From jazz pioneers to township jive exiles

Sounds Like London, 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital. By Lloyd Bradley (Serpent’s Tail, £12.99).

Cover of book with black musicians.

Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital contains many references to Fitzrovia.

The first black band to make its mark in the UK played in Great Portland Street almost 100 years ago. And the area’s clubs and record shops which had an enormous influence in developing Black Music in the UK, as this book chronicles in great detail.

It was back in 1919 that the 27-piece African-American “Southern Syncopated Orchestra” (credited with introducing jazz to this country) played in the Philharmonic Hall at 97 Great Portland Street. The line-up included the legendary clarinet player Sidney Bechet, operatic soprano Abbie Mitchell, pianist/conductor Will Tyers, and trumpeter Cyril Blake (who later played with Ray Ellington who lived in Torrington Place). Demand for them was so high that they stayed in London for two years, and played at Buckingham Palace for the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII).

A Jamaican immigrant opened the Paramount Ballroom at 161 Tottenham Court Road in 1936. On Friday and Saturday nights the crowds and musicians were mainly West Indians who wanted a wild night out. The musicians reciprocated and “cut loose” on stage with jazz experimentation to a noisily appreciative crowd until five or six o’clock in the morning.

The Ghanaian international superstar E T Mensah, who played everything from the flute to the saxophone and led the Tempos, was so impressed by the Paramount Ballroom during a stay in 1933, that he renamed his own nightclub in Accra the Paramount.

A South African township jazz band, the Blue Notes, fell foul of apartheid because it had a white pianist playing with the rest of the black musicians, including legendary saxophonist and composer Dudu Pukwana. So they left in 1964 and settled in London in 1965. They regularly filled the 100 Club at 100 Oxford Street, where one of their biggest fans was the exiled ANC member Pallo Jordan (later a minister in Nelson Mandela’s cabinet). He was followed everywhere by agents of BOSS (the apartheid secret police). So he would get on stage and point out the agents to the audience to huge applause.

The band was renamed the Brotherhood of Breath in 1970 and continued to fill the 100 Club. Their first album under this name was produced by Joe Boyd, one of the founders of the UFO Club at 31 Tottenham Court Road. And a frequent act to perform here was Ginger Johnson’s African Drummers. Mick Jagger persuaded them to play at the Rolling Stones massive free concert in Hyde Park in 1969.

The Speakeasy club at 50 Margaret Street was also influential in the 1960s and beyond. A band that played soul here was Cat’s Paw, which was renamed Osibisa in 1969 and became the first all black band to appear on BBC television’s Top Of The Pops.

Stern’s Electrical Supplies, at 126 Tottenham Court Road, built up a sideline in selling African records which eventually became its main business. African students from nearby universities came to get their record players repaired and the shop would often accept records brought from their home countries instead of cash for payment. These were put randomly in a box for sale and proved so popular that it grew into a record counter at the back.

By the time Mr Stern sold it at the end of the 1970s African music sales had become the largest part of the business. The new owners kept the name and built it up to be Europe’s largest distributor of African records with a massive mail order department. But it was as much a social club as a shop and fans gathered and played records in the basement, with drinks bought from nearby pubs and off licences. They even set up their own record label, Earthworks, in 1983. Later the business enlarged and moved to 116 Whitfield Street and then between Warren Street and Euston Road.

The other specialist record shop was Contempo, which sold funk singles above Bradley’s Bar at 42 Hanway Street. It was set up in the early 1970s by John Abbey of Blues & Soul magazine. Kenny Wellington, the trumpeter with the TFB (Typical Funk Band), said it was only by meeting other bands at Contempo that gave them the confidence to perform themselves.

Fellow band player Camelle Hinds, who plays bass, recalled young players finding their feet by plugging into music at Contempo. Another regular was Dez Parkes, who started as a dancer but became an influential disc jockey. Another disc jockey, Norman Jay, bought his records there and remembered holding them up “in such deference.”

Soul II Soul formed in 1988 and played what they promoted as “Serious Shit” sessions at Portlands in Great Portland Street. (My memory is that this was part of the Albany pub at 240 Great Portland Street, where they certainly had steel bands, but maybe readers will have better recollection). The group’s leader Jazzie B got art student Derek Yates to design a flyer for this and so was born their iconic motif “Funki Dred.” This logo became emblazoned on the group’s clothing which they marketed on several stalls a shop on Tottenham Court Road. This is an intriguing story of the lives and conditions of a vast range of black musicians and their audiences.

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