Jazz Migrants in London, 1919-74

Sidney Bechet, Royal Philharmonic Hall, 1919

Sidney Bechet was one of the first musicians to play jazz in London's West End. He was the 'blues specialist' in Will Marion Cook's large American concert band, the 'Southern Syncopated Orchestra'. Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet heard them play at the Royal Philharmonic Hall, and in his review referred to Bechet as 'an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso' and an 'artist of genius'.

He bought his first soprano saxophone at La Fleur's Music Shop in Wardour St., and from then on it became his primary instrument.

At the invitation of the Prince of Wales, Bechet played for George V at Buckingham Palace. He comments in his autobiography 'Treat it Gentle', on how strange it was to see the head of someone you know printed on the bank notes. When he was deported from the UK in 1922, Bechet threw all his British money overboard. He subsequently lived for many years in Paris.

Alberta Hunter, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, 1928

Alberta Hunter is particularly remembered for the recordings she made as vocalist with the 'The Red Onion Jazz Babies', which brought together on record Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet (1924), and those made with Fats Waller (1927). Hunter also composed 'Down Hearted Blues', which was a big hit for Bessie Smith when she chose it for her debut recording.

In 1928 Hunter came to London to play Queenie in Jerome Kern's 'Showboat' at the Theatre Royal, opposite Paul Robeson who played Joe. The production was enthusiastically received, especially by London's high society. The following year she moved to Paris and spent much of the '30s performing in Europe.

In the 1970s a revival of interest in her work encouraged Hunter, who was then in her eighties, to begin singing again and changed social attitudes enabled the celebration of her role as an icon of lesbian cultural achievement.




Louis Armstrong, London Palladium, 1932

Louis Armstrong's decision to spend time working in Europe was prompted, in part, by a conversation with a hoodlum. Whilst playing at the Showboat nightclub in Chicago, Armstrong was confronted in his dressing room by gangster Frankie Foster who pointed a gun at him and announced that he was required in New York the following day to play at Connie's Inn. Armstrong had little choice than to agree, but the next morning headed off in the opposite direction, spending time in his hometown of New Orleans before taking up an offer to come to England.

Armstrong topped the bill at the Palladium in a program that included 'continental dancers, a Scottish comedian and comedy jugglers'. His hastily arranged backing band was built around a core of musicians from Paris. The performance was met with a mixed reception; many in the audience walked out whilst the remainder applauded enthusiastically.

After touring Britain and a short trip back to New York, Armstrong divided his time over the next couple of years between London and Paris.




Benny Carter, Hippodrome Theatre, 1937

From the mid-thirties to the early fifties the Musicians' Union, with the support of the Ministry of Labour, imposed a ban on performances by visiting foreign musicians. This deprived jazz fans of the chance to hear live the leading American musicians of the day.

Multi-instrumentalist Benny Carter was also a respected arranger, and in 1935 was invited to Britain as staff arranger for 'Henry Hall & The BBC Dance Orchestra'. Exceptionally he was granted permission to play in the 'Swing Music Concert', staged on 10 January 1937 at the Hippodrome Theatre. Leonard Feather described the sixteen hundred fans who attended as 'Tantaluses...unfettered', reminding his readers that at the banquet of the gods the starved Tantalus was tortured by having delicious food placed just beyond his reach.



Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson, Café de Paris, 1941

Kendrick Johnson was born in British Guiana to a prominent family, and educated at William Borlase School in Marlow, Buckinghamshire. In his teens, under the tutelage of the American choreographer Buddy Bradley, he developed a highly flexible dance style, which earned him the nickname 'Snakehips'.

After a spell fronting 'Leslie Thompson's Emperors of Jazz', Johnson formed his own band in 1936. It included such accomplished musicians as Leslie 'Jiver' Hutchinson, Carl Barriteau and the brothers Frank and Joe Deniz. In 1940 the band began a residence at the prestigious Café de Paris in Coventry St, where it built a reputation for being the most swinging of British Swing Bands.

Despite the blitz the Café remained open as its basement location was considered to be relatively safe. On Saturday 8 March 1941, 'Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson and his West Indian Dance Band' had just begun their set when a bomb came through the building, exploding in the dance area before the stage. Over 30 people died and many more were injured by the blast. Amongst the fatalities was the 26-year-old Johnson.



Art Pepper and Victor Feldman, Feldman Club, 1945

Art Pepper's luck ran out when he was inducted into the US Army soon after Stan Kenton had hired him. Towards the end of the war he found himself playing for patients in a convalescence unit in southern England. When most of the band was sent back to the USA, Pepper was transferred into the Military Police and assigned to guard duty over the cells of Marlborough St. Magistrates Court in central London. The posting is somewhat ironic given his future spells in prison.

Although 'jazz was pretty hard to come by in London,' Pepper found the best club in the West End and began sitting in.

Feldman Club was started by Joseph Feldman to showcase his three talented sons, the youngest of whom, Victor, was considered a child prodigy. Playing mostly drums at that time, he was nicknamed 'Kid Krupa'. He became one of the most celebrated British jazz musicians of his generation and in the 'fifties emigrated to America were he playing in the bands of Woody Herman, Miles Davis and Shelly Manne.



