Every so often, popular music culture undergoes a ‘sea change’. It seems to occur every ten years or so, and usually about half way through each decade. Arbitrarily speaking, It happened in 1977 when the Sex Pistols broke onto the scene with their snarling three chord, stripped down anthems of disaffected youth. It happened in 1967 when America embraced The Beatles, LSD, San Fransisco and Jimi Hendrix but in 1957 something very different happened.
There are many events that claim to have been the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, and music historians will still argue to this day, but that is the whole point which I’ll come to in a moment. Events such as Ike Turner recording “Rocket 88” in March 1951, to the first ever rock concert (Alan Freed’s Moondog Coronation Ball) in Cleveland in March 1952, to Elvis Presley recording “That’s All Right Mama” in July 1954. But there is one single fact that all music historians agree on: the “Breakthrough”. The point at which rock ‘n’ roll exploded from being a teen fad with a cult following, into hugely successful mass market awareness and acceptance. That event happened in the first week of July 1955. That was when the song “Rock Around The Clock” performed by Bill Haley & The Comets - became the first rock ‘n’ roll record to ever reach the number 1 position in the US charts. However over here in England things were more complicated than that and British youth were still at the mercy of not only the archaic radio networks but also the simple fact of the lack of availability of the records.
The release, in 1955, of a feature film called The Blackboard Jungle which starred Sidney Poitier helped the Bill Haley record reach a new and eager audience in Britain, It was a tense, urban socio-documentary about a teacher and his class of teenagers and Bill Haley’s music was used in the film causing teenagers to jump from their seats and dance in the cinema. It was the first time they had probably heard anything like that, and naturally they associated it with the rebellion inherent in the films narrative, which suited them just fine. But even though this new and dangerous music managed to tap into the spirit of the moment, the band still had an image which was clean, respectable and in many ways like their parents. The stage was wide open for ‘one of their own kind’.
Elvis Presley had established an underground presence during 1956, and his earliest 45 r.p.m recordings from that time are much sought after by collectors (Heartbreak Hotel and Hound Dog, which again were featured in films doing the circuits at the time). However Elvis had to wait until 1957 to get his first UK number 1. On the week ending the 28th Jun 1957 he had his first UK number one hit with “All Shook Up” which was number one for 7 weeks. Not only did he capture the emotional mood of the teenagers of the day, he was stylish, he was arrogant but most of all he was sexy and he was young. But rock and roll ‘per se’ had effectively been around for a good twenty years or so under a different name. Before Elvis, it had been almost exclusively been played by black people and they called it ‘jump and jive’; ‘hollerin’ the blues’ or just simply: ‘rhythm and blues’. Bill Haley made the revolutionary decision to blend it with the songwriting style of white country music, and it was that unison that caused the uproar.
Prior to this, teenagers had been fed a diet of what The Guardian referred to as ‘Pre-Rock’: “Pre-rock was pure escapism, a cultural comfort blanket, and that’s what was needed. The world was broken; most people wanted to forget the immediate past and were terrified of the post-Hiroshima future. Instrumentals – Mantovani’s Moulin Rouge, Frank Chacksfield’s Limelight, Les Baxter’s Unchained Melody – worked as balm, lullabies for wrecked communities. They tucked a nation into bed while the new world was constructed outside its windows. As the foundations were placed for the new towns of Stevenage, Crawley and Basildon, the bucolic idyll of Donald Peers’s In a Shady Nook (By a Babbling Brook) played on the wireless.” And all of this was additionally and indeed directly due to Trade Union action.
Following the war, the British Musician’s Union placed an embargo on the United States musicians which prohibited them from performing or selling their records in this country. The ban lasted until the mid fifties but under it’s blanket lay a genre which effectively passed by almost without notice in Britain (save for a tightly knit community of enthusiasts) called: “Bebop”. British audiences were fed a diet of big band swing (courtesy of American troops being stationed here) right up to the sanitised, balladeers of the early fifties as though nothing had happened between the years of 1945 and 1955, but in the States very big things had been happening. The likes of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw may have ruled the roost in the dance halls, but after the show was over, American audiences wanted to chill out and the ‘supper club’ was the place to be. A small, intimate, bar which usually served food and featured a house band made up of (usually) musicians who had been playing earlier that same night. Such was the demand for these smaller ensembles that a huge number of them sprang up, and at the top of the pile was a young saxophone player from Kansas called Charlie Parker. Such was his overwhelming virtuosity as an improviser - he could sell out any venue he appeared at and he soon attracted a massive army of deeply dedicated followers.
Jazz music was not really considered as ‘specialist’ back then. It was all they had, it simply was the popular music of the day and it was huge. The artists of the time were the equivalent of today’s rock stars and enjoyed massive cult status. And in typical ‘rock and roll’ style, when Charlie Parker got his royalty cheques he went out and spent it on hard drugs and women. But, as history has shown when you live life like a rock star you die like a rock star. Parker died on March the 12th 1955 of a ridiculous combination of drug and alcohol related side effects and abuse. Two years later, in 1957, Parker’s long standing trumpet sideman: Miles Davis release an album called “Birth of the cool” which in many ways heralded the end of an era. In every tune you can hear a sense of ‘the end of the party’ as indeed it was. Parker was aware of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley and in truth he didn’t know what else to do. But over in Britain, audiences had no idea of the impact that he had had on the music of the time. When American teens had been swooning to the ballads of Frank Sinatra and jiving to the swing of Duke Ellington, Parker gave them the equivalent of punk music with his loud, fast and ugly, jagged (lyric-less) small-band music. It divided audiences. Those that liked it, loved it, and those that didn’t understand it hated it. It was revolutionary. But in Britain it was irrelevant. Unheard and forgotten even after it had ended.
Although Bill Haley may have indeed synthesized the various musical elements that we now know of as sounding like a kind of music we call “rock and roll” he couldn’t escape the fact that, at the time, he looked like someone’s dad. Whereas Elvis was (as they’d say now) “one of us” - he was a teen rebel. He had the poise, the sound and the looks to carry off the innermost painful yearnings that all teenagers could identify with. But, prior to him a whole generation of musicians had been doing just the same, except in Britain they went from being the hottest, hippest thing to being the ‘music your parents listened to’ overnight. And in that context, Elvis Presley killed Jazz. Forever.