Journal of World Popular Music, Vol 3, No 1 (2016)



Book Review

Jason Toynbee, Catherine Tackley and Mark Doffman, eds. 2014. Black British Jazz: Routes, Ownership and Performance. Farnham: Ashgate. 244pp. ISBN 978-1-4724-1756-5 (hbk)

Reviewed by: Lawrence Davies, King’s College London, UK

Keywords: British jazz; race; colonialism; transnationalism; reggae; blues

Black British Jazz is the first edited collection of its kind. It addresses a historic lack of representation for black British musicians in academic and popular literature on jazz, making it a useful—if not essential—antidote to Jim Godbolt’s (1984, 1989) lamentably pale-faced histories of jazz in Britain. The book builds on the AHRC-funded research project “What is Black British Jazz? Routes, Ownership and Performance”. However, this relationship is not referred to explicitly in the text until the final chapter by Byron Dueck. This is somewhat surprising, as Dueck’s explanation of both the project itself, as well as public grumblings surrounding the legitimacy of research into explicitly “black British” jazz, would probably have been worth stating up front. As Dueck observes, a number of high-profile (white) jazz musicians and promoters criticized the decision to spend public money on an ostensibly “niche” topic, and that its focus was “divisive” (200–201). Yet Black British Jazz shows how race continually bubbles under the surface of British jazz history. Black Britons are consistently underrepresented in higher education and formal musical training settings compared to their white counterparts (214–15), and have long had to navigate the expectations and fantasies of white audiences. At the same time, the visibility and success of a small number of black musicians between the 1980s and 1990s has led to suspicions from the wider British jazz community that ethnicity can trump talent and training (212). Consequently, many black musicians are somewhat ambivalent about their musical identity: while the label “black British jazz” can allow musicians to lay claim to a distinctive musical heritage, it can also gloss over aesthetic diversity, and foster unwelcome division within the jazz community as a whole (204).

The book’s scope is broad, ranging from mid-nineteenth-century African American minstrel troupes to present-day composer-performers such as Shabaka Hutchings and Peter Edwards. In chapter 2, Howard Rye trawls newspaper, theatre and sound archives to uncover an established tradition of black music and entertainment in Britain stretching back to 1860. Rye’s meticulous account, never missing an opportunity to provide precise dates, locations and personnel, shows how African American performance was consistently popular throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. While this often came in the derogatory and stereotypical form of minstrelsy, it also allowed African and Caribbean diaspora musicians in Britain to meet the general demand for black bodies on stage. Quickly dispensing with the myth that black British musical culture is merely a “post-Windrush” phenomenon (24), Rye’s copious source work provides much anti-essentialist ammunition. A successful black musician was one who could navigate the expectations of his or her audience (23–25). While white audiences repeatedly confused the stereotyped blackness of their main “point of contact”—minstrelsy—with historical reality (27), black performers became ever more adept in mastering and combining the latest exotic fashions. The heterogeneity of black music is therefore not “natural” or “innate”, but rather conscious and cultivated (37).

Interestingly, Toynbee, Tackley and Doffman do not draw heavily on Paul Gilroy’s (1993) renowned “Black Atlantic” interculture as a guiding theoretical framework. Instead, the forging of simultaneous and often conflicting identities—black, Jamaican, British, jazz musician—result from a different kind of “double consciousness”. The authors draw on Guthrie P. Ramsey’s (2003) autoethnographic study Race Music to highlight tensions between “roots”: home, tradition and community; and “routes”: migration, cosmopolitanism and hybridity (2–3). In chapter 3, Tackley draws on historic interviews with musicians Joe, Laurie, Clare and Frank Deniz to show that, while black musicians had to navigate broader expectations and outright prejudice surrounding their ethnicity and role as musicians, jazz also functioned as a musical community in which new identities could be forged. These performers’ involvement within the musical life of Cardiff’s Tiger Bay and London’s West End between c.1920 and 1945 “provided opportunities for [the] (re)construction of ‘new and wider’ roots and identities [that] often resonated in [musicians’] performances” (60).

Jazz’s intersections with race and nation manifest themselves in the present day too. In chapter 6, Mark Doffman chooses the lens of “belonging” through which to view musicians’ strategic identification with communities of race, place and practice between 1980 and the present (112–13). This framework, Doffman argues, allows us to examine the particular ambiguities of identifying as “black” in Britain and playing jazz, a music for which the majority of its black (American) performers “feel an unambiguous sense of belonging” (114). Doffman examines how the Jazz Warriors, Jazz Jamaica and Orphy Robinson’s Spontaneous Cosmic Rawxtra cultivated a distinctly black British jazz that drew on Caribbean music in the face of broader racial tensions during the 1970s and 80s.

