How the first jazz band to visit the UK paved the way for generations to come


When one thinks of jazz music, New Orleans may come to mind, or perhaps the United States more generally.

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

Formed by American composer Will Marion Cook, the orchestra will soon include musicians from Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados, Antigua, Ghana and the United States.

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

He was so impressed with the sound that 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 definitely 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 a sufficient contribution to the art of the world.”

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

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

His granddaughter, Juliet Jones, said: “He was always known for cutting a line in his beautiful clothes.”

She added, “To be a direct descendant, I’m very proud of what he’s accomplished because I just thought traveling was so hard back then. And originally when they were from New York, it was a three-year tour: that for me is impressive.

“And then the assumption that they are going to be so well received – and well received they have been! [They received] several standing ovations.”

But Juliette will never meet her grandfather – 101 years ago the members of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra were traveling from Scotland to Ireland for their next performance when disaster struck.

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

“It was a real tragedy,” said Kurt Barling, cultural commentator and professor at Middlesex University, noting that the group was “just reaching the pinnacle of their powers”.

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

But DED never fully recovered.

Professor Barling added: “Some of them couldn’t play straight away. They continued 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, from the orchestra would come other famous bands and musicians, such as The Jazz Kings, whose star was Sidney Bechet.

Professor 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 his energy, with his new music, with his sense of the possible, empowered some of the most accomplished musicians to go do their own thing.”

Another sad twist in history is the fact that the technology at the time was not advanced enough to capture the sound of a band of this size, which meant that none of their 500 songs would ever be recorded. .

“It’s such a shame,” said jazz pianist Julian Joseph, who added, “We always benefit from their story, the experiences they had and how they became part of the musical fabric, in Britain and in every country in the world.”

Sitting in front of a large Steinway in 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 type of music they played, as it showed that they had abilities far beyond the expectations of what black people were supposed to be able to do.

“They were mixing so many different styles, they were playing pieces by great classical composers, great classical composers and they were playing the burgeoning music of great jazz composers who had just arrived in the United States.

“Spreading the gospel of what intellectual black entertainment was. I would have loved to hear that at the time of its birth and think, My God, that’s just sensational.”

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

“Why shouldn’t our children know everything? asked Juliette, suggesting that the history of the Orchester Syncopé du Sud should be part of the national curriculum.

Not just for being among the first black bands to play for UK audiences, but because their story has helped pave the way for many generations to come – proving that creativity and courage are the most powerful tools we have to leave a lasting mark on the world. .

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Henry R. Wright