wax Poetics
A scene from the Toxteth Riots in Liverpool, England, July 8, 1981. Photo via Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

WAKE UP THE CITY

During racial and social turmoil in England—an unrest that exploded in the ’81 riots—a burgeoning music scene began bubbling over, displacing the white scene of Northern soul with a Black British movement of jazz-funk and creating in the process tiny islands within the Isles where racial unity and Black empowerment could thrive. DJ and music historian Greg Wilson details this layered story that begins as specialists took to fresh U.S. imports like Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, ultimately leading to homegrown U.K. acts like Light of the World and Incognito creating their own spin on the sound. The scene made an impact far afield of London Town, stretching to all corners of the U.K., with its influence lasting well into the late-’80s and early ’90s with the birth of acid jazz and the rebirth of Incognito. With the recent release of Gilles Peterson and Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick’s masterstroke, STR4TA’s Aspects, coupled with the importance of social justice concerns in the new decade, the time is now to document this misunderstood and crucial era of England’s homegrown music history.

published online
Originally published in Digital Content
By Greg Wilson

Preface

Brit-funk (also Brit funk and Britfunk) is nowadays the retrospective catchall term for Black British recordings of the late ’70s and early ’80s. With greater attention being focused on this under-documented area, as DJs re-edit and reintroduce it to contemporary dance floors and collectors mine the margins of its output, there’s a growing appetite to understand how, and in what environment, this music originally emerged.

From Junior (aka Norman Giscombe), an archetypal Brit-funk artist, who blew up big both in the U.K. and Stateside, to, at the opposite end of the early ’80s pendulum, someone like Rick Clarke, whose debut single, “Potion,” never amounted to more than the limited promo pressings that are nowadays much sought-after, Brit-funk, in its various guises, was British Black music in pursuit of self-determination.

There’s no way you can tell the Brit-funk story without outlining the U.K. jazz-funk scene (or British jazz-funk scene) with its largely U.S. dominated playlist. Brit-funk is born of jazz-funk and was originally a marketing term first used by media/record companies in 1980, but not so much by DJs. There were no Brit-funk nights, or, to any recollection I have, clubs advertising Brit-funk as part of their music policy. This was never a stand-alone subgenre as such but absorbed within the wider jazz-funk palette. These were British bands, including both Black and white musicians, aspiring to be played in the same clubs that featured the latest Black American imports. It was achieving this objective that provided their initial impetus and inspiration.

Part 1: High Tension

Wax poetics

Layers

Last September, a limited-run, hand-stamped white-label 12-inch briefly became available. The dried ink spelled out STR4★TA—the music harkening back forty years to the much misunderstood and sometimes maligned U.K. jazz-funk scene and its subsequent Brit-funk mutation. Alongside the British reggae offshoot lovers rock, this U.K. response to the funk/jazz merger U.S. musicians had embraced in the 1970s represents a defining period for Black music in the U.K., highlighting a road fraught with many twists and turns.

Copies of this mysterious record sold out under their own steam, at which point it was revealed that the duo behind this track, “Aspects,” was none other than Incognito main man Jean-Paul Maunick, better known as Bluey, produced in collaboration with famed London-based DJ and radio presenter Gilles Peterson. The track was released on Peterson’s Brownswood label, which he’s run for the past sixteen years; his legacy within the record industry stretches back into the late ’80s with the Acid Jazz label and on into the early ’90s with Talkin’ Loud.

The “Aspects” 12-inch was a prelude for an album of the same name, released in March 2021, which sounds and feels as retro-fresh and evocative as its accompanying Robert Gallagher artwork suggests (Gallagher is another old friend, from the group Galliano, who were on the Acid Jazz label). It also lands at a point where a reassessment of British Black music of the late ’70s and early ’80s is in progress—this era having never received its proper dues, although the Joey Negro/Dave Lee Backstreet Brit Funk compilations on Z Records have excavated some of its output in two volumes to date, in 2010 and 2018.

