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Reviewers: Don Mather, Dick Stafford, John Eyles, Robert Gibson, Ian Lace, Colin Clarke, Jack Ashby



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Catherine Parsonage - The Evolution of Jazz in Britain, 1880-1935

Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series. 2005. 301 pages. £50 post-free

 

 

 

‘In this book,’ writes Parsonage in her preface, ‘I have attempted to take a critical view of the history of jazz in Britain in order to offer explanations of why the music evolved and developed the way it did, rather than documenting its presence.’ And already the tone is set. This isn’t simply a bland list of jazz acts that played in front of British audiences, but a thorough, detailed and academic study of the music’s development there. Drawing on a massive range of sources - from news reports to letters to critical texts from the period - Parsonage sets out to ‘evaluate the place of jazz in society and in the history of art.’

It is, in fact, this understanding that jazz does not exist in a vacuum - that it must be considered within the context of culture as a whole - which makes the book so thoroughly readable. Clearly, attitudes to race, for example, were influential in this time period, and, in exploring the issue, Parsonage does well in resisting the temptation to generalise. Sticking purely to documented evidence, she takes us through a fascinating journey from the early minstrel shows - which captivated audiences with the ‘strangeness’ of blackface performances - to the time of ‘hot jazz’ when white performers where treated by critics with scepticism, to the days when jazz was at last considered on it’s own merits as a genre.

Parsonage is equally astute in her analysis of critical receptions to jazz - which was initially viewed as light-hearted dance music, diametrically opposed in its aims to the high-brow world of classical. Gershwin, she tells us, helped to blur this distinction, with large-scale works like Rhapshody in Blue that didn’t slot neatly into either category, and challenged existing preconceptions. In her wonderful chapter on Armstrong and Ellington, she deals in greater detail with the theme. While Armstrong divided the critics, she notes, Ellington received unanimous praise - for not only was he a gifted performer, but also a truly ingenious composer, whose works reject the formulaic in favour of lively innovation.

Overall, Parsonage’s book is a great contribution to our knowledge of jazz, and a much-needed text as far as Britain is concerned. Important as America was, and still is, in the development of the genre, Britain’s history is a fascinating one. And this serious, important, well-researched book is surely the best way of learning it.



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