The BBC has been giving a lot of publicity to the disappointing Steven Poliakoff drama “Dancing on the Edge” – two hours worth of content stretched out over five or six hours. Unfortunately they gave hardly any advance notice to the excellent documentary, “Swinging into the Blitz“, which was broadcast at 6pm on Saturday evening, and like the Poliakoff series dealt with Black British swing bands in the 1930s and 40s. In particular, it looked at the lives of two of the main figures of the time, trumpeter and bass player Leslie Thompson and band leader Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, both of whom were originally from the West Indies.
The first few minutes were a bit iffy: it seemed to want to tie the story in to yet another alleged swing revival; mixed up archive material, modern day recreations and scenes from a drama without making it clear which was which; and gave the impression that the main reason this music was important was that some posh people liked it. After that, though, it settled down and got really interesting. There was little or no archive footage, but plenty of airtime for a good modern-day band playing some of Thompson and ‘Snakehips’ Johnson’s music. Soweto Kinch and Elaine Delmar (whose father was another of the Black British musicians of the period) were among the talking heads, along with several people who’d been around at the time.
This programme is well worth watching if you’ve got any interest in the history of UK jazz, and in particular the social aspects of it. I didn’t realise, for instance, that in the 1920s the British Army had a ban on anyone who wasn’t White becoming an officer, which effectively barred any Black musician, no matter how good, from ever becoming a Bandmaster.
“Swinging into the Blitz” is repeated in Scotland on BBC2 on Wednesday at the ridiculous hour of twenty past midnight (it’s at a different time elsewhere in the UK) and is available online for a week.
Now, BBC, what about similar documentaries on post-war West Indian jazz musicians in the UK, or on the exiled South African jazzers of the late 60s? Or do we have to wait for a glossy but empty drama series to link them up to?