Clemency Burton-Hill reveals the untold story of the black British swing musicians of the 1930s, whose meteoric rise to fame was cut short at the height of the Blitz.
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SWING MUSIC PLAYS
I've always been captivated by the sound of swing jazz.
The fact that you can't hear it without wanting to tap your feet
or that glorious, brassy big-band sound that is so evocative
of its era and a moment of dazzling musical freedom.
Now, in the 21st-century, London is swinging again
and a whole new generation of dancers are rediscovering
the joys of the jive and the jitterbug.
We might think of swing as White music for White audiences but
beneath that story lies a remarkable tale of race politics in society.
In the late 1920s, a handful of trailblazing West Indian musicians
arrived on these shores and they helped shape the sound of the era.
I thought it was high time we looked at this neglected
chapter in musical history
and rediscovered the Black musicians who really made Britain swing.
The music that came to define an era in Britain had its roots in Harlem.
In the 1920s, African-American artists began experimenting
with musical ideas and created their own radical new sound.
I think we're looking at a truly revolutionary,
incendiary moment in human music history and from the earliest
examples of freed slaves playing music in
Congo Square in New Orleans and the blues and those traditions,
those things coming together, there was, if you like,
just an infectious mix of music that was destined to take over the world.
Every kind of music has its own groove, and swing is that
particular groove that is within jazz that makes you want to tap your feet.
As Duke Ellington famously said,
"It don't mean a thing if you ain't got that swing."
For years, the British had swayed politely to the sound of light music
at afternoon tea dances.
But these were swept aside by the sheer energy of Black American jazz
which not only inspired exciting new dances
but helped diminish painful memories of the First World War.
# All aboard
# Dead of night express... #
British audiences became hungry to experience the sort of music
and musicians that were thrilling Harlem,
and it is this vibrant, transformational moment in history
that Stephen Poliakoff explores in his new drama series for BBC Two.
# ..Wind blows round the steeple
# Empty world and... #
Dancing On The Edge follows a fictional Black swing band
as they dazzle London's high society.
# ..The midnight train a-whistling... #
The Victorian, Edwardian world that had led to this terrible slaughter
and tragedy was being, you know, repudiated in all sorts of ways.
The new was worshipped and this was part of the new -
this excitement and rawness and sexual energy was part of it.
This fascinating moment in time when jazz music became fashionable amongst
certain members of the aristocracy,
the ruling elite and the Royal Family,
and both visiting American Black jazz musicians and home-grown -
all the people that made their careers here. And I thought that was
an extraordinary insight into that time and a different angle on what,
obviously, is a period famous for racism, anti-Semitism
and all sorts of darkness.
Do you think the fact that these were Black musicians appearing
for the first time, was that, how much of that was part of it?
Did they bring their own inflection to the music or was it just
the fact that for that audience to behold an all-Black band
was something, as you say, such an exotic spectacle in itself?
Well, it was unusual at that time in London hotels.
# My night-time dreams and desire... #
The '30s, because of the terrible tragedy of the First World War,
embraced the new in all sorts of ways.
# Burning cinders in the midnight sky
# My heart is a-pounding and a-pumping and a-thumping... #
It's very sexy, that music.
I think we forget, we don't tend to think of that music that way.
That does bring us full circle. It is very sexy.
That is precisely why a lot of these people were drawn to it at the time.
What a gorgeous little singer. I do love this jazz sound, don't you?
It was a very vibrant time in the music scene in London.
Dancing On The Edge draws its inspiration from the real
Black musicians and entertainers who arrived in London in the 1930s.
At that time, the sight of Black faces on Britain's streets
was still something of a rarity.
But two men in particular, both from the West Indies although from
very different backgrounds, would manage to break through
the boundaries and have a profound impact on London's musical culture.
Leslie Thompson, an innovative musician and celebrated trumpeter
and Ken Snakehips Johnson,
a brilliant dancer and charismatic bandleader.
When Ken and Leslie joined forces to create Britain's first Black
swing band, it was the beginning of both musical and social change.
The possibilities of that were cut short
when their story ended in tragedy at the height of the Blitz but,
while it lasted, their phenomenal success was an inspiration to
others and the birth of a new era where Black musicians
could take centre stage for the first time.
This is the untold tale of two extraordinary men
and the legacy of the music he helped create.
It was like being in heaven, the music like that.
It lifted one, you know,
all the people, the dancers, the musicians.
It lifted you completely, you know.
You left a club or whatever feeling a different person,
feeling satisfied and very happy with life, you know.
It was a renaissance of Black music at that period at that time.
It was the birth of West Indian Black British music.
Musicians today still find something enticing in the Black British music
of the 1930s and are drawn to its infectious swing.
Musically, how radical was their stuff?
Was it coming... Was there a direct through-line from American swing
and American jazz, or were they creating their own British sound
that also had that Caribbean flavour to it?
When you hear the ways in which they phrase,
if you hear at the phrasing within the trumpets,
there's very subtle, almost calypso-like resonances happening.
