100 Oxford Street

Where London learned to swing. Barbara Feldman tells a family story in 5/4 time
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
As doodlebugs rained on London, a siren wail of hot swing lured music-hungry American GIs and British fans to an Oxford Street cellar. It may not have been bomb-proof, but Feldman's, the city's only wartime jazz club, provided a haven for a populace starved of entertainment and for a polyglot community of musical refugees.

It was at the height of World War II that Robert Feldman, a pattern-cutter in the clothing industry by day and a clarinet player by night, took his mind off the air raids by dreaming of his own club. Once he found the premises, a restaurant which he dropped into for a cup of tea beneath 100 Oxford Street, he launched a venue that became an instant success and remains the home of British jazz.

At a time of rationing and wartime discipline, Feldman's Swing Club gave the all-clear to jiving, hot jazz, and an open-minded atmosphere where there were no class, racial or social distinctions. Since then, a host of legendary characters and hard-working jazzmen and women have descended the steps into the cavernous basement. Many still swap memories at the Coda Club, a unique veteran musician's social event held once a month in the echoing, oblong room where it all started.

Beryl Bryden, "Queen of the Washboard", now in her seventies and still scraping her thimble, drops in every month to gossip, reminisce and hope the passing years are treating everyone kindly. The drummer Tony Crosbie dropped in with blues singer Jimmy James for his first session one sultry afternoon this summer.

"I've seen people here today I haven't seen since 1942," he said, "and they look terrible." "I used to come here on Sunday nights during the War," says Beryl. "All the way from Norwich to hear the good old jazz classics played by guys like Kenny Baker. It was wonderful."

Robert Feldman and his brothers Monty and Victor were part of a highly active Jewish musical community, pioneers of promotion as well as important contributors to jazz music. Robert and Monty were both asthmatics and unfit for military service during the War; a fourth brother, Arnold - my father - was stationed in Gibraltar with the RAF, and played occasional trumpet while at home on leave. Victor, the youngest and a child prodigy, astounded visiting Americans with his drumming. Dubbed "Kid Krupa" in honour of his idol, Gene Krupa, Victor was eight years old when he sat in with Glenn Miller at the Queensbury Club. The band's regular drummer, Ray McKinley, watched the session and shouted, "I don't believe it, I don't believe it!"

Victor later won international fame as a pianist and vibes player, and emigrated to America where he played with Miles Davis and Woody Herman and starred in several films.

For creative Jews who didn't want to be butchers or go into the garment trade, music was one of the few ways to get out. The Feldman Trio would rehearse at home in Edgware, tightening up their arrangements for the next round of weddings, barmitzvas and youth club dances. But it was little Victor, backing Robert and Monty on drums, who was the star turn. Their neighbour, a young sax player called Ronnie Scott who had recently moved to Edgware from Stamford Hill to escape the bombing, would drop by to play with Victor - who, he remembers, was still wearing shorts and riding a tricycle in the local streets.

Back at work in Soho, the Feldmans fumed at the limited outlets for their underground music. They read with envy Melody Maker reports of New York's booming jazz club scene. At home, jazz was confined to the earnest environs of the "rhythm clubs", where enthusiasts gathered around a gramophone and solemnly listened to the latest records by Louis Armstrong, or it was the preserve of bottle parties and expensive night clubs. As Ronnie Scott recalls, "The bottle parties were peopled by ladies of the night and Guards officers out for a good time. It's where many musicians started out."

One afternoon in September 1942, Robert Feldman switched off the radio, left the pattern-cutting and began the walk home. Passing 100 Oxford Street, he saw a neon sign - mac's restaurant. "I remember when I first went down the stairs to the restaurant," he told me, shortly before his death.

"There were posts all over the place, holding up the ceiling. Suddenly, I imagined them turning into palm trees and thought it would make a nice little club."

Robert discussed the idea with Old Ma Phyliss, the manageress of Mac's, who was later known by club goers as "The Dragon". She was only too pleased to charge the young enthusiast pounds 4 a night to start The Feldman Swing Club.

"She became a regular feature of the club," says Bert Wilcox, a music promoter who later took over the club.

"She was always bossing everyone around, and was the only person to make money, charging customers six pence for a plate of crisps."

