It's Mod, Dad!

<h1 itemprop="headline">It's Mod, Dad!</h1>

1960 here we come

It’s perhaps appropriate that this little essay on ‘modernism’ - or Mod for short – should be written on an Easter weekend. Those of you with long memories or who, like me, are fascinated with the Social History of 20th Century Britain, may recall that it was at Easter 1964 that the first notably public ‘battle’ between the opposing camps of Mod and Rock occurred in the coastal town of Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, a much talked of rumpus presaging similar clashes that year in Margate, Brighton and Hastings.

Such events, of course, had nothing whatsoever to do with jazz, save for the tangential thread connecting the word Mod to its earlier meaning, which had been very much related to jazz, in which circles it was shorthand for a ‘modernist’ i.e. someone who either played or followed modern jazz. Indeed, while the folk image of a ‘mod’ circa. 1964 may now be that of a mirror festooned Lambretta rider decked out in a fishtail Parka emblazoned with a red, white and blue RAF-style roundel, obsessed with The Who (engaging as it was, the 1979 movie ‘Quadrophenia’ milked these cliches for all it was worth), had you mentioned the word four years earlier, at the dawn of the Sixties, it would have conjured a quite different figure altogether, one of neat neo-Italian tailoring, razor-sharp Ivy League haircuts, and the kind of pointy-ended shoes that writer Clive James once colourfully recalled as giving the wearer the ability to herring-bone his way down a street. The look, in fact, of most of the day’s leading modern jazzmen, both in the USA and in continental Europe and, moreover, here in the UK too.

Folk memory is naturally a very odd thing, subject to all manner of interpretation by the individual doing the reminiscing and therefore almost always contextualized by location, age, and other influencing demographic criteria. Just look at the Clacton and Brighton riots of 1964. To some observers these were the high-point of conflict between respective fans of certain musical styles – the ultimate ‘old’ versus ‘new’ set-to of 1960s pop culture. Conversely, you could argue with equal validity that this was actually nothing new. Hadn’t there been a similar fracas ignited by musical differences at the 1960 Beaulieu Jazz Festival in Hampshire, when an overexcited mob element stormed that stage during a performance by The Jazz Five – a modern jazz group – spurred on by the war cry of ‘We want Acker!’ - the Acker in question being one Mister A. Bilk, then the leading light in Traditional jazz circles. Wasn’t that a musico/socio battle too?

It was (and remains) the press that elevated these incidents into the iconic pitched battles of history. Some of those present, however, looked back upon what were supposedly bloody confrontations with a more considered eye. While violent and vandalistic, the Mod/Rocker seaside exchanges of the spring and summer of 1964 were all that was needed for the established mainstream press to again rail noisily against ‘yob’ culture – something that had happened every so often since the arrival of ‘Teddy Boys’ a decade or so earlier and which some quarters of our knee-jerk media continues to do to this day given merely the slightest of provocation. Certainly few of the contemporary published accounts made any attempt to comprehend, much less understand, the differing ideologies of those coming to blows.

The earlier Beaulieu ‘battle’ was a similar story of overblown, sensationalist press coverage (George Melly thought the pandemonium little more than a ‘cheers and scuffles’), although in this case being beamed live into the homes of the nation via BBC television hadn’t helped.

The point is, whether you were a Who fan in 1964 or a Tubby Hayes follower in 1960, you had tied your colours to the mast of your own choosing. For most fans that choice was enough; very rarely would you be called upon to defend your preference with your fists.

Miles ahead

So what has all this to do with the photograph which heads this entry? Well, what you’re seeing is a double-page sample of a collection I was kindly sent by a veteran jazz fan just last week – a personally assembled scrapbook of cuttings from the early 1960s, taken from a variety of jazz periodicals, which together forms what you could call an informal 'Record of A First Wave Modernist', that is to say the kind of fan who would have cheered the Jazz Five at Beaulieu rather than considered them some sort of artistic heretics.

