Northern migration was, at times, not a one-way journey, as musicians often made several stops along the way. Because of financial and artistic motivations, musicians lived a life on the road for months at a time. Consequently, places like New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Memphis, Kansas City, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and even Paris, France became jazz destinations in and of themselves. Life on the road presented both perils and triumphs along the way. But musicians carried jazz to the far corners of the country, and in each destination, slightly different and unique brands of jazz emerged. Musicians also learned new techniques and jazz styles on the road that enabled them to grow as artists, and one of the best ways to learn new styles was to witness innovation on the spot in jazz clubs across the country. This dynamic made the story of the jazz musician during the Great Migration unique, and it paved the way for the Jazz Age that swept the nation in the 1920s.
Millions of African Americans left their homes for the urban north in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s. Migrants often cited motivations for leaving the South that included economic opportunities and the desire for full rights as citizens. Musicians left the South for similar reasons, and they actively sought a better life for themselves and fellow jazz artists. Below you will find the stories of some of these jazz migrants.
Later in life Louis Armstrong wrote about his first journey to Chicago in 1922, reflecting on his motivations for the trip. “Hillare and the rest of us kids who turned out to be good musicians, migrated from New Orleans- to Chicago, when times were real good. There were plenty of work, lots of Dough flying around, all kinds of beautiful women at your service. A musician in Chicago in the early twenties were treated and respected just like- some kind of a God.” Joe “King” Oliver, Armstrong’s mentor, left New Orleans in 1918, and he later encouraged Armstrong to follow him to Chicago. Oliver was a respected and successful bandleader in Chicago, and he assisted many musicians, including Armstrong, in leaving New Orleans for good. As Armstrong explained, “He kept sending me letters and telegrams telling me to come up to Chicago and play second cornet for him. That, I knew, would be real heaven for me. I had made up my mind that I would not leave New Orleans unless the King sent for me. I would not risk leaving for anyone else.” Clearly Armstrong thought long and hard about his decision to leave New Orleans based on a variety of factors. Ultimately, he was swayed by the advice of a close confidant. Though this particular element of Armstrong’s story is telling, it is far from unique.
By 1924, Armstrong would bring the Chicago style to New York City, intent on leaving his own mark on the brand of jazz that was beginning to take Harlem by storm. Once in New York, he was less than impressed with the city’s music scene. After joining Fletcher Henderson’s band (one of the biggest and most sought after acts in New York City), he found the group lacking the discipline and dynamism of its Chicago counterparts. “I stayed and tolerated them cutting up on the bandstand instead of playing the music right…. The fellows in Fletcher’s band had such big heads… such big heads until— even if they miss a note ‘So what.’” Furthermore, he believed Henderson cared little for his innovative style. Armstrong returned to Chicago within the year.
Joe “King” Oliver
Both Joe “King” Oliver (Louis Armstrong’s mentor) and Kid Ory assumed leadership roles that facilitated the jazz exodus. Ory actually turned down an offer to move to Chicago in 1918, but he passed the opportunity to Oliver who gladly accepted. Oliver had made up his mind to leave after a prohibition era police raid on a club the two were playing in. The musicians were surprised to be taken in along with the customers. It was on that night that Joe Oliver decided to leave for Chicago. After hearing that Ory turned down the offer, Oliver and another musician approached Ory; “They said, ‘We’d like to go to Chicago.’ I said, ‘You want the job? Here’s the telegram.’ They went.” Ory also gave Oliver a number to call for assistance until he got settled in Chicago. Oliver felt unable to openly ply his craft, and he recognized the economic opportunity Chicago represented. He was also able to make the journey with assistance from another musician.
Edward “Kid” Ory
Edward “Kid” Ory left New Orleans not long after Joe Oliver, citing a concern for his health that precipitated his move to Los Angeles. But, he also stated that the owner of Pete Lala’s in New Orleans was jealous of the money Ory was making promoting dances at Economy and Cooperative Halls. Pete Lala was mad at Ory for not cutting him in on the deal. Pete then got, “about fifty cops” to go around to his dances and run all the customers away, “So I packed up and left, came to Los Angeles.” After spending five years in Los Angeles, Ory received a call from Oliver to join him in Chicago, thus returning the favor. Like Oliver, Ory utilized existing networks to facilitate his move to Chicago. He left New Orleans in the first place both because of his health and because he was being intimidated by the local power structure. Ory and Oliver facilitated the migration of dozens of individuals collectively including Albert Nichols, Baby Dodds, Pops Foster, and Barney Bigard. In this vein, the work of Ory and Oliver mirrors the efforts of those in the larger migrant community that enabled others to leave the South.
Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton
The famous piano player Ferdinand La Menthe anglicized his name and went by the moniker Jelly Roll Morton. Morton, a Creole whose ancestors “were in the city of New Orleans long before the Louisiana Purchase,” declared that he changed his name “for business reasons when I started traveling. I didn’t want to be called Frenchy.” Drummer Warren “Baby” Dodds remembered a sense of Creole superiority regarding African American musicians: “The musicians mixed only if you were good enough. But at one time the Creole fellows thought the uptown musicians weren’t good enough to play with them, because most of the uptown musicians didn’t read music.” Furthermore, the Creole pianist Jelly Roll Morton often taunted the dark skinned cornetist Joe “King” Oliver by referring to him as “Blondie.” Louis Armstrong recalled that because of Morton’s light complexion, he was able to get jobs that the darker skinned musicians were unable to obtain, and Morton often flaunted his perceived privileged status. However, “No matter how much his Diamond Sparkled he still had to eat in the Kitchen, the same as we Blacks,” Armstrong concluded. New Orleans residents were reminded of a physical sense of the social division as one crossed Canal Street, the traditional boundary between the uptown African American ghetto and the downtown French District where Creoles lived. Morton himself remembered brass band processions as a child where the two factions fought over turf: “You see, whenever a parade would get to another district the enemy would be waiting at the dividing line.” Morton left New Orleans, making a living as an itinerate musician in cities across the South before eventually landing in Chicago in 1907.
Sidney Bechet, a talented nineteen-year-old clarinet player, left New Orleans for the first time in 1916. Bechet travelled first across the South and Midwest before ending up in Chicago in 1917. Once in the Windy City, he began playing with fellow New Orleans transplants Freddie Keppard, Joe Oliver, and Kid Ory. Chicago was an enticing draw for young musicians. Bechet explained, “Back in New Orleans people were hearing a lot of excitement about what was happening up North, and I had this idea in my head that I was to see other places. I wanted to go North and see Chicago and I wanted to see New York. I guess I just wanted to see all there was.” Chicago and New York were certainly attractive locations for aspiring musicians, but Bechet also left because, “We’d heard all about how the North was freer, and we were wanting to go real bad.”
In 1920, Bechet travelled to post-war Paris with a group of musicians led by Will Marion Cook, and their European tour made a lasting impression on Parisians and Londoners. Writing in the Revue Romande in 1919 Ernest-Alexandre Ansermet, the noted French conductor, declared that, “Today, rag-time has conquered Europe; we dance to rag-time under the name of jazz in all our cities….” Ansermet praised Cook’s band declaring, “The first thing that strikes one about the Southern Syncopated Orchestra is the astonishing perfection, the superb taste, and the fervor of its playing.” He also singled out Bechet for his command of his instrument: “I wish to set down the name of this artist of genius; as for myself, I shall never forget it- it is Sidney Bechet.” Thanks to the work of artists like Cook and Bechet, jazz conquered Europe, and it was a short campaign. The successful tour ended abruptly for Bechet as he found himself in trouble with British authorities and was deported back to the United States. Bechet enjoyed himself so much in Europe that he lived off and on in Paris over the course of his long musical career.
Bechet enjoyed life in France. However, the irony for artists like Bechet, Will Marian Cook, James Reese Europe, Duke Ellington and dozens of African American musicians who travelled to Europe over the course of the twentieth century, was that they received a level of praise that they could not get in their home country. The contrast to the treatment black musicians received in the South could not be starker. In Paris and other European capitals, African Americans were respected as artists- not just as performers. Benny Carter believed that in Europe there “was a decided difference in the acceptance of you just on the basis of you as a human being, rather than on the basis of the color of your skin… as far as the racial situation was concerned, I knew what I was returning to, so there were no surprises, you know, and I’ve always been kind of able to live within a situation that I know exists, and at the same time, do everything that I can do to change it.” Carter was not the only musician who experienced an altogether different world in Europe. After a European tour in the early 1930s Duke Ellington’s band played an extended tour of the American South. Harry Carney, a saxophone player in the band, remembered that, “Of course all the places we played down there, they were happy to hear the band. The drag was they’d be screaming and applauding and afterward you’d have to go back across the tracks…. In Europe we were royalty; in Texas we were back in the colored section.”
