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West End Blues

Ben Webster, Marquee Club, 1964 Ben Webster, Marquee Club, 1964 John Goto

John Goto’s newly launched web presentation, ‘West End Blues’, is a tribute to migrant jazz musicians who played in London’s West End between 1919-74. Goto begins his story with Sidney Bechet, who appeared at the Royal Philharmonic Hall in 1919 as the 'blues specialist' in Will Marion Cook's large concert band, the 'Southern Syncopated Orchestra'. It was here that Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet heard them play, and in his review famously referred to Bechet as 'an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso' and an 'artist of genius'.

The ‘twenties saw appearances by Alberta Hunter and then Louis Armstrong, whose decision to spend time working in Europe was prompted, in part, by a conversation with a hoodlum in Chicago. A theme that runs through the work from the mid-thirties to the early fifties is the ban the British Musicians' Union, with the support of the Ministry of Labour, imposed on performances by visiting foreign musicians. This deprived British jazz fans of the chance to hear live the leading American musicians of the day. Benny Carter sidestepped the ban by becoming staff arranger for 'Henry Hall & The BBC Dance Orchestra', and Art Pepper later arrived courtesy of the US Army. Coleman Hawkins took the ban head-on with an illegal concert held at the Princes Theatre in 1949. Jazz migrants began to arrive in London from the British colonies in the ‘thirties and Goto highlights the remarkable band leader Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson, who met his tragically early death whilst playing at the Café de Paris during London’s blitz. Later generations of Caribbean musicians, included Pete Pitterson, Joe Harriott and Shake Keane, played with British modernists, including the young Ronnie Scott, and were also influenced by the West African rhythms of Highlife brought from Nigeria by Ambrose Campbell. American musicians appeared in greater numbers after the ban eased in the ‘sixties, and due to the ambitious programming of Ronnie Scott’s club, which had opened in 1959. Goto shows us Lucky Thompson and Ben Webster in London, and long time resident Adelaide Hall, along with Canadian Maynard Ferguson. From South Africa came Chris McGregor and Dudu Pukwana who chose voluntary exile in London to life under apartheid, which made it illegal for the black and white musicians to play together.

The series ends with Steve Lacy’s concert at the Wigmore Hall in 1974, during which an IRA bomb went off in nearby Oxford St, which was clearly audible in the Hall. John Goto is a British photo-digital artist who has had solo exhibitions at Tate Britain, the National Portrait Gallery, the British Academy and venues across Europe.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ben Webster, Marquee Club, 1964
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