We may not all be mates but we are brothers and sisters, increasingly dipping into the same bowl of cultural delicacies as opportunity affords. Along the way there are self-appointed gatekeepers who don’t want the recipes altered. But there will always be enlightened outsiders with new spices and the gumbo we know as jazz will be better for it.
The players whose lives are unpacked here happened to black and were very popular in their day because they formed a solidly swinging community. For the evidence, a CD, Black British Swing, was published in 2001 on Topic Records TSCD 781, compiled from a larger collection at the British Library, whose catalogue of enormous holdings is available online. The disc is out of print but used copies and download are easily found.
While this jumble was researched with a smidgen of scholarly approach, the intention was to clear a vividly pigmented path between the pool of social history academics and the sea of jazz music enthusiasts. It is not a straight forward jazz chronicle but the story is unusual in itself and you will find information, indeed interpretation, not found in conventional jazz books. The endnotes will alert readers to the paths I have taken to assemble these facts and likely facts here in one textual session, and it would be genuinely welcome if others could sit in with their own research.
Effort has been made to provide a wider context for the careers of these brave and talented artists. It is hoped that just a dash of musical analysis will suffice, for it is my belief that an absolute consensus of these artists’ recorded legacies would be silly to assume and so please let the recordings spin on and on, and speak for themselves.
Pushing the Boat Out
As you may already know if you are starting on this read, the SS Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury, Essex, from the Caribbean on 21 June 1948. Tilbury was both a main grain reception port and, because of a convenient rail link to London, a popular capital-area hub for holiday cruise liners. The arrival of this particular vessel, distinctively between the two categories, is commonly associated in the modern British consciousness with the recruitment of West Indians. They were largely hired through the Barbados Migrants Liaison Service to reduce unemployment in that sunnier island country while at the same time provide needed labour for London Transport and the newly-established National Health Service. The indelible, old black-and-white newsreel footage is welcome on television documentaries, but it is misleading.
The black presence in Britain of course reaches back hundreds of years and the community endured the pains and joys associated with all diaspora existence. The author SI Martin’s classic historical novel Incomperable World (1996), illustrates the heartbreak and a certain savoury irony of post-African life, the brotherhood among African men in 18th Century London.
Jazz followers of our time are generally more familiar with the now historical musical figures of, for instance, on the saxophone, Joe Harriott, Courtney Pine, Denys Baptiste, Tony Kofi, and Soweto Kinch, and other modernist musicians who either rode that wave of emigration for professional opportunity in England or benefited from their parents having had the fortitude to do so. Discerning classical music scholars have researched earlier decades to unpack the lives and work of Holborn-born violinist-composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and the Guyanese composer-clarinettist-conductor Rudolph Dunbar, the first black musician to conduct at the Royal Albert Hall.
But the so-called jazz age of the 1920s, when this HOT music started to take over America, Britain and Germany, progressed to become the major form of popular music via dance bands. As a result, many Afro-Caribbean jazz musicians managed by sail, rail, and much sacrifice of their familiar culture and families, to get involved with an excitingly new and happening art form, snap at the lure of good money, and ennoble the British swing scene.
Some African-Americans earned their livelihoods in Europe too, and this happened way before jazz. While the American War of Independence held a promise of liberation of that new country’s “Negroes,” the problematic condition of legalised chattel slavery in the American South and an alternately racist and socially cold reception in the American North caused the free black community to begin to look elsewhere. In 1815 the prosperous Negro shipowner Paul Cuffe undertook the burden of ‘re-settling’ many families to Sierra Leone. The international slave trade had been supposedly made illegal seven years earlier, and it makes some sort of sense that he’d get the gig to take folks to that part of Africa, assuming they wanted to go.
But there were already a great many dark people in former British colonies and many of the white folks took exception to this. Soon after, the American Colonization Society was formed and the notion of repatriating Negroes to their Mother Continent, the all-new Liberia, was embraced variously and briefly by free Negro church leaders, white racists, and abolitionists of any colour. The great politically pragmatic emancipator Abraham Lincoln even advocated this solution during his United States presidency.
In the aftermath of the American Civil War the freed former Southern slaves found even their rough social safety net unravelling as the American South had to deal with economic devastation. The American Missionary Association, which coalesced over the 1839 Amistad case, the first successful African-American court proceeding, wasted no time in establishing schools for the Freedmen, which brings us to the start of this jazzy story.
In 1875 students from Nashville, Tennessee’s Fisk University, the leading Negro institution of higher education, armed themselves with the glorious vocal outgrowth of African-American Christianity and started to raise needed funding by exporting their musical culture, first to the affluent American North, and then across the Atlantic. The white communities found the Negro spirituals and work songs performed by these students both fascinating and life-affirming. The singing students in turn enjoyed the income which allowed them to continue their classes in Latin and Greek, aspiring to the American Negro middle class.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers earned over $150,000 in their first seven years of touring, the equivalent of $20 million today, and inspired cultural ambassadors from other schools, but the Fisk brand name was the longest-lived. They eventually spanned several generations of young academics who enjoyed repeated success throughout Europe and remained an institution well past the dawn of the record industry.
At the 20th Century’s alarm clock sounded, African-American and African-Canadian music remained at the forefront of the African diaspora’s rivers of cultural influence in Europe. Rainer Lotz’ landmark collection of essays on ragtime players, cake-walking dancers on the continent, especially in an enthusiastic Germany, unpacks the histories of black travelling entertainers. Most were from the Minstrel tradition and by the 1880s, after fortunate public sympathy gained by the success of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s runaway novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the North American group, Haverley’s Genuine Colored Minstrels, enjoyed strong box office takings throughout Britain. The two leading stars, the banjo-playing Bohee Brothers, decided to remain here to get over in the fast-paced music halls. Miss Belle Davis, also spelt Davies in Britain, toured England, Germany and other countries extensively in the first two decades of the next century, making records and films. Because of the success of these and many artists the British table was set for a feast of fresh black music and dance that still shows no signs of satiation today.
By the time of the First World War, the taste for what became African-American entertainments was very strong in Britain. The modern version of the African banjo, the main instrument of the minstrels, gave syncopation to popular music, which resulted in specialised commercial sheet music. This was an era when, given a hit song, the published music would out-sell recorded versions.
Jamaican pianist and bandleader Dan Kildare sailed from New York to England with his Big Apple-based septet in 1915 and quickly found success for the next five years at the high-class Ciro’s club in London. In an effort to maintain the freshness of his West End popularity during the hopelessness of the Great War, he meanwhile returned to New York to recruit players. Jazz Historian Alyn Shipton has noted with insight that although string-based, rather than brass-and-reed-based, Kildare’s sometimes funky UK Columbia recordings are just as jazzy as the New Orleans style groups that soonafter defined what jazz groups should be: the League of Horns.
James Reese Europe’s all-black Hell Fighters, the 369th U.S. Infantry Band, recorded for the French Pathe record company, although the discs were the of the non-standard hill-and-dale type technologically (the Betamax of their era) and most record buyers were not set up for them. This market handicap simply didn’t help to sell this premier Negro big band as widely as they deserved. Europe had previously enjoyed great success band leading, booking, and hard-won union organising in New York City, where he’d been a mate of Dan Kildare. Reese’s military band’s 1919 recording sessions, made after wartime-decorated combat and morale-boosting musical success on the Western Front, were enriched by original Noble Sissle-Eubie Blake repertoire and burgeoning jazz players such as the trumpeter Pops Foster.
Of course the perception of jazz has evolved over the generations since its initial crystallisation from ragtime music, New Orleans rhythm and the sudden craving by all classes for public dancing. Even in the 1910s, before the first considered jazz records were made by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB), the performance exclusively of hot music did not yet exist. Rhythmic groups relied on a multi-style approach to get them over with audiences. This was just as much the case in multiracial New Orleans as it was at strictly African-American affairs such as the rallies held by the pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.
The swift acceptance throughout the world of what we think of as jazz took place mainly through the dissemination of music, published sheet music, and itinerant exponents of the art. Even in Japan in the early 1920s jazz was popular for dancing, thanks to the instructive imports of recorded and printed media, and the New Orleans-like tradition at the turn of the century for street-parading brass bands, in which the early Japanese jazz players got their starts. The surprisingly all-white New Orleans act, The ODJB, spent 1919-1920 slaying all competition with their exciting London shows, not unlike Elvis Presley and James Brown much later on. In contrast, most of the placage of 19th Century New Orleans Creole-of-colour composers largely ignored both the brashness of black minstrelsy and the exciting multicultural aspect of what was then a leading American city. But by the time the Western World was shaken up by the First World War, it was eager for a taste of African-derived rhythm.
Much has been written through the years of the white appropriation of black musical innovation. The foundation of this fact is less solid in Europe which had a notable but tiny community of African-rooted immigrants. We cannot condemn white men and women for enjoying the jazz-based milieu and making a living out of it. In many instances you can cite, white artists bring their own culture to the mix, intentionally or not, and the result should not necessarily be seen as a thieving, dilution of the American Negro inspirations, but merely different. And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is Show Biz.
By the dawn of the 1920s, dance bands dominated the popular music scene. Jazz historian Peter Cliffe has placed the tipping of the show business scales in 1923, the year the Savoy Orpheans fired-up the Savoy Hotel’s dance floor and started broadcasting on the pre-state-owned BBC. Larger than small groups, these small orchestras were obviously able to play acoustically large ballrooms as well as theatres in an era before microphones came into use.
Whereas the Original Dixieland Jazz Band had to somewhat burlesque their playing by the use of then-novelty barnyard animal imitations in their playing in hopes of reaching the ears in the balcony, Will Marion Cook and his Southern Syncopated Orchestra made box office noise, thanks largely due to the full outfit’s reported European-style elegance and discipline yet African-American-style, emotionally-expressive sumptuousness. Cook’s crew came to England in 1919, featured the future jazz clarinet and soprano sax legend Sidney Bechet, a New Orleans ex-patriot, and earned significant attention of the classical music set. But in a sad irony, this band never recorded. And even worse, for them, is that some of the band drowned in the 1921 SS Rowan disaster at sea. The pianist Mope Desmond was the grandfather of jazz singer-pianist-percussionist Terri Quaye.
The 1920s also firmly established big band dance music, exploited in the best sense by records and, by the middle of the decade, radio. Much has been made of the British Royal Family’s embracing of modern African expat culture, starting with Queen Victoria being entertained by Juba’s dance act. The American Negro stage and recording star Bert Williams as well as Cook’s Southern Syncopators honoured the Royals too.
The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII and the Duke of Windsor) loved to sit in on drums for a number or two in clubs. He probably wasn’t a good enough musician to, had he been born in an East London hospital, even land a free gig on a Monday night at the Dog & Poo. However, he was the Prince, the role model for the new Bright Young People, and he supported musicians of colour. His command as a taste-maker legitimised this innately democratic art form in the Upper Class-led, British social order. By the 1920s big band danceable jazz waggled its way through most of the British social strata.
American influence in this sphere grew steadily to nearly full dominance of the jazzy scene, when Benny Goodman, swing music, the touring Coleman Hawkins and the growing corpus of European critic camp followers all but squashed local influence. But this wouldn’t happen for another fifteen years, when the Ken Johnson-led swing band high-dived into the dance band pool.
Rather than compete with the vivaciousness of New Orleans small group expression, British dance bands blended European orchestral sensibilities with the first ingredients of American jazz. The Paul Whiteman Orchestra, the top ensemble attraction in the United States of the 1920s, employed this so-called old world influence to great success, seemingly everywhere. He even triumphed in New Orleans, where he went over well with everyone except the local jazz musicians, who called him to task during the intermission for not featuring enough jazz solos. The many players in the birthplace of jazz were hardly the typical national audience. Whiteman’s holistic approach blended strong songs, outstanding arrangements, well-placed solos, and innovative rhythmic spicing such as slapped double-bass. In short, he insisted on having what record producers two generations later would term ‘hooks’, and this blend similarly went down a treat in Britain too.
Although some of the early instrumentalists such as Ted Heath, who early-on played in the Will Marion Cook band, shook jazz solos from their sleeves with ease, much of the focus in 1920s British modern dance music was on the syncopation, not improvisation.
In a large dance band especially, this collective groove had to be pre-arranged to reinforce the notion unanimously. Funky street drummers from small Crescent City combos would have been out of joint. Back in the day the overall aesthetic was to flavour things with a unified approach. Such attention to rhythm was the preferred way of embracing jazz, whether with polyrhythmic section-to-section contrast or by the use of full band stops. In this way the saxophones, trumpets or trombones voiced their jazz solos collectively and their success was firstly a product of the arranger’s pen. The results could range from a serviceable dance vehicle such as Tom Barratt’s version, with the Jay Wilbur Orchestra, of S’posin’ to the exquisite sculpting of You’re the Cream in My Coffee, by Betty Bolton with Ray Starita and his Ambassadors Band.
An elegant texture of tonal palate was also a standard of the British approach. Just when a record seemed to be a hot dance disc and nothing more, there was often an interlude of strings or celeste peeking through the arrangement to dress it up, swanking in evening clothes. This schtick would eventually dawn on the first popular white American swing band, the Casa Loma Orchestra, an outgrowth of the earlier Jean Goldkette Orchestra, which mastered dreamy but danceable ballads before they finally got the knack for up tempo numbers.
The era’s sentiments reflected new-found freedom in social interaction, for which dancing was but one metaphor, along with language, mobility, politics and visual art. The recorded expressions herein largely captured the zeitgeist with such song titles as Raisin’ the Roof, Hittin’ the Ceiling, Dancing Time, and a singing acknowledgment of the vogue in jazz trumpet phrasing, Doo Wacka Doo.
The mass arse of jazz critics has for many years fouled the historical pavement over the original popularity of the ODJB, the Whiteman aggregation, and the many British dance bands that welcomed both influences. The connoisseurs of this art form, as sincere and as diligent as they could be, have nonetheless tended for generations to evaluate jazz performance by how well it competes with Louis Armstrong and his musical heirs, black and white soloists in the hot style, with arrangements, ensemble work, and full band ideas considered secondary. This could be construed as American cultural jingoism, which indoctrinated the world to its particular judgemental stance.
Race entered the fray in a wide way. On one hand, Negro musicians of the day didn’t get much of a look in regarding British nightclub, dancehall and broadcast schedules; on the other hand, most hardcore jazz followers believed the myth of exotic Negroes as the rightful ‘Kings of Jazz’. That America’s Negro population was still enslaved into the 20th Century was obvious and helped the consideration toward their jazz authenticity as a reward for oppression. As this was the standard measure for those fans, as well as their descendents, the argument was tautological.
The only European culture that did not doggedly copy the African-American model was that of Germany, after 1933. And that was likely only because of pressure from the Nazi dictatorship in the body of the Reichsmusikkammer, resulting in a parallel world of talent that was hidden from English-speaking countries. Today, with a more sophisticated awareness of world influences, it should be clear by digging the early British dance orchestras, that their music prior to the total onslaught of swing was sparklingly innovative early jazz too.
If British outfits had a disadvantage it was mainly that the national team, the Denmark Street pool of songwriters, was small compared to the roster culled from the much larger population in the United States, which, with the help of local European immigrant talent in new material, coalesced eventually in New York City from such early 20th century songwriting capitals as New Orleans and Chicago. The top as well as flop American songs were published in Britain and the leading HMV and Decca record companies were eager to block out diary time for studio sessions to record them. By the late 1920s, with rare and generous exceptions, the British bands were basically being told what to record and this continued for decades.
A generation later, the recordings of the Ken Johnson-led, all-black swing band were whitewashed with the critical coat of so-called jazzlessness because their discs did not feature extensive solos. Add to this the fact that the Johnson Orchestra willingly, eagerly, played dance music. Even at the headquarters of the paranoia-inflicting Jazz Stassi, the creators of the jazz history canon have mostly ignored the important part that dancers played in the motivation, participation of the players and their written arrangements. Cholly Atkins, the leading black American stage dance instructor throughout his life, trained many performers in the art of what he termed “vocal choreography”.
It should be understood that early black American music on disc swept white Europe and Britain in particular, not as a platform for players’ collective agility. Rather, it was embraced mainly as a superior means to democratic and classless popular dance. Even by the time of the Great War, the upper classes and the working classes no longer needed a seasonal or quasi-religious excuse to hold a dance. The island natives had discovered a new way to party and the urge for dance as a leisure activity spread to the Continent from Britain by the 1920s.
Despite efforts such as the supreme swing band arranger Sy Oliver’s piece for the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, For Dancers Only, the jazz critic heavies came down unsympathetically whenever fans’ feet did their stuff.
The famous Negro actor, vocal recitalist, political activist, athlete and all-round high-achiever Paul Robeson wrote: “To the African, dancing, singing and acting are not separate and divorced from life as they are among Western people. They are a spontaneous expression of different sides of his personality, and rank as naturally in his life as eating, drinking and sleeping.” This view was a bit self-serving as it reinforced his particular and exceptional talents, but it was written for The Journal of the West African Student Union, where he was the Babasale (patron), and his intended readership did not contest his point.
Communal dance has been a devalued aspect of jazz appreciation since the dance band era. The African-American, wife-and-husband team Carol Chilton and Maceo Thomas caught the wave of public dancing in America and helped promote jazz in Europe as well. For a decade from 1929 the Chicago couple were frequently at the London Palladium, touring the country, and were pleased to participate in a Command Performance for the Royal Family. It’s often said that many critics, both professional and amateur, are frustrated musicians; perhaps they are, even more so, frustrated dancers.
Although the Johnson swing band holds a legendary status for its high swing art from the late 1930s, its prominence as the first successful and genuinely jazzy dance band made up of Afro-Caribbeans was perhaps an inevitability, especially given the talents of its founders.
Leslie Thompson has Big Dreams
By the 1930s the dance band industry was well-oiled in England, Scotland, Germany and other European countries. The music industry was considerably formed by the early 1930s, but, the pattern was slightly different than today. Sheet music publishers cajoled record companies to cut their hoped-for hits. Dance bands meanwhile longed to land a residency at an upmarket West End club to get good money, prestige, and broadcast exploitation via the BBC. With all the marketing in place the band leader would be primed to tour Britain, hopefully the Continent and especially Germany, the biggest country in Europe. The most successful musicians of course had to be where the action was, in London, and be at the top level of their playing abilities.
Sid Colin’s charming yet insightful personal take on the era, And the Bands Played On, contains numerous insights of his fellow performers. They were often bored, relying on a rhythm of ‘oom CHING, oom CHING’ from number to number. Still, these elite instrumentalists knew that, to make the most money, one had to play in glitzy hotel ballrooms solely patronised by the very rich. This was class-based clubbing on a scale that would be unheard of today. Liquor flowed until 11pm, to 2am with food, and then beyond that only at non-hotel, after-hours clubs that would get raided from time to time unless they paid off a local representative of the vice squad.
Don Barrigo, a jobbing reed player especially active in the 1930s, worked with Nat Gonella’s Georgians and the Lew Stone Orchestra. His unpublished autobiography details the life of precarious but rewarding employment, leaping from one job to another. Starting in the late 1920s, it is an early detailing of the informal labour exchange held in Archer Street in the West End, where musicians would network for gigs.
In the 1929-1931 years, the start of the Great Depression, the American band leader Don Parker was offering a basic pay-packet of £10 per week (approx. £1,800 today), Jack Hylton paid £14 per week, a nondescript Leicester Square nightclub offered £15, and Bert Ambrose started at £16. A major West End stage musical paid £12 but the hours were not as long as what was required at a hotel ballroom, where bands often played from 7pm until 2am. Bandsmen got extra pay for BBC and Continental radio broadcasts, each programme being a live, one-off affair because recording technology was crude and limited, and the Musicians’ Union did not permit repeat broadcasting of shows as is commonplace today. Players also got an extra handful of sterling notes at recording sessions, one of the few right things the recording companies did back then. But women and black men musicians were certainly not encouraged to apply for such jobs.
Meanwhile, serious examiners of the new jazz and dance band phenomenon had a quick and arduous learning curve to understand the phenomenon. They certainly had that ‘Tiger Rag’ by the tail as they puzzled over the exponential popular growth of what they considered to be a booming art form. Theodor Adorno was then a budding German Jewish social philosopher who encountered the dance jazz scene while he was studying at Merton College, Oxford in the early 1930s. Even though jazz was a wealthy intellectual’s pursuit in 1930s Germany, and the Nazi dictatorship did not change this situation, it was apparently hard going for him to synthesise the new jazz music and the commercialisation of culture with other fast-breaking cultural transformations such as the Weimar era’s New Objectivity literary movement back home.
It appears that Adorno missed the efforts of the Imperial Fascist League (Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists were too gentle for them!) to rid the London music scene of Jews. Despite Adorno’s fears both for the future of jazz and its variegated marketplace exploitation, the rigorous historian Evelyn Wilcock has found overwhelming evidence that he, like all students of the day, probably heard jazz every day, both indoors and out, and even visited a black nightclub in Soho.
White artists convinced their record companies to allow the release of serious and sympathetic treatises on this new jazz music. In an era when racial and ethnic humour was embraced, giving a desensitised legitimacy to terms of insult, we must take these efforts in the spirit in which they were meant. Al Bowlly, the top vocalist of his era, recorded the guitar-based Nigger Blues in 1930, a sincere effort to explain the blues to a wider white audience. To his credit, he resisted the stereotyped media Negro dialect, the very path littered with countless white American singers trying to be hip, and sang it in his natural voice.
At the same time the respected band leader Fred Elizalde issued a self-penned four-part (two-disc) suite, The Heart of a Nigger, in 1932. This impressionistic though hardly original quartet piece featured the individual side titles of Watermelon Memories, Coloured Love, Dissipation, and Nigger Heaven. The last title was shared with a 1926 novel of continuing controversy by the white American photographer, writer and major Harlem Renaissance supporter Carl ‘Carlo’ Van Vechten, which had been published in London as well.
Earlier in 1932, Elizalde joined forces with the plumy narrator Christopher Stone for a two-sided history of jazz, Rhythm, Past and Present. It was an honest attempt to aurally educate the audience about the quick evolution of jazz art, a worthy effort because the BBC wasn’t, in 1932, going to go near it. The disc featured classic numbers Swanee, Hot Lips, Stumbling, Doo Wacka Doo, Yes, We Have No Bananas, Charleston, Broadway Melody, and a rather good unnamed art piece illustrating jazz of the future; these examples showed the rise in prominence of jazz instruments, effects such as the trumpet mute, and jazz vocalising. Further and most importantly, the double-bassist and composer Spike Hughes had a long run of highly artistic jazz on Decca Records, heavily influenced by a similar desire to relate to American Negro history as it was then perceived.
Patrick ‘Spike’ Hughes is pivotal in this history. He was both a musical jobber as an arranger for music publishers and a creative force as a composer and gig fixer. His constant employer from 1930 to 1932 was Decca Records, then new and certainly the brashest entry in the record company sweepstakes. Although an honest outfit, Decca cobbled its financing from various international individuals, holding companies, and City of London sources. In a way, the Decca founder EL Lewis was a wide hustler in a quaintly fair-minded way and was eager to take chances, eventually founding the American branch that had the biggest American Negro roster of artists of any label in the 1930s.
A pair of Spike Hughes CD compilations featuring Leslie Thompson : All His Jazz Compositions (Largo 5129, 1994) / 1930-1932 Vols 3 & 4 (Kings Cross Music KCM 003, 1999
Spike Hughes was hired by Decca’s recording manager Phil Lewis to work as a double-bassist and in-house arranger, because of his expertise and familiarity with both jazz and classical music. Allowed to make records as a bandleader, he first attempted to replicate the American records of Joe Venuti’s Blue Four but, being a pen-gripper of the music arranger’s persuasion, most of his recordings featured small jazz orchestras. Although his main influence was the similarly ensemble-voicing-focused Duke Ellington, he was simply swept by the American Negro experience as filtered through the lens of the new jazz music.
This was a composer’s and arranger’s art, a high jazz art that employed but was not primarily dependant on trumpet or saxophone jazz soloists. He worked harmonium into a version of Ellington’s Misty Mornin’ and the more serious and top level jazz players were eager to contribute to these sessions.
Where was the actual black presence in this scene? It was small but, visiting American Negro acts aside, there was hardly any opportunity to break into the white dance band ranks.
There were of course non-white British musicians with high profiles in the jazzy world then, but they were scattered throughout the overwhelmingly white-run English music marketplace. Then as now, musicians generally worked freelance, having to hustle quite hard for jobs in an era when few of them had telephones. Still, the black flavour was slowly getting woven into the patchwork of music and dance entertainment.
The Negro American trombonist Ellis Jackson entered the British scene in 1907, when he was part of a family troupe. He had already been a part of Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra and eventually made London recordings in the very early 1920s with Victor Vorzanger’s Broadway Band. Not much is known about his subsequent work until 1931, when he was scouted and then enlisted by the popular band leader Billy Cotton to play trombone, sing, tap dance, and generally give an intended American Negro jazz authenticity to specific non-romantic numbers such as Jolly Good Company, Truckin’ and Lazybones. His vocal delivery was half-spoken and could at times slide into the lazy, plantation Negro caricature so favoured by white and, to be accurate, black audiences of the day. Jackson remained loyal to the dynamic Cotton, for his band tenure for the latter stretched to two decades.
The African-American pianist Turner Layton composed huge early jazz hits with fellow vocalist and double-act partner lyricist Henry Creamer, including Way Down Yonder in New Orleans, After You’ve Gone, and Dear Old Southland (we’ll hear more from this last tune later). They toured the United States and Europe, with Creamer eventually replaced in the act by Clarence Johnstone, of the more talking-vocal delivery. Success was due to their popularity with the white uppermost classes in New York and Britain, and many UK recordings. According to one story, their London success at The Café de Paris was due to the kind endorsement by the club’s star, the stage and recording singer Elsie Janis, and the resulting positive word-of-mouth of the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII). They also had success appearing in Germany in the late 1920s, where their London-recorded discs preceded them.
Pianist and vocalist Leslie Hutch Hutchinson popularised many songs on records and broadcasts, which would become standards. His long and fascinating career is detailed in Charlotte Breese’s biography. Despite having international experience, being Cole Porter’s lover for a spell, backing the pioneer torch singer Helen Morgan, and cutting Dusty Shoes with the Harry Roy Orchestra in 1933, he didn’t intersect with the jazz combo or dance band world, preferring to occupy his own extraordinary star. Surprisingly, after an early stint in Harlem he avoided sharing the spotlight with other black performers throughout the rest of his days, preferring instead to associate with the most well-off members of white, English high society.
Adelaide Hall’s A-Plus tracks, 1927-1945, compiled by Stephen Bourne (Avid Records AMSC 720, 2001)
The Royal College of Organists-educated Fela Sowande, originally from Nigeria, cut a great many records, even with the young and popular Vera Lynn (before she was Dame Vera Lynn), but often with the former Duke Ellington vocalist and American expat Adelaide Hall. The tracks with Miss Hall are a sublime fruit of the African diaspora in that their home town cultural influences, mixed with that of urban London during the Second World War, resulted in romantic jazz numbers such as Shake Down the Stars and Where or When, and hip songs such as My Heart Belongs to Daddy and T’ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That Cha Do It).
Fela Sowande at a theatre organ, ca. 1939 – photo courtesy of Richard Johnson
Sowande toured with his own eleven-piece band, The Star Music Makers. His African Suite is thought to have been swing-orientated but, alas, never broadcast. If a performance was recorded privately, the evidence of it hasn’t yet been shared with today’s public. It is generally accepted that the Ken Johnson-Leslie Thompson ensemble never performed on the BBC, but this history is obviously elusive. Sowande’s suite has been recorded several times, both in a classical music setting by Trevor Harvey and by the exciting soul singer Geno Washington and his Ram Jam Band. Sowande was certainly versatile; his music ranged from cabaret jazz to Yoruba hymns to modern classical works.
Reginald Foresythe’s finest (Bvhaast CD 0307, 2008) with booklet notes by Val Wilmer
Reginald Foresythe (b. 1907) was a London-born piano prodigy who had worked in Honolulu, Hollywood, Chicago, and arranged for bandleaders Duke Ellington, Paul Whiteman and Earl Hines by the time he was 26. He was described by the weekly popular music trade publication The Melody Maker as ‘futuristic’. He is best known to followers of jazz history as the composer of such very modern jazz works as Dodging a Divorcee and Serenade for a Wealthy Widow (recorded by Fats Waller’s band and the swing bands of Lew Stone and Benny Goodman), and for co-authoring the Earl Hines Grand Terrace Orchestra’s signature tune, Deep Forest. But his ‘New Music of Reginald Foresythe’ made an alternate impression on the British record buyers with classically-tinged jazz. His musically sophisticated approach was a good fit with vocalist Elisabeth Welch and they worked together in the 1930s.
Like his followers, the artfully pensive Alec Wilder (the only 20th Century composer to devise an equal, 50-50 split, of swing jazz and modern classical music) and the sparklingly pixyish Raymond Scott, Foresythe’s unusual composition titles were more than just clever attempts to attract attention – they were perfect descriptions of wondrous impressionistic pieces. Although Wilder and Scott have their followers and their posthumous profiles have risen, Reginald Foresythe has been ignored by both the jazz and classical music camps, falling between two chairs as it were. Regarding the jazz audience, he wasn’t deemed ‘authentic’ enough. During his career peak, Foresythe was perhaps best known in Britain for piano duets with Arthur Young, with commercial British broadcasts beamed from Radio Luxembourg and a repertoire that ranged from medleys of hit songs to the inventive self-penned composition Chromolithograph.
Rudolph Dunbar’s crew ca. 1937, above
The British Guianan jazz and calypso reed star Freddie Grant settled in England in 1937 after having travelled South America. He played with many small Black groups soonafter, including those led by Joe Appleton, Fela Sowande, and Rudolph Dunbar, who wrote a well-known treatise on clarinet technique. Grant’s career deserves to be unpacked and displayed, and it is hoped that a someone else will have more success in doing so.
Dinah – a classic tune already by 1935
But in terms of actual improvisational jazz and rhythmic swing, the era’s Black players of quality have their own collective story with roots in their first all-Negro British band. For that, we need to first focus on Leslie Thompson and Ken Johnson. It is the story of two talents who shared the same determined dream.
Leslie Thompson’s career path was both bold and impressive. As a youth in a Jamaica that provided little opportunity for economic advancement, he fed his hunger for music and musical education in the only way there really was, in a state-sponsored band. In his case it was the First Battalion, West India Regiment, in 1917, starting out on euphonium. He benefited from having as music mentors, players who had been trained at Kneller Hall, otherwise known as the Royal Military School of Music, in Whitton, now in Twickenham, Southwest London. Even today the RMSC offers music foundation courses and the graduates, who aretomwilson soldiers too, find their services splayed out to dozens of military bands. More importantly for the top West Indian talents of one hundred years ago, entrance to Kneller Hall was based on an individual’s ability at an audition rather than on formal qualifications.
Although Thompson’s band was a military one, it did not get sent to the Western Front during the Great War, as did the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR). The latter, like all units on every side, took heavy losses but the West India Regiment maintained strictly a local profile in non-warring, poor Jamaica. As important for Thompson’s musical development was the combination of British and American musical influences. He became skilled in reading and playing written arrangements for Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, and formal dance music. Further musical interaction with captured German officer seamen, conveniently interned in barracks in Kingston, who kindly put him wise to violin voicings; the Deutsche ‘Brüder’ probably picked up a bit of ragtime feel from Thompson and his mates in return.
In May 1919, one month before the forced Versailles treaty, Leslie Thompson made the grade and was chosen to be schooled at Kneller Hall, returning to Jamaica in 1920. He took courses in musical theory and, by the time he was through, he played all brass instruments, clarinet, cello, violin, and a bit of piano and percussion while he was at it. By Thompson’s own estimation, although he’d only been a bandsman, his ability was at the level of a Bandmaster. However, due to the King’s Regulations, only a European could hold such a rank and this institutional racism was not easy to accept.
But perhaps because he was one of only four Jamaicans in the Kneller cohort, he recalled no other discrimination and enjoyed rather successful bonding with the white fellows. Thompson’s empirical slice of experience in the womb of the RMSC was radically different from the segregation his regiment endured back in Jamaica, where the military latrines were divided down the middle to separate black bottoms from the toilet seats marked ‘Europeans only’. Despite the imposed, low racial ceiling regarding military rank, such integration as he found in 1919-1920 wouldn’t occur in the American Armed Forces until three decades later.
Although a prodigious student while at Kneller Hall, Leslie opened his ears to the London music scene. He bought a ticket for a concert of the black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s hit classical work Hiawatha; the visiting Paul Robeson would also hear this in concert later on, in 1933. He also caught some pantomime, but missed the opportunity to see Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra! After completing his eighteen-month education, Thompson returned to Jamaica where his local battalion was merged with the survivors from the war-weary BWIR.