# Dah, bah, bah, doo-dah-bah, bah-doo, bah-dah. #
There is a kind of slightly more relaxed
but still very insistent awareness of the groove that is
distinct from the African-American tradition and, as I say,
in a way that predates anything that we have.
The rhythm is, of course, a really important element of that -
the syncopated, offbeat rhythms
and that sort of driving pulse that was, of course,
great for dancing as well.
# Doo-dah, doo-dah doo-dah, doo-dah. #
Everything is played on the up beat.
One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.
And then you can imagine that going on, a kick drum might
throw in some syncopated beats on top.
# Dah, boom, boom, dah-dah, doo, doo
# Boom, dah-dah, dah-dah Boom, boom. #
SWING MUSIC PLAYS
Leslie Thompson first picked up the euphonium
at his orphanage in Jamaica.
From the start, he showed great promise,
and he continued to play after joining the West India Regiment
of the British Army.
Jamaica was part of the British Empire and the Army gave him
an opportunity to escape the economic deprivation of the time,
come to Britain and get a prestigious music education.
I've come to the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall
in Twickenham to hear about one talented musician without whom
Black British swing might never have taken off.
Leslie arrived here in 1919, aged just 17 and I've heard about
a precious school record book that shows just how talented he was.
Leslie Thompson came here, there's a record.
The entry from Kneller Hall, we can see the West India regiment
that's two dittos so you have Eccles, Mclean and Thompson, 68.
68, Thompson. And they joined Kneller Hall on 13th of April 1919.
And left the beginning of December the following year, 1920.
And Leslie's instrument here was the euphonium and the other two,
clarinet and cornet.
And you can see fair, fairly good comes to Leslie Thompson.
Very high. And there isn't another very high.
There's very good and there's fair but there's no other very high.
So is it fair to say that Leslie Thompson was
pretty exceptional as a musician?
Yes. Oh, yes. Yes.
The document here in Twickenham says "euphonium" but I know
Leslie had violin lessons. So there's violin before he came to England.
He played trumpet or cornet.
I suspect he played the trombone before he came to England.
By the time he settled in England in 1929, he could play the cello,
the string bass, trumpet, trombone, clarinet.
You name it, he'd learnt them all
because he was going to be a professional musician.
In many ways, Kneller Hall was an ideal environment in which
Leslie could flourish but this was also a time when
racial discrimination was widely accepted in Britain.
And within the Army, there were strict limits
on what he could achieve.
He so much enjoyed his time at Kneller Hall
and so much enjoyed the opportunities that had come his way,
he spoke to his colleagues and said,
"Oh, I want to go for the Bandmaster Certificate."
And he asked around about applying for a Bandmaster,
about being sent back to Kneller Hall as a bandmaster,
and it was pointed out to him that bandmasters are officers
and the King's regulations, the British Army forbade
any Negro or person of colour holding the King's commission.
If you were Black, you couldn't be an officer in the British Army
and it came to Leslie as a big blow.
His ambition crushed, Leslie returned to Jamaica
where he would remain until 1929.
The man with whom Leslie would eventually form
his all-Black swing band, Ken Snakehips Johnson,
was from an entirely different background.
The son of a government minister,
he grew up amongst the privileged classes in British Guyana.
And in 1929 he was sent here, to William Borlase School
in the quaint English town of Marlow, Buckinghamshire.
The plan was for Ken to finish his schooling and then
train for a respectable profession, maybe medicine or the law.
Young Ken, on the other hand, had different ideas.
Within just a few years of arriving here, Ken would be intoxicating
London audiences as a dancer and bandleader but meanwhile,
he quickly settled into ordinary school life.
Today he's still remembered fondly
and serves as an inspiration for students at the school.
It's extraordinary to see, 1930, Ken is very much the only
Black face here. Do we have a sense of how he reacted to that?
Do we have a sense of how he dealt with those challenges?
He was a really good student.
He had enough courage to really participate in school.
He didn't mind where he was from and what was expected of him.
He just sort of... He fit in really strangely well.
I think just by the fact that he felt confident enough to join these teams
and his team-mates were so supportive of him,
I think that he was well accepted.
MUSIC: "Tuxedo Junction"
We'll never know for sure just how accepted Ken felt here
but one thing's for sure, nothing held him back.
It was whilst at school that Ken's interest in music really grew,
and although he played the violin here, as a young man of his time,
it wasn't classical music that got him fired up.
The teenage Ken Johnson loved jazz.
He had a dream of becoming a dancer and that dream would eventually
earn him the name Snakehips and draw him into the swinging London scene.
MUSIC: "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing"
The fashion for tea dances with set steps had changed.
Innovation and freedom of expression would define the new jazz era.
And dancing was more popular than ever.
Dancing after the First World War became a huge leisure occupation.
And people were beginning to dance in a much more improvisational way.
Rather that following strict steps like you'd get for something
like the waltz, taking on these new dances, like a foxtrot
or a quickstep, and maybe being able to improvise much more
and choosing the steps that they would do.
At the same time, you've got the novelty dances.
Things like the grizzly bear and the turkey trot,
that had their own little steps associated with them as well.
