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Book: Jazz on BBC Radio 1922-1972

Chapter: Jazz and the Birth of the BBC, 1922-1932

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.38331


The opening chapter explores the role of jazz in the first decade of British broadcasting from the BBC’s inception in 1923 as a commercial monopoly built around regional stations to a more centralised metropolitan public corporation which, from 1927, restructured itself through a process of organisational, technological and cultural centralisation built upon a commitment to a universality of a national radio service. Characteristic of this provision was the late-night relay of sophisticated jazz and dance music from Mayfair hotels in London’s West End to much of the UK. As the decade progressed, live broadcasts of jazz were supplemented by record-based ‘gramophone recital’ programmes of US and UK jazz. In mapping this jazz programming I aim to explore what jazz was understood to be within the BBC specifically, and in 1920s British culture more generally.

Both radio and jazz emerge at the same time in most developed economies, and the chapter starts from a recognition that it is during this period that both jazz and radio are defined through a process of contestation. I seek to explore the complex ways in which BBC staff aimed to define what jazz was, struggled to place the unstable meanings of jazz within the emerging organisation of broadcast production and experimented with the ways it could help demarcate what radio would become. Building upon close reference to schedules in The Radio Times and ‘programme-as-broadcast’ logs at the BBC Written Archive, I produce a revisionist history of both jazz and radio in Britain exploring the historically-located processes of defining the cultural meaning of jazz and the very idea of radio broadcasting. In doing so, the chapter challenges the widely stated view amongst both jazz and media historians that, in the 1920s and 1930s, the BBC neglected jazz. In reinterpreting and reframing these debates about jazz in Britain, the broadcast of music labeled jazz and the positioning of jazz within the organisational structure of the BBC, I seek a more nuanced sense of two intertwined trajectories of cultural change in twentieth century Britain.
Specifically, I show that music then designated as jazz constituted the largest category of output in the broadcasts of the early BBC; that there was no coherent BBC position on jazz; and that debates about the music within the corporation were unstable because jazz did not conform to the cultural certainties usually deployed in editorial decision-making. The chapter, therefore, focuses on music that later historians such as Godbolt (1986) have excluded from their definitions of jazz and reassesses the claim of Parsonage (2005) that in the 1920s the BBC was ‘creating and disseminating a stylistically unified music’.

In establishing the foundations of British jazz broadcasting, the chapter also unveils a theme that runs throughout the book: that the history of jazz on the BBC and the way that it has been interpreted by listeners and critics alike is based upon arguments about the boundary between what is jazz and not-jazz. Such an approach encourages us to reassess all of the stories about the way jazz developed, was disseminated and mediated in the first half of the twentieth century..

Chapter Contributors

  • Tim Wall ( - proftimwall) 'Birmingham City University'