12. White People and Jazz and its Flowering in New York
In the summer of 1923, two young men named Hoagland Howard “Hoagy” Carmichael and Leon Bix Beiderbecke took two quarts of gin (Prohibition prevented buying at the table) and a package of marijuana (“muggles”) to a black Chicago music hall to hear King Oliver. When the second trumpeter, one Louis Armstrong, went into “Bugle Call Rag,” Carmichael dropped his cigarette and gulped his drink. Bix stood, popeyed, his gaze riveted on the player. “Why,” moaned Carmichael, “why isn’t everybody in the world here to hear that?” He meant it, he said later. “Something as unutterably stirring as that deserved to be heard by the world.”
Hoagy and Bix would not be alone. A cluster of young white Chicagoans would gather at the feet of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Bessie Smith and reach out to black music as a new sacrament, many of them becoming serious performers who would significantly influence American music over the next two decades. Behind them, an entire generation of young white Americans would listen to jazz, just as a large portion of the preceding generation had appreciated ragtime. The evolution of modern values that had begun with urbanization, the rise of science, and the wholesale acceptance of Darwin and Freud had been set in stone by the insane massacres of World War I. Add prosperity and the opportunity for leisure, and a new world had opened up, with jazz at its center.
Not everyone was happy about this. Just as with ragtime, the guardians of culture who were the stewards of musical and social orthodoxy were outraged. These essentially Victorian guardians didn’t like the modern, and jazz was by far their easiest target. Rhythm was the least important aspect of high culture-approved music, and jazz, where rhythm had been set free, was a threat.
Culture equaled refinement and tradition; jazz was rough and new. A proper classical art implied restraint, discipline, and hard work. Jazz seemed excessive and formless. Proper music emphasized an orderly harmony, while jazz was improvisatory. Worse still, jazz stimulated carnal thoughts and activities. Just as sexual mores were changing for many different reasons, jazz was there to help. That of course appealed greatly to youth, black people, and intellectuals, each of whom saw themselves as a separate group seeking independence and finding it in the free expression of improvisation. Because it celebrated the life force, jazz was a protest music of sorts – and as such, dangerous.
When one factored in the association of jazz with black people and brothels, the response flowered into borderline hysteria. “Jazz originally was the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest deeds,” wrote Ann Faulkner, the National Music Chairman for the Federation of Women’s Clubs, in The Ladies Home Journal in 1921. “The weird chant, accompanied by the syncopated rhythm of the voodoo invokers, has also been employed by other barbaric people to stimulate brutality and sensuality.” Since good music supported the moral order and sex outside marriage was bad, and since contemporary social theory held that black people were exceptionally sexually promiscuous, black music…was bad.
For actual followers and players of jazz, the music was more like a religion. Louis was its prophet, and a small group of true believers made up a sect that followed him. They had intuitive, Gnostic certainty about the value of the music, and like most sects, they tended to withdraw from the mainstream into a world with their own rituals and language. Over the next twenty years the followers of jazz would diversify into a subculture with varying roles, from the priest-like authority figures of critics to fans in varying dimensions, from those who merely listened and danced to those who collected and studied and developed institutions.
By 1935, that included the United Hot Clubs of America, established by Milt Gabler, a Jewish boy from Harlem whose father was in the radio business, and Ivy League students John Hammond and Marshall Stearns. Gabler’s small, shabby Commodore Record Shop on West 42nd St., founded in 1936, was the place banjoist Eddie Condon labeled “a shrine. The crummiest shrine in the world.” The Commodore sold old records with information that hadn’t been included on the original, material like the personnel lists that collectors craved.
Freedom had bobbed up again. Hoagy Carmichael summed it up; “It said what we wanted to say though what that was we might not know.” Jazz touched the sacred, not only because it played with the rhythms of the black church, but because at the heart of improvisation is mystery, and occasionally magic. The great French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli put it, “Great improvisers are like priests: they are thinking only of their god.”
Jazz was many things. It was urban and symbolized the speeded-up 20th century, which was a supreme irony, given the racial stereotypes of black people. It was primal, and therefore of the past, yet it was also American, which made it fresh and new. And it was also a commodity introduced into an American culture that could absorb and adapt any commodity if there was a chance for profit.
At the same time that the true believers went to hear King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, trained professionals eyed the success of “Crazy Blues” and the earliest jazz and considered the possibilities of a compromise, one that would take the syncopation from jazz and blend it with the orchestral dance music that was their bread and butter. Improvisation and blues were unacceptable, but a modern version of dancing that brought in customers was quite all right. Society dance-band leader Meyer Davis distinguished between “modern syncopation” and “savage syncopation. The savages syncopate without melody, while melody is preeminent in modern dance music.”
The man who would best produce this hybrid was named Paul Whiteman. In truth, he was a professional looking for a paycheck who took a highly successful formula created by someone else, used arrangements executed by someone else, and produced a music based on the notion that jazz wasn’t really music per se but a style, a technique. He wrote in his book Jazz, “Not that I mean to imply that there was any real musical value in our jazzing the classics. Of course not. It was partly a trick and partly experimental work. We were just fooling around with the nearest material, working out our methods.” He wanted to tame jazz, he said, “remove the stigma of barbaric strains and jungle cacophony” from it, and produce something respectable. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
The son of the supervisor for music of the Denver public schools, Whiteman played first viola in the Denver Symphony and landed in San Francisco after World War I. He spent time on the Barbary Coast listening to ragtime/early jazz, tried to play jazz fiddle, and was fired because he couldn’t improvise. After seeing Art Hickman’s band at the Fairmont Hotel, he took the Hickman formula (three brass and three reeds in sections, playing pop songs with rhythm) and created what he would call “jazz classique.” Hiring Ferde Grofe as his arranger, he introduced symphonic jazz in Los Angeles and moved on to the Palais Royal Hotel in New York, where he recorded “Whispering” and “Japanese Sandman,” which became enormous hits. By 1922, he controlled dozens of bands under his name and was grossing a million dollars annually.
His group was a jazz band in that it included banjo and saxophones, but in reality it was an orchestra which played bits from “Samson and Delilah,” the “Meditation from Thais,” and “Dance of the Hours” from La Giaconda as well as bouncy foxtrots for the hotel dancers. In 1922 that was enough to make it “jazz.” The classical musician and jazz historian Gunther Schuller would defend Whiteman’s music, especially the orchestrations, which were “often more than merely slick. Excellent intonation, perfect balances, and clean attacks do not necessarily equate with superficiality.”
Whiteman’s most recent defender, Elijah Wald, has listed as his achievements that he “defined the arranging style” of big band music (although he’d largely taken it from Hickman), that his was the first band with a vocal group and the first with a female vocalist, and that Whiteman would sponsor an important concert that would see jazz recognized as significant art music. Wald also concedes that Whiteman’s work was a “rear guard holding action” to maintain European harmonic standards against the 20th-century onslaught of African American rhythm, the first of a series of challenges to European cultural hegemony.
Whiteman was nothing if not ambitious, and he wanted to make a grand statement about symphonic jazz, documenting the progression he saw from “primitive” jazz to the superior work of his orchestra before closing the show with a major composition. It was to be written by a young composer named George Gershwin whom he’d met when they worked on a Broadway revue in 1922. Though classically trained, Gershwin had gone to work in Tin Pan Alley and had his first hit with a novelty rag called “Rialto Ripples;” he’d also been hanging out in Harlem listening to the great stride pianists James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith. Whiteman commissioned a symphonic piece from Gershwin, and when he learned that his rival Vincent Lopez was also planning a concert, they worked like hell to beat him. George Gershwin wrote “Rhapsody in Blue” in three weeks, with Ferde Grofe arranging it page by page as Gershwin created it, just in time for the February 12, 1924 concert.
The show poster read, “Paul Whiteman with his Palais Royal Orchestra. An Experiment in Modern Music assisted by Zez Confrey and George Gershwin. Aeolian Hall, 34 West 42nd St., Tickets $.55 to $2.20.” Aeolian Hall was a major home of classical music in New York at the time, and Whiteman’s invited audience included the lions of American symphonic music – Walter Damrosch, Victor Herbert, Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Leopold Stokowski – as well as the ubiquitous Carl Van Vechten.
Whiteman augmented his orchestra with extra violins and French horns, and the lineup included flugelhorn, euphonium, celesta, and octavina. They opened with a five-member group from the orchestra performing a deliberately burlesqued “Livery Stable Blues,” and Whiteman grew deathly nervous when he realized the audience actually liked what he thought of as the “crude jazz of the past.” (Ironically, Olin Downes in the New York Times thought it was “a gorgeous piece of impudence, much better in its unbuttoned jocosity and Rabelaisian laughter than other and more polite compositions that came later.”) Pop tunes like “Yes We Have No Bananas” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” followed, along with light classical pieces by Elgar and Friml arranged for dancing, and a special dance suite composed for the occasion by Victor Herbert. Finally, Gershwin came on to premiere the “Rhapsody in Blue” and the audience was enraptured, establishing Whiteman as the “King of Jazz.”
What of the “Rhapsody”? It was not jazz, but a great piece of jazzed-up symphonic music. It was not a full synthesis of jazz and classical, if that’s even possible, and significantly it has no successors; even Gershwin’s later jazzed-up long pieces like “An American in Paris” or “Concerto in F” aren’t as good as the “Rhapsody.” The fusion apparently did not have much of a future, not least because improvisation and symphony orchestras don’t mix. Still, the night at the Aeolian was a benchmark in the development of American music by acknowledging that jazz could be art music.
Whiteman wanted things both ways. He wanted respect from the high culture his father represented, which is why the classical world had been invited. He also wanted commercial success, and he knew that he needed to use African-American elements to get it. This does not make him any more racist than other white musicians of the era who were playing jazz; as the critic Gerald Early points out, Whiteman wanted to present jazz as American music, and that meant it had to be thought of as white – otherwise, he’d have had to play it in blackface. Implicitly, he needed to demonstrate the superiority and triumph of white civilization. In the end, the music played at Aeolian Hall, supposedly a review of the history of jazz, made no reference to black people.
Two years later Whiteman would produce a book called Jazz that did not mention the black origins of the music and argued that it was essentially “syncopated classical music.” Whiteman was honest enough to admit that “I know as much about real jazz as F. Scott Fitzgerald did about the Jazz Age,” and he was also smart enough to buy arrangements from the black composer William Grant Still and from Don Redman, then playing and arranging for Fletcher Henderson. Actually, he’d wanted to hire various black stars – Duke Ellington, Eubie Blake, Fletcher Henderson – but was vetoed by his managers. Instead, by the end of the decade he was hiring the best young rising white stars, like Red Nichols, the Dorsey Brothers, and Bix Beiderbecke, energizing his orchestra with a constant flow of new talent.
Since only a few young cognoscenti in the white world were listening to black musicians, jazz became a white music to the general public, just one of the frauds that America was circulating at this point. It is at least interesting to note that just at this time the advertising industry in America shifted its overall technique to presentations based on manipulating envy. No longer did one buy and sell based on thrift, need, or functionality. Now (and ever since) things were sold based on needing products to define one’s personal worth, one’s sexual attractiveness, and one’s social status. What David Riesman would call the “other-directed personality” had begun to replace the Protestant ethic of hard work.
At any rate, symphonic jazz gave the music respectability and offered it an occasional home in the concert hall as well as the saloon. Fritz Kreisler added a jazz number to his repertoire; classical musical journals like Etude began to soften their attitude. But in the long run it was a group of white kids who genuinely liked jazz as their first great musical inspiration, who recognized it as a black form and found this an attraction rather than a hindrance, who would truly introduce jazz into the white American mainstream. In the words of LeRoi Jones, “The Negro had created a music that offered such a profound reflection of America that it could attract white Americans to want to play it or listen to it for exactly that reason. The white jazz musician was even a new class of white American.”
It began in a soda fountain in a prosperous suburb of Chicago called Austin, Illinois. Jimmy and Dick McPartland, Frank Teschemacher, Bud Freeman, and Jim Lanigan would go to the Spoon and Straw after school to listen to records. They started with Paul Whiteman and Art Hickman, and then one day they heard “Farewell Blues” by the (white) New Orleans Rhythm Kings (N.O.R.K.), and it changed their lives.
Though formed in Chicago, the Rhythm Kings were raised in New Orleans. Clarinetist and leader Leon Roppolo was a graduate of Papa Jack Laine’s Reliance Brass Band, but unlike the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, he acknowledged his debt to the black creators; his father had owned a black-patronized saloon, and Leon had grown up listening to some of the earliest jazz players.
After the Original Dixieland Jazz Band had departed for New York, a call went out for more New Orleans-style players, and the Rhythm Kings settled in at Chicago’s Friar’s Inn, playing for their well-known customers, the gangsters Al Capone and Dion O’Banion. Off-nights, they haunted the Lincoln Gardens listening to Joe Oliver, taking notes on the cuffs of their shirts, and one of the results was Roppolo’s “Farewell Blues,” which they recorded in 1922. Said the Kings’ trumpet player, Paul Mares, “We did our best to copy the colored music we’d heard at home. We did the best we could, but naturally we couldn’t play real colored style.” The Kings didn’t last very long, breaking up in 1924, but their record had a powerful influence on the “Austin High Gang.”
A number of the Austinites had begun by playing violin, but after hearing “Farewell Blues,” they were inspired to pick up new instruments and, bar by bar, learn the song from the record. Actually, they learned the song before they learned their instruments. Jimmy on clarinet, Dick on banjo and guitar, Bud on C melody and later tenor saxophone, Jim on piano, Frank on clarinet; in a month they knew the song, and a few months later they knew nine or ten from the classic New Orleans repertoire – “Tiger Rag,” “Bugle Call Rag,” “Tin Roof Blues,” “Panama.” One day at a social at the Austin H.S. gym they met Dave Tough, a young drummer from the next town over, Oak Park. His hero was Warren “Baby” Dodds, so he fit right in. In homage to the N.O.R.K.’s home venue, they became the Blue Friars.
McPartland would later express his gratitude for music, because, as he put it, he could have fallen in with a “different kind of mob.” He’d been raised in the tough West Side of Chicago and lived in an orphanage for some years, and the placid quiet of suburban Austin did not suit him: “Jazz supplied the excitement we might otherwise have looked for among the illegal activities which flourished then in the neighborhood.” In truth, most of the Austin High Gang’s members were second-generation Americans fleeing their parents’ old-world roots via jazz. None of them would graduate high school, and when Northwestern college boys mocked their music, they often replied with their fists.
They buttressed their disaffection with reading. Dave Tough was in love with modernist fiction, especially his fellow Oak Park resident, Ernest Hemingway, as well as H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan’s American Mercury, especially the section called “Americana,” where, said one friend, “all the bluenoses, bigots, and two-faced killjoys in this land-of-the-free got a going over they never forgot.” In the course of the decade Tough would spend time with Chicago bohemians like Max Bodenheim and Kenneth Rexroth, who would much later describe him in his autobiographical novel Green Mask as the “first and greatest of the hipsters and one of the few really great musicians in the history of jazz.”
As they began to grow musically, they learned of the sources behind N.O.R.K., and took themselves off to the South Side of Chicago, where the enormous doorman at the Lincoln Gardens, Bud Freeman said, would greet them: “I see you [white boys] are all out here to get your music lessons tonight.” Lil Hardin Armstrong would notice that it was “Mostly white fellows (who) would line up in front of the stand,” lads like the Austinites, Dave Tough, Hoagy Carmichael, and other young white Chicagoans like Eddie Condon, Muggsy Spanier, Gene Krupa, Jess Stacy, and a clarinet player named Benny Goodman.
In 1924, Condon ran into Bud Freeman and Jimmy McPartland, who took him to a fraternity dance to hear King Oliver. Condon heard “Canal Street Blues” and fell in love. “It was hypnosis at first hearing,” he wrote later. “The tone from the trumpets was like warm rain on a cold day…the music poured into us like daylight running down a dark hole.” Condon began to go to Lincoln Gardens to listen, sitting there “stiff with education, joy, and a licorice-tasting gin.” In the summer, the Pekin Café’s windows would be open, and Spanier would sit on the curb outside and listen. Sometimes the music would be interrupted by gunshots, but he’d be back the next night. On very special nights, Louis and the King would let him sit in.
Clarinet players Benny Goodman and Joe Marsala studied Jimmie Noone, absorbing a sequence of development that had started in New Orleans with Lorenzo Tio and Bechet. By 1912 Noone was playing with Freddie Keppard, and later with Kid Ory and the Eagle Band. He joined the Creole Orchestra in Chicago in 1917, and played with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band before re-joining Keppard.
Bessie Smith had an equally powerful impact on them. As Condon sighed, “She had timing, resonance, volume, pitch, control, timbre, power – throw in the book and burn it; Bessie had everything.”
It was a love affair, but for the most part it was a love for black music, not blackness. With exceptions, the young players of Chicago were not juvenile Carl Van Vechtens chasing the exotic, seeing them as less repressed and therefore more childlike than white people. What they revered was creativity, and they were good enough musicians to know quality when they heard it. In historian Burton Peretti’s words, “no other identifiable group of white Americans of this era approached black culture with such openness and repaid it with comparable gratitude, praise, and emulation.” They weren’t civil rights advocates, and in coming years they would get jobs that black players couldn’t, but the young white Chicagoans were surely a first step toward a healthier new attitude.
One member of their group definitely went further in his relationship with black music. Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow was a Chicagoan who’d gone for a joy ride in a stolen car and ended up in reform school, the Pontiac Reformatory, where he began to learn music. When his teacher played them “Livery Stable Blues,” and he then listened to the black inmates sing, it “all hit me like a millennium would hit a philosopher.” Once out, he began to haunt the South Side music joints.
