Jazz in Jamaica from Sonny Bradshaw


Sonny Bradshaw, the “Godfather of Jamaican Jazz,” wrote an article before he died in 2009 titled “Black History All Jazzed Up.” It ran in the Jamaica Gleaner during Black History Month, on February 10, 2008. Because Sonny lived through so much Jamaican music history, I reprint his words of gold here:

JAZZ-CLASSICAL black music – once taboo in Jamaica and referred to as ‘devil music’ by the churches, was not to be played on Sundays.
We had the popular music of North America and Europe played by what were called road bands in dancing halls like PORA (Prison Officers Relief Association) on Laws Street, The Jamaica Success Club (63 Upper Wildman Street), the Jubilee Tile Gardens (Upper King Street), the Forrestors Hall (North Street), the Progressive Lawns (North & Church Streets) and later Bartleys Silver City on East Queen Street, all in what is now called downtown Kingston.

But things and times changed along the way and the same churches were having fund-raising functions using the music of the day, ‘a little jazz’, now getting respectable, handed down from the North – those same slave-oriented sounds coming out of the brothels in the Caribbean Port of New Orleans in the USA.

The black music was getting white and the technology afforded more widespread dissemination and popularity in the ‘black’ neighbourhoods on the US mainland and in islands like Jamaica.

But we in Jamaica, land we love, are a different lot in many ways, culturally and otherwise. So much later and lots of water under the bridge, when the farm work project started, people like jazzman Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd spent a lot of his cotton-picking earnings to bring back records (78 rpms) of the music from Florida with the distinctive blues as well as rhythm and blues sounds to play on his box, called a sound system.

In time, these sound systems moved from their local surroundings of Pound Road (now called Maxfield Avenue) and South Race Course (home of Lord Koos) and eventually took over the dancing halls everywhere – and not just in Kingston.
The sound systems began substituting for road bands as they could play very long hours (without tiring) and the music was for both dancing and listening, as they played what could be called jazz and blues (what a term!).

The jazz part really got respectable when bandleader Milton McPherson promoted a two-night concert at The Ward Theatre called Fashions In Jazz (I can’t remember the year). But what gave jazz an extended popular music life was the series of Jazz Concerts – Carnegie Hall Style also at The Ward Theatre, devised by me and piano player civil servant land surveyor, Lloyd Adams. We kept up this series from 1954-58 with no foreign act, just Jamaican musicians and artistes.

It can be remembered that on the day of the first concert of the series only one ticket was booked, that by jazz lover Dudley Ball, but at showtime the 900-seat Ward Theatre was bursting at its seams, including the fowl coop gallery.

Jazz, the classical black music, was at the top of its game, later being included in Stephen & Dorothy Hill’s Celebrity Concert Series which first brought mostly white classical music. But later came international acts like the legendary Louis Armstrong, fantastic piano virtuoso young Oscar Peterson, breathtaking jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, a new (at the time) sensation, jazz singer Carmen McRae, who reportedly has Jamaican roots and the top of the modern jazz singers, the Divine Sarah Vaughan. These top acts could not be accommodated at The Ward Theatre alone, so the new Russell Graham ran 1900-seater Carib Theatre and even the open air Tropical Theatre on Slipe Road had to be pulled in to satisfy the jazz audiences of the day.

Underneath the music goings-on in North America, ‘the jazz’ as a dancing music was being undermined by the new young set of musicians of bebop as more so listening music (as Perkins would say, for the thinking persons) while in Jamaica a cultural sleeping giant was aroused with the advent of a second radio station, the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC).

Disbanding lofty ideas of a studio orchestra, arranger Carlos Malcolm and I were delegated to stay on board, thus promoting Jamaican music on air through the vehicle TADP (Teenage Dance Party), and the Jamaican Hit Parade Top 30 (popular music) from the stage of The Regal Theatre weekly.

The Jamaican recording industry got a real push, having more people being aware of the new cultural music, ska, rocksteady and reggae, on their doorstep. Our early ‘record producers’ also discovered that they could make money not just from royalties (they didn’t pay the artistes)
but also revenues from ‘publishing’ piling up in the outside world.

Jazz, the classical black music in Jamaica had lost ground and struggles today to stay in its rightful place through the dedication of the handful of musicians who do make their living from live music.

But jazz is taking another beating from persons and organisations, not excluding the church, that promote anything under the name of ‘jazz’ to make what Eric Coverley had described as ‘filthy lucre’, carrying the great masses along with the misleading idea of what this classical black music is. The Caribbean area is fraught with these jazz festivals that are made up of programmes of the popular music of the time of day, and any non-jazz megastar like the US$300,000 troubled Ms. Diana Ross, who recently visited Jamaica in our tourist city, Montego Bay, home of the past Reggae Sunsplash and current Reggae Sumfest.

With Black History Month at hand, it is hoped that the jazz renaissance will be assisted by the series of jazz & blues films being shown through the efforts of The United States: Embassy Public Affairs Division at RedBones the Blues Cafe throughout the month and also that other presentations will reflect, the true meaning of jazz, the black classical music that started its upward climb from the Caribbean port of New Orleans.

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