Dance Band Encyclopaedia

Visiting Americans

Work Permits

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The sensitive matter of Work Permits.

At the risk of boring readers of these articles, I feel I should give at least some information and “political background” as to why and how American musicians came to be working in England during the 1920s. I realised this was necessary when I came to write the story of bandleader Paul Specht, who had particular problems in this direction. 

American bands and musicians had visited this country even before the First World War, but this activity increased after about 1920, in part brought about by the increased enthusiasm for dancing in Britain. The Musician’s Union (MU) were not at all happy at these “invasions” and complained repeatedly to the Ministry of Labour (Ministry), who were responsible for the issue of Work Permits.

On September 9th 1922 the Times newspaper reported on objections to American saxophone players coming here, some apparently having come to England as students but then sought employment on arrival. The MU quoted the case of a West End hotel which employed two American bands, where some English musicians had been dismissed to make way for them. A further complaint was lack of consultation with the MU before permits were granted.

Variety of November 24th 1922 also reported on this story, adding that Members of Parliament had been lobbied to stop any further importation of foreign bands, which only added to the unemployment amongst British players. The official (Government) view at the time was that there was not a great influx of such people. 

In 1923 it was arranged that the Paul Whiteman Orchestra visit England, to appear in a London show called “Brighter Days” and also undertake other engagements. The MU made strong representations to the Ministry, and it was finally agreed that for these other engagements Whiteman would have to employ a number of English musicians equal to those American players who came over with him. (This idea was anything but successful in practice.) 

Following the Whiteman visit, a policy was then agreed upon whereby:­  

1) Work Permits would normally be issued for eight weeks only.
2) Any American band at a particular venue had to return home before they could be replaced by another American band there.
3) Where an American band was employed in a ballroom or nightclub, an English band had also to be employed.
4) Where any American musicians were to be employed in an otherwise English band, there should be an equal number of British players.

(There may also have been some sort of “quota” system, to limit the number of foreign bands here at any one time.)

To be fair, both the Ministry and the MU had problems with the granting of Work Permits, and the vastly increased interest in dancing following the 1914-18 War. The Ministry felt it should take a “global view”, and consider the interests of all parties in granting permits, i.e. booking agents and venues, and not just the MU. The MU itself, although complaining on behalf of its members in general, actually had few dance band players amongst its membership at this time. Additionally, they did not have a Dance Band section to deal with specific dance band matters until well into the 1930s. 

By 1925 there were still problems with Work Permit arrangements, in that some booking agents, venues and American visitors were evading the agreed policy. In letters to the Ministry in 1925, the MU complained that:­ 

1) Some bands and musicians were coming here without firm contracts.
2) Many bands and musicians, having worked here for the stipulated eight weeks, then returned home without having paid Income Tax on   
    their earnings. (The reeds player Al Starita was given special mention in this respect.)
3) The policy of employing foreign bands and musicians was having a serious effect on the employment of English musicians. (As already   
     stated, there were instances of English musicians either being “stood down” without pay, or dismissed, during an American visit.)
4) Payment to American musicians and orchestras was invariably higher than to their English counterparts. English musicians would work 
    for less money, but all the “plum” jobs were being taken by these foreign visitors.
5) The policy of equal numbers of American and English musicians was in some cases being evaded by the employment of English 
    musicians as “relief’ players only, at lower rates of pay.

A further grievance was that in some cases individual musicians, having obtained a Work Permit, would then apply to have it extended. Whilst the Ministry was responsible for the initial issue, extension of Work Permits was dealt with by the Home Office. They appear to have extended these on the basis of whether any applicant had been a “good citizen” whilst living here, although presumably they would have consulted with the Ministry. 

The objections of the MU did not, it seems, extend to the employment of individual Americans by the Savoy Hotel Group during the 1920s. Apparently they had come to an agreement with the MU fairly early on that they would employ two or three “key” American musicians only in their various orchestras; the remaining band members would all be British. With occasional lapses, the Savoy Group seem to have kept to this policy. 

