Part 4 | Black British Jazz: From ‘Snakehips’ Johnson to the Jazz Warriors (Part. 1)

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In the first part of our final instalment for Black History Month 2020, we document the early pioneers of the 30s, the Windrush Generation and the importance of Notting Hill Carnival.

It has been over 70 years since the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush at Tilbury Dock marked the beginning of a new chapter in British history. For jazz fans, it meant the arrival of a swathe of talented Caribbean musicians who rode the wave of emigration to find professional opportunities abroad. But even before this landmark event, black musicians had been shaping the way jazz was being played and heard in the UK since the 1930s.

The Early Pioneers

Most of these earlier jazz pioneers were affiliated with the Ken Johnson dance orchestra, often referred to as the ‘swingiest’ swing band in Britain.

Jazz had become the popular music of the 1930s in Britain and dance bands sprung up all over the country, taking up residency in hotels and private clubs. Bandleaders like Ray Noble and his New Mayfair Dance Orchestra became the in-house studio orchestra for His Masters Voice (HMV) recording company. His compositions included ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’, ‘The Very Thought of You’ and ‘Cherokee’, which would become so popular it became standard repertoire in the traditional jazz canon.

‘The Very Thought Of You’ by Ray Noble and his Orchestra (London, 1934)

Leslie Thompson

In the early 1930s, long before the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush in 1948, many young British West Indian musicians had found their own opportunities to travel to England. The Jamaican-born Leslie Thompson was a prominent London-based jazz and stage musical trumpeter throughout the 1930s. After building his reputation in the pit orchestras of many high-profile West End stage musicals, bringing them a contemporary credibility, he also gained some notable experience performing with Louis Armstrong’s European band in 1934.

Louis performing in Copenhagen during with period with one of his European outfits (1932)

Thompson was influenced by the writer, thinker and political activist, Marcus Garvey, who despite being most commonly known as the 20th century’s first important pan-Africanist, was no stranger to the music biz, having written an American hit, ‘Keep Cool’. Garvey’s messages were delivered frequently at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, and via the British newspaper, The Black Man. Consequently, Thompson was inspired to form an all-black dance band and, although there were African American jazz musicians who frequented Europe, his envisioned a group consisting solely of West Indian players.

Ken “Snakehips” Johnson

Like Leslie Thompson’s Garvey-inspired aspirations, Ken Johnson saw his musical efforts situated in the context of black internationalism and Pan-Africanism that shaped Black London in the 1930s. In his mind, all-black swing-jazz success need not be limited to the United States, which he had visited in 1934 and seen Cab Calloway and Fletcher Henderson perform. It was here that he abandoned the idea of studying medicine and gained inspiration to form his own band, despite a limited musicianship. From the formation of his first jazz band in Trinidad, Johnson chose to only work with Black Caribbean band members. Despite being a trained swing dancer, rather than a trained musician, Ken “Snakehips” Johnson had a dream to bring his black-only orchestras to fame. 

Part 4 | Black British Jazz: From ‘Snakehips’ Johnson to the Jazz Warriors (Part. 1)
Leslie Thomspon (left) and Ken “Snakehips” Johnson.

Upon his return to the Caribbean, he formed a touring band with prominent musicians including the Barbados trumpeter Dave Wilkins, the Trinidad clarinettist Carl Barriteau and fellow Trinidadian saxophonist, Dave ‘Baba’ Williams, all of whom would later feature prominently at a key juncture in Johnson’s career. In the years leading up to his breakthrough in the jazz industry, between the early 1930s and 1936, Johnson travelled to the U.S. and Tobago to learn from U.S. artists and choreographers like Buddy Bradley and Calypso musicians from the Caribbean.

In January 1936, Johnson went to England to further his dream. While he had been abroad his tap-and-shuffle dance had been well received in the 1935 film, ‘Oh Daddy!’. Johnson needed a seasoned musician, a so-called ‘straw boss’, to rehearse the group, and the real work was done by Leslie Thompson, who worked hard to form the band ‘The Emperors of Jazz’ made up of the best Caribbean musicians in London.

Alto/tenor sax and clarinet star Bertie King, alto sax and clarinet expert Louis Stephenson, fellow saxophonist Joe Appleton, trumpeter Leslie ‘Jiver’ Hutchinson and pianist Yorke de Souza were all from Jamaica. Trumpeter Wally Bowen arrived from Trinidad, the alto sax and clarinet specialist Robert Mumford-Taylor’s father was from West Africa, guitarist Joe Deniz moved down to London from Cardiff, double-bassist Abe ‘Pops’ Clare was also from the Caribbean. Another bassist, Bruce Vanderpoye, was a South African, and drummer Tommy Wilson was from Birmingham.

