All that jazz: Swinging in the Blitz

Clemency Burton-Hill was making a jazz documentary when she discovered the black wartime stars who created a very British sound of their own

March 8, 1941. 9.48pm. Hitler's Luftwaffe is waging an aerial assault on London. Under the piercing wail of the air-raid sirens, a handsome 26-year-old male dashes down Piccadilly and through the backstreets of the West End. Bombs are falling around him. Buckingham Palace has been hit; it is surely dicing with death to remain above ground. But the young man, a jazz bandleader, has a 10 o'clock set to perform at the Café de Paris, London's swankiest nightspot, and his celebrated all-black swing orchestra are waiting for him. As the frontman and star, whose image adorns the popular sheet music of the day and whose hot swing sounds can be heard nightly on the BBC, it will not do for him to be late – Blitz or no Blitz.

Safely, he reaches the doors of the Café de Paris, just in the nick of time. Moments later, he is 20ft underground, resplendent in the white tuxedo that cuts such a dash against his gleaming skin. Every night, glamorous crowds including the Aga Khan, the Mountbattens and Cole Porter flock here to forget the tribulations of the war that rages above.

Charismatic, gifted, ambitious, Ken “Snakehips” Johnson is arguably the first superstar of British jazz. At exactly 10pm, this protégé of the American swing masters Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson and Buddy Bradley raises his baton and his band kick into the opening bars of their signature tune “Oh, Johnny”.

The room explodes. Literally: against unimaginable odds, two Luftwaffe bombs have fallen through the ventilation shaft of the Rialto Cinema up above, landing directly in front of the dance floor. Before “Oh, Johnny” is out, dozens are dead: the blast sucking the air from their lungs so instantaneously that many remained eternally frozen in their dancing positions, like eerie Pompeii jitterbuggers. Ken “Snakehips” Johnson is among the victims. And with his untimely death closes a neglected chapter in British musical history whose consequences, both socially and artistically, can nevertheless still be felt today. As we saw last weekend at the Grammys, white artists and audiences are still hungrily appropriating music that originates among the black community. In swing-era London, this was merely the earliest instance in Britain of that ongoing and occasionally vexed cultural transaction.

The story of what happened when the Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury in 1948 is widely known. What is more surprising to discover, as I did while researching a documentary about the emergence of black British jazz, is that two whole decades previously a handful of highly resourceful and talented West Indian musical pioneers also arrived on these shores, helping to create and define a distinctly British swing sound.

Alongside “Snakehips”, the most significant black figure to be found on Archer Street was the superb trumpeter and all-round musical talent Leslie Thompson. Unlike “Snakehips”, who grew up in middle-class British Guiana and was sent by his doctor father to the William Borlase School in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, in the hope he might enter a career in law or medicine, Thompson came from humble roots in Jamaica. The strictures of the Great Depression meant authorities were clamping down on American musicians and other foreign artists performing in London. Yet West Indian musicians, as British subjects, not only had the advantage of being allowed to work, but, being black, they also appeared to impart the musical “authenticity” thatwealthy white audiences, for better or worse, were after (and perhaps still are).

Inspired by the contemporary teachings of Marcus Garvey and his emphasis on black economic empowerment, Leslie Thomson and Ken “Snakehips” Johnson decided to combine their formidable talents to fill a gap in the market. In 1936, they formed Britain's first all-black band. With hits like “Tuxedo Junction” and “Tap Your Feet”, they also caught the attention of the BBC producer Leslie Perowne, who facilitated a lucrative broadcasting contract that furthered their appeal. Although Johnson and Thompson fell out, with the latter eventually abandoning his musical career, Ken “Snakehips” Johnson's legacy lives on.

 

Clemency Burton-Hill presents 'Swinging into the Blitz', a BBC 'Culture Show' special, today at 6pm on BBC2

Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape