Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

015: Joe Deniz, Cardiff-born jazz guitarist 1913-1994

Joe Deniz, Hammersmith (West London) mid 1930s

Joe Deniz, Hammersmith (West London) mid 1930s

"To Joey - a swell guitar player & a fellow Emperor" Belfast November 1936
“To Joey – a swell guitar player & a fellow Emperor” Belfast November 1936
Publicity for the Ken Johnson band - Deniz top right
Publicity for the Ken Johnson band – Deniz top left
Jose William ‘Joe’ Deniz was the second of three guitarists born in Cardiff to a sailor from the Cape Verde Islands. I got to know him in London in 1985 and ‘Joe Deniz: a guitarist from Cardiff’ was published in Keskidee: a Journal of Black Musical Traditions (Autumn 1986). He died in 1994, the same year as his Cardiff musical friend Don Johnson. They have entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Val Wilmer also wrote the entries on Frank Deniz (1912-2005) and his wife Clara (1911-2002) and Laurie Deniz (1924-1996).
Raised in Tiger Bay (Bute Town), Cardiff, where tons of coal were exported weekly, the sea employed his father as a donkeyman (keeping the engines in good condition) usually for the Radcliffe company, and had employed his Welsh mother’s father as a cook. The old merchant houses in Bute Town, which had a reputation for prostitution, dubious cafes, and clubs, were occupied by blacks and whites (one old white man tried to stop the children crossing into the tennis court in Loudon Square) and Joe Deniz recalled Arabs, Somalis, Jamaicans, Africans, Malays, Chinese, Maltese, Spanish, some Egyptians and both Welsh and English – one of his friends had a Norwegian father, another an Italian father. During the race riots of 1919 young Joe was locked in his home until they were over (some 3 days). He also remembered the ‘ladies of the night’ and their Norwegian customers, sailors who brought the pit props for the mines – ‘six feet tall blond Vikings, always fighting’.
The Deniz’s six room home had a piano which his half-sister played but Joe started on the ukulele and joined the street ’rounds’ performing from 10 p.m. He recalled the Jamaican Sly Mongoose. He purchased cheap 78 records from Woolworths and liked Hawaiian music, then the jazz of U.S. guitarists George van Eps, Carl Kress, and Dick McDonough. He started playing for local illegal parties, sometimes with Grangetown-born Don Johnson. One time the pair worked as a pantomime cow.
Deniz sold newspapers after he left school – a set of guitar strings at 2s 6d cost almost half his weekly income. Coloured sailors worked below decks; Cardiff had an informal colour line so he and others did not apply at certain firms. Two other local musicians, Victor Parker and George Glossop worked in a trio, and called Deniz to London around 1934. His skills as a guitarist led to employment in the all-black jazz band of Jamaican Leslie Thompson, fronted by the Guiana-born Ken Johnson. Deniz recalled that trumpeter Arthur Dibbin was Welsh-born. In fact five of Johnson’s ‘West Indians’ were born in Britain.
The story of ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, killed when a bomb landed on the Cafe de Paris, London in 1941 is well known. Deniz was injured in the blast. John Chilton, Who’s Who of British Jazz 2nd ed (2004) details Happy Blake, Al Craig, Yorke de Souza, Coleridge Goode, Jiver Hutchinson, Johnson, Louis Stephenson, Leslie Thompson and Dave Wilkins: they all played with Joe Deniz (who is detailed, too). Black British Swing Topic Records CD TSCD 781 has 24 recordings. The often-reprinted A History of Jazz in Britain, 1919-50 by Jim Godbolt (first published 1984) is seen by some as failing to detail the black British musicians of the 1930s. They toured theatres around the nation and broadcast on the radio. Johnson’s band was a pioneer group on British television too. Joe Deniz said that the Portuguese name was pronounced ‘Dinish’ and that has often been mispronounced ‘Denise’.
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