‘A New Departure?’: Record Series, Rhythm Clubs, and the Reception of ‘Hot Rhythm’ Music in 1930s Britain




Written by Lawrence Davies

Lawrence Davies is a blues researcher, pianist and PhD student at King’s College, London. His current interests are devoted to research in blues and jazz, particularly in Britain before the 1960s. He is also exploring the connections between performing/listening, teaching and writing about music and on using the potential of social media and blogging tools as a platform for academic discussion about music.

In 1929, Parlophone released R.448, the first disc in its ‘New Rhythm-Style Series’. Each side is an apt illustration of what became known in the late 1920s and early 30s as ‘hot’ or ‘rhythm’ music.1 One one side of R.448, Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti’s ‘Freeze An’ Melt’ has a jaunty ensemble backing, with the front line musicians trading improvised solos. On the other side, the Armstrong Hot Five provide the dramatic ‘West End Blues’: their solemn ensemble figures reminiscent of a New Orleans street parade support Armstrong’s flamboyant, blues-inflected slides, shakes and growls.

Parlophone’s ‘New Rhythm-Style Series’ ran for almost thirty years until 1957, well into the 45rpm era. The company’s decision to draw from the popular lists of American record companies was unprecedented, and became a major source of jazz and blues music for British listeners. Other labels followed Parlophone’s lead in the early 1930s, with HMV introducing its ‘Hot Rhythm Series of Modern Dance Music’ in 1931. Brunswick, Columbia and Decca all introduced similar series as the decade went on.

The musical scope of the series, as well as the circumstances of its inception, has been covered previously in this magazine by Frank Phillips (see June 2015, August 2015, October 2015 editions of our Discographer Magazine). My aim in this article is to look more broadly at the phenomenon of the hot rhythm record series – in particular the Parlophone ‘Rhythm-Style’ and HMV ‘Hot Rhythm’ series – to assess how they shaped the dissemination and appreciation of blues and jazz in 1930s Britain. I will begin by examining the promotion of early ‘hot rhythm’ records to understand British listeners’ changing attitudes to African American music, before turning my attention to how record series themselves determined enthusiasts’ interaction with the music itself.

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The musicians represented in early hot rhythm series such as those introduced by Parlophone and HMV would not look out of place in any history of early jazz. There are larger ‘orchestras’ – groups like those led by Duke Ellington, Frankie Trumbauer, and Fletcher Henderson – as well as a strong contingent of smaller ensembles. These include the Mound City Blue Blowers, the Washboard Serenaders, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, and Joe Venuti’s Blue Four. There were also piano solos by Earl Hines, Fats Waller, and James P. Johnson, and ‘classic’ blues singers such as Ida Cox, Mamie Smith, and Bessie Smith.2

Although we now think of these musicians as exponents of ‘blues’ or ‘jazz’, their records were initially marketed as part of the broad category of ‘dance’ music. Both Parlophone and HMV’s initial adverts for their series defined hot rhythm as ‘modern dance music’, and and attributed this new style to ‘the leading dance musicians and rhythmic singers in America.’3 Furthermore, both companies listed new releases in these series amongst their other, more conventional dance discs. ‘Hot rhythm’ as a category sat side by side with the foxtrot, rumba, tango, or the waltz.

But this ‘dance’ music categorisation did not mean that hot rhythm records were merely frivolous, popular fare. Instead, early record series were marketed to the connoisseur. Each month’s releases were accompanied by brief promotional reviews in advertisements and sales pamphlets. Upon the release of Parlophone’s first ‘Rhythm-Style’ discs, the Melody Maker noted ‘how cleverly [these reviews] entice the prospective customer…[to] familiarise himself with [the records] to be able to understand them and enjoy them.’ The aim of record series, the Melody Maker observed, was ‘to educate the public to an appreciation of more advanced dance music.’4

Promotional reviews often celebrated bandleaders and soloists’ skill in the ‘hot’ interpretation of melody and and arrangement. HMV’s in-house reviewer commended Duke Ellington’s ‘Echoes of the Jungle’, for instance, as ‘a masterpiece of colourful orchestration[,] interpreted with that sense of style and rhythm which belongs only to the finest exponents of the art.’5 African American musicians’ abilities were frequently imagined to be innate or ‘natural’, however. According to HMV’s in-house reviewer, for instance, ‘Echoes of the Jungle’ gave ‘a deep insight into the negro spirit and mentality,’ while the Melody Maker’s reviewer thought that the piano solo ‘Riffs’ by Jimmy Johnson ( Parlophone R.1072) was ‘real honest-to-goodness negro piano playing…full of rhythm and completely devoid of any self consciousness.’6 Reviews rarely missed an opportunity to draw parallels between the musical ‘colour’ created by ‘hot’ or ‘rhythmic’ playing, and a performer’s race.

