Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

James Arthur Briggs

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

James Arthur Briggs

Article excerpt

When Arthur Briggs arrived in Europe as a member of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra in 1919, he was just twenty years of age. For the rest of his life he worked on the "Old Continent" with but one single trip back to the United States in 1930. Admired for his technical ability and clear tone, he recorded extensively and influenced generations of European jazz musicians. Although he had no firsthand experience in American jazz, he managed to keep abreast with developments in the States through records he obtained in stores in every country he visited: "I had most of Fletcher Henderson's records and the Wolverines at that time and Frankie Trumbauer" (Goddard 1979, 287). (1)


Arthur Briggs himself has always been vague, even contradictory about the place and date of his birth. On more than one occasion he claimed to be a United States citizen: "I was born in Charleston, South Carolina, the 10th of April 1901. My parents were from Grenada, Mississippi." (2)

In actual fact he was born in St. George's on the Caribbean island of Grenada on April 9, 1899, the youngest of ten children of a father from St. George's and a mother from Barbados. According to the passenger list of the British and Burmese Steam Navigation's liner SS Maraval, James Arthur Briggs, musician, eighteen years and six months old, arrived from Grenada in New York on November 22, 1917. He gave his address as the home of his mother, Louisa Briggs, on Green Street, St. George's, Grenada. She had paid for the travel, and stated that he was going to stay with his sister, Mrs. Inez Hall, in New York City. According to the immigration authorities, Briggs was a West Indian and traveled on a British passport. Briggs also declared that he had not been in the States before.

Briggs's sister Inez, a seamstress, had arrived with her twenty-five-year-old sister Olive, a domestic servant, on June 6,1913, aboard the SS Maracas from St. George's to New York. On arrival they gave their father's name as James Briggs and stated that they were bound for a friend, Thomas Hall, whom the nearly-nineteen-year-old Inez was to marry the same year. On August 1, 1917, Edith Inez Hall arrived in New York from Grenada aboard the SS Mayaro and stated that she was twenty-four years of age and on her way to rejoin her husband Thomas, and that she had previously resided in New York from 1913 to 1916. (3)

Upon his arrival in the United States in November 1917 Arthur Briggs stated that he followed the occupation of "musician." Perhaps he had undergone some musical training in his hometown of St. George's, training which was available either through the Boy Scouts' drum-and-fife bands, one of the British colonial police bands, the Salvation Army, or private study.

John Chilton's Who's Who of Jazz claims that the legendary trumpeter William "Crickett" Smith (1881-1947)--"New York's Buddy Bolden"--was Briggs's uncle (Chilton 1985, 307). If this were true, Crickett should have been the brother of Briggs's mother Louisa (whose birth name is not known). But according to his 1919 passport application, Smith was born at Emporia, Kansas, on February 8, 1881. His father, French C. Smith, was born at Memphis, Tennessee, and by 1919 was living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There seems to be no relationship between Smith and Briggs, and it is probably safe to assume that this is part of Briggs's construction of his ancestry as an African American. According to Chilton, Pete Briggs (ca. 1900-1970s) was a "distant relative of Arthur Briggs" (Chilton 1985, 46). The tuba and string bass player from Charleston, South Carolina, who became known for his work with Carroll Dickerson, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Noone, Edgar Hayes, Jell Roll Morton, and Herman Autrey, was in fact a cousin of his.

Briggs volunteered that he had lived on Green Street in Charleston. He knew all about the Jenkins Orphanage at Franklin Street and its founder, the Reverend Jenkins (1861-1937), so perhaps Briggs had briefly lived in Charleston around 1917 or 1918; there is no evidence that he ever was a pupil there (Chilton 1985, 46). …

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