Earl “Fatha” Hines
Earl “Fatha” Hines grew up in a musical family just outside of Pittsburgh. Hines moved to New York before eventually settling in Chicago in 1924. Hines enjoyed that Chicago “wasn’t as congested as New York…. the atmosphere was different altogether. There seemed to be more night life, maybe because it was more centralized. Hines met Louis Armstrong in Chicago and the two became fast friends. Armstrong remembered that he, Hines and the drummer Zutty Singleton saw some “pretty tough days there in Chicago… but we kept our heads up, believe that.” Hines remembered Chicago’s reputation as a tough town certainly lived up to the hype: “A frequent visitor to the Grand Terrace was the big man himself, Al Capone. He liked to come to the club with his henchmen, order all the doors closed, and have the band play his requests. He was free with hundred dollar tips…. Louis Armstrong once changed managers and was threatened with gangster violence. After that he hired two bodyguards who protected him on and off the job for many months.” Hines joined Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five (after replacing Armstrong’s Wife Lil on piano) and Hot Seven, and they made some of the most influential records in jazz history.
In 1919 Buster Bailey, a young clarinet and saxophone player, made his way to Chicago. Bailey explained that he was inspired to start a new life in Chicago because of the success of fellow Memphis musicians: “Lil Hardin is from my home town. She caused me to want to go to Chicago. We had been neighbors. She left… and went to Chicago where she worked at the Dreamland and Pekin Gardens. She was making a hundred-fifty a week salary.” Compared to the $2.60 a night wage Bailey made in Memphis, Hardin’s salary seemed enormous. In a matter of a few months word reached Memphis of the success of Chicago musicians. Bailey made up his mind, “to go to Chicago to get some of that money. So I left even before I finished those last two weeks of high school.” Like dozens of other jazz artists, Bailey was allured by the opportunities Chicago offered. For Hardin, Chicago was unlike anything she new in Memphis: “In the summer of 1918, my folks moved from Memphis to Chicago, and I made it my business to go out for a daily stroll and look this ‘heaven’ over. Chicago meant just that to me- its beautiful brick and stone buildings, excitement, people moving swiftly, and things happening.”
In Chicago, Hardin joined King Oliver’s Creole Band on piano and met another recent migrant who played second cornet in the group- Louis Armstrong. The two were soon married. Hardin recognized Armstrong’s genius, and she pushed him to move beyond the shadow of Oliver and to become a bandleader in his own right. As a member of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, she was part of some of the most influential records in jazz history. It was because of Hardin’s belief in her husband’s talents and her insistence that he market those gifts that Armstrong became a rising national star by the 1930s.
“Memphis Blues” composed in 1909 by W.C. Handy was originally entitled “Mr. Crump.” Handy wrote the tune as a campaign song for the mayoral election of Edward Hull Crump. Handy, a transplant from Alabama who was a classically trained musician, was heavily influenced by the music of the city’s roustabouts who worked on the banks of the Mississippi. Handy recalled that, “The melody of ‘Mister Crump’ was mine throughout. On the other hand, the twelve-bar, three-line form of the first and last strains, with its three-chord basic harmonic structure (tonic, sub-dominant, dominant seventh) was that already used by Negro roustabouts, honky-tonk piano players, wanderers and others of their underprivileged but undaunted class from Missouri to the Gulf….” Handy later enjoyed the moniker “The Father of the Blues” after penning several famous songs, including “Memphis Blues,” based on the music forms he discovered in Memphis. Handy explained that, “My part in their history was to introduce this, the ‘blues’ form, to the general public, as the medium for my own feelings and my own musical ideas.” Handy remained in the Bluff City as a bandleader, director of dance orchestras, and music publisher until 1918 when he and Harry Pace, his business partner, moved their publishing firm to New York City.
