Race, History, and Black British Jazz

By Toynbee, Jason | Black Music Research Journal, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Race, History, and Black British Jazz


Toynbee, Jason, Black Music Research Journal


Since the arrival of jazz in Britain in 1919, black musicians have played a key role in the development of the genre. They have made significant innovations and brought a distinct African diasporic voice to this corner of jazz. From the 1950s at least, there has also been a certain amount of collaboration with white players. Nevertheless, black musicians have frequently encountered problems in finding work and being accepted in the larger British jazz scene, while until quite recently their contribution was not widely acknowledged by scholars and critics. (There is, however, the pioneering work of Val Wilmer, Howard Rye, John Cowley, Hilary Moore, and Catherine Parsonage. The author is indebted to them; references to their work can be found in a number of places in the text below.)

Shifting patterns of migration to the United Kingdom, and the fact that black musicians have always been a minority among jazz performers, contributed to this marginalization. Paradoxically enough, since the mid-1980s these same factors have also contributed to the production of a reflexive tradition of black British jazz, based on a hybrid, Black Atlantic musical inheritance and, projecting forward, new ways of imagining a more cosmopolitan Britain.

This article traces the changing course of black British jazz from earliest days to the present. It also makes a theoretical argument about the nature of race and its connection both with music and belonging to the nation. Race is indeed a musical-discursive construction, as has been argued in the literature about culture and ethnicity over the last thirty years or so. But it is a social structure too, and the contradictions that result are key to understanding the race-music relationship.

Theorizing race and music

In his thematic history of black music in the United States, Ronald Radano argues that we need to go beyond accounts in which "black music garners its strength and power from the integrity of a greater African-American culture forged under circumstances of enduring racial oppression" (2003, xii). This is an important step, foreshadowed in earlier work in British cultural studies, for example, that by Stuart Hall about "new ethnicities" and by Paul Gilroy on the "Black Atlantic." It enables us to consider black music as more than a simple function of racial resistance, as embodying more than a single aesthetic. In particular, by showing how its makers create diverse sounds that traverse racial barriers, Radano is able to produce an expansive statement of how and why black music matters.

But he also misses something by working purely at the level of discourse and music. In his provocative formulation, the project of black music in the United States is one of "lying up the nation," that is, the generation of changing and often paradoxical stories not only of how race is constituted in and through music, but also of how the nation--here the U.S.--has been co-produced by the race. What this illuminating account nevertheless lacks is an explanation of the gearing between the imaginative work of music making and the social structure of race that lies, ontologically speaking, beneath. Social structure in the sense in which I am using it here is not often considered in anthropological approaches to music nor in the related field of cultural studies. But it is surely indispensible to understanding the history of black music, including black British jazz.

As Douglas Porpora suggests, social structure consists in "systems of human relationships among social positions" (1998, 343). The big structures are those of class, gender, sexuality, and race; big in the sense that they have the greatest impact on the way that people live, and specifically, the extent to which they flourish or suffer. So, in terms of race, to be black vis-a-vis white is to be positioned in an inferior social "slot" from which it is difficult to escape and from which harmful material and psychological consequences flow.

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