Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Most Important Day In American Musical History

The ‘greatest hit’ of 20th century popular music was not the creation of Michael Jackson, 
the Bee Gees or even the Beatles. Anyone with a sense of history will realize that the once-ubiquitous 
dance tune called the ‘Charleston’ fueled a craze that has never been matched.”
 – Leslie Stifelman, Columbia Journal of American Studies.

   Thursday, May 2, 1912. The concert that night was a curious affair, a benefit by black musicians for the Music School Settlement for Colored People, Harlem’s institution for artistically gifted children. This would be the largest assemblage of African-American artists ever gathered together in New York to perform in the most famous white-owned, white-operated theater in the United States - Carnegie Hall. More than three hundred black American musical artists were scheduled to play before a sold-out mixed race audience, on the same stage that had hosted the likes of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Arthur Rubinstein.
   Although Emancipation was fifty years in the past, blacks were still viewed as a lower class of people by the majority of white Americans, and black musicians were held in even lower esteem. However, David Mannes, concertmaster of the New York Symphony, believed that music was a universal language. This concert would bring together whites and blacks in a way most never believed possible.

David Mannes

    In reality, Mannes was a bit na├»ve and more hopeful than most white Americans at the time. Most whites simply did not understand black music, derisively calling it “coon” music. It was considered vulgar, crude and primitive, little more than chants brought over by African slaves to sing on the plantations. Certainly black music was not the equal to the symphonies of the current European masters. Coon music obviously had no Brahms, no Puccini, no Gilbert and Sullivan. It probably didn’t even have a John Philip Sousa. 
   The Carnegie Hall concert was a risky venture for Mannes. Two days before the performance barely 1000 tickets had been sold and the Hall held 2800 people. Mannes feared the concert would play to a half-empty house which would be a public relations disaster not only for him personally, but also for the school he was attempting to benefit. Despite his secret fear and reservations, Mannes maintained confidence in the talents of the black musician he had chosen to host the event – James Reese Europe.

   Jim Europe was the head of the first black music society in New York, the Clef Club. Although some members of the Clef Club were professional musicians, Mannes also knew that some of them were “barbers, waiters, red caps, bell-hops,” and could only attend rehearsals when they were free from their jobs. Even the discovery that many of these “musicians” could not read music did not weaken his faith in Jim Europe. However, he secretly admitted that his deepest fear was that the concert would be a production of “chaos.”
   Will Marion Cook was even more skeptical. A brilliant violinist and composer who had studied in Germany and performed for the British royal family, he was moody and quick-tempered. Several years before, Cook became enraged when a newspaper reporter called him “the world’s greatest Negro violinist.” He sought out the reporter at his office and declared, “I am not the world’s greatest Negro violinist. I am the greatest violinist in the world!” Cook was hesitant to participate in the Carnegie Hall concert due to his fear that it might “set the Negro race back fifty years.” But, he also respected and trusted Jim Europe’s musical talent, vision and determination, so he decided to take his place in the string section of the Clef Club Orchestra and hope for the best.    

Will Marion Cook

   The night before the show the New York Evening Journal published a story which concluded, “The Evening Journal hopes that many of its readers will attend the concert, enjoy it and perhaps find prejudice based on ignorance give place to sympathy and good will.”
   The concert sold out. More than one thousand people showed up at the box office that evening. The audience contained the elite of white and black New York society. Music editors from all the papers were in attendance. Prominent black ministers, lawyers and businessmen were present. Most of the well-known white musicians arrived in a show of support. Half an hour before the performance, hundreds of people were still gathered in front of the box office, with more arriving by foot, cab, subway, and bus.  Blacks and whites, all elegantly dressed, were seated together in the grand hall. In most theaters at that time, blacks were still forced to sit in the far left wing or in the balcony. No one was sure what to expect, or how to behave. When James Reese Europe walked on the stage before the 125 piece Clef Club Orchestra there was a palpable anticipation in the audience. He raised his baton to cue his musicians and when the first notes of Reese’s composition, “The Clef Club March,” filled the hall American music was never to be the same again.
   Gunther Schuller wrote that Reese “had stormed the bastion of the white establishment and made many members of New York’s cultural elite aware of Negro music for the first time.”


   During the first decades of the 20th century America experienced an amazing transformation. The country doubled in size, admitting twelve new states. Seven new constitutional amendments became law. The population doubled, as did the number of foreign-born residents. Americans were more diverse, urban and mobile. The Harlem section of New York City became a vibrant neighborhood of African culture. Chicago transformed itself from a dirty immigrant railroad town into the world’s sixth largest city. Hollywood’s cinematic illusions helped draw thousands of starry-eyed dreamers west to golden California.
   But in the stagnant, shabby old city of Charleston, South Carolina, most of the tried and true 19th century conventions still applied. Despite the encroachment of modern life, the Charleston preferred that the formal, well-defined rules of conduct be strictly adhered to. Manners, decorum and polite conversation in the white parlors were all components of the finer southern lifestyle. For the descendants of the pre-Civil War aristocracy, it was these rules of etiquette that defined a civilized society. Blacks were still expected to address whites as “massa” and “missus.” If they were employed by a white family, blacks were to only use the back door, never the street entrance.

Charleston, SC ... 1920s

   For almost two hundred years racial slavery had been the most distinctive feature of Charleston life. The slave system was the whole of existence for nearly four million black Southerners.  Slavery was so important to the Old South that Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens pronounced it the “cornerstone” of the new nation.” The Jim Crow era of the early 20th century was merely an altered continuation of that same “cornerstone.” White Charleston was the most comfortable when they were in charge of the rules with everything - and everybody - in its proper place. No one could anticipate how strongly the political and social shock waves from this Carnegie Hall concert would resonate across America, and ultimately, the world. It would not only change American music forever by giving legitimacy to African-American music in mainstream white culture, but would also be the catalyst of the greatest decade of social change in American history by igniting the largest dance craze the world would ever witness.
   To prove that God does possess a rich sense of irony, the most overt symbol of this social and musical upheaval would bear the name of America’s “most mannerly city,” Charleston - a city so proudly out-of-step with the times for most of the 20th century that her white citizens preferred looking backward through a distorted lens to the golden past rather than forward to an uncertain future. Within a decade of this concert, a fiery maelstrom of change would sweep the world and millions of people would be “doin’ the Charleston.”