The frontman of the Caribbean jazz group who changed British music forever
You may not have heard of Ken “Snakehips” Johnson. With a name like that, from the great African-American choreographer of the 1930s Buddy Bradley, you will certainly never forget him if you did.
But you have undoubtedly been touched at some point in your life by his legacy.
Born Kenrick Reginald Hijmans Johnson in 1914 in British Guiana to the country’s health minister Dr Reginald Fitzherbert Johnson, Johnson was first sent to the UK to attend school in the hope that a British education would advance his medical career.
But Johnson did not share his father’s medical aspirations. Instead, he wanted to dance.
As a teenager, he organized dance routines for his friends at school. He would eventually drop out of University of London law school to take professional dance lessons, and in 1934 he appeared in a dance film. Oh daddy! and was touring the Caribbean with the aforementioned Bradley.
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Yet it was his trip to Harlem after his tour of the Caribbean that proved to be the most influential.
He dedicated his time to studying the dances and dance legacy of the African American scene in New York City. It was during this period that he obtained his nickname; here, he learned to move his hips “in the suggestive way his nickname implied,” according to jazz writer Val Wilmer.
It was in Harlem that Johnson had the idea to create his own group to play swing music. A follower of Cal Calloway, Johnson took inspiration from him and began to form his own all-black group.
Teaming up in April 1936 with Jamaican trumpeter Leslie Thompson, the two sought to bring a part of the African-American dance and music scene to London, which was, at this point, quite devoid of anything. or so.
The group, numbering fourteen at the end of the year, quickly established a reputation as the leader of the swing scene in the country.
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By the end of the decade, the West Indian Dance Orchestra was getting better and better. Despite a fallout that would see Thompson leave the band – taking several members with him – the “Jamaican Emperors,” as they were often called, performed on the BBC, sold records and moved to a West End club. .
In 1939, they were even booked to play at the capital’s most exciting and infamous club, the Café de Paris.
The Café de Paris, which had Prince Edward VIII and Marlene Dietrich among its regulars, was the epicenter of London cool. The West Indian Dance Orchestra were the first black artists to perform there, and despite the outbreak of war that year, the club only grew in popularity.
As his career boomed and wartime London desperately searched for a reason to dance away from his worries, Johnson was bouncing back from strength to strength. He was also engaged in a relationship with the critic Gerald Hamilton, a friend of Winston Churchill and, at fifty, his senior by twenty.
Despite the advent of the Blitz, the Café de Paris remains open and the group continues to play.
At the height of his career, and having recently moved in with Hamilton, Johnson was hanging out in the neighboring Embassy Club on March 8, 1941, attempting to make his way to the Café de Paris despite the heavy bombardments of the night.
His friends begged him to stay put, but Johnson ran through the streets of Soho, determined to arrive in time for his 9.45am start.
The bomb that exploded killed the twenty-six-year-old instantly.
The next morning, Hamilton was called back to identify Johnson’s body. His funeral took place a week later.
For his fans, it was a huge loss, and the BBC’s show commemorating the dancer attracted 15% of listeners, which was considered a high number. The band continued to play music, but it wasn’t quite the same.
A pioneer of swing music in this country and a major force in bringing new forms of jazz from New York to London during a period of great cultural innovation, Johnson’s legacy lives on today.
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