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Black British Swing

by Lionel King

 

 

 

Ken Snakehips Johnson

 

In this article we look back at some historical tracks that remind us of the highly significant contribution of black musicians to the development of dance music in the 1930s and 40s. For example, here is Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson (above) and his West Indian Dance Band on Tuxedo Junction. Listed among the personnel are a few white musicians but the core of the band was from the Caribbean.

 

 

 

 

Leslie Jiver Hutchinson

 

Originally from British Guiana, at the age of 15, Ken Johnson was sent by his parents to the United Kingdom, where he attended Sir William Borlase's Grammar School, Marlow, Buckinghamshire, before studying medicine at Edinburgh University. Having gained an interest in dance, he sought lessons from American choreographer Buddy Bradley. It was in dance work that Johnson earned his nickname, "Snakehips", from his "fluid and flexible style". He visited New York in 1934 and was inspired to become a bandleader. In 1936 Johnson was invited to lead Leslie Thompson's band, before going on to start his own - "Ken Johnson and his Rhythm Swingers" (later renamed "The West Indian Orchestra"), which played jazz and swing music and was composed largely of musicians from the West Indies.

In the trumpet section were Wally Bowen and Leslie “Jiver” Hutchinson from Jamaica and Dave Wilkins from Barbados. On clarinet was Carl Barriteau from Trinidad.  Bertie King was on alto sax, Panama-born but raised in Jamaica.  The bassist, Abe “Pops” Clare was from the West Indies but as in the case of several of these musicians mentioned in this article, I’ve not been able to trace which island they all hailed from.

 

Leslie 'Jiver' Hutchinson

 

 

 

This next track is one of four titles the band recorded for Decca in September 1938.  The personnel of the band was quickly evolving into a swing unit and their records were selling well to the growing number of fans who had heard of the new swing music fom the USA.  The musicians are the same as on the first track you heard.  Listen for the alto sax solo by Bertie King on Snakehips Swing:

 

 

 

A handful of musicians from the Caribbean had been working in dance bands in Britain since the mid 1920s.  This fact has only become widely known to followers of jazz and swing, including myself, in comparatively recent years.  Among the first to arrive was a highly accomplished multi-instrumentalist, Leslie Thompson.  He played the trumpet, bass, trombone and cello.  Thompson had joined the band of the West Indian Regiment in World War I when he was only 16.  He settled in the UK in 1929 and soon found work playing in dance bands, attracting the attention of Spike Hughes, an early fan of jazz in Britain and who formed his own band to play and record this exciting new music from America.  On this track recorded in 1932, seven years earlier than the first two numbers you heard, Leslie Thompson is in form in the trumpet section of Hughes’s band on Buddy's Wednesday Outing:

 

 

 

Thompson was the only black musician on that track but more talented Caribbean musicians followed him over to play in dance bands here in the early 1930s.  Thompson’s thoughts began to turn towards gathering them together to form an all-black band to play dance music with a definite jazz feel.  By the way, Leslie Thompson was for a time involved in black politics as a follower of Marcus Garvey who was active in London at this time.  In the early 1930s Thompson went on a European tour with the great Louis Armstrong.

In 1936 Thompson met Ken “Snakehips” Johnson, whose real name was Kenrick Reginald Huymans. He too had ideas about becoming a band leader, although he was only a moderate performer on the piano himself.  Johnson had been educated in England and originally aspired to be a doctor.  But he took up tap dancing instead and was talented enough to appear alongside child star Shirley Temple in the film Oh Daddy! made in Hollywood in 1935.  While in the USA, Johnson is said to have met the legendary band leader Fletcher Henderson and had been excited on first hearing ‘swing,’ a new development in popular music, highly influenced by jazz.  From their first meeting, Thompson began to recruit and rehearse musicians, while Johnson, who was more business-minded, looked for work for the band which was called at first The Jazz Emperors.  Their first major engagement was at the Florida Club, a fashionable London night spot.  Johnson took over the conductor’s baton when the band appeared in public and acted as the personality-man compère.  His gyrations on the bandstand earned him the nickname ‘Snakehips.’

 

Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson tap dancing in 1935.

 

 

 

 

Leslie Thompson

 

Leslie Thompson left the band after a disagreement on policy before it had made any records and before it had made the big time, although he remained on the dance band scene for many years.  He had no financial stake in the band, unlike Johnson who had invested a lot of money.  Even so Thompson had been earning £20 a week playing with The Jazz Emperors and was also responsible for rehearsals.  That was big money in those days, compared with less than £5 earned by the average industrial worker.

 

Leslie Thompson is pictured on the cover of his book with Jeffrey Green Swing From A Small Island.

 

The band, renamed The Emperors of Jazz, played in dance halls and on the bill at variety theatres, all over Britain.  Dance music in the 1930s was all strict tempo and some hall managers, and BBC chiefs, were deeply suspicious of swing numbers.  Johnson used to open broadcasts by the band announcing they played what he called ‘ultra modern dance music.’  This cleverly avoided the danger words, jazz and swing.

