Jazz – The Bedrock of Black British Sound

Dancers at Club Eleven, Carnaby Street (1950)

Black Cultural Archives’ current exhibition Black Sound tells the story of 100 years of Black British music. The exhibition marks the onset of modern Black music in Britain with the arrival of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra in 1919. The Southern Syncopated Orchestra came to London from America and made an indelible impression on the British music scene. The band become hugely popular across London’s club scene and remained in the Britain for some time. During this time, the original American members soon integrated with Black West Indian and West African musicians here in Britain; and their influence shaped the band’s sound into something uniquely Black and British. From the start of the 20th century, Black ragtime bands were the cutting-edge sound in the after-hours joints of metropolitan Britain and their popularity peaked during World War 1 with the influx of US servicemen to the UK.

Tragedy hit in 1921 when eight members of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra drowned when the ferry taking them from Glasgow to Derry collides with two other ships and goes down. However, the band’s legacy opened the doors for Black musicians from across the diaspora. In 1931, Guyanese clarinettist and arranger Rudolph Dunbar arrived in Britain. Among the jazz and calypso bands he sets up are the All-British Coloured Band, the Rumba Coloured Orchestra and Rudolph Dunbar And His African Polyphony. As a result of the musical ingenuity of the likes of Rudolph Dunbar, 1930s London enjoyed a thriving jazz scene with many Black owned nightclubs in the capital.


Images from Black Cultural Archives Collection: PHOTOS/51 Image of Rudolph Dunbar with his clarinet. Rudolph Dunbar, noted composer and musician. Involved with Harlem jazz scene, published “Treatise on the Clarinet” (1939). First Black man to conduct London Philharmonic in 1942. c1940s and EPHEMERA/83 “Jazz Monthly” Volume two, number five, July 1956.


London’s Soho district was a melting pot for creative freedom and musical expression. 50 Carnaby Street was the home to the influential Florence Mills Social Parlour. Founded in 1935 by Amy Ashwood Garvey and Sam Manning, the jazz social club was a hub for Black activists, intellectuals, politicians, and musicians from around the globe. The jazz social club was named after Florence Mills (1896-1927) who was America’s first Black cabaret superstar and active in the Harlem Renaissance. Her work inspired Black Britons and the jazz social club paid tribute to her talent and dedication to campaigning for equal rights. The Soho jazz scene reflected the power of the synergy between music, politics, activism and the emergence of a distinct Black British community. The relationship between Britain and the Caribbean meant Black musicians often travelled here to explore their prospects bringing with them their cultural soundtrack. The sounds of jazz and the early emergence of calypso infiltrated British radio airwaves.

Despite the popularity of live jazz music and a thriving club scene over the next few decades spaces that Black musicians could inhabit become more restricted. The music industry shifted its attention to the vibrancy of calypso music, and later funk and reggae. The live music scene was dominated by rock bands and jazz found itself displaced, despite its fundamental influence in the early development of the Black British sound.


Images from Black Cultural Archives Collection: PERIODICALS/5 Straight no Chaser was started by music lover, journalist, and general clubgoer Paul Bradshaw, to cover the emerging Black music scene that he saw expanding in London and Britain. This article features Courtney Pine Spring 1986.


In the 1980s, Black British jazz musicians could be found performing alongside Brit funk and soul artists. There was new, younger audience who appreciated the jazz sound within an eclectic mix and blend of funk and soul. This convergence of these musical scenes is a testament to the agility of Black British music to forge a way and continuously reinvent itself to create something new – and also unique to the Black British experience.

Most notably, in 1986 the infamous Jazz Warriors was founded by Courtney Pine whose intention was to promote and develop Black British jazz. The all-Black jazz band offered musicians a space to develop and showcase their musical talents, which had become dominated by funk and reggae. The work of the Jazz Warriors re-engaged with the early foundation of the Black British sound. The band consisted of 25 plus members, with many going on to achieve international critical acclaim, including the likes of Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson, Cleveland Watkiss, Phillip Bent, Orphy Robinson, and Gary Crosby OBE.

Today, the legacy of the Jazz Warriors lives on with bands such as the Tomorrow’s Warriors lead by Gary Crosby OBE. Founded in 1991, Tomorrow’s Warriors are dedicated to nurturing the talents of young musicians and growing a vibrant community of artists, audiences and leaders who together transform the lives of future generations by increasing opportunity, diversity and excellence in and through jazz.

The history of Black British Jazz is documented in the Black Sound exhibition on display at Black Cultural Archives until 4 November 2017. 
Find out more and plan your visit.

Enjoy a night of interactive talks and performances that celebrate the contribution jazz has made to the evolution of Black British music. Jazz is renowned for its great level of musicianship and its influence can be found in blends of calypso, funk, and soul. Yet how much do we know of its powerful influence on the sounds we listen to today?

Listen to the sounds of modern jazz in an acoustic performance by bassist Gary Crosby OBE and singer Kianja Harvey-Elliott. The live performances will also feature special guest, Steve Williamson (saxophone), one of the most distinctive voices in the history of British jazz, and former member of Jazz Warriors.

Instrumental Sounds takes place on Friday 19 May, 6.30pm-9.00pm at Black Cultural Archives. Tickets available online. 

To find out more about the Tomorrow’s Warriors, visit www.tomorrowswarriors.org

Text source credit: Black Sound exhibition narrative and text written by Lloyd Bradley.

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