July 6, 2013

The Southern Syncopated Orchestra remembered

Over the last couple of months, there have been tributes to the Southern Syncopated Orchestra which contributed to British jazz in the early 1920s.  In May, the first Blue Heritage Plaque, recognizing a member of the orchestra was revealed at the former London home of Barbadian tenor Frank Bates.  In June, the 23rd Annual Jamaica International Ocho Rios Jazz Festival also honored the Southern Syncopated Orchestra.

Several members of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra died after the S.S. Rowan sank on its way from Glasgow to Dublin on October 9, 1921.  After midnight, the Rowan had collided with the American steamer West Camak in heavy fog off Corsewall Point.  The passengers were below during the first collision, and after coming out on deck, the crew thought they could arrive in Dublin safely.  The West Camak sent out a distress call and fifteen minutes later, the nearly 6,000 ton Clan liner, Malcolm answered the call.  But in the fog, it collided with the Rowan, which “crumpled like matchwood” according to a survivor, and sank. It took about one minute for the S.S. Rowan to sink into the sea.  Around 35 passengers died - 8 or 9 of them were members of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra.  Some of the bodies were never recovered, including the body of Frank Bates who died in the disaster.  The tragedy made headlines in Britain and around the world, in part because the orchestra - which was well known in some music circles – had been on its way to continue a tour.  But within a year the orchestra broke up and Southern Syncopated Orchestra eventually faded from memory.

Footage of SS Rowan survivors, 1921:  "The men and women pose for the camera and laugh, many of them are from ethnic minorities. The camera pans across them all, they wave and smile."  [Watch video here]

Three other Blue Heritage Plaques honoring members will be unveiled in the future.  The members include trumpeter Joe Smith from Jamaica, flautist Bertin Salnave from Haiti, and Cyril and George Blake from Trinidad, pianist Mope Desmond (Caleb Quaye) from Ghana, and drummer Pete Robinson from America. Robinson also died in the disaster, and his body was recovered.  Mope Desmond died in a rail accident in 1922 and his funeral was attended by Haitian flautist and saxophonist Bertin Depestre Salnave.

Before the tour in Europe the orchestra was originally called the New York Syncopated Orchestra and the American Syncopated Orchestra after that. In March 1919, British promoter André Charlot organized for the SSO to perform in London.  About 24 instrumentalists and 12 vocalists arrived in June 1919.  The orchestra was signed on to perform two two-hour acts every day at the Philharmonic Hall, Great Portland Street, London from July 4 to December 6 1919.

The SSO became a part of the London club scene, though they weren’t popular in London at first.  Crowds reportedly numbered at twenty people or less.  The Southern Syncopated Orchestra eventually performed across Britain – its musicians smartly dressed in black tie.  Legendary jazz musician, Sidney Bechet came to Britain with the orchestra, helping to bring some publicity.  The Prince of Wales (later King Edward III) invited the orchestra to perform at Buckingham Palace on August 19, 1919 for around 100 guests.  They were a source of entertainment during the gloomy post-war years, and to commemorate the first anniversary of the armistice, the Victory Ball was hosted at the Royal Albert Hall on November 11, 1919.  The SSO was the headline act. While the SSO performed in Britain, Sunday observance laws made “entertainments” illegal, but “concerts” legal.  They typically performed in a concert arrangement, and since most spots were closed on Sundays, musicians usually tried to book “concerts” at other locations on Sundays.  This meant that London musicians could take the train to resorts on the southern and eastern coasts of Britain.  According to Bertin Salnave, the orchestra performed “on the piers every Sunday.”