Leslie Thompson was to serve in this musical regiment until it was disbanded in 1926, for it was not martial enough to keep the peace as well as play music. After all, musicians may play instruments, but the police are the instrument of the state. During this time LT freelanced as a teacher in his spare time, and of course played and played. Most of the dance entertainment was via the hired white American touring bands but Thompson and his mates filled in at hotels when the former were not obtainable.
The main avenue for Black players was in the sphere of cinemas, accompanying silent movies, as they were then. Such work paid less and, in comparative darkness aside, or below the silvery screen, the dark-skinned cats (and kittens) weren’t obviously visible!
And then there were the regiment’s own tours to represent Jamaica at the Canadian National Exhibition in Montreal (1922), and the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley (April-October 1924).
The BEE was well promoted with public posters, some illustrating smiling but decidedly dignified black Africans in pre-twentieth century dress. The latter event also featured trumpeter Leslie Jiver Hutchinson, saxophonists Joe Appleton and Louis Stephenson, and was a hit attraction, with many thousands of paying English visitors each day. Although cocooned in a non-civilian existence, these trips appealed greatly to Thompson and allowed him to meet some African brothers for the first time. Private party work organised by a Jewish businessman who’d emigrated from Kingston, and word that a black man with a horn could earn real money in Paris, combined to fix his desire to eventually leave Jamaica.
After 1926, with the West India Regiment no longer funded, Leslie played in theatre bands and small jazz groups but mainly he switched his attention to the cinema circuit as a bandleader, trying to match the mood of the then-flourishing and otherwise soundless films. By 1929, cinemas worldwide were commencing their conversion to audio systems, for the sound films we all take for granted today, but this meant a downward-sloping employment curve for the musicians, who weren’t required any more.
So Thompson reflected on his experiences and his future prospects as he embraced the views of Marcus Garvey. Was racism worth enduring? Leslie was a reader of Garvey’s Black World newspaper and apparently very taken with a book, Jamaicans with Backbone. Jamaicans with dreams and goals might have gone to the reasonably close American South. But it was not only lynching-prone, not good for black folks with demonstrative ambition, it was similarly economically disadvantaged with a white ruling elite and little modern industry. Therefore, Jamaicans headed for New York City, where their generally higher levels of education, unfamiliar accents and immigrant drive were resented by American Negroes. But despite the perceived Harlem opportunities for musicians, such as playing for the black stage shows of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, Leslie decided that London was for him.
Leslie Thompson arrived on a banana boat, the cheapest way to travel from the Caribbean to London, carrying his instruments and kit, in July 1929. The small network of West Indians already in London came to his support by putting him in touch with a base from which he branched out. His first gigs came as a referral from saxophonist Joe Appleton, his old mate from the West Indian Regiment; these engagements weren’t jazz but they were soulful. Leslie found himself a trumpet star in the Jewish social function set, as drummer George Elrick would soon do when he emigrated from Scotland. Thompson’s speciality became the Jewish hit Eli, Eli, popularised by the 1920s star Belle Baker and also a staple of Ethel Waters’ cabaret repertoire throughout her life.
The typical theatrical boarding house, eclectically described in Sarah Waters’ Victorian-set Tipping the Velvet, served Thompson for lodging. They were cheap even if some of the music hall acts sharing rooms were trained animals. This was an era with no reasonable social safety net as we’d know it today – the mining regions of the industrial North especially were being either stiffly exploited or ignored, the 1926 General Strike having had little positive result. Unemployment of adult men and slum housing for all, as described in Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and Walter Greenwood’s Ethel Mannin-inspired Love on the Dole, early, respectful exposés of working class conditions, but they did not change the situation much.
Still, against this backdrop the immigrant musician was undeterred. Leslie Thompson soon learned to hustle for gigs with the white players in London’s Soho, in Archer Street, where this was routinely done. This led to being hired for a touring African-American musical, Brown Birds, run by the American impresario Will Garland and directed by a Jewish conductor, Micky Summers. Although dancers of colour were on stage, they didn’t headline, a white couple did, and Thompson claimed he was the only ‘brown bird’ in the orchestra.
From there Leslie earned a renowned reputation with his trumpet in the pit bands of London’s high profile West End musicals. He worked for the stage musical band of Percival Mackey. These successes included notably the Noel Coward-Spike Hughes composed and Charles B. Cochran-produced The 1931 Revue and soon after, the same partnership’s Cavalcade. The guitarist Ivor Mairants played in Cochran’s Wake Up and Dream revue in 1929 and was then paid a rather substantial £12 per week.
You would think that Thompson probably received a similarly weighty payment but in fact he claimed that for these Cochran stage productions he earned much more, £25-£125 (£4,500-24,000) a week. Well, the trumpet is and was a ‘front line’ instrument and more obvious than an unamplified rhythm guitar. So this horn expert was considered part novelty and part exotic foreigner in the straight London stage show scene, and he was much in demand to contribute jazz sensibility to a non-improvisational setting.
At age eighty-four, he recalled in his autobiography to have played on the studio sessions of Spike Hughes’ Decca-Dents. Previous discographical research disputes this but he did record as prominent member of the Spike Hughes Orchestra in 1932, playing trumpet, trombone, and even the leader’s double-bass. Leslie Thompson was present on 37 Spike Hughes-led records, cut in 13 sessions over three years. This canon of alternately sparkling and emotionally moving jazz work ended in November 1932, only because Spike moved on to America to try his luck with a stellar, all-Negro studio crew out of New York.
Tap Your Feet, written by Phillipe Brun, Jack Hylton’s famous French trumpeter, features a warm Thompson trumpet solo and this perky track succeeds despite two wrong trumpet notes from one of the other two trumpeters in the closing ensemble passage. Hughes had already used this in a dance scene from The 1931 Revue. Leslie Thompson’s skills skated briskly beyond his main instrument; he added a necessary double-bass drive to the slow tempo’d Weary Traveller and a fiercely assured trombone to Six Bells Stampede, a favourite of the African-American dance instructor Buddy Bradley, which became his favourite teaching music.
The two-part, two-sided A Harlem Symphony, Spike Hughes’ first ‘serious’ composition, modelled after Duke Ellington’s Creole Rhapsody, allows the full-horn Leslie to play a shining, spiritual solo on the slower half and a virtual duo with himself on the snappy half. Hughes composed it on William Walton’s piano that was inhabiting Osbert Sitwell’s home and, perhaps as a self-effacing gesture, destroyed the manuscript after the recording session. Thompson’s hot jazz experience, which “couldn’t be learned” but rather “rubbed off,” was an inspiration to the rest of the Hughes band. The fortunate fact is that Thompson made friends with Hughes and their partnership was of mutual benefit. Spike observed only occasional racist reactions to Leslie but wrote that incidents of refusal regarding lodging and service were “an everyday occurrence.”
Hughes’ studio band never did play engagements in Britain. This was an artistic collaboration, with the younger musicians enthusing enough to play the bandleader’s newly-inked compositions and arrangements without prior rehearsal. Hughes was constantly scoring music for stage, music publishers and the Decca company too, and had no time for run-throughs before the recording sessions
As it happened, his main place of work was the Round Reading Room in the original British Library component of what is now solely the British Museum. There the desk space was ample, the enforced quietude was apropos for playing written notes in his head (Spike owned no piano anyway), no telephone would ring as mobile phones do now occasionally in the British Library reading rooms, and the offices’ hub of music publishing was a quick ten-minute walk away in Denmark Street.
The standard recording session in 1930, as a generation later, was to perform acceptable master takes of four different titles, all within three hours. Hughes’ players requested double the studio time to cut two pairs of tracks but they weren’t bothered about suggesting any overtime fees. This is a further example of the idealistic attitude of both the leader and the orchestra itself, and it’s interesting to speculate whether, if there had been a significant pool of Black British jazz musicians from which to draw, Leslie Thompson would have be joined by other players of colour. So although the Spike Hughes group could not be considered a multi-racial one as we would qualify a band today, the whole approach was pointedly sympathetic to the Negro social cause. To Spike’s bemusement, a rather generic two-part effort in this direction, A Harlem Symphony, became his biggest seller, shifting 6,000 copies from the Decca pressing plant and into the hands of enthusiastic buyers.
By 1931, with the Great Depression putting even more people out of work, Decca popular records were reduced in price from 2s. to 1s. 6d. In contrast, HMV and Columbia discs were topping the tills at 3s.; their budget lines, Zonophone and Regal, were still fairly high at 2s. 6d. And bargain labels such as Broadcast and Imperial sold for the proverbial song at the new, lower Decca price. Decca followed the same low-margin pricing strategy in 1934, when they broke into the American market.
Spike Hughes claimed that his later, more adventurous band’s discs generally didn’t sell well but perhaps he meant on an average, for many tracks, ‘sides’ as they were called then, were issued in a stream nonetheless. It was an era when the record industry’s favouring of artistic statement over bottom line sales extended beyond classical music. But this was not aesthetic altruism because disc making and selling was a business, even if a crude and fairly unschooled one. We cannot fully appreciate the musical climate of the 1930s without peering into the world of those who allowed the artists to get their messages across the airwaves and, especially, into the shops.
As a result of the post-1929 Depression era, the 1930s allowed the fairly defeated gramophone market to start again. Therefore, we should look at the disc industry of this era as a new, exciting field that required well-timed financing, luck, and the occasional throw of stock market hype, such as in 1931 when Decca lured Jack Hylton’s loyalty from HMV with an offer of 40,000 Ordinary Shares of Decca stock. This stunt paid-off literally within days when the Hylton Orchestra’s release of Rhymes immediately out-sold the already-recorded Zonophone/HMV version, by shipping 300,000 copies.
It is a minor miracle that the top two British record manufacturers survived for so long. Equity in Decca Records was issued in 1929 and was twice over-subscribed, but the shareholders didn’t make any profit until 1945. Worse, the investors of the Gramophone and Columbia record companies waited at least until the full flow of rock’n’roll to turn a profit after those labels were merged into EMI.
But mainly, this broad, risk-taking bullishness was also decades before any record company, in any country, had a clue about what they wanted to release specifically and how to promote it. A major recording contract artist recorded far more titles than was necessary for profitability. This scattershot approach was wasteful in financial terms, and more often than not, diluted a dance band’s chance to make it big because it ended up competing not only with other acts in a treacly, imprecise way, but with itself too! This eternal scrum took place in retail sales via record shops and bicycle shops, which commonly sold records. Without radio presenters to exploit specific new releases to the record company’s advantage, without enough cash flow for a shop to stock all of the records it would like, nor sufficient shelf space for them all even if it did, there were too many records for sale just as the Depression was reducing everyone’s cash.
A one-off disc, cut by Ken Johnson’s players : Yorke de Souza-piano, Joe Deniz-guitar, Tommy Bromley-double bass, & Tommy Wilson-drums, 1940
Those who did have the spare coppers would visit a shop such as Levy’s, in Gardiner’s Corner, Aldgate, where they would hoard their space in a ‘listening booth’ and, with care and concentration, aurally imbibe the occasional hot jazz release on HMV, Parlophone, Decca, and Brunswick, and maybe, just buy one disc. British gramophone record sales wouldn’t hit their lowest level until 1937, the year of the Jarrow Marchers’ long walk for a living wage.
Today we are grateful for the available multiplicity of vintage session activities when our favourite artists’ tracks get reissued. But the gramophone diskeries weren’t to anticipate that this would ever occur back then. Decca’s more popular acts, such as Jack Harris and Roy Fox, made up in sales for what Hughes’ arty rather than hot dance jazz lacked in the Market of Hummable Melodies.
But Hughes earned a good living throughout the 1930s, becoming the sometimes whimsical columnist ‘Mike’ in the Melody Maker and Rhythm, as well as the Daily Herald’s music critic in 1933. His tastes however didn’t adapt to the coming swing band era and by the late 1930s his jazz writing was mostly about himself as a personality and, ironically, an authority of jazz history.
As all this was happening, Leslie Thompson’s career ascended as well as it intersected with those of the top visiting American black stars. His African-American brothers and sisters were in some of the Cochran-Coward shows and he became worldlier by mutual discussion of the Diaspora’s concerns.
And of course these visiting Americans travelled with their favourite records. He would eventually get the nod from the visiting American jazz leader Benny Carter, adding his horns to a 1936 project for Vocalion Records that included the exquisite singer Elisabeth Welch. Another session, in 1937, with Carter’s hand-picked British players produced well-regarded jazz classics such as Gin and Jive, Nagasaki and I’m in the Mood for Swing, leaving the hot jazz record buyers no doubt of the musicians’ commitment to and ability with jazz improvisation. Carter was then famous for writing state-of-the-art swing arrangements for Henry Hall’s BBC Dance Orchestra, whom he helped for over a year.
More importantly, Leslie Thompson would have been influenced by the current black politics as well. He would likely have known the inspirational Pastor Kamal Chunchie, a Sri Lankan (Ceylon) immigrant and Great War veteran who was noted for his Essex County cricket skills. Despite having been raised a Muslim, Chunchie established what may have been the first black church in England, in Canning Town, and its associated Coloured Men’s Institute. Pastor Chunchie worked closely with Dr. Harold Moody, Director of the London Missionary Society and President of the League of Coloured Peoples. But his and his Welsh wife’s main work was advocates for the black and poor of London’s Docklands.
More centrally in the capital was the West African Students’ Union (WASU). This was formed in 1925 by law students and led by the Nigerian Lapido Solanke and Sierra Leonean Dr Herbert Bakoke Bright. Scholar Becky Givan noted that the British Colonial Office sought out these young men in order to get them on-side rather than risk the possibility of them returning to their birth countries as political activists. It cannot be assumed that the WASU favoured jazz or platters of party dance music in any significant way but the members of the association formed an intellectual leadership in the black community at the time. It only makes sense that these similar aspirations would feed into and encourage one another.
Thompson definitely continued to be influenced by the then America-deported Marcus Garvey. Although known as the 20th century’s first important pan-Africanist, the leader of the United Negro Improvement Association was no stranger to the music business himself. Garvey personally favoured Negro classical recitalists; there were hundreds in Chicago alone, way before Marian Anderson got famous. But by the early 1920s, MG was struck by the zeitgeist fire of jazz and blues and was as eager to tie-in with that scene so that the big artists could thereby be associated with him.
The UNIA-published newsweekly Negro World promoted the topmost Negro artists of the day, including Mamie Smith, Ethel Waters and Clarence Williams. A wide range of the latest Black music was performed at his inspired rallies, including jazz by major acts and the UNIA’s own Jazz Hounds, and many artists such as Fats Waller were eager to be a part of such a major movement. Fats’ longtime songwriter partner Andy Razaf was, immediately after the First World War, a prominent member of the African Blood Brotherhood for African Liberation and Redemption, one of the more organised paramilitary self-defence groups in the Negro community of the day. They were mostly West Indian in background and had at their peak, post-Great War popularity, a membership of 5,000 black men.
Curiously, the ABB was anti-Garvey ! After all, this was a time of real race riots in America, not merely property destruction unrest; racist white folks wilfully sought out their perceived enemies, beating and shooting in countless Black communities, firing guns from speeding cars, and even aerial-bombarding Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Negro neighbourhoods. It’s no wonder that the future record, stage and film star Josephine Baker, having witnessed the horrible and notorious East St Louis riots, found continual succour in Europe and especially in Parisian tolerance.
In the midst of this turmoil, Marcus Garvey wrote Keep Cool, which apparently did not get recorded but was a popular song in published sheet music, even selling to whites and becoming, according to Garvey historian Ted Vincent, the ‘song hit of the season’. Garvey was eventually the victim of embezzlement from within his Harlem-based corporate headquarters. Selflessly and indeed wrongly, he took the rap for it and was deported via the Port of New Orleans, eventually landing on his feet again in London. Marcus Garvey’s messages helped bolster the backbone of this story and we will return to his importance again.
By the early 1930s Leslie Thompson was well aware of Garvey’s messages, delivered frequently at the Speakers Corner in Hyde Park. Paul Robeson, the visiting American actor, vocal recitalist, polymath and eventually persecuted Communist, was a 1930s hit on the London stage and in British film in a big way. While moonlighting from a successful transfer of the stage musical Show Boat from New York City to the Drury Lane Theatre, Robeson earned £84.10, about £25,000 today, for each of four private recitals; he later packed the Albert Hall. He and his wife Essie encouraged budding actors in the black British community and were intimate if honorary members of the West African Students’ Union, which met at least once at the London home of Mr Garvey.
MG also influenced the great Trinidadian cricket ace Learie (later Lord) Constantine, who understood that his representation of his role model status in the West Indies team was not merely political but was following Garvey’s same trajectory toward universal respect. Further, as Garvey’s American newspaper had been read by an international audience, he kept his media engine stoked by publishing another, later newspaper in Britain, The Black Man. In this way both Garvey and his prestigious supporters such as the Robesons passed the torch of inspiration within Great Britain. The communities of colour who had emigrated from the Caribbean and Africa gratefully took hold of it. Some took it and really ran.
Consequently, Thompson’s dream, like those of other Afro-Caribbean players, was to form an all-Black dance band. There were of course African-American jazz musicians who frequented Europe and at this time the clarinettist-bandleader Willie Lewis was riding high with his band on the European Continent. Lewis’ Entertainers, with trumpeter Bill Coleman and pianist Herman Chittison, were so popular at the Chez Florence club in Paris that, from 1936 to 1939, they regularly aired a Saturday night show from the venue on the commercial radio station Poste Parisien. The strong-signalled broadcasting beam of 100,000 watts was aimed to England and featured popular dance music acts, including the singer Al Bowlly. No doubt the ambitious Leslie Thompson got professional inspiration from the Lewis programmes, aspiring for radio programmes of his own. The idealised ensemble of Thompson and other Afro-Caribbeans was achievable and made sense.
Besides cultural affinities, these individuals would have no work permit problems in England. Black music historian John Cowley has described the ease of which British West Indian-born, New York resident stars such as singer-comedian Sam Manning and band leading Trinidadian pianist Lionel Belasco were able to forego fooling around with the Home Office for work permits in 1934; Manning left Britain for New York City in 1938 but had made Stateside audiences laugh before, playing a parody of Marcus Garvey in a 1927 New York-to-New Orleans stage revue Hey ! Hey ! – produced by the political feminist Amy Ashwood (the first Mrs Marcus) Garvey. Leslie Thompson had taken note of Manning already, when the latter headlined early on in Jamaica.
So, unlike American musicians, these artists were British subjects and they didn’t need governmental approval to enter Britain and enrich its aesthetic marketplace. Further, as Howard Rye has pointed out, they suffered no British workforce backlash on the basis of nationality since they were not American Negroes supposedly taking work from white British musicians. Of course, a black British player trying to find food and lodging enjoyed no picnic while doing so, even if it was less problematic than if he or she had been in the American South.
Thompson’s desire for an all-Black British dance band began in 1931-1932, as he was playing on Spike Hughes sessions and perhaps desired them for his own. He first hooked up with pianist George Clapham, saxophonists Joe Appleton and Monty Tyree, guitarist and future bandleader Al Jennings, the professionally male-dressing pianist-dancer Lily Jemmott, and drummer Gus Newton. Soon he linked with drummer Oscar Dawkins and some of the previously mentioned players and formed another all-Black outfit. But neither of the groups got off the ground commercially. His appetite for such a group became ravenous in 1933 when he was hired by the astute Louis Armstrong for a European tour, likely at the urging of black clarinet ace Rudolph Dunbar, who claimed to have ‘arranged’ the jazz star’s European touring ensemble of 1933-1934. And who knew what was possible? Dunbar and his African Polyphony recorded a jazz disc with singer Gladys Keep so success was graspable, on record too.
The swing bands, like all others, were in show business and in that industry many acts come and go, even when what they offer to the public remains in vogue. Unfortunately, despite the much-needed contribution of Afro-Caribbean jazz musicians to the British swing scene, jiving dancers did not always have the opportunity to hear such a group, or, any black swing group, live. The audience for black swing-jazz artists was especially deprived outside of London. Ideally there should have been more all-black and black-and-white bands, but this was not generally the case. There were always exceptions to the norm and the first major one was about to establish itself.
Ken Johnson has the Same Dream
According to Thompson and BBC producer Leslie A. Perowne, the Guyanese student Ken Johnson’s first show business aspiration was as a dancer, but it took him several years to finally make that career leap. After he left school in 1932, he returned to British Guiana, as it was known then, where his father, the Minister of Health, was urging him to study medicine. Johnson instead returned to England to study law at London University, an alternatively respectable career path for a government minister’s son.
But the lure of the Jazz Age, the popularity of its dance music through the big bands, and the high class atmosphere of the London cabaret scene called him to study tap dancing, gaining the eventual encouragement from his parents. His teacher was that respected African-American choreographer Buddy Bradley, who had a strong c.v.
Bradley had already taught Jack Buchanan, the renowned Fred and Adele Astaire, and other Hollywood screen dancers, both black and white. Through the likely recommendation of Leslie Thompson, the heavyweight West End stage impresario CB Cochran lured Bradley from the States to set up studio in Compton Street, Clerkenwell. There were many dancing studios at the time, a prominent one being Santos Casani’s, which flourished in Hyde Park Corner in the 1920s.
Prior to this and more important for our story, Bradley had likely been introduced to Hughes because the latter was already a good mate of the prominent jazz player Thompson. They met when Hughes and Thompson went on a tour of The 1931 Revue, to Manchester. There both Leslie and Spike spent evenings aurally devouring Buddy’s collection of the latest African-American records. Hughes, Bradley and Frederick Ashton then collaborated on an original ballet for the Camargo Society, High Yellow, which played the Savoy Theatre in London.
The title for the ballet, High Yellow, was finally chosen after ‘Prancing Nigger’ and other candidates were opposed by Hughes. High Yellow thus became a compromise title as well as a slight wink to the fact that, exclusively, white stage performers would be dancing to a white composer’s intended Negro music. It would be almost two decades later, in 1948, that Katherine Dunham’s Ballet Negre would dance Caribbean Rhapsody for London Savoy Theatre audiences.
The 1932 ballet was rehearsed with the benefit of recorded technology; instead of hiring a band they could simply play the Hughes records of Six Bells Stampede, Sirocco, Elegy, Weary Traveller and the quick-tempo section of A Harlem Symphony, which were fuller, louder and more rhythmic than if they had just used a dance studio piano. Because it was a ballet, Bradley’s contribution was not tap-dance steps but composing movements for above the knees. It is tragic that, despite financial consideration from Decca Records and Jack Hylton, the ballet was not filmed or recorded on stage, although, to be fair, there was no standard practice for such documentation of staged shows at the time. A film newsreel chronicler may surprise us someday.
So when Hughes wasn’t writing music arrangements for the sophisticated, courageously queer entertainer Douglas Byng, D.L.E. (Dame of the Liverpool Empire), he further got himself the Cochran gig to write jazzy stage pieces with Bradley’s choreography in mind. The floorboard master thus transformed London’s stage and screen dance routines by giving them a fluid, less tethered-to-one-spot quality and, for instruction, the young Ken Johnson couldn’t have chosen more wisely. This in-demand style of dance was, according to the American Negro ex-patriot Elliot Carpenter, “step stuff: buck-and-wing, soft-shoe and Charleston”.
Bradley would hardly have taught white English stage artists how to put overt African sexual expression into their dance. Although black dance music artists have employed dances such as the ‘Pussy Push’ in their music videos since ca. 1985, and it is not considered anything but a most skilful illustration of youthfulness, the competing white dance acts do not, as yet in my awareness, attempt to bump this stylised expression into their repertoires.
Johnson’s mother threatened to stop supporting him financially if he did not return to University, but in the history of the humanities there are countless instances of artists pursuing their calling, rather than the seemingly more sensible path. And so Our Ken began to support himself with various cabaret gigs, tap-dancing to dance bands for the very rich. About this time, in 1934-1935, he went to the United States, where he claimed he had been cast in a few Warner Brothers dancing film shorts, shot in Jamaica, Long Island. He no doubt picked up on the golden age of African-American dance activity, learning either directly or indirectly from dance stars and schmoozing with top musicians.
But here’s where it starts to coalesce: beyond dancing to whatever orchestra happened to be in the house, in a nightclub, hotel ballroom, cabaret, or in variety, the young and handsome Ken Johnson was encouraged to enter the dance band business as a bandleader. Written music was not an altogether unfamiliar world to him as he had taken violin at school. As a fortuitous sidebar to jazz history, the top American Negro bandleader Fletcher Henderson put the notion to him that bandleading was an achievable goal. Further, Henderson even allowed the young dancer to sing, dance and conduct his top orchestra at the French Casino.
Because Snakehips could not extend his visa in the States indefinitely, he was not to either form his own band or toe his way on the Negro vaudeville circuit. In order to join the American Musicians’ Union, if this would have been necessary as a dancer, which at that time was £10 and more than two average week’s British wages. And he would have had to file papers showing his intention to become a US citizen.
Instead, he tried his hand at bandleading in Trinidad, where he formed a touring band with prominent musicians including trumpeter Dave Wilkins, a child star of the local Salvation Army Band, clarinettist Carl Barriteau, saxophonists George Roberts and David Baba Williams, and David’s double-bassist brother John. Baba Williams was a bandleader then, employing both Wilkins and Barriteau, and Johnson hired them for a series of shows at the Empire Theatre. These players would later feature prominently at a key juncture in Johnson’s career. Meanwhile, Ken himself returned to England in January 1936 to further his dream.
Ken Johnson taking a dance turn in Oh Daddy! – 1935
Upon returning to England in January 1936, Johnson struggled with the fact that he was known only as a dancer. While he’d been abroad, his rather pedestrian tap-and- shuffle was well received in the 1935 Gainsborough Pictures film, Oh Daddy ! – an early Michael Balcon production directed mainly by the silent-era veteran Graham Cutts. Johnson likely was chosen for this project because Buddy Bradley produced the film’s dancing sequence.
The cast included the bulging-eyed comedian Leslie Henson (as Lord Pye), Australian ex-patriot star Marie Lohr (as Lady Pye), the bald-headed pair of Robertson Hare (as Rupert Boddy) and Alfred Drayton (as Uncle Samson), actor-singer Barry MacKay (Jimmy Ellison), the American ex-patriate revue star Frances Day (as Benita de Lys), Tony De Lungo (as Count Duval), and Daphne Courtney (as Phyllis Pye).
In the film, Henson and Hare, delegates from a Purity League branch in their local ‘Dunhampton’, found fun on an unintended trip to London. Lord Pye then fell for a ‘cabaret girl’, giving the excuse for the nightclub setting, which featured Johnson’s turn. The screenplay itself was a German import by Franz Arnold and Ernest Bach, re-worked by Austin Melford, who co-directed as well.
Johnson’s routine of elegantly dancing up and down stairs was learned during his timely tour of study in New York, where he likely observed the sartorial style of the dapper, draped and long-tailed Cab Calloway. The ‘Hi-De-Ho’ star’s stylishly exaggerated white tails concept was taken in conservatively and sported by Ken Johnson for the rest of his professional life. Complimenting this appearance, Johnson is said to have performed a formalised hip-swivelling dance, not unlike the famous Harlem-to-Hollywood dancer Earl Snakehips Tucker, the inventor of the shimmy, and from whom he likely borrowed both moniker and some schtick.
According to the Savoy Ballroom historian Terry Monaghan, Tucker used that particular Harlem venue as rehearsal space. Monaghan, founder of the London-based but internationally touring Jiving Lindy Hoppers dance troupe, considered it likely that Johnson observed Tucker practicing his art there. It’s also likely he saw the famous Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, who had popularised his stairs-dance routine as early as 1927 on stage. Robinson performed it in a film with the child star Shirley Temple, at the time of Johnson’s Stateside visit. To Leslie Thompson, the stairs-dance, on an internally-lit double-sided staircase, became a highlight of Ken Johnson’s act, especially while elegantly dressed.
Although Ken Johnson had by then been a dancer of entry-level fame on the cinema screens, he of course needed a seasoned musician, a so-called ‘straw boss’ to rehearse the group and this patient effort was apparently done by Leslie Thompson, who worked hard to form the band, hoovering-up a talented non-white yet diverse ensemble. Thus, two swing cats with the same dream joined forces and marched onward.
Tenor sax and clarinet star Bertie King (above, top), alto sax and clarinet expert Louis Stephenson, fellow saxophonist Joe Appleton (above, bottom), trumpeter Leslie Jiver Hutchinson, pianist Yorke De Souza, and drummer Clinton Maxwell were all from Jamaica. Trumpeter Wally Bowen was from Trinidad. The alto sax and clarinet specialist Robert Mumford-Taylor’s father was from West Africa. The guitarist Joe Deniz was from the long-established black community in Cardiff. Double-bassist Abe Pops Clare was also from the West Indies and another bassist, Bruce Vanderpoye (below, left) was South African. Drummer Tom Wilson (below, right) was from Birmingham. The reed specialist Freddie Grant, later known Stateside as Sir Freddie Grant, was, like Ken Johnson himself, from British Guyana, but he was not a permanent part of the Thompson-Johnson Orchestra; he simply didn’t dig leaving London to go on tour.
It must be noted that King, Hutchinson, Stephenson, De Souza and Maxwell had been doing fairly well with their Kingston, Jamaica-based King’s Rhythm Aces. But in 1935 they disbanded and all but Maxwell emigrated to London at the encouragement of the Soho-based furtherer of the cause, Happy Blake, more of whom will be mentioned soon.
Thompson said he could only find one good black trombonist when he was forming the Ken Johnson-fronted orchestra. However, the particular fellow, possibly the rather lacklustre ‘straight’ playing Ellis Jackson, who sang both conventionally and with Negro stereotype dialect in the Billy Cotton band, wouldn’t join the Johnson-Thompson tour. Jackson was fairly Old School by the 1930s and was probably not prepared to leave the well-booked Cotton crew. In his autobiography, Leslie Thompson instead points to a black Londoner named Frank Williams, not to be confused with the Trinidadian trumpeter of the same name.
This lone black British trombonist reportedly didn’t mix well with West Indians! This problem, common in generational waves of most racial and ethnic immigrant communities world-wide, was problematic for the Britain-based black diaspora, as it still is today. But this difficulty was one that was overcome in the Johnson Orchestra. After all, despite their contrasting backgrounds and some individuals rather wrapped up in ‘aspiring’ toward a notion of white Englishness, they were foremost a black British band working in white Britain. London’s seemingly gravitational pull of UK talent ensured that the musicians’ collective background would provide the Capital, and hopefully the British Isles, with solid, home-grown swing.
The Capital’s Swing Scene
At this point it is necessary to see the wider picture of the Black British Swing scene in the 1930s. The musicians who contributed to the Ken Johnson-Leslie Thompson dance band each had their own career paths and these were often unpaved. It’s not surprising that the Johnson-Thompson bandwagon promised a smoother ride.
With perhaps an archetypal background for big time swing success was the Johnson Orchestra’s guitarist Joe Deniz, born in Cardiff, 10 Sept 1913. His two brothers were guitarists too and although Joe was the only one to play regularly in the Johnson band, Frank took the rhythm chair in the band occasionally. Jazz guitar enabled the siblings to seize musical opportunities beyond Wales and see more than a bit of the world.
Travelling was something their seaman father had done, although he died of pneumonia while on a Russian cruise. Joe’s first musical influences were calypso and the recorded jazz duets of Stateside guitarists Carl Kress and Dick McDonough. He heard dance bands of Jack Hylton, Jack Payne, Billy Cotton and others at the Moss Empire and the Paramount, in Cardiff, 1925-1927. With a prescient ear to the jazz age, he switched from the ukulele and the Hawaiian lap guitar, both very fashionable in the 1920s, to the standard guitar, and finally moved to London 1934.
Joe Deniz’ first regular London job was at The Nest Club, by then moved from Little Poulteney Street to a larger, long basement room in Kingly Street. This West End band included the fab-phrasing trumpeter Duncan Whyte, encouraged by Ike Hatch and moonlighting from The Masterkeys band, and saxophonist-clarinettist Benny Winestone, who would soon move on to Teddy Joyce and His Dance Music at the prestigious Kit-Kat Club. The Nest was frequented by performers from visiting attractions such as the Blackbirds stage musical, including Peg Leg Bates, Buck & Bubbles, Stump’n’Stumpy, The Mills Brothers, Fats Waller, and Django Reinhardt. The pre-stardom Ink Spots were booked by bandleader Jack Hylton for a 1934 tour of London and other major cities.
