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 Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'