Eric Hobsbawm’s Calypso-phile Cousin
Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 24, 2010
You learn something new every week from A Blog Supreme‘s Friday link dump.
This time, it was about nonagenarian Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm‘s semi-secret past as a jazz critic. As Hobsbawm relates in a recent reminiscence in the London Review of Books, for ten years in the late 50s and early 60s, he covered jazz for The New Statesman under the pseudonym Francis Newton, borrowed from the “Communist jazz trumpeter who played on Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit.’” His beat was the Soho jazz scene, which then featured the likes of Jamaican-born saxophonist Joe Harriott—though Hobsbawm confesses that, raised on swing, he spent much of the 50s “trying to understand or at least come to terms with bebop.” (His columns were collected in 1989 as The Jazz Scene, but the book is now sadly out of print. Several essays on jazz also make up the final section of his working-class history Uncommon People.)
Of course this same era was the heyday of West Indian culture in Britain. For example: 1956, the year of “Francis Newton”‘s first byline, was also the year of Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners. (A year later Colin MacInnes, with whom Hobsbawm was friendly, would add a hip, white perspective with City of Spades.) And until “blue beat” came along in the early-mid-60s, calypso was more or less the soundtrack of boheme London. Lord Kitchener had arrived with his buddy Lord Beginner on the S. S. Empire Windrush in 1948 and never looked back; he counted Princess Margaret—whose famous “calypso tour” of the West Indies in 1955 raised the music’s global profile—among his most ardent fans.
But here’s the kicker: Hobsbawm had come to jazz, he says, “thanks to [his] cousin Denis Preston.” That would be jazz writer, BBC presenter, and record producer Denis Preston, who oversaw not only dozens of influential jazz discs for Pye and Columbia in the UK, but scads of sides by African and West Indian musicians, including classic recordings by Beginner and Kitchener for Parlophone and Melodisc, many of which have been collected on the London Is the Place for Me series from Honest Jon’s Records. (In fact, as John Cowley points out via a post on the late DJ and music writer Charlie Gillett’s blog The Sound of the World, Preston counted calypso as his “first real success.”)
Richard Noblett, who researched and wrote the superb notes for the Honest Jon’s series, explains that Preston had included Freddy Grant’s West Indian Calypsonians in a London jazz concert he’d produced in 1945, and that three years later, serving as Decca’s representative in New York, he’d discovered the Harlem calypso scene and returned to England determined to promote the music there. Since many of the West Indian musicians he hired who were then resident in the UK were experienced jazz sidemen, it seems fair to give Preston at least partial credit, along with Kitch and his childhood friend Rupert Nurse (musical director at Melodisc), for introducing modern, debonair jazz arrangements into recorded calypso.
I can’t wait for the next installment of Hobsbawm’s hepcat memories, in which he will undoubtedly reveal how one of England’s most famous intellectuals limed with the West Indians at the Sunset Club in Carnaby Street and dingolayed at the earliest years of Notting Hill Carnival.