‘Flappers, wine, cocaine & revels’: Melbourne, 1928

The Sonny Clay incident in Australia in 1928 should be ample proof to anyone who thinks that blacks did not face extreme racism in their global travels back in the old days.

My great-grandfather, Philip Thomas Smith, faced far lesser prejudice in Paris in 1918. The French girls merely felt his behind and wondered what had happened to his tail.

The Vapour Trail

Recently, the editor of extempore, an Australian journal devoted to writing about jazz and improvised music, asked me to write a short piece about Sonny Clay’s ill-fated Australian tour in 1928.


(Members of Sonny Clay’s Coloured Idea (including the singer Ivie Anderson) on deck as they pull into Sydney, 1928)

Sonny Clay’s Plantation Orchestra, toegther with other singers and dancers, formed a vaudeville combination called the Coloured Idea which hit the Tivoli circuit in early 1928. As I wrote in a previous post, Clay’s ‘orchestra’ was the first all-African American jazz band to disembark on Australian shores, joined by the ebullient songstress, Ivie Anderson. They stayed a couple of months and were deported at the end of it, amid surveillance from tabloid reporters, police and the then-equivalent of ASIO.

In order to write my piece on Clay, I spend time in the State Library of Victoria when I was in Melbourne last week…

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