Early Jazz in Britain 1

Not often appreciated or recorded in British music history are our own pioneers of Jazz. The Southern Syncopated Orchestra formed in 1919 and Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson West Indian Orchestra from the 30’s and 40’s had a massive influence in popularising Jazz to the British public in particular ‘Swing’.

In a strange twist of fate both orchestras met with tragedy, the Southern Syncopated Orchestra were on a ship from Glasgow to Derry when it was struck by 2 ships on the 9th October 1921 (the SS Rowan Tragedy – this article has a fab film from Pathe News showing some of the survivors), ironically the second ship the ‘Clan Malcolm’ was speeding to their rescue when it cut the SS Rowan in two, 8 members of the orchestra including vocalist Frank Bates lost their lives. This year will be the 100th Anniversary of the SS Rowan tragedy.

Kendrick Johnson had honed his band leading skills with the Leslie Thomson band in the mid 30’s heavily influenced by Cab Calloway and Count Basie. He formed the Ken ‘Snakehips’ West Indian Orchestra  his determination to bring Swing to the Cafe resulted in a residency at London’s sophisticated Cafe De Paris, it was here that tragedy struck on 8th March 1941, two German bombs struck the cafe, 36 people were killed including Johnson, just 26 years old, and his saxophonist Dave ‘Baba’ Williams.

In another strange twist of fate the ‘Cafe De Paris’ having survived and reopened in 1948, finally closed its doors for good on 20th December 2020 because of Coronavirus. I’ve attached 2 interesting pieces below from Kurt Barling BBC in 2014 and Elizabeth Richards in 2020 (tomorrow’s blog). We have also created the Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson West Indian Orchestra – Swing Party (enjoy). Unfortunately no recordings exist of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra.

By Rob Burns and Part 2 in tomorrow’s blog with Ken ‘Snakehips’ West Indian Orchestra

Southern Syncopated Orchestra

Kurt Barling, Prof of Journalism at Middlesex University, investigates the band made up of British West Indian and West African and American musicians. 15th May 2008 BBC

London’s cultural life has always been cosmopolitan. The history of jazz is often focused on America and New Orleans but in 1919 the Southern Syncopated Orchestra (SSO) first took London and then Britain by Storm. 

The SSO transformed the London club scene and popularised black music, but tragedy has meant this part of London’s black musical history has remained hidden for decades. 

The SSO was formed by the American composer Will Marion Cook and comprised 27 musicians and 19 singers.  The musicians came from, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Guyana, Barbados, Antigua and Ghana among other places.

The orchestra had made a deep impression across Europe.  It had very quickly become a staple on the London club circuit.  So taken were revellers by this new style of syncopated music and the extraordinary talents in its midst that it wasn’t long before the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VIII) had invited them to perform on the 19th August 1919 at Buckingham Palace.  According to a contemporaneous report in the Daily Telegraph the SSO entertained about 100 guests in a specially drained out lake in the gardens.

The only surviving pictures of the entire ensemble, taken at the Brighton Dome in 1919 show a group of well groomed and sophisticated performers.  

On the first anniversary of the armistice a grand ball was held on November 11th 1919 at the Royal Albert Hall.  Top of the bill were the jazz band that had helped breathe joy back into Edwardian London.

Many of the band members including Pete Robinson the drummer, Mope Desmond, pianist and Frank Bates a tenor settled quickly in South London. A number of these black men married white English women.   By 1921 there were at least 16 mixed raced offspring.

The legendary clarinettist turned soprano saxophone virtuoso Sidney Bechet, came to England with the SSO reportedly on the considerable weekly wage of $60.  Bechet helped put the SSO and Jazz on the musical map.  He is seen as one of the twin pillars along with Louis Armstrong of Modern Jazz. 

In fact Bechet only turned to the soprano Saxophone after seeing the strange straight instrument in a shop in Wardour Street, Soho.  After asking for a double octave key to be added he began to dazzle audiences with the extra power this new instrument gave him.

The first serious jazz review in Europe was written by the conductor of the L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Ernest Ansermet.   It talked about the virtuoso performance on clarinet of Bechet.  He said that the SSO played arrangements that were:

“Extremely difficult, they are equally admirable for their richness of invention, force of accent, and daring in novelty and the unexpected.” 