There wasn’t much work for black musicians in the small clubs, or even in the high-class clubs. The American owner of the upmarket Ciro’s would not allow Joe to substitute for the regular white guitarist with the Ambrose band, while its leader was away. This was ironic as, ten years earlier, Ike Hatch was booked there and, twenty years earlier, the club hired and had recorded Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra, led by the black Jamaican Dan Kildare and described by historian Howard Rye as a quality string band, with a sophisticated Negro New York City feel for rhythm, and “an extraordinary gift for adapting the most improbable material” (i.e., makin’ it funky). Jazz historian, broadcaster, and musician Alyn Shipton further called the band a jazz band, with strings taking on the rhythmic roles that horns would eventually play in the next musical generation.
Even Noble Sissle’s band had played Ciro’s, but despite the club backtracking on its racial policy, Joe Deniz simply found work at the Cuba Club, in the Gerrard Street location that later became the first Ronnie Scott’s Club, and over which was a dance studio. This establishment was run by ‘Jeffrey Daybell’ and another partner, but the real fixer for the entertainment was drummer and sometimes alto-saxophonist Cecil Happy Blake, a key but under-documented advocate of black British jazz.
Happy’s brother Cyril Blake was born in 1907 in Trinidad but arrived in Britain in 1921 via his banjo, which he’d learnt in New York City, and the Southern Syncopators band. After a stint playing for Josephine Baker in the Folies Bergeres in 1931, he struggled back in London but eventually, in 1935, toured Britain and Ireland in The Harlem Night Birds, a revue. But his profile became sharper when he switched to trumpet and was hired by Victor Garland, owner of The Havana, an after-midnight club in Denman Street. A 1936 film, At the Havana, soon followed but Cyril never managed to get fame much beyond Soho although he did put some time in with the Johnson-Thompson Orchestra.
Happy’s given Christian name was George but he instead used Cecil, perhaps because he felt it better suited the Soho nightclub set. Happy was successful in bandleading and broadcasting on the BBC and Parisian radio, but he wasn’t content to merely play in a band, he wanted to call all the presentational shots and further the opportunities for younger musicians of African descent.
And so he ran such 1930s clubs as the Shim Sham and Rendezvous des Artistes, and during the Second World War, the Barberina in St John’s Wood. All his clubs welcomed a multiracial constituency and would continue to do so when he settled in London’s near East End in the late 1940s, where he ran his Trade Winds Club, in Aldgate. Further, he was involved in wider race-advancing organisations, such as the League of Coloured Peoples in London.
Later, after the horrors Second World War, Cyril straddled the Calypso camp, singing and performing on guitar for the Windrush generation and sympathetic white folks whose interest grew from early New Orleans jazz culture. On Shrove Tuesday, May 1950, Cyril Blake and fellow trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton played with their own outfits, and shared the stage, in a combined Caribbean-Mardi Gras festival at the Imperial Hotel in Woburn Place. But in the 1930s, there wasn’t the London audience for West Indies culture and seemingly most people, public and musicians alike, were swept for swing music.
The moonlight subculture afforded an opportunity that was not unlike what was to be found in the United States. It was an urban patch that invited self-definition, a re-forging of one’s identity. And if not for drummer Happy Blake, Britain’s swing jazz scene wouldn’t have been as enriched as it turned out to be. Bertie King, Louis Stephenson, Leslie Jiver Hutchinson, and Yorke de Souza all emerged from Jamaica, at Blake’s, urging, in order to play in the Cuba Club. The Blake band’s repertoire was standard improvising fare, of which Honeysuckle Rose was
typical, with the occasional straight rhumba. Louis Stephenson was then offered a job at the above-ground Shim-Sham Club, by singer-club owner Ike Hatch, who had formerly worked at The Nest and was an important black British jazz activist of the 1930s.
Isaac Ike Hatch came from the United States in 1925 as a singer to his stage partner, the pianist Elliott Carpenter. They competed unsuccessfully with the more popular vocalist-pianist duo, Turner Layton and Clarence Johnstone, who arrived and began recording in England a year earlier. Historian Arthur Badrock has speculated that Hatch may have been partly Jewish because the latter was apparently known for singing in Yiddish. Then again, he was educated and sang in other languages, even operatic arias.
However, Ike and Elliott disbanded their act in 1930 and, although the latter returned to America, Hatch found himself working many late night West End clubs including Ciro’s, which also booked pianist Noble Sissle, trombonist Ellis Jackson, and trumpeter-guitarist Cyril Blake. Most famously, Hatch starred with Florence Mills in Lew Leslie’s touring stage musical, Blackbirds, with a band featuring saxophonist Rudolph Dunbar and led by Will Vodery, the American Negro pianist-composer who had introduced George Gershwin to jazz phrasing and voicing.
By the early 1930s it was suggested to Hatch that he open his own nightclub and so established The Nest, with a name nicked from the famous Harlem club he remembered, and eventually settling in Kingly Street. Louis Armstrong, who toured in 1932 and 1933, put his face in da place by sweeping his band into the club. By 1935 he also opened the Shim-Sham, in Wardour Street. As has always been the case with jazz clubs, exact ownership of these clubs is probably impossible to pin down.
Even the long-running Ronnie Scott’s Club has had assistance in the form of substantial financial supporters and been blessed with benevolent (free) gangland protection. The Shim-Sham was the late night place for musicians of any quality; trumpeter Duncan Whyte and pianist Billy Mason were regulars; and bandleaders Joe Loss, Jack Harris and Harlemcomposer Eddie Carroll hung out there too. Most important to both black and white players was the magnet, The Shim-Sham was for all ‘grand swing men’, uniting the white jazzers and the African diaspora generally with contemporary African-American culture.
Hatch’s goal was to give habitués of Soho a taste of the Uptown in that he remembered from New York City. As part of the African-American diaspora, he was cut off from some changes in that community’s sensibilities and, although he recorded some fine discs for the Parlophone label, his Birth of the Blues was somewhat Jolsonesque and on There’s a New World he sang about a horizon chocka-block with chicken and watermelon. While many of us enjoy both culinary options, this rather old and demeaning Negro stereotype was something to avoid, even in 1935.
Still, Ike Hatch was purveying black New York culture to a wider world, as well as recording sophisticated cabaret numbers of the sort that made Ethel Waters stand out, which he wouldn’t likely have got to perform where he came from. He should be enjoyed through his best records, such as Sing Me a Swing Song, the above-mentioned There’s a New World, and Good-Night My Beautiful, with pianist Yorke de Souza.
His vocal style was formed by both American Negro culture and the European bel canto ideal. Although a touring vaudevillian in America, he chose tuition with Abbie Mitchell, wife of bandleader Will Marrion Cook, and an Italian vocal coach named Sibeli. So he could belt bluesy and hot as well as light opera and Pagliacci. His jazz chops were honed by touring with W.C. Handy’s Orchestra and playing the famous composer’s repertoire: St Louis Blues, Loveless Love, Beale Street Blues, and other tunes that are now classics but, in those days, needed someone with personality to put them over.
Having known Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet, he was a hot stage draw with Elliot Carpenter, settling in Britain in 1925 and for the next decade Hatch & Carpenter played ‘almost every theatre in England and Scotland’, too busy to entertain offers from the Continent.
By 1940 Hatch would have some record success after being signed to the HMV Company, his output competing with that of label mates Ken Johnson’s Orchestra. The Shim-Sham, owned by Jack Iso, competed with the Bag O’Nails, in the western part of Soho on Kingly Street, which had the reputation of an establishment where a man could even get hooked with a sex professional for the evening if so inclined. The Bag O’Nails, like the ‘43 Club in Gerrard Street, was a haunt away from home where jazz musicians, often stifled in their regular dance band employment, could join after-hours jam sessions to improve their improvisational abilities and enjoy the pleasure of alcohol at the same time.
Other clubs included The Panama and Frisco’s, at which the musicians who made up the house bands received £5 a week maximum for their work. The black musicians, generally locked out of the well-paying work with the top bands, would not likely have played late and posh nightclubs such as the members-only El Morroco, at which late night patrons would pre-book their bottles of spirit. Make no mistake, even though jazz musicians generally didn’t like playing in society dance bands, the jazz players of colour didn’t get the opportunity anyway !
Alto-tenor saxophonist and clarinettist Bertie King already had a London reputation since arriving from Jamaica in 1935, for he was and would continue to be a truly top quality player. He played in George/Cecil Happy Blake’s band at the Cuba Club and would continue to play outside of the Johnson Orchestra when he could. King’s alto sang with such feeling that, even at a dance, the dancers would halt their steps and take all his emotion in.
Of course, the good word buzzed among those in the know so that, in 1937, he toured with Benny Carter as well as Coleman Hawkins and Eddie South. One of Carter’s compositions recorded at that time, Lazy Afternoon, was pulled down from off the shelf and dusted off by King for the latter’s own Nixa Records session in 1956. This journeyman player was in and out of the Ken Johnson Orchestra and later many swing outfits in England, Jamaica and the Far East. His work on alto, tenor and soprano saxophones was outstanding but, not being a New York-based American, he was not to become as famous as the Stateside names we know so well.
Ken Johnson flexing his ambitions, June 1935
London and eventual work with the Ken Johnson Band were similarly a magnet for alto and tenor saxophonist Louis Stephenson. Born in Jamaica in 1907, he was exposed to music and literature as a child but joined the West India Regiment mainly for lack of any other opportunities in that poor country. This was by then a well-worn path toward musical education and experience, as we’ve seen. The band had access to quality instruments, purchased from Boosey & Hawkes’ shop in London. Stephenson won a competition in 1924 to play a six-week season at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley.
Also in that group were, as mentioned, Leslie Thompson, Leslie Jiver Hutchinson and Joe Appleton. The fellows played on open-top buses and grandstands, and had numerous female fans and race-curious white onlookers in general. In 1928 Stephenson was discharged from the Regiment due to him branded as “unlikely to become an efficient musician,” but in truth, simply not being cut out for army life, which, like the police force, had the reputation of maintaining a race-based rank ceiling. Louis Stephenson may not have been a very top level player but he made up for it in fire and pride.Don’t think for a moment that the great Garvey doesn’t belong in this story.
Although black racial concerns have often been excised from jazz history, Jamaicans were no different from others in the diaspora in striving to improve their societal conditions. Their island was especially race-conscious as it was the political birthplace of Marcus Garvey, who, it has already been pointed out, inspired the London jazz career of Leslie Thompson. Garvey’s United Negro Improvement League (UNIA) was established in Jamaica, 1914-1917, before it got shipped up to New York City. Garvey’s inspiring messages to the international diaspora are evidenced in some surviving popular music works. Rosa Henderson waxed discs of Black Star Line and West Indies Blues in 1924, the former number also being recorded by Clara Smith.
Garvey’s hit lyric, Keep Cool, sold well, noted earlier in this narrative, and was ironically the theme of his final American speech. Garvey historian Ted Vincent noted an additional Caribbean connection to the Harlem-era UNIA movement in that blues artist Porter Grainger, who recorded one of the eleven documented versions of West Indies Blues, “co-authored with calypso star Sam Manning a song titled Back Home on the Booker T. Washington – which referred to one of Garvey’s ships.”
Further, Garvey got his oratory dispersed throughout the world on shellac 78rpm recordings, playable in your own home, church, or social club. In Jamaica, Louis Stephenson’s father knew the great Pan-Africanist. The St. Thomas-born Romeo Lionel Dougherty became the leading Negro writer in New York on the show business and sports of his community, covering, promoting, and working for the Garvey movement. It’s already been noted that Garvey featured jazz heavily at his events and UNIA-related music was played by such jazz instrumental greats as Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins, Don Redman and even Fats Waller and his Jamaica Jazzers.
Louis Stephenson then worked in the Jamaican silent movie cinemas and met future Johnson Band pianist Yorke de Souza via the latter’s elder sister, Hazel de Souza, who also worked in that circuit. When this avenue of work narrowed due to the new generation of sound films, the saxophonist played theatres, dances and started cruise liner band work on the Canada-Jamaica boat run, which took him to Montreal, Boston and Halifax, where he no doubt heard American jazz in person.
Like their fellow jazz fanciers in the British Isles, jazz-loving Jamaicans looked toward the United States for the language of the era’s swing dance music and the vocabulary of improvisation. Louis Stephenson and his Caribbean cohort picked up broadcasts from WIOD, an AM radio station in Miami, which ran many local and NBC network programmes of American swing bands. Whether Jamaican or English by birth, the aspiration of most British jazz musicians was to sound like the major Stateside swing bands. However, thanks to live radio broadcasts, it could be argued that the West Indian musicians were closer to the American jazz scene than were their fellow jazz followers in England and Wales.
AM (medium wave) radio travels sometimes thousands of miles after dark, as it bounces off the night sky. Before American radio got regulated for commercial interests, Chicago’s stations even had a voluntary broadcasting ban one night per week, so the citizenry could marvel at was going on far, far away. So for radio enthusiasts in the Caribbean, it would’ve been easy peasy to harvest all that music from Manhattan. It could’ve been tuned-in most nights, by anyone.
As mentioned, Happy Blake recruited Stephenson and de Souza to play with him in The Cuba Club and other venues. They arrived via a bargain-transport banana boat on 9 November 1935. With its Latin image the Cuba may have been a haven for musicians of colour since they could crudely fit the club’s so-called exotic image. Latin music received a sudden boost in American popularity in 1941, when the radio networks there refused to air music owned by the publishing rights organisation ASCAP. Latin music was catchy, of great quality and quantity, and inexpensive to licence. In July of that year The Gramophone Record got seriously attuned to the dance floor by hyping the rhumba as desirably ‘primitive and sensuous’.
Leslie ‘Jiver’ Hutchinson autographed to his good mate Peter WG Powell
Also touted to Happy Blake were Bertie King and Jiver Hutchinson, who sailed from the Caribbean, arriving 16 November 1935. They joined Joe Deniz, double bassist Bruce Vanderpoye and saxophonist Robert Mumford-Taylor in Happy Blake’s bands at the Cuba. Blake decided to form a trio feature with de Souza and Stephenson, the highlight of which was Tiger Rag, but the act itself was reportedly rather poor and didn’t live up to the quality of that enduring song. Eventually Blake tired of the Cuba and so started being less tolerant of the owner. And everyone found themselves scufflin’ for work again.
Although there were Negro dockworkers in the East End in the 1930s, a swing musician of colour’s work and life centred in the West End, where he might not see another black brother or sister all day. Paul Robeson played a Negro stevedore in the widely successful 1936, London-shot film Song of Freedom; the matter-of-fact mixing of the black and white workers in the docks may be taken as idealised integration but it was not director J. Elder Wills’ fantasy. Black kitchen and dock workers and visiting seamen from ships did indeed frequent Soho clubs, playing dominoes or checkers, drinking and chatting. These hard-working immigrants were not necessarily jazz aficionados, but enjoyed the relaxation of a party atmosphere the dance music of the day.
To remind the reader, unemployment was likely lurking just round the corner and the musician’s life was often a chain of less than cheerful circumstances. One would now be hard-pressed to find a working musician who hadn’t eaten, anything, for a day or two, but back then such hardship was not uncommon. Often the playing of jobs and even obtaining them required the ability to hustle, a talent that has been increasingly rarer in the Post War jazz scene. One typical engagement took place at Frisco’s Club in Frith Street, in early 1936, with a combo comprised of Bertie King, Louis Stephenson, Yorke de Souza and Bruce Vanderpoye. When the band received a huge £5 tip, a British worker’s average weekly wage, the club owner tried to demand it from the band, but Stephenson stood his ground to the detriment of his job security.
Significant numbers of American entertainers, comedians, musicians, and the like frequented jam sessions at the Jigs Club and The Nest, behind the London Palladium, after their regular paid gigs. Stephenson saw Art Tatum, Fats Waller, the Mills Brothers, perhaps the tap dancer Bill Robinson at these clubs.
According to Stephenson, The Nest was a “nice little night club,” owned by former Kilburn poolroom operator Meyer Cohen, who understood and promoted its reputation among jazz-loving and curious white folks as a happening black nitery. He would get cab drivers to siphon-off the customers from ‘Tractors’, a club favoured by black immigrants and sailors, and bring them to the basement Nest. They’d be set up at tables and supplied with ‘on-the-house’ whisky, with the understanding that the paler customers could then feel free to schmooze with them! And you think London is a zoo today?
The Nest wasn’t licensed to sell liquor but this apparently didn’t matter because the bottles were simply fetched from a nearby off-licence (wine shop) for individual customers. And the club was so isolated from the mainstream white community that Westminster officials were either unaware or hardly cared. The Carnaby Street Nest then became the major black club, competing with the Jigs Club in Wardour Street. Visiting American stars Fats Waller, Garland Wilson and Art Tatum entertained, joining in the spirit of volunteerism and communal fun. Cohen and his wife operated the club as a welcome to anyone of colour, with a cabaret but without any cover charge; the couple greeted all customers personally and were well-liked from mutual respect.
But not all African-American entertainers working in Britain circulated enough to be known by everyone else in that African diaspora. This was especially true of those from the earlier wave of strictly jazz players who had come to Britain in 1919 with the Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra. The trombonist Ellis Jackson, by the 1930s, remained a fixture in the Billy Cotton Orchestra. Drummer-vocalist Bert Marshall, drummer Billy Southward, pianist Pierre de Caillaux and banjoist Joe Caulk were post-Cook 1920s veterans of European work. But the cohort of Black British Swing musicians considered them ‘senior citizen[s]’ and they didn’t mix.
Dinah Miller (1916-1993, shown above ca. 1942), was Caribbean-Welsh East Londoner who, after winning national tap-dancing competitions repeatedly, got UK success singing (and tapping) with the bands of Harry Roy, Jack Harris, Sydney Kyte, and the West Country-based Reginald Williams and His Futurists, among others. During the 1930s she was arguably London’s hottest dance band singer, along with Evelyn Dall. She got to cutting solo discs as “The Personality Girl” on Parlophone, including the endearing I’m Pixilated Over You in 1936, and she tap-danced a path through the 78rpm grooves as well. She shifted to Denmark around 1939, then billed as Diana Miller. She was touring the region and happened to be doing her turn in Oslo in 1940 when the Nazis came to town. So she hopped it to politically wartime-neutral Stockholm, where she settled, gigged, and ran dance studios, and opened a lesbian-friendly club, The Blue Note, based on a Paris club of the same name, where her trio had alternated with Bud Powell’s outfit. Alas, she was not big again in London after World War Two, but very successful in the Nordic countries. Her story has been superbly-researched by Terry Brown in The Discographer Magazine, Vol. 2 No. 5 (April 2015).
Stephenson eventually returned to the novelty-welcoming Cuba, this time with noted organist Fela Sowande, whose stock in jazz circles would soon rise when he played electric organ on an Adelaide Hall recording session. Sowande had previously had the honour of recording numbers from the stage hit Blackbirds of 1936 for HMV.
The (Santos) Casani Club Orchestra’s director-pianist Charlie Kunz used to come in regularly to listen and buy them bottles of liquor. The American ex-patriot was extremely popular on records, due to his easy employment of the piano’s loudness pedal to soften his rhythm and make it gentle. He encouraged the teenaged Vera Lynn by hiring her in the Imperial House Club in Regent Street and his own discs sold well in Germany. In 1936-1937, before Decca and HMV partnered a purchase of his contracted record company, British Homophone, the successful Mr Kunz had sold about 1,000,000 records.
The previously-mentioned Ike Hatch would hustle drinks and money from customers. According to Stephenson, an admittedly unexceptional player, they were all hustling to varying degrees, but the truly less talented did it more often. When Hatch tried to put the touch on Kunz, Stephenson squashed that idea while insulting Hatch in the process. The result was, the altoist was sacked again for merging his mouth with his principles. Sowande soon led a rew into the Florida Club, in 1938, but after Ken Johnson had completed his gig; this band later included Bertie King, who did not join them at the Florida because he was touring elsewhere in Europe at the time.
Ken Snakehips Johnson’s West Indian Dance Band, Florida Club, 1938
The Florida wasn’t a den of faux exotica but a classy, expensive night spot, which would later in 1938 be taken over, unusually in the history of such London clubs, by Adelaide Hall and her white, English husband. The musicians were getting £15 per week, about £750 at the time of this writing, but told Stephenson the pay was £12. Possibly afraid that he’d put the Musicians Union wise to their skim-scam, Joe Deniz and others in the group decided to then simply exclude Stephenson for fear that he’d start trouble.
London’s swing musicians of colour found it possible to masquerade as Cuban, Brazilian or Argentine players. Perhaps the most successful was the Hermanos Deniz Cuban Rhythm Orchestra, led by Frank Deniz with pianist wife Clare Deniz and his guitarist brothers Joe and Laurie. This band was popular on the BBC during the war, attracting over five-million listeners on a broadcast. As black players were already considered somewhat exotic by the white English club goers, they helped make plausible a Latin act. The popularity of generically-typed Latin-flavoured music was similarly ascendant in the United States.
The Embassy Club, in Bond Street, featured Louis Stephenson with Dennis Walton on trumpet, pianist Marino Barretto, Edmundo Ros on drums, Donald Griffiths on bongos. The club was frequented by the Duke of Kent and had some twenty years earlier offered customers the Stateside Negro band, The Southern Syncopated Orchestra, of the jazz Old School. The venue though also had a glass roof, aesthetically-striking during normal times but quickly customer-repellent when the Second World War began, such was the fear of aerial bombing.
Sheet Music of Lauderic Caton’s The Java Joint, 1941
Although Ros went to the BBC and fathomless fame, Stephenson chose to go into The Nest, by then in Denman Street, with Cyril Blake until 1941. Also in the band were Lauderic Caton on electric guitar, Errol Barrow on piano, and a Mr Newton on drums. He was paid £12-15 per week, with bandleaders getting £20-25. An unexploded bomb hit the pavement outside the club. At the urging of club frequenter Steve Race and others, Stephenson enlisted for the Forces as a musician, although he played for Jiver Hutchinson when on military leave in 1944. His band was billeted in Chichester and later in Norfolk, and included drummer Tommy Wilson, Frank Wilson, and Freddie Grant on tenor sax. They played in the area of The Broads (Norfolk), suffered racist treatment and were so remote they never recorded.
Although some black musicians emphasised their English or Scottish birth, Stephenson observed ‘no subtleties’ in the way Negro musicians were treated from one to another. He was then posted to Scotland and made an aircraft hand, then moved to Northern Ireland. He left the service in 1945 when, via some governmental influence, he was discharged, just in time to finally join Jiver Hutchinson’s outfit (more on this later), which had just returned from an ENSA tour of India. With Jiver’s band, he went to the seaside resort of Knokke, near Brugge, in Belgium. And typical of the job focus of the era’s journeymen jazz musicians, Stephenson the saxophonist played a borrowed double-bass.
Later in the 1940s Stephenson had a stint at The Hungaria with the black Liverpudlian trumpeter Dennis Walton, who had played a generic Latin music with Edmundo Ros’ popular group. But the saxophonist soon ditched his instrument for a double-bass because he “couldn’t get a job with the alto.” Their rhumba combo played relief opposite Oscar Grasso’s dance band. Stephenson complained that Ros transferred the rhumba’s off-beat rhythm to an on-beat one, which supposedly made it easier for mainstream English audiences to dance! But back in the 1930s Stephenson could not have known which paths to follow for career longevity.
Another hand-to-mouth type of gig in the 1930s was getting employed, usually incidentally, in a film, as had Ken Johnson in Oh Daddy ! Guitarist Ivor Mairants was successful in this sideline in that he appeared in several films, in the background, in costume, and always with his instrument, but this was not real work, even for an actor. Usually however, such employment in the movies was limited to what amounted to a walk-on in a musical setting. Through an agent named Cox, Stephenson landed a role as an Arab in the 1939 spectacle film, The Four Feathers.
Although the Archer Street recruitment scene would later be the jazz and pop musician’s official and informal employment agency, in the 1930s much of this was done by word of mouth. Ken Johnson would have felt out of place there for reasons of race and possibly class. His recruiting for permanent players, which would come later, would take place elsewhere.
In 1937 Bertie King tipped Louis Stephenson to accompany him on the American jazz star Benny Carter’s Holland tour, which centred at Scheveningen and lasted several months. Stephenson learned a lot about saxophone phrasing from Carter, which amazingly didn’t please London bandleaders when Louis found himself back in the Capital. The Carter crew included white English clarinettist Jimmy Williams, French drummer ‘Momarche’, and a Dutch trumpeter.
They made records and a broadcast, and heard Coleman Hawkins in Amsterdam. Stephenson played on Skip It, Lazy Afternoon, I Ain’t Got Nobody and Blues in My Heart, but never played solos. He met trumpeter Arthur Briggs and American altoist Jimmy Johnson in Paris. Carter then wanted to reduce the size of his band, retaining Bertie King as the lone alto, but he touted Stephenson to Eddie South for a fortnight tour of Amsterdam. South, known as the ‘Dark Angel of the Violin’, by then was a seventeen-year jazz veteran and a jazz draw in Europe for almost a decade. Also in the band was the American drummer Tommy Benford, formerly with Jelly Roll Morton, who introduced him to hashish joints. Such was a jazz musician’s life then.
This sketch of the life of Black British Swing musicians explains their choices to some degree in an era of uncertain world peace and with neither recording certainties nor Arts Council grants. Against this landscape, the Snakehips Johnson Orchestra was reliant on the established employment avenues of music hall tours and the promise of radio broadcasts and commercial records, just like the big time white dance orchestras. No wonder that black musicians were eager to join with Ken Johnson.
Two Dreams Merged
Thompson and Johnson had some difficulty arriving on a consistent name for their dance orchestra, settling on The Jamaican Emperors of Jazz; but by whatever name their first gigs were called in the spring of 1936, the toured cinemas and other venues throughout the country, barely covering expenses but extablishing their exceptional reputation. The performance locations included London locations, such as The Troxy in Stepney, The Trocadero at Elephant and Castle, The Grand in Clapham, and The Dominion in Hounslow. And more than with any other British dance band, the act of dancing was really emphasised. The outfit was also on stage countrywide with the African-American vocalist-trumpet star Valaida Snow and The Five Ebonites, an American Negro dance troupe, at The Paramount Theatre in Liverpool and at other locations in Paramount’s chain, in a package tour billed as Dark Doings.
Ken Johnson & Jiver Hutchinson, backstage at the Paramount, Newcastle, October 1936 (Victorian Jazz Archive)
Just to remind you, jazz historians have largely ignored the draw of dancers to swing era performances and how strongly this lure of the new rhythm made gigs profitable in the first place. Those who attended to hear brief solos or to study an individual musician’s technique were not typical of the hoards that merely longed for a hot night out and who, more often than the record collectors, heard live musicians swinging out. Indeed, the initial disc-treasuring collectives who met for recitals of their favourites were called ‘rhythm clubs’. They would meet for frequent, themed spinnings of, say, the 78s of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven. And although these were aural illustrations of solo techniques, instrument phrasing and the like, the thrill of hot-tempos and the swing feel, smack in the heart of the jazz century, was not lost on the listeners.
Ken Johnson fit right in to the swing scene because, as he featured his dancing with the band’s repertoire, it was both an invitation for punters to dance too, and an affirmation that their jiving was legit. Indeed, his stage work included featured dancers Lulu and Charles, when he was moonlighting as conductor for a short-term theatre tour of The Monarchs of Rhythm, a mixed band that included drummer Tom Wilson, and the American pianist Garland Wilson, who played for both bandleaders Jack Payne and trumpeter Nat Gonella.
It should be remembered that this was an era when some ballrooms forbade all but ‘strict tempo’ dancing which was foundationally opposed to dance-as-free-expression and, when danced entirely throughout an evening, hopelessly constricting as well. This strict tempo, swing music thrown into a cell block, was the preference of dance instructor Josephine Bradley and other ballroom arbiters of so-called good taste.
However, when swing music seemed to have decidedly won the battle of the feet, in 1943, she perhaps confused her flock by hiring hip musicians for a series of swing dance recordings under the banner of Josephine Bradley and her Jive Rhythm Orchestra. Expressive ‘Yankee’ dancing and other visual or aural expressions of swing band appreciation were often denigrated as merely the ignorance of the young. Enthusiastic, rhythmic hand-clapping that would have been the thing to do in a majority-black setting was termed as ‘indiscriminate’ by English fans during Duke Ellington’s earlier 1933 performance at The Trocadero Cinema. And it still is, by this white writer’s experience in majority-white venues today.
Duke Ellington’s successful tour and massive influence was a religious-like conversion to jazz of many curious punters. The future best-selling Marxist historian Eric J. Hobsbawm, then only 16, was swept for the band at their Streatham performance and he soon after became the jazz critic for the New Statesman. But physical, rhythmical, joyful reinforcement of live musicians was and largely still is forbidden by white folks, who, in this respect, are sadly shackled.
Leslie Thompson told how he rehearsed the band to attain the Jimmie Lunceford ‘lift’ as a role model. Like Lunceford, arguably the most popular African-American band with Negro audiences of the 1930s, Leslie had individual sections rehearse on their own. This strategy, also employed by the Chick Webb Orchestra, winners of several battle-of-the-bands competitions at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, lit up a friendly competition within the band. Rehearsals were held at a location on Gerard Street, which later became the Big Toe Club and was more recently a Chinese Cinema. During this time the band’s publicity posters were not consistent but Ken Johnson’s name was often top billing and the orchestra itself usually named as, alternately, The Aristocrats of Jazz, The Emperors of Swing, The Emperors of Jazz and sometimes the Jamaican Emperors of Jazz. By late 1936 the band had successfully toured England, usually billed as Ken Snakehips Johnson and his Emperors of Jazz.
Although Leslie Thompson was the original financial backer and, musically, the practical organiser of group, Johnson and his manager legally formalised their joint ownership of the orchestra and essentially cut the multi-instrumentalist Thompson out of any financial interest. Ken and Leslie’s effort had been done on a handshake but, when the promise of real success was seen on the horizon, Ken legally gave Leslie the boot by ignoring him, as if he’d never had any input. We can call this ‘Ken’s Coup’ and it can be seen as a heartless breaking of brotherly bonds and bald opportunism. Nowadays, we live in a more litigous society, where someone similarly, allegedly cheated, could sue damages in court.
Leslie curiously never recovered his stature in the music industry and barely spoke about it. And Ken’s side of the story simply wasn’t, isn’t available. We have no way of knowing today the likely complex relationship between the two leaders. Thompson later wrote his autobiography with Jeffrey P. Green, published in 1985 and again in 2009
Two years thereafter, Thompson decanted his life story verbally to the renowned jazz author Val Wilmer, who was commissioned by the British Library Sound Archive for the purpose of contributing to the institution’s Oral History of Jazz in Britain Project. But as important as this evidence is, it’s only one side of the story and there’s not much detail.
Although Joe Deniz indicated in his oral history that the manager in question was the ‘French-sounding’ Leon Cassel-Gerrard, of Anglo American Artists, he actually came on the scene a bit later, when the orchestra scored their Café de Paris booking. The sly agent in question was, in fact, Ralph Deane.
This was in early 1937, just as the band was already playing regularly in the West End at the Florida Club, a ‘bottle party’ (late-drinking) establishment, in the cobble-stoned South Bruton Mews, and run by one Captain (possibly Major) Halsey, ex-Coldstream Guards, who would soon sell out to Adelaide Hall and her husband. The band was booked for a six-week ‘trial’, from New Year’s Eve (31 December 1936), just as the band was about to make the big time. Thompson earned at least £20 per week and the rest of the players less; this was good money when the average wage then was considerably less than a fiver.
But although wages were not at issue, many of the band’s important personnel left at this legally valid but socially disputatious juncture: Arthur Dibbin and Wally Bowen on trumpets, Louis Stephenson and Bob Mumford-Taylor on alto saxes and clarinets, Bertie King on tenor sax and clarinet, Yorke de Souza on piano, Bruce Vanderpoye on double-bass, Joe Deniz on guitar, and Tom Wilson on drums. Bowen (shown below) was the last player to join The Emperors of Jazz, having joined just in time for their late 1936 tour. Dibbin’s was a double loss as he’d occasionally handled the vocal chores and was well-reviewed in Melody Maker; originally from South Wales, he was an old mate of Thompson as both had been together in the Brown Birds show, seven years earlier.
One possible lure of Ken Johnson towards full ownership of the band was likely to have been a personal reference to a well-connected cabaret artist manager, the previously-mentioned Leon Cassel-Gerard. He was a rather well-rounded agent in a career that ran from the 1930s to the 1960s, favouring singers, actors and singing actors with his representation.
These would include Graham Payn, Beryl Richardson, the previously-mentioned variety star Douglas Byng, the West End musical Salad Days lead Eleanor Drew, jazz saxophonist Harry Gold’s Piece of Eight, The Old Vic Theatre Company and television actress Irene Sutcliffe, the North American actor Tom Conway who has starred in the film Traitor Spy, the James Bond creator Ian Fleming, the black New Orleans singer Marie Bryant, the Caribbean-originated Les Ballets Nègres, and the quintuple-lingual Trinidadian classical baritone recitalist Jan Mazurus, who had performed for Toscanini. We’ll return to Cassel-Gerard, who enters the Johnson sphere later, but was, at this point, no doubt eyeing him as bookable talent.
