Jes­sica Fel­lowes traces the in­flu­ence of the Jazz Age on Bri­tish high so­ci­ety

Town & Country (UK) - - OUT & ABOUT TOWN -

In 1919, Bri­tain was a coun­try dev­as­tated by the Great War, and short of money, men and hope. Amer­ica, by con­trast, was boom­ing. So when its bold new music – jazz – crossed the At­lantic, lit­tle won­der if glam­ourhun­gry Britons em­braced the dar­ing sound.

That April, the Orig­i­nal Dix­ieland Jazz Band came and played at the Lon­don Hip­po­drome to a rap­tur­ous re­cep­tion. The Prince of Wales (the fu­ture King Ed­ward VIII, who ab­di­cated the throne in favour of his lover, Wal­lis Simp­son) then re­quested a per­for­mance at Buck­ing­ham Palace.

With that Royal seal of ap­proval, jazz took off. Night­clubs in Soho sprang up, fre­quented by the gangs of south-east Lon­don and the Bright Young Things of the aris­toc­racy, brought to­gether by the music, which united the young against the old, the cool cats against the stuffed shirts, the Ar­ties against the Hearties.

A black jazz singer-pi­anist, Les­lie ‘Hutch’ Hutchin­son, came to Lon­don in 1926 from New York via Paris and took high so­ci­ety by storm – he was the in­spi­ra­tion for Jack, Lady Edith’s lover in Down­ton Abbey. Hutch was ru­moured to have had af­fairs with, var­i­ously, Ed­wina Mount­bat­ten, Ivor Novello, Cole Porter and Talul­lah Bankhead. He drove a Rolls-royce and was the star en­ter­tainer at the most lav­ish May­fair par­ties (yet he was al­ways made to come in by the ser­vants’ en­trance). The coolest night­clubs – the 43, Vic­tor’s – hired Hutch or the Black­birds, an all-black, all-fe­male troupe.

Women, whose ca­reer op­tions had pre­vi­ously been con­fined to mar­ry­ing well, now re­alised they could live an in­de­pen­dent life with­out chap­er­ones; they raced around town in mo­tor cars, shared flats in apart­ment blocks and went out to work to earn their own liv­ing. At night, they drank cock­tails and flirted be­fore hit­ting the dance­floor.

Jazz made de­mands on fashion, too. Dresses were re­quired to be looser and shorter, so the wear­ers could move more eas­ily to the Charleston. At­ten­tion was drawn to the legs, which were now en­cased in colour­ful silk stock­ings and shod with high-heeled shoes em­bel­lished with fan­ci­ful de­tail to at­tract at­ten­tion as you kicked your heels. Mean­while men wore flow­ing scarves and fancy dress wher­ever pos­si­ble; among the up­per classes there was a fashion for the fan­tas­ti­cal, in their clothes and in their drug-tak­ing.

There were plenty, of course, who ab­horred all this, dis­miss­ing the young as ru­ined and ru­inous. Was it for this – pro­mis­cu­ous, flighty be­hav­iour, dis­cor­dant music, painful to the ear – that they had fought the war? But the young like best that thing of which their par­ents dis­ap­prove. We have much to thank that gen­er­a­tion for – their em­brace of jazz in 1919 gave us mod­ern life, much as we know it to­day, al­most a hun­dred years later. ‘Rhythm & Re­ac­tion: The Age of Jazz in Bri­tain’ is at Two Tem­ple Place (www.two tem­ple­ from 27 Jan­uary to 22 April 2018. ‘The Mit­ford Mur­ders’ by Jes­sica Fel­lowes (£12.99, Sphere) is out now.

ed­ward burra’s the band (1934). be­low cen­tre: wil­liam pa­trick roberts’ the dance club (the jazz party) (1923). bot­tom right: the christ­mas 1929 is­sue of the melody maker

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