“Leslie Anthony Joseph Thompson (17 October 1901, Kingston, Jamaica – 26 December 1987, London) was a Jamaican jazz trumpeter who moved to England in 1929.
Thompson was born in Kingston, Jamaica, where he studied music as a child at the Roman Catholic Alpha Cottage School. When he was 16, he joined the West India Regiment and played in their band locally in Kingston movie palaces in the 1920s, before moving to London in 1929 and studying at Kneller Hall. He had been unable to become a bandmaster in the army because of rules preventing black soldiers becoming officers. He also played euphonium and cornet.
In 1930 he began playing with Spike Hughes, where he played trumpet, trombone, and double bass until 1932. In 1934–35 Thompson toured Europe with Louis Armstrong, then formed his own band, intended to be all-black (although initially with two white trombonists who blacked up), with the help of Ken “Snakehips” Johnson, who himself took over control of this band in 1936. Jiver Hutchinson was one of his sidemen.
In 1936–37 Thompson played with Benny Carter, and later in the 1930s played double bass with Edmundo Ros. Thompson served in the Royal Artillery on the south coast during World War II and was active in dance halls and nightclubs after the war, but stopped playing music professionally after 1954 and later became a parole officer.
He was inspired by Marcus Garvey and an Anglican. Thompson’s autobiography (edited by Jeffrey Green) was first published by Rabbit Press in 1985, and was reissued as Swing from a Small Island – The Story of Leslie Thompson by Northway Publications in 2009, when Chris Searle commented in the Morning Star: “Thompson’s story is one to read, one to learn from and one to remember”.
Elizabeth Richards wrote at blackhistorymonth.org.uk on 01/02/2021:
“…Just prior to the start of (Ken) Johnson’s career , the Jamaican-born Leslie Thompson was a prominent London-based 1930s jazz and stage musical trumpeter, who played in Louis Armstrong’s 1934 European band. It is no surprise he was hired by the American jazz legend, for he had by that time built his reputation in the pit orchestras of many high-profile West End stage musicals, bringing them a contemporary credibility.
One of his contacts was the African-American choreographer, Buddy Bradley, who had already taught Fred Astaire and other Hollywood screen dancers. That dancing and jazz were linked was not lost on him and he longed to unite the two.
Thompson was further influenced by Marcus Garvey, who had been deported from America and, although known as the 20th century’s first important pan-Africanist, was no stranger to the music business himself, having written an American hit, Keep Cool. By the 1930s Thompson was well aware of Garvey’s messages, delivered frequently at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, and his British newspaper, The Black Man. Consequently Thompson was inspired to form an all-black dance band and, although there were African-American jazz musicians who frequented Europe, his ideal ensemble would be a solely West Indian one.
By coincidence, the Guyanese student, Ken Johnson’s first show business aspiration was London cabaret dancer. The lure of the Jazz Age drew him to study tap dancing with Buddy Bradley, and between 1934-1935 he went to the United States where he studied this art and mastered film star Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson’s stairs-dance routine.
Like Leslie Thompson’s Garvey-inspired dream, Ken Johnson, now known as ‘Snakehips’, saw that all-black swing-jazz success need not be limited to the United States. He returned to the Caribbean, where he formed a touring band with prominent musicians including the Barbados trumpeter Dave Wilkins, the Trinidad clarinettist Carl Barriteau and fellow Trinidadian saxophonist, Dave ‘Baba’ Williams, all of whom would later feature prominently at a key juncture in Johnson’s career.
In January 1936, Johnson went to England to further his dream…”