He was well-established by 1938 to provide the Embassy Club’s entertainment and, since they owned The Café de Paris, it’s no wonder that his status in the industry impressed Ken. One example of how important Cassel-Gerard was is an exchange of letters between him and a BBC producer, with whom he had to postpone a meeting due to a sudden demand by the Embassy to provide a few more entertainers. Putting-off an important radio programme manager no doubt took some courage. Perhaps it was an anxious three days wait for the BBC reply.
November 4th 1938
Dear Mr. Brown,
I have just received a message from the Embassy to provide some extra turns for Monday night as the entire club has been booked for a private party by one of the members.
Unfortunately, this means I am unable to invite you to the club on this particular night. If however you would still give me the pleasure of your company for dinner I would be delighted.
Perhaps you would be kind enough to telephone me as to your wishes.
Yours very sincerely,
7 November 1938
Reference: PP/PB [BBC]
Dear Mr. Cassel-Gerard,
Many thanks for your letter of the 4th November and I quite understand the circumstances which prevent us from meeting at the Embassy Club tonight. It is agreed that I defer my visit to the evening of Tuesday, 29 November.
With kind regards,
Nina Mae McKinney at BBC TV demo session, with Yorke de Souza on left, 1937
Because of The Emperors’ success at the Florida Club and the offer of an ‘indefinite contract’, beyond the originally agreed six months, the orchestra would have been decimated if the bandleader had not already prepared for what approached industrial action. Ken Johnson thus sought out quality replacements while retaining Jiver Hutchinson and Yorke de Souza from the original Thompson-constructed crew. Yorke left for a bit to tour with singer Nina Mae McKinney in Britain, including an early BBC-TV appearance, the European Continent, and Australia, and also gigged and recorded with that global jazz adventurer Benny Carter.
Meanwhile, Ken’s new recruits were those he knew from visiting Trinidad on his way back from New York in 1935: Carl Barriteau, Dave Wilkins, David Baba Williams and George Roberts. They arrived in May 1937. Scouting, even the ‘raiding’ of whole sections of band personnel was nothing new, for James Reese Europe had taken a holiday in Puerto Rico in 1916 in order to recruit reed players for his famous 15th Regiment band. Raiding was tolerated with a shrug by bandleaders of the era; when Benny Goodman hired a musician from Glenn Miller, the bandleaders would come to an agreement.
George Roberts, Dave ‘Baba’ Williams, & Carl Barriteau endorse Conn saxes, Melody Maker, 1937
The West Indians’ elegance was perfected at the Florida; as Melody Maker reported, they sported “white suits with black shirts, white ties and shoes, and red carnations in their button holes.” The blended well, playing their own sets of “rock steady” and “fine swing,” and included interesting compositions such as Cowboy in Manhattan and, during the 2 a.m.-and-onward sets, devoted themselves to cabaret. Guests, such as the premiere torch singer Helen Morgan, had a turn with the band, Clare Deniz, Frank’s wife who replaced Yorke de Souza, played “excellent” piano, Joe Deniz played the new concept electric guitar, and Snakehips himself offered frequent displays of his tap-dancing. This went on until 5am.
The band not only continued on at the Florida, they took stage work as well, from the London Coliseum to one-night stands throughout England and Scotland. Such a wearying schedule led to more good fortune as the orchestra was scouted by BBC producers Leslie A. Perowne and John Burnaby at a Shepherd’s Bush Empire gig. The result was the crew’s first broadcast, in January 1938.
The former record retailer Leslie Perowne was the BBC’s record chief by this time, notable for the introduction of serious presentations of recorded discs. The exact origin of playing records on the radio has never been satisfactorily determined, but although this practice was going on for a generation, Perowne is probably the father or at least one of the pioneers of the ‘cross-fade’, which he perfected later in 1941. This was a virtually announcer-less and seemingly seamless seque of discs that eventually reached its pinnacle in disco-salsa, hip-hop, and otherwise funk DJ practice. Perowne’s concoction probably succeeded aesthetically because he readily embraced swing-dance discs. Not just a gimmick to avoid the Musicians’ Union performance rate, this only worked because he knew that the listeners were familiar with the canon of recorded music and would take in the fascination of various recorded artists made to aurally work together. He even coined a term for this art form: ‘Gramosaic’.
Perowne was undoubtedly aware of the increasing practice of playing music for factory workers, which would be widespread during the Second World War. However, researchers of industrial efficiency had already carried out their experiments with workplace proletariat in the fabric field. They’d measured age group responses in attitude, productivity, and time of day, against a background of a variety of discs played over the loudspeakers. Naturally, workers didn’t like formal one-steps or marches, but preferred dance music. It’s a sure bet that the astute Leslie Perowne was keen to make the BBC’s music less ‘elite’. The fact that the super rich were grooving to the Ken Johnson swing band, proved that even upper class tastes were moving on. And the BBC’s own research noted that only 10% of the audience objected to the spinning of records on the air.
The BBC at the time reluctantly allowed swing music, usually in highly formal presentations. At this time the pre-honours Dr Adrian Boult was not merely the overseer of classical programming but actually the BBC’s Director of (live) Music, a difficult bias for swing music followers to overcome. So it followed that, in 1933, Radio Luxembourg led the overseas pack for commercial, alternative radio, especially since the BBC refused to allow dance music on Sundays in an era when many working people toiled a six-day week. This tactic would be repeated by the offshore ‘pirate’ radio stations and their tide of 1960s pop music, until Tony Benn MP banned commercial radio.
Radio Luxembourg hired away the BBC’s looser, more conversational announcers for pre-recorded (on disc) programmes that were soon broadcast from Luxembourg itself. Despite the BBC’s attempts at preventing the nation’s stars from working for both The Corporation and its competitors, soon Gracie Fields, Stanley Holloway and the leading Jacks of the British dance band scene, Jack Payne, Jack Jackson, Jack Hylton, and other top swingmasters such as Debroy Somers were playing to the advertisers’ market as well.
Listening audiences thrilled to this format, perhaps even to sponsored product announcements as would be naturally expected in a programme such as the Rinso Radio Review. The BBC gave up their futile Sunday dance music ban in 1938. Even their own house dance band, directed by Henry Hall, was rumoured to have cut a deal with Radio Lux, whose audience was double that of the BBC and half that of all European radio stations put together !
But for the then-desired classy presentation, printed media coverage and transmission quality, the BBC was the best avenue for a band’s electronic performance. Besides, after the official start of the war in September 1939, many independent Continental stations, especially Radio Luxembourg, went off the air as they were suddenly under threat from the Nazi Dictatorship, media censorship being one of the first things that dictators set out to do.
Leslie ‘Mr Segue’ Perowne had to make his pitch for Johnson’s ensemble to Arthur Brown, the BBC’s Variety Bookings Manager. At this time, one-thousand new acts would be auditioned during a year but only 6% would actually get to see their names in the Radio Times. But as the Johnson band was observed live in performance anyway, a formal studio audition likely was unnecessary. Ken’s crew were playing exciting swing in the American Negro style and doing it better than their British competition. Don’t forget, the Caribbean cats would’ve earlier had their ears ripped off by top Big Apple talen on almost any night, just through their radios : Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman. The British island natives could only buy the records.
Normally, variety acts rehearsed for programmes by arrangement with the BBC but it was decided, probably between the Variety and the Outside Broadcasts departments, that Johnson would conduct his band directly from The Café de Paris, supplying a composition running order and a continuity script in advance for approval. Although his first airings, from January 1938, were performed in a BBC studio, The Café de Paris later provided an aural atmosphere that would have been impossible to replicate in Broadcasting House and so the nightclub became the broadcast source from the end of 1939.
Although the BBC had a fixed land line system of telephone-type cables from the venue to Broadcasting House, the engineers, surprisingly, set up and then removed all their microphones, mixing desks and the like for every Johnson broadcast. The stated reason was that prior to any future off-site broadcast the equipment would be stringently tested again before being loaded onto the vans for another job, but we can assume that the BBC’s resources were finite then as they are today, didn’t want to leave their gear behind, and had to be prepared for any ‘O.B.’, ‘outside broadcast’. In favour of The Café de Paris, its secure and privileged location meant that punters would not gatecrash the BBC microphone and, ever-so-naughty for 1939, yell a greeting to their mother – this sometimes happened with remote programmes.
A swing band generally played into two microphones, one being for the vocalist, and this was standard practice in the United States as well. Such a seeming limitation was hardly a hardship in the dance band era because the various brass or reed sections would balance themselves by the loudness or softness of their playing and, for extra emphasis, some of the players would stand up to play and get closer to the microphone. The very top-earning American bandleader Kay Kyser could afford to travel with five microphones for his remote broadcasts, as well as his own engineer, but this expense would have unnecessary with the BBC’s staff, who were used to using up to eight microphones and, along with Abbey Road engineers and some in Berlin studios, the best sound recordists in the world.
In late 1938 or early 1939, the Ken Johnson band even got to perform on BBC Television, his orchestra dressed in their swish band uniforms. Fortunately, the television studio was not decorated in an American antebellum plantation setting and in Britain there was no required need for such foolishness. For evidence of dignity, we need only think back to Johnson’s proud turn in Oh, Daddy ! and the distinguished appearances of Elisabeth Welch, the dancers Buck & Bubbles and The Nicholas Brothers, and pianist Turner Layton in 1937’s Calling All Stars.
The BBC first demonstrated this new form of broadcasting on the public airwaves in 1936 and soon after introduced multi-camera work and remote broadcasting, such as the Coronation of King George VI, which was viewed by 100,000 people in the viewing area, the South East, from Cambridge to Brighton. No doubt the audience viewing figures for Johnson’s Orchestra a year or so later were considerably less. But the fact that Gerald Cook, then the Director of Television, hired a black modern dance band speaks volumes for their popularity. And although it’s a pity that even silent film has not survived of the performance, we do have pictorial evidence of the smartly dressed, ahead-of-their-time ensemble swinging from the television studio bandstand.
In 1939 the Ken Johnson Orchestra was billed in a minor but sociologically interesting pre-Second World War film, Traitor Spy. The band is however a small one, fronted by Jiver Hutchinson, the only one of the lot with Ken Johnson experience. It is likely that Johnson himself was too busy on tour. Jiver’s mate Peter W.G. Powell speculates that most of the band is that of Fela Sowande, who took over the Florida Club entertainment when Johnson’s crew departed for Willerby’s Club. Film historian Stephen Bourne discusses the egalitarian casting of this film in particular, in his fascinating yet finely-detailed 1998 work, Black in the British Frame: Black People in British Film and Television, 1896-1996.
And, as time heals rifts and nothing accelerates one’s sense of pace like wartime, King and Hutchinson were eventually back in their chairs for the occasional disc waxing or broadcast with Ken.
It is worthwhile to understand the various backgrounds of Johnson’s 1937-hired key players and their desire to escape from an increasingly poorer economic climate throughout the West Indies. This gave rise to violent, mortal labour disturbances throughout the Caribbean and the rise of nationalism there. The wages then and there were extremely low, with even the highest paid agricultural labourers paid 1s3d per day, approximately £17 at the time of this writing.
And the public were disenfranchised politically in that, even in Jamaica, only one-in-seventeen citizens had the right to vote and a candidate was legally required to be rich! No Caribbean musician, dockworker, or any worker in late 1930s Britain would want to return to such a depressed landscape, however sunny and family-orientated it was.
Future trumpet star Dave Wilkins, 1945
Trumpeter Dave Wilkins was an obvious player for critic Leonard Feather to champion in the Melody Maker weekly as a ‘first-class jamster’. Wilkins was born in Barbados in 1914, the 10th and last child in the family. His father was a preacher and despite his family having been a non-musical one, a few of Dave’s siblings also played instruments. His first jazz influence was enjoying Bix Beiderbecke’s lyrical solos on The Paul Whiteman Orchestra’s shellac records at a neighbour’s home. The Salvation Army band would play outside his own family residence and, after a while, he learned their repertoire. By the age of twelve he was playing cornet by ear, but soon after took a correspondence course from the U.S. School of Music, in order to learn music notation fundamentals. He soon gigged in St. Vincent and Martinique, but by 1934 filled the trumpet chair of The Jazz Hounds in Trinidad.
This group also featured Bert McClean on piano, Carl Barriteau on alto sax, Richie Keith on tenor sax, and John Williams on double-bass. John was the brother of Dave Baba Williams, the tenor sax player. As noted, Ken Johnson passed through Trinidad in 1935 and the musicians he hired while there later in 1937 came in handy when required to re-organise his London dance orchestra. Johnson wanted to hire a few of the men but such offers were an old joke because many of them had not come to any result. The only person he tried to take back to England there and then was John Williams, who, unfortunately, still owed instalment payments on his instrument to band mate Keith, and the latter went and hid the bass. Williams wouldn’t or couldn’t skip the country without it, so he didn’t sail with Johnson and instead started his own group with Barriteau and Wilkins.
But seeking security, an elusive status for most jazz musicians, Dave Wilkins joined the local police constabulary band. The director, Captain Dennison, was a graduate of Kneller Hall, the Twickenham-London-based Royal Military School of Music. Although he officially operated a military-styled band, he was no ‘square’ and thus also featured a dance outfit culled from the fuller ensemble. For this hipper and in-demand band, he was of course keen to hire jazz players – with stamina! The typical night’s work for Trinidadian bands meant playing a dance in the format of two long sets: 9pm-midnight and 1-4am. Also in the trumpet section was Frank Williams, Stanley Braithwaite was on piano, Carl Barriteau was on alto sax and tenor saxophonist Freddie Grant also held double duty as the band’s librarian.
Wilkins had served five of his six months dance band probation when a contract from Ken Johnson reached him, Barriteau, George Roberts, and Baba Williams. These four artists were key to the reformed Johnson Orchestra of 1937. The West Indian trumpeter Wally Bowen also made the leap to London but he died in 1939 of lung trouble.
Dave claimed that the contracts for himself, Carl Barriteau, George Roberts, Dave Baba Williams were for £5 per week each, about £1,400 today and back then the equivalent of $24 in Trinidad, for a period of five years commencing May 1937. It must have seemed a fortune indeed to Trinidadian players keen to escape a depressed Caribbean economy.
But it was considerably less than the £11 per week Joe Deniz received, a flat rate, with no increase, worth perhaps £3,00 today. The official Musicians’ Union rate for London musicians during the war was £10, 10s per week, but obviously Ken Johnson’s group was out of the industry workers’ loop.
It was customary for swing band musicians to get extra money for recording sessions but these rates were frozen for years and did not take inflation or wartime entertainment business profits into account. Top West End nightclubs increased their profits from war time by 300% from just 1941 to 1942 and several venues, Quaglino’s and Hatchett’s, boosted their take 1,000%. Regardless, during this era the average worker made £3 weekly (£900 at the time of this writing) and even £5 would have been adequate to secure a home mortgage outside of Central London and rented accommodation within.
Publicity shot with Carl Barriteau, Dave Wilkins, Ken Johnson, Abe ‘Pops’ Clare & Jiver Hutchinson, ca. 1938
Ken’s Coup was possible because his wages exceeded what black musicians could earn elsewhere, certainly more than in the ever-spawning small swing music groups in Soho. The leader was further fortunate to have Leslie Jiver Hutchinson accept the role of straw boss without demanding co-owner status. He had been an important player in Jamaica before settling in Britain in 1935. In June 1938 he and his old mate Bertie King played a septet recording session, privately organised by guitarist and future bandleader Vic Lewis, with trombonist George Chisholm, pianist George Shearing, double-bassist Joe Muslin, and the 19-year-old guitarist-composer-arranger Vic Lewis (Harlequin HQ 3012). This was before VL, the young enthusiast, went to America.
Lewis himself organised the session, a private one, which went unissued until eventual release on Harlequin, one of his own record labels, in 1987. This swing-to-modern jazz guitarist was, even at this early stage in his band leading, composing, and artist management career, a talented “fixer,” a now less-bandied British musicians’ term for one who concocts ensembles for specific gigs. His October 1938 sessions with racially-mixed groups of major league New York jazz talent were legendary even then and, to his credit, he did not forsake British jazz musicians who, similarly, really knew their instruments. The 1938 London session featured Jiver Hutchinson, Bertie King, George Shearing, Joe Muslin and Carlo Krahmer, owner of various drum kits and a co-founder of Esquire Records a decade later.
Other quality newcomers helped maintain the band’s reputation as superlative swingers: trumpeter Dave Wilkins, saxophonists Dave Baba Williams and George Roberts, and clarinettist Carl Barriteau. Musicians are often stereotyped in a rather thin manner but Roberts, originally from British Guyana like Ken himself, was also an electrical engineer with a degree in science. The newly-arrived Trinidadians were truly high-level players but only Barriteau and Wilkins lived long enough to have important careers and influence in Britain. Leslie Thompson’s own philosophic feeling, ditching any animosity, was that this version of the Johnson-fronted band was just as swinging as the one he had organised. But it is unfortunate for Thompson’s legacy, and especially to jazz history, that no recordings of the first band are preserved in public archives today.
Carl Barriteau was Trinidad-born (1914) but Venezuela-raised, which contributed to his multi-lingual abilities, multi-cultural approach to music and worldly ambitions. His career path was typical of the strivers of his time and place: a Catholic orphanage education and, in his late teens, playing clarinet in the band of the Trinidad Police. It’s not surprising that he was noticed by Ken Johnson during the latter’s band-fronting Trinidad tour in late 1935 and arrived in London in late May 1937. Within a year, Barriteau’s solo on the Ken Johnson’s Orchestra’s Tuxedo Junction helped it become a hot seller and earned the band much praise in the Melody Maker, much of it from that weekly music newspaper’s correspondent Chris Hayes. Carl went on to pluck the music paper’s readers’ poll as top clarinettist for seven consecutive years.
Tuxedo Junction – the Stateside smash first hit for the Erskine Hawkins Ork, late 1939, then revamped by Glenn Miller’s Orchestra, 1940. Ken Johnson’s crew jumped on it in February, recorded at the Cafe de Paris , and it was cut in September by Nat Gonella & his New Georgians.
When the émigré quartet arrived in England in May 1937 Ken Johnson fixed their accommodations and immediately threw a party for them at The Nest. There they met trumpeter Cyril Blake and likely his brother Happy, who was thought to have been a part owner of that club. Johnson soon got down to regularly rehearsing the new band, for they were still booked for their residency at the Florida Club. It was just one of a variety of West End nightclubs featuring jazz musicians who sometimes got to actually play improvised and swinging music.
The Florida was perhaps unique in that it featured a revolving dance floor on which the rich, young swingers did their stepping. And these folks didn’t party until after midnight. If there was a disadvantage to such a residency in that the orchestra was shut away from the general public, the good pay was compensation. All that the band then needed was a residency at a venue with a regularly featured radio broadcast, which the Florida lacked.
For any struggling band, the challenge is to find material of good quality that is not already a part of another outfit’s repertoire. The established top bands had first call of the major music publishers, usually via their record companies. Johnson looked to New York for inspiration and found solid compositions such as Washington Squabble (originally by The Claude Hopkins Orchestra), Tuxedo Junction (a Stateside smash for both The Erskine Hawkins Orchestra and, soon after, The Glenn Miller Orchestra), and other numbers. But somehow he bought an obscure work from the Will Hudson Orchestra, There’s Something about an Old Love.
The Piccadilly publisher J.R. LaFleur got on board the publicity wagon and issued sheet music to the song with Ken Johnson’s photograph on the cover, but it was never recorded by the band, a fact that must have annoyed all parties.
An American pianist, Adrian de Haas, then visiting Britain as part of a double act at the London Palladium, wrote some arrangements and rehearsed the band on them. As mentioned, Clare Deniz, wife of Frank, played piano for a while after Yorke de Souza left the band, but then pregnancy diverted her away from the band and she was for a while replaced by Erroll Barrow, who was himself replaced by the returning Yorke de Souza in 1939, back from tours in France with Benny Carter, and Australia with Nina Mae McKinney. The Internet did not exist of course, few musicians had home telephones, and The British Library Sound Archive was not yet established to provide ready reference materials regarding sound recordings, yet, musicians did share information about one another the traditional way, by personal contact. de Haas would within months collaborate with Carter on the jazz standard, Kansas City Moods.
The core of analysing jazz aficionados were not of sufficient social class to afford or be accepted in the swank hotel clubs. Then again, these individuals probably wouldn’t have wanted to frequent dancing venues such as those offered by The Savoy and The Ritz. Further, writers like Albert McCarthy were keen to declare a clear distinction between the American bands playing jazz “more than ably in a hot (jazz) manner” and European dance bands making their living the same way.
These so-called Jazz Police and their committed agents have been described by historian Eric Hobsbawm, although not with the term I have used, as the coalescence of professional and amateur critics generally not rooted in the upper classes, “self-made intellectuals” who “singled out a particular field of ‘hot’ jazz as an art music to admire”. They were deadly serious in musical analysis, which never strayed far from the question of how much race had to do with jazz quality. The jazz collector community were enthusing and keen to share their knowledge and spin their treasures for their mates. But this naturally coalesced to promote the ‘Hot’ American model and shun others. They were unjustly exclusionary. Still, we applaud efforts to spread the jazz word, with thoughtful criticism, something the newspapers and cultural magazines such as The Listener were not about to do as they would with ‘serious’ classical music.
The Neasden-based Jazz Sociological Society published a wartime magazine titled Jazz Music; the editors being Albert McCarthy and Max Jones. But their key role in maintaining the scene cannot be undervalued, for they not only promoted the perceived hot records of the day, they also raised the profiles of the players too. Veteran jazz discographer Horace Meunier Harris has shown that the Melody Maker’s editor, Percy Mathieson-Brooks, took a “fatherly interest” in the rhythm club movement, giving them publicity in the weekly paper and allotted them proper registration numbers. And the record companies saw their opportunity too. In late 1934, The British Federation of Rhythm Clubs compiled for Brunswick Records an album, Swing Music, with a fourteen-page booklet to go with it.
The rhythm club scene was an important method for the more knowledgeable jazz experts to share and often flaunt their close-to-hand trivia to others eager to learn. Although a dose of the speakers’ opinions were part of the bargain – it always is with jazz or any other fine art – the memberships of these groups swelled. And one never knew, actual recorded jazz musicians might actually show up at these gatherings, meeting punters and promoting their releases.
Trumpeter Cyril Blake, pianists Reginald Foresythe, Arthur Young and Freddy Gardner made the rounds, as did guitarist Albert Harris and other mates from the Ambrose Orchestra. Visiting Yank stars would drop in as well: Coleman Hawkins gave the No. 1 Rhythm Club a taste in 1934 and the violinist Joe Venuti visited the Gig Club in Finchley Road. The rhythm clubs often closed during high summer but soon they’d be back, sometimes presenting one-off theatre concerts for their ranks, charging typically 2s.6d, about £35 today, and enabling their favourite players to get a bit of extra work.
Leonard Feather at the time held Sunday night jam sessions for Britain’s premiere rhythm club, the No. 1 Rhythm Club, which was established in 1933 by Bill Elliott, closed 1943-1947 due to the development of the Feldman Club (now the 100 Club in Oxford Street), and typically featured one of the London-based jazz record collector experts or critics from the music press giving a disc-illustrated talk on some artist or another.
To follow these addresses, Feather would invite his favourite players, including Dave Wilkins, Carl Barriteau, Tommy McQuater, Bertie King and George Chisholm. Perhaps he got visiting Americans such as Benny Carter to play too; Carter did play for the Brighton and Hove Rhythm Club (No. 107, formed in 1936), despite an injured hand. Although the jazz enthusiasts paid to attend, Leonard Feather in London didn’t pay the musicians for their contributions, despite a Regent Street meeting location. Rather, he let them each choose and keep a record from his box of review copy promo 78s, sent to him by various record labels and likely the ones he didn’t want to keep himself. So a combination of motives, egos, scant remuneration, and camaraderie helped jazz to gel – just like today!
While up north in Scotland with the Snakehips Johnson Orchestra, the band’s star trumpeter Dave Wilkins received a telegram from Leonard Feather to hurry with his trumpet down to London. He found himself on the overnight train for a recording session with Fats Waller’s Continental Rhythm Band on 21 August 1938. This he did on his day off and got no sleep beforehand, a situation hardly unique during the first swing era. Saxophonist Bertie King, another of Feather’s rhythm club mates, had earlier played with Wilkins on a Una Mae Carlisle session (20 May 1938), and the pianist-critic’s enlisted him for his Ye Olde English Swynge Band session (12 September 1938).
Recording with Fats Waller was party time, as Wilkins recalled it. No surprise there then, and no written music either, but Fats ran down the tunes for the band, laying down the keys, tempos, and assigning the order of solos. Waller was an oceanic drinker and, although this was not strange in American recording studios, he may have got away with it at Abbey Road due to a combination of his famous recording efficiency, his vivaciousness, and his perceived American Negro exoticism.
The next London residency for the Snakehips Johnson Orchestra was Willerby’s, from April through October 1939, whose namesake owner had formerly been the head waiter at the Florida Club.
London’s night-life district was unstoppably kinetic; the musical, For Me and My Gal, passed 1,000 performances and generated the hit, The Lambeth Walk, a 350,000-in-six-months record smash and which had been the British dance craze for eight months by the time the well-travelled Duke Ellington recorded it. But the declaration of war was expectedly just round the corner. Club-owner Willerby was however no different than other operators and did not foresee that West End entertainment would not just continue, but thrive.
The first few months of the Second World War, the period of unnerving island quietude known as the ‘phony war’, saw empty restaurants and closed cinemas and theatres. The band would not get to do regular broadcasts at Willerby’s because that club followed the cautious short-lived entertainment trend and closed. And although the record industry was benefiting from the home-bound restlessness of the public in late 1939, the band had been dropped from the Decca Records deal a year earlier, when jazz critic Edgar Jackson had praised them as the swingiest dance band in Britain. Discographer dean and music historian Brian Rust noted that the West Indians’ Orchestra was the only outfit putting “a bit of life in British dance music.” Johnson’s road to success was becoming pitted but the all-important wireless media exploitation of their sound was soon possible at their next residency. And Leon Cassel-Gerard was getting nearer to his association with Ken Johnson.
There were numerous top spots nearby and the historically-focused Memory Lane’s editor Ray Pallett had the foresight to research them. In the area of The Strand were expensive dance band-presenting nightclubs such as The Waldorf, The Savoy Hotel, The Hotel Cecil, The Hotel Metropole, Romano’s, and less known providers of entertainment.
A short distance west, from Charing Cross Road, were Ciros, now a part of the National Portrait Gallery; the basement-based Café Anglais, now Chiquito’s Mexican restaurant; The Kit Cat Club, currently a bank; The Carlton Hotel, now New Zealand House; The Casani Club in Regent Street, now a McDonald’s; the nearby Café Royal; The Piccadilly Hotel and the nearby Monseigneur Restaurant, which one accessed via a basement in Jermyn Street; The Café de Paris itself; and, further west to Green Park, more than a dozen other competing clubs.
The Johnson Orchestra’s transition from the Willerby’s residency to one at The Café de Paris in September 1939 was arranged by the agent-manager Leon Cassel-Gerrard, probably appealing to the venue’s entertainments manager, Len Urry, who booked not only dance bands but suitable cabaret artists. Melody Maker veteran reporter Chris Hayes recalled that the Johnson orchestra “re-opened” the venue on 5 November 1940. The club had closed temporarily during that summer of heavy aerial bombardment and it’s likely the West Indians took this time off for a tour. By this time Bertie King went to the Royal Navy while Joe Deniz joined the Merchant Navy.
But for the rest of the musicians, the change of club venue seemingly couldn’t have come at a better time, for it transpired as the British entry to the Second World War was declared. During the initial ‘phoney war,’ no one quite knew what to expect. But night life continued to be just the remedy for such an uncertain time, when people at the very least expected to lose friends or relatives in the war. And many Londoners with means wanted to spend their anxious nights drinking and dancing, not an unwelcome pastime aside from war.
The Café de Paris Calls
The Café de Paris opportunity was not only a step up to a swankier, more prestigious establishment. As we’ve seen, the venue was wired by a dedicated telephone line to Broadcasting House for BBC broadcasts. Further, the Snakehips crew’s booking directly followed in the path of residency engagements by such outfits as Ambrose’s Orchestra, the top band of the time. By Leslie Thompson’s admission, Johnson approached the trumpeter at the latter’s small band gig in nearby Martinez’ Restaurant. Snakehips graciously asked his former business partner if he wanted to join the newly constituted orchestra, as an employee, and share only in the prestige and broadcasting. But Thompson declined.
The Café de Paris was a magnificent, expensive supper club of its era, featuring a large oval room of which the walls were, in the time of Ken Snakehips Johnson’s Orchestra, mirrored and featuring an intimate rather than spacious, semi-circular dance floor right by the resident dance band. High society and affluence were the goals of the Coventry Street haunt of the rich, first opened in 1924 by the theatrical agency impresario Harry Foster.
According to Royal College of Music-educated pianist Joyce Stone, widow of and 1930s arrangements copyist for the bandleader Lew Stone, the club turned a profit when the tough but snobbish Martin Poulsen, known to xenophobic John Bull musicians as ‘The Danish Pig’, drew the Prince of Wales and his set over from the Embassy Club in Bond Street, where the Danish dining room manager had previously been employed. The Royal jazz lover Edward VIII (by then the Duke of Windsor) and his entourage frequented the room sufficiently enough to claim a private table, The Royal Enclosure. The Kents and the Mountbattens reportedly were weekly customers.
The Johnson players themselves were squeezed-in like tinned sardines, just to the side of the white grand piano, which of course took up the space of a handful of musicians and their hand-held instruments. This said, the venue’s detail, upstairs and down, was extensively and finely filmed by the German director EA Dupont for his 1928 silent film, Piccadilly, which featured the exciting stars Anna May Wong and Gilda Gray. The film was resurrected and restored by dozens of experts from the National Film and Television Archive (NFTVA) at the British Film Institute in 2003 and released commercially on home media. In the numerous long and close-up shots of the then-resident Debroy Somers Band, one counts 14 musicians, including two baby grand pianos. Even the Mantovani Orchestra, with it’s famous cascading strings, managed, in a manner familiar to gigging musicians, to shoehorn itself into The Café de Paris.
The main difference between the time of that feature film and 1939 was the lack of mirrored walls, although this writer speculates that, if there had always been mirrored walls round the parameter of the ballroom, the filmmakers would have removed them to prevent glare from their spotlights and reflected images of the camera crew itself. A pair of curved, narrow staircases provided the patrons their path as they descended to find themselves on either side of the musicians.
Diarist Joan Wyndham spent an evening of “ecstasy” in the magic of the Johnson band’s magic, the “slim, grey beautiful” Snakehips himself, “with his refined nigger face,” dancing while the boys swung out with I Can’t Dance, I Got Ants in My Pants. Truly private conversation and probably similar racialist insensitivity had to take place in the recesses of the balcony tables, for when the main band wasn’t playing to the “smart Jewesses and the tarts…jiggling…like amoebas,” there was cabaret on offer. Ms Wyndham’s account is an eyebrow-rising observation of even a pub barmaid and a Jewish tailor enjoying themselves in dancehall style. This unashamedly candid reportage reveals the confused race and class resentments resulting from a more open admissions policy during the war, when money out-ranked the ever odious notion of ‘breeding’ in the British class hierarchy.
In 1930 Martin Poulsen, then just fresh from The Embassy Club in Bond Street, hired a then-obscure Roy Fox from America for the new and struggling Coventry Street restaurant. As the bandleader’s star rose, the Prince of Wales and many upper class thrill-seekers enjoyed The Café de Paris’ dancing and cabaret. Nora Turner was a hostess, prior to becoming Lady Docker, and the venue became legendary as its main hotel ballroom competitors, The May Fair, The Savoy and The Dorchester.
For all the high class clientele which The Café de Paris sought, it apparently relied on a considered economy in its payroll costs when it came to musicians, at least in the uncertain months when war was threatening Europe. The Café de Paris was likely the first West End restaurant with entertainment to re-open after the declaration of war and, feeling the power of their seeming if temporary monopoly, decided to re-hire the Toronto ex-pat pianist Billy Bisset’s band at £5 per week per musician, half their pre-war wage. After an intervention of protest by the Musicians’ Union, likely made on behalf of Bisset’s sidemen, the nitery decided to hire the better known Bert Firman, who put together a ten piece outfit, featuring Freddy Gardner, Harry Parry and George Melachrino, for £100.
