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Black History Month: UK jazz and the transatlantic slave trade

I have been working on a piece of academic research about UK jazz festivals in ‘heritage’ (17th and 18th centuries) locations, and memory / silence around transatlantic slave trade (TAST) legacy. This includes, for instance, Liverpool, Bristol, Lancaster, Glasgow, Manchester, Edinburgh. And Cheltenham, which is a case study.

In the article, my focus is really on site-specific work that turns its gaze on the TAST-related venue or location the jazz is played in, but I have also found myself looking at transatlantic questions of diasporic identity and experience, primarily from UK musicians. And I want to share that part of the work with you now, during Black History Month 2018. It’s a combination of thinking and writing from recent funded projects on and with jazz festivals, specifically the EU Heritage+ Cultural Heritage and Improvised Music at European Festivals (CHIME) project and the AHRC Connected Communities Impact of Festivals project. 

(I asked the jazz-research-network email list for suggestions of relevant music and am grateful for members’ responses, specifically from Anton Hunter, Peter Elsdon, Vic Hobson, and Dave Laing. This blog is also in part the promised follow-up share for network members.)

What’s missing, below, please?

One feels that the crashing and clashing musical sounds that jazz often makes, or is heard making by its critics, ought to be able to contribute in some way to a cultural expression of ‘dissonant heritage’. Let’s consider here  jazz music’s direct responses to, explorations of or attempts to capture or present in sonic form some aspect of the experience of transatlantic slavery or the middle passage or its perceived resonance or relevance still in Britain today.

These exist in particular as part of the compositional repertoire of black British musicians, and such works do constitute an important if relatively small field. They include, for example, the Jazz Warriors’ ‘In reference to our forefathers’ fathers’ dreams’ (written by Courtney Pine, 1987)—an important statement of diasporic identity from a key recording of the pivotal black British big band in the 1980s jazz boom—or their Afropeans album (2008) from its title onwards. The sleeve notes to Afropeans explain that the music was ‘[r]ecorded live … to commemorate the ABOLITION OF THE SLAVE TRADE by the british house of parliament 25thmarch 1807’ (typography original); one piece on it reprises the lyric from the Warriors’ ‘In reference to our forefathers’ fathers’ dreams’, 30 years on—a black tradition, self-made.

There are individual pieces by saxophonists Soweto Kinch (‘Equiano’s tears’, 2003), Pine again (‘Toussaint L’Ouverture’, 2009; ‘Samuel Sharpe’, 2012), and Shabaka Hutchings (several compositions on Sons of Kemet’s 2018 album Your Queen is a Reptile pay tribute to important black female figures, such as ‘My queen is Harriet Tubman’ and ‘My queen is Nanny of the Maroons’). Hutchings has articulated how his music itself signifies, explaining the ‘frenetic pace’ of ‘My queen is Harriet Tubman’ thus:

I just had the image of someone escaping slavery, escaping being in bondage. The feeling of having someone go, ‘If you go down that road, if you meet me at this location, you can be free’. How does that person run? What’s the energy that person puts into actually getting from point A to point B? That person is going to really put all their energy into getting to that place at that time.

Other ambitious responses include pianist Julian Joseph’s 2007 jazz opera Bridgetower: A Fable of 1807, that tells the story of early black classical violinist and composer George Bridgetower (c. 1780-1860), and arguably even the transatlantic repertoire more generally of bassist Gary Crosby’s Jazz Jamaica band.

Grand Union Orchestra’s 2018 show Uncharted Crossing stakes as its starting point the 70thanniversary of the arrival of the Windrush generation of Caribbean migrants to the UK, but placed that within ‘the history of African migration’, celebrating especially ‘music [which] has developed into an extraordinary legacy’ of survival of the transatlantic slave trade. Bandleader Tony Haynes maps the musical diaspora in his blog, Online Composition Masterclass: ‘Uncharted Crossings begins with an instrumental piece based on a Yoruba chant that itself had been transported, from Nigeria to Cuba’, and then would be played in the UK. You can hear an extract here:


One of the most interesting in terms of the site-specificity question of my article is double bassist Larry Bartley’s 2014 suite ‘Blackboy Hill’ which, by its very title, is a situated piece. According to Ian Mann, in his review of the album of which it is ‘the centrepiece’, ‘Blackboy Hill’

originally formed part of Bartley’s 2006 Cheltenham Jazz Festival commission. Named after a notorious thoroughfare in Bristol it’s a three-part suite that reflects Bartley’s Jamaican roots and serves as a kind of protest through musical allegory against the iniquities of the slave trade.

(Emily Jones, Head of Programming at Cheltenham Jazz Festival , tells me that it’s likely the Bartley piece was a premiere rather than a commission, and that it also won a BBC Jazz Award for Best New Work in 2004. Here we glimpse the difficulty of researching jazz festivals and jazz—this was little more than a decade ago, and records and documentation are already incomplete and contradictory!)

Film of a live performance of ‘Blackboy Hill’ from 2015 shows drummer Rod Youngs using loops of metal chain as hand percussion: shaking them, dropping them on to cymbals; such an act, of making music from chains, may stand as a gesture of sonic reclamation. Youngs told me something of it: ‘the use of chains on the the “Black Boy Suite” it was completely Larry’s vision/idea to use the chains as an instrument. For me they represent pain, suffering, brutality, oppression, bondage, resistance, fortitude, strength… The portion of the suite where I use the chains also represents the stages of the enslaved African’s experience … capturing, the middle passage, etc…’


Collectively these compositions, performances and recordings are socially and sometimes musically important contributions to expressing and exploring the Black Atlantic directly in the British jazz subject. (While I acknowledge the argument of Katie Donington et al that ‘[t]he history of British slavery and its abolition is … not “black history.” It is everyone’s history’, it is striking that almost all of the works cited here are associated with black musicians: the topic remains strongly racially-centred. Factoring in that the 2006 Value of Jazz in Britain report found only 5% of UK jazz musicians were of BAME background, may suggest also that it is a topic relatively regularly turned and returned to by that constituency.)