What is Black British Jazz? Routes, Ownership, Performance

Award Holder

Dr Jason Toynbee


Higher Education Institute

The Open University


Project aims

  • To trace the historical and geographical routes along which black British jaxx (BBJ) has developed.
  • To examine the role of memory and cultural transmission in the emergence of new musical forms (also to contribute to their preservation through audio-visual recordings).
  • To investigate ownership of BBJ in relation to entrepreneurship, creativity and cultural policy.
  • To analyse aesthetics, embodied practice and participation in BBJ performance.

Research questions

Our main research question, 'What is Black British Jazz?', is broken down as follows:

  • What is the cultural identity of the genre?
  • How did it emerge?
  • Who owns it, how is it owned and what is the impact of cultural policy on ownership?
  • What are the defining themes in its performance? How do musicians use grooves, voices and improvised scripts in its delivery?
  • In political and aesthetic terms, why and how does BBJ matter?

Research context

The project builds on a range of approaches that have informed both our understanding of jazz and the cultural study of music more generally:

  • Historical /cultural analyses of British jazz Moore
    (2007), McKay (2005) and Parsonage (2005) have examined the development of jazz in the UK, each paying attention to the work of black musicians in this history. Parsonages, in particular, focuses on how ethnicity and cultural identity have been and remain central problems in understanding the music’s development in Britain. The BBJ project develops that theorisation.
  • Ethnomusicological analyses of jazz performance
    Taking cues from the urban ethnography of Monson (1996), the ‘groovology’ of Keil (1994), and within a methodological framework developed by the ‘Experience and Meaning in Music Performance’ Project at the Open University, the project looks at the micro-musical, micro-social aspects of performance. How is performance located in the wider historical conjuncture? What do the grooves, sounds and sites of BBJ have to tell us not just about musical meaning but also social relations?
  • Diaspora studies
    Building on the Migrating Music theme in the Open University, AHRC funded project, ‘Tuning In: Diasporic Contact Zones at BBC World Service’, we examine BBJ as a diasporic formation and asks how this music signifies in the continual becoming and renewal of black identities in Britain.
  • The creative economy and cultural policy
    Recent interest in the creative industries as a brave new economic sector begs questions about the nature of cultural work (Banks 2007) which we address in the context of BBJ. Focusing on relations between entrepreneurship, music-making and cultural policy, we ask how far the current cultural regime is conducive to creative, autonomous work.

The project approaches BBJ via three research strands:

Routes examines the development of BBJ through a combination of oral-historical and archival work. In-depth interviews with contemporary participants are set alongside archival sources which include recorded interviews from the British Library’s ‘Oral History of Jazz in Britain’ and documents from the National Jazz Archive. But the project also extends beyond British experience, and acknowledges the Black Atlantic diaspora in the Caribbean, United States and Africa as a crucial source for understanding the routes/roots of BBJ.

Ownership is directed towards ownership in the economic sense – the problem of how BBJ is organised as a business, but also cultural ownership – in what sense it might be said to be owned by black British people. Making use of policy documents, published statistics, business reports and interviews with stakeholders, this strand of the project recognises the crucial importance of the economics of cultural practice for BBJ.

Performance is concerned with the practice of music-making in a wide sense, to include not only matters of production and reception but also the ways in which the skills of performance are taught and learnt. Live gigs, rehearsals, recording sessions and workshops are all examined as part of the process of performance. The project addresses the sounds of the Black Atlantic – its grooves, musical voices and improvisations – as they find their form in contemporary Britain.

Our collaborators

Central to the work of this project is an engagement with the community of musicians, promoters and managers who make up the black British jazz scene as well as other organisations germane to our work. Significant partners, signed up to the project so far, include Dune Records, Jazz Services, The Center for Black Music Research (Chicago) and The British Library Sound Archive.


The range of methods we use follows from the nature of our research questions, focusing as they do on history, economics and performance. We think the following methods, and even more importantly their integration, represent significant innovation in arts and humanities research:

  • Ethnography – observation of and participation in music tours and workshops, semi-structured interviews with participants.
  • Oral history – in-depth biographical study of a sample of musicians.
  • Archival and documentary research
  • Audio-visual recording and analysis of live and recorded performances – drawing on methods pioneered in another Open University project, ‘Experience and Meaning in Music Performance’.


Research outputs from the project include conventional academic forms such as books, journal articles and conference papers. But we also aim to make the results of our work available to a broader public. A film (in collaboration with Metal Dog Productions), a short series of radio programmes/podcasts and a concert will take the project to non-academic audiences. Project data drawn from performances, interviews and documents will also be available as a) archive material held by the British Library and the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago and b) a resource for jazz education.


Arts & Humanities Research Council: Each year the AHRC provides approximately £100 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from archaeology and English literature to design and dance. In any one year, the AHRC makes approximately 700 research awards and around 1,000 postgraduate awards. Awards are made after a rigorous peer review process, to ensure that only applications of the highest quality are funded. Arts and humanities researchers constitute nearly a quarter of all research-active staff in the higher education sector. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. See Arts & Humanities Research Council website.