In celebration of Black History Month, FAD interviews young volunteers taking part in our Black Icons project, to find out which jazz age Brits have made a lasting impression on them. Here Bui talks to us about her jazz icon, band leader & dancer Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson.
Bui, what drew you to Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson when you were looking at the archives?
“I was drawn to him because he was so young and already a band leader with a residency at the Café de Paris in the West end. He KNEW he was built to be on that stage. Tragically he died performing there when it was bombed in World War 2.
He was only 26 and had already studied medicine before he travelled to America, where he learned from the best and was a part of legendary band before starting his own.”
What have you learnt from his story?
“Being too young, or being thought of as too young, is never an excuse not to do something. It’s cliché but do what you love! Life is short.”
How do you think he compares with modern role models?
“I don’t think role models can be broken down into modern and not. As long as someone’s story touches you, or you can learn from them, I don’t think it matters what era they’re from.”
Why do you think archiving and retelling these stories is so important now?
“I feel that black people, especially British black people, don’t really know where they fit into the story of this country. They have ‘some’ idea, but nothing substantial. We don’t learn anything in school that “really” discusses black people and their personal stories, during the war or anything post slavery. It’s damaging that the education system is designed in a way that excludes anyone who isn’t white European.”
How has taking part in this project benefited you?
“Personally, it’s made me miss going to libraries. I’d forgotten how it could actually be fun looking through books for research. Professionally, research and archiving skills always look positive on a CV.”
What made you want to volunteer for this heritage project?
“I love Jazz, I love black people, I love learning – that was more than enough for me to be completely drawn in.”
Read more about FAD’s Black Icons | The British Jazz Age project. Look out for more interviews and stories coming from our young volunteers soon.