How the UK messed up the ‘Jazz Age’

Why did it all go so wrong?

The 1920s were the first decade that didn’t just move along, day-by-day, year-by-year. No, this time it definitely was different, because for the first time here was a decade that positively SWUNG. 

For good reason is this time recognised as the start of the ‘Jazz Age’, a period running roughly from the 20s through to somewhere towards the end of the decade or the 1930s depending on who you ask. 

But whenever it ended, this was when jazz, the exciting, high energy and plain irresistible new style music burst out of America and taught the world new ways to dance.

Britain was wholly and willingly swept up in this cultural wave. Fun for all. However the way the country took to this new music is unfortunately very troubling and something that is rarely faced up to and addressed. Today it is accepted fact that jazz owes its very existence and energy to its African American pioneers. It is without doubt an African American cultural phenomenon. However back in 1920s Britain you’d have struggled mightily to find anyone who really understood this singular point about jazz music.

Instead, in 1920s Britain, any mention of the word ‘jazz’ would almost certainly have been met immediately with one name and one name only: Jack Hylton.

Jack was the biggest selling artist on the HMV label of The Gramophone Company (forerunner of EMI) at this time, releasing over 300, yes 300 records, in little over a decade. He was far and away the biggest artist on HMV in the 1920s and his nickname was nothing less than “The British King of Jazz”. 

On one level he did live up to the name, as he arguably did more than any other individual to introduce and spread jazz music to the people of the UK in the 1920s, thanks to his prodigious recording output and frequent nationwide tours as Jack Hylton and His Orchestra with its 20 plus musicians.

However the ‘jazz’ that Hylton was performing only really bore a passing resemblance to actual jazz music. Hylton was a band leader from a Lancashire mill town who cut his teeth in dance ensembles in clubs and hotels in the post World War One London social scene. His interpretations of jazz songs arranged for what was effectively a mini orchestra were exactly what you’d imagine from someone like him putting on a jazz show in the 1920s. And for a long time he rejected the whole King of Jazz thing. Perhaps in part because he didn’t even like jazz music!

Hylton may have been the most high profile but he most definitely wasn’t alone in turning jazz tunes into something much softer and less scary for mainstream audiences. Dance bands were huge in the 1920s. The catalogues of record companies at the time were overflowing with them. And the idea of taking jazz and repackaging it was first commercialised by American band leader Paul Whiteman who Hylton was directly and quite openly inspired by.

So for the whole 1920s, what we now know as the ‘Jazz Age’, most people in the UK who were under the impression from the enormously popular bands of the day that they were listening to and dancing away to jazz were more accurately only engaging with a pale imitation of the real thing. It wasn’t until the following decade, the 1930s, that actual African American jazz legends such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington visited the UK for the very first time and showed everyone what real jazz was.

As it happened it was none other than Hylton who organised many of these trips. American jazz musicians could see perfectly clearly that Hylton – now growing happily into his ‘British King of Jazz’ reputation – was the gateway to mainstream success in the UK. But only with shared, equal billing. The King was still The King.

Britain wouldn’t get its own authentically home grown black jazz band until Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson formed his West Indian Orchestra in 1936. Johnson was born in modern day Guyana in 1914 and moved as a teenager to the UK to finish his schooling. He then started but soon dropped out of studying law at London University to follow his true calling – being a dancer.

This new direction in life took him first back to the Caribbean and then onto to New York and Harlem in particular which by this time was the beating heart of the jazz world. Johnson was in heaven. Taking his inspiration from the legendary and always dapper Cab Calloway, Johnson decided to return to the UK with the explicit goal of establishing his own band that could swing for real like the best of the American ones. And his band, unlike everyone else’s, was going to be made up of actual black musicians.

The result was Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and his West Indian Orchestra and boy could they swing. They weren’t the first black British band by any means, but thanks to Johnson’s showmanship, vision and excellent choreography, they quickly became not only the most successful black British group ever to have graced the stage and the recording studio, but in the extremely crowded field of popular dance bands, the most exciting of them all.

By the end of 1937 their growing reputation had reached the BBC. From 1938 onwards the corporation broadcast a number of performances by the band in which marketeer par excellence Johnson billed as ‘ultra-modern dance music’. Never truer words.

Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and his West Indian Orchestra released their first records through EMI’s great rival Decca, but in 1940 they made the first of their dozen or so recordings for EMI’s HMV label (which of course had done so well by riding the Hylton wave in the 1920s). By this time their reputation was such that they had been poached by the oh so fashionable Cafe De Paris in London’s Soho to be the house band there.

However this inspiring story of this remarkable man was not to have a happy ending. During the London Blitz in March 1941, when the band were mid performance, the Cafe De Paris was hit by a bomb and the venue’s roof collapsed. At least 34 people were killed including Johnson and saxophonist ‘Baba’ Williams.

Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson was the REAL King of British Jazz. His reign cruelly cut short just as it was beginning.