Post Scripts to the story of Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson


Reader Blaise Morris found the Ken Johnson Pages on the  web and has kindly consented to her family's extraordinary story to be retold here.


Val Wilmer is the leading authority on Ken Johnson. Also known as a photographer, she has spent much of her life documenting jazz in Britain. Her books include Jazz People, The Face Of Black Music, As Serious As Your Life and her autobiography Mama Said There'd Be Days Like This. She is completing a book entitled Shakehips Swing, and is planning a CD comprising all sixteen of Ken Johnson's recordings.


To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the bomb blast at the Cafe de Paris, a Ken Johnson memorial concert was organised at the William Borlese School in Marlow Buckinghamshire. Johnson attended this school when he first arrived in England.

The event took place on March 9 1991, and amongst the speakers were former schoolmate John Turk, band vocalist Don Johnson and guitarist Joe Deniz. Also performing that night were tap dancer Will Gaines, together with a band led by Rod Hamer. They played Exactly Like You, The Hucklebuck, Serenade In Blue, All Of Me (vocal by Frank Holder) and You Win.


Many myths have grown up around that night in 1941. One story told of the bomb hitting the entrance and flying down the stairs before exploding. This view is not borne out by eyewitness accounts. Another tells of how the whole band was wiped out that evening, when in fact Ken Johnson and saxophonist David Williams were the only members of the West Indian Orchestra who were killed.


In 1997, Clarke Peters, the impresario behind Five Guys Named Moe, was working on a musical based on the life of Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson. Actor Paul Medford was cast in the title role. Although songs were chosen and rehearsals did get underway at the time, to date it hasn't reached the stage.


His old school in Marlow has not forgotten him, either. The William Borlase School in Marlow is the final resting place of Ken Johnsonís ashes, after his funeral in Golders Green. At the school on May 6 1998, a blue plaque was unveiled in his honour, and every year at the School Prize Day, there is an award made entitled The Ken "Snakehips" Johnson Prize for improvised music.


Ken Johnsonís name still reappears in the press from time to time. At the end of 1997, The Fortean Times carried a report extracted from The Voice of 27 October. Over the years, a number of staff and customers at the rebuilt Cafť de Paris had reported seeing a handsome young immaculately-dressed black man appear out of nowhere and then vanish. " I was in the cellar a while ago and everything suddenly went cold," said Reggie Adams, the club's head barman. "The lights changed and then I saw what looked like a man dressed in Forties' gear walk through a wall. The cleaners won't go down there and loads of other staff have reported weird happenings." The area that is now the cellar used to be the bandstand in the original club.


Anthony Powell, in his novel The Soldier' Art, the eighth volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, used the Cafe de Paris as a model for the Cafe de Madrid, which was also hit by a bomb. In this story too, a young black entertainer puts in a brief appearance.


In the obituary of British trumpeter Kenny Baker in December 1999, The Times mentioned that "Bakerís style was honed by sitting in at London's after-hours clubs and playing alongside Ken "Snakehips" Johnson's West Indian Orchestra at the Cafť de Paris".


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