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Jen Wilson M.Sc (Econ)

Pianist and historian, Founder of Jazz Heritage Wales, based at Swansea Metropolitan University

Paper presented (with PP illustrations) for NAASWCH

(North American Association for the Study of Welsh Culture & History)

International Conference on Welsh Studies

Bangor University, 26th - 28th July 2012

Jazz in Wales between the Wars 1919-1939:

fascists, feminism, fashion and some o' that Old Time Religion © 2012

There is no doubt that a cultural renaissance had taken place in South Wales during the First World War. A Café culture or Café Society had begun to evolve during 1915 providing a safe environment for single or bereaved women and acting as a support network. Swansea alone had 12 cafes offering two floorshows daily, most produced and directed by women, with up to 1000 at each sitting.

Doris Page, Maye Price and Gretta John were singled out for commendation and were referred to in the vernacular as "right on" women. Some floorshows had singing waiters and waitresses dancing along the bar counters. The Cafés also provided extra work for the very popular African American revue and combo musicians touring the theatre circuit.

The word "jazz" first appeared in the South Wales press in 1919. Music became noisy and brash with revues showcasing sleek production numbers and fast-paced sketches and songs, attracting some surprising customers like the US fleet of 50 submarine chasers at Swansea docks, towing a captured U Boat with 6 German officers and 27 crew on board enjoying the delights of Swansea's noisy night life of jazz in the cafes and assembly halls.

A dancing frenzy had hit Wales fuelled by the new "hot" and "syncopated" jazz music – consequently many local bands found themselves with plenty of work. Businesses reopened and Victory Fetes, Galas and Reunions took place regularly over the next few years. Music and dancing license applications flooded the town halls and café culture flourished. The Café Chantant featured their new revue "Way Down South" with Sand Dancing, Buck and Tango Dancing, with an orchestra of "Cullud Gemmen". African American combos were able to fit in extra daytime shifts in the Cafés as well as their usual evening theatre tour bookings. The star of "Way Down South" was Harrie Coonie, described as "the real article brought from the cottonfields and introduced to Wales by the Café Chantant regime".

Jazz was performed in school halls, department store roof gardens, parks and the workhouse, all hosting regular jazz nights and dance exhibitions. For example, in 1921 David Evans Department Store hosted a Follies night in aid of Swansea's Aged Poor, performing songs and dances from the show "Going Back to Dixie". They also performed it in Swansea's Tawe Lodge Workhouse. The Workhouse redesigned their dining hall as an old Kentucky Plantation and the inmates were entertained by Swansea's White Eyed Coons and a jazz band.

South Wales was becoming increasingly multi-cultural with the press reporting that there were over 1000 "aliens" now residing in Swansea, described as Russians, Jews, Spanish, Italian and a fair number of Germans – men who had been interned during the war and returning to their old work


In 1922 the first hints of disquiet were discernible. The press reported that the Polish Black Shirt Fascist Movement were causing "alarming situations" and stated that "the government needed to take strong action to dampen the sparks before they became flames".

1923 saw an increase in news items on racial slurs upon the Jewish community. The Town Clerk stopped dances at Swansea's Patti Pavilion as complaints had been received, and the Patti programme insisted "No Shimmying or Stunt Dances". Alderman Owen, concerned about the morals of the community, asked if there was scanti clothing worn? Mr. Darwin, the manager of the Patti Pavilion replied: "Yes, but I have no feelings against Jews, except they were the only people I take exception to as they were the ones always improvising on the dance floor".

Complaints had been received comparing "Jewish dirty dancing" to "Negro Morals". Bandleaders were outraged that they were not only accused of encouraging suggestive dances like the shimmy by playing jazz, but also took exception to the terms Negro Morals and Jewish behavior; the leader of the Jazz Wallahs said he had two Gentiles and 3 Jews in his band.

Dr. Rawlings JP wrote in the press that he had no objection to dancing per se in selected company, but strongly objected to promiscuous jazz dances "open to great abuse and of moral and physical evil in regard to the choice of partners", implying Jewish dancers with "negro morals". Arguments called for Jews to be refused entry to the Patti Pavilion and the banning of Jewish stunt and shimmy dancers "who dared to monopolise the dance floor during the King's Waltz".

