033: Leslie Thompson “Swing from a Small Island”

Leslie Thompson, 1930s
Leslie Thompson, 1930s
Leslie Thompson, London, 1985
Leslie Thompson, London, 1985
Thompson (right: string bass) West India Regiment, Wembley 1924
Thompson (right: string bass) West India Regiment, Wembley 1924

Leslie Thompson (1901-1987) was born in Jamaica, raised at Alpha Cottage School, joined the West India Regiment as a bandsman, and studied at Kneller Hall near London 1919-1920. Corporal Thompson returned with the regimental band to perform at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924, worked in theatrical, cinema and concert music in Kingston, and migrated to England in 1929.

He worked in dance and jazz bands in London, in the theatre including Coward’s Cavalcade and for Cochran, toured to Italy with Louis Armstrong in 1934 and formed his all-black swing band which was taken over by Ken “Snakehips” Johnson. He worked with Spike Hughes,  Billy Merrin, Edmundo Ros, served as a sergeant in the anti-aircraft defences and joined Stars in Battledress. When he saw the bombed ruins of Berlin he was reminded of Kingston after the earthquake of 1907.

Society club work, studies at the Guildhall, led to a spell as warden of the Alliance Club for students in London and then work as a probation officer in north London. He renewed his religious faith and had a wide range of friendships who learned of the many-sided realities of life as a West Indian in Britain in the 20th century.

His autobiography Swing from a Small Island was republished by Northway Publications, London, in 2009. Chris Searle, writing in the Morning Star 30 October 2009, stated: “Thompson’s story is one to read, one to learn from and one to remember”. In Jazz Rag 109 (Autumn 2009) Ron Simpson commented: “Often the words are clearly in response to a photograph, article or question. The result is a somewhat tangential narrative, but the great advantage is that this reads easily and naturally, in the authentic voice of someone who has lived a remarkable life and reviews it modestly, even humbly, though with a due sense of pride in his achievement”. Jazz Journal (December 2009) described the “well produced” Swing from a Small Island as “excellent”. Andy Simons wrote in his review in Race and Class  (Vol 51, April 2010 pp. 107-8) that the book is “valuable as social history” and Thompson’s story “is one of honour in everyday life”.

In the British and Asian Studies Association (BASA) Newsletter 56 (March 2010) Arthur Torrington noted that “other aspects of his life and times are of equal interest [to the prolific musical career]” and the autobiography is “moving” and is “a very interesting read”.


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