Catherine Tackley (University of Liverpool, UK)


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.