Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 8, 2021

Harlem Nights, The Secret History of Australia’s Jazz Age (2021), by Deirdre O’Connell

I know, I shouldn’t do this, but along with Australia Post, booksellers are warning us not to delay with orders for Christmas gifts, and so I’m going to tell you about a book I haven’t finished reading because I just know there are readers out there who will want to give or hint for this book.

Harlem Nights, the Secret History of Australia’s Jazz Age is a book for anyone interested in yes, of course, jazz, but also the history of Australia’s entertainment industry; the delayed take-up of modernism in the arts in Australia; the pernicious influence of the White Australia Policy beyond immigration issues; the impact of an unholy alliance of unionism and opportunist politics; and the surprising difference that could be made by just one man.  And for anyone interested in the politics of race and power…

And that’s just what I’ve absorbed from reading one-third of it.

This is the blurb from the back cover:

The 1920s were a time of wonder and flux, when Australians sensed a world growing smaller, turning faster-and, for some, skittering off balance. American movies, music and dance brought together what racial lines kept apart. A spirit of youthful rebellion collided with the promise of racial perfectibility, stirring deep anxieties in white nationalists and moral reformers. African-American jazz represented the type of modernism that cosmopolitan Australians craved-and the champions of White Australia feared.

Enter Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea. Snuck in under the wire by an astute promoter, the Harlem-style revue broke from the usual blackface minstrel fare, delivering sophisticated, liberating rhythms. The story of their Australian tour is a tale of conspiracy-a secret plan to kick out and keep out ‘undesirable’ expressions of modernism, music and race.

From the wild jazz clubs of Prohibition-era LA to Indigenous women discovering a new world of black resistance, this anatomy of a scandal-fuelled frame-up brings into focus a vibrant cast of characters from Australia’s Jazz Age.

Some may not know that I have a (very) minor role in broadcasting jazz on a community radio station.  The Spouse (whose impressive professional CV includes what started as a hobby i.e. being leader and arranger of the Australian Cotton Club Orchestra) has been presenting Swing and Sway on 3CR for decades, and he has recently stepped into the shoes of the late Ralph Knight who presented Steam Radio for over forty years. Since he’s also presenting a jazz program on Radio 3RPP in Mornington, and all this has to be prepared offsite since the pandemic, I have resumed doing the very occasional program to give him a break.  I mention this because my interest in jazz is specific to big band jazz of the 20s, 30s and 40s, and although this is heresy to aficionados, I prefer the melodic style and rhythms of British Dance Bands to hot jazz from America.  One of the aspects that I’ve found interesting in Harlem Nights is the way these differences have been framed in terms of race.

This fantasy of Blackness found voice in the literary prose of a generation of White bohemians and cosmopolitans who experienced Black music as a psychodrama where primitive ‘African’ musicians rescued ‘over-civilised’ White dancers from generations of Victorian sexual repression.  Black rhythm, in this formulation, was a brand of bodily and psychic liberation— a Freudian antidote for a generation of Whites crushed and constrained by the narrow rules of ‘correct’ behaviour.  But what felt and looked like ‘the new’ reprised old familiar themes, grounded in dubious theories of biologically inscribed racial difference.

Music critic Roger Pryor Dodge, for instance, believed that ‘Negro’ jazz players did ‘not consciously’ plot and compose, but derived their musical inventiveness from ‘uncontrolled frantic moments of ‘subconscious improvisation’.  In other words, an ability independent of artistry and skill but contingent on the spontaneous outpourings of an inescapably primitive Black essence.  (p.31)

Sonny Clay Band, Australia, 1928 (See image credit)

As O’Connell explains further in the chapter ‘The Jazzing Spheres’, when the Australian promoter of Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea subscribed to the fashionably cosmopolitan view that ‘jazz as played by a European’ and a ‘real Negro’ were ‘entirely different’ he was conforming to this primitivist fantasy.

‘It’s all in the syncopation,’ he explained.  ‘One, brought to America by the original African Negroes—is natural—the other, as acquirement, is artificial’. (p.76)

Today, we can see how racist that framing is.

As jazz made its way to Australia, entertainment promoters offered what they could get, constrained then as now by the cost of getting a large group of artists here and their willingness to travel so far.  In the 1920s, rivals Harry Muller and Bob Conkey had supplied two jazzy bands that generated money, created personal memories and deepened cultural engagement. 

But the cold economic truth of the Tivoli’s bottom line told a different story: shilling for shilling, the Southern [Black] Revue was just as popular but far more profitable than Henry Santrey’s [White] Syncopated Orchestra.  A paying audience was hungry for jazz music and dance, no matter […] if the performers were Black or White.

The revelation solved Henry Muller’s American conundrum.  The economic logic that made ‘Australia-time’ so unappealing to White vaudevillians did not apply to Black musicians who worked longer hours for less money and enjoyed fewer opportunities. With a Black review, Harry Muller could secure an up-to-the-minute, quality act, prepared to undertake the long journey across the Pacific.  (p.57)

And so he brought Sonny Clay and his band to Australia along with vocalist Ivie Anderson (who later sang with Duke Ellington).  But there was trouble.  Muller did not tell Clay that hostile officialdom was alert to their impending arrival; that the racial rhetoric had hardened under Prime Minister Billy Hughes, then broadened under his successor, Stanley Bruce; that there had been some fudging on the visa applications because the Musicians Union in an unholy alliance with some politicians had led to a situation where comedians, jubilee singers, and dance troupes toured Australia but not dance band musicians. Musicians of colour, that is.  The visa applications were for ‘colored theatrical artists’, not musicians.

