O’Connell, Deirdre: Harlem Nights: The Secret History of Australia’s Jazz Age

Deirdre O’Connell

Harlem Nights: The Secret History of Australia’s Jazz Age, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2021

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. (blurb)

The book is reviewed for Honest History by John Myrtle. Review in The Age. Author talks on ABC RN Conversations.

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