Circular Breathing

The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain

Circular Breathing

Book Pages: 376 Illustrations: 36 b&w photos Published: November 2005

Author: George McKay

History > European History, Music > Jazz, Theory and Philosophy > Race and Indigeneity

In Circular Breathing, George McKay, a leading chronicler of British countercultures, uncovers the often surprising ways that jazz has accompanied social change during a period of rapid transformation in Great Britain. Examining jazz from the founding of George Webb’s Dixielanders in 1943 through the burgeoning British bebop scene of the early 1950s, the Beaulieu Jazz Festivals of 1956–61, and the improvisational music making of the 1960s and 1970s, McKay reveals the connections of the music, its players, and its subcultures to black and antiracist activism, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, feminism, and the New Left. In the process, he provides the first detailed cultural history of jazz in Britain.

McKay explores the music in relation to issues of whiteness, blackness, and masculinity—all against a backdrop of shifting imperial identities, postcolonialism, and the Cold War. He considers objections to the music’s spread by the “anti-jazzers” alongside the ambivalence felt by many leftist musicians about playing an “all-American” musical form. At the same time, McKay highlights the extraordinary cultural mixing that has defined British jazz since the 1950s, as musicians from Britain’s former colonies—particularly from the Caribbean and South Africa—have transformed the genre. Circular Breathing is enriched by McKay’s original interviews with activists, musicians, and fans and by fascinating images, including works by the renowned English jazz photographer Val Wilmer. It is an invaluable look at not only the history of jazz but also the Left and race relations in Great Britain.


Circular Breathing is painstakingly well documented with copious references, including a myriad of personal interviews with activists, musicians, and fans. Through this long journey, many fascinating stories and unexpected facts are revealed, while a host of questions, contradictions, and paradoxes are explored.” — Robert Rawlins, Notes

“Essential to Solidarity readers interested in music. . . .” — Workers' Liberty

“[I]mpressive and provocative. . . . [A]n important contribution both to British jazz history and to British cultural history” — Dave Laing, Popular Music History

“George McKay's book plugs a significant scholarly gap and provides a much-needed cultural history of jazz in Britain. . . . This book is a hugely impressive, detailed, and fascinating cultural history of jazz in Britain and should be recommended not only to cultural historians but also to historians of the Cold War, the British Left, and those interested in race relations and national identity in twentieth-century Britain.” — James J. Nott, American Historical Review

“McKay has written an excellent study of one of the many new cultures and cultural spaces of postwar England. His emphasis on space and culture, gender and space, and race and identity make this a strong work well worth the time to read. . . . [H]is book places the playing and study of jazz music in clear class terms as few scholars have before him.” — Gordon J. Marshall, Journal of British Studies

“McKay manifests that crucial characteristic associated with the best research, a readiness to be surprised and puzzled at what he discovers. . . . The larger value of his study is . . . the incisive analysis of the way context creates the meaning and function of text.” — Bruce Johnson, Arena Journal

“This is a fascinating study. . .” — K.R. Dietrich, Choice

“This well-written, witty, and highly original book addresses topics not previously given much thought in print.” — Lewis Porter, International History Review

"Moving and stimulating. . . . McKay states that his goal has been "to refigure British jazz history to more comprehensively include its ideological assumptions and actions". He has succeeded . . . " — Julian Cowley, The Wire

"As a British cultural historian. . ., George McKay is the real deal: the book demonstrates the remarkable reach and relevance of this school of criticism. . . . [T]his book becomes massive in its scope." — Richard C. Taylor, Altar Magazine

"It is only by reading Circular Breathing, George McKay's skillful examination of race relations, gender issues, and the Left in relation to British jazz, that we can understand why British jazz wasn't at the center of the European free-jazz revolution. . . . [V]aluable and imaginative scholarship." — Stephanie Hanson, Bookforum

"The title could mean that the book is long-winded, but it is not! George McKay has assembled a vast amount of documentation to give us a history of Jazz in Britain. . . . [A] fascinating book! Highly recommended." — Lawrence Brazier, Jazz Now

"This is a book that has been waiting to be written for some time. . . . [McKay] has trawled through an impressive amount of jazz literature, and propounds some stimulating thoughts about why jazz has always been a counterculture in Britain." — Alyn Shipton, Jazzwise

Circular Breathing is a marvelous book. I admire George McKay’s knowledge of jazz, the British left, and cultural history. His ability to blend those elements is to my knowledge unique and unprecedented, and his interviews with jazz musicians enrich immeasurably the story that he is telling.” — Dennis Dworkin, author of Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, the New Left, and the Origins of Cultural Studies

Circular Breathing is quite simply the best book so far on jazz in Britain. George McKay acts as a cultural archaeologist, digging up traces of a ninety-year musical presence and writing them back into history. He comments acutely on a music which can be peripheral and exclusive but which he rightly sees as vital to the story of Britain’s social and political evolution.” — Andrew Blake, author of The Land without Music: Music, Culture, and Society in Twentieth-Century Britain


Availability: In stock
Price: $28.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

George McKay is a professor of cultural studies at the University of Salford in England. He is the author of Glastonbury: A Very English Fair and Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties; the editor of DiY Culture: Party & Protest in Nineties Britain; and a coeditor of Community Music: A Handbook and Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural, and Political Protest.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction: Jazz, Europe, Americanization 1

1. New Orleans Jazz, Protest (Aldermaston), and Carnival (Beaulieu) 45

2. Whiteness and (British) Jazz 87

3. Jazz of the Black Atlantic and the Commonwealth 129

4. The Politics and Performance of Improvisation and Contemporary Jazz in the 1960s and 1970s 191

5. From "Male Music" to Feminist Improvising 243

Conclusion 297

Notes 305

Bibliography 333

Index 349
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3573-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3560-3
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