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Back-Beats And Rimshots - The Introduction Of Ska-Jazz

No one can accurately say when jazz was first played in Jamaica, however our pioneer musicians are somewhat unimous in their opinion, that jazz came through the introduction of the radio, at the beginning of the second world war. Duke Ellington, Count Bassie, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Bennie Goodman were the hot steppers of Swing.

Another popular form of jazz was labeled “Bee-Bop’ that featured the likes of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Louie Jordon, an Italian trumpet Player named Louie Prima who along with a saxophonist named Sam Butera and his band the witnesses were simply amazing on stage. Other top Bee-Bop musicians included Rasco Gordon, Bill Doget, Professor Longhair and Huey Piano –Smith, most of these musicians were based in New Orleans.

Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong
Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong

Their music ruled the dancehalls and clubs across the United States, and reached Jamaican musicians through imported, and locally produced sheet music that was transcribed from the jazz and Bee-Bop hits of the day. Jazz was on the move in Jamaica with an appreciative audience of hard core fans, that were present at every reputable jazz session.

Band leaders such as Sonny Bradshaw, Eric Deans, Milton McPherson, Ken Williams, Cecil Lloyd, Roy White and Bertie King, delivered many memorable sessions at established venues such as, the Glass Bucket Club in Half Way Tree, The Wicky Wacky Beach Club in Bull Bay, The Club Havana in Rockfort and at Champion House located at the corner of Maxfield Avenue and Lyndhurst Road in Kingston.

These jazz sessions were memorable, as musicians surpassed their own expectations, delivering mind blowing solos, deft improvisations and mesmerizing chord progressions. It was at these jam sessions that the first seeds of Jazz Jamaican style were sown, with musicians such as Dizzy Reece, Tommy McCook, Little G. Gaynir, Bra-Gaynir, Baba Motta, Sonny Bradshaw and trombonist Von Muller established Jamaica in the 1940s as the jazz mecca of the english speaking Caribbean.

In the United States it was a different story, there were numerous obstacles that included segregated venues, that kept black jazz musicians from performing in some cities, towns, clubs, hotels and concert halls.

The 1940s was indeed the dark ages for progressive black music and musicians, as rampant and widespread racism kept showing its ugly and unprogressive face at every available opportunity.

Benny Goodman the great clarinet player popularized a strain of pure jazz that emulated the soul stirring style of black folks. Obviously this impacted on both black and white audiences, and like wildfire gained widespread appeal and popularity. On realising the tremendous impact the music was having on both black and white jazz enthusiast, Mr. Goodman cashed in, thus becoming the first white bandleader to lead an integrated jazz band, that included greats such as Gene Kruppa (drums), Lionel Hampton (vibraphone) and Harry James.

Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman must be credited with breaking down many racist and draconian barriers throughout the United States and Europe, which in his opinion were racist obstacles, that were specifically designed to limit black jazz expressions.

Another jazz icon that impacted on Jamaican musicians was Dizzy Gillespie who was considered second to none in creativity, and who consistently took jazz to new and unimaginable dimensions. A consummate showman, ”Diz” freed jazz from its harmonic straight jacket, and opened the door for creative expressions, along with revolutionary style arrangements and intricate harmonic structures.


There is no doubt that Gillispie’s music had tremendous impact on not only Jamaican musicians, but on musicians throughout the Caribbean, especially those who were in search of something new and challenging. His music and style provided both the challenge and inspiration for serious jazz musicians black and white, regardless of where they resided on planet earth.

With the turn of the 1960s it became evident that jazz did not have the mass appeal, to fully support the core of Jamaican musicians that were playing their hearts out just for the love of jazz. The need to support their families forced our top musicians to migrate to the UK and the US in search of work.

Interestingly “SKA” music and the inimitable “Skatalites” had emerged, their music was up-tempo, razor-sharp and crackling with excitement. Although jazzy in parts, it was dance music at its best, and maintained a commercial appeal instead of sentimental or moody arrangements.

