The story of Buckinghamshire swing king Ken Johnson who died in the Blitz

Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson revolutionised British jazz

The story of Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson is a tragic but inspiring one.

A groundbreaking man in more ways than one, Johnson was a pioneering force in British music in the 1930s.

Born Kenrick Johnson in British Guiana – now Guyana – in 1914, he was sent to Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School in Marlow aged 14 to complete his education.

Having played the violin as a child, Johnson had an interest in dancing from an early age which invoked the ire of his father, a doctor who wanted his son to follow in his footsteps.

But ‘Snakehips’ was always one to break the mould and he defied his father’s hopes as his love for dance and music persevered.

After leaving school, Johnson chose to study law rather than medicine at London University – but he left university to work as a dancer.

He toured the Caribbean before heading to the US, where he visited Harlem in New York and honed his tap-dancing skills.

It was in Harlem that Johnson learned the signature dance style that earned him his nickname, and also where he was inspired to start his own all-black swing band.

Named the Aristocrats of Jazz, the group debuted in 1936 as Johnson returned to Britain and they performed in London in April of that year.

Johnson formed the West Indian Dance Orchestra, who were the leading British swing band at the time, and ‘Snakehips’ grew a reputation at many of London’s leading nightclubs.

He had plans to tour the Netherlands and Scandinavia but the outbreak of the Second World War meant this would never come to fruition.

The threat of bombing in London saw Willerby’s, a club where the band had a residency gig, close in 1939.

But the band were so in demand they secured a spot at the infamous Cafe de Paris, an upmarket underground nightclub in the West End.

They were the first all-black British band to do so and received much critical acclaim for their performances.

In 1940, Johnson began a relationship with critic Geral Hamilton – a man 20 years his senior.

The pair lived in Belgravia before moving to Berkshire when the Blitz started, but Johnson commuted to Cafe de Paris to perform.

The West End remained defiant in the face of nightly raids by German bombers as clubs stayed open for Londoners desperate to dance their worries away.

Ultimately, this defiance sadly proved to lead to Johnson’s death as he was killed while performing during the Blitz on March 8 1941, aged 26.

Today, Johnson is remembered via a plaque at Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School.

Hand-carved by sculptor Martin Cook, the plaque is one of many around the Wycombe district recognising the area’s famous citizens and historic places.

Johnson is widely regarded as a model for black musicians in Britain and his impact on the music scene in London led to more mixed-race bands forming.

His legacy includes the BBC series Dancing on the Edge, which focuses on a fictional jazz band in the early 1930s led by a character inspired by Johnson.