The Road to British Mainstream Jazz, 1943-1965

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 describes a period of settlement for jazz at the BBC and looks at two decades of programming which sits outside the Jazz Club broadcasts which dominated postwar jazz broadcasting. In particular, the chapter explores the significant presence of jazz on the Light Programme which took more distinctive forms and permitted variation and experimentation within fixed generic boundaries. The phenomenon of trad jazz during the 1950s prompted numerous attempts by the BBC to engage with this movement, in programming such as British Jazz (1954-1955), At the Jazz Band Ball (1956-1957), Traditional Jazz (1955-1956), The Chris Barber Band Box (1958) and Trad Tavern (1961-1962). I argue that, in this era, the idea of 'the radio personality’, particularly those of Dill Jones and Chris Barber, become instrumental in promoting an idea of what constitutes trad to BBC listeners. The way that these programmes explore boundaries between trad, folk and skiffle as musical forms and community activities become central themes of this analysis. The post-war period also sees a continuing rise in documentary radio programming about jazz, in which experts relate historical narratives that have come to dominate jazz discourse throughout the second half of the twentieth-century. I present two comparative case studies. On the Light Programme, I consider World of Jazz (1952-1957), a magazine format which attempted to reflect the current jazz scene through record selections, discussion segments and listener polls. On the Third Programme, I discuss Jazz Session (1957-1963) and its more academic approach to jazz, grounded in the Third Programme's discourses surrounding the European classical tradition. I question to what extent twentieth-century jazz narratives have been shaped by a mode of historical story-telling particular to radio and consider the centrality of anecdote that accompanies a move toward specialist BBC presenters from the jazz world, including Humphrey Lyttelton, George Melly and Johnny Dankworth. Humphrey Lyttelton becomes a significant personality by the end of this period, both as a bandleader and radio presenter. He becomes the main, and then sole, presenter of Jazz Club from 1963 and is widely featured in other programmes broadcast by the BBC. It is, though, his advocacy for a mainstream jazz which combines instrumental, improvisational and playing styles of so called trad and modern forms which becomes the predominate form of broadcast jazz. By the mid-1960s it is this approach to jazz which comes to dominate BBC music broadcasting on both radio and television. The chapter concludes with a consideration of the post-bop return to modernism that occurs in the late 1950s, as jazz programming is reorganised in accordance with larger-scale changes to music scheduling across the Light Programme, Third Programme and Home Service. I will chart the considerable presence of Johnny Dankworth on the Light Programme during this period, arguing that his positioning is indicative of a turn away from the folk and bebop notions of community, and back toward the idea of the sophisticate bandleader, earlier associated with the BBC’s presentation of Ellington. Throughout the 1950s, Dankworth is the focus and presenter of a number of jazz programmes on BBC radio, most notably Johnny Come Lately (1958-1961). Dankworth is himself directly linked to the contemporary reappraisal of Ellington's music (a connection he self-consciously cultivates), performing Ellington's music on the radio and also composing long-form suites that attempt to invoke British national identity. The degree to which Dankworth achieves his aim, and the response of British jazz musicians to the idea of mainstream jazz, lay the foundations for the discussion of 'new British jazz' in Chapter Five.

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Wall, Tim. The Road to British Mainstream Jazz, 1943-1965. Jazz on BBC Radio 1922-1972. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. Mar 2026. ISBN 9781781798942. Date accessed: 20 Apr 2024 doi: 10.1558/equinox.38334. Mar 2026

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