Robert booked a Sunday night at Mac's for three weeks later - although he had no money and no musicians. He was convinced he could make a success of the club, but his father, Joseph, the manager of a clothing factory, was unimpressed by Robert's brainwave and refused to give him financial backing.

"That's not a proper business," he said. "Do something sensible." The best place to find talent was in Archer Street, near the Windmill Theatre, where unemployed musicians gathered, waiting for gigs when they weren't being harassed by the police. Nearby was the American Forces Club where Glenn Miller's AAAF Band and Artie Shaw's navy band played. Robert rounded up a bass player who was promised three pounds a gig if he could muster stars like pianist George Shearing and trumpeter Kenny Baker.

But the question of how they were to fund the enterprise remained unanswered, so Robert placed an advertisement in Melody Maker: "No 1 Swing Club at 100 Oxford Street. Listen and dance to Frank Weir, Tommy Pollard, Kenny Baker and Jimmy Skidmore, Guest artists, the Feldman Trio." If you sent a five-shilling subscription you could get in free on opening nights, otherwise admission was 3/6. There were enough prospective members to ensure at least three weeks bookings.

On 24 October 1942 at 7.30pm, Soho saw the birth of the Feldman Swing Club. Melody Maker enthused: "It gives Londoners a regular home for swing where they can meet, dance and listen to the stars." The entrance policy was to be one of the main reason's for the club's success. "Feldman's would open the door to everybody," says Tony Harrison, an agent and dance promoter.

"The average working man who was earning pounds 2 a week could afford 3/6 to get in and 4d for half a pint." There were queues along Oxford Street and the atmosphere on opening night was said to be "electric".

Life began to change for Monty and Robert as they made money from the club. They earned enough to give up their jobs as pattern-cutters, they started to wear hand-painted ties, suede shoes and sports jackets, and spent their time booking musicians and making demos.

GIs secretly bunkered under Oxford Street for the D Day landings flocked to the club and introduced jitterbugging, the wild new improvised dance which was banned at most venues. Says Tony Harrison: "The jitterbuggers would knock into all other nicely dressed women at the posh clubs and there would be signs saying no jitterbugging. If you dared to jive, the owners would throw you out. At Feldman's we could relax and dance."

Among the Americans who flocked to the club was Glenn Miller. Having heard about Victor Feldman's percussive prowess, he came down to hear the kid himself, only to be refused entry by Kitty Feldman - my grandmother - who had no idea of his fame. Joseph Feldman came to the rescue and Glenn watched Victor in action. "Kid Krupa" was so small that his feet barely reached the bass drum pedal and he played it with the tip of his toe. In the next decade the club hosted many top American guests including pianist Mel Powell, drummer Ray McKinley, saxman Art Pepper, and even Benny Goodman, the King of Swing.

Feldman encouraged bebop as well as swing music, and provided a home for British modernists such as Ronnie Scott and Johnny Dankworth. It was also a mecca for black musicians pouring into wartime London from the Empire. Among these was Frank Holder, a vocalist and percussionist. "When I arrived from Guyana in 1944 with the RAF I was hungry for jazz," he remembers. "At Feldman's, a black man would be accepted when you couldn't appear at clubs like the Mayfair or Embassy. Black guys like Coleridge Goode and Ray Ellington were welcome, and all that mattered to Robert and Monty Feldman was that you were a musician."

The guitarist Cliff Dunne, now aged 72, recalls the family atmosphere at the club: "When we visit the 100 Club today, we still call it going down Feldman's out of respect to the family, who created such a cool atmosphere."

After a decade running the club, Robert Feldman gradually relinquished the reins. He told me: "Some weeks it was doing alright, but towards the end...not so good. Other clubs opened and there was too much competition."

Feldman's Swing Club eventually became the 100 Club, where all kinds of jazz and rock have been blown nightly for more than 30 years. The Rolling Stones and heavy metal gods Metallica, among countless others, have invaded what was once the sole preserve of swingers, ancient and modern.

At the Coda meeting, venerable musicians pored over black and white photographs from the archives, trying to recognise old friends. None of the survivors can forget the days when bands stomped out "I Got Rhythm" to ecstatic crowds soaking up the atmosphere at a unique institution, still known to them all as Feldman's.

(Victor died in 1987, aged 53; Monty, the accordionist, died in 1979, aged 53; and Robert died in 1992, aged 69.) Additional research and reporting by Chris Welch