The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace

The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace

The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace

The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace

Synopsis

In 1912 James Reese Europe made history by conducting his 125-member Clef Club Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. The first concert by an African American ensemble at the esteemed venue was more than just a concert--it was a political act of desegregation, a defiant challenge to the status quo in American music. In this book, David Gilbert explores how Europe and other African American performers, at the height of Jim Crow, transformed their racial difference into the mass-market commodity known as "black music." Gilbert shows how Europe and others used the rhythmic sounds of ragtime, blues, and jazz to construct new representations of black identity, challenging many of the nation's preconceived ideas about race, culture, and modernity and setting off a musical craze in the process.

Gilbert sheds new light on the little-known era of African American music and culture between the heyday of minstrelsy and the Harlem Renaissance. He demonstrates how black performers played a pioneering role in establishing New York City as the center of American popular music, from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway, and shows how African Americans shaped American mass culture in their own image.

Excerpt

At 8:00 P.M. on May 2, 1912, an African American musician named James Reese Europe hurried along Manhattan sidewalks on his way to Carnegie Hall. His tuxedo tails trailing behind, Europe’s circular, wire-rimmed eyeglasses slid down his nose as he broke a sweat. the conductor of the Clef Club Symphony Orchestra, Europe was late for the biggest production of his life: the first African American concert at Carnegie, one of the nation’s premier performance spaces and an icon of a burgeoning U.S. culture of the arts. the concert was to be a political act of desegregation, a cultural intervention into the sound and meaning of American music, and— potentially—a symbol of the United States’ pluralistic democratic promise. Yet fifteen minutes before showtime, Europe was still two blocks away.

As he rounded the corner of Seventh Avenue and Fifty-fourth Street, Europe ran into a swarm of people blocking the sidewalks. Unaware of why they were in his way, Europe began pushing through the throng, only to realize there was nowhere to go: this interracial crowd was his audience, slowly packing Carnegie to overflow. Just the day before, less than half the concert tickets had sold. But now the show was a hit!—if only James Europe could get inside. With increasing anxiety, he approached a police oFFIcer, “one of the hundreds of reserves,” Clef Club member Noble Sissle recalled, “that had rushed to Carnegie Hall to handle the tremendous crowd.”

”OFFIcer, I’ve got to get through,” Europe declared. “What do you mean, you gotta get through?” sneered the policeman, a man who, Sissle noted, was a “full-sized wielder of those much feared ‘night sticks” ‘ and whose “tone” indicated that his conversation with the . . .

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