Soon he met the Austin High Gang, and although Mezz was not a great player and never would be, he played well enough for Bud Freeman to say, “He plays just like the colored boys!” Mezz couldn’t imagine a finer compliment, because he’d fallen in love with blackness. His accent went from Chicago to black, and “Every word that rolled off my lips was soft and fuzzy.” In later years, he would become convinced that his complexion had darkened. In his fascinating 1946 memoir Really the Blues, he could even write of the black man, “His whole manner and bearing was simple and natural. He could out-dance and out-sing anybody, in sports he could out-fight and out-run most all the competition, and when it comes to basketball, don’t say a word, just listen.” Oy!
Jimmy McPartland was tolerant: “We didn’t take Mezz too seriously that way. We just let him talk. He was good company, knew everybody. Played a little. So it was okay.”
About music he was rabid and dogmatic; the black New Orleans way was the only way. For him, the Chicagoans had erred in dropping the tailgate trombone in favor of the tenor saxophone, throwing the harmonies too high. “They got too fancy, sometimes, too ornate and over-elaborate, full of uncalled-for frills and ruffles…They got a lot of flash, musical fireworks; but the rightness wasn’t always there.” In general, the Chicago version of New Orleans was a little more tense and nervous than the original, louder and faster. It was, after all, Chicago and not New Orleans.
To Mezz, what had spread the gospel of jazz was “the rebel in us. Our rebel instincts broke music away from what I’d call the handcuff-and-straitjacket discipline of the classical school, so creative artists could get up on the stand and speak out in their own honest and self-inspired language again…A creative musician is an anarchist with a horn, and you can’t put any shackles on him.”
Perhaps the most creative and unshackled of them all, although he would stray sufficiently far from the New Orleans gospel to make Mezz ambivalent about him, was Bix Beiderbecke. Brilliant, tormented, self-destructive, ever obsessed with a quest for the perfect sound, he wrenched an angelic tone from his horn and was the perfect doomed romantic artist-hero, especially when he managed to drink himself to death at the age of 28. Eddie Condon described playing with Bix for the first time and hearing a sound that “came out like a girl saying yes.” Mezz said, “I had never heard a tone like he got before or since…every note packing a solid punch, with his head always in full control over his heart.”
If his head was in control when he played, it was only then. Jimmy McPartland would say of him, “His main interest in life was music, period. It seemed as if he just existed outside of that.” Born in 1903 to an upper middle class family in Davenport, Iowa, he refused all lessons but learned piano by ear. When his brother returned from the Army in late 1918 with separation cash and bought a phonograph and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Tiger Rag,” Bix was hooked. A month or two later he borrowed a cornet and taught himself to play.
His interest in jazz appalled his family; in later years, he would discover that all the records he’d been part of and sent home had never been opened. That sort of insensitivity fueled his rebellion, and by the age of 18 he was working in the Plantation Jazz Orchestra on the Streckfus boat Majestic. He didn’t last very long on the Majestic, though, because his sight-reading was very poor. His ear was so good that he didn’t need sheet music, and his rebellious attitude preempted any willingness to learn how.
Shipped off in the fall of 1921 to a disciplinary boarding school in Chicago, Lake Forest Academy, he spent more time boozing and playing with the N.O.R.K. at the Friar’s Inn than he did with books, and was expelled in the spring. He worked days on a Lake Michigan excursion boat while spending nights at Lincoln Gardens listening to King Oliver, and in 1923 joined the Wolverine Band. In the fall of 1924, the Wolverines took up residence at the Cinderella Ballroom in Manhattan, at 48th St. and Broadway. One block north was a joint commonly called the Kentucky Club, home to a young man named Duke Ellington and his band, the Washingtonians. Three blocks north, Louis Armstrong had joined Fletcher Henderson at Roseland. Early jazz had come to a boil.
The vocalist Hoagy Carmichael would reflect that this period was “the great time of experimentation in jazz, with only enough precedents to stimulate individual and original exploration but not enough nailed down examples to set any definite patterns as rigid rules.” Beiderbecke played a lot of exotic piano, 9th and 11th chord voicings, and listened to impressionist composers like Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky. His tone was beautiful and built on a classical sense of form and construction, very different from the blues-based New Orleans sound.
After a stint with Jean Goldkette’s group, one of the better dance orchestras, Bix would join up with Frank “Tram” Trumbauer in St. Louis in 1925. Despite the segregated nature of St. Louis at the time, Bix mostly spent his time hanging out with black players at the Chauffeurs’ Club. The local trumpet player Louis Metcalf remarked that Bix, like Benny Goodman, the Dorseys, and Jack Teagarden, “didn’t care nothin’ about color, or that jazz had a bad stamp to it. Why, Bix would come uptown and blow with us, eat with us, sleep with us. He was one of us.” As Pops Foster put it, “The colored and the white musicians were just one.”
