In November 1938 and January 1939, the BBC relayed two American Jam Sessions from New York to Britain. Regarded as historic by critics and producers, the live relays broke from BBC tradition in their presentation of improvised jazz and in their production as “informal parties.” Both broadcasts featured Alistair Cooke as announcer and “a galaxy of swing stars” (including Sidney Bechet, Teddy Wilson, and Tommy Dorsey) assembled by the New York bandleader Joe Marsala; however, British jazz enthusiasts responded to them very differently. Whereas the second session was widely praised, the first session inspired controversy, particularly after a leading critic deemed it a “washout.”
The divergent reception demonstrated the challenges of maintaining the jam session's status as a paragon of authenticity as it underwent three key transitions during the late 1930s: the transformation from in- and inter-group activity to public event; the transmission from New York's jazz and swing cultures to Britain's enthusiast subculture; and the transmutation from live performance to live broadcast. This article examines the context, planning, content, and reception of the 1938/39 BBC jam sessions as a case study in how authenticity in jazz was rearticulated in public, mediated, and transnational spaces.