Whether it was the bumblebee sting or the Charleston,
everyone was dancing. And to feed the nation's growing obsession,
huge venues opened up, known as the Palais de Danse.
These were huge, great, massive venues.
And they put a band quite often at each end.
There'd be a stage at each end.
Inspired by American jazz music,
White British big bands offered an anglicised take on that sound.
This soon became the popular dance music of its day.
And meanwhile, exciting new technologies like the wireless
and the latest record pressings also allowed some audiences
to experience that authentic American sound.
For the last nine years, Leslie Thompson had been
back in his native Jamaica.
He was making his living playing music in the silent movie theatres.
But when the talkies arrived in 1929,
his career was suddenly under threat.
It was to Britain that he would turn
to seek bigger musical opportunities.
He came here to work as a professional musician.
Which means dance bands, theatre, pit bands, show bands,
perhaps making films, and that's what you could do.
Leslie hoped to make his living as a trumpeter.
And like every other jobbing musician in London
he headed to Archer Street.
This narrow back street in Soho became a sort of unofficial
labour exchange for freelance musicians.
And with older musical players not suited to the new music,
which exploded all existing rules,
it became about the next generation coming through.
And this is the block on which those new kids gathered.
The scene was growing, and one musician remembers it well.
It was like this.
You turned up in Archer Street and it was packed from one end to the next.
And as you walked, you see guys used to put their hands up like that,
"Got a gig for you." And this tells you how much,
£5 or £10 or £15 as the case may be, by the hands going, you know.
And that's the way we used to get our gigs.
MUSIC: "20th Century Blues"
During the depression of the 1930s, Archer Street was a crucial hub
where musicians like Leslie found work, from underground clubs
to playing in the orchestra of huge West End musicals.
Leslie Thompson was a great musician. He played several instruments.
He fit right in to the West End musical, stage musical scene.
# Why is it that civilised humanity... #
They wanted instrumentation that would
give the flavour of jazz, of authentic jazz to a stage musical.
He hooked up with CB Cochran, a great producer,
did the early Noel Coward smashes on stage.
So he was very well received.
In the early 1930s, the finest American sounds were
arriving in London, and jazz enthusiasts heard Louis Armstrong
and Duke Ellington's pioneering recordings or saw them live
when the bands came here on tour.
MUSIC: "West End Blues" by Louis Armstrong
In 1931, Leslie Thompson heard Louis Armstrong for the first time.
Armstrong is, you know, playing all these notes and pulling them
out of this and that place of stratosphere and so on.
I mean, you've got to be dead not to admire Armstrong, you know,
and he did, he had that, he had that admiration.
MUSIC: "Tiger Rag" by Louis Armstrong
British audiences loved this stuff
and wanted more of the authentic jazz sound from America.
But in the context of the Great Depression and high unemployment,
the Government passed legislation to safeguard British jobs
and restrict visiting musicians.
Leslie could now play in the White British bands that emerged to
fill the gap the Americans had left.
But he was also increasingly aware of an emerging movement in New York
that sought to empower Black people throughout the world.
In 1914, Marcus Garvey set up
the Universal Negro Improvement Association
that encouraged Black people to celebrate their African heritage.
As his organisation grew in power and influence,
Garvey came to London to inspire and rally the Black British population.
It was at Speakers' Corner, here in London's Hyde Park,
that Leslie Thompson would have seen Marcus Garvey in the flesh
and heard his message of Black economic empowerment.
Leslie was moved by Garvey's words.
He'd been prevented from becoming a bandleader in his regiment
because of his colour, but he saw now that in the world of jazz,
this could be the key to his success.
He realised that his opportunity was going to be standing
in place of these missing
African-Americans and, in particular,
as people were beginning to become more acquainted with Louis Armstrong
as a performer, that he could stand in for Louis Armstrong.
People were associating this new music, jazz, with Black people.
And as Leslie said, there was song called My Face Is My Fortune
and he was in the right place at the right time.
He was a Black guy who played the trumpet in London.
The teenage Ken Johnson was also drawn to the capital,
where he was pursuing his dream of becoming a dancer.
Ken was ambitious and driven, and by 1934 he had even
landed role as a nightclub dancer in the British film Oh, Daddy.
Ken had been learning from the best, and his celebrated dance teacher,
Buddy Bradley, helped him get the part.
Buddy Bradley who was an African-American choreographer,
very, very famous and very popular in England in the 1930s.
Bradley was choreographing the top West End shows and film musicals.
And audiences loved them.
Buddy Bradley also ran a dance school and everybody went to him
to learn a few dance steps.
And Ken would have learnt from him.
So Ken Johnson was making a name for himself as a dancer,
but he wanted more.
And this ambition would take him all the way across the Atlantic.
It's on record that Ken Snakehips Johnson visited New York in 1934,
at the height of the popularity of the Cotton Club and the Black bands.
MUSIC: "Zaz Zuh Zaz" by Cab Calloway
Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson.
He'd met Fletcher Henderson,
the most influential swing bandleader of the mid-30s.