By 1920, St. Louis was one of the main stops for the riverboat excursions of the Streckfus Line. Bands like the ones fronted by Fate Marable, Louis Armstrong, and Baby Dodds played in “The Gateway to the West” in the first decades of the twentieth century. The Streckfus Steamers spent the winter months in New Orleans before heading north in the spring each year. The drummer Zutty Singleton remembered that, “There was a saying in New Orleans. When some musician would get a job on the riverboats with Fate Marable, they’d say, ‘Well you’re going to the conservatory.’ That’s because Fate was such a fine musician and the men who worked with him had to be really good.” Singleton played on the steamer the Capitol with Marable and Armstrong. “The boats would spend the winter in New Orleans and then, around April, go up to St. Louis, stopping at Natchez and other places for a night or two,” recalled Singleton. “The way it worked on the boats was Monday night the dances were for colored. Every night the boats would travel up and down the river for a while and then come back.”
Like Kid Ory and Joe Oliver, Fate Marable assumed a leadership role that fostered the exodus of jazz from New Orleans and other southern cities during the Great Migration. As historian William Howland Kenney notes Marable “used his position as leader of the best black dance bands on the leading excursion boats on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to personally recruit ambitious musicians who were looking for a way to explore the more northerly reaches of the Mississippi valley as professional dance band musicians. Once Marable had them on board, he insisted that they carefully prepare themselves for success in the modern music business.” Marable also encouraged his band mates to join the American Federation of Musicians, learn to sight-read music scores, and he recommended them to some of the most prominent bandleaders in the country for jobs in groups fronted by Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford.
Mary Lou Williams
Traveling blues and ragtime musicians often made their way through Kansas City, and by the 1920s, the city boasted a number of promising bands that turned the city into a destination for aspiring musicians in the years to come. The gifted vocalist Mary Lou Williams remembered, “In those years around 1930, Kaycee was really jumping¾ so many great bands having sprung up there or moved in from over the river. I should explain that Kansas City, Missouri wasn’t too prejudiced for a midwestern town. It was a ballin’ town, and it attracted musicians from all over the South and Southwest, and especially from Kansas.” The vibrant neighborhood of 18th and Vine attracted black business leaders and black artists. This dynamic made the community a hotbed of black culture. “So I found Kansas City to be a heavenly city- music everywhere in the Negro section of town, and fifty or more cabarets rocking on Twelfth and Eighteenth Streets,” recalled Williams. “Yes, Kaycee was a place to be enjoyed, even if you were without funds. People would make you a loan without you asking for it, would look at you and tell if you were hungry and put things right. There was the best food to be had¾ the finest barbecue, crawdads, and other seafood.” Dozens of noted jazz musicians, like Mary Lou Williams, got their start in Kansas City in the 18th and Vine neighborhood.
Bennie Moten grew up in the 18th and Vine neighborhood of Kansas City, studying piano under the tutelage of a former student of Scott Joplin, the noted ragtime innovator. After playing piano in several local groups, Moten formed his own band in 1918. By the mid 1920s Moten took his increasingly popular band on the road playing and recording in Chicago and other northern locales. Moten did his best to keep the band in the public eye by booking the group in clubs as far north as Minneapolis, as far south as New Orleans, and as far west as Denver. Moten’s group remained the most popular jazz band in Kansas City, but on the road they faced stiff competition from other traveling “territory” bands like Walter Page’s Blue Devils. After suffering an embarrassing defeat in a music battle between Moten’s group and the Blue Devils, the bested bandleader tried to buy out Page. The plan did not succeed, but Moten eventually plucked some the best musicians from the rival Blue Devils, including a young piano player from New Jersey, named William “Count” Basie.
William “Count” Basie was originally from Red Bank, New Jersey. The talented piano player moved to Harlem in 1924 where he eventually found work on the traveling vaudeville circuit, crisscrossing the country from New York to Chicago and other cities large and small. On one such tour in 1928, Basie found himself stranded in Kansas City. “I was just a kinda honky-tonk piano player with the show and we had more than our fair share of troubles. We didn’t have any ‘name’ in the cast and we didn’t do much business. So, about the time we reached Kansas City, the unit was in pretty bad shape and then came the inevitable folding. When we folded, I was broke and didn’t have any way to get out of town.”
