"Dickens is one of those writers who are well worth stealing. Even the burial of his body in Westminster Abbey was a species of theft, if you come to think of it." [all quotations from George Orwell]
200 years after the birth of Dickens, and more than 100 years after the first recorded jazz, let's celebrate the crossing point which took place 50 years ago in London, when John Dankworth and his orchestra including some of the top-notch jazz musicians in the island recorded a LP of Dickens inspired songs and named it What The Dickens! As its title suggests, it is a suite based on characters and themes associated with Dickens's world, and what a world!
In a sense, jazz musicians of the early days were Dickensian characters: ambitious young men, living in poverty and grimness of the big cities. Most of them were redeemed by characters as colorful and tough as Magwitch. Louis Armstrong was the young Pip and Joe Oliver was Magwitch. The class struggles, chance and accident, mistakes and victories, and the highly moral frame of mind remained the same, though the setting was changed from London to New Orleans.
"It might well have been otherwise, for even if Dickens was a bourgeois, he was certainly a subversive writer, a radical, one might truthfully say a rebel. In Oliver Twist, Hard Times, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached. Yet he managed to do it without making himself hated, and, more than this, the very people he attacked have swallowed him so completely that he has become a national institution himself. Dickens seems to have succeeded in attacking everybody and antagonizing nobody."
So for the Dickens recordings the Johnny Dankworth Orchestra went to the studio in the late July, 7th of August, and finally October 4, 1963 to finish the suite. The big band in this exceptional recordings includes: Gus Galbraith, Jimmy Deuchar (trumpets), Leon Calvert (trumpet, flugelhorn), Dickie Hawdon, Kenny Wheeler (trumpets, tenor horns), Tony Russell (trombone), Eddie Harvey (valve trombone), Ron Snyder (tuba), Roy East (alto saxophone, flute, clarinet), John Dankworth (alto saxophone, clarinet), Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, Peter King, Bobby Wellins, Dick Morrissey (tenor saxophones), Tony Coe, Vic Ash (tenor saxophones, clarinets), Art Ellefson (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet), Ronnie Ross (baritone saxophone), David Snell (harp), Alan Branscombe (vibraphone, xylophone, piano), Kenny Napper, Spike Heatley (basses), Johnny Butts, Ronnie Stephenson (drums), Roy Webster (percussion).
"In the ordinarily accepted sense of the word, Dickens is not a ‘revolutionary’ writer. But his position here needs some defining: Whatever else Dickens may have been, he was not a hole-and-corner soul-saver, the kind of well-meaning idiot who thinks that the world will be perfect if you amend a few bylaws and abolish a few anomalies. It is worth comparing him with Charles Reade, for instance. Reade was a much better-informed man than Dickens, and in some ways more public-spirited. He really hated the abuses he could understand, he showed them up in a series of novels which for all their absurdity are extremely readable, and he probably helped to alter public opinion on a few minor but important points. But it was quite beyond him to grasp that, given the existing form of society, certain evils cannot be remedied. Fasten upon this or that minor abuse, expose it, drag it into the open, bring it before a British jury, and all will be well that is how he sees it. Dickens at any rate never imagined that you can cure pimples by cutting them off. In every page of his work one can see a consciousness that society is wrong somewhere at the root. It is when one asks ‘Which root?’ that one begins to grasp his position."
As far as a quick search shows, the album, sadly, is not available in digital formats. In the year of Dickens, when many treasures from film archives have been unveiled for public viewing, this classic of British jazz deserve a reissue on CD. For the time being, listen to three selected tracks from the classic What the Dickens!