Gilles, nowadays to be found running Worldwide FM, which he launched in 2016, is a DJ in a category all of his own—his never-ceasing quest to unearth uplifting, inspiring, and challenging music, wherever in the world he might find it, coupled with an ability, despite his commercial successes, to always remain essentially underground, affords him a unique status and respect.

Wax poetics

Bluey as a musician and producer is best known as the leader of U.K. jazz-funk group Incognito, a music collective of fluid membership that first came to underground attention in 1980, experiencing a major crossover success eleven years on. A band that’s garnered international acclaim for its live shows, Incognito has released eighteen studio albums in all—the guitarist, like Gilles, is recognized as a bona fide British jazz icon.

There’d be a decade-long hiatus between Incognito’s first album, 1981’s Jazz Funk and its follow-up, Inside Life. Their return came on the back of the acid-jazz genre, which fermented in the atmosphere of London’s mid- to late-’80s rare groove movement. Gilles, who’d founded the Acid Jazz label in 1987 with Eddie Piller, applying a hip-hop aesthetic to jazz, left to set up Talkin’ Loud in 1990 and scored big the following year, revitalizing Incognito on releasing a timely update of “Always There,” one of the formative jazz-funk cuts, first recorded as a Ronnie Laws and Pressure instrumental in 1975 before Side Effect’s version the following year added lyrics. (Another well-received instrumental jazz-funk version, this time by Willie Bobo, was issued in ’78.)

Bluey remembers that Gilles had immediately arranged a studio session on hearing Incognito perform the track live at one of the early Southport Weekenders in 1991. Unfortunately, the vocalist they’d been working with had to call out sick, but Gilles pulled a sizable rabbit out of the hat in securing the services of former New York disco diva Jocelyn Brown, who happened to be over in London that weekend. Incognito drew from the Side Effect template and conjured up a monster club hit, mixed by David Morales, that soon captured mainstream attention, climbing to #6 on the U.K. chart.

Wax poetics
Wax poetics

Tribal Vibes

Even at this point in the early ’90s, there was a whole prior history that had led up to this juncture, including Bluey’s own origins with the pioneering U.K. jazz-funksters Light of the World. To excavate this story, we need to rewind to the late-’70s emergence of a youth subculture dedicated to dance music a decade before the acid-house explosion. Its role was not only key to the continued evolution of club culture in the U.K., and consequently elsewhere, but also to British culture in general, for jazz-funk crucially provided a haven where for the first time in roughly equal numbers, Black and white youth came together in an atmosphere of inclusivity. Much of London presented an unwelcome or outright hostile environment for Black people in the ’70s. The jazz-funk scene provided a refuge for those wanting to step outside their immediate surroundings, where they could put aside the harsh realities of daily life and get down to the serious business of dancing.

It was “a very, very divided and very angry and violent London,” Bluey recalls. Having come to the U.K. from his birthplace in Mauritius when he was nine years old, he immediately experienced the overt racism that was an everyday factor of living in Britain. “Me and my mum would go from door to door on Caledonian Road, trying to see if we can get a place for my sister, myself, and my mum. We were looking for a room to live in and most of the doors already had a sign saying ‘No Blacks, no dogs, no Pakis, no Irish,’ you know? The woman would say, ‘Can’t you read the sign?’ And my mum would say, ‘Oh what, what category?’ You know, my mum was thinking we had to come into a category.” Although his mother may have been naively confused by the scorn she faced, the situation was crystal clear to Bluey, despite his tender years. “I’d say, ‘Mum, Mum, it’s not for us, it’s just not for us.’”

A still from a 1969 government film about the 1968 Race Relations Act, which outlawed racial discrimination for employers and landlords.
A still from a 1969 government film about the 1968 Race Relations Act, which outlawed racial discrimination for employers and landlords.

The hazards of inner-city life aside, venturing outside of the city presented its own perils. “People would be, like, staring at us,” says Bluey, recalling being on the road with his band. “We’d go to the seaside towns to do Light of the World gigs, you know, pack up the van and go and do a gig, and people would throw stones at us and throw stones through the windows while we’re playing, you know? Because there were white boys with Black girls and Black boys with white girls, and they really hated it. They even wrote little messages on the stones and threw them inside. It’s like we were being stoned, you know? It is madness, but that was the journey.”

