Book Review: Photographer Tish Murtha’s ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’

The third instalment of a book trilogy via Bluecoat Press reflecting the work of UK social documentary photographer Tish Murtha (1956-2013) is entitled ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’. For those unsure as to what the title and subject matter refers, the jazz bands were marching troupes mainly involving young and adolescent girls, a particular phenomenon in 20th century working class British communities.

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Image from ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’ by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved

Mainly focused in the mining towns of Wales, the Midlands and Tish’s own stomping ground of North East England, each band was representative of a particular neighbourhood. Trained to parade with military style precision, clad in colourful uniforms while playing instruments, including drums, kazoos and glockenspiels, the troupes would compete against each other in local and national competitions. The capturing of such a unique facet of cultural expression, would, in turn, become Tish Murtha’s first exhibition, a photographer destined to create a fascinating catalogue of work on the lives and experiences of often forgotten communities surviving on the margins of British life.

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Image from ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’ by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved

The book itself is once again organised by Tish’s daughter Ella, who has for the last years dedicated her time to posthumously promote the Tish Murtha Archive. Her introduction in this publication reflects not only the passion for her mission and the pain of her loss (her mother died suddenly in 2013), but also reflects a humanity central to Tish’s own much celebrated work. The photographer portrayed a depth of socio-political awareness involving the sort of sensitivity, humour, stoicism and endurance that only comes from someone who, as both an uncompromising artist and working-class woman and mother, lived in the very heart of the community she reflected.

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Image from ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’ by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved

The photographic work collected here is a perfect insight into the world of the juvenile jazz band, from children practising on the waste grounds and in parks, to the formal training of the troupes and final competitions. The images, featuring a world mainly inhabited by girls, give a rare platform to young working class, female experience therefore. The dedication and also bonding of the girls is clearly revealed in Tish’s work. That young women were encouraged to work together and were celebrated for their loud and proud processions, while recognised/rewarded for their skills, was an unusual outlet for youthful female energy.

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Image from ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’ by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved

Interestingly however, Tish was not a huge fan of this form of leisure activity herself. The photographer’s own views on the subject matter are reflected in her own words in the book and also perhaps, in the black and white images she conveyed. Tish viewed the bands as too militaristic in nature, reflecting a culture of ‘not stepping out of line’ in areas  in need of working class rebellion against policies of enforced economic and social deprivation. The photographer’s perception of the suppression of children’s individualism and imagination naturally also totally conflicted with her ideas of free expression, indicative of the artist’s own outlook.

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Image from ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’ by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved

There is much joy and interest in Tish’s work here, nevertheless, found particularly in the children’s game playing in mock jazz bands, in contrast to the more serious and adult constructed world of training, travelling and judging. In play the children themselves are the creators of the narrative, often with anarchic humour, in opposition to the more sombre world of contrived troupe rivalry in competitions. The photographer cleverly offers us two worlds here, one that is liberated and funny and another that is more restrained and organised. As a reader and viewer, however, we can take so much from both thanks to Tish’s artistic talents.

This book is simply another fantastic opportunity to contemplate the work of one of the best UK social documentary photographers of the 20th century and her crucial reflections of working class life – feel free to see for yourselves.

https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/juvenile-jazz-bands/

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