In my previous post, I republished some news articles from the China Press that follow the story of the arrival of Buck Clayton and his Harlem Gentlemen in Shanghai, their months of performing at the Canidrome Ballroom in the French Concession, the fight that broke out between Buck and local ne’er-do-well Jack Riley, and their removal from the ballroom and eventual new job playing at the Casanova Ballroom. The newspapers tell one kind of story, while memoirs tell others. Here are three accounts of the incident at the Canidrome in November 1934 that I found while perusing memoirs of Shanghai in the 1930s. The first is from jazz bandleader Whitey Smith’s memoir I Didn’t Make a Million, which focuses more on Jack Riley and treats Buck (who isn’t even named) as a sideline. A bit of professional jealousy, perhaps? The second is by John Pal, an Australian journalist and jack of all trades who lived in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s and later wrote about it in one of the best memoirs of that era, Shanghai Saga. Pal takes an insider’s view, since he was working for the Canidrome at the time, and reveals that this was indeed a ruse to get Buck and his band out of their fat contract. The third is by Buck himself, published decades later in his own memoir Buck Clayton’s Jazz World. Each memoir tells a slightly different story and does so through the haze of many decades of experience that put a distance between the story teller and the event. Going through all three accounts is a good lesson in both the value and the limitations of personal memoirs as historical records. When read against the actual news stories of the age that I published in my previous post, we get as full a picture as we ever will of this singular event in the history of Shanghai’s jazz age.
Whitey Smith’s Account from I Didn't Make a Million, pp. 95-96
Jack Riley was “the type of fellow who didn’t drink or smoke and had only to worry about the other vices. Jack Riley, in time, became one of the most famous characters who ever arrived in the city. With his first crap winnings he smuggled in a couple of slot machines in parts. The first consignment brought to him was listed as picture frames. The next was supposed to be the machinery for clocks. Then, hokus pokus, slot machines! It wasn’t long afterwards that Jack was the slot machine king of Shanghai and was seen daily driving down Nanking Road in that year’s best car with a couple of blondes in the back seat. One night Jack was out on a coffee binge dancing with his favorite girl at the Canidrome ballroom where they featured a fourteen piece negro band from Chicago. The leader of this organization was a trumpet player who stood in front of his band. As Riley danced, he imagined that this horn tooter was flirting with his girl, so next time around, Jack let go a Sunday punch, hitting the colored boy right in the chin. He ended up under the grand piano. The ballroom was in a commotion. Jack was ducking saxophones, guitars, trombones, and fourteen colored boys were on his neck. The last seen of the “king” that night was when he ran out the front door with a trombone bent around his head.”
John Pal’s Account from Shanghai Saga,p. 160
The currency of a nation finds its own level on world markets and from a quite respectable position vis-a-vis the American dollar in the early 1930’s, the Chinese dollar began to slip badly by 1937; and the situation was not improved by rumours that Madame Chiang Kai-shek had secretly taken off for South America with a heavy load of gold aboard a giant military transport airplane.
Mr. Tung, Canidrome compradore and friend of gang boss Tu Yueh-sen, was one who was beginning to find the currency position more than a trifle irritating, because he ran the cabaret attached to the Canidrome’s membership section and employed therein an all-American negro orchestra direct from Chicago. Having contracted this band when the American dollar exchanged for Ch. $2.50, Mr. Tung saw only disaster ahead as China’s trade declined under Japanese military invasion. The native dollar had already passed the four-to-one ratio and Mr. Tung’s negro entertainers were on a gold dollar contract. He therefore took the band contract along to a shrewd lawyer and inquired what might be done about it. The lawyer studied the contract closely, especially the small type, and presently smiled a smile of satisfaction which shortly enveloped Mr. Tung also.
A night or two later, after a dog-race meeting, there was a big crowd in the Canidrome ballroom. I was sitting in my usual corner with the other officials; the band was playing; the floor was filled with couples dancing; the leader of the band, a small, dapper negro, was waving his wand and, like other members of the band, no doubt feeling very happy at the declining rate of exchange and the prospect of more and more spending money.
