How Soho's Early Jazz Clubs Paved The Way For A Multiracial Britain

How Soho's Early Jazz Clubs Paved The Way For A Multiracial Britain

Author Stephen Hoare discovers how the pioneering jazz clubs of Soho led to more liberal and multiracial Britain. But not without a fight.

duke ellington sits at a piano smartly dressed - grinning at the camera
Jazz greats like Duke Ellington were drawn to the bright lights of Soho. Image: public domain

Audiences at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in Frith Street may never have heard of the Shim Sham Club.

But over the 1920s and 1930s, jazz moved out of the shadows and into the mainstream. Edgy Soho basement clubs like the Shim Sham, The Big Apple, the Nest, The Blue Lagoon, Frisco's, The Cuba Club, the Club Panama and the Be-Bop Club fought — and ultimately won — the battle for cultural recognition.

The Shim Sham — named after a Harlem dance craze and founded by Black American singer Ike Hatch and Jewish businessman Jack Isow — opened in Wardour Street in 1935. Hatch had been a radio star in New York before opening his first London club in Kingly Street in 1930. Named the Nest, this club had started to attract jazz enthusiasts. Musicians from many of the West End resident orchestras would drop in after work to unwind in the early hours. If the fancy took them, they'd take part in a jam session, creating in the process an improvised freestyle jazz called Be-Bop.

The jazz greats in London

As host and master of ceremonies at the Shim Sham, Hatch wore impeccable black tie and tails. Guests could order a three-course gourmet dinner before dancing to the rhythms of Trinidadian trumpeter Cyril "Midnight" Blake and Hetty Booth and her Palm Beach Stompers. This venue, and others, became a magnet for visiting jazz greats from across the pond like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. In the audience were future stars of British jazz like Johnny Dankworth, Cleo Lane — and one Ronnie Scott. Jazz took on a multicultural appeal.

The sheer vitality of first-generation Soho jazz clubs is due in no small measure to a repressive piece of legislation enacted in the early days of the first world war. The Defence of the Realm Act, introduced in 1914, was progressively amended to include anything the authorities deemed subversive. Pubs, restaurants and bars were forced to close at 11pm, while draconian licensing laws prevented nightclubs from selling intoxicating liquor after 1.30am. In 1916 Ciro's nightclub fell foul of the new law, had its licence revoked and was shut down. The authorities were alarmed that the syncopated jazz performed by its resident band, The West Indian Orchestra led by Jamaican Dan Kildare, was a corrupting influence.

ed posing in military uniform
Party animal Prince Edward was known to get up on the stage and perform drum solos. Image: public domain

The Prince of Wales does drum solos

The authorities had miscalculated. Once the jazz genie was out of the bottle, no amount of ham-fisted emergency legislation could dampen the appetite for partying. The Big Apple in Gerrard Street was a few doors down from nightclub hostess Kate Meyrick's famous 43 Club. Despite flagrant breaches of licensing laws, these clubs were allowed to operate unhindered because they attracted an aristocratic clientele. The Prince of Wales himself was known to patronise clubs like Chez Victor and the Embassy Club where, as a 'party piece', he would jump on stage and join the orchestra, taking over at the drum kit and executing virtuoso drum solos.

Besides delinquent royalty, an even bigger problem presented itself to the authorities in the form of unlicensed clubs. A club might spring up overnight and a poky little cellar, decorated with five pounds worth of painted hessian and dried up palm leaves could start attracting the punters. The hole-in-the-wall outfits might offer 'Red Biddy', a fiendish intoxicant concocted of cheap red wine and methylated spirit. Marijuana and cocaine and amphetamines were freely available. Scotland Yard did its best to infiltrate these clubs by enlisting young women police officers in plain clothes known as 'zombies' to collect evidence. But no sooner had one operation shut down than another took its place.

the glowing neon lights at the front of ronnie scott's
Ronnie Scott himself was influenced by clubs clubs like the Shim Sham, The Big Apple, the Nest and The Blue Lagoon. Photo: Shutterstock.

The Blue Lagoon in Carnaby Street, Frisco's, The Cuba Club, the Club Panama and the Be-Bop Club clustered within spitting distance of the Windmill Theatre catered for progressive and racially mixed audiences. But Victorian attitudes proved hard to shift. A year after it had opened, the Shim Sham attracted unwelcome attention from Scotland Yard who raided the club and discovered among all of the various narcotics infringements, interracial and gay and lesbian couples openly dancing together in a relaxed and permissive atmosphere.

A place for political dissent

By the mid-1930s some jazz clubs were even a focus for political dissent. Run by Jamaican Amy Woodford-Garvey — wife of the Black rights activist Marcus Garvey — The Florence Mills Social Parlour at 50 Carnaby Street was a hotbed of Pan-African politics. Florence Mills, the diminutive star of Blackbirds — an all-Black revue which headlined at the London Pavilion in 1926 — had died in New York in 1927. But it is doubtful whether Mills, 'the Queen of Happiness' would have approved of the club founded in her name. Besides offering tea and jazz, the 'social parlour' was dedicated to militant and revolutionary Black activism which would see its apotheosis in the Black Panther movement.

Soho's jazz clubs once more came to public notice during the second world war, when London was host to American servicemen. Black American GIs made straight for clubs like the Bouillabaisse International Club, where they were photographed by Picture Post in 1943 jiving with a crowd of enthusiastic white girls. Cue public indignation.

By challenging prejudice, Soho's Black jazz clubs were an outlier for a more liberal and multiracial Britain. They were a safety valve for the Black diaspora in Britain for whom they represented a welcoming home. In pioneering and popularising jazz, these clubs gradually won acceptance of the wider community — and ultimately were the forerunner of a new generation of post-war jazz and progressive music venues.

London's West End and the Pursuit of Pleasure and Palaces of Power The Birth and Evolution of London's Clubland, both by Stephen Hoare and published by The History Press, are available to buy now.

Last Updated 06 April 2023

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