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Reginald Charles Foresythe (May 28, 1907 - December 28, 1958) was a British pianist, bandleader and composer. Innovative jazz composer whose music frequently possessed wit, as well as sophistication, charm and ingenuity. Ivor Cummings enjoyed London's 1930s night life, as a gay member of 'the group', a set of African intellectuals in London which included the American singer John Payne and the British composer Reginald Foresythe.
Born in London, Foresythe was the son of a Yoruba (Nigerian) barrister, Charles, and an Englishwoman of German descent, Charlotte. Although Foresythe often claimed that his mother was German—probably to irk the Nazis—she was in fact of Scottish heritage. Although Charles and Charlotte Foresythe lived as a couple, they weren’t legally married until September 1909. The Foresythe family descended from Charles Foresythe, a Sierra Leonean colonial official who settled in Lagos, Nigeria in the 1860s. Charles Foresythe was born in the early nineteenth century to a European army captain and a mother from Tasso Island, Sierra Leone. For some unknown reason, Charles Foresythe moved back to his hometown of Lagos in early 1913, where he was joined by six-year-old Reginald and his younger sister Cassandra in June, but tragedy struck when their father died within a year of unknown circumstances. Foresythe received a public school education, and studied piano and composition. Throughout his life Foresythe used his upper-class British accent to achieve some measure of acceptance in an otherwise racially segregated world.
In the 1930s in Britain Foresythe won respect in jazz circles for such bold and dazzling compositions as ‘Serenade for a Wealthy Widow’, ‘Berceuse for an Unwanted Child’, ‘Greener the Grass’, ‘Melancholy Clown’ and ‘Dodging a Divorcee’. Charles Fox says: ‘Foresythe's music frequently possessed wit as well as sophistication, charm as well as ingenuity, and certainly nobody in this country worked harder to expand the boundaries of jazz.’ In America in the 1930s, jazz giants such as Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller admired Foresythe and recorded his compositions. Earl Hines used Foresythe's ‘Deep Forest’ as a signature tune on his first radio series. Charles Fox says: ‘If he had only stayed in the United States, instead of returning to Britain, he might easily have become an influential and important figure in jazz. Over here, of course, his ideas were considered to be “too far out”, even by many musicians; he was looked on, in fact, as something of a musical eccentric. The result was that a very talented jazz composer failed to live up to his early promise.’
Reginald Foresythe, 1934 photo inscribed to critic Leonard Feather.
In the summer of 1928, Foresythe received a telephone call from a representative of American black singer, Zaidee Jackson, who had heard Foresythe’s playing in London, and was desperate to recruit a pianist for a night club she was opening in Paris, that very weekend. Reginald dashed over the channel and Ms Jackson, liked what she heard and took Foresythe on as her accompanist. A little later, he returned with her to London, and they both went into cabaret for a season at the Piccadilly Hotel. Whilst there, Foresythe struck up a friendship with leading Harlem musical theatre tenor, Walter Richardson, who had come to London to play, ‘Uncle Ned’ in “Virginia”, a musical comedy which opened at the Palace Theatre on 24 October 1928. Urbane and cultured, Richardson, the son of a Methodist minister was born on 12 September 1891 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He studied at Claffin University in South Carolina and later took medicine at Howard University in Washington. Reginald discovered in Richardson a kindred spirit with both men holding forthright views on equality and racism. Following the run of ‘Virginia’, Foresythe was invited by Richardson, (and his wife), to become his accompanist and, with Foresythe eager to see the world, they embarked on a tour abroad, taking in much of Europe and Italy where eventually, via South Africa, they reached Melbourne, Australia on 22 July 1929. Richardson was originally booked to play ‘Joe’ in a production of ‘Showboat’ in Adelaide, but his tenor voice was deemed unsuitable for what is essentially a bass role, and consequently both he and Foresythe were booked by Australian impresario, J.C. Williamson, on a vaudeville tour. The pair made their debut at Adelaide’s Theatre Royal, on 10 August 1929, and both spoke in an article appearing in the Adelaide Advertiser, shortly after opening. Under a banner headline, ‘Roll Away Clouds’, (one of Richardson’s songs from, ‘Virginia’), appears a second headline, ‘A Negro Singers’ Hope’. In the article Richardson, ‘Hoped to roll away something of the cloud of racial prejudice against the negro by proving that negroes can not only be singers and entertainers, but gentlemen’. ‘Culture is something more than skin deep’, he asserted. Foresythe referred to his childhood in Lagos, and according to the reporter spoke, ‘in a singularly cultured manner’.
