By Richard Morton Jack

Landsdowne Books

ISBN 978-1-3999-7369-4

375 pages

In his introduction to this fascinating book, author Richard Morton Jack recalls a scathing comment from a record dealer: “British jazz? That’s an oxymoron isn’t it?” (Morton Jack had the last laugh, as the ignorant dealer sold him a rare British jazz album way below its market price).

But the comment is indicative of how many view British jazz: simply an inferior copy of American jazz. This view is reflected in how poorly British jazz is documented – the best the BBC could offer, for example, was a three-part TV series, Jazz Britannia, which was broadcast almost twenty years ago (fortunately, available on YouTube). But such attitudes overlook the calibre, creativity, and capability of so many British jazz musicians.

Tubby Hayes went to New York and recorded with a group of American jazz musicians, who were more than impressed with his talent. Miles Davis asked British musicians Dave Holland, John McLaughlin and Paul Buckmaster to work with him. Many British jazz albums deserve to be as revered as much as some of those created by American artists, and the British band Nucleus is unarguably one of jazz-rock fusion’s pioneers. What’s more, British jazz diverged from American Jazz as musicians absorbed other influences, such as sounds from Africa, India and the Caribbean.

The good news is that in recent years there has been a growing recognition and a resurgence of British jazz, with many albums from the 60s, 70s and 80s being re-packaged and re-released (good news for both fans and collectors, as some rare albums exchange hands for thousands of pounds). Books like this are an additional bonus for fans of this music.

While it is right to focus on the music and musicians from this era, Morton Jack doesn’t forget the unsung heroes of British jazz – the many enlightened producers, executives and enthusiasts who recorded and released the music, even though there was little, if any, prospect of commercial success. The book is dedicated to them, and some of them are named.

This is a limited edition publication (although the number of copies printed is not specified) and this is reflected in its price – around £60 plus postage when bought directly from the publisher. My review copy was in the form of a watermarked PDF file, so I haven’t seen or held a physical copy. However, from the publisher’s description, and from comments made online by people who have purchased it, it is a large hardback book, sumptuously packaged and printed on high quality paper – even the low-res digital version I have looks impressive.

The book tells the story of British jazz from 1960 to 1975 through album releases. There are details of more than 300 albums (all original first pressings), chronologically listed, starting with Tubby Hayes’ Tubby’s Groove (from May 1960) and ending with Don Rendell’s Live at the Avgarde Gallery, Manchester (December 1975).

Key albums are given a double-page spread, which includes several contemporaneous reviews from newspapers and magazines, catalogue number and release date, plus a brief (and often pithy) critique (typically around 100-150 words) from the author.

But it’s the album artwork that literally catches the eye, because also included are large, high quality photographs of both front and back covers. Many jazz albums included liner notes and the beauty of this book, is that the reproductions are so good that you can easily read the text. There are also photographs of both the A and B-side labels. The book also looks at numerous other albums in less detail, with eight albums (featuring a cover shot photo and a 100-word critique) per two-page spread.

In addition, there’s an introduction by bassist Tony Reeves (Colosseum, New Jazz Orchestra, Mike Taylor Quartet), who talks about being a jazz musician during this era; an index of artist names and the albums featured in the book, as well as reproductions of adverts and flyers from the period. Designer Dean Stuart Ali has done a cracking job.

As Morton Jack rightly notes, this book does not tell the full story of British jazz, even for the fifteen-year period it covers, and it’s debatable whether any book could. Nevertheless, as the author expects, some readers will query both the time period it covers and the album selections. Morton Jack says he decided to focus on this period because of the: ‘explosion of talent and innovation that swept British Jazz,’ and in this writer’s view, it’s a good call.

Although many people dislike the concept of a golden age, there is no doubt that this decade and a half was an incredible time for British jazz. In the mid- to late-60s, major record companies were signing up jazz artists and releasing numerous albums, often knowing full well that they would be lucky to break even on their investment.

For example, in 1968, Ray Russell – then an up-and-coming twenty-one year jazz guitarist – got an eight-album deal with CBS and was given virtually carte blanche to record what he wanted (the book includes Russell’s 1971 album Rites and Rituals, for which the author states: ‘Music like this can’t be meaningfully analysed; you either enjoy it or you don’t…At this remove it seems incredible that major labels were ever willing to put out records as blatantly uncommercial as this.’).