Part 4 | Black British Jazz: From ‘Snakehips’ Johnson to the Jazz Warriors (Part. 1)
Johnson performing in London.

A typical place of work in London at the time was The Nest Club, which was frequented by Black performers from visiting American jazz attractions such as The Mills Brothers and Fats Waller. Generally, musicians who made up the house bands in such niteries received up to £5 a week for their work, a reasonable rate, but not stable employment. As a result, the black musicians found that having their own orchestra was a more secure means of employment.

A few years later, after Leslie Johnson and his manager successfully claimed legal ownership of the orchestra (the result being that Thompson was cut out of any financial interest) Ken would start his own West Indian dance band which became the resident orchestra at the Cafe de Paris in London. It was here that he created a programme called ‘Calypso and other West Indian Music’ (1939), aimed at showcasing black talent and broadcasting it overseas beyond the borders of the “Mother Country” (at the time, the BBC ran the Empire Service, the precursor of the BBC World Service), targeting audiences in the colonies of the British Empire. It transpires that Ken Johnson was well aware of his unique position as a black musician in the world of UK’s white jazz scene.

London was a pivotal centre for black internationalist activity. Johnson’s bands were more than just excellent orchestras, they stood for the empowerment of black musicians and the creation of performance spaces for their black contemporaries and in-turn, the generations to follow. His bands comprised not only of black Britons, but black Caribbeans and black Africans. They were the first of their kind in the UK and allowed for the integration and the popularisation of marginalised black talent in mainstream jazz. No small feat.

Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson & His West Indian Dance Band – Snakehips Swing

The British record industry was not ready to categorise Ken Johnson and His West Indian Dance Orchestra as a jazz market act, but rather as a mainstream dance band. The commercial disc issues made for British Decca (1938) and HMV (1940) were just that: an attempt to reach the generic buyers of dance band records.

Ken “Snakehips” Johnson was also a gay black man. Like many, many others, his sexuality went unacknowledged until long after his death. It has since been report that Gerald Hamilton, the so called “wickedest man in Europe”, was Ken’s partner until 1941 – the year of Johnson’s death. The two met in 1940 and moved in together at 91 Kinnerton Street in Belgravia, London. Hamilton was a conduit for Ken to discover his flair for wine tasting, sailing the river Thames and for his political dissent, which the former was an expert on (he’s worth looking up!).

During the London Blitz carried out by the German Luftwaffe during WWII, the couple moved into a cottage called ‘Little Basing’ by the river Thames in Berkshire, just outside of London. It was the German bombing campaign that brought a tragic end to Ken Johnson’s life after he fell victim of a bomb dropped onto the Cafe de Paris on Saturday, 8th March, midway through another one of his wartime performances. Hamilton was at that cottage, when he received a phone call on 9 March 1941, informing him of Johnson’s death and asking him to come identify the body. From then on, Hamilton kept a picture of Johnson in a white tuxedo with white satin facings on him at all times.

Johnson’s impact went beyond the world of jazz. He contributed to the creation and establishment of entertainment opportunities for black musicians throughout the UK and should remain an important figure whenever black British history is discussed.

Joe Deniz was the guitarist with Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, and was there in the Cafe De Paris on the night it was bombed. Joe survived, cushioned from the bomb blast by the piano. This interview appeared on “And The Bands Played On” (1980). The band playing in the clip is Jack Parnell’s Orchestra.

The Windrush Generation: A Brief History

Before we begin to explore the trailblazing British musicians that were a part of, or descendants of, the Windrush Generation; it is important that we attempt to provide some historical context surrounding the landmark event and the people it affected.

The 802 Caribbean citizens onboard were the first of 500,000 Commonwealth citizens who settled in Britain between 1948 and 1971. They were invited to live as British citizens and help rebuild the “Mother Country”, but many faced prejudice and unequal treatment that continues today.

Part 4 | Black British Jazz: From ‘Snakehips’ Johnson to the Jazz Warriors (Part. 1)
The Empire Windrush docks at Tilbury on 22 June 1948. Photograph: Contraband Collection.

The British Nationality Act (1948) allowed those from Jamaica and Barbados, and others living in Commonwealth countries, full rights of entry and settlement, to help rebuild the British economy after the Second World War. The shortage of labour encouraged industries like British Rail and the National Health Service to heavily recruit from the Caribbean.

Despite having equal rights to British citizenship, new arrivals from the Commonwealth faced prejudice and abuse. 11 members of Parliament wrote to the government after the Windrush’s arrival, complaining about “coloured” immigration. Afro-Caribbean Londoners were sometimes denied employment, housing, and even turned away from churches, pubs and dancehalls.