In 1927 Bix and Trumbauer recorded with a small group, tunes that included the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Clarinet Marmalade” and “Singin’ the Blues,” which fully established him as a soloist, essentially creating the idea of a jazz ballad. With Trumbauer’s help he also recorded a piano solo, “In a Mist,” that beautifully joined ragtime rhythms and impressionist harmonies with an Apollonian sense of perfect form. It was lovely art music and a radically divergent stream within jazz, revealing a wide range of potential directions.
One direction was the giant orchestra, and that fall Bix and Tram joined Paul Whiteman, where Bix’s crystalline solos would dominate recordings for the next several years. It also brought him into contact with a rich variety of music. Maurice Ravel was in town conducting the New York Philharmonic and came to a Whiteman rehearsal. Bix caught the Symphony and even joined Ravel for a long conversation in a handy speakeasy afterward.
In Chicago, it was Louis Armstrong, who stayed up all night and caught an early Paul Whiteman show, enjoying even Whiteman’s version of the 1812 Overture, impressed that Bix’s pure tone made him audible even among the cannons and bells. Conversely, Bix would come to the Sunset Café after the last Whiteman show to jam. Louis mused that they weren’t cutting sessions, but “We tried to see how good we could make music sound which was an inspiration within itself.”
Whatever demons his rebellion from Davenport had stirred, they never went away. By 1929, Bix’s health began to crumble, and he had to leave Whiteman. He convalesced in Davenport, returned to New York, tried and failed to rejoin Whiteman, and died, probably of a seizure from trying to stop drinking cold turkey. He left behind music and a legend. As he told Jimmy McPartland, he’d found freedom in jazz, which is why he could never repeat himself. “It’s impossible,” he said. “I don’t feel the same way twice. That’s one of the things I like about jazz, kid, I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Do you?”
It wasn’t only Bix who wrestled with freedom. The great black migration had transformed Harlem from a small middle class neighborhood with housing designed for 60,000 into a city-within-a-city of 300,000, mixing poor immigrants with the more prosperous residents of Sugar Hill and Striver’s Row. Then came the rise of the glamorous and exotic nightlife of Harlem, the (segregated) Cotton Club, Connie’s Inn, and Small’s Paradise, where white celebrities like Dorothy Parker and Eugene O’Neill came to play, as well as more outré attractions like Helen Valentine’s sex circus on 140th St., which was definitely not open to the public, although available to those with discriminating tastes. If people wanted exotic Harlem, they could buy it.
Intellectually, black minds stretched ever further away from the 19th century’s horrors. Having fought and contributed significantly to the American war effort, a minority became interested in Marcus Garvey’s Pan-Africanism, but almost all were ready to grow. Among other responses, Howard University Professor of Philosophy Alain Locke published The New Negro in 1925, and what came to be called the Harlem Renaissance bloomed. Unfortunately, the intellectual basis of the movement was severely constricted, bound up in the inherently elitist concept of uplift.
Locke was a Harvard graduate and Oxford Rhodes Scholar who wanted high culture to “lift the race,” and thought jazz would be great – once it had been absorbed into symphonies, like the work of William Grant Still. As Sterling Brown summed him up, “For Locke, if Stravinsky liked it, it had to be good. And that’s bad.”
W.E.B. Du Bois, perhaps the preeminent mind of the day, black or white, had the same conflicts. He and Locke, for instance, celebrated the career of Roland Hayes, who was able to sell out Carnegie Hall with a program of European art songs and spirituals so Europeanized that the spirit appeared lost to many. Du Bois respected the spirituals, but jazz brought out his genteel Victorianism. Just as (mostly young) white people were celebrating the 20th century jazz attack on Victorian repression, Locke and Du Bois defended, as one scholar put it, “sublimation, Western rationalism, and the Protestant work ethic.” Carl Van Vechten’s primitivist sexual fantasies revolted Du Bois, who saw him as a vampire preying on black people.
Van Vechten was the great white patron of the Harlem Renaissance, and he would deserve great credit for his championing of various black artists. His friend James Weldon Johnson would say so, writing to him that “you have been one of the most vital factors in bringing about the artistic emergence of the Negro in America.” Johnson would also wonder at the callous thoughtlessness that would go into Van Vechten’s choice of title for his most famous book, Nigger Heaven.
