Throughout the inter-War period moralists, puritans and prudes found much to deplore. The objects of their opprobrium were often reduced to key symbols of decadence, the very mention of which sufficed to demonise a whole series of, often though not always, innocent activities.
Elvira’s trial saw this process go into overdrive. Every phrase associated with her world became a symbol of waywardness. As we have seen ”Cocktail Party” was one useful catch-all term for the new degeneracy (see
) . Equally, the very word ”Nightclub ” carried with it a sense of wickedness much exploited by the press and popular literature. As what would now be called “Gender Roles” caused endless worry and the term “Flapper” had been imported to indicate all that was untoward regarding that particular social crisis. “Bright Young Thing” had largely replaced that term by 1932 but the meanings, as far as the strictures on female behaviour were concerned, remained little altered. A closely associated panic developed around ”Masculine Women, Feminine Men”, of whom Elvira’s gang had more than its share.
Most famously,Clothes and hairstyles became highly politicised in the era. Every visible sign was mined for its contribution to “Immorality”, by which was meant sex, newly invented apparently. Even the seemingly neutral term “Youth”, not for the last time in the twentieth century, became a suspect category. And let us not forget drug use, specifically “Cocaine,” any hint of which was guaranteed to strike vicarious frissons of terror among the respectable classes.
But there was one word that managed to encapsulate all that was deemed disruptive, chaotic , dangerous and modern in the above fears and fantasies. That word was “JAZZ”. Jazz became the short-hand signifier of everything that worried mainstream society and thus, inevitably, acquired a glamour and a mystique among those who saw themselves as part of the “New Age”.
We don’t actually know what music was played at Elvira’s parties but all the accounts assume that “Jazz music blared out from the record player”, annoying the neighbours and presumably frightening the ghosts of the horses that had previously inhabited the Mews. In the Dance Band era any arrangement with a whiff of syncopation counted as Jazz – so it is no surprise that artists who appeared to be, or actually were, “the real thing” became heroes among the young record-buyers, party-goers and dancers of the time.
Jazz incorporated not only all that might be deemed “New”, it added the twin “evils” of race and rampant sexuality to the mix. No matter how “refined” the arrangements of Debr0y Somers, Bert Ambrose or Carroll Gibbons might have been, somewhere underneath could be detected the rhythms of an alien culture. However much the disguise – Jazz was ineluctably ”black” – or in the language of the day Negro or Coloured. In a country still very much defined by Empire and “The White Man’s Burden”, that a musical form associated with “the inferior races” should provoke such hostility amongst the many- and such adulation amongst the rebellious few is hardly surprising.
The year of the General Strike, 1926, is of particular importance regarding this relationship between black music and white audiences. In January the first journal devoted to dance-bands and “hot” music appeared, in the spring a painting was exhibited and then withdrawn from the Royal Academy and in the autumn a show arrived from New York that was to become an essential part of Bright Young mythology.
The journal was Melody Maker and for much of its long life it was the only place for musicians and fans to find out about Jazz. It also, from its earliest days, encouraged fierce debate regarding the merits of the music and, indeed, the very definition of “Jazz”. Its combative editor, Edgar Jackson held some peculiar ideas about music and race and was initially, oddly perhaps given the paper’s future promotion of Ellington, Armstrong et al, keen to distance his notion of “hot” music from any association with the “primitive” sounds of Black America.
John Bulloch Souter The Breakdown 1926
The controversy surrounding a painting at the annual RA show particularly exercised Jackson. The Scottish artist John Souter presented “The Breakdown” for exhibition at what was then still an important event within the British Art world. The painting shows a black musician playing a saxophone (and therefore jazz) to a naked, ghostly white woman. He is sat on the broken statue of Classical art, which his music is presumably deemed to have destroyed. Whatever Souter intended, and this work is not typical, he captured in the most melodramatic manner many of the cultural and moral fears of the time. Its themes are those of many a contemporary editorial.
Jackson was not alone in his fulminations. After much outcry, the picture was quickly withdrawn. According to one account this was on the orders of the Colonial Office which brings an interesting political (and Imperial) dimension to the affair.
On a far more positive note, in September the” Blackbirds Revue of 1926″ opened at the London Pavilion. Starring Edith Wilson, Florence Mills, Gwendolyn Graham and featuring The Plantation Orchestra with its virtuoso trumpeters Pike Davis and Johnny Dunn, the show ran for 276 performances and had the same impact on fashionable London society that the Revue Negre and Josephine Baker had had on Paris a year earlier.
Gwendolyn Graham and Dancers, roof of London Pavilion
The success of the show, which was not the first black show on the 1920s London stage, was due in no small part to its patronage by the Prince of Wales. A keen fan of dancing and “hot” music he attended, it is said, “night after night”. Very quickly the Blackbirds were taken up by the Bright Young People, attending parties, having flings and in some cases forging lasting friendships.Spike Hughes and Constant Lambert were ardent devotees and Evelyn Waugh, although he would later offer a cynical and rather unpleasant take on the whole phenomenon, was also a “repeat” attendee. A still very young Brenda Dean Paul fell completely for Florence Mills and declared she wanted more than anything to be “a coloured dancer”. With a nice touch of diplomatic flattery, Florence told Brenda that “she could have been born in Harlem” so well did she dance. For Olivia Wyndham, Blackbirds and other similar shows were the beginning of a journey that would see her live for the best part of 40 years actually in Harlem.
A version of the revue toured England in 1927 and a new show returned to the West End in 1928 .This introduced Adelaide Hall to an English audience and she would stay in London, living in Mayfair, running a night-club and performing at The Florida, The Cafe De Paris and other Elvira-friendly venues. Other musicians from both (and similar) shows would stay in Europe becoming part of the pre-war club and popular music scene in ways that remain under-appreciated.
The revues were not without their critics. Plenty of newspapers deplored the perceived “cult of the Negro” that their success generated. In recent years the criticism has been rather different, pointing out the exoticising and primitivist impulses behind much of the white audience’s fandom. The shows themselves relied heavily on a number of crude racial stereotypes which are uncomfortable to modern sensibilities. They have also been somewhat written off by Jazz historians – being seen as lacking authenticity. Fortunately, although no singers recorded, the band made four sides while in London, so we can get some idea of what so thrilled Hughes and Lambert etc.
I’ll write more on this topic in a while but, in the meantime, two books are worth seeking out – Jim Godbolt’s A History of Jazz in Britain – an idiosyncratic but entertaining exercise and Catherine Parsonage’s more scholarly The Evolution of Jazz in Britain.