The History of European Jazz

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Confronted with this massive tome – a solid 752 pages weighing in at around 1.8 kg – the first question to ask is why this book was not written before. Jazz might eschew overt nationalism but most of its history books are understandably written from an American perspective and state openly that jazz is America’s quintessential and finest native music. To quote Gary Giddins’s statement at the opening of Ken Burns’s jazz documentary, “it could only happen in America. It’s not an African music, obviously; it’s not a European music, obviously; it’s something that comes right out of this [American] soil”. Some leeway is usually allowed for those useful contributions from a handful of Canadians – all immediately confirmed as honorary US citizens – and a raft of blow-in Europeans and others who have obviously checked in their nationalities at immigration when they got their green cards. But if jazz is so predominately American, how does that square with the fact that jazz takes on a completely different sound and style as it travels from place to place, in Europe and elsewhere? Addressing this previous lack of insight is thus the welcome task of this book as it examines the history of jazz in our continent. 

…to call a book European Jazz when it is basically a series of separate histories of jazz in each European nation is misleading. This book will give you the national picture but never the continental widescreen

Editor Francesco Martinelli – a leading Italian jazz journalist and festival organiser – opens proceedings by introducing the “stories that need to be told”, promising a “stitching-together of stories in a jazz quilt covering the whole of Europe”. This weighty book then tells them, in 34 detailed chapters covering all the major European countries, plus Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia, grouped into eight main regions. Britain, Sweden, and Portugal get their respective chapters divided chronologically between two contributors, the British chapter starting with Alyn Shipton’s thoughts up to 1960 and then continuing with a slight backtrack to Duncan Heining’s views of the scene after 1950s. Such is the attention to detail that the chapter on former Yugoslavia is itself divided into nine sub-sections, allowing you to ponder the strength of jazz in Kosovo – a brief paragraph about “the talented but rather isolated guitarist Petar Lukic” and those few brave souls from Pristina who made a bigger name for themselves in Serbia proper – and also in Vojvodina, which most people could not find in an atlas but is the northern, Hungarian-influenced province of Serbia, where a jazz magazine called Ritam (Rhythm, obviously) was published in the 1960s and a handful of musicians played in the Big Band of Radio and Television in Novi Sad. Jazz in Montenegro is dismissed as having had “a rather modest history”, but at least it tried.

To focus in on just the hyphenated British chapter gives some indication as to the depth and range of this book. Starting with the minstrel shows of the Victorian era and the arrival of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in April 1919, Alyn Shipton then covers Fred Elizalde, Spike Hughes, Ambrose’s dance band, the crucial visits of Ellington, Armstrong, Calloway and others in the 1930s, the impact of WWII and the post-war New Orleans revival, and much, much more. Duncan Heining then takes over, focusing on modern jazz, starting with the opening of Club 11 in Great Windmill Street on 11 December 1948, and concluding with some thoughts about the lack of national funding in comparison with other arts and the important role of jazz tuition in music colleges. In between, he deals with such varied subjects as the important role played by the dance bands on the Queen Mary in getting British musicians to New York, the role of the press – Jazz Journal included – and the independent and artist-run record labels, the links between jazz and literature, the impact of jazz rock and free improvisation, and, above all, the crucial role Black musicians, be they from the Caribbean or South Africa, have played in developing British jazz. In both halves of this long chapter, one can argue about inclusion or omission but cannot but marvel at the scope and spread.

A final section covers six more general themes, including a fascinating chapter on Jews and Jewish music, a look at the avant-garde “Black–and-White Atlantic dialogues” of the 1960s, and two closing chapters on film and festivals. 

All of which gives us much to praise and enjoy in this book. But, and it is a big but, the concentration on national jazz history precludes any overviews of regional or continental history. Names, bands, albums, clubs and records pile up in each chapter, but are only included because of their national context. Where, for example, is the expected article on Scandinavian jazz, or the crucial role of European record labels? ECM, for example gets a short paragraph in the German chapter about its founding, and a few words about its development of the Nordic sound in the Danish chapter, plus four more passing mentions in the Romanian, Russian, Portuguese and film chapters but Germany’s ground-breaking FMP label, which has done most to promote free jazz in Europe, is barely mentioned and fails even to make the index. And there is no overview of free-jazz and improv, one of Europe’s main contributions to modern jazz. I, for example, would have liked to read some overview of jazz behind the Iron Curtain, or its role in opposition to communist or authoritarian rule, and but for these and other subjects, you must read about this from a varied series of national viewpoints. It might seem churlish to complain of omissions when the book is already so comprehensive, but to call a book European Jazz when it is basically a series of separate histories of jazz in each European nation is misleading. This book will give you the national picture but never the continental widescreen.

To finish on an awful irony, series editor Alyn Shipton thanks the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union “for providing financial support for the project”. Not for much longer, I fear.

The History of European Jazz
Edited by Francesco Martinelli. Equinox, hb, 752 pages, 80 photos, £195. ISBN 978-1-78179-446-3