Among black intellectuals, only folklorist and Columbia graduate student Zora Neale Hurston and poet Langston Hughes would reject the Locke/Du Bois assumptions about high culture. Hughes saw the blues as having their own power as “urban folk music, and a proletarian art form rich in political implications.” Hurston objected to Du Bois’ characterization of the spirituals as “sorrow songs,” seeing a much wider world within them, and criticized concert spirituals as “squeezing all of the rich black juice out of our songs and presenting a sort of musical octoroon to the public.”
Hughes was of special stock; his maternal grandmother’s husband had been one of the five black men killed with John Brown. Raised by a strong grandmother, he projected a proud racial consciousness that presided over a diverse black folk culture. His blues poetry seemed spontaneous, and he championed the blues, “as fine as any folk music we have.” Perhaps it was simply that Hurston and Hughes were of a new generation, a little more comfortable with the world.
In the end, the primary impact of African American culture on mainstream America in the 1920s was through jazz, and the true flower of the Harlem Renaissance and the “New Negro” was the work of one Edward Kennedy Ellington, the greatest American composer of any stripe, who did exactly what Locke wanted – create a polished African American art that used the elements of blues and jazz among other forms to create one of America’s most remarkable bodies of music.
Though Manhattan would become the jazz capital of America by the late 1920s, it would take Fletcher Henderson of Georgia and Duke Ellington of Washington, D.C. to bring jazz bands to the city. Before they arrived, the black music of New York was largely played by solo pianists, who took their approach primarily from ragtime, heavily affected by the proximity of Tin Pan Alley and the Broadway theatre district. Garvin Bushell would recall, “There wasn’t an eastern performer who could really play the blues. We later absorbed it from the southern musicians we heard, but it wasn’t original with us. We didn’t put that quarter-tone pitch in the music the way the southerners did. Up north we leaned toward ragtime conception – a lot of notes.”
The New Yorkers were very good at what they were playing, good enough that when Jelly Roll Morton rolled into New York, they were not impressed. Perry Bradford would see Jelly going against Stephen “The Beetle” Henderson and report that the man from New Orleans had faded. Duke Ellington said much the same thing. It was true that all opinions of Jelly tended to reflect his abrasive personality, but it was also true that New York piano players were a special breed.
They called it stride. From before World War I until nearly the next world war, a collection of New Yorkers named Kid Sneeze, the Beetle, Richard “Abba Labba” McLean, Charles “Lucky” Roberts, Fats Waller, Willie “the Lion” Smith, and above all James Price Johnson played a shouting style of piano that added blues melodies and Southern rural dance rhythms to a ragtime left hand. Stride was improvised ragtime in which the left hand played single notes on the 1st and 3rd beats and chords on the 2nd and 4th, with the right hand playing counter-rhythms.
The greatest of the stride pianists was James P. Johnson, who as a teen in 1908 would move from New Jersey to San Juan Hill (possibly named for the black 10th Cavalry, which had fought in Cuba), a black area of Manhattan in the West 60s later razed to create Lincoln Center. A friend of Johnson’s had learned to play Scott Joplin’s “Gladiolus,” and James was transformed. His mother got him a piano, and he learned harmony and counterpoint from a friend studying opera. “I was on Bach,” he said, and “double thirds need good fingering.”
That came on top of church songs, pop songs, and classic rags, and also hearing Jelly Roll Morton while still wearing short pants. There were docks near San Juan Hill where boats from Savannah and Charleston came in, and where the dockworkers were frequently Gullah (low country South Carolina and Georgia) and Geechee (the Ogeechee River of Georgia) people. They brought music with them, and dances, and James P. took that and created a song called “The Charleston,” which he put in the 1923 Broadway play called “Runnin’ Wild.” The song was a thundering hit. Along with his “Carolina Shout” (as in ring shout), it established him as a popular songwriter.
His chief competition was Willie “The Lion” Smith, who’d earned his nickname as a gunner during the war. The Lion was a special man, as he revealed in his wonderful autobiography, Music on My Mind. Born in 1897 in New Jersey, he attended various churches as a child and particularly liked Baptist singing and ring shouts, but spent so much time at a neighbor’s Hebrew classes that he was bar mitzvahed. He also took a serious interest in astrology. By 1913 Willie was working saloons in The Coast, Newark’s vice district. Postwar he held forth at Leroy Wilkins’ place at 135th St. and 5th Avenue, the center of black Harlem.
Generally, Willie played in New York and stayed in New York – he avoided the South, he said, because “The weather down there just didn’t fit my clothes.” But he did travel with a show to Chicago in 1923. When stranded there, he decided to stick around for a while, playing at the Flume Café, and consequently was able to hear King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and so forth. “The bands proved to be the real treat because we hadn’t heard groups in the East that could play the blues and stomps like these guys in the Middle West…a brass-player’s paradise.”
