This June saw the sad passing of the universally respected British music executive, columnist, record producer and radio DJ Tony Hall. Hall’s achievements span across the whole spectrum of post-war popular music: anyone whose name can be positively linked to figures as diverse as Ronnie Scott and Black Sabbath deserves a special place in the pop cultural history of the UK.
Hall’s career was thoroughly documented in a heartfelt tribute written by his sometime editor Jon Newey of Jazzwise for the July Issue; after a career wearing a diverse range of musical hats, Hall kept involved til the end, returning to his first ever music biz job by contributing album reviews to Jazzwise and continuing to champion new music as he always had.
Hall made his first enduring mark on the UK’s musical landscape in 1954 when he applied on a whim for the A&R job at the august Decca label – the same label who ten years later were to reject the Beatles in favour of Brian Poole and the Tremolos, allegedly in part because the latter were local to their London offices and would incur lower travel expenses. Had Hall been overseeing the session, things might have been very different; the Beatles’ debt to Little Richard, The Isley Brothers and the nascent Motown sound would surely have appealed to his life-long empathy with all forms of music emanating from the African American community that took root in the UK. This also manifested as a life-long love of jazz; in 1955 he took responsibility for reviving the Decca subsidiary label Tempo, and produced a string of sessions by the leading lights of the emerging UK modern jazz scene – then, as now, very much a London-centric affair. Virtually all the major players of the time recorded for Tempo, and under Hall’s direction it became known for its commitment to quality recordings that reflected his faith in the stature of the players and the validity of the music they played, as equal partners rather than merely acolytes of the American giants.
Sadly neither the British record buying public nor the Decca accountants shared Hall’s faith. Tempo was discontinued in 1961 and both its reputation and its catalogue dropped out of sight, until a revival of interest in jazz in general and UK jazz in particular led to the acquisition and re-release of this treasure trove of classic-era material by Jasmine records. Jasmine’s Paul Pelletier made bold claim for Tempo to be regarded as ‘the Blue Note of British jazz’, but it would still be years before names like Tubby Hayes, Dizzy Reece, Jimmy Deuchar, Wilton Gaynair, The Jazz Couriers, Joe Harriott, Don Rendell and many, many others would attain their current levels of recognition – the perception of UK jazz as a pallid imitation of the US masters still persists. In today’s retromaniac reissue culture, every niche cultural production is available for reassessment and remarketing; how does Tempo fare, and where is its legacy to be found?
A good place to start is the sampler compilation Keeping Tempo issued by Jasmine and available on Spotify. The cast list is a roll call of UK talent from the Golden Era – as well as the above named, contributors include Stan Tracey, Ronnie Scott, Peter King, Phil Seaman, Ronnie Stephenson, Victor Feldman, Joe Temperley and a host of others. If the Blue Note comparison is to hold up, we should see if we can detect a Tempo Sound. Alas, despite Decca making their own well-equipped studios available, audio gold was not always guaranteed; as Hall himself commented “every session was a struggle with the engineers. They didn’t understand jazz and they didn’t really want to do jazz dates…. The Decca engineers could not get the tight Van Gelder sound, they just couldn’t get the balance right. I couldn’t specify the engineer I wanted. It was a case of who was left over at the time. Bert Steffens did a lot of the Tempo stuff, but he didn’t feel the music, you had to keep the beer flowing for him.”
Despite the bibulous engineers, the recordings are clear enough for the personalities of the musicians to come through, and with the benefit of hindsight what might have appeared to contemporaries as shortcomings instead emerge as a distinctly British accent. There’s a particular approach to timekeeping that, while inarguably swinging, stays clearly and squarely on top of the beat, a precisely dynamic way of articulating the unison horn sections and an emphasis on tight, light complex arrangement that contrasts with the more spacious, grittier small-group jazz happening directly across the pond in East Coast USA. Tenor supremo and jazz historian Simon Spillett has made the point that, just as the playing of Parker, Gillespie and Coltrane bears the traces of the territory bands in which they cut their teeth, so their British contemporaries retained the accents they had acquired in the strict-tempo dancehalls that provided the bread and butter for musicians from the 1930s onwards, and an examination of the Tempo output supports this assessment; bands like the Tony Crombie Orchestra deliver a form of modern jazz that has absorbed the developments coming from the US but reinterprets them in a way that is by no means naive, but has a flavour of its own. Skiffle and Trad may have ruled the charts but the modernists had their own voice as well and the reassessment of the era that is currently underway is well deserved.
1961 saw not only the demise of Tempo but also the lifting of the Musicians’ Union ban on US artists touring the UK. In the eyes of many of its own audience UK jazz had always toiled in the shadow of the US, and the lifting of this protectionist measure did not help the cause: then in 1962 the Beatles burst on the scene and the fate of the UK jazzers seemed sealed. Yet UK jazz survived and adapted. While the lucky few from the 60s generation like Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine made the transition to the world of TV light entertainment, hard times constrained the careers of Harriott and Hayes, yet a new generation of players continued to develop a distinctly European flavour. Canadian expat Kenny Wheeler, Mike Westbrook, Michael Garrick, John Taylor, Ian Carr, John Surman, Norma Winstone and Mike Gibbs added a diverse range of elements from 20th Century classical and contemporary rock (especially the proggier end that thrived so fruitfully in the UK in particular), shaking free from the dominance of US bop language, while the likes of Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and John Stevens developed their own unique version of free improv, and Graham Collier and others helped open up the doors to state funding via the Arts Council. From its arrival in the 1950s, the Windrush Generation had made its own significant Caribbean contribution to the UK sound and this strand came to the fore when the Jazz Warriors led the charge for the 80s jazz resurgence, adding another distinctive flavour to the mix.
While the mainstream tradition has been carried into the present by the likes of Mr. Spillett and tireless guitarist Nigel Price, how have these many uniquely UK influences made their way into the current generation of artists: how do the much lauded current crop reflect the legacy? There’s no doubt that the powerful contributions of Wheeler, Surman and Taylor in creating a truly European voice for jazz in the 1970s, manifested most obviously via their output on ECM records, are a continuing part of the UK sound, reinforced by the adoption of their values in the burgeoning academic sector and the continuing influence of teachers such as Pete Churchill. The Conservatoire programmes in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow preserve and amplify the UK voices mentioned above, and you can hear their echoes in bands like Empirical and projects led by John Turville, Matt Ridley, Ant Law, Jim Hart and Alex Hitchcock, to name only a few. Equally defining is the inclusion of diverse voices from the UK’s urban centres; Cassie Kinoshi’s Mercury nominated album Driftglass includes rhythmic elements borrowed from contemporary club culture alongside extended harmonies and deliberate references to Afrocentric traditions, and Shabaka Hutchings’ various outfits also extend this investigation into urban grooves, an approach also pioneered by Moses Boyd and Binker Golding. The recent release by Nérija provides a fascinating summary – there are carefully plotted horn charts riding contemporary sounding grooves, elements of Caribbean and Afrobeat flavours and distinct bop accents in the solos. The whole package, released on indie hipster label Domino, encapsulates one aspect of a uniquely British jazz voice whose development can be traced back to those players captured on Tempo half a century ago. Tempo to Domino – where will the story lead us next?