Suddenly the dapper little negro found himself rolling on the floor with a white customer in a smart dinner suit bending over him and shouting, “Get up and fight, you bum!” Anyone could see that the negro was no match for his husky aggressor. He looked imploringly towards his comrades who, of course, had already stopped playing in surprise. Then the big white man grabbed the little negro again and lifted him to his feet so as to punch him to the floor once more, whereupon the other negroes dropped their instruments and piled into the big white man, administering what is known as the ‘grandfather of a hiding’; not, however, escaping entirely unhurt themselves. The ballroom immediately became a scene of uproar, ending only when the intruder had been literally thrown out; but the interlude lasted only twenty minutes and was forgotten in an hour, Shanghai being accustomed to meeting such situations.
Next day, however, Mr. Tung served dismissal notices upon every member of his negro orchestra, invoking a clause in their contract against creating disturbances or doing anything ‘likely to injure the business of the ballroom.’ The ex-sailor who had been hired for the job pocketed his $500 (local currency) which Mr. Tung considered cheap at the price, and next night a Filipino orchestra was installed.
Buck Clayton’s Account from Buck Clayton's Jazz World, pp. 69-75 along with some of my notes from his memoir of his time in Shanghai
“We found the [Canidrome] ballroom to be in a huge white building that must have covered several acres of land--spacious grounds that included several green lawns where the tea dances were held.”
“There were other ballrooms in the building but we occupied the largest and the most popular one. Everything was spick and span as there must have been gangs of ground-keepers and people who took care of the ballroom, including light technicians for the shows, and so many people in the big kitchens. All this was new to us. The dancing floor of the ballroom was as big as some entire clubs in the States. There were other clubs in Shanghai but the Canidrome topped them all.”
“So after our arrival it wasn’t long before Shanghai clubs were hiring more black bands from America. The booking agents were doing a fabulous business in bringing over new acts demanded by the Chinese club owners.”
Performers at Canidrome included Mistress of Ceremonies Ursula Preston from Britain, who also did a ballroom dance act with Mr. J. A. Andrew. The wives of Clayton and fellow trombonist Duke Upshaw sang in the show, as well other performers including Fay Courtney, Harlan and Janis Milner, Marya and Marta, Murray and Harris.
“Teddy Weatherford was playing four different nightclubs each night, so he could only play with us on one number before he would have to leave for another club to be in time for his show there. He would play one half hour in each club, running from one club to the next, but at the end of the week he had four salaries coming to him. His specialty with our band was Rhapsody in Blue...”
The band played classical music from 9 pm to 9:30 pm then “back to Harlem”…
“The menu was just unbelievable. There was a fourteen-course dinner for four dollars beginning with queen olives, stuffed roast capon and ending with coffee. Just four dollars.”
Clayton’s band had to deal with hazards including drunken racist marines who once attacked them in the streets (they fought the marines and won), and venereal disease. Even so, “the two years in China were the happiest two years of my life.” Clayton was treated with respect by most of Shanghai, including the Chinese. Madame Chiang Kai-shek attended their opening performance with a big party “including several beautiful Chinese ladies with the slits in their dresses, a style that I liked very much.” His trombonist Duke Upshaw taught her sister to tap dance. Clayton and his band went horseback riding often, and bought tailored clothing which was cheap by American standards. Clayton’s act was later joined by a “ragged” band also hailing from LA, the Chocolateers, then came the Five Hot Shots who originated in New York and had toured Europe, and who worked at the Paramount.
“You were not allowed in the Canidrome unless you had some kind of stature. You had to be either rich or be a dignitary of some kind. Poor people couldn’t afford to even look in the Canidrome.”
On page 75, Clayton describes the fight with Jack Riley on November 12 1934, who picked the fight on the pretext of Clayton’s pursuit of “his girl” after which the band was laid off (Pal describes why). the band then became involved in a suit with Jack Riley. Elsie Soong testified on their behalf. the band countersued and Riley was ordered to pay court costs. “However, the frame-up had been successful: we had lost our job due to the other local nightclub owners who had been suffering from loss of business and also to booking agents who were not receiving a cent from us in booking-agent fees. The whole thing was a conspiracy by both to get us out of the Canidrome, and it was successful.” Stranded in China without fare to get home, the band took a job at the Casanova ballroom. “We found that on this new job we were obliged to play Chinese music so we began to learn how. I sketched out some of the most popular Chinese songs at the time and after a few rehearsals we were playing it like we had been doing it a long time. It wasn’t too much different from our own music except the Chinese have a different scale tone, but as long as it could be written in on the American scale it could be played.” Soon afterwards, Clayton and his band returned to America due to the mounting hostility between China and Japan.