As modern listeners, we understandably balk at the simplistic link listeners of the 1930s made between ethnicity and musical skill. That said, these reviews were a notable departure from earlier conceptions of African American music only a decade before, where musical styles and practices associated with African Americans were seen to be ‘raw materials’ awaiting improvement by musicians with European, ‘classical’ training. In a 1924 interview, the American bandleader Paul Whiteman explicitly denied that he – nor any member of his band – had ever played ‘jazz’. What they played, Whiteman argued, was the more palatable ‘syncopated rhythm’ style which was ‘seperate…from the jazz which relies for its effects upon “sour music”.’ Whiteman’s famous Aeolian Hall concert in February 1924 was constructed to demonstrate exactly this difference. ‘A Metropolitan Opera star will give a classical interpretation of popular music[,] and then some of our “coon-shouters” will sing to show the difference between syncopation and jazz.’7

Whiteman’s protestations reveal the extent to which popular dance music was increasingly influenced by African American expressive culture. Yet, while figures such as Whiteman in the 1920s sought to expunge this influence, by the beginning of the next decade this African American contribution was being actively celebrated in descriptions of hot rhythm records. Reviews of large ensembles focused on ingenuity of orchestration, while discussions of smaller ensembles focused on soloists’ virtuosity and use of ‘special effects’. HMV’s reviewer heard ‘Tappin’ the Time Away’ by the Washboard Serenaders (B.6303) as relying ‘almost entirely on the ingenuity of soloists[,]…the drummer with his washboard and bell plate produces amazingly skilful rhythms and some quite unique phrases are invented by the guitar, trumpet and piano. Here is a record which is not merely good fun, but something for enthusiasts to study.’8 Clearly, novelty and virtuosity are interpreted as cultivated, skilful and worhty of study, rather than as stereotypical tropes of African American performance, as they would often have been in the 1920s.

Perhaps most interestingly, while reviews of larger orchestras often referenced African American heritage, reviews of smaller ensembles were markedly more hesitant to bind soloists’ skills to race. Interestingly, many of these smaller groups were actually comprised of white musicians, and a few were even interracial – a rare occurrence in the early 1930s! These groups’ penchant for novelty techniques and emphasis on improvisation could not be seen through the same lens as larger groups like Ellington’s, or Fletcher Henderson’s.

The resultant picture is complex, suggesting a degree of flexibility in British understandings of what ‘hot rhythm’ meant. The category was used to recognise African American cultural achievement – albeit often in a patronising way – yet the techniques and musical devices employed by hot rhythm performers could equally be explained as learnable skills, not automatically bound to ideas of racial aptitude and intuition.

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But it was not simply the new vocabulary developing around ‘hot rhythm’ records that changed how British enthusiasts understood jazz and blues. Rather, the introduction of record series were instrumental in changing how British enthusiasts actually went about acquiring and listening to jazz and blues recordings themselves.

Hot rhythm records were relatively affordable compared to other records on the market. HMV’s prices for double-sided discs in 1931 ranged from the inexpensive, 7-inch AS series, priced at 1s. 6d. per disc, to the 12-inch DQ series, at 16s. per disc. The company’s hot rhythm records inhabited the 10-inch B series, priced at 2s. 6d. This was the second cheapest series offered by the label. Other record companies, likewise, priced their hot rhythm series at 2s. 6d. throughout the decade.

Inherent in the record series concept, too, was the regular and timely release of discs. HMV’s ‘Hot Rhythm’ series, for instance, promised customers ‘at least one double-sided record a month’. Parlophone’s ‘Rhythm-Style’ series did not always hold to such regularity, but were nevertheless numbered and dated to allow consumers to keep up to date with new releases. Record companies published special booklets listing the records in each series, as well as their recording dates and personnels. These were not ‘catalogues’ as such, but rather rudimentary discographies for the hot rhythm enthusiast.

The production and dissemination of the records themselves further emphasised hot rhythm as a subject for considered study, a suggestion common in promotional reviews as we have already seen. Record companies capitalised on this by producing more focused sub-series and albums to encourage specialist knowledge.9 HMV released their ‘Connoisseur Album of Hot Rhythm Music’ in February 1933, featuring ten sides not already released in their regular ‘Hot Rhythm’ series. In December the next year, Brunswick Records released their own ‘Short Survey of Modern Rhythm’. Enthusiasts could buy each record for the standard price of 2s. 6d., or purchase the complete album with an explanatory pamphlet for a guinea.10 These albums encouraged listeners to hear hot rhythm music as culturally significant, with a recognisable historical lineage. ‘Every hot record is a chapter in the history and evolution of hot music,’ observed Edgar Jackson of Brunswick’s ‘Short Survey’ album, ‘and when looked at as such it assumes an interest far beyond that which it has when considered merely as an isolated page torn from an unknown book.’11 Hot rhythm records were not designed for superficial enjoyment, but for considered reflection.

