The Cultural Politics of British Jazz

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The Cultural Politics of British Jazz

Review of George McKay: Circular Breathing: the Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain, Duke University Press, 2005. Paperback £14.95

In Circular Breathing, George McKay explores the emergence of Jazz in Britain and its frequent identification with political protest since the 1940s. In doing so he examines not just the more obvious connections with protest organisations such as the Committee of 100 and CND, but reveals the way complex issues such as race, gender and changing imperial identities were all explored by successive generations of jazz musicians.

McKay’s analysis is enriched by the extensive interviews he has conducted with activists, musicians and fans, giving the book an immediacy and interest that reliance on documentary sources alone can never achieve. A useful and thoughtful action on McKay’s part is to place the interview transcripts and a large body of the letters generated by his research online at

A distinctive feature of politicised counter-cultures is the way that they often identify with the cultural forms originating in other countries. Rastafarianism is one example, and a second was described by Ken Worpole in his ground-breaking book Dockers and Detectives, in which he analysed the appeal of “hardboiled” US crime novels of the 1930s to an industrial working class that failed to identify with the tamed domesticity of the home counties. The British counter- cultural identification with Jazz provides a number of additional characteristics explored by McKay as the British imitation crosses boundaries of race, colour, sexuality, and adds a far more explicit identification with a wide variety of political issues.

It would be wrong to see the political engagement of British Jazz as straight-forward and McKay explores the nuances of the musical forms and the subtleties of political involvement with care, identifying not just the overt political allegiances but also the the previously overlooked influence of anti-statist currents within British socialism.

Enlivened by photographs from the jazz photographer Val Wilmer, Circular Breathing provides a wealth of closely indexed detail in its 350 pages, from the importance of the Beaulieu Jazz Festivals from 1956-61 to the almost forgotten Jazz Sociological Society. The book’s academic format does result in the loss of some of the spontaneity and exuberance that characterises the music under scrutiny – and the author should consider re-working some of the material in a pared-down populist edition.

 George McKay, is a professor of cultural studies at the University of Salford in England and editor of the Journal of Social, Cultural, and Political Protest. he has written widely about the cultural politics of protest, including Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties, Glastonbury: A Very English Fair . He has also edited DIY Culture: Party and Protest In Nineties Britain.

Martyn Everett

(Originally published in New Humanist Update no: 67 28 June 2006)