Dance Band Encyclopaedia
sensitive matter of Work Permits.
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.
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
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.
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.)
the Whiteman visit, a policy was then agreed upon whereby:
Work Permits would normally be issued for eight weeks only.
may also have been some sort of “quota” system, to limit the number
of foreign bands here at any one time.)
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.
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
Some bands and musicians were coming here without firm contracts.
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.
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
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”.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Library; British Newspaper Library, Colindale.
- “Variety”; published USA (Microfilm copies)
- “The Times “; published UK (Microfilm copies)
Library, St. Pancras, London:
- “Melody Maker “, published UK (Microfilm copies)
- “Billboard”; published USA (Microfilm copies)
Archives, Kew, London:
- Board of Trade; Inwards Passenger Lists. (BT26)
- Ministry of Labour; Minutes of Meetings 1920-1930 (LAB 13)
“; published UK (Private collection)
my thanks to Charles Hippisley-Cox, Nick Dellow, Mike Thomas and Steve
Walker, for comment and assistance.