Just driving a car would make you an immediate target of day-to-day police harassment, purely, as Bluey and so many others experienced, as a matter of course. “There was the whole ‘sus law’ and everything,” he recalls of the British version of “stop and frisk.” The so-called “sus law” (named for “suspected person”) allowed police to stop, search, and arrest people simply on grounds of suspicion that they had committed a crime or were vagrants. It was widely used as a tool of racial harassment. “The fact that there were Black faces with a car, you know. Black youths did not have cars, so suddenly the police was questioning every time… ‘The boys in blue are watching you,’” Bluey recollects, quoting one of Light of the World’s song titles.

Enforced by the songs and slogans of their youth, Bluey’s generation, with a strong sense of pride, identified as Black. There had been “Black Is Beautiful,” “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and perhaps most pertinent of all from a British perspective, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” the last better known as a Nina Simone composition in the States; but the version forever beloved in the U.K. was by Jamaican duo Bob and Marcia, who took “Young, Gifted and Black” high into the pop charts as the ’70s began. Marcia Griffiths would, later in the decade, take her place among the I-Threes, the hallowed backing vocalists who accompanied Bob Marley, more prophet than pop star, not least to youngsters of West Indian descent dealing with their daily dose of Babylon in Britain.

Many of these kids had come from the Caribbean when they were small, and an ever-growing number swelled the ranks of British-born. It should also be remembered that the Black British population wasn’t just composed of those who are now collectively referred to as the post–World War II “Windrush Generation,” but also included many people of African heritage, some who could trace their family back centuries in the U.K. Unified under a common cause, this self-determined and multifaceted Black British community was still, until the ’81 riots, deemed “coloured” in the corridors of the powers that be, the country’s colonial roots both evident and deeply entwined in a system continually stacked against minorities.

In the aftermath of the 1981 Brixton Riots, residents walk past a burnt-out pub after the second night of unrest, April 13, 1981. Photo via Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
In the aftermath of the 1981 Brixton Riots, residents walk past a burnt-out pub after the second night of unrest, April 13, 1981. Photo via Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

One Step to a Miracle

On the opposite side of the spectrum, barriers were being broken down at a rapid pace within club spaces, a shared love of music overriding any racial dynamic. If you were a white kid who loved Black music, the very idea of being prejudiced against Black people seemed somewhat absurd, let alone abhorrent, and fortunately there were a great many white kids in the U.K. obsessed with Black music, and consequently Black culture. In terms of multiculturalism, this was Britain’s saving grace. It was a time, it must be remembered, that many British football teams had yet to field a Black player, let alone there be one playing for the country; and the pioneers of this era faced the most savage abuse both from the terraces and on the pitch. The acceptance of racism in the stadium was a stark symbol of wider society—the herd mentality making racists of young people who’d never met a Black person in their lives, while much of their World War–weary parents’ generation, largely a lost cause, remained stuck in their racialist ways and craving an empire lost.

“That whole jazz-funk movement, when it happened, was, for me, the first time all that had broken down and we were in a place where we were changing the world,” Bluey observes. “We were running with white kids, you know, and Black kids. And, to me, that was a massive healing from where I’d come from.”

Some parts of the scene had a majority Black audience, some majority white, but always a crossover, further facilitated by the All-Dayer, a mainstay of the scene, which, with its lineups of DJs from different regions and cities, each drawing on their own crowds, who further cross-pollinated via their willingness to travel between cities to see the right DJ.

“The right DJ” was a Black-music specialist playing the latest U.S. imports. Their stock-in-trade was to be “up-front,” which meant that what they played today, other DJs played next week, next month, or never. The hierarchy was set out in this manner, with the premier DJs playing the All-Dayers because they were able to pull the biggest crowds. Aspiring DJs earning their spurs at a club level had to always keep ahead of the curve with the tunes they played to get anywhere near this top table.