Coleman Hawkins, The Princes Theatre, 1949

Coleman Hawkins had first played in London with 'Jack Hylton and his Orchestra' in 1934, but it was the concert he gave in 1949 that caused controversy and landed the show's promoters in the dock.

Tony Hughes and Bix Curtis got Hawkins into the country by pretending that he was to be godfather to Hughes' son, though the two had never met before. At HM Immigrations, Hughes signed a document to the effect that Hawkins would not play in public. The Musicians' Union fired a warning shot, reiterating that no British musicians were to play with him. Hawkins took the precaution, however, of bringing drummer Kenny Clarke and two French musicians with him from Paris.

The illegal concert went ahead in open defiance of M.U. boss Hardie Ratcliffe and the Ministry of Labour, but with the 'full support of every jazz fan in the country' according to 'Jazz Illustrated' magazine.

Hughes and Curtis were each fined £100 with forty guineas costs, and the ban on American jazz musicians, though dented, remained in place.



Pete Pitterson, Club Eleven, 1950

Pete Pitterson arrived in London from Kingston, Jamaica, in 1946 to work with Leslie 'Jiver' Hutchinson's big band. He later led his own group at the Sunset Club, which included Joe Harriott, with whom he also recorded in 'Buddy Pipp's Highlifers'.

His musical interests made him a natural ally of young British beboppers, who for want of somewhere to play had started their own Club Eleven. The leading lights of this musicians co-operative were Johnny Dankworth and Ronnie Scott. Pitterson played with their bands at both the original Windmill St. premises and the larger Carnaby St. venue.

On 15 April 1950 the club made national headlines when the Drugs Squad raided it. Six of the musicians were charged with possession of cannabis. Ronnie Scott recalled that when they appeared the next day at Marlborough St. Magistrates Court, 'a police Chief Inspector informed the bench that the Club was a bebop club. 'What,' asked the magistrate solemnly, 'is bebop?'  'A queer form of modern dancing - a Negro jive' the policeman answered with brisk authority.'


Joe Harriott, St Pancras Town Hall, 1951

Joe Harriott received his musical education, as did many prominent Jamaican musicians, at the Alpha Boys School. Early in 1951 he left Kingston with 'Ozzie Da Costa's West Indian Group' to begin a European tour. The first stop was London where at St Pancras Town Hall they appeared as relief band to Tito Burns, whose bass player, Coleridge Goode, recalls that ' (Joe) stood out a mile'.  

Delayed in London awaiting travel documents, Harriott was introduced to the city's jazz scene by fellow Alpharian Dizzy Reece. His enthusiastic reception by modernists, including Ronnie Scott, convinced Harriott that he should make his stay permanent. He subsequently joined the band of bebopper Pete Pitterson, but also crossed the modernist-revivalist divide by playing in the New Orleans style bands of Ken Colyer and Chris Barber.

Daily life in London was not easy for newly arrived Afro-Caribbeans. Harriott later commented 'When I came over on holiday people welcomed me, but the mood changed when I decided to stay'.


Lil Hardin Armstrong and Mary Lou Williams , Royal Albert Hall, 1953

During her two years stay in Europe, Mary Lou Williams had a miserable time. Barely recovered from divorce she found herself in London; a city shrouded in fog whose people she thought unfriendly, serving food that was inedible.

She had been told that the ban on American jazz musicians would not affect her but the truth was altogether more demeaning; the Musicians' Union classified jazz pianists as 'variety acts', and she was not therefore accorded sufficient status to be included in the ban.

On 11 January 1953, she was billed to appear at the Royal Albert Hall alongside Lil Hardin Armstrong, who was also attempting to revive her career in Europe. Although both were of much the same generation, and had notably contributed to the early history of recorded jazz, the music press presented them as if in competition, with Hardin representing the voice of traditional jazz whilst Williams was designated the modernist. Williams' London recordings were pilloried by revivalists and modernists alike.




Shake Keane and Ambrose Campbell, Abalabi Club, 1957

Nigerian Ola Dosunmu and his Yorkshire-born wife Irene ran the Abalabi Club, which was situated in Maidenhead Passage off Berwick St. market. Fellow countryman Ambrose Campbell was resident with his 'West African Rhythm Brothers', and the club became a fashionable haunt for the Soho arts set. Colin MacInnes included Campbell in his 1957 novel 'City of Spades', and his highlife band was much admired by jazz musicians, including Phil Seaman who assiduously studied their percussive rhythms.

Shake Keane arrived in Britain in 1952 from St. Vincent to read literature at London University. He started his own highlife band with musicians from England, Wales and India and later appeared as a sideman on Campbell's only album, 'High-Life Today'.  

Whilst continuing to write poetry, Keane played in many musical settings. His collaboration with Joe Harriott on his ground-breaking free jazz experiments produced some of the most important music to be made in Britain during the early 'sixties.


Lucky Thompson, Ronnie Scott's Club, 1962

Lucky Thompson had a difficult career. He was often at odds with the 'vultures', as he called them, in the music business whom he saw as preying on musicians. ' This profession (is) indifferent to an honest man' he said ' In fact I never had a career, but I fought for a few moments here and there.'

