Ragtime moves on to Jazz in 1920’s Britain

Jazz music burst into mainstream Britain in 1919, with the arrival of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.   The popularity of ragtime music in the Edwardian era laid the foundations for the acceptance of this syncopated music and its black (and sometimes white) musicians.

During most of the First World War, Dan Kildare and his orchestra made Ciro’s nightclub the place to be for a spot of after-hours fun–and drinking after curfew. Kildare, an American of Jamaican heritage, first earned his stripes in James Reese Europe’s venerable Clef Club Orchestra (the first black orchestra and first jazz musicians to play at Carnegie Hall in 1912) before taking the group–after Europe resigned to form the Tempo Club–to Joan Sawyer’s Persian Garden.

In Britain the “jazz age” – the era of the Bright Young Things – was a reaction against the slaughter of the Great War and the Edwardian values that–according to the youth of the day–led to senseless war. One writer records that: “in the 1920s, the perceived simplicity and freedom of black culture could be something desirable for whites to emulate, rather than just observe or imitate, and jazz ‘seemed to promise cultural as well as musical freedom’ for young people.”  By 1926 the Royal Albert Hall was hosting a Charleston ball, and the magazine, the Melody Maker, was actively promoting American jazz in Britain.”

In 1920s London, as the Jazz Age blossomed, an eclectic set of young socialites ushered in an era of irresponsibility and gilded fun.  Known as the Bright Young People, this group of aristocrats, middle class adventurers and bohemian artists lived large and furnished the press with a stream of snippets and invented “youth culture”.  Their brothers perhaps or their fathers had fought in the War but these younger individuals had been just too young to fight in the conflict.  To many they were London’s “lost generation”.

Despite their uneasiness — or perhaps because of it — London’s Bright Young People embraced a life of partying. The tradition started late one evening, when a small group of friends decided to have a not-so-ordinary scavenger hunt.  One writer records that: “as they were all terribly well connected and knew everybody in upper British society, items would be things like the prime minister’s pipe, or a pair of corsets owned by a celebrated actress.” Other ‘mid-night fun’ could involve midnight car chases, “Bath and Bottle” parties; a ball where all the food served was red or white (wine).  For these groups ‘their fun’ spread out beyond central London.

Things did move on and, on Wednesday 15th December 1926, the Royal Albert Hall hosted a Charleston Ball and Competition.  This spectacular dancing competition began at 9pm and finished at 5am the next morning.  Extraordinary prizes were up for grabs such as a trip to Paris on Imperial Airways, a case of whiskey, and a set of six mustard club pots. Amongst the Troupe Competition entrants included ‘The Princess Charming Girls’, ‘The Lido Lady Girls’, and ‘The Sunny Tiller Girls’.  At this ‘event’ the impresario Lew Grade became the ‘World Charleston Champion!’  Hollywood legend Fred Astaire was one of the judges, while London cabaret dancer and singer Florence Mills performed her exuberant dancing.

England was moving on and out of the past ……. but what would the future hold?


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