Wax poetics

Changin’

It was between ’76 and ’78 that the term jazz-funk really began to circulate and stick. Like any new scene, it began with a trickle of tracks. Herbie Hancock’s fifteen-minute opus “Chameleon” from his 1973 Head Hunters LP, the first jazz album to sell over a million copies, was seminal, inspiring other musicians to go off on their own groove-based odyssey. Tracks like 1974’s “Stomp and Buck Dance” by the Crusaders and 1975’s “Sneakin’ Up Behind You” by the Brecker Brothers would also pick up club play. Running parallel to the New York disco era, a whole array of jazz artists began to garner underground attention on the various specialist “funk nights” up and down the U.K., with names like Lonnie Liston Smith, Donald Byrd, the Blackbyrds, Roy Ayers, Gil-Scott Heron, Grover Washington Jr., Ronnie Laws, and Eddie Henderson all soon revered.

Funk artists had also taken on a jazzier inflection, not least key players such as Kool and the Gang; the Fatback Band; War; Earth, Wind & Fire; and Brass Construction, whose late-1975 self-titled debut album unleashed killer club cuts “Movin’’’ and “Changin’,’’ which would prove especially influential for the upcoming brass-laden British artists. (It’s difficult to convey just how seismic that first Brass Construction LP was for U.K. funk fans, but consider that it made it all the way into the top ten of the album chart in 1976 purely on club support and specialist radio play.) Other notable contributions came from Crown Heights Affair and Mass Production, while veteran Dallas jazzman John Handy scored an unlikely underground club success with “Hard Work,” U.S. funk band Brick waxed lyrical about something they called “Dazz” (disco jazz), and in 1977 Idris Muhammad’s “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This” exemplified the jazz-funk classic and just missed the U.K. Top Forty.

George Benson, Cameo, Tom Browne, Al Hudson & the Soul Partners, Patrice Rushen, Deodato—all these artists and many more came to wider attention via the jazz-funk scene. The Afro-funk of Manu Dibango was also a benefactory, with “Big Blow” (1976) bringing the Cameroonian further club kudos and building on his existing “Soul Makossa” legacy.

A scattering of specialist Black-music record shops could be found if you knew where to look. These had initially begun to appear in the ’60s, catering to the British love affair with blues and R&B, which had grown out of the mod subculture. The term mod was shortened from modernist, the late-’50s originals being adherents of modern jazz as opposed to trad, or traditional jazz, a revival of the early New Orleans Dixieland style that was favored in the U.K. at the time. The channels to Chicago, Detroit, New York, and other prime U.S. sources had been initially opened due to the trainspotter mentality of blues and jazz enthusiasts in the ’50s. This British obsession ran deep.

The top DJs got first dibs on the records that came into these shops; those who were at the very peak of the pecking order would have them bagged up to listen to before they were offered to anyone else. The U.K. record companies had also, by the mid-’70s, pretty much all set up in-house club promotions departments with nationwide DJ mailing lists. Again, those at the top of the tree wouldn’t just receive the U.K. promos, but sometimes records yet to be released in the U.S. They were properly looked after as their support could mean the difference between a hit and an also-ran.

Wax poetics
Wax poetics

British Hustle

The British DJ elite was illustrated on the sleeve of the 1978 12-inch “Whatever It Takes” by the pioneering British funk group Olympic Runners. It’s set out as a cartoon strip—the band in the studio with producer Mike Vernon, before a tape is dispatched to RCA Records where Greg Lynn and Sally Ormsby, who then looked after the label’s club promo, listen to it before triumphantly unveiling it to the rest of the company’s employees, much to their delight. It’s the remaining frames that say so much, for they depict the five DJs they deem the most essential at that moment in time—the ones they want to get the records to first. It was a marketing campaign in itself, saying, “If these guys are playing it, then so should you”—and it worked, giving Olympic Runners their first, albeit minor, U.K. chart success.

