Excerpt from the forthcoming book, Doin' The Charleston: Black Roots of American Popular Music & the Jenkins Orphanage Legacy by Mark R. Jones
Chapter Ten - America Learns To Dance
“It is good for a man not to touch a woman.”
- 1st Corinthians 7:1.
During the summer of 1912, eighteen-year old New York City black pianist James P. Johnson daily made the trip to Far Rockaway, a beach resort near Coney Island, for a summer job. He remembered:
It was a rough place, but I got nine dollars and tips, or about eighteen dollars a week over all. That was so much money that I didn't want to go back to school. That fall, instead of going back to school, I went to Jersey City and got a job in a cabaret run by Freddie Doyle.
James Price Johnson was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1894. His mother taught him to play the upright piano in the family parlor. At age nine he started lessons with Bruto Giannini, a strict musician from Italy, who corrected his fingering but didn’t interfere with his playing rags and stomps. The Johnson family moved to New York City when Jimmy was twelve, and by 1910 he was called the “piano kid” at Barron Wilkin’s Cabaret in Harlem.
In 1912 Johnson met Willie “the Lion” Smith, a first-class pianist who became one of his closest friends. Smith was playing in a joint called Randolph’s, in the tough section of Newark known as the Coast. Johnson and Smith very quickly made their way back to New York and began to work the clubs in the “Jungle,” the Tenderloin area of Harlem between 60th and 63rd streets. Johnson attracted the attention of the music industry and by 1916 he was recording piano rolls for the Aeolian Company. There he befriended another up-and-coming, hot shot pianist, a young, white Jewish teenager named George Gershwin.
Johnson often played at a Harlem club called The Jungles. In a 1959 interview with Tom Davin, he recalled:
The people who came to The Jungle Casino were mostly from around Charleston, S.C., and other places in the South. Most of them worked for the Ward Line as longshoremen, or on ships that called on southern coastal ports. There were even some Gullahs amongst them. They picked their [dance] partners with care to show off their best steps, and put sets, cotillions and cakewalks that would give them a chance to get off. It was while playing for these Southern dancers that I composed a number of Charlestons, eight of them, all with the same dance rhythm. One of these later became my famous 'Charleston' when it hit Broadway.
The Great Migration had transformed Harlem, a section of Manhattan about fifty blocks long and seven or eight blocks wide. By 1920 more than 200,000 Negroes had migrated to the community and it was bustling with energy, streets clogged with traffic and new businesses opening on a daily basis. It was new-found prosperity for tens of thousands of blacks.
With the sudden population boom, property took an immediate upward swing. Many of the whites living in Harlem were panic-stricken by this black invasion. They quickly abandoned their neighborhoods and fled to other places - Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Westchester. Property owners doubled and tripled their rents, but the Negro influx continued. With as many as five to seven thousand people residing in a single block, living conditions were often anything but wholesome and pleasant. It was a typical slum and tenement area little different from many others in New York.
In many instances, two entire families occupied space intended for only one. Large rooms were converted into two or three small ones by building solid partitions. These cubbyholes were then rented at the same price as full sized rooms. In many houses, dining and living rooms were transformed into bed rooms after midnight, like a hotel. “Shift-sleeping” was common. During the night a day-worker used the room and soon after dawn a night-worker moved in.
Even this creative apartment sharing was often not enough to meet the doubled and tripled rents. Another solution developed: a few days before the rent was due, advertise a party and make one’s “guests” pay a cover charge. Thus, the Harlem rent-party was born. The majority of working class Negroes were maids, porters and elevator operators. They were paid on Saturday and not required to report to work on Sunday. Saturday became the logical night to party until dawn. Party-goers would squeeze into a five-room flat until the walls swelled. Card and dice games kept the action in the back rooms hot. But the center of attention was the piano in the front parlor, where a piano “tickler” sat on a stool—hands poised above the keyboard—like a king on his throne. Very quickly, Johnson and Smith became kings of the “rent parties.”
Piano ticklers were in great demand for cheap entertainment. The better pianists, like Johnson, Smith and Fats Waller, would move from party to party playing for several hours at each, trying to outplay and out class each other.
Each tickler kept these attitudes even when he was socializing at parties, or just visiting. It was designed to show a personality that women would admire. With the music he played, the tickler’s manner would put the question in the lady’s mind: 'Can he do it—like he can play it?'
Willie Smith recalled those days:
A hundred people would crowd into one seven-room flat until the walls bulged. Plenty of food with hot maws (pickled pig bladders) and chitt'lins with vinegar, beer, and gin, and when we played the shouts everybody danced.