Back in New York, a black entertainment district sprang up between Lenox and 7th Avenues, and between 131st and 133rd Streets, with places like Connie’s Inn, the Lafayette Theatre, The Nest, Tillie’s Chicken Shack, and the Rhythm Club, where the musicians gathered to loaf, schmooze, and find jobs. A tree grew in front of the Lafayette on 7th Avenue and became known as the Tree of Hope, a lucky wishing tree something like a similar tree in Congo Square the previous century, and the block became known as the Corner, the Boulevard of Dreams, or the Stroll. One major feature of the Stroll by 1930 was one Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, purveying the best marijuana in Harlem. (Mezz sold to white people, too; one of the people he turned on was a white man named Jerry Wexler, who in the 1950s at Atlantic Records would go on to be one of the great producers of black music in history).
When The Lion left Leroy’s club, he was replaced by an up-and-coming youngster, a student of James P.’s named Thomas “Fats” Waller. By the early ‘20s, a very young Fats was at the Lafayette Theatre, which had a fine organ. New York being the center of the recording industry of the day, he was soon writing songs and heading mid-town to work in the studios. What Mamie Smith had kicked off in 1920 would have lasting reverberations. Ralph Peer, the Music Director at OKeh, had first labeled the music “Negro Records” and then “Coloured Records,” neither of which caught on. Then he saw the term “race” in the Chicago Defender, and created the phrase “race records,” and it stuck. Soon he brought in Clarence Williams, whom we first encountered trying to hustle Bessie Smith, but who would have a lasting career in New York as a producer and not terribly good piano player (The Lion s aid he played as though wearing mittens).
“Clarence Williams’s Blue Five,” which featured Sidney Bechet, recorded the classic songs “Wild Cat Blues” (written by Clarence and Fats) and “Kansas City Man Blues” in its first session, in 1923. In partnership with Spencer Williams, Clarence would put out the classic “Royal Garden Blues,” and Spencer would write (though Clarence would claim it) Fats’ first hit, “Squeeze Me.” The next year, Sidney would pair with Louis Armstrong on Clarence’s “Cake Walking Babies from Home” before departing for Europe to work with Josephine Baker.
Fats would go on to meet one Andriamanantena Paul Razafinkarefo,
also known as Andy Razaf, and by the end of the decade, with Andy as lyricist, begin recording hit after hit, including “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which would be part of the show Connie’s Hot Chocolates, sung by Cab Calloway and Margaret Sims onstage, and later by Louis Armstrong from the pit. The same show also had his “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.” Fats’ combination of brilliant composing, equally brilliant playing, and humor – his line “Hmm, I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight,” delivered with a cocked eyebrow and a sly smile, became part of the American joke bank – made him a national treasure for black and white people alike.
Before he went off to Europe in 1925, Bechet played a show in Washington D.C. that would have lasting consequences. In the audience was one Edward Kennedy Ellington; it was the first time that he’d heard New Orleans music, and it would transform him. Bechet even briefly played with Duke, and Ellington would take the counterpoint, romance, and beats of New Orleans music and built a compositional cathedral.
Duke was in some ways he oddest of ducks. Born in 1899, he’d been raised in a totally bourgeois family, yet he had no formal musical education. He would eventually write symphony-like extended jazz compositions that were still very strongly racially conscious, telling DownBeat in 1939 that he wasn’t interested “primarily in the playing of jazz or swing music, but in producing musically a genuine contribution from our race…We try to complete a cycle.”
Over the 1920s, building on Art Hickman and the white dance orchestras, Fletcher Henderson had developed the primary elements of the jazz orchestra, and Ellington would bring them to an absolute peak. He would ensure that the form would stay vigorous and not too sweet by hiring what one author called “hard-drinking and combative bad boys for his band, who produced the funky timbre, blues, and wails of the rural tradition.” The orchestra was his instrument, and he played it masterfully. He was artist and patron both, composing pop tune hits to finance more ambitious pieces, and all this while touring. By the time he was done he would copyright 1,500 pieces.
The most important of those pop tune hits came in 1930. Duke had three songs ready for a small group recording date but needed a fourth. While waiting for his mother to finish cooking dinner, he whipped the tune out, and called it “Mood Indigo.” They recorded it in the afternoon and played it that night at the Cotton Club, and it was established as a hit forever. Duke would take the revenues from that song and so very many others and use them to finance the band, putting them on a tour bus – and plane and train – to wander the world and create music, in his own phrase, that was “beyond category,” but central to American culture in the 20th century.