Musicians’ jobs and residencies of those days changed frequently, but one important reason why the Bert Firman ensemble was out and Ken Johnson’s smaller group got in was the latter’s low price, a hard fact that annoyed Firman and he was replaced by George Melachrino’s own and decidedly less swinging orchestra as an alternating band with the West Indians’ : Ken Johnson Snakehips’ group was paid as a ten-piece unit; as his personality stock was rising, he was increasingly concerned with the bottom line in dance band finance.
He was planning on forming an even smaller swing outfit, a sophisticated smaller ensemble along the lines of the New York City-based John Kirby Sextet. Of course the orchestra itself exuded the qualities The Café de Paris management wanted; they were hard-working and hard-swinging yet musically and presentationally elegant. And although the Musicians’ Union weekly minimum was £10 per player, his contracted wage with his Trinidadian conscripts, Wilkins, Barriteau, Roberts and Williams, was for £5 per week, thus, in theory, a savings £20 per week which the white Bert Firman band was unable to net. It seems the Musicians’ Union did not intervene to enforce ‘scale’ wages.
Normally Johnson’s ensemble got by with only two trumpets, three saxes, piano, guitar, bass, drums, and a vocalist. He then, for a fuller sound, supplemented the group on BBC broadcast nights with either eventual star Kenny Baker or future Carl Barriteau Band sideman Jack Coskar on third trumpet. The BBC required two vocals per programme so, for gendered variety, Don Johnson’s singing was supplemented by a guest woman vocalist. The Glaswegian ex-Rhythm Sisters belter Betty Dale, the multi-lingual Vivien Paget, Betty Kent (Mrs. Teddy Foster) and ex-Crackerjacks Quartet’s Nadia Dore were some of them. On these occasions a single trombonist was hired as well, Lad Busby (reportedly in blackface !), Geoff Love, George Chisholm, Freddie Butt, or Freddie Greenslade; the tenor sax sound was sometimes made fuller by including either Alfie Khan or Aubrey Frank. This augmentation of the ensemble for airtime resulted in the band sounding their broadcast best. Such programmes in turn served successfully as a teaser, to get punters to support the band’s tours, which was where the real money was to be made.
There is speculation about who actually rehearsed the orchestra. After Leslie Thompson’s departure at the orchestra’s reorganisation, Carl Barriteau, Leslie Jiver Hutchinson, and Geoff Love rehearsed the band, as did the visiting Ade de Haas. History would eventually observe the older Love with Harry Gold’s Pieces of Eight and as an arranger for many vocal stars of the LP era. In his oral history, Dave Wilkins insisted that Ken Johnson himself often handled things, even though, as a player, he was not in the same league as the musicians he led. He had a reputation for being a lax bandleader, but this was probably simply a cultural difference that was misunderstood by others in, what was, a mostly white business.
Ken was well equiped to lead a swing band. He’d taken piano lessons as a boy in British Guiana and studied violin later at The Sir William Borlase’s School in Marlow. His years at the school, 1929-1931, were remembered for his scholarly attentiveness and his athleticism in cricket and football, but it’s important to note his early musical interest.
It may seem a judgemental leap from this to being a famous bandleader given that the young Ken Johnson was not mainly a musician. But this is not so farfetched as players themselves might believe, for dance band history is full of baton-waving leaders who had that stylistic vision which set their sounds apart from other orchestras. American conductors Kay Kyser, Bob Crosby and Hal Kemp weren’t players and British musician-leaders Bert Ambrose, Joe Loss and Lou Praeger weren’t up to the skilled abilities of those they hired. But they knew what they wanted and how to get over.
Top billing at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, with Arthur Askey, 1939 (photo courtesy of Michael Pointon)
Regardless, the band’s book consisted mainly of standard dance music and, although there is today no surfeit of radio airchecks of the orchestra, we can rightly assume that the Ken Johnson Orchestra’s playing had a certain edge to its swing. If they had been an American outfit of the era, their initial arrangement book would have been one of good but not fabulous numbers, either given or loaned by more famous, musically like-minded leaders. As the top ‘name’ American bands were highly stylised, such charity and fellowship usually resulted in what resembled commercial stock arrangements. British bands of the 1930s were not so tailored to a given orchestra leader’s aesthetic vision, for usually there was damned little !
It is unlikely that the fledgling Johnson crew received any donations from the arrangement books of, say, Ambrose or Jack Hylton. The fact is, the orchestra relied on stock arrangements for much of its book. Some arrangements were done by the afore-mentioned Geoff Love, the ex-Henry Hall, Lew Stone, and Harry Roy Orchestras reed player Stan Bowsher, the familiar Adrian ‘Ade’ de Haas, and Carl Barriteau, who had the ability to copy an existing arrangement from a commercial disc almost as fast as his hand could write ! Some arrangements were also penned by trumpeter Kenny Baker, who later would help the Jiver Hutchinson band and eventually be a star himself, with Dave Wilkins, in the Ted Heath Orchestra.
Many listeners from those days recall the Johnson’s as the best swing band then on the BBC and, as dance outfits depended more on arrangements than on soloists, the leader was willing to endure the ‘extra trouble and expense’ in making sure they were quality steppers. In 1999, the British Library National Sound Archive received collection of Johnson’s 1938 radio airchecks, a Holy Grail of British jazz history donated by the architect Peter WG Powell, who had received them from his long-time friend, the trumpeter Leslie Jiver Hutchinson.
One surviving number from a 17 July 1938 BBC broadcast, Please Be Kind, the arrangement is by de Haas, who also worked for the then-struggling big band leader Gene Krupa, who at that point had left the successful Benny Goodman Orchestra to form his own. de Haas was reported to have also arranged for the bands of Fats Waller and Lucky Millinder. It is the Waller link that likely put de Haas in touch with Johnson’s chequebook.
And remember, trumpeter Dave Wilkins had just recently been in on Waller-associate Una Mae Carlisle’s record session in London on 20 May 1938. Wilkins would soon play on Waller’s own Abbey Road session on 21 August 1938. His reputation was rising and he was a late addition to the legendary, uncompromising, short-lived and otherwise all-white British swing band, The Heralds of Swing; but despite encouraging press in the Melody Maker pages of 1939, they never got a recording contract. Wilkins did make at least one BBC Radio broadcast with the Heralds however. Meanwhile, two of Ade de Haas’ arrangements for Una Mae Carlisle were Don’t Try Your Jive on Me and the apparently unissued or unrecorded If Dreams Come True. Perhaps de Haas’ best known arranging and composing effort for the band was its 1938 commercial release, Snakehips Swing.
Popularity via the BBC
We should not lose sight of the fact that the Ken Johnson Orchestra was a real hit on the BBC. Although this was well before the era of commercial broadcasting in Britain, The Corporation weren’t as top-down posh and anti-working class the Lord Reith myth would suggest. They knew they had a duty to justify their brief (and the licence fee), and so the BBC Department of Listener Research conducted weekly research for audience figures.
The data weren’t as we would have them today, with categories of gender and age ranges, socio-economic groups matched with their consumer preferences, and all the rest of it. The Chicago innovation of opinion survey research wasn’t to have wider application for another decade yet. These surveys simply measured the percentage of the whole adult population tuning their radios into a given programme.
While their sampling was assumed to be random, it’s not known how random that might have been. If it was done by licence holders, that would have sampled a whole household at a time or indeed just the household spokesperson, rather than the individuals within; if the sampling was a random choice of telephone owners, well, most households didn’t have them. This said, the BBC was confident that a 1% ‘share’ represented approximately 315,000 persons. So how did Ken and the boys do?
By January 1941, Ken Johnson and His West Indian Dance Orchestra were in solid rotation in the then-late night slot (the BBC would close down for the day as early as 11pm!), with up to 8.3% share, or, over 2,600,000 listeners! Competing late evening bands run by Roy Fox, Teddy Joyce and Ernest Leggett got not more than half of that tuning in. Sometimes Ken’s crew drew less than one-million. And occasionally an 11.30 am, 5 pm or 7 pm broadcast from The Café de Paris was on offer, well before the club’s opening time.
On at least one occasion, the band played at 8.45am (1,600,000 listeners), the equivalent of a Black American swing band’s ‘breakfast dance’, since they’d probably been up playing all night! With these earlier airshots, the Johnson boys would snatch audiences of 800,000 to 1,700,000. With a nod to the mythical and highly ironic American ‘plantation’ music setting that had gained currency in the earlier in Cotton Club Revues, the early evening broadcasts were titled, sans irony, Dear Old Southland ! To view these audience ratings in perspective, the popular Geraldo Orchestra scooped-up over 3,500,000 listeners. In the end, the highest rating the Snakehips band likely received was an 11.3% share on a Thursday evening, April 1940, when 3,559,500 were grooving to their radios.
This was of course during the first flush of swing music itself. The American music press’ crowning of Benny Goodman as ‘King of Swing’ in mid-1930s, and the resulting attention this particular dance rhythm received in the media generally changed everything. Dance bands with their musical roots in the pre-swing era, when the rhythm was CHUG-CHUG-CHUG rather than CHOPPA-CHOPPA-CHOPPA, found it difficult to get the new feel. Suddenly the American model and the home country’s jazz enforcers insisted on a perceived jazz authenticity. British jazz fanciers of the day, and since, have argued that swing bands, denigrated as merely dance bands, had little of the original spark from across the Pond. This needs to be addressed in evaluating the Ken Johnson Orchestra and other British outfits.
It was and has been an unpopular view to legitimise British swing bands for sounding less-American than the Americans themselves. This quality has been positively described as ‘prettier’ and certainly British audiences, if not the typical disc collectors in the rhythm clubs, embraced a combination of American brashness and a more considered European enthusiasm. But dig this : despite their reputation from afar, Americans did too.
The Johnson band had bridge this cultural gap just as they had to take on several performance roles. Most gigs were not swing dances or even jazz concerts, as we would think of them today. Albert McCarthy, in his book Big Band Jazz, claimed that Ken Snakehips Johnson’s first BBC radio broadcasts in 1938 were performed in “an uncompromising swing manner.” Generally, every band had to play the sort of repertoire the venue required. The loss of the Johnson Orchestra’s arrangement book precludes us from even guessing what numbers they played for The Café de Paris dancers on most nights, when there was no BBC broadcast. The usual bookings were for variety theatres, just as, to a lesser extent, some the very top American swing bands were part of multi-act shows. Johnson’s crew supported routines by women dancers too. Having a guest female vocalist like Betty Dale for a broadcast was one thing, but on the road the vocal highlights were by Don Johnson, the band’s regular vocalist who was in the Army by the time of the band’s demise, while trumpeter Wilkins handled the occasional novelty number. With regard to the latter, he would scat sing in accompaniment to Snakehips’ dancing while the band played the Slim Gaillard hit Flat Foot Floogie. Ken Johnson only hired a lady vocalist for BBC broadcasts, as the Corporation had a requirement of two vocal numbers per half hour of such programming.
No doubt Ken Johnson understood that singers added variety to his Ork’s show. For economy the ensemble would sing a unison backing to Ida, collectively known as the Johnsonaires. Ken might have put a ‘chirper’ on the regular payroll if he felt it was affordable. Women dancers were added to the payroll but it seems not vocalists. The latter, such as Peggy Dale and Pat O’Regan, were hired for individual performances. In this way, the bandleader and his manager attempted the revue or whole-package concept of stage shows, not unlike the more recent famous revue productions of Ike and Tina Turner, and James Brown.
Top bandleaders Ambrose and Geraldo understood the value of the unexpected feature in an evening’s performance. So on one gig in the summer of 1938 Ken Johnson asked a lucky London Coliseum audience to call out a number for an on-stage jam session, but those in attendance were either unfamiliar with this or too reticent to contribute direction to what was a varietiy bill. They either had no idea what he meant or their unamplified calls didn’t reach the stage. Unperturbed, he suggested Dinah himself, which the band tore into eagerly.
As an aside, it has been speculated, perhaps in the hope for a goal in the sexual politics match, that the ultra-handsome, six-foot-four (193cm) Ken Johnson was gay. Although the Black community has historically been unrepentantly intolerant of lesbian and gay life for both religious and social reasons, his band apparently did not believe this to be true. According to Peter Powell, who as a young white hipster travelled with the surviving Jiver Hutchinson-led swing band when they went on tour and was personally very close with them, none of the Johnson brothers dropped any hint that he might have been gay.
And although he may have been attractive to nearly anyone, his romantic intimates appear to have been women. At the time of his death his lover was the dancer Ilena Silva, as was noted in the Melody Maker report of his greatly-flowered funeral. Powell was introduced to her in 1944. Powell was also a long time friend of Johnson’s good mate, Ivor G. Cummings, OBE; although Mr Cummings, a Colonial Office official, was ‘out’ about his homosexuality, he never suggested that Ken was gay. This is not to deny the many gay, lesbian and bisexual jazz musicians such as the exquisite Leslie Hutch Hutchinson, the jazz-classical composer-pianist Reginald Foresythe, as well as the non-hetero freer followers of Josephine Baker and other jazz artists. But if the handsome lank of Ken Johnson swung both ways, there is simply no evidence for it.
With experience in a job lot of venue types in England and Scotland, Ken Johnson aspired for international success. As 1938 closed, he was investigating a Continental tour, with an emphasis on Scandinavia and Holland. Further afield, he was also scoping the opportunity to claim stage space in the 1939 New York World’s Fair. While there would be no shortage of Manhattan-based swing acts vying for that action, his intended niche was to play in the Fair’s section devoted to West Indian produce and industry (you may indeed laugh here), and get noticed by the not inconsiderable American swing music press that way. But the world’s second mass murder of soldiers and civilians likely denied Snakehips his wider audience.
The commercial disc issues the men made for Parlophone in February 1938 went unissued (presumed rejected and destroyed), and the later 1938 British Decca and 1940 HMV recordings were issued although, like those of the rest of the British dance bands, they were simply routine commercial attempts to reach the generic buyers of dance band records. The British record industry was not ready to categorise the Johnson Orchestra as a jazz market act, patronised by what this writer assumes was considered then to be a fringe buying public. The jazz component of these releases, defined then as hot solos, was minimal due to the 3.20 time limit of the conventional 78-rpm disc. But further and more importantly, in the recording process, the band’s special sense of swing was somehow dampened.
The Johnson band’s Decca records were produced by pianist and bandleader Jay Wilbur, moonlighting as the Musical Director for Dance Music at the company, although curiously he recorded his own band on Rex Records. Wilbur knew what solid swing was because, for his own ensemble, he was paying trombonist Ted Heath, trumpeter Max Goldberg, saxophonist Freddy Gardner, all spirited players. An outstanding Decca release of the period is the pairing of Snakehips Swing and Exactly Like You and it’s follow-up, The Sheik of Araby and My Buddy, the last pairing featuring Joe Deniz on the Hawaiian steel guitar and favoured by Rhythm magazine’s reviewer Leonard Hibbs. While the critic thought the ending of My Buddy was “pure corn,” he did praise the band’s ensemble passages in general for being “close and well toned” and the well done solos. In a sense, the band was lucky to be reviewed in that publication at all because almost all of the discs evaluated were American in origin. The London magazine might has well have had on its masthead : BRITISH PLAYERS NEED NOT APPLY.
Further evidence of the Johnson Orchestra’s growing credibility is that they were invited to take part in The Jazz Jamboree of 7 April 1940. This concert was an annual all-star event, a benefit for the Musicians’ Social and Benevolent Council, which had the generous support from instrument manufacturers, the BBC, and the Melody Maker. Although it eventually found its annual home at the Stoll Theatre in Kingsway, the 1940 extravaganza was staged at Kilburn’s Gaumont State Theatre, one of the largest European cinemas, with a capacity of 4,000 seated and a further 4,000 standing! This massive concert featured Geraldo’s Orchestra, Oscar Rabin’s big band, and many other top attractions. On the heels of this success the West Indian crew started external, overseas-beamed BBC broadcasts in April.
After a lull of a year and a couple of months, the band got signed with HMV. Their interpretation of Tuxedo Junction is much better than the tune’s original recorded version by the equally in-the-groove Erskine Hawkins Orchestra some seven months earlier. Ironically, the artistically slowed-down reinterpretation by the Glenn Miller Orchestra was recorded only three weeks earlier and their disc didn’t make it to Britain by then – it just managed to emerge from the record manufacturing plant the very week Johnson’s group recorded it. The brief solos on the HMV release feature clarinettist Barriteau, tenor saxophonist Williams and trumpeter Jiver Hutchinson. Life-long Melody Maker reporter Chris Hayes claimed that the record was a solid hit, setting jazz fans alight and the weekly music newspaper itself “agog with praise”.
The bandleader reportedly heard Tuxedo Junction played live at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom before the Hawkins band even recorded it, and was eager to include it in the West Indians’ repertoire. If this historical confluence actually took place, it would have been in January 1936, just before Johnson left the States and just as Hawkins brought his Alabama State Collegians band out of the Deep South and into New York City.
Further, Ken Johnson had the Geraldo Orchestra’s tenor saxophonist George Evans arrange the Shakespearean Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind and It Was a Lover and His Lass to a melody by the Ambrose Orchestra’s pianist Arthur Young, who also led the Hatchett’s (Club) Swingtette by playing an extremely early electronic keyboard. The band’s regular singer, Don Johnson, did not get to wax his vocal on the track, but with guest white vocalists Al Bowlly, a close friend of Ken Johnson and frequent co-performer at The Café de Paris, and the Henderson Twins, it is still an unlikely yet delightful dance record. Arguably, this is a high-point of British swing music, not because it lyric’d-up William Shakespeare, but because the words, non-standard for a pop song, allowed for a freer musical structure than Denmark Street would normally countenance.
British Diskery – The Conservative Cabal
By this author’s research, the Ken Johnson records sadly were little reviewed by the English jazz critical establishment. Instead, it was overwhelmingly American discs that made the music magazines such as The Melody Maker, The Gramophone and Rhythm.
Besides the Stateside’s hot classics, even arcane numbers by obscure outfits received press coverage, such as Walking the Dog by the Ovie Alston Orchestra. One wonders if the reviewers resented the Johnson Orchestra for not being American, simply not waxing an American sound on their discs, or simply resented the presence of Afro-Caribbeans in the way that many Harlem African-Americans did?
This was a topsy-turvy era in which many black vocalists sang with few inflections of their general culture and white vocalists infused perceived Negro characteristics in their own singing styles. Al Bowlly never sounded unlike what he was, a leading international jazz vocalist of his day, for he’d even sung with Ray Noble’s American dance band, which contained Glenn Miller, Bud Freeman, Charlie Spivak and Will Bradley. Regardless, in a news item of his death in a 17 April 1941 air raid, the Daily Sketch described him as “the well known coloured singer” (this likely would have pleased Bowlly). The singer of Greek and Lebanese parentage was of course a well-established star when he recorded the two 78 rpm sides with the Ken Johnson band.
Ken Johnson’s Decca and later HMV releases sold for 2/, the lowest major label price for a 10-inch disc. His records were promoted no more and no less than most others of the day. In May 1940, Gramophone Record, the multi-label catalogue of record shop trade, spotlighted him with a photograph where most pages had none at all. When he reached his recording peak however, the Second World War had not only cut down the number of record issues, his record company was being seemingly invaded by the great Glenn Miller band’s releases.
The latter provided HMV with proven hits with no new recording costs. This was part of a cultural coupling of the desire for America to join in the war against the Nazis and the increased thirst of the British public for the exotica of American entertainment in general. British labels increased the percentages in their catalogues of easily-leased American recording masters or by dubbing from a US-manufactured shellac discs. In the 1930s until 1939, German jazz and swing artists faced, to a lesser degree, the same competition from New York.
In the perverse cultural landscape of the National Socialists’ dictatorship, the German swing bands generally did not have to endure the same recorded competition from American artists, American hit songs and American-styled arrangements. The hipper jazz and swing musicians in Berlin may not have appreciated this restriction at the time and of course they recorded plenty of American swwsing hits, but, by a cultural kick up the arse from Josef Goebbels, or in spite of it, they simply had to come up with their own material which, ironically, gave European jazz a healthy stream of local influence. The point here is that British swing-jazz artists were too tethered to Manhattan musicality to bend the genre toward their national culture.
Besides this, it was an era when, given even the possibility of a hit song, each record label rushed to release its own versions. Thus, although the Ken Johnson Band recorded a stomping version of Alla en el Rancho Grande (recorded in January but released in May 1940), they had to compete with the thrilling original version by Jan Savitt and his Top Hatters leased from America on Brunswick. And the latter band was chasing Johnson’s with its own version of Tuxedo Junction too.
Jazz historian Peter Cliffe revealed a sharp late 1930s decline in the British record company output of discs by home-grown dance bands. He argued that swing music was never as much of a scene here as it was in America and that British band-leaders had become set in their ways regarding the mid-decade swarm of American swing influence. While all of this may be true, the British record companies decided that it was less expensive to lease product from their Stateside counterparts than essentially subsidise British bands who wanted to compete with them.
The practice was well in place since 1928, when Parlophone rolled out their Super Rhythm Series of leased jazz classics from the United States (later New Super Rhythm Series), followed by Hot Rhythm Records in 1932 and their Swing Series three years later. The eagerness of British record companies to unleash a growing pack of American jazz and jazz-dance records paralleled the rise of the British jazz press criticism and this is documented in Jim Godbolt’s A History of Jazz in Britain, 1919-1950.
Besides taking their collective cue from recent American record successes the British recording supervisors’ main avenue of influence was via American music publishing companies and their London-based publisher allies. This was not unreasonable in the sense that, to repeat the point made earlier, given a hit song, the sheet music versions could outsell the recorded issues. Thus, the music publishers, long established in Denmark Street since the ragtime era, elbowed each other to get Parlophone, Columbia, Decca, Regal Zonophone and the like to release appropriate versions of the new works. Before the Beatles came along as both artists and hit composers, and successfully challenged the industry for the right to record their own material, such artistic freedom was awfully rare.
Bandleader Ray Noble and select solo acts such as Noel Coward, Ivor Novello, and ethnic music stars were of course notable exceptions. The hard fact of life during the jazz-dance era was that, increasingly, British record companies, British music publishers and British dance band leaders were cautious about gambling their song resources on a rhythm property that wasn’t American in origin.
Despite the conservative and classically-biased BBC’s and the Director-General Sir John Reith’s own particular antipathy toward outright swinging music, Ken Johnson’s group swung on broadcasts like the ‘killer-diller’ American dance bands of the day. Reith lost his BBC position in 1938, not soon enough for jazz and swing band enthusiasts, but this may have helped Ken’s chances a bit. In an era when many ballrooms still insisted, jiving swing band or not, on a strictly moderated dance tempo, Snakehips fooled the BBC into presenting, not jumping swing music, but, “Ultra-modern dance music,” as he announced on his programmes.
The evidence of the ensemble’s status as Britain’s best swinging big band is found on the aforementioned 1938 aircheck, donated to The British Library by Peter WG Powell, whose own interview with the British Library was an important addition to the Library’s Oral History project. Ken Johnson routinely had his broadcasts recorded on acetate discs and gave further acetate disc dubbings to his musicians. We’re fortunate that at least the two numbers from the 1938 broadcast have survived.
In 1940 Johnson’s the rhythm section did the sensible and surprisingly commonplace, thing and hired out a West End recording studio to record four selections. Such small studios were popular with musicians, for they could walk in and make their own, limited-use acetate disc for less than a pound, approximately £220 today. Tape recording was new, not commercially available in Britain and hardly widespread, used very practically but still only rarely by Nazi-controlled radio, for tape itself was a German innovation.
Yorke de Souza, Joe Deniz and Tommy Wilson rounded-out their quartet with the white double-bassist Tommy Bromley. Aside from being Ken Johnson’s double bassist, Bromley was a recording session partner of Dave Wilkins in November 1940, in the then-successful Decca swing group, Lew Stone’s Stonecrackers. Bromley played in the Ken Johnson Orchestra at The Café de Paris, from late 1940, and would later, in 1947, die in a road accident in the South of France. But in 1940 this Johnsonian rhythm section quartet understood that the record companies would not record them and, this being both wartime and an era without independent labels, their recordings naturally went no further than friends and family.
Similarly, Trinidadian Lauderic Caton, Britain’s electric guitar pioneer in the way we consider it today, recorded an armful of swing music acetates at a private studio with his own quartet. Caton wasn’t the first British musician to be entranced by electric sounds. By 1936 many dance band guitarists played electric instruments, but neither they nor their baton-waving employers understood it outside of that large group context. Joe Brannelly left the Ambrose Orchestra around the time he took it up and then played it occasionally with the joyous but less commercially successful Jack Harris band. But like his fellow swing band guitarists (Jack Hill with Joe Loss’ pre-strict-tempo orchestra, Bill Tringham with Geraldo’s dance outfit, and eventually Joe Young with Phil Green’s wartime band, among others), he was locked into the fixed role of the guitarist, that of keeping rhythm.
That function was mainly for the band because, unamplified, a swing guitar was hardly audible to the public, either on record or on broadcasts. The electric guitar’s employment in large ensembles was and could only have been as a featured solo or for novelty value on a humorous song. Indeed, a swing music guitarist in the late 1930s had to dig a bit deep to spend £18, at least a month’s average British wage, on this new version of the instrument that would hardly be called-for by the boss of the band.
The dilemma then was which type to buy, a laptop steel guitar for Hawaiian numbers or an electrified regular guitar. The so-called ‘beat groups’ from the early 1960s would hit with the latter, filling the aural palette with an overall electric guitar gouache. But it took Lauderic Caton to pave his own path with this in-your-face electric guitar sound. The germination of seemingly every 1960s rock band can be found in Caton’s small group sessions, recorded privately but eventually issued by Topic Records on the Black British Swing compilation.
Caton’s then-radical sound is in evidence on the live tracks recorded 12 December 1941 at the Jigs Club, on Wardour Street in Soho. The seemingly strangely-named club was owned by trumpeter Cyril Blake’s brother Happy, both being émigrés from Trinidad. The term ‘Jigaboo’ was certainly a derogatory term used by bigoted whites, albeit less menacing than ‘nigger’. But it was also an ironic slang term of self-reference among black hipsters, just as the late century’s rap stars called themselves ‘niggaz’.
As jazz historian Jim Godbolt noted, Louis Armstrong jokingly sang “Just a jig I know” during his 1931 recording of Just a Gigolo with the African-American Les Hite Orchestra. And decades later, we can observe Zigaboo Modaliste, the ‘every-beat’ drummer with the original Meters, the New Orleans 1969-1970 intellectual funk equivalent of the Benny Goodman Quartet. It would be misplaced to accuse a 1930s jazz club in a then-overwhelmingly white country of having an intentionally racist name. After all, the owners of the nitery, and much of its clientele were black. The Jigs Club attracted white British jazz followers as well as the London West Indian community. Historian John Cowley has noted the dual-repertoire of the musicians at this club: jazz as well as calypsos and paseos.
Thus the players presented genuine West Indian music for those who wanted an entertainment taste of their cultural roots, not unlike the ‘down home’ Deep South music enjoyed by African-Americans who emigrated north to Chicago. In fact, when saxophonist-bandleader Harry Gold was hired by BBC Radio in 1941-1942 to assemble a band for overseas broadcast to the Caribbean, he hired Freddy Grant, Yorke De Souza and Lauderic Caton. They were rarely employed by the BBC but at least this series meant some radio work and the musicians showed their versatility by playing a few traditional New Orleans jazz numbers along with their calypsos. It is our loss that the performances were not likely recorded and that the calypso content diminished rapidly as the programme grew popular.
As an aside, when the BBC emphasised the current revival of early jazz, later on in 1948, Gold hired the black trombonist-arranger-conductor Geoff Love, who soon found himself recording with Gold’s Pieces of Eight band on Decca Records and receiving press kudos in his own right as the group toured.
Cyril Blake’s gut-bucket singing and the band’s jump swing are perhaps the only aural evidence of what the scene was like at the Afro-Caribbean West End clubs during the first swing era. The only unpleasant aspect of these two 78s, which remained in the catalogue until 1948, is on the track Cyril’s Blues.
Cyril Blake greets clarinettist Harry Parry, with Lauderic Caton plugged in at right
The band, while playing on their own record, is introduced by the white BBC Radio Rhythm Club’s Harry Parry, who never suffered someone else talking over his BBC Radio Rhythm Club Sextet’s performances on commercial discs. But as a respected swing-jazz clarinettist and bandleader of his day, Parry hired Dave Wilkins, Yorke de Souza and Joe Deniz for his own band. Either he or the record company perhaps thought that his familiar radio voice would somehow help to hype Cyril Blake’s combo to get over in their debut recording.
Well, it worked, for the records quickly become classics of hot music ! Parry might also have intended to aurally convey, as Godbolt later portrayed, “the raw excitement of a ‘black’ nightspot in London’s sinful square mile”. On these numbers, Blake’s own Jigs Club Band included, besides his own plunger trumpet, flying Freddie Grant on clarinet, quick Colin Beaton (white) on piano, bouncing and pounding Brylo Ford on double-bass, the thunderous Clinton Maxwell on drums, and Lauderic Caton’s amazing amplified guitar as a solo instrument, which, in 1940, he had at first courageously introduced to a Cuban music band at the Havana Club in the West End. Ford was older than the rest and would contribute both double-bass and the four-string, Caribbean cuatro to the breakout London calypso scene in the 1950s.
The investigative jazz historian and photographer Val Wilmer knew the self-effacing, pedantic Caton well but he was apparently unwilling to meet enquiring fans, and his address was never divulged. When the veteran saxophonist and Selmer shop manager Joe Van Straten went into business as a guitar manufacturer in late 1946, he called for the press a gathering of the leading London players, including Caton, Joe Deniz, poll-winner Ivor Mairants and Jack Llewellyn.
Horace had been a teacher in Trinidad, where he was active in a voodoo religious group, as a drummer and spiritualist. This was prior to his move across the Atlantic to Liege, Brussels and Antwerp, eventually settling in London. Perhaps this had prepared him for more of a bookish or spiritual intellectual life than could be found on the bandstands.
Cyril Blake’s Jigs Club Band, 1941 : Brylo Ford, Clinton Maxwell, Freddy Grant, Colin Beaton, Lauderic Caton
Caton as a player sadly would not survive on the music scene, strangely giving up the guitar before the rock’n’rollers and the blues-embracing beat group gurus even held one. Described by the Melody Maker in 1947 as ‘The brilliant West Indian soloist’ he wrote a downright funny lament about the struggle for a guitarist to be heard by the audience, with an inconsiderate drummer bashing away in the background. But he is remembered for popularising the electric guitar in clubs and especially on disc in a serious way.
Meanwhile, the war and national service being an increasing concern, both Dave Wilkins and Tiny Winters, the white double-bassist in the Ambrose Orchestra, thought they would audition for the RAF band. If they got in, they’d look forward to spending the war playing gigs in Britain and moonlighting at West End stage shows and on BBC broadcasts. Their audition required them to play a popular Artie Shaw number that the Johnson orchestra had been using anyway, so in theory it would have been easy for Wilkins to be part of the RAF’s music scene, although these famed service bands had no non-white players during the war.
But as it happened, Ken Johnson reminded his trumpeter that the latter still had three years left under his five-year contract. As Wilkins’ only other option was to repatriate to the poorer West Indies and risk his life, en route to the war in the Atlantic, he happily held onto his second trumpet chair with Leslie Jiver Hutchinson. West Indians could volunteer for service during the war but were not subject to conscription; West Indians born in the UK were called-up for service, even though third-generation British of German background could not join Her Majesty’s military.
The time of the Blitz was an eerie alternation between quiet days and heart-booming nights. The typical high street had little to sell by afternoon as whatever rationed goods were available got quickly snapped up. Just as days were a ‘holiday from fear’, the nights mixed romance with death. Elizabeth Bowen described the air raid sensibility in her famous novel, The Heat of the Day, and Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square and The Slaves of Solitude gave further examples of what London wartime life was like.
But back on 8 March 1941 the Snakehips Johnson band, by then holding down the prestigious and lucrative spot at The Cafe de Paris nightclub, suffered Nazi aerial bombardment – two direct hits to the spatially empty Rialto Cinema above and next door. The ‘best swing band in London’ had been swinging out with Oh ! Johnny, Oh ! Johnny, Oh!, a popular hit of the day, when the explosions happened Joyce Stone remembered that the Johnson band’s residency was an alternating one with the George Melachrino Orchestra, each band following the other for a week. With a contradicting memory, veteran Melody Maker reporter Chris Hayes recalled that Melachrino had already left The Café de Paris for the Embassy Club back in August of 1940 and that they’d been replaced by Felix Mendelssohn and his Hawaiian Serenaders.
