In the 1920s and 1930s, boiling hot American jazz didn’t really suit the British reserve. So Britain created something of its own: the dance band, a regional variant whose seeds had been sown back in 1919 when the riotous Original Dixieland Jazz Band had arrived in London. They had played what sounded to British ears like banjo, clarinet, cornet and trombone all channelling different melodies at the same time. It had been confusing, but thrilling.
Hundreds of budding musicians thought they could do what the Original Dixieland Jazz Band did; the cockier ones thought they could do it better. London’s Savoy hotel had introduced its first dance outfit by 1922, and the British bands soon took on a new, localised look; in dinner jackets, with hair slicked back, they would generally be made up of seven or eight players, plus a bandleader and occasional vocalist. The repertoire was based around jazz, only streamlined and anglicised, respectable and army-disciplined. This, it turned out, was exactly what Britain wanted, with double bass and Spanish guitar smoothly replacing the sousaphone and banjo.
The interwar dance-band scene can be easy to dismiss, as historically it has almost always been seen through the lens of jazz. But importantly, these bands focused on something that remains essential to British pop: a good beat. There was a reason why they called themselves “dance bands”: a nation of factory workers who would later devote themselves to the metronomic rhythms of northern soul and Chicago house had heard the loose, improvised sounds of New Orleans and decided they would like something a little different. And dance bands were modern; they felt like the future – a sophisticated future. Ray Noble’s rhapsodic, gliding Midnight, the Stars and You was several worlds away from the Bovril and damp village halls evoked by Keep the Home Fires Burning.
The West End in the 1930s was the hub of the dance band scene: Bert Ambrose at the May Fair; Jack Jackson at the Dorchester; Maurice Winnick at the San Marco; Harry Roy at the Café Anglais; and the imported Americans Carroll Gibbons at the Savoy and Roy Fox at the Monseigneur on Jermyn Street. The foxtrot had started off the craze. High-end restaurants and hotels cashed in, removing tables to create a dancefloor, and customers danced the night away.
As much as Britain loved a good beat, it didn’t like a showoff. The scene’s musical exemplar would be band leader Spike Hughes. As well as being a bassist, Hughes was also a reviewer for Melody Maker who specialised in hot jazz, writing under the pseudonym “Mike”. When he decided to visit New York for a holiday in 1933, he was lucky enough to be met off the boat by John Hammond, a fellow Melody Maker writer and an industry man who would go on to sign Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin.
Hammond invited Hughes to stay at his Greenwich Village apartment for the week: they visited the Cotton Club (where Hughes felt so uncomfortable at the racial split between musicians and audience that he wrote it off as “a waste of time”); saw Bessie Smith (Empty Bed Blues, he wrote, was “not for the squeamish”); visited the music publisher Irving Mills’s office, just as Harold Arlen was presenting a new song called Stormy Weather; and attended Noël Coward’s farewell party at the end of Design for Living’s Broadway run. At Monette’s Supper Club, Billie Holiday sat at Spike’s table and sang to him. He even fitted in a wild affair with an English woman only known as Georgina.
By now he was having such a good time that he decided to stay a bit longer. The only catch was that he needed to record some sides for Decca. He wired them: could he record in New York instead of London? The result was an ad hoc band called Spike Hughes and His Negro Orchestra, including Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins and Chu Berry, which cut 14 sides arranged by Spike; Fanfare, Sweet Sorrow Blues and Donegal Cradle Song were his own compositions, to boot. These players could see around corners. The sound was a true amalgam of British dance band and New York jazz, and Spike Hughes was a respected colleague and artistic equal.
What did Spike do with his newfound knowledge and crazily impressive address book? He never played the double bass again. “Anything that came later would have been an anticlimax,” he wrote in his memoir. “I left jazz behind me at the moment when I was enjoying it the most, the moment when all love affairs should end. To have returned to Europe and to have tried to take up jazz again where I had left it in New York would have been folly and an impossibility. When at the end of May 1933 I sailed to Southampton in the Aquitania, I carefully threw all Georgina’s letters to me into the Atlantic; figuratively I threw jazz into the ocean too.”
Spike Hughes had got closer to the flame than any other British musician. Billie Holiday had sat at his table. And he backed away, slightly embarrassed. Still, he didn’t give up on music completely: throughout the 1960s and 70s he could be seen on television, presenting Southern Television’s annual coverage of the Glyndebourne festival.
Britain’s musical taste in the 1930s was similarly shy and isolationist, but nevertheless reached for the exotic; it yearned for the foreign, struggling with the tension between its hatred of boiled cabbage and its fear of garlic. Sometimes an exotic name would be enough, just a whiff of foreign climes, nothing to scare the islanders. By the 1930s, searching for novelty, dance halls had begun to employ Hawaiian bands, gaucho tango bands and the successful Primo Scala and His Accordion Band, made up of four accordions, two pianos, violin, bass, guitar and drums. “Primo” turned out to be a Londoner called Harry Bidgood, the musical director on George Formby’s films.
The most mysterious, most adventurous character to emerge from the whole dance band scene was the Mayfair-raised Reginald Foresythe. He originally came from a classical background, got into popular music as a way of making a living, was intrigued by Black American culture and ended up being feted by the biggest names in jazz. Even for a Briton, he had a particularly detached view, which resulted in a very singular, often melancholic sound; at first listen you might think he was influenced by Duke Ellington’s late-1940s albums or Raymond Scott’s odd arrangements, but Foresythe’s own blend of woodwind-heavy jazz and classical came 15-20 years ahead of schedule. Black, gay and British, in 1930s London he must have seemed like he’d been beamed down from Mars.