After struggling to make a living in Kansas City, Basie eventually landed a gig playing piano for Walter Page’s Blue Devils. Basie later joined Bennie Moten’s group on “third piano,” a band that Basie declared “more or less ruled the local jazz scene” in Kansas City. The Count Basie Orchestra formed from a nucleus of former Moten musicians, after a Basie led internal revolt relieved Moten from his position as bandleader in 1933. The Basie Orchestra became one of the most popular big bands of the 1930s and 1940s recording hits like “One O’clock Jump,” “Lester Leaps In,” and “Taxi War Dance.”
The leading black vocalists of the day were blues singers Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith (in this period the blues and jazz were almost interrelated). The relative similarities between blues and jazz in this period allowed female vocalists like Rainey and Smith to cross back and forth between the two genres with ease. Angela Davis, in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, examined the life and work of these women and argues that each displayed a level of feminist activism through their lyrics and public personas. Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. By 1912 she landed a gig with a touring vaudeville group as a dancer and singer, eventually fronting her own group. She soon made Atlanta her home base of operations before moving to Philadelphia in the 1920s. By that time, she was the most successful black celebrity of the day. Ethel Waters remembered, “Bessie, like an opera singer, carried her own claque with her. These plants in the audience were paid to throw up coins and bills to get the appreciation money going without delay the moment she finished her first number. Bessie was in a pretty good position to dictate to the managers.” The enormous appeal of these women was groundbreaking given the rampant sexism and racism of the day. Furthermore, the popularity of Rainey and Smith paved the way for later female vocalists, like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, during the Swing Era.
Ethel Waters was one of the most influential jazz singers of the 1920s and 1930s. Waters was born outside of Philadelphia, where she got her start in music before making her way to Harlem. It was not a long stint in New York; she lived most of her life on the road. She pioneered an approach to singing that emphasized the strengths of the individual vocalist. In an interview with Downbeat in the 1950s she clarified, “I was one of the first to show people that there was an individual way of doing things with lyrics and rhythms…. I want to tell that story. I want you to feel and live it.” Waters’ vocal range was exceptional. She was immensely popular with both white and black audiences due to her ability to sing both the blues and popular standards of the day. In 1930 she recorded a song for Columbia Records in New York City entitled, “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue.” The lyrics paint an evocative picture of the daily degradations faced by African Americans across the country:
‘Cause you’re black, folks think you lack
They laugh at you, and scorn you too
What did I do to be so black and blue?
Waters’ impassioned performance reminded jazz and blues listeners of the injustices faced in their own lives. In that vein, the call and response between the artist and listener served as a rhetorical call for further action in combating repression. Louis Armstrong also recorded a version of the song and played it often in live performances. In a 1966 interview he explained that when he first started playing the tune in the late 1920s and early 1930s, “I used to sing it serious- like shame on you for this and that.” Waters and Armstrong utilized their talent and position of influence as strength to publicize issues of unequal justice in New York City and beyond and to raise awareness to combat these problems.
Waters believed black-performing artists retained the power to affect public opinion from the stage. “I realize the good work that I and all of us colored artists have been doing. Many white people who would not listen to any other side of Negro life will gladly hear a Negro jazz artist or blues singer. All that helps pave the way by making them more sympathetic to our race.”
Willie “The Lion” Smith
The pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith, a native New Yorker, described the piano-infused, ragtime-influenced jazz of New York City by declaring, “A good pianist had to be able to play with both hands, performing in perfect unison. It was like learning to walk correctly… a good walker goes forth with balance and dignity.” The New York style practiced by Smith, Fats Waller, and James P. Johnson, known as “stride piano,” heavily influenced piano players of the Swing Era like Duke Ellington.
The stride style emerged out of the rent parties of Harlem where piano players engaged in nightly cutting contests. Barney Bigard remembered, “So in those days they used to call them cutting contests…. And this night was piano night. James P. Johnson, Willie the Lion. They had Duke in there and Fats Waller. All the biggies, you know. And Mexico had his little bar, and on back of the bar was all the hammers to hit the strings, you know, in the piano, because when the Lion would get up there, he’d- the Lion’s going to roar and he’d bang the piano and all these hammers would fly out there and they’d pick them up and start putting them back in there.” Ethel Waters learned “a lot in Harlem about music and the men up there who played it best. All the licks you hear, now as then, originated with musicians like James P. Johnson…. Men like him, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, and Charlie Johnson could make you sing until your tonsils fell out. Because you wanted to sing…. And you’d do anything and work until you dropped for such musicians.” The cutting contests and rent parties of Harlem were legendary in the community, and the pianists involved inspired a generation of Harlem musicians.
