Rhythm and Reaction

This is just a note to recommend the exhibition Rhythm and Reaction, at Two Temple Place in London. It tells the story of the introduction of jazz music into Britain before and after the Great War.
From the banjo-playing of the minstrel shows and productions like In Dahomey (1903), via the groundbreaking Original Dixieland Jazz Band (1919) to the absorption of jazz into the repertoire of dance bands, it’s a good story, and told well here, with photos, paintings and artefacts.
The exhibition has much to say about the cultural anxiety caused by jazz in the uncertain postwar years, and highlights the story of John Bulloch Souter’s The Breakdown, a painting that was selected for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1926.

souter breakdown

This showed a black saxophonist in evening dress sitting on a ruined statue of Minerva, while a naked white woman dances with abandon to his seductive music. Many complained at the implied miscegenation, and the Colonial Office described it as “obnoxious to British subjects living abroad in daily contact with a coloured population”. So hostile was the reaction to the picture that the Academy withdrew it from display, and Souter himself chose to destroy it. Pictured here is a new version that he painted in the nineteen-sixties.
Also included is a menu card designed by Wyndham Lewis for the Cave of the Golden Calf Cabaret and Theatre Club. Arthur Machen was one of the turns advertised on the programme.
There are good paintings by William Roberts and others, but one thing I missed was any reference to T.S. Eliot, who loved to go dancing to the latest hits, but shared Souter’s cultural anxieties (and expressed them better in The Waste Land). Sweeney Agonistes shows him at one loving and and fearing syncopated rhythms.
O O O O that Shakespeherian rag.


George B Walker in In Dahomey (1913)


  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, George – we’ll be going!

    ‘…League cricket stood in the same kind of relationship to first class cricket as Blackpool did to the cultural establishment. When Neville Cardus, writing in the Manchester Guardian in the 1920s, described Cec Parkin as `the first jazz cricketer’ (`…in the age of jazz and Irving Berlin’, he said, `Parkin became the first jazz cricketer: his slow ball was a syncopation in flight’) he neatly linked cricket with the crisis of modernity. Parkin, with his eccentricities, his moods, the difficulty of setting fields to suit his unpredictable bowling, was an improviser whose unwritten scores subverted the established codes of the game: both off and on the field of play. It might have been Parkin, or possibly Charlie Parker, (the Gloucestershire spinner rather than the jazz saxophonist) – whose admiration for Lenin’s revolution was never concealed – whom that old conservative Archie McLaren had in mind when he called for the suppression of the cricketing `Bolshevist’.It is a moot point as to whether, at this time (1924), the idea of `Bolshevist’ aroused greater anger in the breasts of MCC members than did the idea of `jazz’….’


    • Posted February 4, 2018 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

      Syncopated music, whether jazz or ragtime, was often used to symbolise a spirit of anarchy or independence.
      When I was researching soldiers’ songs, i came upon an anecdote about a singing match between the armies in opposing trenches. The British ironically requested a performance of the German ‘Hymn of Hate’.

      ‘Obediently the Germans thundered it out. “Encore, encore,” shouted a Scotsman, who struck up the tune on a fife. The Germans sang it again, and the British joined in with the fife, but in ragtime. This so annoyed the Germans that they replied with a shower of bombs, which the British returned with interest.’

      ‘Ragtime’ here suggests a comic or parodic version, as though ragtime was regarded as a parody of music.

      • Roger
        Posted February 5, 2018 at 2:38 am | Permalink

        “We are Fred Karno’s army, the ragtime infantry…”

        Perhaps the use of ragtime suggested that the Germans couldn’t even keep time in their singing or marching. Just change the rhythm a little and a march becomes a dance.
        Does anyone know the tune for the “HYmn of Hate”? The words are easy to find, but a sung version and the tune don’t seem to be on the ‘net.

        I’ve only just started reading it, but Kevin Davey’s novel “Playing Possum” features Tom Sterns, a jazz-loving American poet and wife-killer hiding out in Whitstable in 1922 while the police and Davey hunt him down…

  2. Posted February 18, 2018 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Roger – thanks for suggesting ‘Playing Possum’. I’ve just finished it, with a great deal of enjoyment, considerable puzzlement and occasional irritation.

    For those who don’t know it, it’s a fantasia on Eliotic themes, where time past, time present and time utterly imaginary intermingle and become confused. A lot of fun.

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