THE February air was crackling with excitement when James Reese Europe steamed into New York Harbor. It was 1919, and he and his bandsmen from the 369th Infantry—the Harlem Hellfighters—were back from the First World War. The virtually all-black Hellfighters were already heroes to Americans, especially African Americans. In the days after the famous November armistice, they’d garnered medals from the French government: the Croix de guerre for 170 individuals, plus a citation for the whole regiment. William Furrowh, a private from Wilmington, Delaware, kept a postcard with their picture on it.
By now the calendar had swung around to the 9th of February, and crowds made their way down through the chilly air from Harlem to the Battery to greet the the returning soldiers. A lucky 300 piled onto a vessel called the Correction, which the city had repurposed to carry wounded soldiers and their families around Manhattan on pleasure cruises. But memories of the Hellfighters’ send-off a year earlier were still alive. City authorities had cut them out of the farewell parade.
Things had changed since then—or at least some things had. Unlike other African Americans in World War I who ended up on supply duty, the Hellfighters were absorbed into French combat forces. Black and white troops fought side-by-side, and the Americans even learned a little French along the way. Yet something was still off back at home. As the first battalions of the 369th came in on the SS La France and headed up the East River on a transport boat, the waiting crowds erupted in cheers. Ragtime drifted from the deck of the Correction, and according to news reports, black soldiers on the La France sent up renditions of “Old Black Joe,” “Old Folks at Home,” and “Dixie” as they “jigged to the tunes . . . in ecstasy at being back.” Wait—really? How much ecstasy was there in the old anthem of the Confederacy and ballads about plantation life? The New South was hot with lynch mobs and frozen stiff under Jim Crow segregation laws.
On February 17, New York was in a thaw. The sun shone down on Fifth Avenue as the Hellfighters, reconstituted on American soil, paraded from Madison Square up to 145th Street in Harlem. According to the Brooklyn Eagle, the sidewalks, rooftops, and windows were thronged with a “madly shouting, flag-waving, cheering assemblage of people” as the troops made their way “through ranks of white and black humanity that vied with each other in enthusiasm.”
According to the Brooklyn Eagle, the sidewalks, rooftops, and windows were thronged with a ‘madly shouting, flag-waving, cheering assemblage of people’ as the troops made their way ‘through ranks of white and black humanity that vied with each other in enthusiasm.’
All this was to the rhythms of “jazz,” such as jazz was in 1919. “That jazz was in the gleaming eyes, the glistening bayonets and the steel helmets of the soldiers,” said the New York World. The 369th was famous for Jim Europe’s band as much as for its fighting. They’d played for troops and civilians across France, and they were a sensation. A one-night gig in Paris turned into two months.
Not that Europe hadn’t already carved out a place for himself before the war. In 1912, a generation before Benny Goodman’s famous concert, he brought popular dance music to Carnegie Hall with his all-black Clef Club Orchestra. They had an unorthodox lineup that included banjos and mandolins, and they moved fluidly from classical arias to military marches to ragtime. More importantly, the Clef Club championed black performers and black composers in New York as a de facto union for the city’s African American musicians. By 1913 Europe had moved on. His new Society Orchestra was playing gigs for the Astors and Vanderbilts, and it accompanied the vaudeville dancers Vernon and Irene Castle around the country as they made the foxtrot a household term. His fame seemed to be hitched to the new music that was about to become known as “jazz.”
Europe’s bands didn’t quite play jazz as we know it from the 1920s. It was more a kind of “hot ragtime.” But seeds of the later style were there, and the musical forms were loosening. Europe was focused on imbuing them with an African American identity. Ragtime outgrew the syncopation that made it novel at the turn of the century. It took on shades of the early blues coming from juke joints in the Deep South, and it inched its way toward a more spontaneous spirit. You can hear Europe leaning in that direction halfway through the “Memphis Blues”: the framework opens up, and the colors of individual instruments peek out through the cracks.
Europe waxed philosophical: “We colored people have our own music that is part of us. It’s the product of our souls; it’s been created by the sufferings and miseries of our race.” He maintained that black players had “an inimitable ear for time in dancing” and an instinct for improvisational color. “The negro loves anything that is peculiar in music, and this ‘jazzing’ appeals to him strongly.” When he referred to “jazzing,” Europe meant accentuating certain notes by changing the timbre. And to change the timbre, his musicians had to invent new techniques for playing their instruments. Layers of sound piled on top of one another and made the music shimmer with immediacy. During the war, French and Italian marching bands tried to no avail to emulate the Hellfighters’ sound. Europe’s counterparts were sure his instruments must have been modified—but of course they hadn’t. It was the players.
We colored people have our own music that is part of us. It’s the product of our souls; it’s been created by the sufferings and miseries of our race.
