R. Kinsella: The Bebop Scene in London's Soho, 1945–1950

The Bebop Scene in London's Soho, 1945–1950. Post-war Britain's First Youth Subculture

Kinsella, Ray
Palgrave Studies in the History of Subcultures and Popular Music
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XV, 275 S.
€ 117,69
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Jacob Bloomfield, Zukunftskolleg / Department of Literature, Art and Media Studies, University of Konstanz

Ray Kinsella’s book, which is based on his PhD thesis, sheds light on the dimly lit British bebop scene of the mid-to-late 1940s and early 1950s. It gently disproves misconceptions about beboppers and the milieu they created. Kinsella convincingly argues that the British bebop scene was not a pale (meaning, in this case, inferior and all-white) imitation of the American original. Yes, British bebop drew from American music and fashion, but it also produced its own distinct music, aesthetics, and industry (pp. 74–75, 95, 240). British bebop was multi-ethnic and multi-racial, Kinsella claims, pointing out that it included musicians and fans from white British and white ethnic backgrounds as well as Black musicians and fans from Britain, the Caribbean, the U.S., and West Africa (p. 211). According to Kinsella, British bebop must also be understood within its own distinct cultural context. The backlash against British bebop, which involved the musical style being excluded from BBC programming and police raids of bebop venues, reflected cultural anxieties around race, immigration, empire, drugs, youth, cultural taste, Americanisation, gender, and sexuality that were in many respects particular to post-Second World War Britain, as the book proposes. The book further argues that the ways in which beboppers distinguished themselves from mainstream British society, with bebop scene members having their own unique customs, language, dress, and music, as well as how outsiders identified beboppers as a distinct group, set the tone for how subsequent twentieth-century subcultures would be developed and discussed by insiders and external observers alike.

The Bebop Scene in London’s Soho is composed of six chapters. The chapter that follows the introduction (counted as Chapter Two) offers a historical sketch of Soho from 1800 to 1945, largely covering well-charted terrain for cultural historians of Britain. While useful for readers unfamiliar with this history, the chapter sometimes paints an uncritical, overly romanticised portrait of the area as a carnivalesque, cosmopolitan utopia. Thankfully, Kinsella offers a more nuanced cultural history of Soho in later chapters, such as when he covers the racist policing of the area’s bebop venues.

The book hits its stride in Chapter Three, where Kinsella traces the genesis of the bebop scene in Britain. This is not an easy task given that the very definition of bebop has been debated from its inception. For example, saxophonist Charlie Parker argued that bebop constituted a musical style that was distinct from jazz, whereas trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie called bebop “an interpretation of jazz” (pp. 50–52). Kinsella’s forays into musicology are clear enough for non-specialists to digest. Here, as in other chapters, he highlights where Britain’s bebop scene was distinct from its American counterpart. For instance, British companies that produced bebop records, like the Esquire label, did not merely repackage American music for British listeners, but issued music by “homegrown” artists as well (p. 74). Other important themes Kinsella introduces in this chapter are the racial and ethnic diversity that was evident in the British bebop scene and the emergence of negative sentiments towards bebop, such as the BBC’s conscious exclusion of bebop from its Jazz Club programme (pp. 89, 97–98).

Chapter Four explores the sartorial side of British bebop. Kinsella establishes that, while the American bebop scene clearly influenced the British one in terms of fashion, aspects of the British bebop aesthetic should be analysed within their own separate cultural and historical context. This chapter includes a range of effective primary source material, from reports in Melody Maker magazine to an interview Kinsella conducted with esteemed stylist and costume designer Roger Burton. Kinsella’s argument that bebop fashions such as the zoot suit represented a conspicuous counterpoint to the ubiquitous post-war demob suit, and with it the contemporary regime of rationing, is especially intriguing and astute (pp. 107, 122). Also notable is how this chapter carefully traces the spread of bebop fashions beyond Soho to other parts of London and the rest of Britain (pp. 140–145). Kinsella observes that inquisitive youths from London’s suburbs who ventured into Soho’s bebop venues started emulating the fashions of the beboppers they saw there and were inspired to organise bebop nights of their own in areas outside of Soho, such as Tottenham (p. 143). By early 1951, bebop fashions could be seen across England, sometimes causing consternation among the establishment. For example, a North Yorkshire military regiment banned its personnel from wearing bebop fashions whether they were on or off duty (p. 144–145).

Chapter Five examines police raids of bebop clubs in Soho. Kinsella shows, firstly, that drug use was genuinely a quotidian element of the bebop scene and argues, secondly, that observers’ objections against this practice masked deeper anxieties, particularly anxieties about sex between Black men and white women. To contextualise this topic, Kinsella provides a deft overview of the history of miscegenation fears in Britain (pp. 173–187). The chapter also contains a concise and instructive synopsis of the history of drug regulation in modern Britain (pp. 169–173).

Chapter Six illuminates the decline of the bebop scene, the trajectory of jazz music in Soho after 1950, and how the bebop scene presaged subsequent subcultures like the rock'n'roll-oriented youth cultures of the 1950s and 1960s. Bebop set a precedent for later subcultures, for example, in its fascination with Black culture from the U.S. and the Caribbean; a trend also seen in subcultures such as the skinheads. Meanwhile, the manner in which the media and other external observers discussed bebop, such as by framing the subculture in terms of youth delinquency, drug use, and ridiculous aesthetics, was used as a blueprint for the way outsiders talked about subcultures from that point on. In this way, Kinsella claims British bebop to have been the first post-war youth subculture.

Chapter Seven discusses the bebop scene with reference to earlier theories about subcultures. The chapter serves to justify why the post-war British bebop scene should be perceived and discussed as a subculture. Kinsella argues that the bebop scene featured the important trappings of a subculture as identified by cultural scholars like Dick Hebdige and Patrick Williams, such as its members having a distinct appearance, resistance against the mainstream, and a racial and/or ethnic component. In fitting the bebop scene into “classic models of subculture”, Kinsella dismisses the notion that it can be categorised using a postmodern label such as “neo-tribe” (p. 249). The chapter reads like the work of a PhD candidate covering their bases in preparation for a viva, as the book even refers to itself as a “thesis” here (p. 244). The book’s conclusion provides an overview of its main arguments and helpfully brings up potential studies that might use The Bebop Scene in London’s Soho as a springboard; for instance, a study of the late-1980s acid house subculture.

The Bebop Scene in London’s Soho is an authoritative text on a neglected subject in British cultural history. While its main focus is on a short-lived subculture in a single area of London, the book uses it as an entry point to explore wider topics, such as histories of fashion, race, gender, and trans-Atlantic cultural exchange, which are of interest to a greater number of cultural historians of Britain and beyond.

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