The exact order of events is difficult to ascertain because often a headline band and a lesser band would alternate sets at such venues. Regardless, it was the worst fate for British jazz history that it was the Snakehips ensemble which became the venue’s favoured band. The floor of the movie house above was near the ceiling of the ballroom below, yet the distinction became moot. One theory of the incident was that one bomb miraculously made it through an airshaft and therefore didn’t explode until it reached the dance floor itself, “at the foot of the bandstand!” as dance band expert Joyce Stone recalled. Martin Poulson, the co-owner of the club, died when the explosion occurred at 9.40pm.
It had been a high point in the Blitz, with the seeming collaboration of cloudless skies and the Luftwaffe, resulting in nights with hardly an ‘all clear’ siren. Four nights later the nearby posh Kensington neighbourhood suffered 38 bombs during two hours. And of course if any swing band was playing for dancers two and three years later in Hamburg, Dresden or other major German cities subject to firestorms of equally mad Allied bombardment, their collective fate would likely have been even worse. This was the insanity of what Hitler first called ‘total war’ and ironic that 500 well-heeled civilian steppers would be jiving their Saturday night away while destruction and death descended.
The ground-level entrance to the venue remained undamaged but not the club. On this night all was immediate chaos in The Café de Paris: dust and smoke, fire and terror, whizzing shards from the club’s many mirrored walls and chandeliers, and a horrific infliction of pain and shock.
To make the tragedy worse, Britain’s wartime criminals took locust-like advantage of the freedoms enjoyed in their own non-fascistic country. They moved in on the shattered, dirty, bloody remains of what had been mere moments before, a joyous, posh venue. The wartime blackout encouraged heartless scavengers from early on in the conflict and, according to the photo-historian Steve Jones, the air raid rescuers didn’t arrive until 45 minutes after the looters had left with jewellery and cash from both the living and the three score dead. The alto saxophonist Harry Hayes was in a gambling club nearby to The Café de Paris and observed Snakehips amongst the other dead and the debris. One consequence of this was the levelling of mental health issues between the rich and the less so, for in the years before the establishment of the National Health Service there was no social service counselling.
Both the Melody Maker and the American down beat mark the death of Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, despite his band not having had any records released in the USA
Due to government restrictions of giving useful information to the wartime enemy, newspaper reporting of the incident was delayed by a week and even then the club name could not be mentioned. Still, jazz and swing music followers learned soon enough that Ken Johnson himself did not survive. The following week the Melody Maker’s 15 March 1941 front page headline spelt it out: ‘THE PROFESSION MOURNS…Ken Johnson Killed in Blitz – Ace Tenor Dies’. The next week’s issue acknowledged the intimate funeral of tenor saxophonist Dave Baba Williams, buried at the St Marylebone Cemetery to a well-intentioned but ironic organ recital of the imported popular song so evocative of American Negro history, Dear Old Southland. We recall that Ken Johnson’s BBC broadcasts had been titled after that famous song, which served as the band’s introductory theme tune.
Also front page in the music scene weekly was the Golders Green cremation of Johnson himself, the ‘gallant and distinguished gentleman’, attended by the remaining band members, BBC representatives, dance band field administrators, Reginald Foresythe, Rudolph Dunbar, Teddy Foster, Edmundo Ros, and many other friends and associates. Almost a month later, the April 1st front page of the Chicago-published Down Beat ran news of the killings, even though the Snakehips band was virtually unknown in America, not having released any records there. However, mention was made of his brief time with Fletcher Henderson and his star trumpeter Dave Wilkins. As a somewhat sensational footnote to this tragedy, Ken Johnson’s supposed ghost has been seen in recent years, reported independently by Café de Paris staff.
Besides Johnson’s and Williams’ instant death, many of the Café’s well-to-do dancing clientele lost their lives too. Others who survived, including musicians, were seriously hurt. Vocalist Don Johnson was by then already in the army and missed the tragedy, but his former band mates weren’t so lucky.
Joe Deniz’ leg was smashed in the kitchen doorway, where he was blown by the explosion. Tommy Bromley’s leg was fractured. Yorke de Souza suffered broken glass in one eye and he slowly lost sight in it in subsequent years. Carl Barriteau was inflicted with a broken right wrist, bomb particles in his left foot and glass shards in his face. In shock, Dave Wilkins escaped and ran to the Piccadilly tube station to return home to Edgware Road, then, thinking more clearly, doubled back to collect his trumpet, only to see Baba Williams dead. It is reported that he then, still in utter shock, went to an after-hours club and played further. Leslie Jiver Hutchinson also marched out in shock and went to a club. One wouldn’t have simply gone to bed.
Although the band wasn’t listed in the Radio Times as a featured broadcast attraction on 8 March 1941, Wilkins later stated that it was scheduled for a programme. Because of the advance publication of that radio listings guide, the Johnson Orchestra could have been a sudden addition or replacement to the schedule. Such post-press time programming alterations occur today and it’s likely they did even more during wartime. In any event, on such occasions the musicians would shift their seating to accommodate the extra player or two. If it hadn’t been for the intended BBC performance Wilkins would have been sitting where Williams was. And Al Bowlly said soonafter that had he been in London then, he would have been guest singing with the Johnson Band and standing next to the leader, for it was a crowded Saturday night, they were mates of Johnson, and he’d known the venue’s management from the years when he sang there with the Lew Stone Orchestra. And swing-jazz pianist-composer Billy Munn wrote that his dancer wife Eileen fortunately left The Café de Paris’ employ one week before the bombing.
According to Peter WG Powell, the last scheduled BBC performance was on 5 March 1941, 3.30-4.00pm. He recalls that Leslie A. Perowne broadcast acetates of that date’s show in a Ken Johnson memorial broadcast soonafter in 1942 and that the discs then became property of manager Leon Cassel-Gerard. It is almost certain that these discs did not survive the Second World War or, if they did, the likelihood of succeeding decades of neglect.
Cassel-Gerard was given a full page in the Melody Maker, to eulogise his friend and business partner. In this piece he noted the orchestra’s ‘new recording contract’ and a stage production with dance mentor Buddy Bradley. Ken Johnson was portrayed as a sailboat owner, a lover of ‘good food, good wines and…a really good cigar’. After a typical evening at The Café de Paris, Ken would go on to after-hours nightclubs to enjoy a bit of dance himself. In fact, he lived in the neighbourhood, at 38a Elizabeth Street, Belgravia. Cassel-Gerard also claimed that Ken Johnson, on the night of his death, left the Embassy Club after dinner to dash over to The Café de Paris, which was part-owned by the Embassy Group, ready to get to work, even though the aerial bombing was in full force !
Producer Perowne later joined up with the Army Broadcasting Unit in 1944, mainly giving jazz a boost on radio in Greece. One can only speculate the participation Ken Johnson and the band might have provided if tragedy hadn’t interfered; then again, Perowne and Rex Harris produced the weekly BBC Radio series of commercial discs, Swing Showcase, in 1942-1943, and the records were exclusively those of American stars.
The Blitz attacks on London and other cities had a brief resonance for the swing band industry as, in the wake of The Café de Paris disaster, the Ministry of Home Security considered closing all the dance halls. The Melody Maker made strong arguments against this proposal and these, combined with similar endorsements of live swing music’s morale-boosting qualities by the RAF, were successful in halting any ban.
This came at a time when Johnson’s and his orchestra’s stars were well on the ascent, with a prestigious London gig, BBC radio broadcasts, and even a cinema re-issue of his six-year-old film, Oh Daddy ! In March 1942 Ken Johnson’s ashes were interned in The Chapel at Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School, Marlow, Buckinghamshire. That building is now an inter-denominational assembly hall for today’s Borlasians, who attend the day school run by the local authority.
In the wake of the Café de Paris tragedy the bandsmen split. Various white bandleaders who were eager for the opportunity to secure a better sense of swing for their recording dates scooped some of the band’s members up. Not all, however. The Café de Paris had been closed for a period in 1940 (re-opening 5 November) and, given the war and perhaps a reluctance to go on tour, Bertie King packed up his clarinet and tenor sax and instead got himself booked with the Royal Navy. Alas, the top artist’s role as a black man in His Majesty’s war effort was as a stoker rather than as a musician.
Dance Band Fest charity gig at the London Coliseum for the RAF, 1944, feturing Jiver Hutchinson and the Deniz Bros.
For the rest of 1941 Jiver Hutchinson and Yorke de Souza played in clarinettist Sid Philllips’ Quintet, recording for Decca; Frank Deniz and Lauderic Caton joined the newly-established radio sextet led by Harry Parry. Dave Wilkins, who would later join the Parry combo with Yorke de Souza, and record with Joe Daniels and His Hot Shots, tried his luck with Lew Stone’s earlier-mentioned small group, The Stone-Crackers and also worked at Hatchett’s, perhaps the hippest swing-jazz nightclub during the wartime, with Carl Barriteau, George Shearing, George Evans, Beryl Davis, and other solid swingers. de Souza also played on broadcasts with George Evans and Harry Gold. Wilkins had started on recording sessions with Stone a year earlier, while he still held a trumpet chair in Johnson’s Orchestra. Jiver Hutchinson mainly played with Geraldo’s Orchestra but was in demand for other ensembles such as one featuring Yorke de Souza, Sid Phillips and Woolf Phillips at the swank Le Suivi club. And Johnson’s saxophonist George Roberts went with Oscar Rabin’s Orchestra.
A pair of Dave Wilkins winners on one disc, 1942
Carl Barriteau, Dave Wilkins, Jiver Hutchinson and Frank Deniz each appeared at the famous November 1941 ‘First English Public Jam Session Recording’. This then-unique event, held at the Abbey Road studios, documented various combinations of top British players performing to a tightly squeezed terrace of fans in the outer reaches of the recording rooms. Only five numbers on three records were released from the all-day happening and this has since provided speculation about whether or not EMI saved the out-take recordings. Regardless, the company made sure the trio of discs were highlighted in The Gramophone Record, the record industry trade magazine of the time. The same publication soonafter ran a series of articles instructing the record shops on how to promote a jazz beginner’s basic library of ‘black jazz’, taken from Leslie Perowne’s obviously well-remembered dual-turntable mixes of swing music, as originally broadcast on the BBC in 1938.
At the end of 1942, Carl Barriteau started his own swing band apart from rest of the ex-Johnson players. They debuted as openers of the Geraldo Orchestra’s own swing concert at London’s Stoll Theatre in Kingsway. Aside from the two bands, the audience was treated to a jam session that included Carl, Jiver Hutchinson, Tommy Bromley, and rising star pianist George Shearing, then on Ambrose’s payroll. Hutchinson’s appearance on the bill was due to his membership of the short-lived Queensberry Club Band, which included altoist Harry Hayes, so it really gave the public their money’s worth.
Within a year of the English Jam Session releases and the continued rise of public interest in black jazz, the enterprising Carl Barriteau kept up his own swing band the best he could, but was frustrated by the governmental call-up of musicians to the military. His own orchestra did pretty well securing engagements from late 1942, including, along with Harry Parry’s clan, the Jazz Jamboree concert of October 1943, but they really got exposure through numerous BBC broadcasts.
Yet it is our deep loss that the Barriteau band’s broadcasts weren’t recorded, for they did very well. BBC audience ratings, their internal, corporate ‘Listening Barometer’ showed the Barriteau boys getting up to 2,700,000 listeners – in line with Harry Parry’s Radio Rhythm Club group, including Dave Wilkins and Yorke De Souza, and Ivy Benson and Her Girls’ Band, which included the facile trumpeter Gracie Cole. Barriteau’s trombone-less orchestra featured the former Ken Johnson alto saxophonist George Roberts. They were of course old mates, having come to Britain from Trinidad to join the Snakehips crew.
This wartime period was one of fluidity regarding dance band personnel, the top musicians standing in for others who had been called into the armed forces and thus were not available for recording sessions. Therefore, on recordings at least, Carl Barriteau loaned his expertise and style to a wide range of bandleaders: Geraldo, Joe Loss, Ambrose, Lew Stone, Pervical Mackey, Phil Green and Jack Payne.
Carl Barriteau’s cracking tracks with his own Ork, and with others (Empress RAJCD 896, 1998)
Barriteau was usually the only black musician in his own road-touring group, a situation which naturally disappointed a few of his ex-band mates. Recordings though, were a different matter. Barriteau’s 1944 sessions for Decca featured Jiver Hutchinson, Joe Deniz, drummer Clinton Maxwell, trumpeter Kenny Baker and other white players to fill out the band for these sessions. And Decca, while plugging hoped-for hits by Vera Lynn, Anne Shelton and the Ambrose Orchestra, also hyped the Barriteau releases.
In June 1944, the label proclaimed that the dance band had come from nowhere to third place in the Melody Maker poll in that category and that his first release, a virtuoso cover of Artie Shaw’s Concerto for Clarinet, was already a best-seller. This was actually an authorised cover, for Shaw himself gave Barriteau an exclusive on it for British release. In fact, Carl told MM reporter Chris Hayes that on the disc of his own composition, A Sultan Goes to Harlem, he “decided to end the work a tone higher than Artie Shaw’s Concerto for Clarinet, the note being a top D on the clarinet…C in concert pitch.” This would have really impressed the notoriously hard-to-please Shaw. The Barriteau band’s performance of it was the audience-applauded, surprise highlight of the 1943 Jazz Jamboree concert, at the Stoll Theatre in Kingsway. In 1944 the band was voted third best favourite dance band and himself the top clarinettist in Melody Maker’s 1944 readers’ poll.
But curiously, from this success Carl took up a two-year residency in the Eldorado Ballroom, in Leith, Edinburgh, folded it to be a paid highlight of Cyril Stapleton’s Orchestra, and then formed a smallish big band. He never quite relinquished the headache and organisation of band leading, but spent many years in broadcasting bands, including studio outfits for Benny Hill, Jack Jackson, and the bi-generational pop music television party, 6.5 Special. He regretted his silly-sounding vocal on the Ambrose Orchestra’s version of novelty hit, The Hut-Hut Song; he claimed he had both a cold and sore throat but his playing doesn’t betray this.
Carl Barriteau’s initial impression on the public had been via his solo on the popular Ken Johnson release, Tuxedo Junction, and continued to impress with his Shaw-like attack on the clarinet. In fact, he won the Melody Maker poll for this instrument for seven years in a row and later won the award on his instrument in the 1954 New Musical Express survey as well. This respect and popularity encouraged him to author a clarinet teaching method, Swing Style Phrases and Riffs for Clarinet, emphasising ‘a modern style’ and which was sold in London’s largest instrument shop, Boosey & Hawkes. Perhaps by popular request, this publication also included a written transcription of Carl’s famous Tuxedo Junction clarinet solo.
Barriteau’s road life is discussed by tenor saxophonist Bobby Thompson in an oral history interview for The British Library. The leader did indeed encounter racism on tour – even on the bandstand ! Britain was often a brutally, baldly racist place and the influx of American Negro soldiers both reduced and reinforced this attitude. Soho writer-raconteur Julian Maclaren-Ross remembered that in Dean Street the Black G.I.s had established their own bridgehead of a racially segregated, bouncer-protected pub because the neighbouring landlords and their increasingly American soldier trade, according to Afro-Caribbean singer and dancer Cyril Lagey, “forgot their party manners during the war”. As this was in cosmopolitan Central London, the provincial attitudes encountered by Carl Barriteau could be far worse.
One time on a Scottish tour he bowed down from the stage to a dancer, to take what he thought was a request, only to be called a “Black bastard” by the paying customer. The general public’s racial attitudes did of course help black performers sometimes, enabling the latter to play on the customers’ notions of perceived exotica. But in the end, they just wanted to earn a living in music and get some respect too. Barriteau had wondrously rapid arranging skills and was equally an excellent compere, no doubt the envy of many talented musicians who lacked that band-fronting ability.
Just as Ambrose, Jack Hylton, Geraldo, and other top white bandleaders had expanded into the booking business, the 1947 Barriteau ten-piece, trombone-less, one-trumpet orchestra was financed and booked by the Ted Heath organisation, Music Artists Ltd. In the States it was not uncommon for a ‘name band’ to be supported by an already successful bandleader for half a year or more; Glenn Miller invested in several bands, covering their salaries, arrangement copyists, uniforms, etc., just as he had initially been backed by the Boston ballroom operators Charlie and Cy Shribman. Earlier than that, Duke Ellington and his manager Irving Mills owned 50% of Cab Calloway’s earnings, just as Mills owned 50% of Ellington’s !
But mirroring America in another way, 1947 was to be a problematic time for all established bands, let alone new fourteen-piece outfits. One instance fairly rare in the race relations of swing band history was in May 1947, when white leader Harry Gold’s Dixieland-with-strings run at the Embassy Club was cut short and Carl Barriteau’s band hired in its place. That’s show biz and, having a smaller big band than the competition was something Carl had learned from his former boss Ken.
The Barriteau Ork in Band Parade, 1947
Barriteau’s personnel of 1947 was of top quality: Jack Fisher-tenor sax, Mickey Deans, Albert Harris, Mike Senn and Jimmy Hall-alto sax, Danny Deans/Ronnie Hughes-trumpets, Ralph Jenner-trombone, Eddie Farrow-piano, Fitzroy Coleman-guitar, Pat Reilly, Joe Mudele-double bass, and Ronnie Verrell, Cecil ‘Flash’ Winstone-drums.
The leader would that same year take part in the Melody Maker-Columbia Jazz Rally of 1947, performing Pennies From Heaven and C-Jam Blues. This was another HMV event, a follow-up to the First English Public Jam Session, recorded at Abbey Road Studios in 1941 and intentionally a British response to similar efforts of Esquire and Metronome magazines in the United States. Barriteau was the only black bandleader on the bill but he did have Coleridge Goode in the pack, Frank Deniz and Bertie King played in the George Chisholm combo, Frank himself contributed rhythm guitar with Frank Weir’s band, and Dave Wilkins was with Harry Parry. Barriteau’s numbers weren’t issued, perhaps because he was a Decca recording artist; other sessions did make it into the record shops, including Who’s Sorry Now, led by Wilkins and Parry.
Carl Barriteau’s swing band played for dancers throughout England and Scotland, when lucky, in residencies of a week or so in medium-sized venues. This circuit of entertainment ranged wildly from swing bands such as Barriteau’s and that of Ted Heath, to variety and novelty acts such as the drummer-turned-vocalist and BBC presenter George Elrick, Felix Mendelssohn’s Hawaiian Serenaders, Syd Millward and his Nitwits (who featured the black singer and dancer Cyril Lagey), and Freddie Mirfield and his Garbage Men. Against such competition, Barriteau and other first-class swing musicians had to earn a living. Verrall, Hughes, and Mudele would go on to have strong careers in music. But the band found it tough going in the post war years, struggling through one-nighter gigs throughout Britain; a typical week found them no two nights at the same place, from Manchester to Huddersfield to Preston to Sheffield.
Jiver Hutchinson, being an equally popular Johnsonian star, went with Geraldo’s Orchestra after The Café de Paris bombing, exiting only occasionally through the years when he felt the time was right to resurrect the all-black swing band concept. He was voted the most favourite trumpeter in MM’s 1944 readers’ poll. Pianist Yorke de Souza and trumpeter Dave Wilkins added the right spark to the sprightly small group swing that Harry Parry was succeeding with in a big way on weekly BBC radio broadcasts, concerts and tours. Parry’s airtime naturally resulted in the band’s diary bulging with gigs and regular recording sessions for HMV’s Parlophone label.
Leslie Jiver Hutchinson’s “all-Coloured” Ork on tour, with pianist Yorke de Souza prominent above and trumpeter Dave Wilkins at left below
The rest of the Ken Johnson stars were not inactive during this period. In early 1944 Hutchinson, de Souza, King, Wilkins, and drummer Clinton Maxwell formed a new all-Black British band, billed as Leslie Jiver Hutchinson’s All-Coloured Orchestra, although the adjective was soon dropped. The band toured for the bandleader Bert Ambrose’s management organisation. Ambrose’s organisation was booking other bands besides his own and he secured a 31 July 1944 Decca recording session for the Hutchinson band, from which they swung four titles, although the ‘sides’ unfairly and perplexingly went unissued.
Peter Powell remembered collecting the two, double-sided test pressings from Ammy’s office in Old Bond Street and taking them to Jiver Hutchinson. They were likely loaned round the core of band mates but only two of the numbers survived with Hutchinson’s jazz vocalist daughter, Elaine Delmar: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Big Top Boogie. This heartbreaking turn of events was endured because it was still wartime, the band’s fortunes were looking up despite this scratched record opportunity, and it was a grindingly busy life.
According to Powell, the Hutchinson Orchestra played a concert in Walthamstow, an event which also featured, as an opener, an amateur band competition; the winner: the young, then-clarinet-playing Johnny Dankworth’s group, their leader being that London suburb’s local favourite at the time. John Dankworth detailed his Walthamstow years in his engaging but disappointingly sketchy autobiography, including apprenticing with the local Will de Barr group, but there is no mention of any such band battle.
From March 1944 Jiver’s band swung up and down the country, including a few lengthy residencies such as the Hammersmith Palais, and several live location broadcasts too. They secured two fortnight engagements in the West London venue, packing-out what was the largest ballroom in London, replacing Lou Praeger’s band. Oddly, they were not rewarded with repeated headliner bookings, despite having done so well. Racism here would not have been a factor, for if it had been they wouldn’t have been booked at all.
More likely this was a result of the institutional racism of the record companies, for while white bands such as Praeger’s were well-recorded, the willingness to offer recording opportunities to British artists of colour was, at best, an afterthought.
In this writer’s mind it seems probably that British (English) recording company managers of the time considered Caribbean and African artists as merely exotic niche-fillers, not quite British, and merely temporary visitors to the British Isles. In contrast to the evolving democracy of BBC philosophy and the broadcasters themselves accepting a wider brief, the English record company cartel was so narrow in vision and limited in ways of doing business that it barely coped with the sixties pop music explosion.
This is important in explaining the booking opportunities for Jiver Hutchinson’s band and in fact the many smaller name bands of the time, with which this all-black ensemble was unjustly grouped. It must be remembered that most recording artists were not on royalty-percentage contracts as would be offered to future generations. A session fee was all that they received. A popular white dance band or vocalist would have a regular stream of releases, mainly because, while the label managers had an idea of which potentially popular songs they wanted to market, the idea of believing in a particular title and promoting it was not yet within their ken.
The discs only served to convince bookers, broadcasters and venue owners to hire acts of significance that would attract the public, and to get publicity through reviews in the music press. The Hutchinson band’s lack of even a small handful of shellac in the shops thus significantly closed the doors to the better venues. This hurtful policy of Decca, HMV and their small subsidiary branches was the most detrimental element to the fortunes of Hutchinson’s group, for it reinforced their unwelcome and itinerant image. Thus the de facto record shop exclusion condemned them to jockey for position in the race for gigs, with the many bands of far less talent, who would never get a recording contract and didn’t deserve to.
Even touring decent-sized ballrooms was no guarantee of an honest distribution of the ticket sales. As per their usual contract agreements, they frequently earned 50-60% of the gate receipts but this didn’t always happen in practice. A very top band such as Ambrose’s or Geraldo’s would have an organisation that included non-musicians, office staff and the like, and they could spare the human resources to monitor an evening’s earnings. But the Hutchinson band wasn’t in that league and didn’t have non-musicians on payroll to see this through. By the time Peter Powell was 19, in 1945, he was freely befriending Jiver Hutchinson on tour by keeping a watchful eye on the turnstiles. He recalled that a particular dance hall operator was notorious for skimming the take but Powell’s independent accounting ensured that the musicians got their fare share from playing to a full house. The dodgy operator was caught out by an unsuspecting young white man clicking count for his black mates.
The Hutchinson crew also played a London concert at the Stoll, on Kingsway, with Major Glenn Miller’s Allied Expeditionary Force Orchestra headlining the bill. Before quitting the American commercial band scene, Miller had been the most successful swing band leader and spiked his armed forces bands with the very top white players from his home country (he didn’t attempt to break the US military’s racial segregation policy). Still, no doubt the Hutchinson-led players impressed the Miller men and received encouragement in return.
Powell recalled a short-lived jazz magazine, exact title forgotten, reporting that the band had recorded with the singer-pianist Leslie Hutch Hutchinson, a press agent’s dream combination if not an ideal musical match. Such a recording session likely never took place and the notice would serve as a lesson that not all published reporting is even remotely true. This same unidentified periodical however slandered Jiver Hutchinson’s group by criticising them as ‘a very poor band’. According to Powell, the band was deeply hurt by this, didn’t have the funds to pursue this slander in court, and the soon-to-cease publication would not likely have had any significant assets from which to redress their grievance.
A jam session in London, ca. 1948
Jiver Hutchinson’s Partnership
At the beginning of his band leading days, Jiver Hutchinson was especially popular with women fans. At this time black performers were still rare in Britain and considered, alternatively, novel, exotic or, to swing music aficionados, especially celebratory. His band observed many white women in its audiences and Jiver even had his own fan club newsletter, Jiver’s Jottings, with band news, advertising for the Sundays-only Feldman Swing Club, at 100 Oxford Street (now, simply known as the full-time 100 Club), the magnet for wartime British and American jazz greats, and some well-meant verse: “Clinton Maxwell’s super-duper, he beats the skins as well as Krupa”. Unfortunately, this researcher has only lamped one issue, donated by Peter Powell to the British Library.
As nominal leader for billing purposes (yes, this was a co-operative outfit), Jiver Hutchinson was supported by his four business partners: Bertie King, Dave Wilkins, Yorke de Souza and drummer Clinton Maxwell. The balance of the band initially included trumpeter Frank Williams, saxophonists Louis Stephenson, George Roberts or Freddie Grant, double-bassist Coleridge Goode, and Joe Deniz on guitar. King, Stephenson and Appleton were among those who resigned from the first Ken Johnson band when Leslie Thompson was cut out of any legal ownership and here was their chance to be in an all-Black orchestra again.
Soon tenor saxophonist Alfie Kahn replaced Stephenson and Bobby Henry replaced Goode. A second tenor sax chair was alternately filled by Mickey Deans, Alfie Kahn, and Johnny Jones. Further, illness gave the hook at one time or another to Joe Deniz and Clinton Maxwell. Not only was there no surfeit of black players in the Archer Street pool from which to call in ‘deps’ (deputies or substitutes, a routine situation for working musicians with anticipated reasons for not making a planned date, particularly during the war), the trombone was, as you’ve been continually reminded, an especially difficult chair to fill, save with hip white players who were pleased to participate. At least by this time the temporary white trombonists didn’t have to black-up their faces, as in the early days of the Johnson-Thompson band ! Laddy Busby had freelanced his added trombone the Johnson-led group and Dick Boothroyd, Harry Roche, and Frank Osborne each played the part in the Jiver-led orchestra.
So, in order to find black players of quality, Jiver went the Ken Johnson route and looked toward the Caribbean communities, which were then rich in jazz talent. In 1946, he hired from Jamaica, the tenor saxophonist George Tyndale, trumpeter Pete Pitterson, and trombonist Frank Baker. Pitterson became an important British bebop player of the early 1950s, making several BBC broadcasts but, according to early bop drummer Laurie Morgan, he was never quite accepted in the famous Club XI beboppers scene in the capital and was rarely recorded.
Coleridge Goode served as the foundation to many groups in his career. Not only did he have good reach in his playing, his keen ears tilted flexibly to both swing music and modern jazz. His father was conductor of the Kingston Festival Choir and Symphony Orchestra in Kingston, Jamaica. Although he started attending Glasgow University for a radio engineering degree in 1934, when he emigrated to Britain, his London move wasn’t made until 1942, when in the spring he joined Johnny Claes’ band, the Clae Pigeons, itself a laboratory group for modern tenorists Ronnie Scott and Kenny Graham, and guitarists Frank Deniz and Lauderic Caton. Goode then linked with Bertie King and other black musicians in the Hutchinson Ork. By the end of 1944 however, he joined guitarist Lauderic Caton and the ex-Vic Lewis-Jack Parnell Jazzmen pianist Dick Katz to form the Caribbean Trio, which played West End venues such as the Caribbean Club, in Denman Street, and the Hollywood Club.
Lauderic Caton Trio : bassist Coleridge Goode, guitarist Lauderic Caton, and pianist Dick Katz
The trio, sometimes with Malcolm Mitchell on guitar, was a highlight of a 1947 musicians’ charity Jamboree at the Gaumont State, in Kilburn. They were also a hit as a quartet, with Caton and Pitterson, in a Grand Jazz Concert of Coloured Artists, at the capacity filled Birmingham Town Hall. Goode, like the earlier George Roberts, built his own audio equipment, and so did Katz.
Also in 1944, Frank Deniz led his small Spirits of Rhythm group Decca recording session. The combo was rounded with brother Joe on second guitar, Frank’s wife Clare on piano, future tenor sax star Jimmy Skidmore, double-bassist Tommy Bromley, and Tommy Lytton on drums. The tracks on this release (Decca F-8456) are When I Grow Too Old To Dream, featuring a group unison vocal, and the Jay McShann swing standard Soft Winds. The interplay of the two guitars is a standout and it is instructive that the instrument was gaining popularity.
The Spirits of Rhythm – Joe Deniz, Tommy Lytton, Frank Deniz, Clare Deniz, Jimmy Skidmore, ca. 1944
In 1947, Frank’s own Caribbean Trio, with Goode and Katz, played the Rose Room, a Sunday favourite of musicians; in fact, it was believed that the booking came about because musicians and other customers requested it. This was alternately reported by the Melody Maker as a Hawaiian Trio and the guitar chair has also been identified as being occupied by electric guitar proponents Caton and Mitchell. Goode had recently recorded with Stephane Grappelly and Django Reinhardt, during the latter’s first visit to London and their session was photo-featured as ‘the biggest event of 1946 for all English enthusiasts’ in the MM. The leader Frank was versatile enough to include his brother in the Deniz Rhumba Quintette, which played the Coconut Grove club, a Hawaiian-and-Latin music venue on Regent Street. In the same year Frank played on a special BBC Jazz Club programme, Cavalcade of Swing, and he was further a part of the BBC-featured Ivor Mairants Guitar Quartet. And he also used his youngest brother Laurie Deniz in combos from time to time.
It should be noted here that, while the Afro-Caribbean musicians who came to Britain during the heart of the jazz age were products of that jazz age, they did not lose their cultural roots in Caribbean music. The Surrey-born but Germany-raised Rita Cann was a pianist-singer-dancer who led her own Havana Sextet in the late 1940s.
Even before the Windrush, there were young black musicians coming to Britain and following the examples of Ken Snakehips Johnson and his players. Young Tiger was already an established Caribbean and swing music performer on stage and radio by the time his Calypso record of I Was There (At the Coronation) hit the shops in 1953. A seaman from Trinidad, he was well familiar with both the variety of Caribbean music as well as the contemporary American scene. Having established himself in London during 1941, he was befriended by the famous star Stanley Holloway who got him into broadcasting.
George Browne, before he was known as Young Tiger, formed a vocal trio called Three Just Men, based on the 1929 Edgar Wallace novel, The Three Just Men. Fusing calypso with swing they worked hard singing and dancing their way on guitar, piano, double bass, and drums, and were rewarded with gigs at The Stork Club, on early BBC television, and on the Continent. In 1948 they impressed the touring Duke Ellington but the plan for a British tour with him never materialised.
To remind you, these Caribbean musicians were in fact more worldly than their British counterparts, having been raised on an aesthetic diet of indigenous calypso and related musics, American pop and swing-jazz music, and British classical music. Today, Caribbean styles have taken their rightful position in the world music pantheon and vintage artists such as Lord Kitchener and Lord Beginner have been recognised as innovators of genius.
But back before the main late-1940s wave of Caribbean immigration, before there was therefore a sizable immigrant black community in London to market Caribbean music to, black musicians had to rely on a general, white audience for support. Sometimes this meant a Latin repertoire mixed in with jazz and Caribbean influences and the early leaders of the British calypso scene just after the Second World War were jazz names such as saxophonist Bertie King, formerly with the Blue Rockets and Harry Roy Orchestras, trumpeter Cyril Blake and reed player Freddy Grant. Former Johnson and Hutchinson players, George Tyndale and Clinton Maxwell later were a part of the Kitchener studio bands.
The premier catalyst for igniting this world music scene in Britain was the independent record producer and promoter Denis Preston, whom the jazz-and-calypso-orientated Melodisc Records founder Jack Chilkes fondly remembered as trying “lovely, different recordings” and considered him to be “an intellectual spiv, not unlike Norman Granz”. Preston, with John Rowe, presented a multi-racial Ragtime Revival concert at Toynbee Hall Theatre in London’s Commercial Street, ca. 1947, which included both the Caribbean Club Trio and Freddy Grant’s West Indian Calypsonians. Preston and the wonderful Caribbean artists whose careers really took off in the 1950s all deserve a history in their own right, as writers John Cowley and Val Wilmer have begun to do.