Significantly, this has since given way to a more flexible identification with “place” (116–17, 130). Educational groups such as Tomorrow’s Warriors and the Inner London Education Authority’s funding for music tuition during the 1980s were instrumental in developing a “London sound”, a musical manifestation of a “plural, poly-vocal place” (120–21). Here, the debt to Ramsey’s Race Music becomes most apparent and most valuable. While black British musical practice is inherently heterogeneous, as Gilroy has recognized, such heterogeneity nevertheless adheres within groupings that are imagined to be static. As saxophonist-composer Denys Baptiste observes, being both “black” and “British” allows him to have “the best of both worlds” (123).

Intersections of racial and national identity in music are also explored in relation to the culture industry. In chapter 7, Justin Williams compares how British saxophonist and rapper Soweto Kinch, and American trumpeter and rapper Russell Gunn, have combined jazz and hip hop. Williams hears the difference between each musician’s style as a product of the industrial and broader social constraints they experience when combining these genres (146). While Gunn’s output attests to a more unified history of African American cultural experience in the United States, Kinch’s work pushes against the securely middle-class associations of jazz in Britain and the corresponding identification of hip hop with black British urban youth (143). Importantly, Williams argues that although genre rigidity may fade along with the CD-era music industry, its correlate social structures are far more entrenched (147).

Other musicians’ activities show a more empowering relationship with the culture industry. In chapter 9, George Burrows examines the music of pianist, composer and bandleader Reginald Foresythe (1907–1958) as a critique of the culture industry and as a way of “rehabilitating” Theodor Adorno’s contentious pronouncements on jazz (176). Foresythe’s jazz compositions highlight his own rejection of the culture industry, locating the composer as part of a “younger generation of black jazz-composers who [were] poised to lead the development of ‘hot’ jazz towards a greater modernistic balance between emotional abandon and intellectual control” (179–80). Significantly, Foresythe did not simply appropriate Adorno’s not-so-thinly-veiled Eurocentrism. Burrows shows how Foresythe was the quintessential Black Atlantic modernist, his international career allowing him to “[function] as a diasporic musical reformer, actively engaging with the topical debate about the modernity of jazz as a composer-performer from a uniquely black transnational perspective” (182). In so doing, Burrows not only recovers Adorno, but also a key aspect of Gilroy’s work that has been somewhat absent in other chapters. The final flourish is Burrows’s discussion of Foresythe’s possible homosexuality, which allowed the composer to cultivate a particular form of English dandyism characterized by “frivolous yet progressively modernist leisure-class values” that could also insulate Foresythe from American racism (188–89, 191).

Despite black musicians’ copious achievements, many have been con­spicuously written out of histories of jazz in Britain. Mark Banks, Jason Toynbee and George McKay set out to remedy this, examining how musicians’ historiographical neglect is often due to issues of both racial and musical marginality. In chapter 5, Banks and Toynbee highlight how musicians around 1970, especially Joe Harriott, Harold McNair and the South African musicians of the Blue Notes and the Brotherhood of Breath, have been positioned conspicuously outside histories of British progressive jazz. Asserting itself as “art” (with the prospect of increased state funding), the jazz avant-garde increasingly identified with an “ethnically unmarked (i.e. implicitly white)” European experimentalism (97–99). However, as Banks and Toynbee point out, there were many black musicians committed to the avant-garde project (102), who combined emerging practices with vernacular elements from their African and Caribbean heritage (102–106).

Banks and Toynbee are at pains to stress that white musicians and critics did not want to consciously undermine their black counterparts. Rather, the hybridity of British avant-garde jazz would inevitably be obscured by the available European discourses of uplift and consecration (107). Even so, we should be cautious not to let anybody off the hook. In chapter 8, George McKay demonstrates how the significant popularity of pianist Winifred Atwell has now largely been consigned to a footnote in historical accounts. Moving deftly between a grand piano and a battered upright—her “other piano”—Atwell’s light classical and boogie-woogie hits simultaneously highlighted and undermined gendered and racialized musical hierarchies (163), yet are now forgotten. However, McKay reminds us that the marginalization of a black female instrumentalist who did not eschew African American forms reminds us that jazz’s limits are not bounded by the avant-garde and experimental, but rather by those whom jazz historians have consciously excluded (168).

