‘Rawness, freedom, experimentation’: the Brit jazz boom of the 60s and 70s

Swinging London’s cultural melting pot was channelled into vibrant jazz by John Surman, Alan Skidmore and others – and it has inspired the resurgent scene of today

It was in the dusty depths of Birmingham record library in 2000 that Shabaka Hutchings first discovered the wonders of 70s British jazz. “I was 16 and I’d just moved back to England from Barbados,” explains the Sons of Kemet saxophonist. “The first record I played was John Surman and Stu Martin Live at Woodstock Town Hall, which starts off with this really gnarly synthesiser and sax. I remember thinking: this is pretty crazy. I know this sounds like a cliche but without it being punk music they were playing with this almost punk attitude.”

The scene Hutchings is talking about was a brief golden window, from 1965 to 1975, when London record labels and recording studios opened their doors to British jazz stars creating a unique sound that combined the US influences of Duke Ellington, John Coltrane and Gil Evans with the London blues, folk and rock scenes plus West Indian and African rhythms. It’s a progressive and thrilling sound – “rawness, freedom, experimentation,” Hutchings says – that is now being documented in depth under the umbrella title British Jazz Explosion, with a scene-spanning compilation alongside a series of remastered original LPs.

For the man behind the project, DJ, music historian and film-maker Tony Higgins, it is the culmination of 20 years of work that began with a short-lived series of British jazz compilations and reissues entitled Impressed, compiled with DJ and broadcaster Gilles Peterson.

“Gilles and I were both into the same records by people like Michael Garrick, Don Rendell, Neil Ardley,” explains Higgins, “Records that captured British jazz at its most innovative, dynamic and experimental.” The compilation led to BBC documentary, Jazz Britannia, and a 2005 concert at the Barbican featuring such venerable British jazz names as Stan Tracey, Garrick, Surman and Mike Westbrook. Then nothing.

“Universal should have seized that moment but they didn’t,” says Higgins. “The moment flagged, management at Universal changed, and the idea just withered on the vine.” Higgins would occasionally fire off an email to Universal to see if the idea was worth reviving. But in the end, he says, “I had to let it go for my mental health”.

Then, in 2019, Universal got back in touch. There was a booming British jazz scene again, fronted by the likes of Hutchings, Nubya Garcia and Moses Boyd, and these old records were being name-checked. “Recordings by people like Garrick, Westbrook and Surman are what really inspired me,” Hutchings says. “The first time I heard John Surman’s red LP from 1969: that record is calypso, modal, Afro-Cuban. These people were making beautiful, far-out music.”

John Surman in 1973.
Inspiration … John Surman in 1973. Photograph: Radio Times/Getty Images

“That wasn’t strange to me,” explains the 76-year-old saxophonist , who had grown up in Plymouth and moved to London in 1962. “I was still basically a schoolboy. I was learning from musicians like Mike Osborne and Alan Skidmore, Caribbean players like Joe Harriott and Harry Beckett, but also the South African musicians who came over here like Dudu Pukwana and Louis Moholo.”

“That is the beautiful thing about this music being out here again,” says Hutchings. “All these musicians were united in a common language at a time when when it seemed like there was actually no hope of finding unification; trying to bring society together as opposed to pull apart.”

Surman agrees: “In 1966, 1968 – this was a time of liberation. We were all involved in anti-apartheid marches, CND marches, embracing different cultures. It all fed into the music and brought a freedom to it. Just living in Ladbroke Grove surrounded by West Indians and their music, it all went into the mix along with the English folk songs I’d learned at the school piano. Put that on top of the blues that I’d learned from playing with Alexis Korner and you have something very interesting.”

Korner, who died from lung cancer in 1984, aged 55, is now a relatively forgotten figure but his group Blues Incorporated, the first amplified R&B band in Britain, was a training ground for everyone from Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts to folk musicians such as Davey Graham and Danny Thompson, as well as the burgeoning British jazzers.

“That was our university,” says tenor saxophonist Skidmore, 79. “Learning to play and understand the blues was probably the most important thing you could do to become a jazz musician.”

Skidmore, who married in 1965, was a working jazzer with a family to support, paying the mortgage with daytime gigs for the BBC Radio Big Band and an evening shift playing dance music at the nightclub Talk of the Town. Asked how he managed to fit jazz into all that, he mentions the importance of the Old Place, “where I got to realise my dream of being a jazz musician”.