He was unremittingly critical of his own playing, and also that of his accompanists. After his engagement at Scott's, Thompson wrote an open letter to Melody Maker apologizing for the quality of the house band, which was led by Stan Tracey. Tracey retorted that Thompson generated ' just plain horrible vibrations. He used to put us down in the music, all sorts of nasty little messages flying about in the music.'

Thompson lived in France for periods in the early and late 'sixties. On returning to the States he taught briefly at Dartmouth College, after which he stopped playing altogether. By the late 'eighties he had became a homeless recluse in Seattle.





Ben Webster, Marquee Club, 1964

Ben Webster first visited Britain in 1964 at the invitation of Ronnie Scott to play at his club. He never returned to America again after the engagement, moving first to Copenhagen and finally settling in Amsterdam.

Whilst in London Webster had a good time, although his health was beginning to show signs of deteriation. He spent much of his free time talking to jazz enthusiasts at Dobell's record shop in Charing Cross Road, along with his friend Henny Cohen who was the doorman at Scott's.

The Marquee Club was used to record a performance for television's 'Jazz 625' program on 20 December 1964. Accompanying Webster were British musicians Scott, Stan Tracey, Rick Laird and Jackie Dougan. The prohibition on American jazz musicians had eased in favor of a reciprocal exchange, which was soon to be scrapped altogether.



Chris McGregor and Dudu Pukwana, Scott's Old Place, 1967

In 1964 'The Blue Notes' chose voluntary exile in London to life under apartheid in South Africa, where it was illegal for the black and white musicians to play together. In addition to McGregor and Pukwana the band consisted of Mongezi Feza, Johnny Dyani, Louis Moholo, and later Ronnie Beer. Over the next few years they attracted a young enthusiastic audience of exiles, hipsters and art students to Ronnie Scott's Old Place on Gerrard St. and the Duke of York pub in Rathbone Place. The audiences found compelling their emotional mixture of township rhythms and free improvisation.

The band fragmented but remained the core of McGregor's later big band, 'The Brotherhood of Breath', with the addition of young experimental musicians including Evan Parker , Paul Rutherford , Harry Beckett , Alan Skidmore , Mike Osborne and John Surman.



Maynard Ferguson, Ronnie Scott's Club, 1971

Maynard Ferguson was one of a number of eminent Canadian jazz musicians, including Kenny Wheeler and John Warren, to live and work in Britain.   Having played with Stan Kenton in the 'fifties and toured with his own Birdland Dream Band, Ferguson took time out in the late 'sixties to teach music and study meditation under Sathya Sai Baba in India.

A most unlikely looking hippy, more at home in a suit than a kaftan, M.F. formed an outstanding big band when he arrived in the UK in 1967. Living initially in Bradford, his first engagement was at Manchester's Club 43, where after 'a roaring euphoric week' a recording contract followed. Keith Mansfield's driving arrangements, often of pop songs, plus top British musicians including Peter King and Pete Jackson, make these some of the most joyful recordings of the era.  




Adelaide Hall, St. Martins-in-the-Field, 1974

On 12 June 1974, Adelaide Hall sang the obbligato to 'Creole Love Call', accompanied by 'Johnny Dankworth and his Orchestra', at the London memorial service for Duke Ellington. As a young woman, whilst appearing with Ellington in the 1927 show 'Jazzmania' in Harlem, she started humming along to his newly written melody, unaware that he was listening. "Addie, keep that melody going...it's exactly what I've been looking for' intoned the Duke. Hall and Louis Armstrong were the first to record such wordless singing, known as 'scat'.

After staring on Broadway and at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, in 1938 Hall came to London, which was to become her permanent home. She appeared with Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson at the Florida Club, which she eventually took over and ran with her Trinidadian husband Bert Hicks. She continued to perform for Londoners throughout the blitz, and then with the entertainment unit of the British Army, ENSA, on the long march to Berlin.




Steve Lacy, Wigmore Hall, 1974

Steve Lacy came from Paris, where he was then living, to perform at the Wigmore Hall with free-music players Steve Potts, Trevor Watts, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey and Michel Waisvisz. During the concert a bomb exploded in nearby Oxford St, which was clearly audible in the Hall. It was the 19th December and the West End was full of Christmas shoppers.

Provisional IRA member Joseph O'Connell had parked a car containing 160 sticks of gelignite outside Selfridges department store. The 'active service unit' to which O'Connell belonged waged a 14-month bombing campaign in London, which left 35 people dead and many more injured. The gang was also responsible for the pub bombings for which the Guildford Four were wrongly convicted. Their operations culminated in the Balcombe Street siege in which a middle-aged couple was held at gunpoint for five days in their Marylebone council flat.





A commentary on the above work Photographic Migrants: John Goto's West End Blues by Dr. Nancy Roth is published by Flusser Studies.   View a jazz festival presentation of the series. Read Goto's 'Afterword' to the series.


West End Blues is now available as an Augmented Reality presentation in the streets of Soho. The project uses the Layar application which is free and can be downloaded for both Apple and Android mobile phones. More information here.