Tag Archives: media studies

Christmas as transatlantic festival. And jazz?

At least four of the seven deadly sins against which Christianity once railed are now seen by some to be venerated in Christmas celebrations: avarice, gluttony, lust, and envy. The conflict is by no means uniquely American … but America has contributed the uniquely American Santa Claus and has become an arbiter of Christmas celebrations around the world, primarily because of its part import of European emigrant traditions and its present export of popular culture. Russell W. Belk

In what ways has the iconography and practice of Christmas been shaped, understood and consumed as an American experience? We should consider the ideological valence of Christmas in part as an American socio-economic and cultural (export) practice. Here I draw from a chapter I wrote entitled ‘Consumption, “coca-colonisation”, cultural resistance – and Santa Claus’  for a 2008 collection edited by the wonderful Sheila Whiteley (RIP XX), Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture (Edinburgh UP).

Jazz up their giftsThe admittedly very weak link with jazz comes about because I was prompted by an advertisement for lottery tickets I saw recently in a shop, that itself lightly linked jazz and the ‘festive’ spirit of Christmas, and it got me thinking again about some common aspects of their trasatlanticism. Jazz up the gift, indeed.

I do acknowledge the fact that Daniel Miller has identified a number of the international strands of influence operating transatlantically on Christmas from the mid-19th century on whereby ‘[t]his syncretic modern form extracts the Christmas tree from the German tradition, the filling of stockings from the Dutch tradition, the development of Santa Claus mainly from the United States, the British Christmas card’.

And it is telling that the two American artists responsible for the most influential visual representations of Santa Claus had strong European backgrounds: in the 19th century, cartoonist Thomas Nast (born in Germany in 1840), and in the 20th, advertising illustrator Haddon Sundblom (Sweden).

I recognise too the shifting relationship America has had with Christmas, it being historically sometimes hugely antagonistic: in early modern America Christmas was actually banned by the Puritans, though by the late 18th century some Americans were celebrating St Nicholas in part as an anti-British sentiment. In recent years the replacement of the seasonal greeting of ‘Happy Christmas’ by the faith-neutral ‘Happy holidays’ is a further small sign of the shifting relationship.

Christmas-book-cover-small-imageYet overall there are a cluster of issues around (American) consumption in relation to seasonal advertising, the global or hemispheric spread of secular and commercial Christmas, and some gestures of resistance towards this spread, which are important if debatably residual national aspects of Christmas, even as it has become, in Miller’s term, ‘today the global festival’ (emphasis original).

Following close on in the American calendar of ‘festivals of consumption’ from Halloween (candy, beer) and Thanksgiving (turkey) is ‘the festival of festivals, the only festival to achieve transcendental status – Christmas’, according to James B. Twitchell’s Adcult USA. Rather than ‘his evil twin Scrooge’, as Twitchell puts it, the key visual figure here is Santa Claus, born (kind of) in the United States in the 19th century.

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New chapter on Winnie Atwell

BBJ cover imageI’m very pleased to be part of a new book, Black British Jazz: Routes, Ownership and Performance, edited by Jason Toynbee, Catherine Tackley and Mark Doffman, in which I go back to look again at the 1950s pianist, chart-topper, and television presenter, Winifred Atwell. My chapter is called ‘Winifred Atwell and her “other piano”: 16 hit singles and “a blanket of silence”, sounding the limits of jazz’. You can find information about all the chapters for the entire collection at the Black British Jazz contents page, while below is the book’s blurb:

Black British musicians have been making jazz since around 1920 when the genre first arrived in Britain. This groundbreaking book reveals their hidden history and major contribution to the development of jazz in the UK. More than this, though, the chapters show the importance of black British jazz in terms of musical hybridity and the cultural significance of race. Decades before Steel Pulse, Soul II Soul, or Dizzee Rascal pushed their way into the mainstream, black British musicians were playing jazz in venues up and down the country from dance halls to tiny clubs. In an important sense, then, black British jazz demonstrates the crucial importance of musical migration in the musical history of the nation, and the links between popular and avant-garde forms. But the volume also provides a case study in how music of the African diaspora reverberates around the world, beyond the shores of the USA—the engine-house of global black music. As such it will engage scholars of music and cultural studies not only in Britain, but across the world.

And here is a link to the Google Book version of the collection:

[Extract from introduction to my chapter] … From Tunapuna, Trinidad, Winifred Atwell (c. 1914-1983) was a classically trained ragtime and boogie-woogie style pianist who gained quite remarkable popularity in Britain, and later also Australia, in the 1950s, in live and recorded music, as well as in the developing television industry. In this chapter I outline her extraordinary international musical biography as a chart-topping pop and television star—innovative achievements for a black migrant female musician which are arguably thrown into more dramatic light by virtue of the fact that Atwell has been Wiinifred Atwell and her 'other piano' with rhythm accompaniment (no. 1, 1954)and remains a neglected figure in media and popular music (let alone jazz) history. I pay particular attention to her performative tactics and repertoire, developing material I introduced first in Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain. But our interest in Atwell should stem not only from her position as a significant figure neglected by history, for she speaks also to definitional issues of jazz. The chapter progresses into a discussion of the extent to which Atwell is a limit case of jazz in the developing pop world of the 1950s on….

Atwell topped the British singles charts twice, with 14 other top-30 singles during the 1950s, and she was also the first black million-selling singles artist in British pop history. Most of these achievements were the result of her playing jazz-derived instrumental music (solo or with a trio or quartet: piano-guitar-bass-drums). (Here you can read an interview I did with her drummer from the period, Colin Bailey.) Hers was a striking early example of a multiplatform media and music success: prestigious live performances and international tours, hit records, pop-jazz and classical repertoires, radio broadcasts, sheet music and piano instruction book sales, television presenter fronting her own series (on both main British channels and in Australia), and film appearances on screen and in the soundtrack….

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