Foresythe’s Nigerian father had died when he was a child, and he was raised by his Scottish mother on Curzon Street in Mayfair. A prodigious pianist by his teens, he swanned off to Italy, Australia and Hawaii. In Australia, he played with Harlem musical theatre tenor Walter Richardson, and the pair discovered they had similar politics. In August 1929 the Adelaide Advertiser wrote that Foresythe “hoped to roll away something of the cloud of racial prejudice against the negro by proving that negroes can not only be singers and entertainers, but gentlemen … ‘Culture is something more than skin deep,’ he asserted.”
Arriving in California in 1930, he soon found work as a pianist with Paul Howard’s Quality Serenaders, a band that included Lionel Hampton (on drums and vocals) and trombonist Lawrence Brown, who would soon go east to play with Duke Ellington. Foresythe also played on myriad early talkies, including DW Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln, and toured the US southern states to get an insight into the living conditions of Black Americans and to hear some jazz and blues at close quarters. His odd, classically tinged, unshowy style quickly picked up a reputation. Most of 1931 was spent with Earl Hines’s band at Chicago’s Grand Terrace Café and Ballroom, arranging and orchestrating, leading rehearsals and even writing Hines’s signature tune, Deep Forest. Duke Ellington was so impressed he let Foresythe stay in his apartment as a semi-permanent house guest. Foresythe repaid him by drinking heavily and regularly getting into fights in gay clubs and bars. You might have already guessed, but this story doesn’t have a particularly happy ending.
Having made his wildly impressive American connections, Reggie returned to London in 1933 to show Britain what he was capable of. Melody Maker, in a glowing introductory piece, called him a “wonderful musician”. Top dance band leader Bert Ambrose also considered Foresythe to be something very special, and chose him to be the in-house bandleader at Swallow Street’s new Café de la Paix, which was looking for something more progressive and exotic than the usual dance orchestra. This was where The New Music of Reginald Foresythe would be unveiled on 17 October 1933, the most forward-looking British sound of the decade. There was no brass, just reeds and a wind section, and the titles were as outré as the music: Lament for Congo, The Duke Insists, Volcanic (Eruption for Orchestra), Bit, Berceuse for an Unwanted Child and The Autocrat Before Breakfast. The press described it as “something quite distinctive in dance music”, but also as “difficult to dance to”, though the Café’s clientele didn’t seem to mind. Serenade for a Wealthy Widow and Angry Jungle were recorded for Columbia as an opening salvo, with eight more slices of “new music” recorded over the following year, including the eerie masterpiece Garden of Weed.
Foresythe was quite aware of how good he was. In December 1933 he wrote a piece for Tune Times called “This New Music of Mine”, which read like a manifesto and revealed him to be a true modernist: “Symphonic jazz is quite tasteless to me, and I was very amused a short while ago when a well-known critic and composer said he thought I was really a Gershwin at heart. The essence of all art lies in the extremist simplicity of expression. This is my aim … the omission of the obvious … the suppression of the superfluous … the most expression with the greatest economy of means. It may be that I am on the wrong track … perhaps it will even prove to be a cul-de-sac … I do not think so.’
By 1935 it seemed everybody loved Reggie. Truly Anglo-American, his musical futurism was not only accepted, but could be turned into actual hits by Benny Goodman or Henry Hall or Earl Hines or Ambrose; even Louis Armstrong had recorded his He’s a Son of the South. He could say things like: “I believe music is a form of higher mathematics. That was how the Greeks dealt with music, and all their disciples. It was only during the 18th century that music began to be regarded as a romantic art.” No one feigned horror or called him out as pretentious. He was on his own, a visitor from the future, a creator of “third stream” jazz who was so talented and confident he could tell Duke Ellington where he should be taking his music.
So why isn’t Reginald Foresythe’s name better known? It would be easy to say it’s because he was Black and gay when neither was readily accepted by the establishment, but that hardly seems to have held him back. How did his crown slip so suddenly? That’s a little easier to explain. In January 1935 another high-profile admirer, John Hammond, set up a recording session for Foresythe in New York with no less than Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa on four of his own compositions: The Melancholy Clown, Lullaby, The Greener the Grass and Dodging a Divorcee. The sides, released under the name Reginald Foresythe and his New Music, were terrific but sold poorly.
Within 18 months, the session seemed like an odd portent. Goodman had become a star in the meantime, and swing – a more basic, much louder form of the new music – was king. Foresythe’s tone poems, his dislike of soloing and his carefully put-together woodwind lineup seemed fussy and fusty overnight. He had played the part of Joe Meek to Benny Goodman’s Beatles. And then came the war. Foresythe joined the RAF and emerged with distinction, but by 1945 he had been diagnosed with “war nerves”, or what we would now call PTSD. A decade on from his heyday, his confidence shot, Foresythe became a full-blown alcoholic and spent the late 1940s and 50s playing clubs in Britain, where his name had been forgotten. He died in 1958, by which time the “third stream” music he had pioneered in the early 30s was just achieving a commercial breakthrough.
So much for the musicians. The public, too, had some very fixed ideas about how dance bands should behave. “The central tradition of British mass dancing,” wrote Eric Hobsbawm, “moved away from jazz towards a curious phenomenon called ‘strict tempo’ dancing, which was to become a competitive sport on British television.” No improv, nothing left to chance – plenty of people in Britain wanted their popular music rigidly ordered, with a rulebook and marks out of 10. A good beat and a good tune. That, for Britain in the 1930s, was enough.