The choice DJs were Greg Edwards (Capital Radio/London), Robbie Vincent (BBC Radio London), Andy Peebles (Piccadilly Radio/Manchester), and Terry Lennaine (BBC Radio Merseyside/Liverpool), who hosted the country’s leading “soul shows” of the time, providing a groove oasis amid radio’s pop wilderness via a playlist of imported U.S. soul, funk, and disco. It was a tiny amount of airtime in retrospect, but a cave of underground treasures if you were on the right wavelength. Not only did you get to hear the music, but you might also discover the clubs in which it was played and the record stores that stocked it.

The fifth DJ didn’t have a radio show, but Chris Hill exerted huge influence via his jazz-funk club nights, while also headlining the leading All-Dayers in the South, featuring the Funk (or Soul) Mafia, a collective of Southern DJs powered by the mobile DJ outfit known as Froggy’s Roadshow, and featuring both Edwards and Vincent, as well as leading names like Chris Brown, Tom Holland, Sean French, plus future Radio 1 presenters Jeff Young and Pete Tong, then upcoming youngsters. This already substantial power base was bolstered by the sway they held at Blues & Soul magazinethe glue which bound the scene together.

A testament to the British obsession with Black music, Blues & Soul had first launched as early as May 1966, initially under the title Home of the Blues. There was no equivalent U.S. publication, so it could rightly claim to be “The World’s No.1 Soul Music Mag,” an essential source of information for the aficionado, both in the U.K. and overseas.

During the jazz-funk era, Blues & Soul was very much the British DJ’s bible, at least if you professed to be a Black-music specialist. Apart from including comprehensive charts, from both the U.K. and the U.S., as well as record reviews, interviews, and features, the most essential items in Blues & Soul from a DJ standpoint were the club columns—Bob Killbourn covering the South, Frank Elson the North. This was, along with the advertisements that various clubs placed in the magazine, how you found out what was going on within the wider scene.

Killbourn’s column also included a selection of top ten lists from a variety of DJs up and down the U.K.—their playlists dominated by the latest imports and providing key indicators of what the next big tunes on the scene were likely to be—as did the “City Slickers” London import chart they introduced later. It was a big thing for an up-and-comer to get their ten-tune selection published in B&S, setting them among some of the leading names on the scene with the added bonus of publicizing their own nights for free—it was a rung up the ladder for the aspiring specialist.

<i>Blues & Soul</i> readers’ poll for 1982, appearing in the April 1983 issue.
Blues & Soul readers’ poll for 1982, appearing in the April 1983 issue.

Boogie Nights

Chris Hill was undoubtedly the U.K.’s first superstar club DJ. He’d built his reputation at the Orsett Cock in Essex during the early ’70s, before taking up his legendary residency in the unlikely location of Canvey Island, thirty miles outside of London near the coastal resort of Southend-on-Sea, in 1972. This was the Goldmine, which, later in the decade, along with the Lacy Lady in Ilford, would provide Hill’s main jazz-funk strongholds. The clubs were the lifeblood, but what really exploded the scene to wider attention were its All-Dayers, held on Sundays and holidays, with Hill as the main attraction on the Southern circuit. By 1979, Hill & Co. had upped the ante even further with the Showstopper Promotions launch of the Caister Soul Weekender in Great Yarmouth, which is still a part of the calendar these many years on.

A fashion-conscious suburban “soulboy” movement would grow out of Hill’s nights, which in turn would take a lateral step and manifest in the flamboyantly dressed-up New Romantic scene of the early ’80s—Kraftwerk-inspired, electronic new-wave acts with club friendly beats appearing in a late-’70s post-punk climate, with London’s Blitz club incubating what the new “style magazines” would extend into wider culture. This predominantly white direction, in contrast to the Black musicians of the jazz-funk era, whose main focus was trying to live up to their “authentic” American heroes, would serve to inspire the looming New York electro epoch.

