very interesting that what you’re saying is the opposite seems to have taken place in music, that there was less interest in live music and more interest in sitting around listening to records.

KM. I think that’s true but should make a big caveat with that because there was this focus on, there’s this recorded music which has the authenticity of its origins basically, which was often music by musicians, say, of the 1920s and 30s who you weren’t going to see live anyway. In the States, this was sort of a musical form that had now had its day. You hadn’t really got New Orleans music at that point where you’ve got the, we’re talking about the late 30s, early 40s when you’re starting to get these jazz collectors first emerging. So the only form in which that music really exists, is as these shellac records that they played to each other.

But I should have really made the caveat clearer that there are these younger, working-class lads — because they are all male — who are then inspired to have a go themselves, just as you were describing. You know, you actually, you’re inspired by this music so you want to see if you can play this music. And it’s down in South East London, these are basically industrial workers… The Challenge Jazz Club… The George Webb Dixielanders is the band that comes out of the Challenge Jazz Club, and you probably wouldn’t listen to them now on purely aesthetic grounds. But on sociological grounds, you might, because there was a sense that they were really trying to imitate this music and replicate it so that in this strange way this music they saw as this authentic indigenous American people’s music would also be their authentic indigenous people’s music. And actually one of the people I interviewed was a man called Owen Bryce who was the cornetist I think. I think he played cornet which was a sign of purism in a way because Louis Armstrong had initially played the cornet before the trumpet.

BB. I think he’s just died actually, Owen…

KM. Yeah, well he was the person who actually… He had been in the George Webb Dixielanders and I think was sort of moved aside for the young Humphrey Lyttleton, who was a much more talented… I mean Owen would have acknowledged that, a much more gifted trumpeter. And then in a sense George Webb Dixielanders becomes the Humphrey Lyttleton band, and in the end he becomes the start and that’s leading through to the ‘Bad Penny Blues’ and getting into the charts and so on. But it all starts with this… It’s almost like this young working class enthusiasts for jazz — and they’re purists — they don’t want the music you hear on the BBC.

BB. But it changed in a way quite quickly because he died about two years ago, three years ago now. I became very close, very friendly with a guy called Eddie Harvey. Eddie was, in the end kind of like a one man history of British jazz, because he was in that George Webb band. but he told me that — it’s mentioned actually in your chapter — he told me that he was a draughtsman in whatever was the big factory near Woolwich, Arsenal – and he said we all spent our time writing scores at work and going to see Charlie over there who was in another dance band, and swapping ideas for writing arrangements of popular music and so on. This was whilst he was still in the acme of purism which was the George Webb band. And funnily enough, when he went from that to become the trombone player in the Johnny Dankworth Seven, it was like heresy, you know. How could you leave this pure music to join a glorified jazz band? And yet Johnny Dankworth Seven was the epitome of the new sophistication. And with Cleo Laine singing, made it just about a proposition. And also Dankworth was much more intelligent than most band leaders. He was having to plot a course. And he was also more talented. There’s another element you didn’t quite bring out. That business about the Billy Amstells and all of those guys in the Mayfair world of the hotel and so on. There was a secondary hatred, or maybe a primary hatred. It wasn’t just of the toffs, because, to be fair, those people in those bands were also driving off home after the gig in big cars. They were making a lot of money themselves by the standards of the time. But their real hate figures were the band leaders ’cause the band leaders were mostly without any talent whatsoever except as businessmen organising work. And that’s why they were tolerated. They could organise work and so we got work, but their actually musical knowledge or musical philosophy to them were kind of like, they were like morons, they were philistines. So they had a thing, they hate the audience, the hated the bandleaders… It’s quite rich ground for actually becoming a disgruntled left-winger… isn’t it, really?!

KM. It’s interesting what you’re saying about Eddie Harvey because people – was it Owen? – somebody certainly mentioned, this sense, so he is one of these… We’re going to recreate this pure kind of proletarian folk music then he’s defecting to the modernists, and it was almost, I don’t know if it’s in the chapter, they refer to this kangaroo court. But it’s a bit like Bob Dylan in the sixties, that actually how could you have betrayed, having been one of us…? Which partly shows you actually that in a sense, I think probably more so in that period than afterwards, one sort of common feature between jazz and the left is people seem to share quite a similar perspective and so to everybody else they all look the same and yet they’re intensely fractionalised amongst each other, and always falling out and drafting manifesto and counter manifesto. And even like the jazz periodicals, that the first jazz magazines which were real labours of love in the 1940s and I suppose they would have been the kind of thing that the young Eric Hobsbawm would have subscribed to, the jazz sociological society and the jazz appreciation society.

>>Side A