How Jazz Fueled a Nationwide Dance Craze—and Made Its Way to Paris
Stuart Isacoff on the Music That Captured the Country
Though musicians from vastly different backgrounds and ethnicities contributed to its evolution, jazz came to embody “the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul,” as Langston Hughes, esteemed poet of the Harlem Renaissance, put it. “Their joy runs, bang! into ecstasy,” Hughes explained, linking this music to the uplifted spirits of Black folk. “Their religion soars to a shout,” he wrote. Their credo: “Play awhile. Sing awhile. O, let’s dance!” Of course, jazz also encompassed darker aspects of life. As Harlem bandleader James Reese Europe (1880–1919) explained, “We colored people have our own music . . . created by the sufferings and miseries of our race.”
Though the impulse behind it was deeply personal, jazz’s appeal was instantaneous and widespread. There were some naysayers, like “March King” John Philip Sousa, who charged that jazz’s earliest incarnation, ragtime, featuring relentless syncopations—metrical disruptions that create a feeling of giddy disorientation—made you “want to bite your grandmother.” In classical music such moments of rhythmic disruption are temporary, quickly dispelled through a reassertion of the regular accents of meter.
In ragtime, and later in the less rigid sounds of jazz (the two similarly fell along a gradual spectrum of rhythmically unsettling styles, with ragtime the more formulaic and predictable), things were left more permanently off-kilter. But songwriters Chris Smith, Tom Lemonier, and Will Dixon proffered a more popular opinion of the approach that had set Sousa back on his heels: “Ragtime music,” they asserted, “is the only real melody that thrills the heart and moves the feet.”
It moved feet all over the country. In Chicago, ragtime and early jazz stars like W. C. Handy and Scott Joplin made toes tap at the local World’s Fair in 1893, as well as at venues like the Pekin Theatres on South State Street, where Black and white patrons soaked in the sounds together. By 1917, William Bottoms’s immense Dreamland Café—which advertised eighteen electric blow fans, five exhaust fans, 125 electric lights, and an eight-hundred-person dance floor—was presenting the “Original Jazz Band” (initially spelled “Jass”). Two years later it hired legendary cornetist Joseph “King” Oliver, the musical leader whose ensemble served as a training ground for Louis Armstrong, who brought a new level of rhythmic flexibility to the art. As time went on, ragtime’s stiff formulations loosened and modern jazz’s more elastic approach took hold.
Other jazz hot spots included Jelly Roll Morton’s New Orleans, with its Storyville section, boasting bawdy houses with the best piano “ticklers” of the day—that is, until the sector was shut down by the United States Navy on November 12, 1917. The sounds migrated elsewhere, including New York. The Tenderloin district, which encompassed Tin Pan Alley on West Twenty-Eighth Street, became dotted with jazz clubs early in the century. Black musicians learned to hone their trade in the growing cluster of music venues, reaching wealthy clientele at spots like Barron Wilkins’s Little Savoy on West Thirty-Fifth Street, and networking at the Marshall Hotel on West FiftyThird Street, which became an unofficial base of operations for jazz professionals. The musicians and crowds gravitated uptown to Harlem, the section of Manhattan that became a national symbol of America’s Black culture.
Remarkably, by the 1920s, the music had traveled clear across the Atlantic, setting Paris ablaze with its unconstrained energy, opening the doors of opportunity to itinerant American musicians overwhelmed by racial prejudice at home, and spreading the new musical gospel to European audiences eager in the wild pre-Depression era to succumb to its charms. Black theatrical entertainers—comedians, exotic dancers, husky blues singers—joined the exodus as the City of Light took on a distinctly American cast, and Harlem migrated, step by step, to Montmartre. The world had conspired to make it happen—by going to war.A new era for Harlem’s talent dawned as a dance craze began to grip the nation, creating an even greater demand for their musical services.
Musical history is filled with instances when armed conflict spawned artistic change: the 15th-century English musician John Dunstable, accompanying the Duke of Bedford on his military adventures, influenced generations of European composers with his modern harmonic ideas. The Turks, as they attacked Austria in the 18th century, introduced cymbals and percussion instruments to Viennese musicians through their military janissary bands, sounds that were quickly absorbed by composers like Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven as essential elements into the European symphony.
Thus it was with America’s Black soldiers who fought German aggression in World War I, troops that included many professional musicians. Under the leadership of Harlem conductor James Reese Europe, they performed in French towns during and after the conflict, and became an enduring presence.
There had been few opportunities for African Americans in the United States military, though at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in April 1898 a scattering of Black National Guard units joined the effort. Once the Great War began, African Americans had little incentive to enroll in the war effort. Indeed, their help was initially discouraged. Nevertheless, the 15th Infantry Regiment (Colored) of the New York National Guard—consisting of Black men recruited from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, the San Juan Hill section of Manhattan, and Harlem—was established in mid-June 1916 with one white officer, and no rifles, ammunition, uniforms, or even a headquarters.