A letter of outrage appeared signed Dancing Jews calling for apologies for the slurs thrown at the morals of young people. Disputes spread to the Swansea Valley with the press reporting "hotbeds of corruption and immorality at Rhydyfro, Pontardawe, Alltwen and Ynysmeudw and calling for a "vigilance committee". Evangelists at the Ammanford Revival declared Ammanford a wicked town, and paraded through the streets with banners printed with "Ammanford is the Spirit of Evil".

Other complaints were reported in the press of a hoard of ruffians playing in a band on a carnival float dressed as the Klu Klux Klan. The musicians were from Swansea University in a rag parade through town.

A notice appeared in the Swansea press in October 1924 declaring that a new branch of the British Fascists had been formed and calling for new members.

During 1925 relations deteriorated in Swansea town between political factions when the local branch of the British Fascists were charged with assaults on members of the National Minority Movement. Swansea Fascists, anxious to make amends, placed a wreath on the Cenotaph at the Armistice parade, to no avail as complaints had again been received on their undisciplined behavior. Swansea Fascists then numbered between 5-600 and their Chair demanded that their members must remain disciplined, and suggested a fundraising dance in February 1926 as such good membership ensured a financial success.

Two jazz bands, The Orpheans and the Blue Havanas, played for the dance which was so successful, another – The British Fascists Carnival Ball - was hastily organized at the Patti, again with the same two bands; prompting the Jewish Association Football Club to hold their Select Dance with Morry's Nine Stars Jazz Band at Swansea's newest ballroom in Thomas's Café, advertised as the finest dance floor in Wales. There were regular stand-offs.

There was a descriptive piece in the press on the lack of dance floor etiquette: dancers were described as "flies, trying to wriggle out of condensed milk, quivering like unset jelly with girls doing cat-like creeping, with their bracelets flying off their wrists at 100 miles per hour. They are all brazen huzzies".

Debates raged for months in the Melody Maker the weekly newspaper first published in 1926, whether jazz was Negroid or Hebrew, comparing jazz idioms to certain aspects of Hebrew sacred music.

In June 1934 the Melody Maker reported Germany decreed bands would only be permitted to play straight dance music, and any form of interpolated entertainment was banned.

By 1935 German fascists were launching a fierce new campaign to Expel All Jewish Musicians, which was reported in the music press. The Sheffield music tour operator Sir Henry Coward congratulated this action and stated at a Leeds Women's Luncheon Club that "Hitler did a great thing... for the sake of art, morality and the Anglo Saxon race. Jazz debases the morals and has destroyed the former prestige of the white races". The Melody Maker also reported that Hitler was to personally view the 1936 Olympic Games with only straight music to be performed for the games broadcasts. By 1938 there were reports that British bands had become stranded in Germany and some musicians had gone missing.

A huge controversy surrounded the famous broadcaster Henry Hall and his Orchestra, booked for four weeks at the Scala, Berlin, an ambassadorial reception and a state ball. Henry Hall tried to dampen down the furore by confirming he would only be playing "Aryan music". Further uproar.

Hall returned to Britain in March 1939 declaring his tour a German triumph which had contributed to better German/British relations. The League for the Boycott of Aggressor Nations protested that "Nazi persecution of the Jews is something which has shocked the conscience of the whole world and Henry Hall appears to condone Germany's action". Hall replied that "not a single Jewish musician had been involved". Surprisingly, the Melody Maker came out in support of Henry Hall saying that "nobody could possibly challenge his patriotism".

However, by September 1939 the Melody Maker had changed its tune. Headlines blazed "Jazz Swings Into Khaki – our job now is to keep it alive" and pronounced a scheme for jazz musicians to entertain the troops to which musicians were already signing up. By December 1939 the Melody Maker was the official organ of ENSA - Entertainments National Service Association.


