‘Flappers, wine, cocaine & revels’: Melbourne, 1928

22 Feb

Recently, the editor of extempore, an Australian journal devoted to writing about jazz and improvised music, asked me to write a short piece about Sonny Clay’s ill-fated Australian tour in 1928.


(Members of Sonny Clay’s Coloured Idea (including the singer Ivie Anderson) on deck as they pull into Sydney, 1928)

Sonny Clay’s Plantation Orchestra, toegther with other singers and dancers, formed a vaudeville combination called the Coloured Idea which hit the Tivoli circuit in early 1928. As I wrote in a previous post, Clay’s ‘orchestra’ was the first all-African American jazz band to disembark on Australian shores, joined by the ebullient songstress, Ivie Anderson. They stayed a couple of months and were deported at the end of it, amid surveillance from tabloid reporters, police and the then-equivalent of ASIO.

In order to write my piece on Clay, I spend time in the State Library of Victoria when I was in Melbourne last week. I read up on the sensational allegations of cocaine parties and ‘scantily-clad’ white girls which were splashed across Australia’s most scandal-mongering papers during the Melbourne leg of the jazz band’s tour. (I also got to listen to Sonny Clay’s recordings, along with those by Melbourne jazz outfits in the 1920s, both compiled with wonderful background notes by Chris Long and Ernst Grossman – check them out if you ever get the chance).

Apart from the obvious racism apparent in reportage of Clay’s tour, what also struck me about the fracas is the glimpse it gives us into the lives of Melbourne flappers. Some of the newspapers covering the scandal gave terribly private details about the ‘white girls’ who flocked to see the Coloured Idea, and afterwards joined some of the younger male members for late-night carousing. I was angry when I read this reportage, smarting at the injustice of it – but also, of course, as is the way with all muck-racking, intrigued.

This week, God-willing, I will write a post about the  Melbourne girls who hung out with the members of Clay’s Coloured Idea in early 1928. For anyone who imagines flappers according to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s gilded vision of the Roaring Twenties in The Great Gatsby, seduced by images of giddy luxuriance or even that halcyon shot of Ivie Anderson, above, these girls’ lives will come as something of a reality-shot in the arm.

3 Responses to “‘Flappers, wine, cocaine & revels’: Melbourne, 1928”

  1. sscowie 8 December 2011 at 4:29 pm #

    An important story that reveals a lot about Australian society at the time…..the resistance to change, the fear of strangers, the need to reassert the occupancy of the land and to reaffirm the Britishness of White Australia. Thanks a lot for this piece.

  2. P. Lewis 31 July 2017 at 12:32 am #

    Reblogged this on A Black Writer in Berlin and commented:
    The Sonny Clay incident in Australia in 1928 should be ample proof to anyone who thinks that blacks did not face extreme racism in their global travels back in the old days.

    My great-grandfather, Philip Thomas Smith, faced far lesser prejudice in Paris in 1918. The French girls merely felt his behind and wondered what had happened to his tail.


  1. Flappers, wine, cocaine and revels (Pt II) « The Vapour Trail - 2 March 2009

    […] other references listed in this post on the Australian tour of Sonny Clay’s Coloured Idea. Possibly related posts: (automatically […]

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