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Black History Month: How the first jazz band to visit the UK helped pave the way for generations to come

When you think of Jazz music, New Orleans may spring to mind, or perhaps more generally the United States. 

However the genre also has strong roots in the UK, brought here in 1919 by an all-black band called the Southern Syncopated Orchestra (SSO).

Formed by American Composer Will Marion Cook, the orchestra would soon comprise of musicians from Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados, Antigua, Ghana and the US.

Europe was taken by them, and the UK would soon be blown away by their fresh syncopated sound, becoming the first black group to perform at the Brighton Dome - and invited by the future King Edward VIII to perform at Buckingham Palace.

He was so impressed by the sound, they even convinced music critic Olin Downes that the "musical art of the negro should be welcomed, encouraged and cultivated in this country, for the great thing that [it] is". It may be offensive and perhaps shocking to hear today, but it was most certainly intended as a compliment.

Speaking to the Brighton and Hove Gazette in August 1921, he continued: "If America had produced no other music she would have made the sufficient contribution to the art of the world."

A rare photo of the entire ensemble taken at the Brighton Dome in 1919 shows a group of dashing, well-groomed performers.

Among them was Frank Bates, a tenor in the SSO.

His granddaughter, Juliet Jones, said: "He was always known for cutting a dash in his gorgeous clothes."

She added: "To be a direct descendant, I do feel very proud of what he accomplished because I just assumed that travel was so difficult back then. And originally, when they were coming from New York, it was a three-year tour: that to me is impressive.

"And then the assumption that they're going to be so well received - and well received they were! [They received] multiple standing ovations."

But Juliet would never meet her grandfather - 101 years ago, members of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra were travelling from Scotland to Ireland for their next performance when disaster struck.

On a foggy night on 9 October 1921, their ship, the SS Rowan, was struck by two other vessels. Thirty-six people died, including nine musicians, and Frank Bates was among the casualties.

"This was a real tragedy," said Kurt Barling, cultural commentator and professor at Middlesex University, pointing out that the group was "just reaching the peak of its powers".

After the shipwreck, some members of the band continued to play, raising funds at concerts for those badly affected.

But the SSO never fully recovered.

Prof Barling added: "Some of them couldn't play immediately. They continued with their shows in Ireland - the show must go on after all - but after that, some of them didn't want to travel anymore. Some of them felt that there were other things they wanted to do."

However, out of the orchestra would come other famous bands and musicians, like The Jazz Kings, whose key star was Sidney Bechet.

Prof Barling added: "There are two people in modern jazz who are the foundations of modern jazz, one of them Sidney Bechet, the other is Louis Armstrong. So you can see how the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, with its energy, with its new music, with its sense of possibility, was giving possibilities to some of the more accomplished musicians to go and do their own thing."

Another sad twist to the tale is the fact that technology at the time wasn't advanced enough to capture the sound of a group of that size, meaning none of their 500 songs would ever be recorded.

"It's a real shame," said jazz pianist Julian Joseph, who added: "We still have the benefit of their story, and the experiences that they had, and how they've become part of the fabric of music, in Britain and all over the world."

Sitting in front of a grand Steinway at London's new concert hall, the World Heart Beat Music Academy, he explained why their sound would have been so extraordinary for the time.

"[It was the] complexity of the kind of music they were performing, because it showed they had abilities way beyond expectations of what black people were thought to be able to do.

"They mixed so many different styles, they were playing pieces by the great classic composers, great classical composers and they were playing the burgeoning music from the great jazz composers who were just coming up in the United States.

"Spreading the gospel of what intellectual black entertainment was. I would love to have heard that as it was being born, and thinking, My goodness, that is just sensational."

Juliet has spent decades researching and documenting the story of her grandfather and the SSO, doing everything in her power to consolidate their place in history.

"Why shouldn't our children know all about this?" asked Juliet, suggesting the story of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra should become part of the National Curriculum.

Not only for being among the first black bands to play for British audiences, but because their story has helped pave the way for multiple generations to come - proving that creativity and courage are the most powerful tools we have to make a lasting mark on the world.