In late 1924/early 1925 the newly -formed Kit Cat Club applied to the Ministry for Work Permits in respect of several American bands, which were to appear at the Club from its opening in May 1925. This policy of what amounted to continuous bands was a clear departure from existing arrangements and caused some discussion within the Ministry as to the granting or not of Permits. The MU wrote a lengthy letter of protest, setting out their previous objections, and shortly afterwards had a meeting with the Ministry on other matters. During this meeting they admitted (to the Ministry’s surprise) that not only was there no real unemployment problem within the ranks of the dance band world in England, but also there were few if any English musicians who could play like the Americans. Whether this admission was voluntary, or the Ministry pressed them on the matter is not clear, but it did not help the MU’s cause. From then onwards they seem only rarely to have been consulted on Work Permit applications. By 1930 they were incensed at the Ministry’s attitude, and wrote to them, complaining of “disgraceful treatment”.  

Notwithstanding the complaints listed above, a very sensitive issue was the attitude of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) during this time. The AFM was a powerful organisation, even in the 1920s, and had an unwavering policy of “blocking” any application by English or other foreign bands to work in America. How successful this was is clear when it is realised that whilst some fifty American bands worked in England during the 1920s, not one English band worked in America during the same period. 

It must also be noted that the American Labour Dept, the equivalent of the Ministry of Labour, were actually prepared to issue Work Permits in many cases but were always met with a threat of strike action by the AFM. Jack Hylton, whose band would probably have been successful in America, was asked - by American booking agents - to go over there on three or four occasions. In all cases the proposed visit was blocked by the AFM. (Equally, when the bandleader Ray Noble went to America in 1934, he was not permitted to take his own bandsmen over with him, and had to use American musicians. A further condition was that he had to take up American citizenship.) 

It is evident from reports in the musical press of the time that not all American bandleaders supported the stance of the AFM. Abe Lyman in particular, on a visit here in 1929, was quite open about his opposition to a recent refusal to allow Jack Hylton’s band to work in New York. However the power of the AFM was such that no American bandleader was prepared to take a public stand on the matter. So far as I am aware, these problems did not affect relationships between English musicians and their fellow Americans. With a very few exceptions, they all seem to have got on well with one another, and in some cases life-long friendships were formed. 

During the 1920s three or four Canadian bands also played in England, although in two cases at least they were billed as being American! Canada being at that time part of the British Empire, Canadian musicians were regarded as British and thus no Work Permits were necessary. One of these bands was sent over here by Paul Specht, as a deliberate attempt to get round the permit problem.

Up to about 1926 there would have been few if any English dance bands that could have matched the Americans, nor was there any demand for their services from America. From that time onwards English musicians, having listened to (and learned from) American visitors over several years, were of a much higher standard, and there were requests from American bookers for certain bands. Between 1926 and 1930 it was evident the majority of visiting American bands coming here were at best no better than our own, and criticism of these bands in the musical press became stronger as the Twenties wore on.  

American bands continued to visit until the end of 1934, at which point the American Labour Dept. announced it was no longer prepared to consider the issue of Work Permits. I have been unable to determine whether this was brought about by the effects of the Depression, or through pressure from the AFM. Whatever the reason, faced with this action the Ministry felt it had no option but to adopt a similar course, and this took effect in the Spring of 1935. Contrary to popular belief, it was not the MU who put the ban in place, although they took all possible action to ensure it was enforced. It remained in force until the early 1950s, when the MU and AFM finally agreed reciprocal exchanges of certain bands. 

The ban was in respect of American bands; individual musicians and duets or trios could (and did) still come here to work on the variety circuits. An obvious example of this was Fats Waller, who came here in 1938 and 1939. 

the decision to bar American bands seems to have been a catalyst for action by some New York musicians and bandleaders, in that they threatened to form a breakaway group and leave the AFM! But that, as they say, is another story.


British Library; British Newspaper Library, Colindale.­

    - “Variety”; published USA (Microfilm copies)

    - “The Times “; published UK (Microfilm copies)

British Library, St. Pancras, London:­

    - “Melody Maker “, published UK (Microfilm copies)

    - “Billboard”; published USA (Microfilm copies)

National Archives, Kew, London:­

    - Board of Trade; Inwards Passenger Lists. (BT26)

    - Ministry of Labour; Minutes of Meetings 1920-1930 (LAB 13)

“Rhythm “; published UK (Private collection)

and my thanks to Charles Hippisley-Cox, Nick Dellow, Mike Thomas and Steve Walker, for comment and assistance.