American Federation of Musicians vs. Musicians‘ Union

Hennessey, Mike: Klook. The Story of Kenny Clarke. London: Quartet Books Limited 1990, 121.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, Paris was the European hotspot for American jazz musicians, the place to go if you were looking for jobs and admiration by European jazz lovers. As Paris had been associated with jazz eversince the 1930s through Django Reinhardt and the likes, this seems somewhat commonplace today, but it does beg some questions: What about London? Why did American jazz greats like Sidney Bechet or Kenny „Klook“ Clarke (among many, many others) opt to regularly perform and settle down in the French-speaking world after World War II as opposed to an English metropolis?

There are a few more factors, but the main answer, it turns out, lies in one of the oddest factoids of musical history I encountered for the 20th century: American musicians were, with few exceptions, banned from performing in the UK for almost thirty years,from 1933 until the late 1950s.

It comes down to what is at its core a protectionist conflict of unions. Turns out, the American Federation of Musicians (AMF) and the British Musicians‘ Union (MU) were at each others throats eversince the beginning of the century or even before that. Without going into details, the quibbling was mostly about expectable things: copyrights, anxiety that foreign musicians flood the market and put local musicians out of jobs (this was especially a growing concern in the 1930s considering jobs for the „Talkies“, as jobs for muscially accompanying silent movies became superfluous). So for instance, the Musicians‘ Union had tried to establish quite early that for each American playing in the UK, there had to be a British musician playing in the US:

The law which underpinned the restrictions was the Aliens Restriction Act, originally a wartime measure introduced in 1914 and revised in 1919. In 1920, the Aliens Order was introduced, an amendment to the Aliens Restriction Act of the previous year. Specifically, the part concerning foreign musicians was the Aliens Order, 1920, Part 1 (3) (b), which stated that any foreign musician must „if desirous of entering the services of an employer in this country, produce a permit in writing for this employment issued to the employer by the Ministry of Labour“. In 1923, the Prince of Wales helped to ensure that Paul Whiteman was able to tour Britain. Whiteman was allowed to perform provided that for every American musician employed, a British musician was employed. This became know as ‚the Whiteman clause‘, designed to protect the work of the British musician from the importation of the American musicians.

The application of the Aliens Order was the responsibility of the Ministry of Labour, not the MU. The supposed ban is often referred to as an MU ban, but this is slightly misleading.

(Hodgetts 2017, 65)

Anyhow, the American Federation of Musicians seemed quite comfortable to simply ignore these kinds of quid-pro-quo-requests and seemed to be quite a bit more protectionist than its British counterpart (or at least that is how the Musicians‘ Union perceived it), and with jazz emerging the American art form per se, they probably felt they had some leverage considering demand/supply over the Europeans.

In 1935, as the popularity of touring US jazz bands grew, the MU managed to get the Ministry of Labour to agree that it would not issue work permits for foreign musicians without Union approval—which was routinely refused. This situation lasted until 1955 and is often referred to as a “ban” on US jazz musicians entering the UK.

(Cloonan 2014, 35)

This led to some straight-up absurd situations, like the AMF pushing through deals that the Britons had to financially compensate American musicians that didn’t even perform, just so English orchestras were even allowed to play on American ground, as in 1932:

 Louis Armstrong visits the UK and plays shows in London, while [English musician] Jack Hylton broadcast to the USA, via. arrangement with NBC. However, while this broadcast was taking place the AFM had struck a deal that the same number of American musicians would sit in a New York studio and receive the same fee as Hylton’s band without playing a note. This typified the bizarre nature of reciprocal deals between the UK and US unions, which returned in the 1950s and 1960s.

(University of Glasgow, URL: )

The climax of these petty fights came in 1934, and of course we need another historical name for this event: Duke Ellington.

[In 1933], Duke Ellington plays a series of shows in London and is quoted as saying “if it doesn’t become an annual trip, I’ll be most disappointed.” However, the protectionist policies of both the MU and the AFM, meant that he would be unable to return until 1958. This was the last major performance by a US dance band in the UK until the 1950s.

(University of Glasgow, URL: )

The Ministry of Labour (technically not the MU, but they pushed for it) refused Ellington re-entry in 1934, when the orchestra was scheduled to play. The Ministry is quoted in Hodgetts (2017, 67) as stating that they were „becoming more and more alive to [the] entire absence of reciprocity“ from the AMF. This procedure was repeated in 1935 for Duke Ellington and became the standard attitude towards American performers for the coming twenty years.

What can I say? All this kerfuffle didn’t really start to change again until 1955/56, with some penny-pinching, intercontinental swapping of British and American acts, but the weirdness didn’t stop immediately. My favourite anecdote about the ongoing quarrelling is that British skiffle-star Lonnie Donegan was indeed allowed to tour the US in 1956 – but he was refused to play his guitar (in order to ensure the hiring of an American backing band). By the way, according to Billy Bragg’s book Roots, Radicals and Rockers (2017), Donegan was ‚exchanged‘ for what the English newspapers announced as a certain „Elvin“ Presley.

Anyway, back on topic: American jazz and its new developments from 1930 to 1960 were basically banned from being performed in the UK for the probably most seminal three decades of its development (in stylistic and commercial respect). This not only made Paris the jazz-capital of Europe, with no truly relevant jazz scene in London (sorry). It also made sure that young people in the UK couldn’t witness any of the transformations of jazz from swing to bop to cool jazz to hard bop first-hand. Let’s think about this in terms of what happened: For instance, Bragg puts forward the thesis that this ‚ban‘ basically created the British Invasion in the long run, as rock&roller Bill Haley’s UK tour of 1957 was greeted by young UK-audiences as a sort of big bang or messianic event, and, since there had been no fancy jazz going on, young folks flocked to the simple guitar- or banjo-based skiffle style à la Lonnie Donegan – there simply wasn’t anything else nearly as cool and American. Skiffle bands (instead of, I don’t know, a Liverpool-bebop scene – dibs on the genre name „liverbop“ for my alternate history novel about this. I know „merseybop“ is more obvious, but liverbop sounds cooler) led to Beat music, voilà: British Invasion of the US as soon as the ban was loosened in the early 1960s. By the way: The quid-pro-quo-approach for performing musicians was technically in place until the 1980s.

There’s another scenario in which the ban never happened. Imagine a young Paul McCartney growing up in a world surrounded by jazz giants having relocated to England instead of France. «Yesterday» becomes his «Body and Soul» on the saxophone. Or let’s say the ban had stuck around in its severe form until much later. No British Invasion at all, the Beatles being refused to perform in the US for the entire decade, just like Duke Ellington during the 1930s in the UK. And so on. There’s a number of alternate history-novels here.


Bragg, Billy: Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World. London: Faber & Faber 2017.

Cloonan, Martin: Musicians as Workers: Putting the Uk Musicians‘ Union into Context. In: MUSICultures 41:1 (2014), 10–29.

Hennessey, Mike: Klook. The Story of Kenny Clarke. London: Quartet Books Limited 1990.

Hodgets, Andrew: Protection and internationalism: The British Musicians‘ Union and restrictions on foreign musicians. In: Fagge, Roger and Nicolas Pillai (eds.): New Jazz Conceptions: History, Theory, Practice. London/New York: Routledge 2017, 63–89.

University of Glasgow: The Musicians‘ Union: A History (1893–2013). Timeline 1931–1940. URL:

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