James P. Johnson
Harlem jazz piano impresario James P. Johnson was one of Willie “The Lion” Smith’s perennial adversaries in the cutting contests at rent parties described by Barney Bigard. David Levering Lewis explains, “Saturday nights were terrific in Harlem, but rent parties every night were the special passion of the community. Their very existence was avoided or barely acknowledged by most Harlem writers, like that other rare and intriguing institution, the buffet flat, where varied and often perverse sexual pleasures were offered cafeteria-style. With the exception of Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman almost no one… admitted attending a rent party.” Because New York City was densely populated, rent parties were in compact residential spaces. Due to limited space, the piano served as the primary instrumentation in cutting contests. Consequently, New York’s piano players were among the best jazz had to offer, and New York jazz featured the piano more than in cities like Chicago and New Orleans.
Langston Hughes and Johnson, once collaborated on an operetta called De Organizer. In a letter to Johnson discussing the project, Hughes wrote, “I am happy to have your letter and would, of course, be glad to work with you on an opera libretto sometime in the future. In late February or early March I will be in New York and we can get together and talk about it. I have long known and admired your work, and once met you some years ago…. When we meet, I’d like very much to hear the ideas you have in mind. I think we could work out something really Negro, modern, and interesting.”
While jazz was sweeping the country in the 1920s, some of the leading lights of the literary wing of the Harlem Renaissance were critical of the music that they viewed as somehow lacking refinement and dignity. The elitism expressed by J.A. Rogers, Alain Locke and other figures of the Harlem Renaissance was not lost on jazz musicians. The saxophone and trumpet player, bandleader and composer Benny Carter believed jazz was not entirely accepted by the literary and artistic community as an art form in its own right during the Harlem Renaissance: “I wasn’t, I feel, involved in it…. I think the people… that were involved in the Renaissance; I think jazz was looked down upon…. I think they felt it lacked dignity.” Though Carter and his fellow musicians were well aware of the burgeoning artistic and political achievements of the New Negro movement, they were given little respect for their own contributions: “We in music knew there was much going on in literature, for example, but our worlds were far apart. We sensed that the black cultural as well as moral leaders looked down on our music as undignified.” According to Carter, the lone exception to the lack of respect for jazz and jazz artists by the literary component of the Harlem Renaissance was Langston Hughes. Carter called Hughes, “the poet laureate of the Renaissance, and a man who had much respect for an understanding of this music.”
Hughes wrote glowingly about jazz, adopted blues phrasing in a series of poems in the 1920s, and made a conscious effort to create Afro-centric art. In an essay for The Nation, Hughes proclaimed, “Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing the Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand…. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful…. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”
James Reese Europe
In 1910 southern transplant James Reese Europe organized an all-black musicians union known as the Clef Club, and served as its first President. The Clef Club functioned as a quasi-union- part booking agency and part fraternal organization. The club bought property on West Fifty-third Street, and during the course of one business year garnered $120,000 for its members.