I’ll spare the individual who entrusted this beautiful, time-capsule-like volume to me any blushes by describing him simply as a Midlands-based jazz fan and saxophonist, who has previously gifted me several key pieces of Tubby Hayes-related memorabilia (including a fabulous photograph of Tubby at the ‘old’ Concorde Club in Southampton, reproduced in ‘The Long Shadow of The Little Giant’). To be given access to his candid, unique and quite charming little scrapbook is a privilege enough– after all, this cornucopia of yellowing clippings, record reviews and photos was never intended to become public property – but its arrival at this very time, in which I’ve just passed the melancholy milestone of a whole year since my father’s death last April, aged 80, has given its simple pages a far deeper, and far more personal, significance.

Like the compiler of this book, who I’ll wager must be around the same age as my late father, or at the very least in the same generation, my Dad was what you could call a Modernist Mark 1, in that in the late 1950s through to around 1964, when marriage altered his priorities, he was very much a modern jazz fan and would-be modern jazz musician.

It was around 1960, the year in which this scrapbook starts, that he began studying trombone with Eddie Harvey, Tony Russell and Ken Wray, then three of the leading local ‘modern’ exponents on his chosen instrument. His experience of performing jazz at this point was limited to co-leading a quartet with another trombonist pal – the ambitiously named Jazz Studio Four – who played Gerry Mulligan and J. J. Johnson/Kai Winding (J&K) numbers at teenage parties. In addition to this, Dad was an avid record buyer, never failed to pick up a copy of ‘Melody Maker’ and was a regular subscriber to the National Jazz Federation-sponsored weekly ‘Jazz News’ (pieces from both of which feature heavily in this donated collection). He went to all sorts of gigs across the capital, from big concert appearances by the likes of US giants Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton (as well as various Jazz at the Philharmonic presentations featuring Oscar Peterson, Coleman Hawkins, Gene Krupa and Shelly Manne) through to nights at the ‘old’ Marquee club in Oxford Street, watching the John Dankworth band that boasted Kenny Wheeler, Peter King and Dudley Moore in its number.

Joining Ronnie Scott’s first (Gerrard Street) club in early 1960, he then made occasional pilgrimages to hear the 'best of British' too -  Harold McNair, Victor Feldman, the Scott/Deuchar Quintet and Tubby Hayes - and when he started courting my mother in Spring 1961 so fixated was he on the music he loved that their first date was at a local cinema showing of the iconic Bert Stern documentary, ‘Jazz on A Summer’s Day.’ A few weeks later, he introduced his new girlfriend to the demi monde world of the London jazz club, visiting Ronnie’s to hear a double-header featuring the bands of both the proprietor and Tubby Hayes (as detailed in a previous entry). Mum also began a crash course in jazz listening, Dad taking her one evening through a bewilderingly diverse range of recorded examples, from Louis Armstrong (a figure who seemed to exist outside of the normal Trad/Mod divides) to Chico Hamilton.

Although he listened to UK jazz performers live and on the BBC Light Programme's 'Jazz Club' radio slot, like most fans of his era, it was American jazzmen like Miles Davis, J. J. Johnson, Gerry Mulligan and Dave Brubeck who were Dad's idols, his record collection full of albums like ‘Miles Ahead’ and ‘J. J. In Person’. As he entered his twenties, he was growing up to this music. Thirty years later, raiding records from the shelves in our attic room, I was to do the same, the two of us finding a new kind of relationship in a way few fathers and sons are fortunate to do; we agreed on music rather than finding it a topic of irreconcilable differences.

Healthy time

Throughout my life, via music, Dad and I seemed to possess a magical, nostalgic connection, and I never tired of his stories of tearing through London on the back of Eddie Harvey’s Vespa, trombone propped aloft, or of how he’d witnessed the Basie band play its opening concert of one UK tour without a note of printed music before them (the band’s pad had been held up on the way from Sweden). And now that he’s gone I still retain something of this connection through the piles of ‘Melody Maker’ and ‘Jazz News’ he bequeathed me, papers marked with a newsagent’s scribbled ‘SPILLETT’ on their back covers, through the few records of his that survived a terrible flood in my flat a few years ago, and through the concert programmes he gave me, annotated with tiny block-capital handwritten notes revealing exactly what each band played and who took the solos.

