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Caribbean Jazz in Dundee

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

In the 1930s and 40s Dundee was temporarily home to three major names in Caribbean Jazz.

The story starts in 1938, when the Palace Theatre in the Nethergate welcomed Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and his West Indian Orchestra, Britain’s first all-Black dance band. Johnson was born in 1914 in Georgetown in British Guiana (now Guyana). He was schooled in the UK then travelled to New York to immerse himself in the Harlem jazz scene. This led him to establish the West Indian Dance Orchestra, which became Britain’s leading swing band in the late 1930s. Although his main love was jazz, he also made radio broadcasts of calypso and other West Indian music.

The Broughty Ferry Guide was eagerly awaiting Johnson’s visit, claiming “Snakehips can make it as hot as you like. His orchestrations pack a rhythm that burns you up.” The Evening Telegraph, meanwhile, described him as “a real showman with lots of personality and a pair of happy feet.” Following his first show at the Palace, the Courier noted: “Six feet something of litheness, agility, and personality, ‘Snakehips’ is one of the leaders in swing music, and handles his band of a dozen instruments with great skill. His selections range from an original version of a negro spiritual, ‘Walls of Jericho,’ to a rousing medley of old and new favourites. ‘Snakehips’ shows his own versatility with an acrobatic tap-dance.”

Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and an advert from the Broughty Ferry Guide, 22 October 1938

Sadly, Johnson never made a return visit to Dundee. In 1941, he was killed during an air raid while performing at the Café de Paris in London. However, two of the members of his Orchestra later formed their own bands and returned to Dundee.

The first of these was Carl Barriteau, who visited on several occasions starting in 1943. Barriteau was born in Trinidad in 1914 and raised in Venezuela. He began playing tenor horn but later switched to the clarinet. In the 1930s he moved to London and joined Johnson’s West Indian Dance Orchestra. Melody Maker named him Best Clarinettist for seven consecutive years. He was badly injured during the air raid that killed Johnson but recovered to form his own band which he toured extensively.

Barriteau’s first Dundee engagement in April 1943 was also at the Palace Theatre. The Evening Telegraph raved: “First visit of Carl Barriteau will be spoken about. Hot swing fans have a rare treat from the coloured clarinettist and his band, but this is entertainment – and first class too –for the million. Carl is a talented and versatile performer. His mike-singing and dancing-conducting are as hot as his instrument playing. The boys and girls who assist him are a bright bunch. This is a show not to miss.”

Barriteau’s success ensured a swift return in May, this time to the Locarno Ballroom on Lochee Road. Promoting this, the Broughty Ferry Guide described him as “one of the most lovable dance band leaders of our times. "Several return visits followed to both venues, and in 1944 the Evening Telegraph hailed him as “Europe’s greatest swing clarinettist”.

Advert for Carl Barriteau at the Locarno Ballroom, Evening Telegraph 10 May 1943 (by kind permission of DC Thomson & Co Ltd)

While Johnson and Barriteau had only visited for a week or so at a time, Bertie King’s stay in the city was to last for two and a half years as resident band leader at the Empress Ballroom near the Royal Arch at the waterfront.

King was born in Panama in 1912 and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. Moving to London in his early twenties, he joined Johnson’s West Indian Dance Orchestra, playing clarinet and saxophone. He also gained experience playing sax with many other leading swing bands including those of Harry Roy, Nat Gonella, Geraldo and Teddy Joyce (with whom he had also visited Dundee in 1938). After serving in the Royal Navy during the war, he formed his own band and arrived in Dundee to take up residency at the Empress in May 1948.

Advert for Bertie King at the Empress Ballroom, Broughty Ferry Guide,7 August 1948

According to the Evening Telegraph, “His Dundee debut met with an enthusiastic reception. Smallish - he’s about 5 ft 6 in – with a quiet manner and smiling round face, Mr King is certain his association with the city will be a happy one.” Over the next two and half years it certainly was, as the Empress became one of the most popular dance halls in Dundee. When he finally left in October 1950, he placed an advert in the Courier:

“Mr and Mrs Bertie King wish to say Farewell to the many friends they have met during their stay in Dundee. We’re no’ awa’ tawe bide awa’.”

Feature on Bertie King and his band in the Evening Telegraph, 16 April 1949 (by kind permission of DC Thomson & Co Ltd)

Thereafter, King’s career continued to flourish, and he divided his time between the UK (playing jazz) and Jamaica (playing calypso). In the 1950s he led the Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation’s in-house band. He moved to the USA in 1965 and died in 1981.

In October 1948 King had invited Carl Barriteau back to Dundee for a one-off appearance at the Empress. His next return to the city was as the headline act in a Dundee Corporation Variety Show at the Caird Hall in 1950, then again three years later playing alongside Jimmy Shand in a Grand Coronation Ball, again in the Caird Hall. Further appearances at the Empress and the Palace followed over the next few years. In 1970 Barriteau emigrated to Australia. He died in 1998.

Written by Matthew Jarron, University of Dundee Museums


Various issues of Dundee Courier, Evening Telegraph and Broughty Ferry Guide

Stephen Bourne, Mother Country: Britain's Black Community on the Home Front 1939-45, The History Press, 2010

Herbie Miller and Roberto Moore, ‘Jazz in Jamaica, at Home and Abroad’, Volume! 13:2, 2017

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