Ansermet even likened their musical artistry to that of a Bach Concerto.

Although some jazz aficionados are familiar with the feats of the orchestra largely through the subsequent work of Sidney Bechet, no recordings of the group have ever been discovered.  It is unlikely they ever recorded.  This is how their musical legacy was largely lost.

85 years ago on October 9th 1921 most of the members of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra (SSO) were sailing on the ship the SS Rowan from Glasgow to Derry to continue their successful tour of Britain. Tragedy befell the band when their ship was struck by two others in an accident.  Some of the bodies of the eight members of the SSO who were drowned were never recovered from the sea.

Juliette Jones and her aunt Florence Kenny (daughter of Frank Bates) travelled to the West Coast of Scotland over the weekend to take part in a moving ceremony to commemorate the sinking of the Rowan.  Frank Bates was one of those who went down with the ship.  The Rowan tragedy was widely reported at the time in the British press.

The story of the SSO’s contribution to popular culture is in part like many individual stories of Black Britons that have failed to make an impression on the official histories of Britain.  Only now that historians take a deeper interest in genealogy is a better understanding of how our cosmopolitan Capital came about.

85 Years Later

Last week Julian Joseph the contemporary jazz piano virtuoso came together with descendants of those men lost 85 years ago.   It was the first time some of the grandchildren and the daughter of Frank Bates had met. Joseph shared his impression of the music the SSO would have played to the King and Queen; Tin Pan Alley blues and St Louis Blues just two examples of the music that form the basis of modern popular music.

Whilst we were filming the grand-daughter of Mope Desmond, Terri Quaye, struck up an impromptu accompaniment to Joseph with the jazz standard Body and Soul. 

Terri Quaye is herself an accomplished jazz pianist and performer and her father, the son of Mope Desmond was also a musician.  It turns out that Desmond who was originally from Ghana comes from a long line of African musicians.  So in fact some of the musical legacy endured hidden from view.

Florence Bates (now Kenny) and her sister Vivien grew up in 1920s London, raised by white grandparents.  Their father’s accomplishments only revealed to them in the past three years since Florence’s niece, Juliette Jones, started tracing the family history.   Curiously it was not difficult for Juliette to find hundreds of references to the SSO in contemporary documents including newspaper reviews in the quality press.

Mrs Kenny says learning about her father, from whose memory she was carefully shielded in her youth, has transformed her understanding of herself. She says she has a greater appreciation of and affinity to her Black British heritage and believes the SSO provides a sharp lesson in how to appreciate the talents of individuals irrespective of ethnicity. She concludes that her father’s contribution to British popular culture like that of the whole SSO, should be appreciated by Black and White Britons.   

Sentiments echoed by Suzy Kester in her book ‘Under My Own Colours’. Reviewed in the New Statesman:

Suzy Kester’s autobiography Under My Own Colours (Troubador) is compulsively readable, harrowing and amusing by turns. She tells the story of an extraordinary dynasty of mixed English, Welsh, Sioux, African American, Nigerian and Jewish extraction. Somehow Kester manages to record hurt without hatred as she negotiates the ups and downs of life: “In Africa, even a beggar is given honour, because yesterday he may have been a warrior and tomorrow he might be a king.”

New Statesman 1 December 2003 Books of the year

Her grandfather, American Pete Robinson, was recovered from the sinking SS Rowan. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Tooting cemetery. Life for her grandmother, like the other widows, was harsh with few getting anything from the shipping company by way of compensation.  Their struggle against colour prejudice would be a forerunner of the realities faced by migrants coming to Britain over three decades later.

Kester was born during a Luftwaffe air raid in 1940.   She is an example of the many Black Britons who lived in the capital before the arrival of the SS Windrush from Jamiaca in 1948, but are so often overlooked when talking about a black presence in the capital.

The families are now keen to trace other descendants of SSO members, whose families stayed in England after the band disintegrated in the wake of the tragedy. They believe dozens of Londoners remain unawares of the illustrious accomplishments of their forebears.

Image at the top Southern Syncopated Orchestra at a London venue around 1920

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