It’s Trad, Dad! Jazz is Overdue its Big British Comeback


Trad (traditional jazz) was a New Orleans revivalist movement of jazz in Britain during the 50s and 60s which rejected newer styles, such as bebop and big band swing, and successfully fended off the rock and roll craze. The simple and catchy melodies, improvised freely to a swinging rhythm, satisfied people’s taste for something familiar and exciting.

The recent passing of Chris Barber marks the final death in a trinity, remembered as the ‘Three B’s of British Trad.’ He died this March, following Acker Bilk in 2014 and Kenny Ball in 2013. He was the last living big-name bandleader in the trad movement.

To the founders of trad, New Orleans jazz represented a happier, more innocent time before the Second World War.

“The music had a freedom to it, which we didn’t hear in the British dance bands,” Wally Fawkes observed. It may have been less organised and sophisticated, but that gave the music a unique authenticity. Within months of the first trad band playing in Barnehurst, the pub was packed to see the raw emotion and passion of the amateur musicians.

The social conditions were there for the music to explode. In America, trad was the ultimate statement of non-conformity and rebellion, whilst also having the power to raise minority groups to the level of royalty. King Oliver went from an unknown, unheard black American gardener to a musician, pioneering collective improvisation and paving the way for Louis Armstrong’s rise to fame.

In the British clubs, the power of this liberation was felt. When Sidney Bechet arrived in England, flouting the trade union ban of American musicians in the UK, the wildfire of trad became an unstoppable force. Bands sprouted up all over the country, bringing long-forgotten music into the spotlight again.

Trad was not without its critics. Beboppers saw the music as derivative and backward-looking. Big band musicians saw it as primitive and unsophisticated. But when ‘Bad Penny Blues’ became the first jazz track in the UK to hit the top 20, trad had solidified its place in the British popular music DNA forever.

Trad jazz was at the frontline of social movements. When the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) began, the trad bands marched along the picket. The collective democracy was inextricably linked with the socially progressive politics of its members. The Crane River Band would travel on tour to East Berlin rallies, and Webb’s Dixielanders would play at gigs put on by the Young Communist League. The grassroots accessibility of the music appealed directly to the inclusivity that the movement went on to represent.

British trad established its new name when Terry Lightfoot’s record producer wanted a catchy name for the new genre of music. Its familiar image of the waistcoat and bowler hats can be traced back to Acker Bilk’s publicity manager, Peter Lesley, who suggested the uniform for an album cover. He then suggested that the band should play as seen, determining the eccentric image of the clarinet forevermore.

Although the uniforms may not have aged well, the parallel social conditions of then to today should not be overlooked. After being isolated for so long, people itch for freedom, connection and companionship; three principles expressed in the collective improvisation of trad.

Already, we see a backlash against overly engineered inauthentic music, such as Rebecca Black’sFriday Remix’, and a desire to return to older collective music forms, such as the Sea Shantyphenomenon. New Orleans street bands in America, such as Tuba Skinny, frequently hit millions of views on YouTube. Social movements are gaining seemingly ever-increasing momentum.

All the conditions are right.

So pick up your trumpets, clarinets and skiffle boards, and get out there! Maybe leave the bowler hats and striped waistcoats behind though…

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