However, once the Black soldiers were equipped and sent into battle, they more than made up for the meager early support with grit and valor: terrified Germans came to call them blutlustige Schwarzemänner, bloodthirsty Black men, and the French dubbed them “the Harlem Hellfighters.”
Early recruitment of Black soldiers was accomplished through announcements in a Black publication, The New York Age, and bolstered by endorsements from celebrities like Bert Williams, the Ziegfeld Follies comedian. The campaign was only minimally successful beyond the 15th Infantry Regiment, but that changed on September 18, 1916, when James Europe signed on, seeing it as a civic responsibility to his African American brethren. As he explained to musician Noble Sissle, a member of his band and an artistic partner with ragtime composer Eubie Blake in producing such hit shows as Shuffle Along: “Our race will never amount to anything, politically or economically, in New York or anywhere else unless there are strong organizations of men who stand for something in the community.”
The moral example had been set by Frederick Douglass, who in 1863 urged fellow “men of color,” despite their consistently dismal treatment, to join in the fight against the Confederacy. “By every consideration which binds you to your enslaved fellow countrymen and the peace and welfare of your country . . . ,” he proclaimed, “I urge you to fly to arms, and smite with death the power that would bury the government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave.”
It helped that James Europe’s reputation in the music community was unimpeachable. He had established the Music School Settlement for Colored People in Harlem, with help from David Mannes, concertmaster of the New York Symphony Orchestra and son-in-law of celebrated conductor Walter Damrosch. Mannes, in turn, enlisted the support of philanthropists, proclaiming that music was “a universal language [through which] the Negro and the white man can be brought to have a mutual understanding.”
In 1910, when a number of Marshall Hotel regulars formed a new organization, the Clef Club of the City of New York, they chose Europe as its first president. His dream of bringing a symphony-sized orchestra of African American musicians before the public could now be realized, though the Clef Club ensemble was in truth no more than a ragtag amalgam of talent. Some of the musicians involved played standard instruments, like pianos, but others used folk instruments like the bandoris (a cross between a banjo and mandolin) and the harp guitar. Their initial public offerings included a “Musical Melange and Dance-fest,” featuring one hundred musicians and dancers, held at the Manhattan Casino on 155th Street and Eighth Avenue. Yet by the opening of the Clef Club’s official headquarters in 1910, at 134 West Fifty-Third Street, across the street from the Marshall Hotel, a plan had been formalized to hold a concert in New York’s famed Carnegie Hall.
Not everyone thought that using that upscale venue was a good idea. Black composer Will Marion Cook, a student of Antonín Dvořák’s and the Clef Club’s assistant conductor, predicted to Noble Sissle “that Jim [Europe] would set the Negro race back fifty years.” But Cook, whose conduct was notoriously erratic, had attempted to organize a similar event in 1890, and failed, despite the backing of Frederick Douglass. (Cook’s Black musical revue Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cake Walk, had opened on Broadway in 1898.
In 1918, he would establish the New York Syncopated Orchestra [later, the Southern Syncopated Orchestra] out of the remnants of the Clef Club, and take it on tour. The ensemble’s high artistic level impressed even the revered Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, who wrote, “The first thing that strikes one about the Southern Syncopated Orchestra is the astonishing perfection, the superb taste, and the fervor of its playing.”)
Commenting on his group’s strange instrumentation, James Europe explained how it enhanced the ensemble’s unique charms. The “steady strumming accompaniment” from all the mandolins and banjos gave them a sound similar to a Russian balalaika orchestra, he noted. And the multiple pianos were, he said, “sufficient to amuse the average white musician who attends one of our concerts for the first time. The result, of course, is that we have developed a kind of symphony music that, no matter what else you may think, is different and distinctive, and that lends itself to the playing of the peculiar compositions of our race.”
On May 1, 1912, the day before the Clef Club’s Carnegie Hall concert, two thousand seats remained unsold. Then an editorial in the New York Evening Journal appeared, asking the public for support: “The Negroes have given us the only music of our own that is American—national, original, and real. . . . The proceeds of the concert will be devoted to the Music School Settlement for Colored People.” It made all the difference. People had to be turned away at the door.
Musicologist Natalie Curtis Burlin described the group’s instrumental assemblage, with its sections of banjos, mandolins, guitars, strings, percussion, and a contingent of fourteen upright pianos played by the best ragtimers in town, as having an “absolutely distinctive sound, [with] a ‘tang’ like the flavor of pineapple amid other fruits.” When the concert opened with a syncopated march, played “with a biting attack and an infectious rhythm,” reported writer James Weldon Johnson, author of Black Manhattan, “the applause became a tumult.”