Within two weeks of the end of the First World War, Annie Watkin Williams, the Hon. Sec. of Swansea Citizens Union was appealing to women to vote and support the three Swansea women candidates in the forthcoming elections. The benefits would be:

• Obtaining direct representation on the council

• Raising concerns on health, infant mortality, education, public morals

and housing

At this time women were to the forefront of both politics and entertainment having gained voice, authority and opportunity during the war. The very popular Melody Maker, an early champion of women's jazz, accorded Wales its own space headlined South Wales Look You.

Within Swansea for example, women jazz musicians were employed at cafes, department store roof gardens, hotel lounges, the Mumbles Pier, the Exchange Restaurant, and Snell's Recording Studios. Contrary to popular myth that women couldn't play jazz, they were actually in the forefront of the new music scene.

Creative women who were able to perform jazz music were often regarded by some male jazz musicians as not being feminine. Whilst if they were feminine, wearing stage gowns and lipstick on the bandstand, then it was held that they couldn't play jazz.

Women were astute in precipitating trends in musical styles and adapted well from the popular light music to the new jazz genre of smaller groups and combos. They became technically proficient, and gained long residencies at prestigious and popular venues, whilst also running the business side.

When Ynet Miles and Her All Ladies Band won the Greater London Open Dance Band Contest at the Hammersmith Palais de Danse, the Melody Maker did give the band credit for its achievement, but the critic sniffed that it was the "silver frocks that was possibly the cause of the downfall of many of the male competitors".

Women were doing so well, in fact, that the Melody Maker reported male musicians were calling for a No More Women Movement, its aims and objectives being "the elimination of women from the bandstands".

The New Yorker journalist and reviewer Whitney Balliet claimed that women lacked the "physical equipment for blowing trumpets and trombones, slapping bass fiddles, or beating drums". Leonard Feather, a regular and influential contributor to the Melody Maker during the 1930s, and Balliet, both discriminated against women on grounds of gender and ability and said "jazz created or performed by women dis-rupted the assumed masculinity of the music".

When Feather asked in his Melody Maker column of August 1933 why such a "small proportion of the fair sex professed any interest in or appreciation of hot music" a whole page in October 1933 was devoted to Bettie Edwards' defense of women jazz musicians, offering a list of reasons for the continued demeaning of their chosen profession:

i. Lack of opportunities offered to girls at school, university and


ii. Lack of opportunity leading to narrower vision of technical ability

iii. The natural conceit of the male tribe encouraging the work of men only

iv. The male language of jazz

v. Misogyny

Feather defended his views in the November issue by stating that he was "not mis-ogynistic but merely logical", saying women should join the rhythm clubs. But some rhythm clubs barred women altogether.

During the 1930s, jazzwomen's marginality and alienation became entrenched when Spike Hughes, a Cambridge graduate, bassplayer and arranger, was offered a Melody Maker weekly column headlined "Anonymous", as well as record reviews. He became a revered writer within jazz newspapers and journals.

He was one of the pool of judges for the national Melody Maker Dance Band competitions. He referred to women who came to see his band as "those horses and dogs which she so much resembles - the dance floor was filled with inhabitants of stables and kennels". Referring particularly to women jazz musicians Hughes reported "I have always viewed with alarm the growing tendency of women to compose music; not merely because they do not compose very well, but because their presence in the company of a group of male musicians is embarrassing and unnatural. There can never be such a thing as true equality of the sexes... economic equality, perhaps; I am married to a woman who, thank heavens, not only earns her own living, but often mine as well. ....".

Another spirited defence of women appeared in the Melody Maker, this time by band leader Molly Pearl. When job ads came up in the Melody Maker, women's bands had to supply a photo. Women jazz musicians were on a hiding to nothing. When Ivy Read and Her Ladies Band is congratulated for their "excellent standard of play", the next sentence reads "they should show a little more restraint in their playing". This constant drip drip of patriarchal ideologies only increased the women's will to play even better.

Spike Hughes maintained "men were at a disadvantage because women were more pleasing to look at, and could afford to start off at less money as they had fathers or husbands to keep them and man would never have to relinquish his governing powers in the BBC....". Spike Hughes, together with Victor Sylvester the Strict Tempo Dance Band leader, both enjoyed broadcasting privileges within the BBC.