The Clef Club grew as an organization throughout the 1910s adding new members and securing new jobs along the way. In 1917, however, the organizing activities of the Clef Club took a back seat when the United States entered the conflict already raging in continental Europe. During World War I, James Reese Europe was a Lieutenant in the 369th Infantry, the most decorated American unit of the conflict. The 369th earned the nickname the “Hellfighters” from French soldiers because of their ferocity in battle. Europe led the regimental band. The music of the Hellfighters closely resembled jazz, in that it featured syncopated rhythms based on ragtime. The Hellfigthers made a lasting impression on European audiences, and it helped fuel the French appetite for jazz. The Hellfighters played music unlike anything European audiences ever heard. After playing for the French military band, The Garde Républicain, the band’s leader was intrigued by the artistic talent of the Hellfighters: “I took an instrument and showed him how it could be done, and he told me that his own musicians felt sure that my band had used special instruments. Indeed, some of them, afterward attending one of my rehearsals, did not believe what I had said until after they had examined the instruments used by my men.” Like Sidney Bechet and Harry Carney, Europe enjoyed a celebrity and appreciation for black artistry that was missing in the United States. Europe recalled, “I have come back from France more firmly convinced than ever that negroes should write negro music. We have our own racial feeling and if we try to copy whites we will make bad copies…. We won France by playing music which was ours and not pale imitation of others, and if we develop in America we must develop along our own lines.” Following his experience in France, Europe articulated a vision for African American artistic expression based on Afro-centric influences that Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes later believed was so essential to the vitality and success of jazz. Europe’s racial pride and activism was only reinforced with his work with the Clef Club in the decade of the 1910s. Unfortunately, he was unable to fully implement his vision for the future of jazz after being fatally stabbed by an estranged band mate in mid-1919. Europe was the first African American granted a public funeral by the city of New York, and thousands of mourners turned out to watch the funeral procession as it made its way through Harlem.
Langston Hughes and the jazz artists transforming American music in the 1920s were not as concerned with white artistic standards as they were with musical and literary innovation and artistic mastery. Often innovation involved creating Afro-centric art by applying African song structures to a jazz format, and in that respect Duke Ellington exemplified James Reese Europe’s vision of a black musical artist. As Ellington explained in a 1936 interview with Downbeat Magazine, “I always try to get a lift in my music- that part of rhythm that causes a bouncing, buoyant, terpsichorean urge. My idea of real Negro music is getting the different Negro idioms in cluster forms, and the distribution of those idioms in arrangement and still retain their Negroid quality.” Though jazz stood at the vanguard of black cultural innovation in this period, due to the lack of recognition for the talents and artistry of jazz musicians, the music played second fiddle to the more “acceptable” artistic contributions of black writers and visual artists. Unfortunately, Hughes’s affinity for jazz and the artistry of jazz musicians was the exception, rather than the rule, among the literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance.
In 1923 Edward “Duke” Ellington arrived in New York City from Washington D.C. to try his luck as a professional jazz artist. Ellington not only carried the torch of artistic creativity laid out by Europe, he also studied the piano styles of the fathers of Harlem stride piano. He recalled fondly, “The Lion has been the greatest influence on most of the great piano players who have been exposed to his fire, his harmonic lavishness, his stride- what a luxury! Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Count Basie, Donald Lambert, Joe Turner, Sam Ervis, and of course I swam in it.” By infusing stride piano into big band arrangements, Ellington’s group gained wide popularity for its unique sonic textures and melodic inventiveness. The Duke Ellington Orchestra captured the attention of the American public with live national radio broadcasts from the Cotton Club beginning in 1927. Ellington’s band brought Harlem Jazz into the living rooms of American households every Saturday night, and the group’s big band sound paved the way for the Swing Era of the 1930s and 1940s.
The Cotton Club on the corner of Lennox Avenue and West 142nd Street notoriously drew a strict color line between the audience and black performers. Danny Barker explained that the “Cotton Club was a white club, with black performers but they didn’t cater to black people. It was real late before blacks could- only important people would go to the Cotton Club. People like uh, Harry Wills, Paul Robeson… generally they’d always go with their agent or somebody… but the average black person didn’t care about the Cotton Club because it was too staid.” Sonny Greer, Duke Ellington’s drummer, remembered black celebrities like Bill Robinson sitting in the audience of the Cotton Club, but black customers were the exception rather than the rule. Benny Carter recalled, “Connie’s Inn, and the Cotton Club, they really did not welcome the black customer.” Black musicians were effectively barred from playing the higher-paying clubs in downtown Manhattan. Carter explained that “according to the AFM [American Federation of Musicians]… they would have a higher scale downtown, you know, like maybe a place like the Roseland would be a Class A and someplace else would be a Class B, and maybe the Harlem clubs would be a class B and a Class C, you know. I don’t know if there were any Harlem clubs that they considered Class A.” Many whites frequented places like the Cotton Club as intra-city tourists who wanted to experience an “authentic” night of African American entertainment. However, African American entertainers playing to lily-white audiences was anything but authentic.