A year on from his death, in a week when, frankly, I’ve struggled to do anything much other than absent-mindedly walk through my daily routine, the arrival of this beautiful scrapbook – with its captivating celebration of the enthusiasms of a listener/musician not unlike my Dad – has moved me in more ways than one and I’ll freely admit that while leafing through its pages I swallowed hard a number of times, fighting back a nagging lump in my throat. Although this wasn’t a product of my Dad’s own hand, it was a reminder of the days in which he’d been a young man and of the aspirations, dreams and desires of thousands of jazz fans like him, then living through a Golden Age for the music. Through its multitude of entries, I suddenly felt that familiar connection again, almost as if it were new, and then, within a moment of that delight, an overwhelming sense of loss engulfed me. It was like receiving a bit of my Dad's life through the post, almost as if it had been delayed in some dead letter office for over six decades.

Does that sound stupidly over-sentimental? Maybe. But then I’m not just shedding a tear over a lost loved one, I’m feeling a sense of increasing distance from the era in jazz which I myself dearly (and anachronistically) love, a juncture in history that has fascinated me since I was in my early teens and which, to this day, informs almost everything I write about music and, in an even more practical way, every attempt I make to play it. As that epoch dies away into history I can’t help feel that a bit of me is going with it.

But all is not sadness. Page after page of pasted pictures of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Cannonball Adderley, Shelly Manne and his Men, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus - and of English leading lights like Scott, Dankworth, Hayes and Harriott - remind me of what a wonderfully healthy time this was for jazz music – a time of ‘Giant Steps’ and ‘Kind of Blue’, and of ‘Tubby’s Groove’ and Joe Harriott’s groundbreaking ‘Free Form’. Thumbing these pages, it’s impossible not to fall into a reverie, imagining what it must have been like to have been a young English jazz fan hearing Coltrane or Hayes when they were ‘new’, saving up to buy the latest Brubeck album, or eagerly anticipating the opportunity to see a touring legend like Miles Davis for the first time. These hopes, this keenness, this youthful passion and dedication are felt in every page of this scrapbook, much like they were in the much-missed anecdotes of my dearly departed Dad. He’d have loved this book too, and in a week which I’ve found extremely difficult, this collection has somehow been both a comfort and a much-needed distraction.

Hot and cool

In among the many titbits this volume contains are excerpts from magazine articles providing – vide my opening – a very real sense of what it mean to be a club-going ‘modernist’ in early 1960s Britain. One, from what looks like a Sunday colour supplement, gives a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to jazz gig etiquette (‘if you talk to the musicians in the intermission, just remember that probably all the questions you’re thinking of have been asked 500 times before’, ‘if you request a number...don’t be hurt if they don’t play it’, ‘never under any circumstances, yell ‘Go, man, go!’), while another, detailing the make-up of a jazz audience in one Coventry venue reveals how even the provinces had their elite.

‘To the square outside the jazz scene, TRADitional and MODern might be lumped together as a hobby young people take up instead of watching television. To the insider, the difference between the two is as wide as the gulf between hot and cool.

Mod enthusiasts are usually in their twenties and do some kind of job. Trad fans are usually younger. They may be school-children, students. Or sometimes they may be an earnest 40-year-old with a beard.’

The piece concludes with the notion that ‘modern in steadily gaining ground’ with one club proprietor gleefully revealing ‘you couldn’t move in the place when Tubby Hayes came.’

As they say these days: take me there!

Outside of its personal impact, observations like this read a little like period footnotes to what is, for my money, the best overview of this period in British jazz ever published, Dave Gelly’s ‘An Unholy Row: Jazz in Britain and its Audience 1945-1960’ (Equinox Publications, 2014), a book I’ve read three times over recent months so delightfully engaging is its narrative.

As a writer I’ve long admired, Gelly is an expert storyteller, and, as is his way with every subject he chooses to cover (there are also expert biographies of Lester Young and Stan Getz, to name but two other examples of Dave’s voluminous written output), he has an unfailing knack of capturing the essence of a personality in a few well-crafted phrases. For example, whereas I took seemingly forever to express Tubby Hayes’s charismatic presence in my biography, Dave distills him simply but eloquently as ‘a ‘London’ type – larky, fizzing with energy, a bit bumptious and pleased with himself, but loveable with it’.

