Forward Groove

Issue section: 

Chris Searle, Northway Publications, £14.99

Several years ago I was fortunate enough to interview Rashid Ali, the legendary drummer and one time collaborator with John Coltrane.

He told me, "They were trying times in the 1960s. We had the civil rights thing going on; we had King; we had the Panthers. There was so much diversity happening. People were screaming for their rights and wanting to be equal, be free. Naturally our music reflected that whole period."

These are sentiments author Chris Searle clearly shares. His wonderful new book, subtitled Jazz and the Real World from Louis Armstrong to Gilad Atzmon, looks at the musical development of jazz, but locates its development in a historical and political context. Searle brilliantly and patiently demonstrates that jazz was shaped by the struggle for artistic recognition, and the fight against racism and oppression.

One of the most important sections of the book looks at the music that artists like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Billie Holiday produced in the 1930s and 1940s.

They were also "trying times", an era of economic crisis, political and economic struggle. Culture became a field of contestation in which "progressive" artists could battle with fascism and racism, and support working class struggle. The historian Michael Denning describes this movement as the Cultural Front. This saw an intermixing of so-called "highbrow" and "lowbrow" art forms, of pulp and high modernism, of folk culture and mass culture. It blurred the boundaries between genres and aesthetics, and even helped break down the colour bar of many venues.

Searle describes with passion the musical and political importance of well known songs from this era, like Louis Armstrong's "Black and Blue" and Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit". But he also rediscovers hidden gems like Richard Wright's blues song "King Joe". A minor jukebox hit in 1941, it is a wonderful song about the great black boxer Joe Louis. Recorded by the Basie Orchestra with Paul Robeson on vocals (Jimmy Rushing coached Robeson on how to sing the blues), it is one of the earliest jazz recordings about black pride.

Searle's treatment of the 1960s US jazz scene is given the same insightful treatment. As every page of the book demonstrates, the music of Archie Shepp, Charlie Haden and Max Roach is anything but mere entertainment - it was a music demanding respect and social justice.

Searle wears his political heart on his sleeve. Forward Groove is a delight, and essential reading for anybody who is interested in music, politics or both.