The Fifties - A Very British Decade

Alex Balmforth

On Sunday the 9th of March 1959 at the Coliseum Theatre, London W2, the first of two ‘Jazz Benefit Concerts’ was held for the American bluesman Big Bill Broonzy. Bill was terminally ill with cancer and the concerts were held to pay Bill’s medical accounts. Amongst the luminaries on that day playing for Bill were George Melly with Mick Mulligan’s Magnolia Jazz Band, John Dankworth, Cleo Lane, Humphrey Lyttleton, Bruce Turner, Chas McDevitt… in fact so many ‘names’ wanted to help that a second concert was arranged to accommodate their generosity… all these musicians performed without charge.

Oddly, Big Bill’s US profile was not high; in fact his name within white audiences was largely unknown. But here was a group of British musicians playing to an enthusiastic packed theatre, honouring a poor, dignified black man who sang the blues. We have to ask the question, ‘Why?’

In the years after the Second World War, a quiet, albeit very British revolution occurred. Clement Atlee and his Labour Party had been returned with a large majority and a virtually bankrupt Britain had begun to rebuild. Moreover, the Great War was within living memory and the repressions, inequalities and social scars, which followed that conflict, had not healed. The dual concepts of ‘deference’ and leaving government to ‘our elders and betters’ were about to be tested. This time we were to have our say… the establishment was running scared, and on this occasion would have to take a back seat. ‘Homes fit for heroes’ was the battle cry of the masses and every sector of life would be examined, picked over and irrevocably overhauled.

Within countless areas of endeavour the Second World War had encouraged innovation and most particularly, innovations within the electronics industry had allowed the radio to become an affordable and essential piece of domestic furniture. The nascent BBC was flexing its muscles and the Yanks had demonstrated through the cinema and the recording industry that there really was an alternative to the starchy, restrained British attitudes to popular music and culture… now the public demanded a piece of the action. And as always… youth was revolting!

Traditional and Revivalist Jazz emerged blinking into British consciousness and was subsequently to become the music of the disaffected.

Earlier, in a pioneering move, Big Bill Broonzy had been brought to France for a European tour, and in September 1951 was booked to appear at the Kingsway Hall. Big Bill’s appearance was to prove a Damascene moment in the history of British popular music. His success led in January 1952 to a further performance at the Cambridge theatre… this time with the Crane River Jazz Band. This was truly music that the Great British Public could relate to, a black man singing songs of oppression in a passionate, unadorned manner… a fresh approach, lyrics that did not drip with sugar, lyrics that asked questions of authority, seditious and challenging.

Later, on Saturday the 28th of June 1952 at the Royal Festival Hall in what was to become a seminal moment in the expansion of popular music, Tony Donegan was booked to appear alongside the US blues and folk singer Lonnie Johnson. In a blunder that was to define an age of popular music Tony was inadvertently introduced as ‘Lonnie’ Donegan and the name proved immovable.

Meanwhile, in the US, English merchant seaman Ken Colyer had jumped ship, overstayed his welcome in New Orleans and was subsequently thrown into the cooler. Upon his return to the UK (1953), Ken was feted, lionised and was forever to be the UK’s controversial voice of New Orleans Revivalist Jazz.

In the early fifties the mould had been cast, the cognoscenti embraced Trad Jazz and Country Blues…. Jazz became the music of the revolutionary left and it came as no surprise that a Jazz band led the first Aldermaston march against the nuclear bomb. Curiously the music they were championing came from the very country they were opposing.

The stream of US musicians arriving in this country became a river… the warring Sonny Terry and Brownie Magee, Muddy Waters, Miss Sippi Wallace, Josh White alongside more conventional Jazz musicians, Louis Armstrong, Dexter Gordon. Standards were high… equally just as high were the standards of home grown musicians who played alongside these men and women. In the vanguard, Chris Barber, Bill and Ken Colyer, Monty Sunshine, Tommy Whittle, Vic Ash, the Christie brothers, who would later to be joined by Diz Disley, Denny Wright, Bill Bramwell, Ewan McColl, Sandy Brown, Ottilie Patterson, Nancy Whiskey, Ike Isaacs et al.

Moreover the returning US musicians spoke highly of the British audiences, and were later to affirm that it was the British who introduced the blues to white America. McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters) became an unlikely Anglophile. And famously, Sonny Boy Williamson took to sporting a pin striped suit, cane and bowler hat. Within the US these musicians, newly confident with expanding audiences, began to question and press for their civil rights. The sword was out of its scabbard and the fight was about to commence.