Ivy Benson, multi-instrumentalist and one of the most influential bandleaders during the 2WW, pointed out that discrimination was so bad it became a positive force, inspiring Ivy to form her own all-woman orchestra in 1938.

Kathy Stobart also had problems with the BBC; she passed the broadcasting audition but the BBC commissioning officer for music refused to offer her a broadcasting deal, remarking "I don't really understand why you want to do this woman thing". However, the 2WW opened up employment opportunities for jazz women in Wales that were inconceivable a decade earlier.


Fashion too played its part in helping Welsh women throw off the last vestiges of Empire. Between the wars working women were a newly defined working class with middle class aspirations; it has long been noted by feminist historians such as Dierdre Beddoe that women have been made to feel "anxious and guilty if their behavior is interpreted as being unfeminine". But the new dances brought a "sensuous pleasure to thousands of young people" and jazz music considered no class distinction.

During the 1930s high street stores took advantage of the popularity of jazz and installed pianists like Margaret Morris in their shop windows to play the latest hits. Customers entered not only to purchase sheet music, but lengths of snazzy material to run up frocks from the new paper patterns. Women's bands wore satin dungarees and blouses or flapper frocks. If you weren't in the band, you could strut your stuff on the dance floor in backless gowns – but less material meant less profit for the shops. The South Wales Daily Post sent out two journalists, Joan and Viola, just to cover the dance floor fashion scene.

Ads proliferated with Jazz Fashions, Jazz Jumpers, Jazz Effects, Jazz Colours, and Jazz Soap. At the 1921 Patti Masquerade Ball Swansea flappers were shimmying in jazz pantaloons in gold with matching gold caps, black & white Jazz Pierettes, Jazz Follys of mauve and green, Jazz Turks in mauve crepe. The fashion pieces by Joan and Viola sometimes caused uproar, with debates in the press on what constituted correct evening wear.

As frocks reached above the knee, hair was chopped off for the latest in Bingling, Shingling and Bobbin'. Neath waitresses were sacked for having their hair bobbed. An establishment backlash spread to the Amman Valley School Literary Society where the boys voted unanimously against bobbed hair as it was "unnatural and added to a lack of charm and an absence of dignity". Women took no notice relishing their new found freedom. At the Baltic Lounge Dance in Swansea, Miss Ceinwen Roberts wore a sensational tube dress of white tissue with flame ostrich feathers.

Fashion trends moved to other areas of the female form: Russian Boots, Cigars, pipes, Eton Crops, Snuff and Bad Language. Enough was enough roared the men in the pulpits.


The September 1927 issue of the Melody Maker carried an article by Dr. Farnell, Rector of Exeter College, Oxford University, headlined "Nigger Music Comes from the Devil": "There was nothing more degrading than vulgar music which was worse than poisonous drink. Our civilization was threatened by our Americanisms and jazz music. Do not take your music from America or from the niggers, take it from God, the source of all good music".

Discontent had already been rumbling in Wales in the local press from the early 1920s; Dr. Lewis, the Medical Officer of Health in Pontardawe was worried that the birth rate was dropping owing to the working classes spending all their time in dance halls. Rev. Morgan Jones, a Swansea preacher in Brynhyfryd, strongly criticised the present generation for Wales's degrading condition. Dr. Walford Davies, Director of Music at University of Wales and also on the Swansea Education Committee, agreed. Dr. Walford Davies pronounced jazz "positively iniquitous, positively immoral and positively pernicious". The Neath Medical Officer of Health wrote in his Annual Report that youth "suffered from moral slackness which was a result of imperfect training in games". Swansea's Dr. Rawlings JP suggested "God had gone out of the life of children and unless a religious revival came over the country it would go down in darkness".