A graduate of the ’60s mod movement, Hill was first and foremost a Black-music aficionado. From slipping in the odd jazz track alongside his soul and funk norm during the early to mid-’70s, he, along with Bob Jones at Deejays in Chelmsford, was at the vanguard of this evolving movement. He was certainly its most compelling champion, being a throwback to a different era of DJing, before mixing had taken root in the U.K. Once seen, Chris Hill was a DJ you didn’t forget.

Hard Work

“Personality DJs,” as they were termed, were then highly valued, and Hill very much set the standard, being able to, as the saying goes, place the audience in the palm of his hand. He’d sometimes sing along with the tracks he was playing or shake a tambourine, use echo effects on his voice and prompt call-and-response. Things could get pretty silly, especially at the All-Dayers and Weekenders, with “tribes” from different areas trying to outdo each other—human pyramids and “mooning” spectacles sadly casting a shadow over Hill’s legacy for many; the footage from this period, including the 1978 documentary film British Hustle, not translating at all well with contemporary clubbers to whom DJing is all about mixing. The gift-of-the-gab microphone approach represented a relic of a bygone age.

British Hustle is a fascinating insight into the London funk scene. It was filmed in two clubs: Clouds in Brixton, with Greg Edwards DJing to a mainly Black crowd, and Chris Hill at the Goldmine, where the audience was largely white kids. The Brixton footage is particularly illuminating, with Edwards hosting a dance competition in which a number of London’s finest, usually to be found on the floor at West End clubs Crackers and Global Village, drop their moves—the guys very much the peacocks on the dance floor, the girls happy to let them take the limelight as they got their own groove on.

The first two tracks Edwards plays, Bionic Boogie’s “Risky Changes” and Michael Zager Band’s “Music Fever,” illustrate the popularity of the New York disco sound at the time, and the connection between London’s gay and Black scenes. New York City’s gay lineage transferred itself to London, not least via Global Village (later the site of the famous gay venue Heaven), one of the few downtown venues that was welcoming to Blacks, be they straight or gay (which, given homosexuality had only been legalized in the U.K. a little over a decade previously, few would have been comfortable to openly announce, homophobia then very much rife within the Black community). Many of the capital’s most celebrated jazz dancers of later years cut their teeth there to fast-paced, percussive disco imports.

However, it was Soho’s Crackers that wielded the greatest influence within the city, as it was a magnet for Black Londoners in the ’70s. It established itself as a leading funk club under DJ Mark Roman’s stewardship from 1973 to ’76 via his Tuesday-night and Friday-afternoon sessions, before the baton was passed to Greek-born George Power, a hugely influential figure throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s. He also notably held court at Bumble’s in Wood Green and later Camden Town’s Electric Ballroom, where he hosted his Jazzifunk nights.

Rock On Brother

There were precious few Black DJs on the London scene at this point, the main exceptions being Greg Edwards and Owen Washington, but one of Crackers’ most fervent “boogie boys,” as Power would call them, Paul “Trouble” Anderson, came directly off the dance floor to take his place alongside Power in the DJ booth at Crackers and later the Electric Ballroom. Others like Trevor Shakes, Dez Parkes, Cleveland Anderson, and, heading in from the Midlands, Baz Fe Jazz would take a similar trajectory as trailblazers for a coming wave of Black DJs who would surface in London during the ’80s, both in the clubs and on pirate radio, not the least of which was Crackers regular Norman Jay, whose big breakthrough came via the pre-legal London station Kiss-FM, cofounded by George Power in 1985.

Some of the hard-core originals went to the source, so to speak, attending the already legendary Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club and honing their dancing skills there. Another fabled venue, the 100 Club on Oxford Street, is also fondly remembered for their Saturday afternoon sessions, but Crackers was firmly at the hub of things in the capital.

