UK Jazz: The Caribbean Connection Pt. 1
- by Gordon Wedderburn -
The UK jazz scene is arguably the most diverse, all-encompassing and dynamic scene on this planet. The Caribbean and its people have always been a part of its growth, development and evolution from the pre-war era to the present day.
It is fair to say that the creation of one Caribbean institution in the late nineteenth century would have a profound impact on all foundation, present and future jazz in both the region and the UK. Alpha Boys School, established in 1880 in Kingston (Jamaica), has nurtured and gifted the world with musical talent that has made significant impact on global music and culture.
From as early as the 1930’s the Jamaican born Trumpeter Leslie Thompson, himself an alumnus of Alpha, featured prominently in the British swing jazz scene, having played in Louis Armstrong’s 1934 European band. He had also established himself playing in the pit orchestras of big name West End stage musicals. With acclaimed Guyanese-born dancer Ken “Snakehips” Johnson, Thompson put together a formidable swing orchestra – recruiting talented Caribbean musicians, touring the UK and playing regularly in the West End before being drafted for BBC Radio.
The “Windrush” era of mass migration from the West Indies to the UK (circa 1948 onwards) brought musicians from the region that would again make meaningful and game-changing input to the sound of jazz in the UK. The Alto saxophonist Joe Harriot from Jamaica, Vincentian trumpeter Shake Kean, Barbadian Trumpeter Harry Beckett, are among some of the transplanted luminaries of the 1950’s whose skills impacted positively on British Jazz. Harriot’s quintet that included Keane, Jamaican bassist Coleridge Goode, Scottish pianist Pat Smythe and English drummer Phil Seamen created the seminal album ‘Freeform’, that was part of a paradigm shift in jazz and helped to bring UK jazz to world prominence.
The 1960’s saw the injection of ska into the British music and psyche. Pioneers like Rico Rodriguez made their presence felt within the musical soundscape. During this time Myrna Hague, dubbed the Grande Dame of Jamaican jazz, began performing in UK clubs and Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin was, for a time, a regular fixture in the house band at the iconic ‘Ronnie Scott’s’ Jazz Club.