The Rev. Watkin Davies of St. Jude's, Swansea, observed "dancing was a splendid thing" but didn't allow shimmying and stunt dancing in his church hall as "they are so suggestive". Dr. Rawlings JP objected to "promiscuous dancing which was a moral and physical evil". Letters poured in from young dancers objecting to their morals being described as promiscuous, with one young lady commenting "I dance as one of the foremost forms of recreation. I am young, active, and feel that I am entitled to spend what little money I have left over from my weekly earnings as I see fit, and without being dictated to by a group of narrow minded killjoys".

Some council meetings became very heated especially in Cwmamman. The Rev. John Thomas wanted dancing banned after 11pm owing to the debauched morals of the young. Councillor Robert Edwards maintained that the council were not the administrators of the morals of youth, and challenged the Rev. John Thomas to "come outside and repeat that". Rev. Thomas retaliated that Councillor Edwards was "splashing mud and I'll throw some at you - all right?". There was a scene with Councillor Edwards getting to his feet and shouting " who are supposed to uphold humanity". There were anxious calls of "Chair ! Chair!" from the floor.

The "debauched morals of youth" debates created such a furore that 1000 hymn singing revivalists formed a procession outside Calfaria Baptist Chapel and marched through Llanelli, led by revivalist David Matthews. They made such a racket outside Llanelli Workingmen's Club that drinkers came out onto the street to complain about the noise and the traffic was blocked. The police were called, eventually breaking up the rally and the drinkers were able to return to the peace and quiet of the Workingmen's Club.

Dr. Rawlings JP declared Swansea youth were "products of barbarism who could not be Christianised". Then came an unexpected blast of fresh air from the Rev. R. J. Hall MA, preaching from the pulpit of Swansea's Unitarian Church, who condemned Dr. Rawlings' remarks, arguing that "one could praise God through the feet with the Bunny Hug". Rev. Hall challenged Dr. Rawlings to repeat his views on dancing at his Unitarian Church. Dr. Rawlings declined, publishing a letter in the South Wales Daily Post instead, saying: "There was much moral evil in dancing where persons of opposite sex dance close together in physical contact. As any man of the world knows, a girl will readily permit kisses and caresses at or after a dance. I can confirm these statements from my own long professional experience". The Rev. Hall criticized Dr. Rawlings' latest letter, saying he had lost his sense of proportion. Dr. Rawlings replied that "much sexual sin is related to dancing which tends to inflame the passions and pollute the imagination, and this town was like a lunatic asylum. People should be in bed by 12". Unease in the pulpits spread to Gurnos where Rev. P. Jones of Cwmtwrch objected to Gurnos Drill Hall being given a dancing license after 10pm as anything later encouraged immorality.

Pontardawe Council had received letters from 5 worried chapels in the district in regard to dancing and morals. The Rev. T. M. Roderick said he was aware that "unmentionable things were carried on in Pontardawe but it was our duty to look after the morality of the people". A resolution was issued in Welsh and circulated to all the churches and chapels and passed unanimously, asking that all young people stay away from dances "for the sake of the health and well-being of the young people; the position is ugly and there is not a rosy future for the valleys".

Everybody had totally forgotten about the two barnstorming preachers of Swansea back in 1922. There were Banjos at the Mission at Wesleyan Chapel where solos had been given on banjos, bongos and accordions because the minister felt his "luke warm Christians needed warming up". Likewise, Pastor Jeffrey's services were packed at Mt. Zion Chapel because he encouraged his congregation to "lift themselves on toes and heels with an accompaniment of clapping hands and shouts". Pastor Jeffreys said "Our singing has been called ragtime, but if it keeps the people together what does it matter? Let us thank God for it". There were loud cries of Hallelujah and the congregation leapt into the air.

In 1934 the Rev. Ebrard Rees was the first person to compare the similarities between the Negro Spiritual and the Welsh Hwyl (translated as a state of being or condition). The Rev. Rees' positive response to the history of jazz music was a beacon of light amongst the ecclesiastic rantings, hell bent on stifling jazz, its musicians, and the dancers. As Eric Hobsbawm the Marxist historian pointed out: "Jazz is the music of protest and rebellion". Long may it continue.

Jen Wilson

JULY 2012 ©