O’Connell writes an engaging account of how it all went so horribly wrong.  It’s a broad brush, superbly researched account that takes in the social and political history of the period, and the book is an excellent accompaniment to Nicole Moore’s The Censor’s Library in the way that it shows how moralists and paternalists impacted on the messy contest of ideas at play in Sydney over the contours of modernity in Australia.  Isolated by geography and the limitations of communications in that era, Australians were denied access to international developments in entertainment and the arts, creating a cultural backwater that took decades to wash away.

Harlem Nights is not just a book about jazz…

Other reviews, from people who’ve read it all?  Although I haven’t read it yet either, the book was reviewed in a generous spread by Richard King in The Australian (which sent me on a so-far fruitless search at the library for his book On Offence, the Politics of Indignation, one for my post-Xmas wishlist if nobody gives it to me.) Alas, the review in the Australian Book Review is paywalled too.

Update 10/12/21 I have now finished the book and read through to the aftermath of the band’s deportation. It’s not an edifying story, not least because the police, for all their dirty tricks could not get a conviction on Clay or the young women who were said to be in such moral danger.  But the media didn’t let the facts get in the way of trashing reputations, and along with so many other aspects of this story that are unfair, it was Sonny Clay’s reputation that was damaged while the young women were humiliated.  That had long-lasting consequences for him in the United States, while the young women were pursued by the police and hounded out of Melbourne.

The book is available direct from MUP including as an eBook, and from good bookstores everywhere.

Image credit: Sonny Clay Band, Australia, 1928, by Sam Hood, from vintage print, Hood Collection part II State Library of New South Wales, PXE 789 (v.8) 1.,  via Wikipedia Public Domain,

Author: Deirdre O’Connell
Title: Harlem Nights, The Secret History of Australia’s Jazz Age
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Press, 2021
ISBN: 9780522877649, pbk, 408 pages with some B&W reproductions of photos and texts; including an extensive index, notes, bibliography and acknowledgements.
Review copy courtesy of MUP.


  1. This is one for me. There’s no doubt about you Lisa you keep us informed on such important history. Have ordered the ebook for there’s not space at the present time to keep buying more books. If I don’t organise soon will be putting life and limb at risk. Big thanks for your great reviews as always.


    • LOL Fay, I envision you under a toppling mountain of books waving desperately for help!


  2. Our library has this on order Lisa, so I’ve put a reserve on it – it sounds like something I will enjoy! Thanks for a fascinating review.

    I’ve just finished Some Tests (loved it!) and am enjoying the Tolkein, Farmer Giles of Ham! Will post under both shortly!


    • I’m so glad you liked Some Tests!
      And you know it’s so true. After I broke my wrist the GP (not my usual one) said she wanted me to do a bone density test. Now, I don’t need to do a test to know that my bone density can’t be very good, I never played those weight-bearing sports in my youth. So I asked what to do if it turns out to be terrible, and the answer was to take calcium and Vit D. Terrific, I said, I’m already doing that and have been for 20 years or so. But she still gave me a referral for the test!


  3. Lisa yes, I have known patients whose entire week was taken up with specialist appointments, GP appointments, pathology tests – I understand how it happens, especially when doctors have to be concerned about legal action for negligence. It’s an awful way to spend your time though – I’d rather be enjoying life at this stage!

    I did find myself chortling all through the book though, especially as she got further and further out – and increasingly swept up in the cycle – and of course plenty of specialists prefer compliant patients rather than the ones who ask a lot of questions! I’m so glad you pressed the GP about the need for the test!

    It’s worth being a “difficult” patient these days! Thanks for the review, I’ve purchased The Cook for my Christmas reading!


  4. Sounds fascinating Lisa!


    • It’s an extraordinary story, I read more of it today and it seems like another world…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The closest I ever got to Australian jazz was The Loved Ones in the late 60s, who grew out of The Red Onion Jazz Band, and though I had their LP I was too young to see them before they went off to England.
    But the stories of our racist past, not least in the Labour movement, ring too true.


    • Yes, well, as I say, it’s not my kind of jazz anyway. It’s the history that interests me.


  6. […] Other reviews: Lisa at ANZLitLovers reveals some of her other ‘off-duty’ interests in her very good review of Harlem Nights. […]



    Please join us (you or your spouse) for an ongoing discussion about obscure female jazz singers. We have very few Australian names. Thank you for your time and nice website.


    • Hello, and thanks for passing this on.
      My background in music is classical and my interest in jazz is really only spasmodic, something that I have to resurrect each time I do a show (and each time I swear I’ll never do another because it’s so much work). But I would have been pleased to know about this forum when I was hunting for material for a show I did a while back, on women jazz singers of the 20s, 30s, and 40s. (Unfortunately you can only listen to the most recent show on the 3CR website, so it’s long gone. But those women were all Americans anyway, so it’s not much use to you if you’re looking for Australian women. We came to the conclusion that we were looking for something that wasn’t there.


      • Thank you for your reply. Some Australians that are mentioned are Barbara James, Georgia Lee, and Wilma Reading (who is still alive).


        • The problem is, for a radio show that is a music show not a talk show, that finding recordings turned out to be too difficult. If recordings exist, they have to be of playable quality and finding them is beyond our resources as volunteers.


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: