“Snakehips Swing”: Race, Nationality and Identity in British Dance Music [BACK]
The increasing identification of jazz as black music following its introduction to Britain in the aftermath of the First World War was one of the most profoundly influential factors on British reception and perceptions of the genre. In the 1920s, while the BBC sought to present a civilised, (white) British version of jazz (dance music), jazz, often performed by (African) Americans, had considerable exotic appeal in what one contemporary writer termed ‘the underworld of London’. By the mid-1930s there were enough black musicians resident in London for an all-black band to be formed which complicated these distinctions through its multiple musical, racial and national identities. In this paper I explore the reception of this all-black group against the backdrop of ever-changing relationships between Britain, America and Empire.
The West Indian Dance Orchestra consisted of British-born black musicians, those who had arrived relatively recently from the Caribbean as well as, on occasion, white musicians who blacked up. Under the leadership of Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson the Orchestra achieved a residency at a prestigious central London venue, the Café de Paris and consequently, the importance of the West Indian Dance Orchestra in the development of British jazz has been widely recognised. However, the group’s appearances as an act on the bill of variety theatres across the country have received far less attention. This paper makes a broader argument for this dance band operating in mainstream situations of variety theatre and radio broadcasting as a case study illuminating the nature of public awareness of and attitudes to race and nationality in Britain in the 1930s.
Bio: Professor Catherine Tackley (née Parsonage) is Head of the Department Music at University of Liverpool. A jazz specialist, Catherine has written two books – `The Evolution of Jazz in Britain: c. 1880-1935′ (Ashgate, 2005) and `Benny Goodman’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert’ (OUP, 2012) – and co-edited `Black British Jazz: Routes, Ownership and Performance’ (Ashgate, 2014). In 2018, Catherine curated `Rhythm and Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain’, an acclaimed exhibition in London based on her research. From 2012 to 2014 she was Principal Investigator of the AHRC Research Networking project `Atlantic Sounds: Ships and Sailortowns’, and continues to work on the connections between music and seafaring.
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Back in the 1980s and 90s I had a friend who was quite an old lady (80th birthday around 1992) who was a born and bred Holloway girl and during the war her husband worked in the Cafe de Paris when Snakehips Johnson was playing there. She was doing factory work in a munitions factory somewhere but she did tell me several stories about staying out until the Cafe closed in the small hours and then walking back home along Tottenham Court Road in her bare feet because her dancing shoes hurt. Her husband was working, but survived, the night that the bomb hit and Johnson was killed. Johnson was always just a (rather cool) name to me before reading this and so its great to get some of this rich context. Thank you Catherine.
Thanks Simon. It certainly seems that this was a notable event in the Blitz, I think particularly because the Cafe de Paris was considered to be safe. It was headline news in the music press as well.