I left London on October 7, 2021 to visit the Corsewall Lighthouse hotel in Southwest Scotland to commemorate the centennial of the sinking of the SS Rowan and the tragedy it befell the Southern Syncopated Orchestra in 1921 on October 8.
The Southern Syncopated Orchestra was the first group of black musicians to play at Brighton Dome where they arrived in August 1921. They stayed in Brighton for a full month and the SSO was the first jazz orchestra to visit the UK and Ireland, touring from 1919 to 1921. In 1921 the group was invited for a command performance at Buckingham Palace by the Prince of Wales, future King Edward VIII. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph the SSO entertained about 100 guests in a specially drained out lake in the gardens.
The orchestra was international and comprised of British West Indian, West African and American musicians who transformed the London club scene and popularised black music, but tragedy has meant that this part of London’s black musical history has remained hidden for decades. American composer Will Marion Cook formed the SSO with 27 instrumentalists and 19 vocalists who came from New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Guyana, Barbados, Antigua and Ghana among other places. The legendary clarinetist turned soprano saxophone virtuoso Sidney Bechet came to England with the SSO and helped put them and jazz music on the UK musical map as he is seen as one of the twin pillars of modern jazz along with Louis Armstrong.
The first serious jazz review in Europe was written by the conductor of the L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Ernest Ansermet. In this review he mentioned the virtuoso performance of Bechet on clarinet. The music was composed and orchestrated by Will Marion Cook (1869-1944), who had studied under Czech composer Antonin Dvorák at New York’s National Conservatory of Music and Ansermet remarked that the arrangements were, “Extremely difficult, they are equally admirable for their richness of invention, force of accent, and daring in novelty and the unexpected.” Ansermet even likened their musical artistry to that of a Bach Concerto.
My trip to Corsewall Lighthouse by train took 7.5 hours and was booked in the spring of 2021. I had called the Lighthouse to ask if they would like to include a concert or a talk about the Southern Syncopated Orchestra and the tragic sinking of the SS Rowan in their itinerary. As the hotel is a tiny maritime relic from 1814, there is space only for the essentials and, as such, a concert or talk wasn’t possible but I was able to record a video on the property directly to the south of the hotel.
Leaving London with a saxophone and a backpack I ventured forth to the Scottish wilderness. When I reached Stranraer I then embarked on a bumpy 25-minute drive through Kirkholm to the edge of the United Kingdom. The driver stopped so we could admire the Belted Galloway cows along the road. I couldn’t eat one, but like Peter, John and Wendy would trust them implicitly. They gazed at me in my taxi cab as I called out a hello in Canadian.
Evening conversation at the Corsewall Lighthouse Hotel is set against the crashing of waves on the shore and wind howling along the coast. As I watched the passenger ships sail past the lighthouse on October 8, 2021 I wondered if the passengers on board the SS Rowan heard the fog horn as they sailed past on October 8, 1921. The SSO had just finished its Scottish tour at the Lyric Theatre in Glasgow and was on its way to Dublin to perform on October 9 at La Scala Theater.
As they were heading down the west coast of Scotland they hit a fog bank. Captain Donald Brown of the SS Rowan slowed the ship to around half her normal steaming speed and continued southwards. At about 12:10am the American steamer West Camak appeared out of the fog and, despite efforts by both captains, collided with the stern of the Rowan. Although damage was not severe, Captain Brown ordered all the passengers on deck and the ship’s lifesaving equipment made ready: a precaution which ultimately saved many lives. Soon after the collision with the West Camak the SS Clan Malcolm, en route from Glasgow to Birkenhead, appeared and crashed into the Rowan on her starboard side almost cutting her in two. The Rowan sank almost immediately, as passengers and crew were sent sprawling across the decks, and many were thrown overboard into the sea. The West Camak, the Clan Malcolm and the destroyer HMS Wrestler, which had answered the West Camak’s distress call, were left to rescue around one hundred passengers and crew.
The names of the musicians who perished that night have never been recorded in the history books, and aside from that tragedy, the music was lost and when the group had completed the engagement in Ireland later that year the group disbanded and was never recorded. One of the musicians lost at sea was vocalist Frank Bates. Born in Barbados, he had come to Britain with ambitions of becoming a doctor and pursue his training at King’s College in London. When it was discovered that he was colour blind those studies came to an end, but finding that he had musical talent he was able to get small parts in local theatres and eventually with the SSO.
Many of the band members including drummer Pete Robinson and Frank Bates had settled in South London and married white English women. By 1921 the legacy of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra included at least 16 mixed race children. I have no doubt that the musical culture of London was impacted tremendously by the Southern Syncopated Orchestra and when the names of the orchestra members are finally noted the impact can be traced and studied. Until then, I bid Scotland a fond adieu.
Orchestra members who died:
Frank Allan Fitzgerald Bates Vocalist. Born St. Michael, Barbados, July 14, 1889, according to his apparent birth certiﬁcate, or November 19, 1892, according to his U.K. Seamen’s Identity Certiﬁcate. Served as able seaman in the British Merchant Marine. Gave his profession as actor in July 1919. Member of SSO in Glasgow, September/October 1921. Died in Rowan disaster, October 9, 1921. Married Fanny Vivian, London, December 31, 1918; living descendants in Great Britian.
