‘Harlem Nights: The Secret History of Australia’s Jazz Age’ by Deirdre O’Connell

2021, 314 p. plus notes

On the 19th January 1928, the SS Sierra drew into Circular Quay. On board were seventeen members of the Colored Idea, an all-black Jazz revue comprising dancers, comedians, vocalists and musicians. On the dock, there was a placard advertising them erected by the Tivoli Theatre and, on deck, technicians from Radio 2FC strung microphones to broadcast the Sonny Clay Orchestra as they played ‘Australian Stomp’. As the members of the Sonny Clay Orchestra made their way onto the street, they were photographed by the waiting press, the editor of a popular film magazine, and a group of young female jazz fans. But on 31 March 1928, the Colored Idea were back at Circular Quay on the SS Sierra. There were press photographers this time too, and two dozen or so ‘smartly dressed’ young women, some ‘coloured’ and some White. This time the Colored Idea were deported, overseen by a number of customs officers who were under instructions to intervene should ‘difficulty’ arise. It didn’t. Several of the jazzmen lined up on the ship’s deck rail, tossed streamers and called to the well-wishes on the dock. Then they were gone.

Harlem Nights is the story of the Sydney and Melbourne legs of the Colored Idea’s Australian tour, but it is much more than that. It is the story of the international rise of African-American jazz; White Australia and what Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds have called ‘The Global Colour Line’; anxieties over the rise of the ‘girl’; media and celebrity; right-wing politics, and police corruption.


The book is divided into 12 parts, each comprising 3-5 short chapters. This would ordinarily make a rather choppy history, but in this case a peppy first paragraph of each chapter breathes interest back into the narrative, making it a very approachable and accessible read. There are black-and-white images throughout the text, many of which are drawn from newspaper accounts, emphasizing that much of the action took place in the public realm, although the real power was obscured.

Part 1 ‘Tijuana Nights in Phoenix and Los Angeles’ takes place in America and focuses on Sonny Clay, the leader and business manager of the Colored Idea. His family was originally from Texas, but he grew up in Arizona. As racial tensions mounted there, he shuttled to and fro across the Mexican border, playing with his jazz band in Tijuana where the dancers acclaimed their hot jazz and raw rhythms (p.18). He joined ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton’s band, then arrived in Los Angeles in early 1922. He poached players from The Black and Tan orchestra to join his Eccentric Harmony Six. He played the ‘colored jazz bandleader’ in dozens of films as part of what Black observers at the time called ‘Negro vogue’, an affection for what ‘chic’ White people imagined was ‘Negro’. (p. 30) By 1925, in yet another iteration, his band was now Sonny Clay’s Rhythm Demons, with a regular 7.00 p.m slot at Radio KFl, playing at the Plantation Cafe.

Sonny Clay’s life embodied the liminal slippages of Jazz Age America. By the mid 1920s, he had more money and influence than respectable Black citizens felt he deserved; wore sharper suits and mixed with more powerful people than White unions could stomach and played much with more rhythm than melody, enticing a public to dance with more freedom than grace. This was not racial advancement in the steady, diligent, God-fearing sense of the word, but it was impressive, extravagant and spectacular.


Part II ‘In California with Harry Muller’ introduces us to Harry Muller, the West Coast theatre agent for JC Williamson company, scouring California’s vaudeville theatres for acts to bring across to Tivoli Theatre venues in Australia. The Australian moving picture industry in 1925 was a small but highly lucrative market, but live vaudeville acts and dance contests could supplement the short-comings of celluloid jazz. The ‘idea’ format involved a short, sharp burst of live entertainment, usually before the celluloid feature. There had been Black American performers in Australia before: the Georgia Minstrels had come to Sydney in 1877, the Fisk Jubilee Singers travelled throughout Australia in the 1880s, Jack Johnson had fought in the boxing ring. Comedians, jubilee singers and dance troupes toured Australia, but not dance band musicians. This was largely because of opposition from the Musicians’ Union of Australia, but a variety theatre act fell outside the jurisdiction of the musician’s union. In organizing the tour, Harry Muller was careful to fudge the difference between ‘coloured theatrical artists’ and ‘musicians’, but as he sailed into Sydney Cove with Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea, he did not explain these nuances, or the increasingly rigid White Australia policy to Sonny Clay or his band members.

Part III ‘Rattlin’ Fine Sydney’ introduces Gayne Dexter, who was there on the dock at Sydney waiting for them. The editor of the film industry magazine Everyones, he publicized the arrival of the Colored Idea on the “Jazz Ship”. Twice daily, he travelled to the Tivoli’s flagship theatre in Haymarket to hear Sonny Clay’s Plantation Orchestra as part of the ‘idea’ format. Through his magazine he promoted a modernity that was anaethema to ‘highbrow’ cultural bodies or those who only accepted ‘Negro’ jazz if it drew on ‘minstrel’ tropes. The musicians performed 2 shows daily, six days a week which was a comparative vacation compared to their schedules in American entertainment houses. They had apartments in Kings Cross, close to Woolloomooloo, where a cluster of Aboriginal families and ‘coloured Britishers’ lived. The tabloid newspapers reported ‘warmth’ and ‘affection’ between the dance band musicians and a few ‘coloured women’. In her chapter ‘American Boomerang’ O’Connell tries to identify these ‘coloured women’ but has not been able to do so. Besides, the attention of the Commonwealth Investigation Branch was not on the ‘coloured women’ but more concerned about the visiting jazzmen consorting with White women.