If Toynbee, Tackley and Doffman’s research project posed the question “what is black British jazz?”, then the resultant Black British Jazz (without the question mark) is more assured of its answer. In chapter 4, Kenneth Bilby examines the function of reggae in relation to black British jazz, asking provocatively if this could be synonymous with the function of the blues for African American jazz musicians. While the latter half of the twentieth century witnessed an increasing black cultural cosmopolitanism grounded in African American urban pop music (69), many black British jazz musicians, conscious that they might be seen as imitating African American models, have since drawn and built on a number of Caribbean musical resources to create “local notions of black identity not overly indebted to black American models” (72–74). At the same time, these musicians are somewhat reticent to claim a cohesive definition of what “black British jazz” might sound like. They rely instead on more evasive ideas of a Caribbean “accent” to jazz, or that these influences may simply appear in British jazz “by osmosis” (78). In doing so, these responses appear to attest to the idea that it is jazz, not black British pop, that is the best example of Black Atlantic interculture.

But does this make reggae the “blues” of black British jazz? In some ways it does: Bilby draws on Travis Jackson’s (2000: 49) valuable formulation of the “blues aesthetic” as “shared normative and evaluative criteria” within a particular musical community. What British trombonist Dennis Rollins has called “common runnings” encapsulates lived experience and shared cultural values, while avoiding the essentialism that often comes with attempts to pin down the “fundamental” elements of black music (82). Yet Bilby’s appeal to the concept of a “blues aesthetic” in black British jazz—even in Jackson’s nuanced terms—feels somewhat problematic. First, delineating a community of musicians who share common cultural practices is only useful as far as that group of musicians can be said to be cohesive and representative. Black British Jazz does not detail the methodology of its parent research project, so it is not clear to what extent this is the case. A recent project report (Banks, Ebrey and Toynbee 2014: 11) shows that fifty musicians were interviewed between 2009 and 2011. That only eighteen of these are referenced throughout Black British Jazz—with five interviewees in particular cited across three separate chapters—makes this “community” feel somewhat self-selecting. Many musicians associated with the 1980s heyday of black British jazz (e.g. Jason Yarde, Mark and Mike Mondesir) have since moved firmly away from Caribbean influences. And what of the many musicians for whom jazz has become a means to an end? Musicians such as David Okumu, and groups such as Moses Boyd’s Exodus, The Hics and United Vibrations, have emerged from a post-Jazz Warriors scene to follow musical “routes” that defy easy categorization.

Perhaps Black British Jazz needed to answer not only the question “what is black British jazz?”, but also the more well-worn one: “what is jazz?” The authors assume that jazz’s definition remains fixed, in spite of its transnational movement. Jazz may have “slipped its original moorings and left home” and now be “everywhere” (1), but most accounts of the genre’s aesthetic principles—a cosmopolitan, virtuosic play on vernacular underpinnings—still derive from a story that imagines it as a distinctly African American response to an American problem. The blues aesthetic, for instance, is a community bond forged from the historical and continued experience of oppression and subjugation (Jones 1963), while jazz’s capacity to move beyond the circumstances of its birth attests to its originators’ uncompromising spirit (cf. Radano 2003: xii, 2). Yet, while there are undeniable commonalities between black diaspora experiences, this does not mean these experiences are the same. I raise this issue not to argue that black British musicians have been more or less affected by racism, but rather to suggest that references to “roots”, heritage and tradition in the context of British jazz may be a strategic borrowing of a distinctly American discourse, one that needs further critical scrutiny when it appears internationally. The totalizing, structural force that formed twentieth-century black British cultural identity was not “Jim Crow”, but the British Empire.

Black British Jazz not only reveals previously marginalized history; it also forces us to confront the global nature of jazz. While we need not criticize the book for “neglecting” white musicians, it is important to acknowledge that the Black Atlantic is only one of many roots/routes for jazz within the context of the British Empire and its more recent remnants. Any omissions are not faults, but rather the next steps in the history of jazz.


Banks, Mark, Jill Ebrey and Jason Toynbee. 2014. Working Lives in Black British Jazz: A Report and Survey. Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change. (accessed 16 June 2015).

Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso.

Godbolt, Jim. 1984. A History of Jazz in Britain, 1919–50. London: Quartet Books.

—1989. A History of Jazz in Britain, 1950–70. London: Quartet Books.

Jackson, Travis A. 2000. “Jazz Performance as Ritual: The Blues Aesthetic and the African Diaspora”. In The African Diaspora: A Musical Perspective, edited by Ingrid Monson, 23–82. New York: Garland.

Jones, LeRoi [Amiri Baraka]. 1963. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: W.W. Norton.

Radano, Ronald. 2003. Lying Up a Nation: Race and Black Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ramsey, Guthrie P. 2003. Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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