By the spring of 1919, Wilmington had a jazz band of its own—Paul F. Thompson’s Dixieland Jazz Band. Thompson was white, but his leading bandsmen were black, and they were first-rate. Clarence Sheppard, the drummer, went on to play with the famous blues singer Mamie Smith. William Burns Chippey, the pianist, had a degree in music from the University of Pennsylvania, a gig at the elegant Plaza Hotel in Asbury Park, N.J., and an alter-ego as longtime organist of the African Union Church in Wilmington. Jesse McCoy Hanson, the bassist, came by way of bands at the Powhatan and Raleigh Hotels in Washington, D.C. And his day job was at least as distinctive: his newspaper ads billed him as Delaware’s only black real estate agent.
Thompson’s band had more than a faint echo of the Clef Club Orchestra in it, especially in its use of unexpected instruments. Chippey tested out something they called the “violbone” or “trombolin,” a quirky violin that resonated through a brass horn instead of a wooden box. (Modern organologists know it as the Stroh violin, after its inventor.) And Hanson’s instrument wasn’t the string bass we associate with jazz ensembles or classical orchestras. It was a “mandobass,” something invented for the all-mandolin orchestras that were a fad at the turn of the century. Thompson’s cornet and trombone players, who came from Barnum and Bailey’s Circus (and may, in fact, have been white) both doubled on the banjo. At at the end of the day, big groups like Europe’s and smaller ones like Thompson’s had a distinctive strumming sound that was adapted from various kinds of folk music. Europe compared the Clef Club to the Russian balalaika orchestras that were touring and recording in America at the time:
Although we have first violins, the place of the second violins with us is taken by mandolins and banjos. This gives that peculiar steady strumming accompaniment to our music which all people comment on, and which is something like that of the Russian Balalaika Orchestra, I believe. Then, for background, we employ ten pianos. That, in itself, is sufficient to amuse the average white musician who attends one of our concerts for the first time. The result, however, is a background of chords which are essentially typical of Negro harmony.
But the banjos meant something more. In fact, the term “Dixieland” itself meant something more in 1919 than it does today. Thompson’s band went by different names for different occasions—the Dixieland Jazz Band, Dixieland Entertainers, Dix Military Band, Dixie String Orchestra, Southern Concert Orchestra, Southland Entertainers—yet they all made some kind of reference to the plantation South. So did the stationery and business cards, in so many words—and pictures.
Going back to the 1830s, blackface minstrel shows were Northern audiences’ portal to a world below the Mason–Dixon line. Before the Civil War, the South was a novelty to most people in Boston or Pittsburgh or Wilmington. It was a rival civilization set off by geography, climate, and folkways. After the war, as white Americans on both sides tried to find common ground, it morphed into a lost paradise that people could feel nostalgic about.
Minstrel shows were a place to laugh and be serenaded. They were also a place for people to sort out their own social anxieties at the expense of their black neighbors. It got ugly. African American stereotypes cooked up during the 1840s and 1850s turned into some of America’s most painful and enduring symbols of racial hate. Minstrel acts portrayed black minds as lazy, ignorant, and dishonest. Black bodies appeared exaggerated and ridiculous. (More on that in the next post.)
By the twentieth century, minstrel imagery was commonplace. Besides onstage, it turned up on everything from toys to pancake mixes. Apparently it was also a part of the Thompson band’s livelihood. The liveried trombonist on the band letterhead fits the minstrel mold: he’s looking natty in his “scarlet tuxedo,” but his feet sprawl to half the length of his trombone slide. So it comes as no surprise that the group played some of its gigs “in minstrel uniform”—probably under the Southern Entertainers moniker. Willard Chippey, the Ivy-educated pianist, even had a vocal bit based on Al Jolson, the famous blackface vaudeville artist. That’s right—a black performer imitating a Jewish performer’s take on black stereotypes. Race was, and always will be, a complicated thing in America.
Did the trombonist on the stationery represent a white man in blackface or a black man from Thompson’s band? It didn’t matter, really; on the variety stage, the character was one and the same. White Wilmingtonians continued blacking up for amateur minstrel shows well into the 1950s, but African American performers had been taking over professional minstrel roles since the late-nineteenth century. From our perch this side of the Civil Rights movement, it seems about as counter-intuitive as the returning Hellfighters striking up “Dixie.” But black stars like Bert Williams owed their reputations to it. The issue was complex, the strategy simple: minstrelsy was a foothold for black performers. It was an inroad to being taken seriously in show business, perhaps even an avenue to the legitimate theater. Even Jim Europe was doing it in his recordings:
So why the marriage between jazz and blackface? That’s a long story for next week’s post. But in short, it’s because blackface, underneath the burnt cork mask, was a complicated world. Among other things, minstrel shows were an escape from Victorian repression. Exaggerating the physicality and seductive powers of people of African descent brought forward a titillating mix of fear and desire. Interracial sex was taboo (it was illegal in Delaware until 1967), which was half the fascination. The other half was having an outlet to express one’s sexuality at all—so much the better if it could be done safely behind a mask. Jazz was a new forum for racial mixing. It was the crossroads for an African American culture coming into the mainstream and a white middle-class society rethinking its values. And for a while after World War I, the familiar safeguards of the minstrel mask gave both sides cover as they made the adjustment.