There were Arts Council grants for jazz musicians and plenty of venues to play in. But like all good things, it didn’t last, and by the early 70s, British jazz was struggling, as rock and pop entrenched their positions as the dominant musical forces in the Western world, and economic shockwaves saw venues close, and record companies radically pare back their commitment to jazz (this also happened in the US).

Deciding what to put into the book and what to leave out must have been challenging, and Morton Jack says he decided to omit jazz-rock bands like Soft Machine, Colosseum and Rock Workshop, because they veered more towards rock. He also says he has largely omitted categories such as trad jazz, easy listening, soundtrack and library music, as well as mainstream jazz vocalists, such as Cleo Laine and Blossom Dearie.

However, it seems that there was a last-minute change of mind in at least a couple of cases, because this book includes Colosseum’s debut album, and an album by Cleo Laine. Morton Jack adds, “I would have loved to have included more British jazz LPs by women, or even featuring them – but the simple answer is, hardly any were made.”

Despite this, the book covers an impressive cast of musicians that includes Tubby Hayes, Mike Westbrook, Ian Carr, Don Rendell, Ronnie Scott, Frank Ricotti, Ray Russell, John Stevens, John Dankworth, Mike Garrick, Stan Tracey, Michael Gibbs, Neil Ardley, John Surman, Phil Seamen, John McLaughlin, Tony Oxley, Jack Bruce, Dick Morrisey and Joe Harriott, the Jamaican alto saxophonist who settled in London, and whose name is on a dozen albums in this book.

The original cover design of an album Harriott made in 1969 with Amancio D’Silva – Hum Dono – is used for the book’s cover. Dudley Moore – best known for his comedy act with Peter Cook and films such as 10 and Arthur, was also a talented jazz pianist. Five of his albums are featured, including his 1963 release, Plays The Theme From Beyond The Fringe and All That Jazz, which has liner notes from American jazz writer Nat Hentoff, who notes how Moore’s playing was inspired by Erroll Garner.

There are also plenty of lesser known names (such as clarinettist David Mack, saxophonist Peter Comton, and The Bird-Curtis Quintet) as well as very rare albums to discover (including the 1969 release by the Tony Rushby Sextet; apparently only one copy of the album is known to exist).

The book encapsulates the rich diversity of British jazz, from abstract to jazz-rock fusion, as well as Indo-Jazz and Afro-Jazz. There are works inspired by Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, The Beatles, Elizabethan Song and even the Greek Variations. Along the way, Morton Jack signposts significant album releases, such as the 1965 album Shades of Blue, from the Don Rendell/Ian Carr Quintet, which is described as: ‘[marking] the beginning of a new chapter in British jazz, with all-original compositions and little debt to contemporary American players.’

It also captures the social norms and attitudes of the time. The front cover of Joe Harriott’s 1961 album Southern Horizons, for example, features a young white woman sitting on the floor, looking towards the camera. On the back cover is a thumbnail-sized photo of Harriott (Miles Davis has the same issue with the original cover of his 1957 album Miles Ahead). And it’s doubtful whether any group today, which fused jazz with Indian music would call their album Curried Jazz, as the Indo-British Ensemble did in 1966.

Women did not always feature well on album covers and one of the most egregious examples can be found on the 1975 Nucleus album Snakehips Etcetera – both front and back covers do little for the cause of women’s liberation. As Morton Jack notes, ‘It’s surprising that a man as intelligent and thoughtful as [Nucleus leader] Ian Carr approved such crass cover artwork – but he liked his work to include what he termed a “streak of vulgarity”’.

There are also other covers that leave you scratching your head, like Jack Bruce’s 1971 album Things We Like, which has the musician sitting on the grass with a huge plate of food on his lap and stuffing a huge portion of grub into his mouth – with four dogs for companions. As Morton Jack wryly notes about the album’s reception: ‘It sold poorly: the unappetising cover artwork can’t have helped.’

This book is a terrific visual journey through the halcyon days of British jazz. If you want to read more about this period, then books like Ian Carr’s Music Outside (first published in 1973, but since reissued and widely available) and John Wickes’ Innovations in British Jazz: 1960-1980 (published in 1999, sadly long out of print and expensive to find, even as a used paperback) are good backgrounders. One hopes that a cheaper, paperback version of this book emerges in time.

Tony Reeves notes in the book’s introduction: “The life of a jazz musician was never easy, so I look back on that era with fondness but not nostalgia. None of us got rich from playing jazz, or even thought about such a thing. We did it for the love of the music, and I’m delighted that people are still enjoying it.” This book certainly adds to the enjoyment of this era, and is a fitting tribute both to the music and to the many talented musicians from this time.