Harlem Nights: The Secret History of Australia’s Jazz Age

Deirdre O'Connell

Harlem Nights: The Secret History of Australia's Jazz Age
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Harlem Nights: The Secret History of Australia’s Jazz Age

Deirdre O'Connell

The untold story of race and power in Australia’s Jazz Age

The 1920s were a time of wonder and flux, when Australians sensed a world growing smaller, turning faster - and, for some, skittering off balance. American movies, music and dance brought together what racial lines kept apart. A spirit of youthful rebellion collided with the promise of racial perfectibility, stirring deep anxieties in white nationalists and moral reformers.

African-American jazz represented the type of modernism that cosmopolitan Australians craved - and the champions of White Australia feared. Enter Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea. Snuck in under the wire by an astute promoter, the Harlem-style revue broke from the usual blackface minstrel fare, delivering sophisticated, liberating rhythms. The story of their Australian tour is a tale of conspiracy - a secret plan to kick out and keep out ‘undesirable’ expressions of modernism, music and race.

From the wild jazz clubs of Prohibition-era LA to Indigenous women discovering a new world of black resistance, this anatomy of a scandal-fuelled frame-up brings into focus a vibrant cast of characters from Australia’s Jazz Age.

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