Elsewhere, Les Spaine, the most successful Black club DJ of the early ’70s, had left the stage—in this case Liverpool’s famous funk club the Timepiece—just as jazz-funk began to bubble, heading to London in ’77 to work for Motown. But Northern soul legend Colin Curtis, notorious for introducing contemporary releases on a retrospective scene, had begun to include jazz-funk and New York disco tracks in tandem with DJ partner Ian Levine at the hallowed Blackpool Mecca, causing a major schism within Northern soul. The Neil Rushton–promoted Manchester All-Dayers at the Ritz, initially catering to a Northern soul audience, had been swamped by the jazz-funk crowd, while Mike Shaft took over from Andy Peebles at Piccadilly Radio, his choice of music far more club geared than his predecessor’s. Shaft’s club appearances at Rafters and Rufus, as with the Ritz, had brought a sizable Black presence into downtown nightlife for the first time.

Mike Shaft in 1982. Photo by Greg Wilson.
Mike Shaft in 1982. Photo by Greg Wilson.

All-Day Music

Colin Curtis would go on to become the North’s foremost jazz-funk specialist, showing up in Manchester alongside John Grant. Their residency at Rafters was especially essential, while London-bound Levine was destined for Heaven and fresh acclaim at the cusp of the U.K.’s gay scene, where he’d eventually champion the Hi-NRG direction. Another noted Northern jazz specialist, Hewan Clarke, would become the original resident at Manchester’s Haçienda when it opened in 1982 and is another example of a dancer-turned-DJ.

Often overlooked as a side issue, Colin Curtis and Harry Taylor’s nights at Cassinelli’s in Standish near Wigan would also prove influential, and when the state-of-the-art New York–style disco Wigan Pier opened in 1979, the success of the jazz-funk nights at nearby Cassinelli’s was noted. The Pier immediately launched their own Tuesday-night sessions, which would become a mainstay of the scene for the next five years, navigating the transition from jazz-funk to electro. George Power also broke the North/South divide to host a short-lived Thursday residency at Cassinelli’s.

Wigan Pier and the still-in-existence Northern soul club cathedral, Wigan Casino, were very much chalk and cheese. The Pier was totally modeled in a New York club style, with sound and lighting unheard and unseen in Britain at the time. And with an adventurous music policy; it was as close to NYC as you could get until Legend in Manchester was opened by the same company the following year.

In contrast, the retrospective Casino was housed in a run-down, old ballroom, with ’60s 45s played over a tinny system. As Colin Curtis once put it, “Northern soul lighting and sound was a candle and a fucking handle.” As the Pier thrived, the Casino slowly died, the old giving way to the new. The writing had been on the wall since the late ’70s when Manchester’s Ritz All-Dayers, which had started out as Northern soul gatherings, increasingly moved toward jazz-funk. Along with club nights at Rafters and Rufus hosted by Curtis, Mike Shaft, and John Grant, the Black audience was being drawn into Manchester city centre in unprecedented numbers.

A 1981 ad for Wigan Pier featuring Light of the World.
A 1981 ad for Wigan Pier featuring Light of the World.

Movin’

Wigan Pier was installed by Bacchus, an international company who, as part of their agreement, supplied the club’s DJs for the first year. The first six months were under the stewardship of Kelly, a name often found on the bill at various London club nights and Southern All-Dayers advertised in Blues & Soul. Working on all four of the nights the club was open, the single-named Kelly developed one of them as a weekly jazz-funk night, and his successor Nicky Flavell built on it. I benefited from the groundwork of these DJs during my own time there, from ’80 to ’84.

My opportunity arose when the owners of the Pier opened the club Legend in Manchester, and I replaced Nicky Flavell who left Wigan to take up residency there. Legend allocated Wednesday for its jazz-funk night, which I’d take over the following year from my predecessors Flavell and John Grant. As in Wigan, I would oversee the metamorphosis as electro-funk eventually usurped jazz-funk as the predominant musical direction on these nights.

Birmingham was a jazz-funk hot spot. Situated roughly midway between Manchester and London, it afforded their traveling crowd (and Birmingham traveled mob-handed) to experience the best of both worlds, heading both North and South for the choice nights. The scene there was cultivated by DJs Graham Ware, Dave Till, and Shaun Williams in venues like the Locarno (later the Powerhouse) and the Rum Runner, producing some of the country’s top jazz dancers. Baz Fe Jazz, from nearby Coventry, cut his teeth as a dancer and DJ in the city.

