Ken “Snakeships” Johnson otherwise known as Kenrick Reginald Hijmans Johnson was born on the 10th of September 1914. He was a swing band leader and dancer. Johnson was born in Georgetown, British Guiana (present-day Guyana).  

He showed some musical ability, but his attraction to dancing wasn’t supported by his father, who wished him to work in medicine. He went to school in Britain, but instead of continuing to university, he travelled to New York, perfecting dance moves and began to study the vibrant jazz scene in Harlem. He returned and set up the West Indian Dance Orchestra, a nearly all-black swing band, with Leslie Thompson, a Jamaican musician. In 1937 he legally took over the band, causing Thompson and several musicians to leave. He filled the vacancies with musicians from the Caribbean, and the band’s popularity grew. 

From 1938 the band began broadcasting on BBC Radio, recorded their first albums and appeared in an early television broadcast. Increasingly popular, they were employed as the house band at the Café de Paris, an upmarket and fashionable nightclub located in a basement premises below a cinema. A German bombing raid on London in March 1941 hit the cinema, killing at least 34 and injuring dozens more. Johnson and one of the band’s saxophonists were among those killed, and several other band members were injured. 

The West Indian Dance Orchestra were the leading swing band in Britain at the time, well-known through their radio broadcasts, and popular, but their impact was more social than musical. As an all-black orchestra playing the most up-to-date music of the time, Johnson was seen as a pioneer for black musical leaders in the UK.  

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Black Music Collection #1

Minutes by Ken “Snakeships” Johnson