- “Something We Cannot Get in England”:Hearing Anglo-American Difference in America Dances
I cannot help deploring the tendency shown by many of your correspondents to belittle the magnificent playing of American stars and at the same time to glorify the regrettable imitative attempts of their British counterparts. Surely they must appreciate that jazz is in origin American, and that whatever efforts may be made in this country they cannot help but fall short of the inspired playing of the transatlantic geniuses.—William Pousarby, letter to Melody Maker, December 9, 19391
If you were a jazz fan in Britain during the summer of 1938, you would have made a special point to turn your wireless set to the BBC’s National Programme at 10:30 p.m. on July 9. The series America Dances was starting a summer run of weekly relays from the United States.2 You were expecting, assuming the absence of atmospheric interference, to hear a broadcast by Count Basie and his band, whose recordings had been issued in England since April 1937 to growing acclaim. As the Gramophone jazz record critic Edgar Jackson declared in his November 1937 review of “One O’Clock Jump”: “Basie’s band is at last beginning to show on the wax something of those qualities which sent John Hammond into ecstasies over its performances in the flesh.”3 In April 1938 the British critic, composer, and producer Leonard Feather returned to London after [End Page 307] a two-month sojourn in New York, reporting that “Count Basie was perhaps the most unexpected thrill, if only because his recordings do not give any idea of the band’s true value.”4 Given the Ministry of Labour’s stringent work permit restrictions for foreign musicians, which had been in place since 1935, and the expense of transatlantic travel, America Dances was your best chance to hear Basie’s band in a live context.5
As Basie noted in his autobiography, the four-month residency at the Famous Door on 52nd Street—and, more critically, the club’s “CBS-radio-network wire” with the national audience it brought—was his band’s biggest break, an assessment that has been accepted and discussed by many scholars, including Patrick Burke and Lewis Erenberg.6 What the preceding account demonstrates is that Basie’s broadcasts also reached an international audience—the British listeners who heard the band two days before its July 11 opening at the Famous Door and again on September 24. With its presentation of explicitly up-to-date music by U.S. bands such as Jimmie Lunceford and Bob Crosby—Metronome’s “most exciting” bands of 1938—over the still-novel medium of live transatlantic shortwave relay, America Dances represented a distinctly modern addition to the web of transatlantic exchange between the United States and Great Britain.7 It built not only upon the historical circulation of performers and musical styles between the two nations but also upon the mutually influential and often interlinked development of their music industries, which encompassed radio.
Public service radio in Britain and commercial network radio in the United States developed in a state of mutual regard and repudiation, engendering in the process modern understandings of British and American national identity against the foil of the transatlantic other. As media historian Michele Hilmes argues in Network Nations, a “continuous flow of mutual influence” has shaped the cultures of both nations. She points to mediated popular culture, particularly in the realm of broadcasting, as a critical site to examine these circulations because it disrupts discourses of homogeneous nationality by making visible the tastes of nondominant groups and revealing complex transnational commitments existing outside of official channels.8
Of course, examining “nonofficial” transatlantic popular culture, specifically late 1930s jazz and swing, in the context of the BBC, an institution actively involved in projects of cultural uplift, nation building, and empire building, is, at first glance, a quixotic venture. However, as Georgina Born has shown, analyses of institutional practices, discourses, hierarchies, and power struggles can reveal much about change in cultural fields, including musical ones.9 It was during the 1930s that, in addition to engaging in systematic...