The return of the Tories in 1951 probably assisted in the rise of the left and fearing a backlash, many left-leaning benchmarks were installed. At Stratford East, Joan Littlewood founded her Theatre Workshop, embracing the ‘Method’ school of acting, staging ground-breaking theatre and providing the foundation for the ‘Kitchen Sink’ era of theatre. Her ex-husband Jimmy Miller (Ewan McColl) established the Singers Club, which was to stimulate and wrest the British folk song from the censorious establishment. With a slant that was to astonish, Ewan with Peggy Seeger and the BBC producer Charles Parker devised the revolutionary ‘Radio Ballads’ a significant series upon which many Jazz musicians appeared and assisted, including Bruce Turner, John Chilton and Sandy Brown.

Inspired by those visiting US musicians in the mid fifties came that short-lived populous phenomenon ‘Skiffle’. Anyone with a guitar and tea chest bass could join in, and they did in their thousands. Chris Barber included within his band a skiffle section with the genres’ spiritual leader, Lonnie Donegan; a band incorporating that most thoughtful of musicians, Ken Colyer and probably the finest jazz clarinet player this country has produced, Monty Sunshine.

The BBC was to introduce the innovative broadcaster and musician Ken Sykora, an influential, cerebral interviewer who fleshed out our knowledge of Jazz, Blues, Classical and Popular music with his engaging ‘Guitar Club’ introducing and championing home grown talent, Diz Disley, Ike Isaacs, Denny Wright, Bill Bramwell, all of whom appeared on his shows… alongside numerous US musicians who were sojourning in the UK.

I believe the UK in its own self-deprecating way contributed hugely to the embryonic US Civil Rights movement by championing and allowing the voice of the oppressed a wider more appreciative audience, and ultimately alerting the US to its own neglected music. A music that indirectly led to fixing the political matrix of later musicians, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.

But sadly we neglect our pioneers, since they were ostensibly ‘amateurs’ …the 1950’s… a defining decade, and a largely forgotten era.

Selected Sources:
Owning Up – George Melly
John Chilton – Hot Jazz, Warm Feet
EFSDS – Archives
Chas McDevitt - Skiffle
Ewan McColl, - the Hammer and the Plough
Workers Educational Association

© Alex Balmforth 2007

From Howard Gabe, Brazil (December 2007)

No, Monty Sunshine was not the greatest clarinet player that Britain has produced, but he does have a very characteristic tone, as did Archie Semple, but if you are talking unique, no-one was quite like Sandy Brown. And how about Ian Wheeler, who followed Monty Sunshine in the Barber band, or Acker Bilk? There are also video clips of Beryl Bryden singing on Youtube, would you believe! Not the real video, of course, but someone has handily transcribed an early movie clip, etc. I actually played in a skiffle group when I was at school in the late fifties, and I remember all those names including Chas McDevitt (see article on Skiffle).

From Gerry Salisbury, France (December 2007)

The Fifties article is very enjoyable but I daresay that many of us reading it would have disagreed about Monty Sunshine being 'probably the finest jazz clarinet player this country has produced'. I have been fortunate to have played with many of our Jazz clarinet players: Archie Semple, Monty Sunshine, Sandy Brown, Dave Shepherd, Vic Ash, Danny Moss and many more. I find it very difficult to pick one of these out. They were all good in their field, but for me one stands out who was the most exciting to play with and listen to, and we had this rapport which I also had with Al Gay, a lovely sax/clarinet player. That player who stood out is Sandy Brown because he was not blinkered like so many others, he was more inventive than most, with his unique sound, and before I get off my high horse, I must include Acker who is so underrated, as a loose player with good ideas, and I say this with a background of many Jam sessions and gigs over many years with all of them.

From Bill Brown, Melbourne, Australia (October 2007)

A very interesting article. Just a few corrections perhaps. The two concerts that were benefits for Bill Broonzy were in March 1958 not 1959, as from memory Bill died in August of '58. Also Al and Sandy after all our heroes in this enterprise had a great affiliation with this fine blues singer. In early 1959 in the LP 'Al and Sandy' (see Recordings page), Al created a great blues theme 'Big Bill', just one of the many originals the two worthies put together over the years. Also there is a CD of Big Bill in Germany in '51 with our own Graeme Bell Band then on their second European tour. One of Graeme's Band told the story of Big Bill being overcome with emotion when he was allowed to use the same toilet as the Bell Band guys, something that was quite foreign to him. However, that article of Alex was great and it triggered off my own memories of growing up in Scotland in that great 1950s scene. Keep swinging fellows.


© Sandy Brown Jazz 2007 - 2014

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