Of course all the musicians you have been hearing were capable of playing extempore extended jazz solos.  Unfortunately they had to restrict themselves, at least on record, to ‘hot licks,’ very short passages which gave them little scope to show their jazz talents.  There were occasional private ‘jam sessions’ when the musicians showed their skills of improvisation. Johnson, the shrewd businessman, made sure the band always had an ample helping of commercial numbers and popular songs in its repertoire. 

 

 

On this next track the boys in the band double up as singers to put some pep into Exactly Like You:

 

 

 

By the outbreak of World War II in 1939, records by American swing bands, such as those of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, Duke Ellington and Chick Webb, were selling by the tens of thousands in Britain and Glenn Miller’s particular style particularly appealed to dancers. When Miller recorded his big hit Tuxedo Junction, Snakehips’ West Indian Dance Band jumped in with their own up-tempo version that we played earlier in this article. It was recorded for HMV in January 1940.

By 1940, the band had experienced changes in personnel.  Talented pianist Yorke de Sousa from Jamaica had joined and he proved a valuable acquisition for he was also a gifted arranger.  There was no problem finding arrangements for the band to play.  Many enthusiastic young musicians in London at the time, including the great trumpeter Kenny Baker, added scores to the book. One of the leading popular singers of the 1930s in Britain was the South African, Al Bowlly.  A personal friend of ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, he joins the band as a guest on the next track, a setting of the Shakespearean verses, Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind:

 

 

 

That track was recorded at the Café de Paris, in London’s West End in April, 1940, where Ken Johnson’s band had been in residence since late 1939.  The band was now becoming increasingly well-known through their regular radio broadcasts.  They were playing to enthusiastic wartime patrons, many of them officers in the armed services and their ladies, when a bomb fell on the Rialto Cinema above the Café de Paris during a Nazi Luftwaffe air raid on March 8, 1941.

Johnson, who was only 27 years old, and tenor sax man, David ‘Baba’ Williams were killed instantly.  Other members of the band were seriously injured.  Johnson’s passing was mourned by everyone.  The music world hailed him as a pioneer of swing music in Britain, the only band leader with a declared jazz policy.  The Melody Maker, the popular music weekly, described him as “one of the nicest men it was possible to meet.....intelligent, highly educated and courteous.” Yorke De SouzaContemporary photographs show him as strikingly handsome, slim and immaculately dressed.  Just before tragedy struck, Johnson’s rhythm section, Yorke de Sousa, piano, Tommy Bromley, bass, and Tommy Wilson, drums, had been in the studios making recordings of jazz standards.  These sides were not released commercially but they have happily survived as studio acetates. Click here for a sample of Sweet Georgia Brown from this session.

 

Yorke De Souza

 

By 1943-44 the war was reaching its climax.  Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, white and black, were over here preparing for D Day and they had brought their tastes in music with them.  The BBC had softened its attitude to broadcasting jazz and swing.  Dance hall owners had at last lifted their ban on jiving, jitterbugging, the lindy hop etc.  Surviving members of Johnson’s band regrouped under the leadership of trumpeter Leslie ‘Jiver’ Hutchinson, who adopted the name ‘Jiver’ to distinguish himself from the better-known cabaret star, pianist/singer, Grenada-born Leslie A Hutchinson.  Jiver led a 12-piece band which he called at first his All-Coloured Orchestra.  Members were ex-Johnson men Dave Wilkins, Bertie King, George Roberts, Yorke de Sousa and Joe Deniz, together with new-comers Joe Appleton from Jamaica, Frank Baker, Frank Williams, Coleridge Goode from Jamaica, Harry Roche, an Irish trombonist and Clinton Maxwell, a drummer from Jamaica.  There is a track on the CD Black British Swing (referred to below) of a recording of Swing Low Sweet Chariot made on July 31 1944 (you can sample it if you click here). It was never released commercially.  The sample pressings of the titles recorded at this session were kept safely for many years by ‘Jiver’ Hutchinson’s daughter, the celebrated vocalist Elaine Delmar.

 

We can listen to Jiver Hutchinson's band playing Rosetta in 1947. This was apparently recorded in Czechoslovakia. The Hutchinson band remained in business until 1949.

 

 

 

 

Black British Swing CD

 

Lionel King: In research for this article I have been greatly assisted by the comprehensive and scholarly booklet written by Andrew Simon of the National Sound Archive included with the CD Black British Swing issued originally by Topic Records on TSCD 781.  I have also found John Chilton’s indispensable Who’s Who of British Jazz published in 1997, very helpful with musicians’ biographies and by Coleridge Goode’s highly readable biography Bass Lines – A Life in Jazz.

© Sandy Brown Jazz 2018

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