BBC Four New Series: Jazz Britannia

A new three-part series on the history of jazz in the UK and two innovative concerts from a high-profile all-Brit weekend of jazz at the Barbican brings British jazz to the forefront of BBC FOUR’s New Year schedule. Accompanied by a selection of jazz related programmes, Jazz Britannia takes the viewer on a musical, historical and educational journey through arguably one of the most important African-American art forms of the Twentieth Century.

Directed by Mike Connolly and Mark Cooper, and narrated by Terence Stamp, BBC FOUR’s Jazz Britannia begins on Friday 28th January and explores the plethora of styles, scenes and dogmas that define the term ‘British jazz’. The series features music and interviews from dozens of key artists including founding fathers Ronnie Scott, Johnny Dankworth, Humphrey Lyttelton, Tubby Hayes, Chris Barber, Joe Harriott and Acker Bilk via DJ Gilles Peterson to modern day musicians Soweto Kinch, Jamie Cullum and Amy Winehouse.

The first programme in the series, Stranger on the Shore, paints a picture of the jazz scene in the late Forties and early Fifties and talks about the emergence of Britain’s love of Black music, the popularity of trad jazz, the dance bands and Rhythm Clubs. The mood was good at the end of the Fifties when jazz was on a high, a mood which continued into the early Sixties. However the bubble burst with the arrival of the Beatles and the increasing popularity of rock and roll, leaving jazz musicians with the challenge of creating a true British voice and getting jazz back on top with audiences.

Part two, Strange Brew, documents the mid-Sixties struggle that British jazz faced in finding a voice, freeing itself from the US and competing with the popularity of rock ’n’ roll. British jazzers needed to find a platform to develop their sound and did so through the improvisational R ’n’ B music clubs and free jazz venues. South African jazz alongside Indian and jazz fusion began to break on to the scene and artists like Julie Driscoll began bringing jazz to the rock ‘n’ roll audience. Musicians experimented with uniting rock drums with jazz, introducing the wa-wa pedal, and fusing jazz with classical music. But as British jazz started to find its voice again, abstract jazz developed in the Seventies, alienating much of the audience. Fusion jazz became a passing phase and straight ahead jazzers lost their audience to rock ‘n’ roll.

The third and final episode, The Re-birth of Cool, shows how, following the slump of the Seventies, British jazz in the last 25 years has been about starting again and re-connecting with audiences. Jazz popularity moves in cycles and the musical and market influences of Seventies rock, jazz and punk helped revitalise the scene. Artists such as Andy Sheppard, Larry Stabbins, Courtney Pine and Django Bates helped jazz’s re-emergence back from the depths and the press began to take an interest. The birth in 1987 of Acid jazz marked another peak in the history of British jazz; the early Nineties saw another low as jazz was again branded seriously un-cool. In the first years of the 21st century jazz is again on the up. Katie Melua, Amy Winehouse and Jamie Cullum are bringing jazz to pop audiences, making the music accessible, while artists such as Matthew Herbert, Gilles Peterson and Soweto Kinch are pushing the boundaries.

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