Jazz in the Global Imagination

A symposium

Copyright © Lars Westin 2007

In 1977, the Swedish Jazz History Group was founded by less than a dozen people in Stockholm, including a couple of journalists like myself. Early on we found that going through scrap-books and articles in papers and magazines was quite rewarding and added to the information we collected by way of interviewing old musicians.

The look at what has been published about jazz decades ago was not just a retrospective research into the field of jazz journalism, but it was a kind of journalistic work in itself, as it called for critical treatment of the sources and awareness of assignments and purposes that lay behind the writings. Publications of the music industry had started to deal with jazz more seriously in the 1930s. Important among these specialist magazines was an English monthly, The Melody Maker. Devoted to dance and popular music in general, it was started in January 1926 by a music publisher in London. Although ambivalent to the new popular music styles from America to begin with, it definitely became closely associated with jazz in 1931, when a 22-year-old bass player, arranger and composer was added to its regular contributors.

With a traditional musical schooling (studying with the Austrian composer Egon Wellesz in Vienna as a teenager) and early on developing a strong fascination for opera, Patrick “Spike” Hughes (1908-87) wrote enthusiastic reviews on records by American jazz stars such as Louis Armstrong, Red Nichols and, not least, Duke Ellington. Hughes also distinguished the growing numer of jazz records by establishing a special department for reviews of “Hot and New Style Records”, leaving what he found to be less interesting music for others to comment on. In his jazz reviews, Hughes also added new information about artists and music, which was desirable and important at a time when all information generally given was printed on the labels of single 78-rpm records (mostly just a tune title, a composer’s credit, and the name of the artist). In 1931, for example, Hughes proudly published a list of the complete Duke Ellington band personnel, a knowledge that he had acquired, as he said, through his private contacts - a piece of journalism, indeed!

Hughes’s record reviews were published as by “Mike”, a signature that remained unrevealed for many years. This points to a problem regarding jazz and journalism, that is still an issue today: the various intrusions on journalistic integrity among writers on jazz. Not only did “Mike” praise the American jazz greats, but he also wrote extensive, rave reviews about his own recordings, placing himself on level with Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Luis Russell, Don Redman and others. In January 1932, “Mike”, for example, commanded the qualities of Spike Hughes’s “Harlem Rhapsody”, dedicated, as the label said, in admiration to Duke Ellington. And “Mike”, alias Hughes, unabashedly commented: “I can think of nothing more charming or appropriate, for Spike’s admiration for the Duke is exceeded only by my own. I hope Duke will return the compliment and make a recording of the work.”

In the following issue of The Melody Maker, February 1932, a 21-year old American millionaire and Yale-student-gone-jazz-enthusiast was introduced: “Meet John Hammond”. The monthly reports from this “NewYork correspondent” were filled with opinions and short pieces of information about musicians, jazz venues et cetera. Like Hughes, he was not only a writer on jazz but also a mover and shaker in the jazz business. Hammond (1910-87) gave a lot of attention to whatever activities he himself was involved with as a producer and promoter. In his journalistic capacity, Hammond was able from the start to formulate his own role and importance in jazz from the start.

Hammond, of course, went on to become an icon in America’s music business. Ellington didn’t return Hughes’ compliment but Benny Carter, encouraged by Hammond, recorded another composition of Hughes, “Six Bells Stampede”, in March, 1933. When Hughes visited New York some weeks later (staying in Hammond’s flat), Carter helped him assemble the musicians to three studio sessions made for the English Decca company. They included Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry and several other jazz greats, and were were published as by “Spike Hughes and His Negro Orchestra”. After this, Hughes grew uninterested in jazz, gradually becoming concerned mainly with opera and cooking instead, although he touched upon the subject during years to come, both in his writings and in programs for the BBC radio company.

Copies of The Melody Maker were sold by special order at a couple of music shops in Stockholm in the early 1930s - although the knowledge of the English language was very limited in Sweden at the time, and the price for the magazine was extremely high. There was, however, a growing need for information about the exciting new “hot” music, about which hardly anything was published in other printed media.

Although a few of his records had been imported to Sweden and met with great enthusiasm by young enthusiasts, the arranger was taken completely by surprise by the enormous interest in Louis Armstrong’s first concert in Stockholm, scheduled for October 25, 1933. It was sold out in no time, and no less than three extra concerts were added during the following days. Armstrong also played in Gothenburg and Malmo. This was the first visit to Sweden by a jazz star of this magnitude, and his concerts manifested a breakthrough for jazz in Sweden.

Shortly after Armstrong’s visit, a music publisher and merchant of music instruments in Stockholm printed the first issue of Orkester Journalen - today the oldest surviving jazz magazine in the world. At the beginning, although more diminutive in size, it was modeled after The Melody Maker and aimed at the young players of “modern dance music”. Its main purpose was to promote sales of sheet music and instruments, but Orkester Journalen soon also became a forum for the growing jazz movement in Sweden. In 1939 it got a competitor, Estrad, which was published throughout 1963. Not only did these magazines cover the jazz scene in Sweden but they also developed nets of contributors all over Europe and, not least, in the United States. The eagerly anticipated reports form America were belated and occasionally even prevented by the conditions during World War II, but the Swedish jazz fans were generally kept quite well-informed about what was going on in “the homeland of jazz”.

Starting in the early 1940s, many reports from the U.S. were written by Leonard Feather (1914-94), a British expatriate who became one of America’s most influential writers on jazz. He was for many years a syndicated columnist in the U.S., and until shortly before his death, he contributed montly reports from the U.S. to Orkester Journalen and numerous other jazz magazines in various countries. Like almost every jazz journalist before and after him, Feather also held many other positions, sometimes simultaneously: disc jockey, record producer for several companies (including a couple in Sweden), composer of tunes, writer of album notes and books, concert arranger…what have you.

There has been the same confusion of roles in Swedish jazz journalism. Not only was Orkester Journalen until 1960 owned by a music publisher who, from the late 1940s, also run a record company. Behind the other Swedish jazz magazine, Estrad, was Sweden’s most successful big band leader of the 1940s and 1950s, also having financial interests in a record company and being the owner of a publishing firm. Moreover, after World War II, Estrad arranged concerts and tours with American jazz stars, dominating that line of business in Sweden throughout the 1950s. During that decade, numerous liner notes to Swedish jazz records were written anonymously by a critic who occasionally reviewed the very same records in jazz magazines…and I could go on an on with similar examples.

Considering the high standards of morale that distinguishes all jazz journalists of today, I don’t know if this is - or ever was - at all a problem. Jazz journalism is a labor of love and rarely a full-time profession or a means of maintenance. The main objective is to give publicity to the great music we love, and to its performers.

Yet, I think the conditions of sometimes conflicting interests that is so common in jazz journalism should be observed and discussed, not least among ourselves, and not only as a historical phenomenon.

Posted by admin on 31 Jan