Alexis Korner.
Musical trailblazer … Alexis Korner. Photograph: David Farrell/Redferns

Previously the original Ronnie Scott’s jazz club on Soho’s Gerrard Street, the Old Place became a place to meet, jam, perform, rehearse and share ideas. “That was the birth of this new wave,” says Tony Higgins. “American jazzers like Sonny Rollins would jam there along with South African émigrés like Chris McGregor and the Blue Notes. There’d be this collaborative creative energy feeding into the music.”

By the mid-60s, many of the London clubs were becoming rock and R&B venues, edging out the jazz scene. But where one outlet died, another grew. In the wake of albums such as the Beatles’ Revolver, Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, record labels began looking for more progressive sounds. Nurturing producers like Denis Preston at Lansdowne Studios and Peter Eden at Decca were there to facilitate, satisfying the demand for forward-thinking modern jazz by the likes of the Don Rendell & Ian Carr Quintet, the Mike Taylor Trio and, a few years later, Skidmore’s own Quintet.

“But before that, we had to go to Europe and make jazz more respectable,” says Skidmore with a dry laugh.

In 1968 the BBC had sent the Mike Westbrook Sextet to represent the UK at the Montreux Jazz festival. It had been a huge success. A year later they asked Skidmore to represent them at Montreux. “And we won loads of prizes as well!” he says. “When we returned home this journalist called Steve Race wrote an article asking: ‘Why do British jazz musicians have to go abroad to be recognised?’ From that period on people suddenly wanted to record British jazz. That’s when I became a professional jazz musician.”

The Alan Skidmore Quintet’s spiralling, lyrical, abstract 1970 LP, Once Upon a Time…, came out on Deram a Decca offshoot label that quickly became a home for other British jazz musicians and bandleaders such as Mike Westbrook and Mike Gibbs. Suddenly it was hip for major labels to have a boutique subsidiary releasing progressive jazz. RCA launched Neon, EMI had Harvest and Philips had Vertigo, the home of jazz trumpeter Ian Carr’s prog-jazz-fusion collective Nucleus. But despite Steve Race’s words, and the late-60s efforts of jazz organisations to get the genre recognised as a government-subsidised art, British jazz musicians were still struggling to make a living on the live circuit.

Artwork for albums by Don Rendell Quintet, Ken Wheeler, and the New Jazz Orchestra.
Classics … albums by Don Rendell Quintet, Ken Wheeler and the New Jazz Orchestra. Composite: -

“That tight-knit time of cross-pollination of jazz and rock was a very narrow period,” says John Surman. “Just as quickly jazz lost its popularity. The clubs were no longer run by aficionados or musicians – they were run by people looking to make a profit from the latest thing. In 1969, me, Mike Osborne, Harry Miller and Alan Jackson had a gig in Coventry and got paid four pounds and ten shillings. A pound each and ten shillings for the petrol. I think that tells your story.”

Beaten down by lack of recognition in their own country, musicians such as Surman and Skidmore established themselves in Europe, where subsidised jazz gigs were regularly broadcast on national radio. Surman made a name for himself as a composer of note for Manfred Eicher’s ECM label, Skidmore toured the world playing with numerous outfits and British jazz went back underground.

“But there was always someone carrying the torch,” says Surman. “The music has always been alive and well in its underground stream, it’s just that sometimes, like 1970 and like now, the general public and the press decide to take notice.”

“That’s the thing,” says Hutchings. “It’s not up to the artist to decide whether their music has longevity or relevance. The music will finds its place. Without those records from 50 years ago by people like Harry Beckett, Kenny Wheeler and John Surman you wouldn’t have the music that’s here today. You won’t hear the influence directly but it’s there. It created where we are now.”

  • Journeys In Modern Jazz: Britain is available now on double CD and double vinyl. The British Jazz Explosion vinyl reissue series starts with The Don Rendell Quintet’s Spacewalk (out now), Ken Wheeler & The John Dankworth Orchestra’s Windmill Tilter (out now) and Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe by The New Jazz Orchestra (released 10 September), all on Decca.


Andrew Male

The GuardianTramp

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