That success fostered ever more triumphs, both for Europe and for his musicians. Before long the Clef Club players held a near-monopoly on providing music for private parties in town. And though it was common practice at the time for hotels and restaurants to pay Black musicians to perform menial tasks, like housekeeping, and to expect them to provide their music for mere tips, Europe changed that pattern, insisting that employers pay his band members a fixed salary, plus transportation and room and board. And he instilled in the musicians a new sense of pride by instituting a dress code, requiring tuxedos and dark suits on the job.
A new era for Harlem’s talent dawned as a dance craze began to grip the nation, creating an even greater demand for their musical services. “People who have not danced before in twenty years have been dancing,” noted the October 1913 issue of Current Opinion. “Cabaret artists are disappearing except as interludes while people recover their breaths for the following number. One wishes either to dance or to watch and to criticize those who dance.”
James Europe and the English ballroom-dancing star Vernon Castle and his American wife, Irene, had met in the summer of 1913, at Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish’s dinner and dance in Newport, Rhode Island (where the society crowd was, like the rest of the country, caught up in a Turkey Trot craze). The husband-and-wife dance team were a popular item with the highbrows despite the ragtime aspect of their act, explained Irene, because “we were clean-cut, we were married and when we danced there was nothing suggestive about it. We made dancing look like the fun it was and so gradually we became a middle ground both sides could accept.” With Europe’s Society Orchestra playing, they improvised a new step called the Castle Walk. “Instead of coming down on the beat as everybody else did, we went up” was the way Irene described it.
“Vernon was astonished,” remembered historian Douglas Gilbert, “first at Europe’s rhythms, then at the instrumental color of his band.” The Castles decided on the spot to include in their contracts a demand that Europe provide the music for their act, supporting such entertaining dance moves as the Texas Tommy—which required a male dancer to whirl or toss his partner and then catch her at the last moment—and the offkilter Castle Half and Half, which rapidly alternated between meters of 3/4 and 2/4.
The artistic partnership fostered genuine friendship. When the Castles accepted an offer of two thousand dollars a week to perform at two Times Square theaters, the Palace and Hammerstein’s Victoria, they insisted, as usual, on using Europe’s musicians. The powerful, segregated musicians’ union, though, refused to allow Blacks to enter the pit of any Broadway house, voicing concerns that Black orchestras would soon dominate the theaters just as they already had taken over the cabarets. Neither Europe nor the Castles were prepared to cave in to that ban, however; so they simply placed chairs for the musicians on the stage.
Overcoming pervasive racism in the greater world was less easy, however. Even heeding the patriotic call in the fight against Germany was no guarantee of just treatment or safety for the Black recruits. In the armed forces, conflicts between Black and white soldiers were a constant. By August 1917 ongoing tensions had erupted into a gun battle in Houston that left seventeen white citizens dead, with thirteen Black soldiers tried and hanged, and forty-one others jailed. Houston’s mayor, J. F. Floyd, had carped: “With their northern ideas about race equality, they will probably expect to be treated like white men.” When James Europe’s troops finally shipped off to France aboard the Pocahontas at the end of 1917, they were entering a fraught world, but it was one prepared to offer them a measure of respect they couldn’t get at home.
As Europe wrote to Fred Moore, editor of The New York Age: “The French simply cannot be taught to comprehend that despicable thing called prejudice. . . . ‘Viva [sic] la France’ should be the song of every Black American over here and over there.” (The same could not be said of the United Kingdom, where drummer Louis Mitchell and his Southern Symphonists’ Quintet opened at the Piccadilly Restaurant in 1914, but found that racism continued there unabated. Later, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway were both refused first-class accommodations in London.) But the French were aware that the color line was a delicate matter: a memo entitled “Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops” warned French officers that “we may be courteous and amiable with these [Black troops], but we cannot deal with them on the same plane as with the white American officers without deeply wounding the latter.”
Fronting the best band in the United States Army eased the way for James Europe, but assembling the group had required special efforts. Funds were hard to find, and regulations limited the number of band members to twenty-eight, while Europe said he needed at least forty-four. His superior officer Col. William Hayward solicited help from Daniel G. Reid of the U.S. Steel Corporation and the American Can Company, who wrote a check for ten thousand dollars. Then, when Europe needed skilled woodwind players, he was allowed to recruit them from Puerto Rico, placing Noble Sissle in charge of the group.
Excerpted from Musical Revolutions: How the Sounds of the Western World Changed by Stuart Isacoff, published by Knopf.
Top photo caption: Taken on Feb. 17, 1919, Lt. James Europe and his Famous Jazz Band of the 369th Colored Inf. In the Parade on 5th Avenue. Lt. Europe’s famous band was known as the best in the American Expeditionary Forces in France. Via U.S. National Archives and Records Administration