Shortlist year: 2022

Shortlist category: Australian history

Published by: Melbourne University Press

The 1920s were a time of wonder and flux, when Australians sensed a world growing smaller, turning faster-and, for some, skittering off balance. American movies, music and dance brought together what racial lines kept apart. A spirit of youthful rebellion collided with the promise of racial perfectibility, stirring deep anxieties in white nationalists and moral reformers. African-American jazz represented the type of modernism that cosmopolitan Australians craved-and the champions of White Australia feared. Enter Sonny Clay's Colored Idea. Snuck in under the wire by an astute promoter, the Harlem-style revue broke from the usual blackface minstrel fare, delivering sophisticated, liberating rhythms. The story of their Australian tour is a tale of conspiracy-a secret plan to kick out and keep out 'undesirable' expressions of modernism, music and race. From the wild jazz clubs of Prohibition-era Los Angeles to Indigenous women discovering a new world of black resistance, this anatomy of a scandal-fuelled frame-up brings into focus a vibrant cast of characters from Australia's Jazz Age.

About the author


Deirdre O'Connell

Deirdre O'Connell is an historian, teacher and author of 'The Ballad of Blind Tom'. She has a background in environmental journalism and music documentary and lives in the Blue Mountains on Gundungurra and Darug land.

Judges’ comments

'Harlem Nights' begins almost innocuously. "This is a story," writes Deidre O'Connell, "of an Australian political conspiracy." While that is certainly true – in rich detail she uncovers the political controversy precipitating the expulsion from Australia of Sonny Clay's African American jazz orchestra – 'Harlem Nights' is so much more. Clay's arrival in Sydney in January 1928 set alarm bells ringing immediately. For ten weeks Clay and his troupe were at the centre of a political storm that exposed the cultural chasm between Australians determined to defend the prevailing order and those intent on challenging what they regarded as the stifling influence of Victorian-era values. To its local detractors, jazz represented decadence, moral decay and the pernicious influence of American culture – about which Australians were already deeply ambivalent. The debate over jazz was thus part of a much deeper contest between tradition and modernity. This book is a historical 'tour-de-force', highlighting both the heady excitement of the 1920s and the racial and sexual tensions that were never far from the surface in a still-resolutely White Australia. Asking big questions in small places, O'Connell has written a wonderfully textured history of an Australia deeply uncertain of both its own identity and its place in the world.