Tag Archives: Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea

Flappers, wine, cocaine and revels (Pt II)

2 Mar

A few hours after five Melbourne girls were arrested for vagrancy in late March 1928, the head-line of Melbourne’s Truth broadcast their misdeeds: ‘White Girls with Negro Lovers. Flappers, Wine, Cocaine and Revels. Raid Discloses Wild Scene of Abandon‘.

On the Sunday before this, the young women had been hauled out of a couple of apartments in Nicholson Street, East Melbourne, and taken to the local police lock-up around 4am. Both Truth reporters and the police had been watching them for hours before the raid took place, dancing and drinking before unshuttered windows with the African-American members of Sonny Clay’s jazz band. The scenes they had been forced to witness were so shocking, wrote the Truth, that they ‘cannot be described’.

When the five girls were brought to trial, more than seven hundred members of the Melbourne public tried to cram into the City Court. Plenty of those who tried to muscle their way in were turned away on account of the crush. Before this gawping throng, the girls were led into the dock: Ivy Day, Nora McKay, Dorothy Davis, Edna Langdon, and Irene Davis (not in fact their real names). Two wore dark goggles. The others faced the crowd bare-faced and ashamed.

So far as the press was concerned, the five girls on trial were  ‘flappers’: the visible face of that jazz-addicted, dance-obsessed, cocktail-guzzling girl-multitude which acted as the focus for so much public angst at the time. Nostalgic reminiscences of the 1920s now tend to render this girl-multitude uniformly glamorous, as if they were all Irene Castles or racy Maud Allens cast in the elegant silver lucency of 1920s photography:


Maud Allen, c/o Arts Alive

According to the Truth, however, the reality was more mundane. The Melbourne flappers on trial might have been ‘drawn from an average gathering of shop girls and clerks… so far as outward appearance was concerned’. And more to the point, only one of them was comfortably off. The rest led lives of scrimping economy to pay for their Jazz-Age lifestyle.

Since the girls had been charged with ‘having no visible means of support’, their defence rested on proving that they had some means at the time of their arrest. Because of this, their testimony involved details of their work and wages, giving us a glimpse into the daily lives and income of the 1920s modern girl. Ivy Day, apparently, was a 22 year old nursemaid who lived in with a family in St Kilda and earned 30 shillings a week. Dorothy Davis had once been a waitress at the Coo-ee Cafe on the corner of Bourke and Exhibition Streets in Melbourne. At the time of her arrest, she had been earning a pound a week to cook breakfast and tea for Sonny Clay’s musicians, and sharing a room in Fitzroy with Nora McKay.

Nora McKay was the only girl with some income: she was a dressmaker who earned 2 pounds 13/6 a week, with an interest in her dead father’s estate which covered her rent and food. The Truth ensured that this ‘tall pale girl’ was more humiliated than any of the others. It published details from her diary, seized by police during the Nicholson Street raid. The diary contained an admission of a number of abortions, the Truth alleged. It also described the birth and adoption out of a baby girl, of amours with a local man, and of McKay’s ardour for the Sonny Clay musician (‘I love this black man…’).

Towards the end of the hearing, one of the five girls, Ivy Day, broke down uncontrollably and had to be escorted from the courtroom. Shortly after this, all five had their charges thrown out. It was apparent that none of them had actually been vagrants; the whole thing (as everyone would have known from the start) had been motivated by concerns about their sexuality rather than their means of support. ‘Because there is no Act which makes it an offence for a white girl to associate with a coloured person, police were powerless to convict the girls’, the Truth lamented. Readers need not despair of this, however: ‘…a move is now on foot to frame an Act which will give the police such power’.


Truth, 31 March 1928.

See other references listed in this post on the Australian tour of Sonny Clay’s Coloured Idea.

White Australia and Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea

9 Sep


Sonny Clay

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.