Created by American composer Will Marion Cook in 1918, the orchestra had scores of members, with numbers between 36 and 46 at any given time.  There were at least three female members (Evelyn (Mary) Luke, and sisters Angelina De Caillaux and Santos “Santita” Rivera) and the musicians were from all over the world, including Africa, America, the Caribbean, and Britain.  Caribbean and African contributions to early 20th century music are a little less documented so I wanted to include the places some of those members were from or had ties to – Antigua, Barbados, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Nigeria, Puerto Rico, Sierra Leone, South Africa, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, and Trinidad.  There was also a member, bassist Pedro Vargas, who was either from the Dominican Republic or Dominica depending on the record. The full list of musicians who played with the orchestra between 1919 and 1922 is likely to number over 110 members.  More names might be found when Britain’s 1921 census is released in 2022. Members also changed frequently, especially after squabbles began in 1920 between Will Marion Cook and George William Lattimore over who owned the SSO.

Other members who died at sea included Sierra Leonian vocalist, pianist, and organist Frank Lacton.  His body was found on shore on October 18, 1921.  There were also European members of the orchestra, like trombonist John (Herbert) Greer who was born in Ireland and died in the Rowan disaster.  Banjoist Charles (Henry) Macdonald who had South African and English ancestry also died.

Members like Cyril Blake and his brother George (Lionel) “Happy” Blake who were born in Trinidad survived the Rowan disaster and appeared in the October 14 Survivors Sacred Concert.  Other survivors who appeared at the concert included Jamaican trumpeter Joe (Joseph I.) Smith, and Sierra Leonian born, Jamaican raised trumpeter and conductor Egbert Emmanuel Thompson.  Violinist Frank Essien, who had Ghanian and Polish ancestry and Rupert Gaskin also survived and took part in the Survivors sacred concert, but they both died from tuberculosis in 1923 and 1926 respectively.  Tympanist Frank (Obediah) Kennedy, who was born in Sierra Leone and Ghanian member William Martin Ofori were both injured, but survived and made an appearance at the concert as well.  Evelyn (Mary) Luke, née Evelyn Dove was another survivor of the tragedy and she was listed as Miss E. Winchester for her appearance at the concert. She would eventually substitute for Josephine Baker at the Casino de Paris.

 Evelyn Dove

The earliest major review in Europe came from the conductor of L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Ernest Ansermet.  According to him the SSO played arrangements that were, “Extremely difficult, they are equally admirable for their richness of invention, force of accent, and daring in novelty and the unexpected.”  While the orchestra is remembered as a jazz band, a lot of the music they played wasn’t jazz, but Tin Pan Alley blues and St Louis Blues, spirituals, classical music, minstrelsy, ragtime, and plantation songs.

The history of the orchestra (and other black musicians who came even before the Jazz Age) pre-dates what is usually taught about Black British history by decades.  There were Black Britons in London before the S.S. Windrush landed in 1948.  Members and the children they had in Britain had to face prejudices other black immigrants would endure years later.

It’s believed that the Southern Syncopated Orchestra never recorded any music, which in addition to the tragedy, is why the orchestra faded from memory.  As the SSO slowly broke up, the musicians who left looked for work in Britain and the rest of Europe, joining and forming other bands.  Many of the members continued to tour and perform around the world, and some settled down in Europe as either citizens or residents.

If you want to have a look at passport photos of jazz musicians, including some members of the SSO, you can look at them here and here on Flickr.

Further Reading
Chronology of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra: 1919-1922
The Evolution of Jazz in Britain: 1880-1935 by Catherine Parsonage
Excerpt from Bechet and Jazz Visit Europe, 1919, by Ernest-Alexandre Ansermet
The First Real Critical Discussion of Jazz by Ernest Ansermet
"S.S. Rowan - Apportioning Blame for Sinking - Judgement of Lord Anderson."  The Glasgow Herald 20 Apr. 1922
Southern Syncopated Orchestra: The Roster


  1. My grandfather and great uncle were both member of the SSO.

  2. Are there any recordings? I would like to hear something recorded by them from 1925 to 1928. I read an article about Salvador Dalí published in a Spanish magazine on February 1928 where the writer mentions that Dalí had just bought many jazz-band "gramophone records" and played one of the American Southern Syncopated Orchestra during the interview.

  3. The photograph used here of Evelyn Dove should be credited to the private collection of Stephen Bourne who has written about Evelyn for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (available online).

  4. My Great-Uncle, William Tatten, was one of the vocalists.