Minstrelsy was the first American pop form to leave its mark on British musical culture, and in the days before recordings in the mid-19th century it reached its audiences through local adaptations of performances by visiting American troupes. Other examples of the Old World’s growing love affair with New World’s fast evolving musical culture might include the highly praised appearance of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in London in 1883, the songs of Stephen Foster providing popular drawing room entertainment throughout Victorian Britain, the cakewalk craze in London and Paris between 1900 and 1903, the seven month London run of the cakewalk musical In Dahomey (complete with the cakewalking duo of Bert Willams and George Walker) and the dance performances of Vernon and Irene Castle (Vernon Castle was originally from Norwich, in Norfolk, England) to music provided by their bandleader James Reese Europe in 1911 that played a vital role in popularising American syncopated dance music in Europe and America.
So when, in 1914, the American drummer and cornettist Louis Mitchell played a brief residency in the Piccadilly Restaurant in London playing an early version of jazz, it was seen as yet another American novelty that would eventually catch the public imagination. “I was not one of the first to bring jazz to Europe,” Mitchell told Melody Maker in the 14 July 1956 edition, “I was the first!”
With the outbreak of war in 1914, entertainment was not the first thing on the nation’s mind and Mitchell returned to Harlem but was soon back in Britain in 1915, playing the Ardwick Empire and the London Hippodrome. In 1917, Mitchell formed the Seven Spades and opened at the Alhambra in Glasgow, Scotland apparently romping through “Ja Da” and “Down Home Rag,” with the press hailing him as “a genius of agility and noise.” The following year he was in France with his band, now known as Mitchell’s Jazz Kings, giving free concerts for the troops until hostilities ended in November 1918. At the end of the war, Paris was a wide-open city and Mitchell established himself as a star, earning, according to the European jazz historian Robert Goffin, “ten times the salary of a cabinet minister” with a band that included a young Sidney Bechet on clarinet.
Yet even as the first jazz recording was being cut in 1917 in New York City by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, sheet music of “jazz novelties” were already on sale in London, and this in an age when the fastest way for most people to get from A to B was by horse. Exactly a year and a month later, the appearance of the Jazzbo Band, “Fresh from the United States” at the Grand in Hanley, Stoke on Trent sowed the seeds of jazz craze that would sweep Britain in the post-war euphoria that followed the end of hostilities in the Great War on 11 November 1918.
Almost eight weeks later, on 19 January 1919, a report in London’s The Times described how the orchestra at the London Coliseum was attempting to “convert itself into a jazz band,” adding that such a mission was, “one of many American peculiarities that threaten to make life a nightmare.”
On 1 April 1919, a shade less than five months after the Great War had ended, the liner Adriatic berthed at Liverpool and among the passengers to disembark were the members of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, who are now credited with making the first jazz recording ever on 26th February 1917. They were fresh from a sensational residency at Reisenweber’s Restaurant in New York and after a shaky UK debut, they became fixtures on the British music scene for fifteen months, giving local musicians the opportunity to listen to and learn from live American jazz at first hand. The ODJB became so popular in Britain they were even received at Buckingham Palace.
But while the ODJB were receiving all the plaudits, Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopators created less of a furore, but nevertheless provided British musicians with a glimpse of a true jazz great in Sidney Bechet, who would later leave Cook’s band to work in Britain and France contributing significantly to the understanding of jazz there. Like the ODJB, the Southern Syncopators appeared at Buckingham Palace, and when King George V conducted the band, it effectively bestowed a nod of approbation upon jazz by polite society. Jazz was here to stay.
When the Southern Syncopators left Britain to continue their tour of Europe, two original band members dropped out and were replaced by two British musicians. Ted Heath and Tommy Smith would later say their experience was fundamental to furthering their understanding of jazz. Heath would go on to lead Britain’s most successful big band in the post World War II period, appearing regularly on BBC radio and television and mounting several successful tours of the USA.