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What is Black British Jazz Project

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The What is Black British Jazz (BBJ) project explores the music, culture and economy of the jazz made by black British musicians since the arrival of jazz in the UK around 1920.

This music has contributed enormously to British musical and cultural life, while also reflecting  structural problems of racism and social inequality that have persisted over the years. In an important sense, our research suggests that black British jazz heralds a creative, multicultural Britain, a Britain which is yet to be fully realised. The fissues and tensions at stake here have find creative expression in the extraordinary work of black British jazz musicians. Indeed, as we have documented in our recordings of performances, black British musicians by turns embrace, entrance and unsettle their audiences. Their music making is informed by a huge range of influences from US bebop to Jamaican ska.

Project aims and research questions

What is Black British Jazz?  It is a research project based at The Open University which was active from 2009 to 2011. Funded by the Beyond Text programme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, its aim was to investigate the nature and significance of jazz made by black musicians in Britain.

We weren’t sure at the start how far this would be a matter of simply charting individual musical contributions, or identifying something more substantial , perhaps a black British jazz (BBJ) tradition or genre.  In fact, our investigations suggested that black British jazz was a rich, complex and sometimes paradoxical phenomenon.

This website gives a flavour of the research process, and of our findings.

Themes and researchers

The research was organised into three themes, each led by a member of the project team: Routes, Ownership and Performance. There are also cross-theme investigations which emerged through the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of the research process.

The core team based at The Open University consisted of:

Dr Jason Toynbee, Principal Investigator, Sociology Department

Dr Mark Banks, Co-Investigator (Ownership), Sociology Department  (now Professor of Culture and Communication, Leicester University)

Dr Mark Doffman, Research Fellow, Sociology (now Research Fellow, Faculty of Music, University of Oxford)

Dr Byron Dueck, Co-Investigator (Performance), Music Department

Dr Catherine Tackley, Co-Investigator (Routes), Music Department

Dr Linda Wilks, Research Associate, OU Business School

Visiting scholars included:

Dr Nathan Bakkum, Columbia College, Chicago

Dr Ken Bilby, Center for Black Music Research (now University of Colorado)

Contributing to the project as authors were:

Dr George Burrows, University of Portsmouth

Professor George Mackay, Salford University (now University of East Anglia)

Mr Howard Rye, independent scholar

Dr Justin Williams, Bristol University


Right from the start, the project depended on active engagement with musicians and others involved in producing or documenting jazz. The partners we worked with most (though they bear no responsibility for any of the output) are Dune Music and their Tomorrow’s Warriors training arm – CEO, Janine Irons and Artistic Director, Gary Crosby. Tomorrow’s Warriors became the focus for an important, emerging strand of research, namely on BBJ and music education. See the podcast Learning to Groove.

Mykaell Riley of Westminster University and founder member of Steel Pulse also made his wealth of knowledge about black music in Britain available to us. Finally we need to mention archive partners, the British Library and Center for Black Music Research, Chicago. Both have taken our sound recordings and interview transcripts, and are in the process of cataloguing them so as at make them available for researchers worldwide.