The Windrush Generation: A Short History (presented by On Demand News)

Originally a German cruiser named the Monte Rosa, the Empire Windrush was captured by the British at the end of the war and renamed. In 1948, she happened to stop over at Kingston, Jamaica, to pick up some British servicemen. Since the ship was not full, passage was offered to Britain for £28 – if you were willing to travel in the uncomfortable open berths of the “troop deck”.

People took passage on the Empire Windrush for many reasons: some were seeking employment in Britain, others hoped to rejoin the Army or Royal Air Force. Many had deep curiosity about country that had ruled over theirs since birth; others just wanted to raise their children in a place they thought had better educational opportunities.

One famous moment that has captured the spirit of the Windrush in song was a recording by Pathé news of the Trinidadian Calypso singer Aldwin Roberts (aka Lord Kitchener). He performed the specially written song ‘London Is the Place for Me’, which you can see towards the end of the video below.

Pathe Reporter Meets (1948) includes Lord Kitchener’s performance of’ ‘London is the Place for Me’

Housing in London was in short supply following the bombing during the Blitz, and some Caribbean arrivals faced hostility for “taking” homes, or racism from Londoners who didn’t want to live near black people. Predatory landlords charged Commonwealth citizens as much as double the rent of white residents in Notting Hill and crammed them into slum-like conditions. Windrush passengers without accommodation were temporarily housed by the government in Clapham South deep shelter, an air-raid shelter 15 storeys underground.

The number of people living in Britain who were born in the West Indies grew from about 15,000 in 1951 to 172,000 in 1961. Due to a perceived “heavy influx of immigrants”, the British government created the Commonwealth Immigrants Act (1962), barring the future right of entry previously enjoyed by citizens of the Commonwealth, which many considered a direct bar on people of colour.

Racism rooted in fear and mistrust erupted into violence in Notting Hill in 1958, when gangs of Teddy Boys (a subculture started among London teenagers in the 1950s) roamed the streets attacking black men, including Kelso Cochrane from Antigua who was murdered. On Sunday, 17 May 2009 to mark the 50th anniversary of Cochrane’s death, a blue plaque was unveiled at the Earl Pub, (36 Golborne Road, London W10), just opposite the place where he was attacked.

The plaque reads:

Part 4 | Black British Jazz: From ‘Snakehips’ Johnson to the Jazz Warriors (Part. 1)

A Caribbean Carnival was held to try and improve race relations in 1959, later becoming what we now know as the Notting Hill Carnival.

Notting Hill and Dale, which had been declining parts of the inner city, were gradually revitalised during the 60s and 70s. Afro-Caribbean communities opened their own cafés and clubs, and Notting Hill gained a reputation as a bohemian area, attracting a young, trendy cosmopolitan crowd of white as well as black people.

Notting Hill Carnival

The roots of the Notting Hill Carnival that took shape in the mid-1960s has two separate strands that eventually became one. A “Caribbean Carnival” was held on 30 January, 1959 in St Pancras Town Hall, as a response to the problematic state of race relations at the time (the Notting Hill race riots in which 108 people were charged had occurred the previous year). The 1959 event, held indoors and televised by the BBC, was organised by the Trinidadian journalist and activist Claudia Jones, who is often described as “the mother of the Notting Hill Carnival“.

The other important strand was the London Free School-inspired festival in Notting Hill that became the first organised outside event, in August 1966. The prime mover Rhaune Laslett, who was unaware of the indoor events from the Caribbean community. This festival served to unify all of Notting Hills communities, and a street party for neighbourhood children turned into a carnival procession when Russell Henderson‘s steel band (who had played at the earlier Claudia Jones events) joined in the festivities.

Part 4 | Black British Jazz: From ‘Snakehips’ Johnson to the Jazz Warriors (Part. 1)
Bank Holiday Monday at the Notting Hill Carnival 2012 (Robert Sharp).

Today, this huge street festival attracts around one million people every year to Notting Hill and highlights Caribbean and black diasporic cultures. Authors Julian Henriques and Beatrice Ferrara claim the festival draws mainly on the Trinidad Carnival as well as Crop Over, Canadian Caribana in Toronto and the US Labor Day Festival in Brooklyn. They also explain that Notting Hill Carnival is dually influenced by its diasporic cultures and its own country’s influences:

“Carnival also has an explosive auditory impact due to its cacophony of sounds, in which soca, steel bands, calypso floats and sound systems mix and mingle in a multi-media and multi-sensory event”

Still led by members of the British West Indian community, Notting Hill Carnival is a significant event in Black British culture. To explain it’s importance, check out the brilliant video from Google Arts & Culture Aziz Vora below:

Aziz Vora speaks to some of the people who work year round for Notting Hill Carnival.

Join us tomorrow, where the second half of part 4 will cover the arrival of Kingston-born saxophonist Joe Harriott, the influence of South African jazz on the capital, and the birth of the Jazz Warriors.

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