Mr Henderson said, "Ah here, here's a baton, can you conduct the band?
"Go ahead. See, that's easy. When you go back, you should get a band.
"You could make some money."
So that's all the encouragement he needed.
Ken returned to Britain with a new nickname and a new career.
He was now Snakehips Johnson - bandleader.
He's young, handsome and he had aspirations of really making it.
Coming from, what you would call traditional middle class background,
he really wanted to be a posh star, I think.
The jazz craze spread through London's West End
and high demand created more opportunities.
Many West Indian musicians came to seek their musical fortunes
in the UK and a small but thriving artistic community sprang up.
Earl Cameron, then a budding young actor,
came over from Bermuda, attracted to the scene.
The Jig's Club. You ever heard of the Jig's Club?
-I have, yes.
-That was the real hang-out.
Tractors, Bateman Street, Soho. La Java club on Old Compton Street.
Jazz. All jazz music, first class musicians.
Yorke de Souza. You know York de Souza? He was a pianist.
I knew them all. I knew them all, yeah. That's what London was like.
You were in competition, of course, but you were friends.
You got to know most of them, anyway.
Or if you didn't get a chance to meet them,
because they played within such a band,
you had a respect for them and you wanted to meet them.
Among this lively community, Ken Snakehips and Leslie Thompson
met and hatched a plan that would
put their complementary talents to good use.
In 1935, drummer Happy Blake put a West Indian band together
to play at his Cuba Club.
And now Ken and Leslie dared to dream of forming
an all-Black British swing band that could really make it to the top.
I think the partnership of Leslie Thompson and Ken Snakehips Johnson
was really very dynamic, bringing together the musicianship of Leslie -
who was, by all accounts, a brilliant musician,
highly respected and regarded - and Ken Snakehips who had this
enormous star quality, this stage presence
which brought the audience to him, wherever he was playing,
or whoever he was playing to.
Whether it was the upper classes or the working classes,
it attracted them to him.
With their own roles clear,
Ken and Leslie set out to find the finest Black musicians around
to form the band and turn a bold dream into reality.
In 1936 they launched the Emperors of Jazz,
the first real Black British swing band.
The 14-piece group included Jamaican trumpeter Leslie Jiver Hutchinson.
I met up with Jiver's daughter, singer Elaine Delmar,
who still has the original photograph of the band.
And this is a picture of Ken Johnson's band.
I love it because...
Oh, there's my father.
And there's Leslie Thompson, Yorke de Souza on piano,
Bertie King, and on guitar here was Joe Deniz.
-They were a very good-looking band, weren't they?
The Emperors of Jazz were a disparate mixture of
African, Welsh, Jamaican and London-born players,
all united by their colour. Well, almost.
I love this picture in particular as well because they've got these
two trombonists who are White
with their not very good blacked up faces.
They've put on a little, a little Egyptian on their faces.
Black trombonists were apparently hard to come by
so the initial line-up of the Emperors of Jazz also included
two White English boys, who blacked up to fit in with the band.
White impostors aside,
the Emperors were offering something completely new.
This was something unique.
This was something that hadn't happened before.
This was a Black British/Guyanese, young, charismatic guy
fronting a band. And that had never happened.
The Black musicians and bandleaders that people had been exposed to
before had all been African American visitors.
Behind the scenes, Leslie as musical leader
put the band to work rehearsing in Soho's Gerrard Street.
When they were rehearsing this music for the first time,
all these American charts that they'd managed to bring over,
musicians would come and sort of huddle round the rehearsal room door
and sort of listen to them because it was this new sound.
It was this new feel to the music.
He speaks in particular of trying to get the lift and swing
in the rhythm section so he would grill the rhythm section
to try and get that feel right.
After nearly two months of tough rehearsals, the band were ready
to put themselves out there.
From London to Liverpool, the band toured the country.
And by late 1936, audiences were lapping them up.
Much of their success was due to the sheer thrill of their music,
but their timing also helped, as White British audiences were now
ready to enjoy the talents, and the novelty,
of an all-Black swing band.
MUSIC: "Tap Your Feet"
The band had got the swing, and the image,
what they needed now was a residency in one of the swanky London clubs.
It would have to be a big club. A dancing club
had to be big, and that meant dinner, that meant review,
that meant starting probably at 11.00 and playing until the
sun comes up or something, for the very rich who didn't have to get up.
Within weeks, Ken Johnson had got the fledgling Emperors of Jazz
a six week trial at London's oldest swingerie, the Old Florida Club
here in what was then South Bruton Mews.
For the first time, each member of the ten-piece band
would have steady work and wages in a high-class London joint,
without having to scramble for short-term contracts,
one off gigs, or touring the length of the country.
The band began their residency on New Year's Eve in 1936,
and they quickly became a roaring success.
For the first time, the Emperors of Jazz were bringing
a home-grown, infectious, Black, American-style swing
to British dance floors and White audiences were enthralled.
Reports at the time attest that this was just the swingingest band
in London, not just because they were Black, but because they played
the music with, I guess, positivity and insistence and a belief.
