In previous posts we have looked at the revivalist jazz raves organised by Mick Mulligan and Cy Laurie in 1950s Soho. From the mid-1950s a new scene was developing, based around 'traditional jazz'. The musical distinction was that while the former favoured the 1920s jazz band sound found on Chicago recordings by Louis Armstrong and others, advocates of the latter claimed that the real New Orleans sound was to be found in the music of players who had never left the city to head North, unlike Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. This search for the ever-receding holy grail of authenticity was mocked by some at the time. Jeff Nuttall recalls that "Uncle John Renshaw, a bandleader of the time, used to say with some irony 'I'm in the sincerity racket, meself.'"
Despite its antiquarian musical roots, the trad jazz scene (and the related skiffle scene) was very much a youth sub culture of 'ravers'. Nuttall recalls that in the mid-1950s:
"Soho was alive with cellar coffee-bars, where skiffle and jazz could be played and heard informally and where the rich odour of marihuana became, for the first time, a familiar part of the London atmosphere. Sam Widges was the most popular. Also there was the Nucleus, the Gyre and Gimble, the Farm. They were open most of the night and often the management would leave you to sleep where you sat. It was a place to stay in the dry if you didn't want to go home. It became obvious that parental control was going to stop at about the age of fifteen for a large number of young people. Teenage wages were going up and so were student grants. It was becoming possible to push the leaky boat of adult delusions a little further away. The Soho Fair, which ran annually for three years [1955-7], was a festival of the ravers. Bands and guitars and cossack hats and sheepskin waistcoats flooded out of the cellars and into the streets. It was so good that it had to be stopped, so good that it was in the first Soho Fair that the real spirit of Aldermaston was born'. Trad jazz bands provided the soundtrack on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marches to or from Aldermaston nuclear weapons base from 1958 (picture of dancers is from 1958 march).
In a 1962 New Statesman article, George Melly described 'An All-Night Rave at the Alexandra Palace', a "'trad' ball" where "Band followed band from 9.30 P.M. until 7.30 A.M. the next morning. The audience were dressed almost without exception in 'rave gear'... the essence of 'rave gear' is a stylized shabbiness. To describe an individual couple, the boy was wearing a top hat with 'Acker' painted on it, a shift made out of a sugar sack with a C.N.D. symbol painted on the back, jeans, and no shoes. The girl, a bowler hat with a C.N.D. symbol on it, a man's shirt worn outside her black woollen tights. Trad' dancing in the contemporary sense is deliberately anti-dancing. When I first went to jazz clubs, there were usually one or two very graceful and clever couples. But today the accepted method of dancing to trad music is to jump heavily from foot to foot like a performing bear, preferably out of time to the beat... Trad musicians have christened these self-made elephants 'Leapniks'." The Acker referred to here was Acker Bilk, the jazz clarinettist and unlikely musical figurehead for late 1950s/early 1960s ravers.
The trad jazz scene as a youth movement was soon to be overwhelmed by The Beatles and everything that followed. In the semi-situationist journal Heatwave (1966), Charles Radcliffe included the ravers in The Seeds of Destruction, a ground-breaking survey of 'youth revolt':
"The Ravers... had some Beat characteristics and rather tenuous connections with the anti-bomb movement but their main preoccupations were Jazz clubs and Jazz festivals; this was the period when ersatz traditional (Trad) Jazz, as purveyed by Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball and others was inordinately popular. Partly Trad's popularity arose in reaction to the decline of the small fifties Beat scene; it was easy to dance to and Jazz clubs were among the few places where teenagers could do more or less as they wished without adult interference. Partly it arose because the musicians did not take themselves too seriously and were often simply good-time Ravers".
Ravers' dress was a kind of "'music-hall-cum-riverboat-cum-contemporary-folk-art' with Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament symbol decorated bowlers, umbrellas, striped trousers, elegant jackets. The chicks had long hair, wore ban-the-bomb type uniforms (duffle coats, polo-neck jerseys, very loose around the hips, and jeans). The Ravers were, on the whole, distrusted by other groups with whom they came into contact; the Beats used the term 'Raver' derogatorily and the nuclear disarmers treated Ravers' 'superficiality' with superior amusement and occasional annoyance... The Ravers, as such, died with the 'traditional' Jazz boom but the 'Raver philosophy' continues and there are once again groups calling themselves Ravers. The term has likewise regained its approbatory meaning after the frequent critical use by the CND generation".
Here we have a phenomenon that was to re-emerge with 'ravers' from the 1980s onwards - the use of the term as a put down by the would-be serious minded.
The George Melly quote is reproduced from 'Revolt into Style: the pop arts' (1970); Jeff Nuttall from 'Bomb Culture' (1969). Image source: Science and Society Picture Library. For more on Heatwave, see the excellent Dancin' in the streets! Anarchists, IWWs, Surrealists, Situationists & Provos in the 1960s as recorded in the pages of The Rebel Worker & Heatwave, edited by Franklin Rosemont and Charles Radcliffe, Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, Chicago. 2005
We would love to hear some first hand accounts of 1950s/60s raves - photos too would be great. If you were there why not leave a comment, or email firstname.lastname@example.org