Vallie Brown Trumpeter but role in SSO not conﬁrmed. Born Philadelphia, February 1, 1864. By his own account, member of 10th U.S. Cavalry at Galveston, Texas, at about age 18, but he has not been traced in any documentation of this unit. Though he subsequently said he left the United States in 1906, he applied for a passport in Berlin on August 24, 1904, to include his wife Alice and daughter Nellie, born Baltimore, September 1900. He gave his profession as “virtuoso.” He is believed to have been in Germany from 1893 at latest and toured throughout Europe in the following years. He was in Copenhagen in January 1897, Prague in 1898, Scandinavia, Austria (at the Kaisergarten, Vienna), Hungary, Poland in 1902, Austria and Switzerland, 1905. He was in Amsterdam in September 1907, Copenhagen in June 1910, Bucharest in December 1911, Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) in December 1916, Stockholm in September 1918, Christiania (now Oslo) in March 1919. In Petrograd he gave his profession as “bandmaster.” During these years, he was also in South America in 1903 and from August 1909 to January 1910. Member of SSO in Glasgow, October 1921. Died in Rowan disaster October 9, 1921.
John Herbert Greer Trombonist. Born Portadown, Co. Armagh, Ireland, March 30, 1886. White British. Member of SSO in Glasgow, September/ October 1921. Died in Rowan disaster, October 9, 1921.
Gustave Albert Arthur Jaeger Violinist. Born London, March 31, 1877. His father, Gustave Jaeger, a professor of music, is noted in the 1881 census as French, but in 1891 as German, which may mean that he was from Alsace-Lorraine. His mother was English. Member of SSO in Glasgow, September/October 1921. Died in Rowan disaster October 9, 1921. In December 1921 the Daily Mail paid £1,000 to his widow who was left with eight young children.
Frank Lacton Vocalist, pianist, organist. Born London circa 1889, according to his death record. No birth record has been located. Sierra Leonian. Organist at St. George’s Cathedral, Freetown, Sierra Leone. Organist at Cathedral Church of Christ, Lagos, Nigeria, before 1914. In London by December 1919 when he attended the inaugural dinner of the African Progress Union. Member of SSO at Brighton and Glasgow, August to October 1921. Died in Rowan disaster, October 9, 1921. His body was washed ashore at Lagg on the Isle of Arran, October 18, 1921.
Edwin Samuel Lattess Role unknown. Born St. Peter Port, Guernsey, Channel Islands, September 28, 1885. White British. His grandfather, George Lattess, was an Italian seaman. Member of SSO at Glasgow, September/ October 1921. Died in Rowan disaster, October 9, 1921. His death record gives a London address.
Charles Henry MacDonald Banjoist. Born London, February 11, 1877. His father, Charles Macdonald, was an acrobat, banjoist, and street conjuror, born in South Africa and described as Zulu in the English 1911 census. His mother Emma (née Ryall) was English, the daughter of a parchment maker. By 1895 the family was living in Brighton. Charles is recorded as a music hall artist in the 1901 census. Member of SSO in Glasgow, September/October 1921. Died in Rowan disaster, October 9, 1921. Living relatives in Great Britian.
Pete Robinson (real name: Harrison Robinson). Drummer. Born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, March 4 or 24, 1888 (the ﬁrst date from his 1915 passport, the second from his 1919 passport). In 1915, he said he had left the United States in 1911, in 1919 he said in 1902. He was in Berlin when he was issued with an emergency passport on September 23, 1912. He was living in Brixton, London, when he applied for a new passport on June 11, 1915, prior to which he married Florence Martin (English). Their children, Norris Henry and Vivian Doris, were born on July 26, 1915, and October 19, 1917, respectively, with their father’s name entered as Henry Robinson in 1915 and Harry Robinson in 1917. Led The Original Philadelphia Coon Band in London, circa 1920. Member of SSO at Brighton and Glasgow, August/ September 1921. Died October 9, 1921, in Rowan disaster. Living descendants in Great Britian. See Kester 2003.
Walter Bertrand Williams Vocalist. Born Columbia, South Carolina, January 3, 1888 (according to his draft registration) or 1890 (according to his March 4, 1921 passport application). When he registered for the draft on June 5, 1917, he was a porter employed by Frank Schwartz at 145 West 28th Street, New York City. Corporal in the 367th Infantry Band (Buffaloes) performing in the enlisted men’s quartet and as a soloist. At the time of the 1920 census he was working as a gentleman’s valet. Became a post ofﬁce clerk and reported in January 1920 singing at a meeting of the postal workers’ Elijah P. Lovejoy Club. Soloist at Mother A.M.E. Zion Church, West 136th Street, New York City, 1921, He was granted a year’s leave of absence from the post ofﬁce when he was recruited for the SSO by Hattie King Reavis, and applied for a passport on March 4, 1921. Member of SSO at Brighton and Glasgow, August/September 1921. Died in Rowan disaster, October 9, 1921.
Center for Black Music Research – Columbia College Chicago
Southern Syncopated Orchestra: The Roster
Author(s): Howard Rye
Source: Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 19-70
Published by: Center for Black Music Research – Columbia College Chicago and University of Illinois Press
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/blacmusiresej.30.1.0019