Harlem Nights: The Secret History of Australia’s Jazz Age

Deirdre-O’Connell-Harlem-NightsDeirdre O’Connell takes a look at the untold story of race and power in Australia’s Jazz Age in Harlem Nights.

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.

Deirdre O’Connell is a historian, teacher and author of The Ballad of Blind Tom. She has a background in environmental journalism and music documentary and lives in the Blue Mountains on Gundungurra and Darug land.

Harlem Nights: The Secret History of Australia’s Jazz Age is published by Melbourne University Press and available from all leading book retailers including Booktopia.

Image: Harlem Nights: The Secret History of Australia’s Jazz Age – courtesy of Melbourne University Press