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Book Review – Harlem Nights: The Secret History of Australia’s Jazz Age by Deirdre O’Connell

In March 1928, Black American jazz musician Sonny Clay, alongside his bandmates who made up Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea, were deported from Australia back to the United States. The group had arrived a few months earlier in January. They were the first ever Black jazz ensemble to undertake a tour in Australia. However, following undeserved scrutiny of their movements and activities from officials like Major Longfield Lloyd, their presence became a point of tension. This tension reached a boiling point when a local Melbourne newspaper reported that Black men involved in the band had been caught inappropriately consorting with local white women at an apartment in East Melbourne. The deportation quickly followed.

This incident is the narrative basis of Deirdre O’Connell’s recently published book – Harlem Nights: The Secret History of Australia’s Jazz Age. However, this book is about much more than one incident. Rather, the narrative of Clay’s arrival, stay, and deportation from Australia is interspersed with an incredibly well-balanced exploration of the intricacies of the White Australia policy, which looms throughout O’Connell’s expertly-researched and beautifully-written book.

One of the many strengths of this book is its analysis of the transpacific exchanges that were occurring at the time of Clay’s visit to Australia, and how he and his bandmates themselves were an important part of this rich cultural exchange. As O’Connell explains, “the paucity of literature in Sydney about Black internationalism left entertainers and athletes playing an outsized role in transmitting ideas and relaying events.” However, these exchanges flowed both ways, which is seen through the visiting musicians and how they “relayed Indigenous Australia back to Black America.” As O’Connell suggests, “African American visitors detected in Black Sydneysiders the stirrings of a Black Pacific alliance.” (pg. 86) O’Connell also provides an excellent contrast to Australian society by transporting readers to the early twentieth century United States during a time when “‘the Negro’ was in vogue and Jim Crow segregation was at its height.” (pg. 3).

One particular highlight that gives the readers insight into the author’s clearly-extensive research process occurs in Chapter 12, titled “American Boomerang.” In this chapter the author tries to figure out more about who contemporary newspapers were referring to as “colored women” who forged friendships with the band. This section shines a light on the difficulties of historical research and the limitations of the archive as the author is unable to definitively identify these women. As O’Connell laments, “no amount of searching will uncover the identity of a person whose name has never been recorded.” (pg. 90) This, however, does not stop the author from providing the readers with some possibilities as to who these women

This is a wonderful book that will be enjoyed by both general and academic readers as a result of the author’s ability to balance a sophisticated analysis of race, gender, and culture in the early twentieth century with detailed descriptions of cities like Melbourne and Sydney, but also Los Angeles and Tijuana, during this understudied time period.

Harlem Nights: The Secret History of Australia’s Jazz Age by Deirdre O’Connell is available now from Melbourne University Press. Thank you to Melbourne University Press for a copy of the book for review.

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