What to see: ‘Rhythm and Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain’

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

‘The Melody Maker’, Christmas 1929

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 glamour-hungry 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 from 27 January to 22 April 2018. ‘The Mitford Murders’ by Jessica Fellowes (£12.99, Sphere) is out now.

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