Ironically, the Cardiff-cultured Frank Deniz helped to whet the white British appetite for Caribbean music in the years before the Windrush generation were able to disseminate those flavours with an alternate island authority. Frank, with brother Joe Deniz, was equally adept at a wide variety of then-exotic music, as when, in 1947, the Deniz Hawaiian Trio changed their shirts and neckware to become the Deniz Rumba Quintette at the Coconut Grove in Regent Street. Any issue of The New Yorker from the early post-war years will show that almost every Manhattan nightery served rumba to the punters too.
The work of these musicians over the next few years was not largely available to the record-buying public, but thanks to a donation by Elaine Delmar to the British Library, it’s been saved for future generations. Included in this collection are some later, early calypsos, acetates of a BBC broadcast, a 1947 studio session in Prague, a pair of Decca sample pressings, and a modern jazz inflected session from the same period.
Six of the Prague studio performances for Czech Supraphon were issued, but the Delmar Collection includes versions of I Can’t Get Started With You, with Jiver schmaltzing it in the Harry James style, and Annie Laurie, the latter featuring vocalist Frankie Smith. The 31 July 1944 Decca coupling features a well-arranged Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, with Jiver and Dave Wilkins answering each other’s trumpet passages, and a modernist shuffle arrangement of Big Top Boogie, which cuddles a more traditional piano boogie by Yorke de Souza. The Hutchinson group toured for seven weeks in Scandinavia, from the Café Fenix to the Lucerna and, in Prague, played a house audience peak of 4,000 enthusing dancers.
And from an unidentified recording c. 1946 are two further numbers, modern jazz-flavoured arrangements, in the Delmar Collection. I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover has a vocal by Judy Johnson and 15 bars of tenor sax, likely by George Tyndale. And a brief version of Lonesome Road has a well-inserted string passage and an apropos contemporary piano solo by Yorke de Souza, proving that he was certainly keeping up with modern jazz chord voicing.
The Hutchinson Orchestra headed the billing at the Winter Garden Theatre, in Drury Lane (demolished 1965), on 3 June 1945. The group also were hired for an August-September ENSA tour of Southeast Asia, including India and Singapore, a commitment that was first considered a year earlier. ENSA was the Entertainments National Service Association, established in 1939 to provide relief to British troops. Jiver’s was the first civilian band to play to British troops in that region and the generous Jiver invited guitarist Cedric West to come to England and join his band. Thing went well but on tour from Calcutta to Singapore the Hutchinson band’s instruments were lost in military transit. And while ENSA made good on its promise for new replacement instruments, the first few gigs back home were handicapped.
1946 was a year of hard work for Jiver’s swing band. A tour of Holland and Belgium was scheduled in January but suddenly halted when the dates for the latter country were cancelled. These continental dates were arranged by booker Jack Fallon (not the famous double-bassist of the same name), who was then working for the Jack Hylton Agency The group had to then return to the UK for hastily-secured one-nighters, some with guest vocalist Billie Campbell, while the Belgium dates were re-scheduled, eventually with Adelaide Hall and Cab Quaye (aka Kaye) on the bill. A typical week found them playing in Preston, Fleetwood, Keighley, Nelson, Leeds, Halifax, Sheffield, and Gateshead.
The addition of Hall and Quaye were solid box office draw. Not only was Adelaide by then well known apart from her very early work with Duke Ellington, Cab was a solid veteran as well. In the late 1940s Cab was popular on the BBC (radio), getting a listenership of 17% or approximately 5.35 million tuned-in adults.
The band were struggling to secure their place in the live music end of show business and tried to be distinctive however they could. That they were black was an obvious calling card as was their ability to really swing. Their presentation was straightforward, with the occasional scat novelty vocal. Oddly, their music stands each featured the image of a black playing card spade. This may have been partly a shameless, if unnecessary way of reminding the punters of the band’s colour, as well as an insiders’ joke of irony. Perhaps not – they wouldn’t have called themselves ‘The Spades.’
The BBC ‘Colour Bar’
Jiver’s Solid Ork, from Band Parade, 1947
Jiver and his orchestra faced what was then referred to as a ‘colour bar’ in securing bookings. In the pages of the MM, the leader felt excluded from dance hall circuit bookings, professional associations which would guarantee weeks if not months of work in venues owned by, say, the Mecca chain. The same was observed regarding hotel seasons (i.e., fortnight bookings) and even BBC broadcasts. In the latter category, the band secured few programmes in 1946, the same year that the swinging Squadronaires made 30 broadcasts from their summer Butlin’s Holiday Camp residency in Clacton-on-Sea.
The fuller truth however is that Carl Barriteau’s Orchestra landed numerous broadcasts during the war and after it, seventeen programmes between 1943-1947. Radio’s remuneration was certainly central to a leader’s ability to keep an orchestra together; fees ranged from £6.6. for an appearance on Jazz Club to £56 (about £8,000 today) for a more major evening programme of dance music. The latter type of radio show was more plentiful during the latter half of the Second World War and, the money aside, more radio appearances meant more banked publicity for the band leader.
It is sometimes claimed that the Barriteau success was due to his lightness of skin and the fact that the musicians he hired for touring were almost all of them white. These included such notables as the smoking baritone saxophonist Harry Klein and fiery trumpeter Ronnie Hughes. This ‘racial traitor’ judgement however diminishes the leader’s exceptional talent on the clarinet, his superior and quick arranging skills, his willingness to be stylistically versatile, and of course the quality of his management.
Rather than limit himself to swing-dance employment such as Variety Bandbox, Jazz Club and Workers’ Playtime, Carl often contributed to the BBC’s (overseas) Latin American Service, playing such export-only programmes as Calling the West Indies, Caribbean Carnival, and Empire Party (African Service). A set list for a 1944 broadcast consisted of mainly swingy numbers such as the Count Basie groover Down for Double, Duke Ellington’s Harlem Airshaft, and his own A Sultan Goes to Harlem. But Barriteau was shrewd enough to feature slow, smoochy songs including Sweet and Lovely, No Love – No Nothin’, and The Request Waltz. Ten full years later his repertoire was decidedly less swingy, with American country music-flavoured hits The Bandit and Hopalong Cassidy.
While Jiver’s afore-mentioned post-war complaint of racism against the BBC was undoubtedly justified in his own case, the immediate post-war climate for swing-jazz dance bands found them each competing with new full-sized orchestras supplying Latin and modern jazz entertainment, and even more varied small combos. Whereas during 1943 a group composed of Cyril Blake, Freddie Grant, Louis Stephenson, Lauderic Caton, Clare Deniz, Brylo Ford and Clinton Maxwell got offered a programme and Jiver’s band had no trouble securing broadcasts in the General Forces Programme and the Home Service in 1944-1945, after the war there was more competition for all radio programming departments, not just musical.
As a result the BBC, not for the last time, banished some of its straight-ahead swing music programming to a fringe audience time, in this case 9 am. The result in 1946 was that Jiver, Stephane Grappelly, Harry Parry, Sid Phillips, Harry Gold, and even Lew Stone’s Nova-tones ended up serenading a rather limited morning audience.
In fairness to the BBC, the wartime had evinced a public preference for dance disc programmes in the 7-9 morning slot. In an era before morning ‘drive-time’ radio personalities, that part of the day was considered secondary and so presenting jazz-related artists then was merely giving lip service to the airing of that art. Yes, there was racism involved in securing broadcast work, but in this writer’s opinion there was more a more blatant bigotry among the major British record companies and in the ballroom booking business.
In what must have a been a bit of déjà vu for Jiver, his band was invited to perform on BBC Television in 1946. This was 7-8 years after the Johnson band had broadcast themselves visually but the medium was still in its infancy. TVs were affordable to only the very well off and even few of those with that sort of money were buying the receivers. According to the limited broadcast schedule the band followed no transmission of any other programme at all, playing two sets, 3.00-3.30 pm and 8.30-9.00 pm. While the payment was a healthy 45 guineas (about £6,500 in today’s dosh), 1946 was of course too early in the twentieth century for videotape and it seems no film was made of the video screen itself.
This was a period when the BBC Radio could broadcast gramophone records without any payment to the musicians who had recorded them. In 1947 the Musicians’ Union would re-negotiate agreements to change this situation so that any broadcasting or in fact public performance of discs would be subject to a royalty payment. This pact partially explains any late 1940s growth in live music on the BBC and the boost to its Jazz Club and other programmes.
One-nighter engagements were beginning to be the norm for everyone and by the next year Hutchinson would reduce the size of the touring band, which must have sounded a bit thin when compared to the 14-16 pieces both he and Carl Barriteau would employ for radio broadcasts. During the week of Jiver’s protest in the music press, the band played the Clapham Baths, The Casino, in Rochester, Kent, the Bingley Swimming Club, near Bradford, and did two television programmes to a miniscule viewership from the BBC’s studio at Alexandra Palace.
Still, it is always in the crowded arena of employment that racial and ethnic bigotry start to stink, and the ballroom operators’ racism was the result. West Indian bandleader Al Jennings reiterated Jiver’s observations in the MM a fortnight later. The Hutchinson crew thus had to fill its schedule with one-nighters as far as Dublin. Their British one-nighter dates were managed by Music Artists Ltd., in Piccadilly, who also arranged bookings for fellow orchestra leaders Mantovani, Lou Praeger, and George Evans, the broadcast-and-film busy guitarist Ivor Mairants, and the early Ted Heath band.
The 19 December 1946 broadcast acetates are mainly two selections from a half-hour broadcast. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Jive serves up a swingy tenor sax solo, a boppish piano solo, solid drumming, and good brass and reed section passages. Swanee River is a bouncy, hot number with a rhythmic band unison vocal and a minor key interlude reminiscent of the one made famous in Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing. Some BBC producers of the period still insisted on two vocals in every half-hour music programme and a chorus of players who had their mouths free allowed for vocal variety.
It seems that at least some swing-jazz bands had to re-audition for the BBC, perhaps yearly, or for individual programmes or their producers. Carl Barriteau was notified the BBC’s M. Blair-Hickman that “…your band was accepted by the listening panel for broadcasting on the Home and Light Services. You are therefore at liberty to accept any broadcasting engagements which may be offered you.” Around the same time the BBC producer Leslie Perowne, who had earlier signed-up the Ken Snakehips Johnson Orchestra for radio work, wrote to the BBC Home Service’s Planning section the following memo of advocacy:
“Leslie Hutchinson, the Jamaican Band Leader, came to see me yesterday and was much grieved that has so far been unable to get an audition for his band. I said I would report the matter to you and see that at least the band was heard.”
“Hutchinson used to be with the well-known and good west Indian band of Ken Johnson with The Café de Paris until Ken was killed in 1940 [sic] in the blitz. Later had had a band of his own and has, I understand, done successful tours on the Continent. He tells me has now laid-off jazz and goes in for more straight forward dance music”.
Perhaps the top English groups such as Geraldo’s weren’t required to constantly audition for the BBC. And maybe the constant release of discs by the major recording companies acted as a calling card for the top white bands. But the lack of opportunity for Jiver Hutchinson and Carl Barriteau to record the latest songs certainly held back their careers.
At this time, Bertie King took his alto sax on tour with the increasingly-booked Blue Rockets, formerly a section within the George Melachrino Orchestra, and then took a reed chair in the Harry Roy Orchestra. He also took part in the 10th BBC Jazz Club broadcast, a special event because the 10-piece band had no white folks – All Negro ! It is hoped this was recorded by a private source with an acetate disc cutter and that the sounds do surface for preservation some day. King, Dave Wilkins, Frank Deniz and Coleridge Goode all played on the 29 June 1947 Melody Maker poll winners session at Abbey Road Studios.
Lulu White’s New Orleans nephew Spencer Williams headlines a Birmingham gig with The Caribbean Trio and Bertie King
Dave Wilkins (1914-1990) was much sought for trumpet work, especially during the personnel-transient war years, when top players were in demand. His work with Johnny Claes, Ambrose’s Orchestra, and Hatchette’s Swingtette is eclipsed by his contributions to Harry Parry’s Radio Rhythm Club Sextet. The RRC crew were an immense presence on the swing-jazz landscape. They stood out from the competing full-sized dance bands, their routinised BBC exposure was the best sort of exploitation for gigs, and they got to record extensively, releasing almost 100 different tracks of swing-jazz on Parlophone’s Super Rhythm Style Series throughout the 1940s.
Even after joining Jiver Hutchinson’s Orchestra in 1944, Wilkins still took other work whenever he could, from the Ted Heath big band down to numerous smaller groups. He was further an occasional vocalist and contributed comedy when the occasion called.
Dave’s tenure with the Heath Orchestra coincided with what was arguably the latter’s most successful commercial period. Although Heath himself was of the jazz school, his made sure his band was popular by the use of varied musical numbers and an emphasis on vocalists such as Denis Lotis, Dickie Valentine and Lita Roza, who was married to trumpeter Ronnie Hughes. The younger players such as tenor saxophonist Danny Moss and Tommy Whittle regarded him as restrictive regarding jazz improvisation but Heath understood the value of good songs such as his 1953 hit, Hot Toddy, from which Duke Ellington drew to compose his own Satin Doll.
Dave Wilkins with trombonist Jackie Armstrong in a comedy number with the Ted Heath Band, 1949
Under such pressure for commercial consistency and the fact that the Heath orchestra simply had too many jazz soloists it’s no wonder that Dave Wilkins was frustrated musically, even if well-paid for the years he contributed, 1947-1949. Wilkins was indeed featured by Heath but mainly for the novelty numbers, with which the trumpeter-vocalist won audiences triumphantly. Whether as a solo singer or in partnership with Heath bandmate Jackie Armstrong on the old Mildred Bailey number Don’t Worry ‘Bout Strangers, Wilkins never failed to ‘bring the roof down’.
In a way, it was his curse to be an appealing vocal entertainer as well as a top player. At an April 1947 musicians’ charity concert, he performed his version of the African-American comic Dusty Fletcher’s Open the Door, Richard, the biggest African-American novelty song of the decade, Stateside. After leaving the Heath Orchestra his chair was taken by Hughes.
Meanwhile, 1947 the Hutchinson band continued the one-night stands in Britain and Ireland, occasionally rounded out their show with singer Cab Kaye (aka Quaye) and his wife, who would be a favourite personality at the Feldman Club in Oxford Street and a well-received singer on stage, notably at the annual Jazz Jamboree concert for 1948. Having managed with the payroll overhead of a fourteen-piece orchestra, Jiver hit upon a novel approach to band downsizing, featuring himself as the only trumpet, a rhythm section plus five saxophones. Around this time, Carl Barriteau’s solution to an unfeasible payroll was similar but, instead biased toward his own reed section.
In 1948 it was reported that Jiver Hutchinson excised the nickname from his billing, becoming Leslie Hutchinson Perhaps he thought that Jiver was then old-fashioned and reminded the public of the war years. Perhaps the pianist-singer Leslie Hutchinson was better known by the public simply as ‘Hutch.’
Lauderic Caton, Coleridge Goode, unidentified, Dick Katz, Buddy Bradley, unidentified vocalist, and Ray Ellington, 1948 (Checkers Magazine)
Square in the cusp of the bebop era was drummer and vocalist Ray Ellington, who lit a great audience response with guitarist Lauderic Caton, pianist Dick Katz, and double-bassist Coleridge Goode. This small group reportedly even eclipsed the rest of the Ted Heath Swing Session at the London Palladium; the MM reported that they were a ‘sensation’, that they ‘really rocked’. By a coincidence, the Ellington Quartet’s performance was rhymingly compered in a jiving rap by Buddy Bradley, the stage producer who years earlier had tutored Ken Johnson in jazz dance. For the next year the combo covered Britain in one-night-stand bookings, returning afterwards to the London Palladium for a repeat Swing Session success.
A contract with Parlophone resulted in such hits as The Best Man and The Three Bears. Caton’s electric guitar and later that of his replacement Laurie Deniz gave the group a modern edge, which fitted well with the German-Jewish émigré Katz, whose chordal voicings had been somewhat restrained in the earlier Lewis-Parnell Jazzmen. Coleridge Goode of course was a determined modernist, whether playing with Django Reinhardt or, later, Joe Harriott and helped lift the lid off of The Three Bears, retaining its jazz credibility.
As noted by the prolific yet diligent jazz historian John Chilton, Ray Ellington was an example of today’s more normal London multiculturalism in that his father was an American Negro comedian and his mother was Russian Jewish by birth. Always the vocalist and unafraid of the stage, he appeared in a show at the Palace Theatre in 1928, when he was only 12. He took up drums within a couple of years and by 1933 got gigs with clarinettist Rudolph Dunbar’s outfit at the Park Lane Hotel. Then he was in demand for smaller famous clubs such as the Bag o’Nails, The Next and the Shim-Sham. He was also musically educated in the Lew Stone Orchestra and with Benny Carter and Garland Wilson.
But his big break came in 1937 when he was spotted by bandleader Harry Roy, who needed rhythmic expertise when his star drummer Joe Daniels became a Parlophone recording artist in his own right as leader of his own Hot Shots, variably a sextet or a quintet. Ray’s opportunity with Roy afforded him a tour of South America.
With the HR Ork, Ray gained much experience with both the full orchestra and the smaller outfit, Harry Roy’s Tiger Ragamuffins. Despite the leader being very popular as a singer on his own band’s records, young Ray got a look in on the vocal microphone. And although Roy himself favoured novelty numbers, he relied on Ray heavily for a kind of jazz racial authenticity and youthful verve. Fortunately Ellington was equally strong in his drumming abilities, elegantly hip singing personality, without trying to sound American, and athletic good looks. It was as if the bandleader veteran Harry Roy wanted to become a swing band desperately in 1937 because Ray Ellington was given numerous vocal records, including Swing for Sale, Let’s Swing It, and Swing is Here to Sway.
After getting demobilised from his six years of duty in a Royal Air Force uniform, he found himself dropped into the postwar musical landscape that included the beboppish changes in jazz. Open to any avenue if it proved exciting, Ray Ellington backed the violinist Stephane Grappelly and then sang for over a year with Tito Burns’ accordion-led sextet on a regular BBC Radio programme, Accordion Club. That Burns was about the worst professional accordionist this writer will ever hear, his group were early bebop pretenders and, as such, were considered very hip. Ellington naturally followed the example of Tito Burns, Harry Gold’s Pieces of Eight and other small group leaders by starting his own combo in 1947.
More accurately, he brought in the Caribbean Club Trio of Caton, Goode and Katz, who had gone un-renewed at the Caribbean Club itself because the Denman Street venue decided to change to a calypso-only music policy and the trio itself played jazz. Promoted by Ted Heath, they were mentioned in the music press and prominently featured in Checkers, a black monthly arts and politics magazine that lasted about one year due to the small size of the community (this was before the Windrush). How tiny was it? Well, a London men’s salon in Victoria, Maurice Ltd, advertised ‘Hair Styling for Coloured and White’, which, given the importance of some barber shops as a kind of black male community centre might not happen today.
Caton left the group due to health problems and his preference for eating healthfully, which musicians found it difficult to achieve while touring, and he was replaced by Laurie Deniz. LD had already played with Dick Katz so joining the Ellington crew in 1949 was an apropos step. In that year the band won the best small band in the Melody Maker readers’ poll and was further voted the most favourite in a listeners’ survey run by the Munich-based Armed Forces Radio Network, a public service platform of the United States occupying forces. They worked hard to achieve such popularity, touring Sweden, Norway, Holland, and elsewhere in Europe.
Ray Ellington was well on top and could do no wrong. When his car got stolen, he even went to the local police station to report the theft and was smoking a joint while he did it ! Ray reportedly did a bit of market research into each culture, which allowed him to feature special material from a country’s given musical history. The quartet was reportedly the standout attraction at the 1949 Jazz Jamboree concert, as they had been at the annual event the year before. Their ideas, playing ability and showmanship contrasting convincingly with the competing bandstand fare on the bill. They got the crowd screaming, something the Stan Kenton-inspired Vic Lewis Orchestra did not achieve.
While Jiver Hutchinson’s band was struggling to compete against full-sized dance bands and a sea of smaller, more musically niche groups, Ellington’s quartet enjoyed great popularity. Handsome, charismatic, funny, romantic, and an ace drummer and vocalist, he was a ‘dreamboat’ entertainer. Ray became synonymous with all that was fun in swing music. Although their role model was the early King Cole Trio, the RE Quartet was certainly more swinging at any volume and could handle rapid key changes as if they’d been doing that all their lives. A good example of the latter is their instrumental Boppy Soxer, also known as Strip the Camshaft.
Ray’s compositions were usually sexually-knowing, light romantic numbers with a cheerful attitude. And with staccato vocal abilities far beyond his competition, he easily embraced bebop phrasing. Yet he was not above backing another jazz star, for his quartet recorded a 1948 session with the trumpeter-violinist-vocalist-dancer Ray Nance, who was then touring Europe with his boss Duke Ellington.
Avid Records AMSC 697, 2000, with booklet notes by Jim Godbolt
Much of the general public remember him from 1950s comedy sketch television (and radio) classic, The Goon Show. Music was integral to various routines and so the quartet would rehearse with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine at the Holland Park home of pianist Alan Clare, a neighbour of Coleridge Goode. This media popularity ensured Ray Ellington some recording work throughout the decade, some sessions backing the singer Marion Ryan and, in 1959, he recorded the very first stereo vinyl LP for Pye Records. Ray Ellington died in 1985.
Meanwhile Jiver Hutchinson’s fuller band played a three-month tour of Sweden in 1949, but, as bookings were a bit thin, he re-joined Geraldo’s Orchestra as a featured soloist. Even though he didn’t like Geraldo personally, he enjoyed playing in such a successful band that, in the late 1940s, was playing richly-voiced Eddie Sauter arrangements. Geraldo was obviously comfortable with hiring black stars and at this time he was also featuring the Jamaican-born vocalist Archie Lewis. In 1952, Jiver also had a working partnership with the Kansas City-Manhattan pianist Mary Lou Williams, who was living in London. A proposed Anglo-Franco Musicians Union exchange, with the typical belligerence of that particular field of labour organisation, prevented him from accompanying her in Paris.
Leslie ‘Jiver’ Hutchinson heats up his horn for Geraldo’s Orchestra, ca. 1947
The 1950s saw more increased competition for ticket sales, with the British revival of traditional New Orleans jazz and modern bebop jazz compete for column inches in the music press. Swing music was being forced to give up the large, prestigious bookings and the bands that played it found their marketplace space mainly in smaller and strictly local venues. Bertie King got to record an excellent Don’t be that Way in 1955 and a year later graced a Nixa session for the visiting and versatile blues-jazz artist Josh White, the latter session produced by the aesthetically demanding Denis Preston, but generally he was not given much jazz work.
Jiver was still keen to operate his own band. He fronted the Norrie Paramor Orchestra, in reality Jiver’s own Calypso band, for an unreleased 1952 session. In 1955, when not booked for Geraldo’s gigs, the trumpet star led the Ebony Knights, playing US military camps. The combo featured the future modern jazz and free improvisation trumpet star Harry Beckett and vocalist Roy Hamilton.
In late 1956, he again left Geraldo’s employ to start his own dance band, which made its London debut at the Astoria in Brixton. The personnel included Led Beadle-trombone, Jimmy Williams-tenor sax/clarinet, Steve Evans-piano, Lloyd Hughes-double bass, and Benny Goodman-drums. Goodman had formerly worked for Don Rendell and Ken Moule, the latter having earlier made exciting Afro-Cuban music with Cab Kaye. This new group featured Marion Williams, ex of the Eric Delaney band; this was a reunion of sorts since, back in 1949, she had been with his eight-piece outfit. John Ford was the male vocalist with the 1956 group.
1956 was a watershed year in music in that, while rock’n’roll was coming in, some of the younger jazz musicians dug playing it. This is evident in the early R&R television, i.e., 6-5 Special, which succeeded in riding two generational horses. Carl Barriteau, the ‘No.1 T.V. Soloist’, played on the programme, which was then enjoying an audience of ten million viewers. Trombonist Don Lang’s band eventually got too jazzy with Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott and Harry Klein, but for a while everyone was pleased ! Kaye (his son Finley Quaye had record successes as a singer in his own right in the late 1990s) belted out a groovy number about rock’n’roll which was, in the end, rock’n’roll. The programme has house dancers who demonstrated the “modern” difference between 1940s jiving (Lindy-hopping) and rock’n’roll dancing, at which they excelled, thus furthering the dancers’ art. This same year, Jiver Hutchinson played a proper concert at the Brixton Astoria and made a point of including Rory Blackwell’s Rock’n’Rollers on the bill.
Still, this swing player from the previous musical generation naturally never quite let go of the hope that the former pop music might return in a big way. In 1958 the ‘re-forming’ of the Ken Johnson band took place on the popular Benny Hill Show on BBC TV. But this was in fact was musical background for a Buddy Bradley segment, ‘music in a blues theme’, and featured Jiver Hutchinson, Carl Barriteau, Yorke de Souza, Bertie King, and Joe Deniz . Were the players even on-camera? It was little and fewer jobs like this that kept hope alight in the hearts of swing jazz players from the 1930s. It is indeed problematic to speculate on how he would have withstood the blasts of pop and soul music of the 1960s, or the blooming of Jamaican ska.
Players and Public Tastes
The 1950s was hard on the Black British Swing musicians. The increasing appeal of pop music, traditional jazz, bebop, modern big band jazz, television, and home-oriented family concerns all conspired to make swing music redundant. Leslie Thompson still played trumpet but this was at local Christian meetings in Finchley. The Archer Street recruitment scene was still flourishing, but there were marked differences from the pre-War manner of doing things.
With many veteran musicians out of the armed forces and encountering the next generation of players, competition was greater. This glut of potential hirees more than made up for the increase in home telephones, which certainly lessened the need for someone to link up with an employer in Archer Street. Monday was the busiest day for hiring and musicians would begin to fill up the road at 2.30. Sometimes the police came along to move these hopefuls off the street. But even many good musicians congregating in Archer Street took single gigs toward the end of the week.
Three of the fixer’s fingers indicated to the hopeful hooters that the gig was a prime presentation in a West End ‘A’ venue and paid 3. Two fingers meant the gig was a Musicians’ Union-rated ‘B’ establishment and paid £2. A suburban gig paid £1.50 and a pub play or a contribution to a combo in a servicemen’s club paid £1.00. By then, musicians seeking work would often have to declare their desired fee before any offer was made. Tenor saxophonist George Evans and trumpeter Teddy Foster, both bandleaders, would get young and relatively inexperienced musicians for special gigs. Evans himself ran a strictly student outfit in 1948. These up-and-coming big band section players would ask for £15 per week for regular work, whereas players with families and mortgages would want £25.
By 1952, Louis Stephenson’s only option was bottle factory work, initially earning £7 and 12 ½s per week, equivalent to about £750 at this is written today. In 1962 he transferred to another factory, rising in rank to Assistant Supervisor, for there was no work for the sax section swing musician.
Cyril Blake & His Calypsonians celebrate a New Orleans-style Mardi Gras with the Humphrey Lyttelton’s Band at the Royal Hotel, Woburn Place, 1950
The life of one-nighters has always been risky for jazz musicians, especially in the need to always get to the next location. Swing band travel was always dicey as it was always frenetic, whether by B-roads, A-roads, road diversions, or motorways, which didn’t exist back in the day. Cab Calloway’s tenor star Chu Berry died in a road accident between gigs, as did the American bandleaders Hal Kemp, also by motorcar (after first surviving a train derailment when he was in the loo).
Jiver Hutchinson himself was involved in a road accident on his way to a Geraldo Orchestra Blackpool gig in 1955. Worse, in November 1959 he died when his coach overturned in Weeting, Norfolk, on route to an American airbase gig. The tragedy also seriously injured Yorke de Souza and drummer Tommy Jones, but his daughter Elaine Delmar wasn’t seriously hurt. At that time Jiver was an early signing with the newly-established Vic Lewis Agency, whose later clients included Cilla Black and Elton John.
As with the deaths of Lester Young and Big Bill Broonzy, the BBC did not include the news in its bulletins. Kenny Graham, then popular in the jazz world with his Afro-Cubists band, lamented, in The Melody Maker, Jiver’s cult status. Many jazz artists played a memorial benefit at the Odeon, Tottenham Court Road, including Carl Barriteau, Ray Ellington, John Dankworth, Shirley Bassey and Humphrey Lyttelton. After the costs for the venue, the surviving family then reportedly netted £300, almost £20,000 today. That’s how much folks missed Leslie, but of course it was no substitute for his inspiration on the scene !
Despite the 1930s pianist-composer Reginald Foresythe being termed ‘The Stravinsky of Jazz,’ he spent the 1950s playing solo in Central London nightclubs, not unlike another beloved and sensitive pianist, Alan Clare. This writer has yet to hear his Decca release of Sweet Georgia Brown, which apparently featured four clarinets and a bassoon. Carlo Kramer, co-founder with Peter Newbrook of the great Esquire Records label, “admired Reggie for his ambition in trying to break away from the conventional,” but the pianist never made any recordings for the company. Occasionally, someone revives his Serenade for a Wealthy Widow, such as Willem Breuker and his Kollectief group, in 1987. Yet it took half a century after Foresythe’s death in 1958 for a commercially-released compilation of his work to be published.
Fortunately a number of Ken Snakehips Johnson’s major players were eventually embraced by the jazz oral history project at the British Library Sound Archive. Joe Deniz himself contributed to the series, interviewed by jazz journalist Val Wilmer, as were his brothers, fellow guitarists Frank and Laurie, and Frank’s wife, the pianist Clare Deniz. Other significant Black British Swing musicians interviewed include Dave Wilkins, multi-instrumentalist Leslie Thompson, saxophonist Louis Stephenson, and double-bassist Coleridge Goode.
Overlooked by the rock bands, Frank Deniz was still gigging in 1967
Jiver’s daughter Elaine Delmar has succeeded in jazz clubs for years, confidently venturing into musical stage productions and the Ronnie Scott’s Club in Soho. Her generosity in sharing Jiver’s more obscure sessions has helped this history immeasurably.
The Black British Swing story has largely been hidden from jazz history but it never disappeared. Leslie Thompson detailed his autobiography to historian Jeffrey Green in 1985 after having retired from many non-musical years as a social worker and in the prison service, helping the convicted not to re-offend.
A year later the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton presented a seminar at the Lambeth Town Hall, featuring some of the era’s survivors: Joe Deniz, Rudolph Dunbar, Coleridge Goode, Adelaide Hall, Louis Stephenson, Leslie Thompson, and Dave Wilkins. This event was fortunately video recorded and may be viewed at The British Library Singer-saxophonist and Jazz Curator Chris Clark, who established the British Library as a leading repository of international jazz and free improvisation, was prescient in instituting this oral history project in 1984 and Val Wilmer’s valuable commission soon followed.
Gradually age caught up with most of the players. Thompson died in 1987. After having ditched music, even gigs in faux-Latin groups, after the Second World War, the later years of his autobiography make for a fascinating read, given what we know about how hard conditions were. Although he’d worked in the Royal Artillery and was later refused housing by the Church of England on the basis of his colour, it was his Christian faith that kept him going.
In the 1950s he truly put his horn to rest, preferring regular working hours and advancing social justice. Think of the irony in those black students from overseas being told they’d ‘never had it so good’ while facing severe discrimination in Britain. Thus, Evangelical-sponsored support for immigrants made sense to Leslie, who signed-up for this work. In 1963 it was a natural step of ‘mission’ to become a probation officer, working out of the North London Magistrates’ Court and HMP Pentonville itself. With characteristic ease, he referred to those years as “pleasantries,” despite his own son landing in prison and dying early on ! Although he’d set aside his Garveyist politics, Leslie Thompson was an honourable striver in everyday life.
Carl Barriteau and Mae Cooper retired to Australia, kplaying and singing (below) into the sunset.
Dave Wilkins died in 1990, the latter’s funeral arrangements arranged for by Humphrey Lyttelton. Towards the end, his life was sad and lonely, which was ironic for “one of the nicest, most charming people in the world,” a man of genuine warmth, an “irrepressible humourist” who spent his life giving cheer to others, both on and off stage. In this way he was remarkably like Louis Armstrong, except that he never became wealthy.
A decade after his death he became celebrated in a way he probably never anticipated. Dave Wilkins had at least three children who, although originally unaware of one another, fortuitously embraced from their respective residencies in Madrid, Quebec, and Cornwall.
The long time Memory Lane magazine publisher and Al Bowlly biographer Ray Pallett reported that Ken’s alma mater, the Sir William Borlase’s School in Marlow, honoured his career with a 50th anniversary concert in 1991 and that the school unveiled a blue plaque for their star in 1998.