By 1913 the Jenkins’ Orphanage Band from Charleston was a well known quantity in the New York area. The Band’s antics on the streets and the quality of its music had been noticed by musicians and professional theatrical agents. James Johnson and Willie Smith on watched the band perform on occasion.
Willie Smith recalled:
They had a kind of circus band that marched up and down the streets of Harlem. They’d play concerts on the street corners and pass the hat. They sometimes had as many as twenty pieces and none of the kids were over fifteen years of age.
Several more of the black lambs “jumped ship” while in New York. As the kids approached the age of twenty, they were more interested in finding work in the big city than remaining in the Orphanage system. A paying job in a Harlem band was better than traveling the back roads in a cramped bus with twenty other kids.
|Dancing the Charleston with the Jenkins Band|
Freddie Green (b. 1911, ukulele, banjo and vocals), played guitar for the Count Basie Orchestra for more than fifty years. He remembers traveling with the Jenkins Band:
We had a bus. It was a homemade bus; a truck that was made into a bus. Listen, I can't describe it. But it was very uncomfortable.
We used to have to get up around and play all through the streets...a parade, you know. We were in the small towns of
. And we had dress uniforms that we
I wanted to go. I wanted experience. I wanted to get on the road.
|Freddie Green, LP cover|
Rev. Jenkins signed a contract for one of the bands to perform in a new musical production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The show’s white producers believed that, in order for a white audience to sit through a show about Negroes, the Negroes had to dance, play music and generally act the fool. So the Jenkins’ Band debuted on Broadway, playing the part of the jiving coons, a long ago perfected during their extensive tours of small towns and cities up and down the eastern seaboard.
By 1913 public dancing had become all the rage in New York and the most famous dancers in the world were Vernon and Irene Castle. The Castles became wildly popular among New York Society, charging more than $1000 an hour for dancing lessons. They taught white America a new way of dancing, introducing and popularizing the ragtime-style “fox trot” and the sultry tango. They taught white America to dance from the waist down.
|Vernon and Irene Castle|
Up to this time ragtime music and dancing were considered vulgar and crude, only for lower “black” tastes. Classical musician Edward B. Perry described ragtime as “a dog with rabies.” The magazine Musical America stated ,“It exalts noise, rush and street vulgarity. It suggests repulsive dance-halls and restaurants.” Forty years later the same complaints would be leveled at Frank Sinatra, then at Elvis Presley, then The Beatles and finally hip-hop.
The majority of the early Americans were opposed to dancing. Puritans equated it with promiscuity and sinfulness. They were particularly opposed to “mixt” dancing between men and women that led to temptation and ultimately, adultery. Some hard-liners even spoke out against the time-honored Maypole tradition – young ladies dancing around a pole wrapping flower garlands. It was considered a pagan ritual and therefore, sacrilegious and therefore, evil.
Baptists preached against the “unchaste handling of male or females. The sin of dancing is that it assaults a person’s sense and caused them to sin by upon what lust has caused.”
Famous fire and brimstone evangelist Billy Sunday railed against drinking and dancing in the 1920s and 30s because the activities were linked - drinking led to dancing and dancing led to drinking. It was a fast and vicious path to hell. Sunday declared:
You sow the dance and the ballroom and you reap a crop of brothels. You sow saloons and you reap a harvest of drunkards. You must want a lot of prostitutes or you wouldn’t sow dances.
In an article of the Ladies Home Journal, Anne Shaw Faulkner asked the question: “DOES JAZZ MUSIC PUT THE SIN IN SYNCOPATION?”
Vernon Castle was an Englishman who moved to New York in July 1906. He followed in the footsteps of his actress sister, Coralie, who had landed a role in a Broadway musical, About Town. Vernon became a constant presence backstage during rehearsals, entertaining the cast and crew with his magic tricks and comedic banter. The producer, legendary vaudeville showman Lew Fields, was so charmed by Vernon that he gave the young Englishman a small role in the show. One year later Vernon was given a larger role in Fields’ next production The Girl Behind the Counter, which became a huge hit.
Over the next two years Vernon became a popular comic actor, famous for his graceful and acrobatic pratfalls on stage. As 1910 rolled around Vernon was considered one of the hottest up-and-coming Broadway stars. During that summer, Vernon rented a room in New Rochelle, Connecticut. Many Broadway people summered there. It was only a forty-five minute train ride from New York and offered a quieter and cooler climate than the city. During that summer he met seventeen-year old Irene Foote.