It is clear that hot rhythm records required a particular type of listening, one that was vital for the recognition of jazz and blues as music that warranted ‘serious’ study. Yet early British enthusiasts have often been portrayed as being overly reliant on recordings. In a 1947 issue of Harper’s Magazine, German filmmaker and jazz critic Ernest Borneman recalled his experiences of jazz appreciation in Britain as a student, highlighting what he saw as British enthusiasts’ ‘utter dependence on phonograph records’. ‘Cut off from the living music by time as well as space’, Borneman argued, ‘[the jazz fan] submits to a peculiar shift of values. The record becomes more important than the music.’12 For the collectors Borneman encountered, the act of collecting itself had become an obsession, crowding out the appreciation of what was actually on the record.

Furthermore, Borneman saw early British enthusiasts as entirely divorced from the ‘real’ circumstances of jazz’s creation and development, in the world of American live performance. It is certainly true that British enthusiasts had scant access to live jazz performed by American musicians. Although both Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong visited the UK between 1932 and 1933, by 1935 disagreements between the British Musicians’ Union and the American Federation of Musicians made visits by American musicians increasingly difficult. Given that it would be nearly two decades before these tensions eventually eased, it is tempting to think that British enthusiasts’ reliance on recordings grew out of these difficult circumstances.

Yet ‘gramomania’ – as The Gramophone prefered to call this predilection – predates American musicians’ withdrawal from British tours. If anything, hot rhythm record series actively promoted British interest in live jazz. It is no coincidence that the two most high-profile jazz musicians to tour the UK in the early 1930s – Armstrong and Ellington – were the two musicians most heavily represented in the Parlophone ‘Rhythm-Style’ and HMV ‘Hot Rhythm’ record series.

The more we dig into hot rhythm enthusiasts’ activities, the more distant these become from the popular image of the irascible record collector, concerned only with the rare and the exceptional. The pricing and promotion tactics used by Parlophone and HMV suggest that hot rhythm records were relatively easy to acquire, lending themselves to regular, habitual consumption. Likewise, hot rhythm albums were no more expensive than buying each record separately, suggesting that the ‘connoisseur’ and the average enthusiast were largely one and the same.

But perhaps most importantly, hot rhythm connoisseurs participated heavily in what we might call ‘social’ forms of music appreciation, such as concert attendance, amateur performance, and other community organised activities. The most significant of these were ‘rhythm clubs’, locally-organised meetings held in pubs, community halls or hotel bars, featuring record ‘recitals’ of the latest jazz discs. The first rhythm club was set up in 1933, and the phenomenon quickly spread across the nation. By spring 1935, there were seventy clubs in existence.13

Rhythm clubs and hot rhythm record series were intertwined. The most recent releases provided ample fuel for club debates, and there were often competitions for members to win the most sought-after discs or album collections. The growing club movement was also able to lobby record companies to release specific American records. In 1934, for instance, London’s ‘No. 1 Rhythm Club’ had successfully persuaded Brunswick to re-release several sides by Red Nichols and his Five Pennies.14

The rhythm club movement is often regarded as the first space for ‘serious’ jazz appreciation in Britain, allowing listeners to engage with the genre in a way that was less dependent on night-time entertainment. Clubs were also amongst the first producers of specialist jazz magazines like Hot News and Swing Music. But it would be wrong to think of the rhythm club as a purely intellectual arena. They often hosted live performances and jam sessions, featuring leading dance band musicians who often acted as club patrons. What is more, many club members were themselves amateur and semi-professional musicians. When the Bradford Rhythm Club was formed by local rhythm enthusiast Norman R. Hurd in August 1933, new members would soon find out that Hurd was also a keen drummer also offering his services under the guise of ‘Norman Rhodes and his Vauxhall Band.’ His regular advertisements in the Melody Maker offered ‘Bradford’s most popular band…A distinctive rhythm band composed of seven Melody Maker Contest winners.’15

The contest that Hurd was referring to was the Melody Maker’s renowned ‘dance band competitions’. These were regional and national competitions that had begun in the mid-1920s. Amateur ensembles competed for a cash prize, publicity (a write up in the Melody Maker), and the opportunity to hold a rehearsal coached by a leading professional. The contests themselves were evidently an attraction for rhythm club members, too, who both performed in them and went to listen. In November 1933, for instance, the Croydon Rhythm Club postponed its regular fortnightly meeting so that members could attend the local contest ‘en masse’.16 Hot rhythm enthusiasts – despite their studious reputation – clearly liked to dance too.

