Presenting Ellington and Recorded Jazz, 1933-1942

Jazz on BBC Radio 1922-1972 - Tim Wall

Tim Wall [+-]
Birmingham City University
Tim Wall is Professor of Radio and Popular Music Studies at Birmingham City University.


This chapter examines a period beginning with the historic 14th June 1933 BBC radio broadcast of Duke Ellington and his Orchestra which in many ways was a watershed in the way jazz was presented on the BBC. I demonstrate that the way the BBC selected, framed and presented Ellington’s music in this, and the later broadcasts of his music, was part of a continuing process of defining jazz. The chapter explores a decade of change for jazz in Britain and for the BBC, the culmination of which can best be understood through a case study of the wartime programme Radio Rhythm Club. In particular, I explore the way that the content and presentation of Radio Rhythm Club embodied the newly dominant idea of jazz as a recorded folk music distinctly rooted in African American culture. Throughout, I continue the speculative and interrogative historiographical method I established in Chapter One. I return to well-used primary material, rethinking what it can tell us by focusing on the evidence itself, offering a more tentative and open reading of this evidence, moving towards conclusions, rather than starting from a predefined sense of what is the case. This approach reveals Ellington and his music as an ambiguous sign within a wider field of contested notions of the value of music and the challenge of new African-American originated culture. I recast Ellington’s appearance as a pivotal moment in the BBC’s early history, both in its own terms and as an index of something much more significant at play within the BBC; a moment in which BBC staff grappled with how to position a changing definition jazz within its own categories of music and variety programming. By contrasting the BBC’s presentation of Ellington with that of Louis Armstrong a year earlier, I determine two distinct conceptions of jazz offered by the broadcaster. They not only represent a rupture in the way that jazz was understood in Britain, but these two innovators of jazz come to personify the two main trajectories in which jazz played out in European culture through the 1930s and into the war years. Here, Armstrong is taken to represent the notion that jazz was a folk music understood through its origins, while Ellington is constructed as a modernist, and jazz as a new art form. While these two new discourses became the dominant perspectives of British jazz fans, a third trajectory (lost in standard jazz histories) is apparent within the BBC, where the early elements of jazz form were incorporated into the BBC’s idea of light musical comedy, which itself would form the basis of the later idea of light entertainment. The semiotic legacy of the small group Chicago sound, originally linked to Armstrong’s early recordings, becomes the foundation for the jazz fan Rhythm Clubs, their radio recreation in the BBC’s 1940 Radio Rhythm Club, and subsequently comes to define jazz in Europe in the immediate post-war period through the trade jazz movement. In the meantime it was to be Ellington’s approach which dominated both live and broadcast notions of jazz in Britain for a decade. The BBC’s role in using Ellington as the reference point for a model of symphonic jazz, and later swing big bands, created what became the prevailing notion of jazz in Britain in the 1930s. By the start of the 1940s jazz on the BBC struggled to contain the competing cultural meanings of popular swing commercial dance music, Ellington-derived modernism and Radio Rhythm Club’s folk conception of jazz as something to be studied, sustained and protected from commercial pressures.

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Wall, Tim. Presenting Ellington and Recorded Jazz, 1933-1942. Jazz on BBC Radio 1922-1972. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. Oct 2020. ISBN 9781781798942. Date accessed: 20 Jun 2019 doi: 10.1558/equinox.38332. Oct 2020

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