After continuing his vaudeville tour with Richardson for a year, Foresythe was encouraged by his partner to move to America, where he was certain his future lay. Yet, oddly, he took the long way there, going first to Honolulu, Hawaii and then to California, arriving on January 31, 1930. He quickly found work as a pianist with Paul Howard’s Quality Serenaders, who worked in the West Coast Kentucky Club—a band that included, believe it or not, drum and vibraphone virtuoso Lionel Hampton, trombonist Lawrence Brown and alto player Charlie Lawrence. This is where Foresythe finally realized his love for jazz and decided that this was where his future lay; he also met Duke Ellington for the first time here (Duke’s band was playing Hollywood that year, and left the West Coast after adding Brown to his trombone section). After a brief return to London later that year, where Foresythe accompanied Zaidee Jackson on several of her Parlophone recordings, he then went to Chicago where he worked as a “backroom boy” for Earl Hines’ Grand Terrace Orchestra, which is where he wrote Deep Forest for Earl. When the Hines band was booked into the all-white College Inn in Chicago, he as well as the band members were told that all “Negroes are required to eat in the kitchen.” Foresythe exploded. “How dare you call me a Negro? Must I show you my passport ? I am an Englishman, and I will go to the Embassy and cause you more trouble than you can stand.” As a result, he was the only band member allowed to eat in the restaurant. Foresythe also wrote the full band “book” for trumpeter Wild Bill Davison’s band and, when Ellington arrived to play the Lincoln Inn in Chicago, a few for him as well (including Cocktails for Two, which Ellington recorded).
Foresythe also did some freelance work for Robbins Music and Irving Mills, Ellington’s manager. The latter was so impressed that he introduced him to lyricist Andy Razaf, who had already written some great lyrics for songs by Fats Waller, in late 1932. This was when he finally moved to New York and wrote Mississippi Basin, which was recorded in 1933 by Louis Armstrong, Glen Gray’s Casa Loma Orchestra, and pop singer Chick Bullock. It was his first “hit.” His second was Serenade for a Wealthy Widow, for which the white songwriting team of Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields wrote lyrics. Through Mills, Foresythe met Waller and attended the latter’s 28th birthday party in 1932, at which Waller played not only his own music but the full score of Stravinsky’s Petrushka at the keyboard. Foresythe then joined Waller at the keyboard for a four-hands arrangement of music from Frederick Delius’ opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet.
Foresythe stayed at Ellington’s Lenox Avenue apartment for an extended period of time, but by this time Reginald began his lifelong habit of drinking heavily. Between being beaten up for being caught in the homosexual New York clubs and being blotto in Duke’s apartment, he unfortunately became an unwelcome house guest, yet his star continued to rise. Bandleader Paul Whiteman, impressed by his talent, broadcast Foresythe’s Southern Holiday from a performance at the Biltmore Hotel with the composer at the piano in January 1933 and later recorded The Duke Insists, Serenade for a Wealthy Widow, Deep Forest, Dodging a Divorcee and what is perhaps Foresythe’s best-known tune, Garden of Weed—a piece whose title was sure to titillate the marijuana-smoking jazz musicians of the time just like Cab Calloway’s Kicking the Gong Around and Don Redman’s The Chant of the Weed. Now well connected in America, Foresythe longed to have his star also rise in his home country, so he went back to England at the end of March 1933.
When the African-American singer Elisabeth Welch made London her home in 1933, she began looking for an accompanist. She recalls in Brief Encounters (1996): ‘When I arrived in London I was offered cabaret engagements, but I didn't know anyone who could accompany me. I was given Reggie's name and of course I'd heard about him in America and Paris. He was a sweet, simple, charming person. His appearance was always immaculate and elegant. He loved good food and talked with that wonderful English upper-class accent. When we made fun of his accent, he didn't mind at all. He had a great sense of humour about himself. We all loved him. Reggie was a “confirmed bachelor”. I do not recall a woman ever being associated with him. I know he had liaisons with men, but they were always very discreet.’