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Record series such as Parlophone’s ‘Rhythm-Style’ and HMV’s ‘Hot Rhythm’ were vitally important in bringing early jazz and blues to Britain, and helped develop new ways of hearing – and valuing – African American music. Yet, at the same time, the consumption of recorded music released through these record series successfully integrated with existing forms of amateur musical appreciation. Moreover, the history of hot rhythm music as a category of ‘dance music’ reminds us of the complex nature of British jazz history. The genre has always had its ‘purists’ and its ‘populists’, and hot rhythm records were designed to appeal to both. After World War II, the now extensive catalogue of early British releases provided pioneering researchers such as Albert McCarthy, Iain Lang, and Paul Oliver with valuable reference material, while the final Parlophone ‘Rhythm-Style’ series of the 1950s carried recordings by British ‘traditional’ jazz and skiffle performers.

It is easy to think of jazz as a uniquely ‘American’ music, its international devotees peripheral to the genre’s most important developments. This article goes some way to complicate that view. Hot rhythm record series helped create a culture of jazz appreciation that was unique to Britain. But its institutions and practices – the rhythm club, the amateur band contest, collecting, discography, and studious listening – would echo across the jazz world for decades to come.

NOTES:

  1. In this article, when not referring to a specific record series, I will refer to this style generically as ‘hot rhythm’ music.
  2. More comprehensive listings of the Parlophone ‘Rhythm-Style’ series can be found in the June 2015 [Volume 2, No.6; pp12, 14, 45, 85, 106, 110, 116] and August 2015 [Volume 3, No.1; pp20, 50] issues of this magazine. For Parlophone’s ‘Race Series’, see October 2015 [Volume 3, No.2; pp6, 10,24, 32] issue of this magazine. A comprehensive listing of the HMV ‘Hot Rhythm’ series is, to my knowledge, yet to be compiled.
  3. ‘Popular Records of 1929’, The Gramophone, January 1930.
  4. The Gramophone Review: Parlophone’, Melody Maker, November 1929, 1071.
  5. ‘[Review of B.6066]’, The catalogue of “His Master’s Voice” records up to and including November 1931 (London: The Gramophone Company, 1931).
  6. ‘Hot and New Style Records’, Melody Maker December, 1931, 1059-1060.
  7. Whiteman, Paul, ‘Paul Whiteman denies “jazz”; plays “syncopated rhythm”’, Variety, Jan. 3, 1924, 4.
  8. ‘[Review of B.6303]’, The catalogue of “His Master’s Voice” records up to and including February 1933 (London: The Gramophone Company, 1933).
  9. Again, Frank Phillips has done valuable research into some of the many Parlophone sub-series, which can be found in the June 2015 [Volume 2, No.6; pp12, 14, 45, 85, 106, 110, 116] and August 2015 [Volume 3, No.1; pp20, 50] as well as the October 2015 [Volume 3, No.2; pp6, 10,24, 32] issues of this magazine.
  10. Jackson, Edgar, ‘Dance Band and Modern Rhythmic Records’, The Gramophone, January 1935, 312-313.
  11. Jackson, Edgar, ‘Dance Band and Modern Rhythmic Records’, The Gramophone, January 1935, 312.
  12. Borneman, Ernest, ‘The Jazz Cult: Intimate Memoirs of an Acolyte’, Harper’s Magazine 194 (February 1947), 145-146.
  13. Elliott, Bill, ‘My Ideas for a Rhythm Club Federation’, Swing Music 1 (March 1935), 2.
  14. These are likely to have been BrE 01802-01806, released in July 1934, and/or BrE 01851-01856, released in October 1934.
  15. ‘[Classified Advertisements]’, Melody Maker August 19, 1933, 14
  16. ‘Rhythm Club News’, Melody Maker, November 11, 1933, 11.

Recommended Further Reading

  • Godbolt, Jim, A History of Jazz in Britain, 1919-50 (London: Northway Publications, 2010).
  • Parsonage, Catherine, The Evolution of Jazz in Britain, 1880-1935 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005).
  • Schwartz, Roberta Freund, How Britain Got The Blues: The Transmission and Reception of American Blues Style in the United Kingdom (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).

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