To mark International Jazz Day which takes place on Sunday, 30th April we have decided to take a brief look at the early days of the Southampton University Jazz Club.
Live music has formed a part of the University’s life since the early decades of the 20th century. This initially consisted of concerts and performances by musical societies such as the Choral and Orchestral Society. By the 1950s Southampton had become a fully-fledged university – receiving its royal charter on 29 April 1952 – marking the beginning of a golden era of live music, particularly in the form of jazz and rock.
A short history of British Jazz
Jazz as a genre of music began life among African-American communities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Amalgamating African and European music sensibilities, early jazz drew on a range of influences. Throughout its history it has continually evolved, giving rise to many distinctive styles. A difficult genre to define, it is most broadly recognised for its use of musical improvisation, contrasting rhythms, and syncopated notes.
Prior to the 1930s, the influence of jazz in Britain remained limited. However, the arrival of American jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington meant that British musicians, as well as the British public, were becoming increasingly jazz-aware. By the 1940s all kinds of jazz and jazz-flavoured dance music flourished in London nightclub while the latter part of the decade saw the jazz scene divide into two distinct movements: modern and traditional. Modern jazz in Britain was influenced by American bebop, a new style characterised by a fast tempo together with complex harmony and rhythms. A movement in the opposite direction was revivalism, which sought to re-engage with traditional Dixieland and Ragtime styles. Both styles remained popular throughout the 1950s, a decade which saw the popularity of British jazz continue to flourish, particularly across university campuses.
Southampton University Jazz Club
Formed in 1955, the Southampton University Jazz Club (S.U.J.C.) quickly established itself as the University’s biggest student society. This was largely thanks to weekly live sessions with local and visiting bands. Performances were affordable and provided different styles for different tastes, with traditional New Orleans Jazz performed in the Refectory and Modern Jazz in the Terrace Room.
At the same time, the University was producing a number of its own jazz bands, including Group One, an eight piece band who won the Southern Semi-Finals of the International University Jazz Festival competition in 1960, and the Dudley Hyams Quintet and Apex Jazzmen, who took first and second place in the Regional Semi-Finals at Bristol in 1962.
Concerning the impact of the Jazz Club, a report by the President of the Students’ Union from 1960-1 reads:
“Many societies suffered undeservedly from bad attendance. No one knows the reason for this, but one explanation might be the extraordinary success of the Friday night Jazz Club. Easily the most popular activity with an average of five hundred a week ‘dancing’ around the Refectory and adjoining rooms. Nearly eight hundred sat down in the Refectory for the semi-finals of the Inter-University Jazz Competition in February. The three Southampton bands – Group One, Epic and Apex – competed against bands from Imperial College, Queen Mary, Reading and Oxford. Taking last turn, Group One played themselves brilliantly into first place.” [Report of the Proceedings of the University, 1960-61 Univ. Coll. LF 786.4]
By the early 1960s, jazz had established itself as an integral part of the student social scene with nearly all dances and socials featuring jazz groups, either as support or as the main attraction. The programme for the first University of Southampton Arts Festival in 1961 lists a series of jazz performances alongside a lecture on the place of jazz among the arts.
Today’s University Jazz scene
While the British jazz scene continued to develop and innovate throughout the 1960s, and beyond, there was a significant decline in the popularity of jazz at the University by the middle part of the decade. However, this did not mark the end of the vibrant music scene which continued into the 1960s and 1970s with a range of big names in rock performing at Southampton.
The 1970s also saw a major development in live music at the University with the construction of the Turner Sims Concert Hall. Since opening it has acted as a venue for concerts by an array of professional musicians as well as for masterclasses and teaching activities. Performances cover a range of musical genres, including classical, folk and jazz. Upcoming jazz performances include Courtney Pine and Omar. In the 80’s Pine was one of the first black British jazz artists to make a serious mark on the jazz scene. For further details and to find out about other upcoming performances, visit the Turner Sims website.
There are now a wide range of jazz and other music orientated groups and events at the University. Learn more about these on the Arts at University of Southampton website.
For more information on the history of music and the arts at the University be sure to check out our online exhibition.