Yorkshire duo Paul Schofield and Ian Dewhirst (formerly Northern soul DJ Frank) of the Central in Leeds were also notable fixtures on the All-Dayer circuit in the late ’70s (nearby Huddersfield also noted for its traveling hoards). Other DJs whose names you’d see on the bill for the leading jazz-funk All-Dayers North of Watford included Blackpool’s Pete Haigh and his then tag team partner Frenchie; and Kev Edwards, who, along with Harry Taylor, was a key figure behind the counter at Manchester’s fabled Spin Inn, and also promoted the popular Clouds All-Dayers in Preston during the early ’80s. Wigan Casino legend Richard Searling carved himself a small slice of the jazz-funk scene with his fondly remembered late-’70s sessions at Angels in Burnley and would also promote a series of All-Dayers in various Northern cities. In Sheffield, there was Pete Girtley; in Bradford, Simon Walsh; in Liverpool, Eric Hearn; in Stoke-on-Trent, Trevor M; in Derby, Neil Neale; while Nottingham had Jonathan (Woodliffe), who would later fully embrace the electro era at Rock City, where Colin Curtis joined him for their famed All-Dayers. The club’s manager Paul Mason was later headhunted by the Haçienda, where he oversaw the acid-house glory years. Up in the North East, there was Alex Lowes, later to found the Southport Weekender, creating a further chapter in the history; and then over the border, names like Kenny MacLeod in Glasgow and Billy Davidson way up in Aberdeen established a thriving All-Dayer scene in Scotland, booking guests from both the North/Midlands and London. Elsewhere, way down on England’s South Coast was Paul Clark, while Chris Dinnis could be found in the South West. The jazz-funk scene had stretched to all corners of the U.K.

Colin Curtis (left) pointing at Ian Levine. Photo courtesy of Mike Ritson and Stuart Russell.
Colin Curtis (left) pointing at Ian Levine. Photo courtesy of Mike Ritson and Stuart Russell.

(Fallin’ Like) Dominoes

Throughout the jazz-funk era, soul, funk, and disco were always part of the specialist DJs’ overall palette, as it was when electro-funk became dominant in ’82 and ’83. In addition to it being a musical genre, jazz-funk was the catchall title for Black music club nights/events that offered a variety of styles and tempos. There was certainly a crossover with the music being played by DJs across the Atlantic, but there was no equivalent scene to jazz-funk stateside—this was a distinctly British phenomenon.

As the movement evolved and began to feature more outright jazz tracks—generally faster paced and often Latin—the term fusion came into greater use. DJs also latched onto expensive Japanese imports, pricey digital recordings by both American and Japanese artists, bringing names like Sadao Watanabe, Ryo Kawasaki, Terumasa Hino and Hiroshi Fukumura onto DJ playlists, as so-called “Jap jazz” added a further flavor.

“Fusion crews” began forming—small groups of dancers who’d travel club to club/region to region to battle other crews. In the early ’80s, the jazz-dance scene would subsequently grow out of this with Colin Curtis in the North (Berlin/Manchester, plus various All-Dayers) and Paul Murphy (Electric Ballroom and the Wag/London) in the South. Curtis and Murphy were regarded as the DJs at the cutting-edge of this development, with Colin Parnell and Boo (who preceded Murphy in the Electric Ballroom jazz room) among the London innovators. Curtis and Murphy are the two DJs said to have provided the greatest inspiration for a young Gilles Peterson, then just starting out.

As illustrated in Wigan, the rise of jazz-funk coincided with the decline of the Northern soul scene, which had exerted great influence on white youth culture during the ’70s, for Northern soul was very much a white, working-class movement of retrospective Black-music fanatics. Black youth, in contrast, weren’t about looking back, but all about what’s next—their ears very much on the latest records being imported from the U.S. (and for the dub/reggae scene, Jamaica) rather than the ’60s soul rarities that exemplified the Northern scene.

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