This plays out in Part IV ‘Views of Commonwealth Policy’. Major Longfield Lloyd was head of the NSW division of the Commonwealth Investigation Branch, military hero from Gallipoli, a friend of former prime minister William Morris (Billy) Hughes and prosecutor of the war against the ‘Communists’ on the waterfront. In February 1928 he penned a confidential report into the ‘Negro Orchestra’ after monitoring their Darlinghurst Road flat. It was written in the atmosphere of a crusade against the ‘Black Menace’, headed by Ezra Norton, the owner of Truth newspaper, a national network of scandal-mongering tabloids. When the Colored Idea opened on 20th February at Melbourne’s Tivoli Theatre, Major Lloyd encouraged his Victorian counterpart to continue investigation into the band. Lloyd’s report was handed on to General Thomas Blamey, another former military commander and now Victoria’s commissioner of police.

Part V ‘The Making of Modern Melbourne’ shifts its attention to Melbourne. The Green Mill Dance Hall, managed by Tom Carlyon, was on the banks of the Yarra River at the southern end of Princes Bridge. By day it was a roller-skating rink and velodrome but by night it featured dance marathons and the Film Star Quest, a beauty pageant and nationwide search for a ‘girl’ with motion picture possibilities. Carlyon engaged the Colored Idea for a week at the end of the Tivoli Run, arousing the hostility of the Musician Union’s federal secretary Cecil Trevelyan.

Trevalyan’s involvement is explored further in Part VI ‘Keeping Orchestras British’. A man of shady background, he was strongly patriotic, seeing the Australian nation and the British Empire as indivisible, and White Australia as a blueprint for maintaining a culture of ‘Britishness’. He was hostile to all American players, both White and Black, possibly as a response to what he perceived as the shoddy treatment of the Australian Commonwealth Band by the American Musician Union. He had the support of former PM and now disgrunted backbencher Billy Hughes, with whom he met on 15 March.

Part VII Petty Sessions takes us to Rowena Mansions in Nicholson Street East Melbourne. Ready to pounce was Constable Les Saker, part of the plainclothes squad handpicked by Police Commissioner General Thomas Blamey. He was a familiar face in Truth newspaper, and a reliable police source for its stories. The media needed its police sources, but they would dry up if the media turned its attention to police corruption which was rife in the ‘vice’ economy. For several nights, Constable Saker and a journalist from the Truth monitored movements in and out of the Rowena Mansions apartment. On a rainy Saturday night, they finally made their move on the upper floor apartment, arresting Edna Langdon ( a finalist in the Film Star Quest at the Green Mill), Nola Mackay, Ivy Day, Dorothy Davis and Dorothy McGowan. Another girl, Irene McCulloch escaped the raid on the downstairs flat by fleeing through the window. Both she and Ivy Davy (real name Dorothy Anderson) were likely to have been stool pigeons. The Rowena Mansions Five were bailed, and Sonny Clay (who was not present) was woken with the news that his bandsmen had openly associated with White female fans- thus dragging his name into the press pile-on.

Part VIII ‘Idle and Disorderly’ starts with the Eight Hour Day parade, with the Musicians’ Union Gift Band leading the procession. By the time the procession had crossed Princes Bridge, Tom Carlyon had cancelled the upcoming season of the Sonny Clay Orchestra at the Green Mill. On Tuesday 27 March, the Rowena Mansions girls appeared at Melbourne City Court, charged with vagrancy. They were defended by Nathaniel Sonenburg who was familiar with and suspicious of Constable Staker and Dunn’s police methods. Despite his distaste for the girls’ lifestyle, he proved that the evidence lacked substance, and that no cases of ‘indecency’ were committed. Nonetheless a wave of moral indignation arose in White Australia, which was obsessed by interracial sex involving White women and non-White men (a blind eye was turned to White men’s violence against Indigenous women).

