Literary Review: Chris Searle - Forward Groove - Jazz and the Real World from Louis Armstrong to Gilad Atzmon
Paperback Cover - Forward Groove

Chris Searle

Forward Groove - Jazz and the Real World from Louis Armstrong to Gilad Atzmon
Northway Publications, 2008

ISBN 978 09550908 7 5

Available from Amazon and other online sources and most general book stores

Date Reviewed:


Forward Groove - Jazz and the Real World from Louis Armstrong to Gilad Atzmon

Respected British (mainly educational) author and poet as well as jazz correspondent of the Morning Star newspaper Chris Searle, a devout and eclectic jazz aficionado since adolescence, fills a huge gap in jazz literature with his Forward Groove - Jazz and the Real World from Louis Armstrong to Gilad Atzmon, published by Northway Publications in 2008. This long overdue review regrettably got severely delayed due to the large amount of other material that had to be caught up with in the process of re-launching this site a year ago, and subsequently due to my sadly having mislaid my initial notes as well as having managed to lose the book. Fortunately however, I have now managed to find my initial notes as well as to borrow a pristine copy of the book from the public library to re-read.

The latter proved to be a great pleasure, if in some respects somewhat disturbing just as the first time round, for reasons that will become apparent later. Forward Groove is a highly eclectic, if personally selective, survey of recorded jazz from 1923 to 2008, 'seeking to show jazz as a commentary on the social world of some of its finest musicians'. However, Forward Groove proves to be so much more than this. At one level, Chris Searle provides the reader with the social and political background to the music, which alas all too many of its listeners choose to conveniently remain ignorant of and on which count alone Forward Groove ought to be compulsive reading for anybody who professes to love the music. At another level, this tome is also a political analysis of (recorded) jazz, usually disturbingly accurate and no doubt often discomforting to many.

Written in a fluent and fluid, almost driving as well as driven style, Chris Searle's Forward Groove - Jazz and the Real World from Louis Armstrong to Gilad Atzmon quickly becomes utterly absorbing and carries you along at a breathless pace. You may find it impossible to put this book down and may want to read it through in a day or two like myself, regardless of whether you come at it from a musical or political perspective, or both. Searle's narrative is spellbinding, and his observations and analyses are astute and piercing.

The approach taken by Searle may be described as radical or socialist, but regardless, his is the only valid approach that could have been taken to this subject. Jazz arose out of and as a response to oppression, exploitation and discrimination of the vilest kind. Factors that simply cannot be brushed aside and conveniently ignored. Jazz has been about creating beauty in the midst of unmitigated ugliness and horrendous brutality, and the best jazz still is. It has been about the preservation of art and sanity itself in totally insane conditions, finding, to paraphrase the great contemporary Israeli-born jazz artist Gilad Atzmon's sleeve notes to his 2007 album Refuge, a kind of refuge of sanity. The near-miraculousness of such beauty as jazz having been created in the midst of such ugliness is perhaps only paralleled by the creation and survival of the Eastern European Jewish klezmer musical tradition in the midst of comparable ugliness. (Indeed, the parallels are huge and striking.) But jazz has also been about political expression, be it ever so subtle or forthright, and the two have been inextricably linked. Searle, for those not previously aware of this link, exposes and examines it in some detail with his examples taken from the vast historical catalogue of recorded jazz.

Gratifyingly, Searle does not limit himself to (US) American jazz and the black American cause. Rather, he also includes, for example, Latin American, African, and Caribbean exponents, as well as the influences of and examples of Native American exponents such as Jim Pepper. Furthermore, British and European exponents of the art form and their collaborations with others are also not ignored, and Searle carries right forward to 21st century artists and political activists like Gilad Atzmon. Most gratifying in many respects is Searle's acknowledgement of the influences on both sides of the Atlantic of the West Indian jazz artists, both pre as well as post WWII. Too often, these are completely forgotten or ignored.

However, it is only right and proper that the main meat of Forward Groove should be the African American origins of jazz and the black cause in the United States. In the process, Searle inevitably provides a potted social and sociopolitical history of 20th century racism in the US and of the civil rights movement in little cameos. All too often, these cameos bring back alive the horrors of the past all too vividly, perhaps especially for someone who has either lived through them or remembers them from news coverage of the time or literature. However, this is not only unavoidable but absolutely essential in the context. Society needs reminding of these atrocities against humanity, just as much as it needs reminding of the atrocities of the holocaust. Events like these must never be allowed to be forgotten.

Not, of course, that mere remembrance has ever prevented repetitions of past horrors. As Searle rightfully reminds us - if indeed we need reminding, though many perhaps do - the ugliness of racism in all its various forms and shades, of discrimination, exploitation, oppression and inequity and injustice is still very much with us in the 21st century. And as long as oppression, injustice, exploitation, inequity, discrimination and racism are with us, jazz will always have something to say politically.

Searle aims to show that this political force in jazz carried right through past the 1960s and 70s to the present. Personally, I always felt that, roughly post Coltrane, the political aspect waned and started to either lack real conviction or sincerity, became a commercial commodity, or became lost - despite very vocal expression - in the often simply overwhelming unattractiveness of the music, or a combination of any of these. However, that is my opinion, and perhaps the one area where mine differs from that of the author. For me, the political force of jazz only really came alive again with Gilad Atzmon in the first decade of the 21st century. Atzmon is not only very vocal and explicit about his politics but translates his political motivations, his anger, pain and anguish, into beautiful music, music that is like a beautiful flower growing on the ugly rubbish dump of oppression and injustice, music that however still is valid and beautiful even if the politics are ignored.

In the context of Atzmon, and given the subtitle of Jazz and the Real World from Louis Armstrong to Gilad Atzmon, I must confess to being somewhat mystified by Searle's having chosen to devote nearly a third of his introduction, some eight pages, to Forward Groove to Atzmon and then make little more reference to him in the main body of the work. Most of what was covered in relation to Atzmon in the introduction surely ought to belong in the body of Forward Groove. Also somewhat mystifying is Searle's omission of reference to Atzmon's 2006 album, Gilad Atzmon Presents Artie Fishel And The Promised Band. Although this album might be described as an exercise in fun and musical comedy, the comedy is very black indeed and subtly political. (So subtle and so satirical, it seems to have been completely lost on most reviewers.)

One minor niggle I might have with this book is that it could have benefited from more careful proof-reading. Some of the typos and even a few grammatical or syntax errors can get a bit irritating. Having said that, I have seen a lot worse in recent years.

Chris Searle's Forward Groove - Jazz and the Real World from Louis Armstrong to Gilad Atzmon is a compelling read and a must-read for any true lover of jazz. It is refreshing in its objectivity, even if the selection of music had to be a personal, subjective one and one that perhaps you might not personally agree with. Nonetheless, I feel the selection is an excellent one and certainly more than sufficiently eclectic and representative, and given the vast catalogue of recorded jazz the selection would not have been an easy one. Forward Groove ought to be in anybody's library who appreciates music, period, and also would make a valuable addition for anybody with more than a passing interest in social and political history of the 20th century and particularly the history of the American civil rights movement, to which jazz is inextricably linked.

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