You've got to remember that the West Indies is closer
in proximity to America as well,
so a lot of these musicians would have spent time in North America,
they would have spent time hearing Ellington up close
and getting a sense of the source and transmuting that to an audience.
The band had broken through race, class and societal barriers
and were doing better than either of its founders had hoped.
As bandleader, Ken was growing into the role of showman
and drawing in the high class audiences.
Snakehips, his charisma was a major factor in him fronting the band.
But he wasn't musical.
He wasn't a musician.
I've met several, over the years, I've met several of the musicians
in that group, and one of them said to me that Ken Johnson
couldn't tell B flat from a pig's foot.
So you're not looking at Ken Johnson as being a musical director.
But Leslie's musical rigour meant the product
was as good as its promise.
On one level, it appeared a harmonious partnership,
but the two men were very different characters.
Leslie the committed, idealistic musician
and Ken the shrewd and ambitious charmer.
Don't forget, a lot of the band leaders then didn't play anything.
Didn't need to, or even if they could play an instrument,
they didn't play it in front of the band.
Yeah, and he could dance, and very handsome.
Ken's drive married to Leslie's musicianship had brought them
to the verge of huge of success.
# It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it
# It ain't what you... #
But no-one could have predicted what would happen next.
Leslie Thompson and Snakehips clearly wanted very different things.
We have no way of knowing the complexities
of the relationship between the two men.
By all accounts, they were trusted friends who worked well together.
But as fame and fortune beckoned, Ken made a move
to legally cut Leslie out of the running of the band.
He did that because he realised the band wasn't legally incorporated.
It had been done on a handshake, as far as we know.
So they signed a contract and made the band a formal legal entity.
-Without Leslie Thompson.
-Without Leslie Thompson.
That's got to hurt if you're Leslie Thompson.
Yes, a room full of silence here.
Perhaps looking ahead to the future, for a band of that kind
to sustain itself, it needed a figurehead
and Leslie Thompson couldn't be the figurehead.
It had to be Ken Snakehips. So there the conflict must have started.
What it was in effect, was that Johnson stole Leslie's band
but it would have been open for negotiation, I think.
I think it would have been open for negotiation
and Thompson chose not to follow that path.
On paper, Ken was triumphant.
He had the lucrative contract for a residency at
one of London's top venues.
But he also had one minor problem, there was no band.
All but two of the line-up had left with Leslie,
and Ken now urgently needed new musicians.
He sent word back to the West Indies
where he knew the very best players in the business.
Now he needed these men and he could offer them
their big break on the British scene.
A new line-up, a new band and a new name was born.
Ken Snakehips Johnson and his West Indian Dance Orchestra.
They certainly looked the part but without Leslie, the musical leader,
the question was, would they be good enough?
They could hold their own against the American musicians?
Oh, absolutely. Oh, no doubt about that.
Especially the guys from Jamaica.
They were extremely well-trained musicians.
Oh, they could hold their own, yes.
Had they gone to New York instead of London,
they would have got in the big bands, I think, over there.
It was just a few days after Snakehips' new recruits stepped
off the boat from the West Indies, that Ken's orchestra got their
first glowing review from Britain's leading jazz newspaper,
Ken looks not unlike Cab Calloway at the mike, what with his long,
lean, lanky figure, white, swallow-tailed, evening suit,
white tie and white shoes.
Ken goes all out to make the Old Florida
as much like a New York club as possible.
The residency at the Old Florida Club
really opened doors for the band.
The public knew where to find them and began seeking them out.
And the new West Indian group were well and truly on their way.
SWING MUSIC PLAYS
By 1938, the success of the band seemed unstoppable.
In April 1939, they nabbed and new residency at Willerby's,
another local high society venue.
The whole of London was swinging by now
but a threat was around the corner.
'This is the BBC Home Service. Here is a short news bulletin.'
'The German Army invaded Holland and Belgium earlier this morning
'by land and by landings from parachutes.'
On 3rd September, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany.
As war raged overseas,
many London clubs shut their doors due to fear of bombing.
In October 1939, Willerby's closed
and the band were once again without a home.
But just when things looked their bleakest,
they landed the sweetest gig in town.
The legendary Cafe De Paris was the exclusive,
high society, cabaret nightspot of the age.
So famous it had even featured as the Piccadilly Club
in a celebrated 1929 film.
It's a very interesting scene here especially
because the club received Royal endorsement.
You know, the Prince of Wales visited and there were all sorts of
aristocratic, high society figures that would come here,
again as much to be seen to be here as anything else.
It was a venue that was very much part of that fashionable society.
This venue had that very sort of special quality about it,
I think, that really maybe people would aspire to come here
and to be on that sort of level of society.
The Cafe De Paris was also one of the only nightclubs
that didn't close during the war.
Situated 20 feet underground, it was billed as bomb proof,
"London's gayest, safest nightspot."
What about dancing?
This is really the first era
in which people go to a swing club and swing,
did that have an impact on what was happening socially at time?
Yes, it did, because England at that time, you know,
we've always been a very conservative country, conservative with a small C.