Part IX ‘Unwritten Law’ sees Sonny Clay on the platform at Sydney Central Station defending his band against the aspersions levelled against them. It was a ‘frame up from start to finish’ he asserted; they had not broken any laws. Their only public support came from the two or three unidentified ‘coloured women’ from Sydney that they had met a few weeks earlier. He finished his impromptu press conference accusing the Musician’s Union of orchestrating the raid. As he moved up to the concourse of Central Station, he was greeted by several hundred White men. Cameras clicked, but only one protestor was photographed, a disheveled, toothless demonstrator. Otherwise they were faceless vigilantes. Who were these men? Who arranged for them to be there? Two senior figures had the resources to assemble a formidable force on call: Police Commissioner Thomas Blamey and Investigation Branch chief Major Longfield Lloyd. Irregular militia activity was becoming increasingly active against ‘coloured immigration’. But vigilantism was not necessary once the bureaucracy moved in. The following week, entertainment and sporting promoters received new procedures concerning the entry of ‘coloured theatrical performers or vaudeville artists’. Applications needed to be made in advance, with credentials testifying to the musician’s general good character: a character test that no ‘coloured musician’ would be able to pass.

How high up did this go? Part X ‘Purification Rites’ turns its attention to the Right Honourable William Morris Hughes. On 28 March, the day after the court case and on the same day that 200 faceless White men stood on the Central Station Concourse, he made an unscheduled appearance at the Nationalist Party’s annual conference. In words echoed in 2001 by John Howard, Hughes announced “This bit of earth belongs to us! It is for us to say who shall come in and who shall not come in!”. It was a stance that Hughes had been championing over in America during the preceding February on a speaking tour organized by the English Speaking Union (I heard O’Connell describing this segment in more detail at the recent AHA conference). This stance was not just at the level of Federal and international politics. Angela Booth, a moral purity crusader, had been on the magistrates bench at the trial of the Rowena Mansions Five. Some saw her as a wowser: others saw her as a modern woman versed in the latest scientific research into miscegenation and vice. The Argus deplored the actions of ‘white girls’ who ‘forget what is due to their racial origin’ (p. 269). The Bulletin called for more censorship; the YWCA launched a ‘Building up our Girls’ campaign, the National Council of Women renewed calls for more policewomen to patrol the streets, railway stations and dance halls. Meanwhile, the Rowena Mansions Five were subjected to further surveillance and oversight.

Part XI ‘On Their Way’ follows up on one of the five women, Edna Langdon, at a Broken Hill dance endurance competition, the 1930’s world wide craze featured in ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They’. By this time the Sonny Clay orchestra was long gone.

Part XII ‘The Quarantine Blues ‘ traces through Sonny Clay’s career back in America, and the stifling of jazz music in Australia. The Australian government only welcomed Black acts that evoked the cotton fields and days of slavery (p. 301). White vigilantism increased, with the bombing of a West Melbourne boarding house where Italian migrants lived, bombing of the Greek Club and other attacks against Southern Europeans in Melbourne, Sydney and North Queensland. Music and dancing retreated into ‘old fogey’ dances. Meanwhile, overseas, Swing was recognized as the ‘musical fashion of the hour’ and Duke Ellington lionized over his 1933 tour of England. Not in Australia. Bookshops were closed; the Weinstraubs Syncopators, a dance and cabaret act from Weimar Germany were interned; Eugene Goosens was hounded from the country. Despite the Booker T club established in Sydney during WWII for Black GIs, the Musician’s Union prohibition on ‘coloured’ members and the government’s ‘character’ test remained. The Union did not revoke the ‘no coloured’ rule until 1954 and a wave of tours of Black performers followed. What had Australia missed out on in all that time?

As you can tell from this rather lengthy summary, this book ranges much further than just a group of musicians on a quay. It is a densely knitted weave of event and context, but written with a lightness of touch that belies the weight of its analysis and research. In her acknowledgements, she mentions John O’Brien’s expertise in screenwriting which “helped draw out the narrative”, and indeed it is her light tap on the accelerator at the start of each chapter that propels the narrative forward – so much so that I felt compelled to put a ‘spoiler’ warning on this post- something that I rarely do for a history text. At times she would start with an anecdote that seemed to be only oblique to the main story, but she would double back to stitch it into the main narrative. The text switches effortlessly between description and analysis, and the lengthy biography and detailed footnotes testify to the academic rigour underlying the narrative. It is excellent.

I had heard of the deportation of Sonny Clay’s orchestra previously: during my postgraduate sessions at La Trobe University, a fellow doctoral student – Kyla Cassells gave a paper on it. I’m aware of increasing interest in the New Guard and the White Army movements of the 1930s at the moment (probably reflecting current fears 100 years later). I’m no fan of Billy Hughes, and all I know of Thomas Blamey is his statue near Government House in Melbourne but I didn’t realize how ruthless and entrenched their conservatism was. It has certainly woken my interest in 1920s Australia, when so many political, spiritual, cultural, military and sexual movements contested against each other. This book tells us so much about those years. There is a strong throb of anger at the racism implicit in the White Australia Policy, but also a yearning regret for a modern, progressive Australia that was suffocated at birth with events like the deportation of Sonny Clay’s Colored Orchestra and the persecution of the ‘girls’ who dared to embrace the modernity offered by a new century.

My rating: 9.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

Other reviews: Lisa at ANZLitLovers reveals some of her other ‘off-duty’ interests in her very good review of Harlem Nights.

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