Foresythe worked primarily as an accompanist until Melody Maker, the British jazz magazine, published a laudatory article on him. Henry Hall of the BBC invited him to broadcast his Southern Holiday with the station’s dance orchestra in May, and this established him as a major talent on the rise in his own country. After playing piano in a band led by cornetist Joe Smith, he was introduced to Bert Ambrose, who only used his last name professionally. Ambrose was deeply impressed by his forward-looking scores and backed Foresythe’s experimental band, which used no brass instruments but also included a bassoon and opened at the fairly new Café de la Paix which was more than open to presenting “exotic music.” This was how Reginald Foresythe and his New Music band came into being.
In January 1934, Melody Maker published an interview with Foresythe by jazz critic Leonard Feather, then a young man and still living in London. Much to Feather’s surprise and shock, Foresythe came down a bit hard on Ellington (whom Feather greatly admired) because he allowed his musicians to play “too much jazz” in their performances. Quoth Foresythe, “That sort of spontaneous inspiration that he allows in practically every number gets rather dull after a while. If you ask me, this solo business is just a form of exhibitionism with no lasting value.”
Back in the USA in January 1935, Foresythe organized a “New Music” recording session using musicians from Benny Goodman’s then-still-struggling big band—Hymie Schertzer and Toots Mondello on alto saxes, Dick Clark on tenor sax, Gene Krupa on drums and Goodman himself on clarinet—along with bassoonist Sol Schoenbach, himself on piano and John Kirby on bass. Ironically, it was to be his last gasp with his New Music. In March 1935, Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra recorded his Southern Holiday, but from then on Foresythe, both as a bandleader and pianist, was pushed into playing more standard fare: La Cucaracha, Sidewalks of Cuba, Anything Goes, I Get a Kick Out of You, I Won’t Dance, Why Was I Born?, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, The Touch of Your Hand, Tea for Two, Sweet Georgia Brown, I’m in the Mood for Love, About a Quarter to Nine and Cheek to Cheek. There was one last flurry of revolt against standard fare in November 1936, when he managed to record Revolt of the Yes-Men, Meditation in Porcelain, Aubade and a particularly complex and modernistic piece, Carl-Olof Anderberg’s Burlesque, but that indeed was the end of the line for Foresythe’s progressive streak—and by then he was forced to use at least one trumpet in his band, upsetting the all-reed balance he had so carefully fought for.
On a visit to New York in 1937, Foresythe composed the music for some of the songs in that year's Cotton Club Parade, a lavish revue with a cast headed by Ethel Waters and Duke Ellington.
Foresythe led his own eight-piece band at Embassy Club, London (1939), and small group at the 400 Club, and Hatchett's (1940).
On his return to London from New York, Foresythe worked in Mayfair clubs until the outbreak of World War II. When the war broke out, Reginald was over-age for active service, but he volunteered for the RAF anyway. Drafted into the Royal Air Force in 1941 with an officer's ranking, he became an intelligence officer and served at remote Scottish air bases and in North Africa. He had his battledress uniform tailored by his usual tailor. This was not all that unusual among officers, and those who could afford to do so opted for having a more com-fortable uniform made. In the RAF Reginald addressed every airman, from commanding officer to newest recruit, as 'dear boy'.
After demobilization Foresythe again accompanied Elisabeth Welch (1946) and played duets with Ronnie Selby. He worked in Italy (early 1948), then led the band at Palace Hotel, Paignton, Devon (1948). He was temporarily out of action due to arthritis in the spring of 1949, then had further seasons in Paignton.
The experience of WWII left him shattered emotionally and physically. Now drinking heavier than ever and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (well, we call it that now, but in 1946 it was just referred to as “war nerves”), he was never able to get his career back on track. With his queer little tone poems now not only passé but forgotten, he played solo piano in London pubs and clubs (in Soho and Kensington) and accompanied singers during the 1950s. He died, a broken man, a few days after Christmas 1958.
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