So to let your inhibitions down what best place to go
but the Cafe De Paris or some West End nightclub
and shed your inhibitions.
Just as working class people would have gone to the pub
on a Friday night and had a singsong round the piano.
During the war, clubs like the Cafe de Paris were more popular than ever
as thousands of Londoners danced on.
The uniform was a great social leveller,
and for those who could afford it, this once exclusive nightclub
now welcomed a far broader clientele.
Everyone wanted the same thing, to escape the dreary everyday hardships
of the war and to live every day as if was your last.
At the Cafe De Paris,
Snakehips' orchestra could rule the society dance floor.
But there was another huge advantage to the club.
In the 1930s, BBC Radio exposure had become a crucial step up
in any serious dance band's career. The next generation of producers
were now picking up on the new jazz sounds
and had the power to turn a band into a household name.
The Cafe De Paris was one of the few venues where bands
could record directly for BBC Radio broadcast.
Now, people across the land could hear the swingingest music
in the comfort of their own homes.
MUSIC: "It Was A Lover And His Lass"
People had to let down their guard and shed their inhibitions.
Certainly during the war, people like Ken Snakehips Johnson
would have encouraged that with his music on the wireless.
And that must have been wonderful for people to listen to.
# It was a lover and his lass
# With a hey and a ho and a hey nonny no... #
To escape from the war when that came about
and the bombing and the air raids.
What a wonderful way to escape from that reality.
Ken Snakehips Johnson's orchestra were in solid rotation
in the late night slot on the airwaves,
reaching a peak audience of over 3.5 million listeners in April 1940.
And the band even managed to get on an early television recording.
He became a huge personality and associated with radio.
Even before the war, his radio career is really important
because it did bring him to that mass audience.
Snakehips may have stepped on a few toes along the way,
but he was fast becoming a celebrity.
By 1940, his group had been voted number one swing band in Britain.
Snakehips was interviewed by radio journalist Una Marson for her series
Calling the West Indies on the BBC's Empire, now World, Service.
UNA: 'So, you left London a tap dancer and returned a band conductor?
-'Well, Una, I first had to convince London that
'I could conduct as well as I could dance.
'How did you set about it?
'When I got over here, I got a band together, nearly all Jamaicans.
'We were billed as The Jamaican Emperors of Jazz and we got
-'stage engagements in various cinemas in the country.
'Then after a year, I reorganised the band with West Indians
'from all the important islands in the West Indies,
'a real West Indian band.
'And this new venture led you where?
'Well, again we were very lucky.
'We got a contract to play at a smart West End club, the Florida.
'We stayed there for two years and made some very good contacts.
'And of course you started broadcasting.
'Yes, at the end of those two years in 1938.
'And so, then, you really felt established?
'I'm glad to say we did.'
PACEY SWING MUSIC
Thanks to the reach of the BBC broadcasts,
news of Ken's fame spread far and wide.
Back in Guyana, he had this big name.
He had done very, very well so therefore he was to me
an inspiration, you know, and I thought, "Well, one day."
I used to say to myself, I said, "Well, one day I'm going to
"go to Britain and I'm going to be like Ken Snakehips Johnson."
And the audience used to say to me, "Oh, shut up, boy." You know.
I said, "No."
What sort of impact do you think he had
on the British swing scene in general?
Oh, I can't tell you.
It... He had a great, great impact because,
if you imagine in those days,
here was this guy and he stood, dapperly dressed,
in front of them and conducted. And he was a one-off.
And this was the thing that inspired not only the British people here
but a lot of us in the West Indies or wherever we were.
And so that is what inspired me no end to try
and come to this country and see if I could do similarly.
The young Ken Johnson had worshipped great African-American bandleaders
like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
But now Britain now had its own bandleader who could stand
shoulder to shoulder with his heroes.
You can't underestimate the importance
of a front man like Ken Johnson.
I mean, looking at someone like James Brown you can say,
although he didn't compose in terms of the dots, compose the music,
he knew exactly what he wanted and he'd ask the musicians
to emphasise specific things.
And in terms of being able to translate the complexity,
the intricacy of that music to an audience in a way that would
make them want to dance, you really can't undervalue that.
# Sometimes I wonder... #
Ken the front man was also a shrewd manipulator of his own brand,
and posed as the star on the front cover of
the most popular sheet music of the era.
# ..The melody
# Puts my reverie... #
Elaine Delmar still has some of the original publicity shots.
This is a wonderful one. Ken Snakehips again.
-Clearly Ken is the star.
-Had a great deal of style, didn't he?
-Look at that.
-Yeah. And this one's "To my pal, Leslie".
At the height of their success, the orchestra's elegant,
white-tailcoat-suited bandleader was living a charmed life.
Ken was making good money in some part on the backs of
some of his musicians.
That's the way it was then. And he lived in the West End.
He could walk to work. He dressed well.
He could dine at the Embassy Club
and then walk on over to the Cafe De Paris and lead the band.
MUSIC: "Tuxedo Junction"
UNA MARSON: 'Tell me, Ken,
'what would you say is the secret of your successes?