Irene was a short-haired tomboy with a spirit of rebellion and a love of dancing. By age five she was entertaining at local parties and charity balls. When Irene met Vernon at the New Rochelle Rowing Club she later recalled, “I could tell by looking at him he was not my cup of tea.” However, upon discovering that Vernon was a successful Broadway actor, she became more interested. “My heart skipped a beat. I turned loose every ounce of charm I could muster to hold his attention.”
It must have worked. Vernon managed to get Irene a part in the next Lew Fields’ production and one year later they married. They moved to Paris in 1912 when Vernon was offered an opportunity to produce his own show, and the young couple jumped at the chance. The show, Finally … a Review, was a mixed bag. The first act, a comedic barbershop skit, bombed in front of the French audience. The second act, however, became a sensation - Vernon and Irene dancing wildly to a spirited version of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Irene recalled the dance as being so acrobatic that “I was in the air much more often than I was on the ground.”
The Castles’ dancing quickly became the rage of Parisian nightlife, and the couple was invited to perform at Café de Paris, the city’s leading elegant club. Suddenly, everyone in Paris society was Castle-mad. These two untrained American dancers were being invited to dance at every club in the city, in private homes and for large lavish balls. Women handed over money to dance with Vernon, and men out-bid each other to take a spin on the floor with Irene. Their dancing technique at the time was “rough and tumble” Irene recalled, more comic and acrobatic than smooth and chic.
|Paris nightclub, c. 1915|
Tragedy brought them back home to America. Irene’s father died in May 1912 and they returned to New York. They wasted little time finding employment, landing a job dancing at the Times Square club Café de l’Opera at $300 a week. At midnight, as the spotlight focused on the slim couple at the edge of the bandstand, they sprang up, twirling and swirling across the dance floor. Little did they know that they were introducing white American audiences to a new style of dancing. As untrained dancers, they made it up as they went along. Irene remembered:
All we did was write on paper about what we thought we would do. This custom of writing out our dances first was almost adhered to in later days. The first dances we never even rehearsed … by keeping my eyes firmly fixed on the stud button of his dress shirt I could anticipate every move he was going to make and we made it together, floating around the floor like two people sharing one mind.
What made the Castles unique was their ability to refine dance steps that were usually considered too objectionable for polite society – ragtime trots and grizzly bears. Their grace and elegance turned low dances into refined entertainment. When the Castles met James Reese Europe at a private society party where his Clef Club Orchestra was playing, they realized they had discovered their perfect band leader – a man who shared their musical sensibilities.
|The Clef Club Orchestra, 1912|
Europe’s “Castle Society Orchestra” included members of the all black musicians union, the Clef Club. With Eubie Blake at the piano, and Jim Europe as its conductor, the Orchestra became nationally famous, accompanying the Castles in concert halls and theaters across the world. Jim composed and arranged several popular songs for them, including “The Castle Perfect Trot” and “Castle House Rag.”
These were not small “Dixieland” style bands, but full symphonic orchestras with intricate arrangements by Jim Europe, similar in style to Sousa’s Marine Band. Europe also added a saxophone to his band, a bold decision. The saxophone had never been considered a serious instrument; for years it had been used mainly as a novelty in musical acts, but Jim’s use of the instrument raised it to the status of a respectable instrument for the first time. Over the next decade the addition of the saxophone to orchestras and combos led to a monumental change in American music.
The Castles’ hiring Jim Europe was a culturally defining moment, exposing syncopated Negro dance music to an elite sophisticated white audience for the first time. However, the Castles pushed the mainstream door open wider with the invention of the Foxtrot, a slower paced dance that most non-dancers could perform adequately. For the first time Negro low music was mixed with low dancing but handled with such grace by a respectable white couple that it became acceptable for respectable whites.
|Lt. James Reese Europe|
This was another fundamental change in American popular music and culture. For the next two years, Jim Europe and the Castles traveled the world mesmerizing, delighting (and shocking) audiences with their music and performances. They ushered in an era of “animal” dances which included the Foxtrot, Horse Trot, Kangaroo Hop, Duck Waddle, Squirrel, Chicken Scratch, Turkey Trot, and the Grizzly Bear.
After two years of dancing to Jim Europe’s music the Castles were international celebrities. One night, during the height of their popularity, they had to dance at the New York Hippodrome, accompanied by the music of John Philip Sousa. It was a clash of opposite cultures, like pop music before Elvis Presley.
Irene Castle stated:
He (Sousa) ignored our frantic signals to pick up the tempo and his uniformed arms flailed away with the precise beat of a man conducting a military march, which was exactly what he was doing.
Which proves the old adage: once you go black you can never go back.
Excerpt from the forthcoming book, Doin The Charleston: Black Roots of American Popular Music & the Jenkins Orphanage Legacy by Mark R. Jones