Although predominantly instrumental, the political, social and religious issues of the day were highlighted in the title of the tunes. "Fidel Castro" was in reference to the historic Cuban Revolution of 1959 that disposed of the dictator Batista, Lee Harvey Oswald the man that assassinated U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963, had an instrumental condemning his actions, and “Addis Ababa” the capital city of Ethiopia reflected the religious sentiments of Rastafarians, in regards to their Emperor, King and devine leader Haile Selassie the 1st.

The Skatalites
The Skatalites

The Skatalites were exceptionally gifted musicians who were literally light years ahead of most of their counterparts. The group’s musicians were also steeped in jazz, with the late Tommy McCook (tenor) Lester Sterling (tenor) Lloyd Knibs (drums) Lloyd Brevet (bass) Dizzy Johnny More (trumpet) the late Jackie Mittoo (piano) the late Jackie Opel (vocalist), Doreen Schefer (vocalist and still with the band) Lord Tanamo (Vocalist) and the late great Don Drummond (trombone). The group was responsible for creating an authentic and truly an indigenous Jamaican music form, that has stood the test of time.

The Skatalites as a performing unit played together for just one year, but during that period they recorded scores of hits, that are still being played around the world. "Eastern Standard Time", "Addis Ababa", "Don Cosmic" and "Trotting In" are classics that have established both Jamaican music and musicians as among the most creative on planet earth.

As session musicians the Skatalites were responsible for ninety percent of all the hits that came out of Coxsone Dodd’s "Studio One" Recording Studio in Kingston. The Wailers "Simmer Down", The Maytals "Never Grow Old", Jackie Opel "Welcome You Back home” and Justin Hinds and the Dominoes "Carry Go Bring Come" are just few of the all time classics that is a part of their musical legacy.

There were other groups that also made outstanding contributions in the development of early Jamaican music such as "Carlos Malcolm and his Afro–Jamaican Rhythms". The band was seen as an incredible and gifted Afro-jazz, Ska and Mento aggregation, that had a large following. The band played predominantly at the "Sombrero Club" on Molynes Road on weekends. The band’s former MC radio personality Winston "The Whip" Williams is still active on Jamaican radio.

Today Jamaican and Caribbean musicians in general, have brought about a new and revolutionary approach to jazz. This has come about with the coming into being of a Caribbean jazz season. The season starts in January with the "Barbados Jazz Festival". This festival stands out as being a true reflection of a jazz event, with emphasis placed on the caliber of international jazz artists invited to perform each year, along with the best the Caribbean has to offer.

The festival has also impacted on ‘Bajans’ giving birth to a number of interesting jazz related events. These include the "Barbados Pan Festival" which is jazz fused, and is refreshingly different. There are also mini jazz shows that are staged throughout Barbados. Spring Jazz, Young Jazz and November Jazz says in no uncertain terms that jazz is truly alive and kicking in Barbados.

The "Air Jamaica Jazz And Blues Festival" also in January delivers a wide cross section of acts and music forms. Sprinkled with jazz and blues acts, the music festival places emphasis on those artists that are established crowd favorites. Over the years the festival has played an important role in promoting jazz and blues both in Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean. This has resulted in heightened awareness of jazz, especially by the rhythm sensitive and curious generation, who appear to be interested in, and are particularly appreciative of the fusion dubbed "Jazz Reggae".

The jazz festivals continue to grow, with the Barbados, Air Jamaica Jazz And Blues and the St. Lucia Jazz Festivals being declared the premier jazz events in the Caribbean. The organizers have ushered in an amalgamated sound, immersed in the rhythms of the Caribbean Basin. These unique jazz festivals has added new excitement, to the regions tourism product.

Cutting edge sounds along with the back–beats and rim-shots found in "Jazz Reggae", has revolutionized the sound of jazz. Latin, Afro-Cuban, jazz fused hip-hop and other world music expressions, have also been intricately fused, and presented to ever growing international and beat conscious audiences. As the audiences gets bigger and more diverse, it will be much more difficult for promoters to present hard core jazz festivals.

Thus the reality is if the man in the street can identify with two or three acts, weather they be Jazz, Blues, R&B, Reggae, Afro Cuban or Country, they will support the event. The bottom line is without crowd support, jazz and music festivals in general will be almost non-existent.


Extract from forthcoming book by T."Boots" Harris. © 2007.