In 1986 the Black Cultural Centre, of Brixton, presented a Ken Johnson discussion in Lambeth Town Hall, chaired by Len Garrison and featuring Adelaide Hall, Joe Deniz, Dave Wilkins, Leslie Thompson, Coleridge Goode, Louis Stephenson, and Don Johnson. Two years later Ms Wilmer conducted a panel discussion, Black British Jazz, at the British Library Sound Archive (then known as the National Sound Archive) and in 1997 there was activity to stage a musical about the Johnson Orchestra in London’s West End; Paul Medford, formerly ‘Kelvin’ in ITV’s Eastenders, was tipped to star in the production. The closest it came to realisation was a feature on the project in BBC2’s Black Britain series.
Snakehips’ life has formed the foundation of Nicholas Wollaston’s 1988 novel, Café de Paris. Ken Johnson is part of a subsequent Guyanese emigration of talent which includes MPs Bernie Grant and David Lammy, Baroness Valerie Amos, Sir Herman Ouseley, author Mike Phillips, flautist Keith Waithe, music star Eddie Grant, and Clive Lloyd, who played cricket for Lancashire, captained the West Indies team and became an ICC Match Referee. Hansib Publications owner Arif Ali theorised that the early rise of the trade union movement elevated the aspirations of the Guyanese working class. And in November 2006, BBC Radio 3 broadcast a well-received, three-part series on the Ken Johnson saga, produced by veterans Mike Pointon and Neil Rosser.
The post-war Caribbean immigration would later enrich the London jazz milieu with players such as altoist Joe Harriott, tenor star Tommy McCook, of the Skatalites, sax-and-flute specialist Harold McNair, trumpeter Shake Keane, guitarist Ernest Ranglin and others. And South African players such as saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, pianist Chris McGregor, trumpeter Mongezi Feza, and other, younger South African players and their descendants continue to contribute to British culture. Today there are, fortunately, too many currently-working musicians to mention here. But the pioneering Black British Swing artists set the stage for the subsequent stars of more recent times. Despite help and love from some white quarters, the Black community’s struggle for equality and justice is still lumbered with the historical irony that so many of their jazz ancestors are under-documented if not outright undocumented today. Their surviving recordings are then all the more precious.
Apologies to those expecting a proper book; the intended publisher was keen and then turned cold over the prospect. This was serialised in a less authoritative form in the IAJRC Journal (August 2008-June 2009).
Thanks to Goldsmith College’s enthusing cultural sociologist Dr Les Back; the rigorous yet kind British film historian Stephen Bourne; insightful tenor saxophonist Jack Chilkes; the trumpeter and landmark jazz historian John Chilton, who’s Who’s Who of British Jazz is ever invaluable; double-bassist and Jazz Warrior Gary Crosby, for a kick up the bum; Elaine Delmar, for her gracious generosity; Topic Records’ devoted prexy Tony Engle for an eagerness to revive the historic audio evidence of these swinging cats; environmental and jazz journalist Mike Gerber; tireless black history supporter Imogen Forster, the encouraging Eric Hobsbawm; knowledge-droppin’ jazz discographers Horace Meunier Harris, Richard Johnson, Tony Middleton, and especially Brian Rust, whose works we all gratefully rely on to stitch together pieces of the jazz history puzzle; American music discographer Big Al Pavlow; funky trombonist Mike Pointon; Black British Swing’s original white hipster Peter WG Powell, who was indeed a younger brother to many the players and has been the gentleman mentor of this effort; music historians Howard Rye and Alyn Shipton; Isabel Simons, whom I respectfully tried to spare involvement with this work; the renowned British Asian historian Rozina Visram, and the tenacious Val Wilmer, who foresightedly conducted oral histories with black British musicians, as commissioned by the British Library for their once-rolling programme to interview jazz players and promoters, of any background, in the UK. Gratitude above all to the British Library, for this history could not have been recovered without that institution’s willingness, via former Jazz Curator Chris Clark and jazz-respecting line manager Alan Ward, to document the recorded art of these solid musicians in its mission to preserve the world’s knowledge.
Amstell, Billy : Don’t Fuss, Mr. Ambrose, (Tunbridge Wells: Spellmount, Ltd., 1986, p. 27, 31, 49, 52, 59).
Atkins, E. Taylor : “Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan” (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2001), p. 42-48, 52-53.
Fitzroy Andre Baptiste piece on Amy Ashwood Garvey : africamigragion.com
Barriteau, Carl : Swing Style Phrases and Riffs for Clarinet, compiled by Carl Barriteau, J.R. LaFleur & Son Ltd., 1943.
Morroe Berger, Edward Berger and James S. Patrick : Benny Carter: A Life in Music,, Institute of Jazz Studies/Scarecrow Press, 2001, p. 98-99, 106-107.
Boosey & Hawkes Ltd. : Cash In on the New National Electric Guitars; National-Electric Steel Guitar brochure, 1936.
Bourne, Stephen : Black in the British Frame, (London: Cassell, 1998), p. 76.
Bowen, Elizabeth : The Blitz in London described in The Heat of the Day (London: Anchor Books, 2002 ed of 1948 original, p. 78, 98.
Breese, Charlotte : Hutch (London: Bloomsbury, 1999; p.116, 120, 123, 159); it is erroneously reported here that “One bomb exploded in the gallery just above Ken Snakehips Johnson’s band, who with one exception were killed outright”, 264,
Caffrey, Kate : ’37-’39: Last Look Round (London: Gordon & Cremonesi, 1978; p.125-7, 166-7)
Chilton, John : Who’s Who of Jazz: Storyville to Swing Street (Time-Life Records edition, 1978, p. 311).
Chilton, John : Who’s Who in British Jazz, (London: Cassell, 1997, p. 183)
Pastor Kamal Chunchie/Coloured Men’s Institute: Twenty Five Years among Coloured People in London Dockland, 1946.
Peter Cliffe : Fascinating Rhythm (Baldock, Herts: Egon, 1990), p. 44, 138, 142, 241, 243, 247, 250, 254.
Bill Coleman to Johnny Simmen, notes to Pirate Records MPC 511.
Cowley, John : L’Annee Passee: Selected Repertoire in English-speaking West Indian Music, 1900-1960, in Keskidee (Summer 1993), p. 2-28.
Cowley, John : West Indian Gramophone recordings in Britain, 1927-1950, in Under the Imperial Carpet: Essays in Black History 1780-1950, Rainer E. Lotz and Ian Pegg, eds.; Crawley: Rabbit Press, 1986, p. 246-247, 250.
Dankworth, John : Jazz in Revolution (London: Constable, p.3-34).
Duberman , Martin Bauml : Paul Robeson (London: The Bodley Head, 1989), p. 115-116, 121.
WEB Du Bois, The Negro College in WEB Du Bois: A Reader (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 162.
Rudolph Dunbar : Treatise on the Clarinet; (London: JE Dallas & Sons, 1939).
Elrick, George : Housewives’ Choice, (London: Mainstream Publishing, 1991) p. 35-36.
Francis, Bob ‘Thins’: Some American Music (Mephistopheles 102), 1986.
Franklin, John Hope : From Slavery to Freedom: A History of American Negroes (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1966), p. 382-386.
Becky Givan, West African Students’ Union, from Global Mappings website, Institute for Diasporic Studies, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 2004.
Godbolt, Jim : A History of Jazz in Britain: 1919-1950 (London: Quartet, 1984; p.189-191)
Goddard, Chris : Jazz Away From Home (London: Paddington Press, 1979), p. 58-59, 217-218, 298.
Gold, Harry : Gold, Doubloons and Pieces of Eight, (London: Northway Publications, 2000), p. 90, 114.
Hannusch, Jeff : The Blackwell Guide to Soul Recordings (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993; p.270
Goldberg, Marv : More Than Words Can Say: The Ink Spots and Their Music, (London: Scarecrow Press, 1998, p. 15-19).
Haney, Lynn : Naked at the Feast – A Biography of Josephine Baker, (London: Robson, 2002), p. 21-22.
Hayes, Chris : entries in Dance Band Diary, probably published by Memory Lane, ca. 1990; citations from:
August 1939, p. 20; November 1939, p. 23; March-April 1940, p. 5-7; June 1940, p. 11; August 1940, p. 14; November 1940, p. 18; December 1940, p.19; March 1944, p.1; August 1944, p. 4; May 1945, p.8, June 1940, p. 12; August 1945, p. 10, and December 1945, p. 12; January 1948, p. 8; January 1950; November 1952, p. 20; May 1955, p. 16.
Hamilton, Patrick : The Blitz in London described in Hangover Square(London: Penguin, 2001 ed., 1941) and The Slaves of Solitude (London: Cardinal, 1991 ed., 1947).
Hayes, Chris : Remembers Carl Barriteau, in Memory Lane, Spring 1985, p. 12-13.
Hobsbawm, Eric : Uncommon People: Resistance, Rebellion and Jazz (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998), p. 268-270.
Hodgson, Vere : Few Eggs and No Oranges: The Diaries of Vere Hodgson, 1940-1945 (London: Persephone Books, 1999), p.138-14
Hughes, Ronnie, in Sheila Tracy : Talking Swing: The British Big Bands (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 1997, p. 67).
Hughes, Spike, in Swing Music, June 1935, p. 83, 94-95, 139, 142, 144, 156, 182-184.
Hughes, Spike : Second Movement p. 112, 119, 168-173.
International African Service Bureau [London]: The West Indies To-Day, 1937
Jivani, Alkarim It’s Not Unusual: A History of Lesbian and Gay Britain in the Twentieth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), p.24-25
Jiver’s Jottings (Wolverhampton: ca. June 1945), courtesy of Peter WG Powell.
Jones, Steve : When the Lights Went Down: Crime in Wartime London and Manchester (Nottingham: Wicked Publications, 2000), p. 16-17.
Kelly’s Post Office Directory ca. 1940.
Horst H. Lange, Die Deutsche 78er Discographie der Hot-Dance-und-Jazz-Musik, 1903-1958 (Berlin: Colloquium, 1966).
Lewis, E. (Sir Edward) R. : No C.I.C., (London: Universal Royalties Ltd., 1956), p. 24-30, 53-54, 73, 80.
Lewis, Vic, with Tony Barrow : Music and Maiden Overs: My Showbusiness Life (London: Chatto & Windus, 1987), p. 32, 99-100.
Lotz, Rainer E. : Black People: Entertainers of African Descent in Europe and Germany, (Bonn: Bergit Lotz Verlag, 1997) p. 35-49, 65-86.
Lotz, Rainer E. : Dan Kildare in Chronological Order (Document DOCD 5622-5623)
Lowery, Charles D. and John F. Marzalek, Encyclopedia of African-American Civil Rights, (London: Greenwood, 1992), p. 5.
Mairants, Ivor : My Fifty Fretting Years: A Personal History of The Twentieth Century Guitar Explosion (London: Ashley Mark, 1980), p. 19, 47-48, 165.
Maclaren-Ross, Julian : Memoirs of the Forties (London: Penguin, 1984 ed.), p.139.
McCarthy, Albert : The Dance Band Era: The Dancing Decades from Ragtime to Swing, 1910-1950 (London: Spring/Hamlyn, 1971), p. 38, 41.
McCarthy, Albert : Big Band Jazz (London: Peerage Books, 1974), p. 316-317, 321; see chapter 10 on big band jazz in Europe.
Malone, Jacqui : Jazz Music In Motion: Dancers And Big Bands, p. 289, in The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, Robert G. O’Meally, ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).
Martin, Tony : Amy Ashwood Garvey: Pan-Africanist, Feminist and Wife No. 1, Majority Press, 1998.
Meier, August and Elliott M. Rudwick : From Plantation to Ghetto: An Interpretive History of American Negroes, (New York: Hill & Wang, 1966), p. 94-95.
Middleton, Tony : Johnny Claes: A Bio-Discography, 1994.
Middleton, Tony : Harry Parry, A Bio-discography, 1995.
Nichols, Richard: Radio Luxembourg, The Station of the Stars, (Comet: 1983), p.27-37, 45, 47, 50.
Noble, Peter The Negro in Films, (London: Skelton Robinson, 1949), p. 115-117.
Okokon, Susan : Black Londoners 1880-1990, (Stoud: Sutton Publishing, 1998, p. 93).
Pallett, Ray : Goodnight Sweetheart – Life and Times of Al Bowlly (Tunbridge Wells: Spellmount Ltd., 1986), p. 17, 111, 114, 116-117.
Pavlow, Big Al, : The R&B Book,(Providence: Music House Publishing, 1983),p. 22.
Ramdin, Ron : Paul Robeson: The Man and His Mission (London: Peter Owen, 1987), p. 86-87, 77.
Rose, Phyllis : Jazz Cleopatra – Josephine Baker in Her Time, (London: Vintage, 1991), p. 14-15, 129.
Brian Rust, The Dance Bands (London: Ian Allen, 1972), p. 139.
Rye, Howard : Fearsome Means of Discord: Early Encounters with Black Jazz, in Black Music in Britain: Essays on the Afro-Asian Contribution to Popular Music, Paul Oliver, ed. (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1990), p.46, 50-52.
Saakana, Amon Saba : Culture, Concept, Aesthetics: The Phenomenon of the African Musical Universe in Western Musical Culture, in African American Review, Summer 1955, p. 337.
Schuyler, George : Black and Conservative: The Autobiography of George S. Schuyler, (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1966, p. 145.
Simon, George T. : The Big Bands (New York: Macmillan, 1967), p. 26-27.
Simons, Andy : notes for Tipping the Velvet: A Collection of Historic Music Hall Recordings Inspired by the Novel by Sarah Waters (CD41-005).
Smithers, SW : Broadcasting From Within: Behind the Scenes at The BBC, (London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, 1938), p. 57.
Stave, Larry : Jazz Fashions (London: Bear Hudson, 1946), p. 9-11, 21, 56.
Sullivan, Lester : Composers of Color of 19th-Century New Orleans, in Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana’s Free People of Color, Sybil Kein, ed. (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2000), p. 95.
This England’s Book of British Dance Bands, (Cheltenham: This England Books, 1999), p. 12.
Thompson, Leslie : An Autobiography as told to Jeffrey P. Green (Crawley, Sussex: Rabbit Press, 1989) p.70.
Tracey, Sheila : Talking Swing: The British Big Bands (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 1997), p. 22, 86, 208, 227, 228, 235.
Travis, Dempsey J. : An Autobiography of Black Jazz (Chicago: Urban Research Institute, 1983), p. 49, 256-257; control and both desired and unwanted exploitation of Black swing bands is covered in the chapter, The Jazz Slave Masters.
Vail, Ken : Duke’s Diary – Part 1: The Life of Duke Ellington 1927-1950 (Cambridge, 1999; p.162-7).
Vincent, Ted : Keep Cool: The Black Activists Who Built the Jazz Age (London: Pluto Press, 1995, p. 13, 80-81, 112-120, 129-132) .
Wambu, Onyekachi ed.: Empire Windrush: Fifty Years of Writing About Black Britain, (London: Victor Gollancz, 1998, p.20.
Waters, Sarah : Tipping the Velvet (London: Virago, 1998).
Whitehouse, Edmund : This England’s Second Book of British Dance Bands: The Singers and Smaller Bands, (Cheltenham: This England, 2001), p. 53, 68-69, 84, 83, 87.
Williamson, Ken : Harry Parry and his Sextet, 1944 and 1945 editions.
Wollaston, Nicholas, son of AFR “Sandy” Wollaston : Café de Paris (London: Constable, 1988).
Wyndham, Joan : Love Lessons: A Wartime Diary (London: Virago, 2001, p.204-205, 227).
For an introduction to the vast German swing renaissance under and despite the Nazi government, see Michael H. Kater, Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); Knud Wolffram, Tanzdielen und Vergnugungspalast: Berliner Nachtleben in den dreissiger und vierziger Jahren (Berlin: Hentrich, 1992); and Horst JP Bergmeier and Rainer E Lotz, Hitler’s Airwaves: The Inside Story of Nazi Radio Broadcasting and Propaganda Swing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).
Amon Saba Saakana, Culture, Concept, Aesthetics: The Phenomenon of the African Musical Universe in Western Musical Culture, in African American Review, Summer 1955, p. 337.
Kay Kyser and Shep Fields, Setting Up the Remote, in The Billboard Year Book, 26 September 1942, p. 16-17.
The Black Man [London: Marcus Garvey], July 1938: Vol. III, No. 10 and November 1938: Vol. III, No. 11.
Checkers: A Monthly Journal in Black and White; Vol. 1 No. 1, July 1948, p. 17; November 1948, p. 9, 14-15; December 1948, p. 15; , January 1949. p 7, 22.
Cinematograph Weekly, no. 1452, 14 February 1935.
Rex Harris, feature on Louis Stephenson, in Discography, undated, p. 6.
Down Beat : A Nazi Bomb Kills ‘Snakehips’, 1 April 1941, p. 1.
Gramophone Record : April 1940; May 1940; March 1941; Front page splash, Inside Stuff on the Rumba by an Expert – So Now You Know!, possibly by Leonard Hibbs, July 1941; Leonard Hibbs, Gramosaic, August 1941, p. 2; First English Jam Session Recording, January 1942, p. 5; Black Jazz – These Are the Records They Used, August-October 1942.
Cholly Atkins obituary by dance historian and dance troupe founder Terry Monaghan, in The Guardian, ca. April 2003.
Eric J. Hobsbawm, interview, The Guardian, 23 December 2000.
The Guardian : obituary of Rita Cann by Val Wilmer, 10 May 2001.
Hot News : Ike Hatch: The Singing Minstrel, April 1935, p. 9, 16 and May 1935, p. 16; Bill Elliott, I Heard: Chatter from the Rhythm Clubs Collected and Sifted, September 1935, p.22.
The Independent on Sunday, 7 February 1993, p. 61 of magazine section : Lauderic Caton and Louis Stephenson, How We Met, transcribed by Val Wilmer.
Mardi Gras – from New Orleans to the Port of Spain, in Jazz Illustrated, May 1950.
Trinidadian calypso star Sam Manning and the “Hey! Hey!” show documented in Lynn Abbott, “For Ofays Only” – An Annotated Calendar of the Midnight Frolics at the Lyric Theatre, Part II, in The Jazz Archivist, William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University, Vol. XVIII, p. 38-39
Danny Moss interview, Jazz Journal International, June 2004, p. 9.
Claye Benis and Chas Harvey, Our Jazzmen: Cyril Blake, in Jazzology, March 1946, p. 8-9.
Journal of the Cricket Society : Gerry Gomez, Great Cricketers of the West Indies, Spring 1992, reproduced on The Cricket Society’s webpage.
Just Jazz : Horace Meunier Harris, Rhythm is Our Business – The Rhythm Club Movement in Britain, 2004.
Melody Maker :
New British Coloured Band, in Melody Maker, 18 April 1936, p.1
Star Coloured Line-up for New Stage Show, [Valaida Snow] in Melody Maker, 5 September 1936, p.9.
Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson endorses the shim-sham dance, 19 September 1936, p.10.
The Johnson Orchestra as “dance-inducing,” in Johnson’s Resident Break, 26 December 1936, p.8.
Garland Wilson in New Stage Band – Act with Ken Johnson Leading, 20 March 1937, p.13.
Snakehips Batoneer, 20 March 1937, p.13.
Andrew Gray, Getting the Real Low-Down on London’s The Old Florida, , 29 May 1937, p. 2.
New British Coloured Band, 11 December 1937, p.4.
The Johnsons of Jazz, 11 December 1937, p.7.
Leonard Feather: West Indian Cleric who had nine children and a trumpet player, July 2, 1938.
British Negro Outfit’s Swing Broadcast, 16 July 1938, p.1.
Johnson’s ‘First-Night Blues’ at Coliseum – But He Smiles,” 3 September 1938. p.9.
’Snakehips’ Johnson has International Plans, 10 September 1938, p.1.
“Art Gregory Goes To Florida – At Home!”, 10 September 1938, p.1
Melody Maker, 25 December 1938, p.8.
Serious Threat to Public Dance Music, 22 March 1941, p. 1.
Dave Williams’ Funeral and Ken Johnson: Impressive Tribute, 22 March 1941, p. 1.
Leon Cassel-Gerard, Who Is There To Take Ken Johnson’s Place?, 22 March 1941, p. 5.
Al Bowlly death notice, 25 April 1941.
Jiver’s Globe-Trotters Off to Holland and Belgium, 5 January 1946, p. 1.
Feature on Captain Leslie Perowne in Brand’s Essence, by Pat Brand, 5 January 1946, p. 4.
Barriteau’s One-Nighters, 26 January 1946, p. 2.
Django Reinhardt records in London, 9 February 1946, p. 6.
Jiver’s One-Night Stands, 16 March 1946, p. 1.
9 a.m. Jive – For Housewives Only!, 16 March 1946, p. 1.
Jiver Hutch for Belgium, 11 May 1946, p. 1.
Seaside Swing Stars, 12 October 1946, p. 6.
Caribbean Trio Leave The Caribbean, 16 November, 1946, p. 1.
‘Colour Bar’ May Cause’Jiver’Break-Up, 23 November 1946, p. 1
Colour Bar, 7 December 1946, p. 5.
Jiver Busy, 14 December 1946, p. 2.
Caribbean Trio for Rose Room, 14 December 1946, p. 1.
Deniz – From Hawaii to Cuba, 1 February 1947, p. 2.
Bertie King Moving, 22 March 1947, p. 1.
£2,500 for Musicians’ Charities from Great Jamboree, 3 May 1947, p. 1, 5.
Gold and Barrieteau in Surprise Embassy Switch, , 3 May 1947, p. 1.
Barriteau Leads Ten-Piece at Embassy, 17 May 1947, p. 1.
M.U. Recording Sensation: Big Deal Concluded with Gramophone Companies, 17 May 1947, p. 1.
’Jiver’Hutchinson Re-Forming Band, 24 May 1947, p. 1.
British Jazzmen to Challenge U.S. in Great “M.M.” Public Recorded Jazz Rally, 24 May 1947, p. 1.
Jiver for Dublin, 7 June 1947, p. 5.
Bass-Star Tommy Bromley Killed in Car-Crash, 14 June 1947, p. 1.
Britain’s Aces Jam at Great Jazz Rally, 5 July 1947, p. 1, 7.
Lauderic Caton, I Protest, Mr Sharon!, 20 September 1947, p. 4.
Jiver off to Czechoslovakia,, 4 October 1947, p. 1.
Heath “adopts” Barriteau: Will Present Band on the Stage, 4 October 1947.
Ted Heath Takes Over Tito Burns: Barriteau Band Forming, 1 November 1947, p. 1.
No.1 Rhythm Club to Re-Open in London, 1 November 1947, p.1.
‘Jazz Club’ Jubilee, 15 November, 1947, p. 1.
Barriteau Band’s Debut, 15 November 1947, p. 1; ticket prices were 8s and 10s6d, which would be approximately £40 and £52, adjusted for inflation at the time of this writing.
Jiver is Back, 29 November 1947, p. 1.
Ray Ellington’s New Group is Sensation at Packed Heath Sunday Show, 13 December, 1947, p. 5.
6-5 Party, 1 March 1958, p. 1.
Advert featuring Carl Barriteau endorsing Selmar clarinets and saxophones, 8 March 1958.
Reggie Foresythe created new sounds in the ‘30s, says Maurice Burman, in 3 January 1959, p.5.
Kenny Graham Pays Tribute to Leslie ‘Jiver’ Hutchinson, 28 January 1959.
More Stars for ‘Jiver’ Benefit, 12 December 1959.
Memory Lane :
Joyce Stone, Memories of the Café de Paris, Spring 1983, p. 20.
Harry Parry, a Profile, by Rod Holcombe, Autumn 2003, p. 22.
John Wright, A Walk Through the Dance Band Days), Autumn 2003, p. 22-24.
Billy Munn, Billy Munn Reminisces, Autumn 2003, p. 38.
Mojo, No. 44, 1977; Wilmer, Val : Lauderick Caton: I’ve Greated a Monster
Moonlight Serenader : Don Lance interview with trombonist Jesse Ralph, April 1976, p. 8.
Musical Accent :
Ivor Mairants, guitarist, music shop owner, music educator and tireless Musicians’ Union advocate, in “Don’t Agree” Says Ivor Mairants – “Let’s Take a Look at Profits and the Musician’s Share,” July 1947, p. 9.
Feature on Harry Gold, , August 1947.
Musical Fare : Fanfare Goes to the Feldman Club, , April 1948; The Vocal Touch, July 1948, p. 13; Review of the Jazz Jamboree-1948, July 1948, p. 16; Review of the Jazz Jamboree-1948, July 1948, p. 16; Big Band Night at the Feldman Club, August 1949, p. 12; Untitled piece, November 1949, p. 12-14; Ray Ellington Quartet Back from Successful Season Abroad, September 1950, p. 30; How the Number One “Hit” Song is “Made,” December 1950, p. 12-14.
John Cowley : uBungca (Oxford Bags): Recordings in London of African and West Indian Music in the 1920s and 1930s, in Musical Traditions, Summer 1994.
New Musical Express :
‘Jiver’ in Car Smash, 16 September 1955.
Star Guests for ’Jiver’ Hutchinson London Concert, 9 November 1956.
Ken Johnson band to re-form, 24 January 1958.
Ali, Arif : in Ross Slater’s ‘Why Do So Many Successful People Come From Guyana?’, in New Nation, 14 August 2000, p. 7.
Pickup : A Grand Jazz Concert of Coloure…d Artists, 17 September 1947, Birmingham Town Hall, also featured the famous Negro hit composer Spencer Williams, then a London-based ex-patriot, August and October 1947.
Radio Times : 5 March 1941, p. 19.
Rhythm : February 1939, p. 24, 47 (The widespread belief of innate racial rhythm was rarely so explicitly described as when violinist Stuff Smith was noted as excelling by means of his “racial ability to swing out,”), 49; Spike Hughes, ME – The Autobiography of a Student of Music, February 1939, p. 52 ; Peter Tanner, The Jitterbug Pest, February 1939, p. 56-58; March 1939, p.42; April 1939, p. 105; Harold Taylor, What Have You Got To Lose? British Bands Should Cultivate Their Own National Style, in Rhythm, August 1939, p. 10-11-63; Jack Butterworth : Photographing Billy Bissett – Candid Camera stuff on the Café de Paris Maestro, August 1939, p. 12.
The Songwriter : Special Correspondent, The £ s. d. of Songwriting – “Pop” Songs and Where They Come From, June 1937, p. 14-15.
Storyville : My Face is My Fortune, Leslie Thompson’s story as told to Olga and Kevin Wright, no. 84, August-September 1979, p. 215-216, 224; Howard Rye : Valaida Snow, in Storyville, 1998, p. 118-119.
Spike Hughes : Spike Hughes’ Own Story, in Swing Music, April 1935, p.44.
Stanley Wyatt & J.N. Langdon/Industrial Health Research Board: Fatigue and Boredom in Repetitive Work, 1937; Morton Sundour Fabrics Ltd: The Sundour Shuttle, December 1937, p.18.
The Time : Broadcasting schedules: 8; 17 March 1945, p. 6; 6 April 1945, p. 6; 7 July 1945, p. 8; 13 August 1945; 14 August 1945; 16 August 1943; 31 May 1943, p.8; 24 February 1944, p. 6; 4 April 1944, p. 8; 17 April 1944, p. 8; 14 October 1944, p. 8; 25 June 1945, p. 8; 29 July 1944, p. 6; 25 November 1944, p. 6; 5 February 1945, p. 1946, p. 8; 17 August 1946, p. 8; 24 August 1946, p.6; 18 December 1946, p. 8; 20 December 1946, p.6; 30 December 1946, p. 6; 4 January 1947, p. 6; 14 July 1947, p. 7; 17 December 1947, p.6.
Arthur Badrock, Hatch & Carpenter in England, in Vintage Jazz & Blues Mart, no. 121, spring 2001.
Maurice McLeod, Pop Star Haunts Nightclub, in The Voice, 27 October 1997.
I Want Negro Culture, Paul Robeson, in WASU: The Journal of the West African Student Union of Great Britain and Ireland, July 1935, p. 7, 11-12.
Pallett, Ray : Snakehips Swing: The Story of Ken “Snakehips” Johnson, in Memory Lane, July 2004, p. 58.
Our Calypso King, in the Waltham Forest Guardian (3 July 2002), as archived on the newspaper’s website.
British Library audio sources
Oral History of Jazz in Britain series, interviews commissioned by The British Library, noted with shelfmarks :
Louis Stephenson, interview with Val Wilmer, 28 October 1987 (B2444 C1)
Rita Cann, interview with Val Wilmer, 16 November 1990 (H6166)
Peter WG Powell, interview with Dr Les Back, 28 January 1999 (C122/341-344)
Joe Deniz, interview with Val Wilmer, 21 July 1988 (122/45)
Dave Wilkins, interview with Val Wilmer, 2 September 1987 (C122/36)
Bobby Thompson, interview with author, 24 February 1995 (C122/231-232)
Leslie Thompson, interview with Val Wilmer, 11 August 1987 (C122/33-35)
Kenny Baker, interview (C122/97-98)
Ronnie Scott’s Club co-founder Pete King, by Victor Schonfield, 12 October 1994 (C122/203-205)
Spike Hughes interviewed on BBC Radio by presenter Peter Clayton, 1982, (C651/47)
Peter WG Powell Collection (C924)
The Elaine Delmar Collection (NP10083-NP10084)
Black Britain, BBC 2 television, 29 October 1997; segment features Paul Medford, West End stage star Clarke Peters and black British jazz writer Val Wilmer (V4058/1)
Black Musicians of the Swing Era, discussion chaired by Len Garrison at Lambeth Town Hall, 20 March 1986; Sound Archive shelfmark: V5604. The provenance of the video is uncertain but it was donated to the British Library by jazz writer David Griffiths, of the South Wales Evening Post, who had attended the event, (V5604 – video and C229/254-255 – audio).
List of records used in the Rex-Harris-Leslie Perowne radio series, Swing Showcase, broadcast every Wednesday from 28 October 1942 to 14 April 1943, provided by Perowne during his oral history session with the British Library; the interview was conducted by Chris Clark, 23 February 1990, with British Library (H6174-H6175)
Selected published recordings on CD
Black British Swing (Topic Records TSCD 781).
London is the Place for Me : Trinidaadian Calypso in London, 1950-1956 (Honest Jons Records HJR CD2), 2002; booklet notes by Richard Noblett.
Breuker, Willem and Kollectief: Bob’s Gallery (Bvhaast 8801), 1987.
Mark Berresford : James Reese Europe (IAJRC CD-1012).
Rosa Henderson, Black Star Line, included in Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2 (Document DOCD 5402)
Marcus Garvey, Look Up You Mighty Race (two-sided 78 release, 1921; British Library Sound Archive, 1CDR0003062)
Boppy Soxer – Strip the Camshaft, from The Ray Ellington Quartet – The Three Bears (Avid Records AMSC 697), 2000
Ray Ellington Quartet: The Three Bears (Avid Records AMSC697); That’s Nice!, (Castle / Pulse PLS CD 482).
Carl Barriteau compilation (Empress RAJCD 896)
BBC Written Archives, Caversham; including files for M. Blair-Hickman letter, 27 November 1947, and Leslie A. Perowne letter, 19 May 1948, numerous records regarding Leslie ‘Jiver’ Hutchinson and Carl Barriteau.
BBC-commissioned audience surveys : Listener, September 1940; Research Reports/Survey of Listening/General Barometer : 25 January 1940 – 8 January 1941; May 1941; 1 April 1942; 21 December 1942 – 12 June 1944; March-October 1948.
Don Barrigo, unpublished autobiographical typescript; British Library Music Section, donated by Horace Meunier Harris.
Imperial Fascist League leaflets, 1934: To a Gentile Jester (of the Variety Profession); A Tragic Symphony – The Wailing Wall of Archer Street.
Programme of Ragtime Revival concert, ca. 1947, courtesy of Michael Pointon.
BBC notes of interview of Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson by BBC producer Leslie A. Perowne, 4 July 1940; transcription courtesy of Peter WG Powell.
Data from the Library of the British Film Institute, London (AO2P922).
Alyn Shipton, lecture at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London; 4 November 2002 (1CDR0009733).
Public display documentation of the 1924 British Empire Exhibition; series poster No. P50, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
Conversations with tenor saxophonist Jack Chilkes, 7 April 2000; trombonist-writer Mike Pointon, 2001-2009; Savoy Ballroom historian Terry Monaghan, 19 February 2004.
Sir William Borlase School website: http://www.swbgs.bucks.sch.uk/prospect/guide/btchapel.html
All snaps assumed in the public domain; credit notifications welcome.
Topic Records TSCD 781 (2001)
BBC documentary, aired February 2013, featuring Elaine Delmar, Jeffrey Green, Catherine Tackley and Andy Simons – via YouTube and hopefully via the BBC again.