The members of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra were the ambassadors par excellence of African-American music to Europe. Growing out of the pool of musicians that had formed the Clef Club in New York City, they brought to their enterprise, for good or ill, a much wider sensibility than that of the "jazz" groups which would follow. They appeared in Europe at a time of critical cultural change and maximum receptiveness to novelty, at the end of World War I, which had been ended largely by American intervention. The orchestra itself appeared only in Great Britain, Ireland, France, and Austria, but its members spread across the Continent in its wake, and even into the new nation states of Eastern Europe which had emerged from the wreckage of Europe's defeated empires.
The original inspiration for the research whose latest stage appears in the following pages came from the late Edward S. Walker, a pioneer in researching the earliest days of jazz in Britain, who was unusual in his understanding that jazz had a relationship with ragtime and other forms of music deriving from preceding developments in African-American music. An article published early in 1971 claimed that "jazz in Britain, or even bands with some pretension to a jazz style, had been almost totally absent" prior to the 1927 arrival of the Philippine-born Spaniard Fred Elizalde, an apostle of the fashionable "white New York" style of chamber jazz (Tanner 1971, 26). Tanner went on to remark that "it is true that a few well-known visiting firemen had been briefly to these shores ... but visits such as these were few and far between" (1971, 26).
In an article called "The Visiting Firemen" (Walker 1971), Edward Walker set himself the task of disproving this by listing American bands and individual musicians who had appeared in Britain prior to 1927. He came up with an impressive list though it admittedly included quite a few dance bands whose jazz credentials were minimal. Four years later, I was a member of the Storyville team that assisted editor Laurie Wright in producing the research magazine Storyville. During the production of this magazine, which happened to create one of the largest bodies of jazz scholarship yet published, I embarked on an attempt to establish exactly who did what when with respect to the African-American participants in this process. My debt to both Laurie Wright and Ted Walker for inspiring this research is incalculable. With enthusiastic support from Ted Walker, I borrowed his "visiting firemen" concept. It has been repeatedly pointed out that firemen put out fires rather than start them. The defense has no case. The Southern Syncopated Orchestra certainly started one.
Ted Walker had in the meantime turned his own attention to the Southern Syncopated Orchestra (SSO) in two articles (Walker 1972, 1974) in which he recovered from the limited range of sources then easily accessible the basic outlines of the orchestra's visit to Britain. Over the next few years I searched newspapers and public records for references, initially working in cooperation with Karl Gert zur Heide, who was working on a biography of orchestra member Paul Wyer. This has unfortunately never been published, and Karl did not feel able to contribute his material to the present project, but his contribution to it, including material from conversations with orchestra member Bert Marshall, should not be overlooked. My first somewhat flawed attempt to fill in the gaps in previous research appeared in 1986 (Rye 1986) and eventually a more thoroughgoing and comprehensive account appeared in my "Visiting Firemen" series in Storyville (Rye 1990).
And there the matter rested, all reasonably available sources having been consulted. The new century brought a change. There arrived on my doormat an entirely unexpected letter from a Ms. Juliet Jones, who announced that she was the granddaughter of orchestra member Frank Bates. Juliet's own story will appear in the continuation of this project in the next issue of Black Music Research Journal; suffice it to say here that she had discovered my 1990 article and wanted to know whether I now knew any more. …