How I wish I’d written that. Mind you, Dave already proved himself a dab hand at summing up Tubbs in an earlier record review (in the long defunct ‘Jazz FM’ magazine if I remember correctly), wherein his described how he played ‘Cockney tenor – garrulous, pugnacious and never at a loss for word.’ I’ve lost how many times I’ve quoted that encomium in articles on Hayes.

‘An Unholy Row’ is therefore wholly recommended to anyone who wants a true insiders view of what it was like to live through the time when British jazz polarised into its respective ‘Trad’ and ‘Modern’ camps. Dave’s artful, knowing prose, leads you through this time much like a gifted tour guide; he knows just when to stop and explain something in greater detail, or, as in the case of Tubby Hayes cited above, just how to codify someone of massive importance in a pithy, choice sentence. And, for me, it seems like a full length vindication for its author who, about twenty years ago, earned himself an unwarranted (to my young thinking) reproof for stating in one magazine piece that British listeners in 1960 were presented with ‘Terry Lightfoot on the one hand and Cliff and the Shadows on the other.’ I know Dave a little and can guess that his gift for a catchy journalistic sound-bite might have prompted that little gem – let’s face it, it does summon up the image of a certain time and place – but in ‘An Unholy Row’ he gives a top-to-bottom examination of the scene, full of rich anecdotes and contemporary sources. Nobody could unfairly critique his thoughts on that time in this volume, that’s for sure.

Keep it light

If this entry has proved a little less free-flowing than normal, I do hope the reader will forgive me for briefly allowing personal reflection to intrude on what is otherwise a fairly objective viewpoint. It’s been a tough time, let’s say. I had fully intended to close by recommending some recordings that might act as a sort of ‘soundtrack’ to the era discussed above – namely the boxed set ‘Keep It Light: A Panorama of British Jazz: The Modernists' (Cherry Red, 2017) and the various ‘Soho Scene: Jazz Goes Mod’ collections on R&B Records, all of which give a thoroughly entertaining walk-through the late 1950s/early 1960s British jazz scene – but in writing the above I’ve also come upon a realisation that might make a more appropriate end-piece, one concerning an unwitting connection between myself, that home-made scrapbook and writers like Dave Gelly.

It occurs to me that like Dave, or the compiler of those press-cuttings, or even my Dad with his hastily clipped out photos of any jazz trombonist he could find, I’ve always been better placed as an observer of life rather than one of its great participants. The role of biographer/chronicler therefore suits me just fine (as indeed it has for Benny Green and Digby Fairweather before me) – I’m happy to sit on the sidelines, taking note, trying to see the bigger picture, hoping to join up the dots, celebrating the lives and achievements of those who really do have a noteworthy life and who have most certainly achieved much to shout about. Benny Green once described himself as a person who rarely joined things, and who by no means found the necessities of being gregarious in any way easy. ‘A cat who walks alone’, was his dramatic description of himself. I feel much the same. That said, when I look at Dave Gelly’s wonderful coverage in ‘An Unholy Row’ or at the breathless prose of that little gifted scrapbook, both of which make 1960 seem like THE place to be, I can’t help but feel as if I’d have been a happier soul back then, more ready and willing to join, take part and contribute.

Had this fantasy become reality, might I be a bit like Sam Tyler in BBC-TV’s ‘Life on Mars’, the sci-fi-meets-Seventies cop show romp which placed a 21st century detective back in mid-1970s Manchester, eventually realising I never really wanted to go ‘home’ again? Short of a time machine, I’ll never know for sure. But there are days, such as those this last week, when I’d have happily traded the madness of 2021 for the modness of 1960, no questions asked. In fact, forget all this talk of Covid passports; that scrapbook is all I need. It’s a ticket to my dream destination, a place where I’d hear the music I love and be able to do the one thing I so dearly want; to see my Dad just once more.

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