-'Now you're asking a rather difficult question.
'Let me see, I myself am all for swing music
'and I have a fine lot of musicians, young fellows who don't merely
'play for pay, but who enjoy every minute of their work.
'Their enthusiasm is infectious and has stamped the style of the band.'
Snakehips was now a household name,
but what had become of his former partner Leslie Thompson?
Well, Leslie would never again lead his own band.
but he was a respected musician, in high demand on the London scene.
LATIN AMERICAN MUSIC
Leslie was playing the double bass with Edmundo Ross.
They played sambas and rumbas
and what we now like to call Latin American music.
The band would play and there would be the rattles on the flared shirts
and stuff like that.
Taking dogs for a walk, I think it would be, musically.
But, you know, they earned a living out of it and had a lot of fun.
Ross was very, very successful.
War was under way in Europe but in early 1940
it was yet to be felt on London's streets.
In the capital, people were taking their fun where they could find it.
In this heady atmosphere, the disagreements of the past were
left behind and Ken and Leslie were forging their own paths.
Edmundo, Leslie and the band were soon broadcasting at least
once a week from The Criterion Theatre, here in Piccadilly Circus.
While just around the corner, Ken Johnson and his orchestra
were playing at the Cafe De Paris.
The two bands continued to play, and broadcast,
just streets away from each other.
Until the Blitz shook London's nightlife to its core.
On September 7th, 1940, Hitler launched the first night
of bombing raids on British cities.
The plan was to demoralise the population into submission.
One became very philosophical about the war.
You had no choice, the war was on.
You go to sleep, you might wake up the next morning, you might not.
Just depends where the bombs will drop.
But London refused to be demoralised,
and its gayest, safest nightclub kept on swinging.
Around 9.30pm on the 8th March, 1941,
Snakehips was having drinks with friends
at the Embassy Club on Regent Street
before his show at the Cafe De Paris.
An air raid was raging, and his friends urged him to stay,
but Snakehips was determined to get to the Cafe for his show.
He dashed through London streets as the bombs were falling,
and made it just in time for his set.
That night, one of the Luftwaffe's targets of attack was the busy
area between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square,
right in the heart of London's West End.
At 10.00 the band began to play.
They started with their signature tune Oh, Johnny.
But just moments later, they were interrupted.
Two high explosive German bombs had hit the Rialto Cinema
directly above the Cafe De Paris.
And although this famous nightclub was supposed to be bomb proof,
being so far underground,
one bomb landed directly in front of the stage.
I was in the Corner House in Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Street.
You're on the Corner House, Lyons Corner House.
It was a place myself and a couple of guys used to hang out
almost every evening, got there about 11.00.
We heard the bomb drop.
The whole of London shook like that, the West End anyhow.
And while we were sitting there we said, "Well, somebody's been hit."
And a girl, I always forget her name,
I think her name was June or Joan. She was from Tiger Bay.
She used to sing in front of the band. And she came in crying.
And she said, and she was in absolute tears, shaking, said,
"Ken's dead, Ken's dead. The bomb came in."
She told me this night, the bomb hit this dance floor right here.
It came right through from the roof, this rocket. Did you know about that?
Through the cinema.
It came all the way down and then hit the...
It exploded on the dance floor.
Standing at the front of the stage,
Ken Snakehips Johnson was killed instantly.
Like so many thousands of innocent Britons,
Johnson lost his life in the Blitz, his ambitions destroyed.
The bomb left the Cafe De Paris in ruins, and devastation in its wake.
At least 34 people died in the night club that night,
with over 80 injured.
It was chaos and a lot of people died.
Ken died, of course, and one of his band members died,
Baba Williams, a tenor sax player.
But Elaine Delmar's father Jiver Hutchinson was
one of the luckier ones who escaped unscathed.
Your dad was here. How does that make you feel?
Well, I'm so thrilled that he survived it.
It's kind of weird, isn't it?
SHE LAUGHS Weird.
He talked vaguely about the bombing here in the Cafe De Paris
and I think he was one of the few to survive that.
He was very, very lucky.
Apparently, he was found playing in another club.
He got out of here and was playing somewhere else.
So I imagine he might have been in shock.
I don't know.
The aftermath was just dreadful and what happened was awful but
the loss of lives was terrible but the loss of Ken was just really
unbearable because no Black British bandleader had got as far as
he had and he was immensely popular and loved by the British public.
But the British public didn't really have time to mourn.
As Hitler's Luftwaffe pounded London,
more men were called to fight for King and country.
In 1942, Leslie Thompson was conscripted and served
as a gunner in the Royal Artillery, defending Britain's South coast.
Back in London, Ken was gone
but in his short career his band had really shown Britain how to swing.
And now, that music was needed more than ever,
as Londoners sought escape from the grim realities of war.
Give me Harry Parry!
Harry Parry was already a household name
but when he snapped up Ken's Black musicians, pianist Yorke de Souza,
guitarist Joe Deniz, and trumpeter Dave Wilkins
for his Radio Rhythm Sextet,
they would become one of Britain's great wartime swing bands.
