Former head chronicles a passion for jazz and justice

FORMER Sheffield headteacher Chris Searle has brought two of his lifelong passions together and written a book about jazz and the struggle for social and political justice.

Forward Groove: Jazz and the Real World from Louis Armstrong to Gilad Atzmon is being launched next week at the London Jazz Festival.

Searle chronicles the development of jazz and its great exponents alongside the social world from the mass migrations north to Chicago and New York in the Twenties and Thirties, the campaigns agains lynching and Jim Crow racism and on to the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War protests of the Fifties and Sixties to the South African anti-apartheid struggles in the Sixties and Seventies.

In his introduction he relates it to his own journey from his early teens growing up in East London and the purchase of his first LPs, King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, to his current status as jazz critic for the Morning Star.

Jazz, insists Searle, is so much more than mere entertainment. "I have always seen music as an expression of political reality and jazz is part of a culture of resistance."

The days may have gone since the time when black musicians couldn't stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as their white bandmates on tour in America but their remain struggles to be won.

The torch continues to be carried by contemporary musicians such as Israeli-born alto saxman Gilad Atzmon who dreams of a free and united Palestine. In the book Searle quotes a conversation with him on Ecclesall Road just before a Sheffield Jazz gig.

A vital dimension of jazz has been to convey a sense of hope and a sense of joy, says Searle.

"Wherever I have gone I have taken my jazz records with me. When I was teaching in Mozambique in the Seventies I coincided all these great South African musicians turning up to escape apartheid. When i was 22 I went to Canada and the first chance I got I went down to New Orleans.

"Jazz brings in so much heritage and different traditions into one music and you go to New Orleans and see the manifestation of that. Black people going back to slavery and Africa, playing on European instruments music from the Caribbean fused with influences that have come down the Mississippi river – French, Spanish, Christian, riverine – a music so hybrid to defy precedent," he says.

One of Searle's themes is the unique feature of jazz – its "syncretism, by which I mean the gelling of different people and traditions.

"That's why New Orleans is a city I have always loved. And Toronto, too – it's said to be the most cosmopolitan city in the world. In the same way it was such an honour to teach in Fir Vale, which is a very cosmopolitan part of Sheffield."

That was his time as head teacher of Earl Marshal for six years until the school was taken into special measures and Chris Searle was out of a job.

Although it had a painful ending, he describes those years as the best of his working life, only matched by a spell a few years ago teaching English to retired Yemini steelworkers in Sheffield.

"They were all in their seventies and wonderful men," he recalls.

"In between I worked in Cambridge where they were doing research into school exclusion. That's what did for me at Earl Marshal because we had a non-exclusion policy which nevertheless had a lot of support, including from the police.

"After that we moved down to London where I taught at Goldsmith's for a while and then went back to Canada as visiting professor at the University of Toronto for two years."

Now back in Sheffield he works part-time teaching in the education department of the University of Manchester, which includes running the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah resource centre which has taken him back into inner city schools running poetry workshops.

He remains upbeat. "Of course there are issues and problems but they will be overcome by a sense of unity which will prevail and that has always been the essence of great jazz."

Forward Groove: Jazz and the Real World from Louis Armstrong to Gilad Atzmon (Northway Publications, 14.99).


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