In January 1928, a jazz band called Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea arrived from America on Australian shores. All thirty-five band members were African American, and all were accomplished performers. (Sonny Clay had played with Jelly Roll Morton and Kid Ory in California, and the band was joined by the singer Ivie Anderson, later to record with Duke Ellington). Before leaving Los Angeles, they had recorded a special number entitled ‘Australian Stomp’, and as they headed for Sydney’s glitzy Tivoli Theatre they no doubt expected their ‘potent, overproof brand of syncopation’ to heat up the already sweltering temperatures among the summer crowds. How wrong they were.
As it turned out, not even Frank Sinatra would have an Australian tour more ill-fated than Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea. For a start, though the band members were constantly pursued by local women, audiences didn’t swoon to ‘Australian Stomp’ or their rendition of ‘St Louis Blues’. The Tivoli crowds evidently had a different idea of what passed for jazz than those in California and New Orleans.
More significantly, the band was dogged by the authorities from almost the moment it arrived. After decamping from Sydney to Melbourne, its members were asked several times to leave their hotels for rowdy behaviour. Some of the band removed to a flat in East Melbourne, and shortly afterwards were subject to a raid by police. Six white women were discovered in the arms of Colored Idea members, each of them tipsy and undressed. Five of these girls were promptly arrested for vagrancy (the sixth escaped out the window). The next day the headlines were what you’d expect – except that the journalists were confused about the occupation of the band’s members: ‘Nude Girls in Melbourne flat orgy; Negro comedians as partners; raid by police’.
The piece de resistance of the Colored Idea’s Australian tour came when they were deported at the end of March 1928. In the preceding months, a nationalist resentment had been simmering in Australia over the fact that a local military band had been refused the right to play in the States. This resentment had led some to object to the fact that an American jazz band was currently playing top Australian venues. Add to this racist anxieties about ‘coloured’ men and their obvious success with Anglo Australian girls – and add, too, sundry jitters about the diabolical jazz – and one has a sense of how the story played out. As one Australian politician put it in parliament: ‘Does the Minister not think that in the interests of White Australia and moral decency, permits to such persons should be refused?’
After the rough departure of Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea, individual African American performers would make the trip to the Antipodes to play in the jazz and vaudeville scenes. According to jazz historian Andrew Bisset, however (from whose work this story is taken), an African American band led by a black musician would not be seen again in Australia until 1954.
Andrew Bisset, Black Roots White Flowers: A History of Jazz in Australia (Sydney and Auckland: Golden Press, 1979), 43-46.
The wonderfully elegant image above comes from the Red Hot Jazz website, which also has a brief bio of Sonny Clay.