It was the Radio Rhythm Club. And they were on all the time.
They did very well.
They had Yorke de Souza on piano but, of course,
mainly the star was Dave Wilkins on trumpet.
As the war intensified,
Ken's musicians helped keep the swing dream alive.
Clarinettist Carl Barriteau started his own
mixed swing orchestra in 1942.
But Ken and Leslie had had an empowering vision of
an all-Black band, and one man wasn't ready to let that dream die.
'Leslie Jiver Hutchinson and his orchestra
'will open their programme with Dr Heckle and Mr Jibe.'
Jiver Hutchinson had been playing for
some of the biggest White swing bands
but in 1944 he gathered up some of his old band-mates
to form his own, all-coloured orchestra.
Leslie (Jiver) Hutchinson and his All-Star Coloured Orchestra.
One of their first engagements. The RAF Benevolent Fund.
He worked with many other bands
-but I suppose that was a great selling point.
And people, it was, it was quite a heavy, heavy weight to carry
because people were always saying, "Leslie, get an all-Black band
"because that will sell, that'll really sell."
And that's what he did.
And I guess this music was just so delightful to people that
-people just wanted to dance and let...
-Lift the people's spirits.
Lift their people's spirits, exactly.
MUSIC: "1945 Swing"
Post-war Britain was very different place.
Swing had kept the nation's chin up and toes tapping
through tough times.
But now people were retreating into their homes to rebuild their lives
and in there was a very appealing new kind of entertainment.
Hello, Radio Olympia.
This is direct television from the studios at Alexandra Palace.
# Just looking at you... #
In the 1950s, the way we lived our lives changed.
New technologies in a freer, more aspirational society meant
far greater choice both inside and outside the home.
New musical styles were jostling for attention
and rock'n'roll was just around the corner.
The nation was now hooked on popular dance music
and swing had started it all.
MUSIC: "Rock Around The Clock" by Bill Haley
And what of the trailblazing duo
who had brought Black British swing to the masses?
Well, Ken's life may have been tragically cut short.
But after the war, Leslie found himself back on Archer Street
hustling for work.
By the 1950s though, as he struck middle age,
he'd fallen out of love with the music business.
I think when he decided to pack up playing music, which was in 1954,
30 years before he died, he had realised that the music industry,
the entertainment industry is superficial
and he wanted more than that.
He was influenced by really two forces.
One was the Garveyite, which was an inspiration to
make something of himself and his...for his community.
But also it must have been religious because he allied himself
with the Anglican Church. But he worked with immigrants.
That's what he wanted to do.
He eventually became a parole officer
and worked out of Pentonville.
And he never again tried to create an all-Black British swing band?
No, he... That was past, a different life.
And his life was one of inspired service to others.
In his later years, Leslie found peace in God
and reward in his social work.
But Ken Snakehips Johnson would never have a chance to
look back and reflect on that heady swing age.
Dead by 26, he was just one of many
whose lives and promise were cut short.
In the music press, Snakehips was mourned as a tragic loss.
After his death, Ken's ashes were returned
to his school chapel in Marlow, where they still rest.
Although he enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame,
delighting London audiences
and garnering critical acclaim
from the likes of the BBC and Melody Maker,
Snakehips was never able to realise the full potential
of his talent and ambition.
If he hadn't been killed in a heavy night of bombing during
the London Blitz, who knows what
Snakehips might have gone on to achieve.
'It certainly struck me his death, right here at Cafe De Paris
'in the Blitz, connected to such a pivotal moment in British history.'
And again, not necessarily being celebrated as such,
I felt it was important to honour that story, the tragedy of it
and the triumph that his music lives on, you know,
through writing a song dedicated to him.
One thing's for sure, Black British swing changed our musical landscape.
And the remarkable individuals behind it, deserve to be celebrated.
If people think of the '30s, they think of Jessie Matthews or
Noel Coward or George Formby and obviously Gracie Fields eventually.
And so it's a very, very different landscape to these
incredibly arresting Black performers.
So I think it's very important that we reclaim them.
The rise to fame was meteoric and they really hit their peak
at the point at which the band was destroyed.
It's amazing when I think where they came from, and they came from
the Caribbean and came to London, to the heart of Mayfair here, you know.
And how they climbed up that ladder.
It had a tremendous influence on me as a musician
just to see a sense of lineage.
It's quite difficult sometimes to contextualise yourself
as a Black British musician
and feel like you're either one or the other.
To be aware that there was this trajectory of musicians
playing the music well, way back in the '30s.
If you have something to offer,
and you go out with belief and it's genuine,
you know, it's all there for us.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
When a handful of musical immigrants from the Caribbean islands came to Britain in the 1920s and 30s, it was the beginning of both musical and political change. Leslie Thompson, an innovative musician and trumpeter, and Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson, a brilliant dancer and charismatic band leader, pooled their talents to start the first black British swing band.
Clemency Burton-Hill reveals the untold story of the black British swing musicians of the 1930s, whose meteoric rise to fame on London's high society dance floors was cut short by unexpected tragedy at the height of the Blitz.