Vincent, Ted. Keep Cool: The Black Activists Who Built the Jazz Age

By McRae, Richard | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 31, 1996 | Go to article overview

Vincent, Ted. Keep Cool: The Black Activists Who Built the Jazz Age


McRae, Richard, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Vincent, Ted. Keep Cool: The Black Activists Who Built the Jazz Age

Common notions of the "Jazz Age" conjure up images of preDepression affluence popularized by F. Scott Fitzgerald and his writings: those of decadent parties, flappers, and bootleg gin. Further, the music suggested by the phrase is frequently associated with Tin Pan Alley songwriting and "hot" dance bands of both races. Instead, argues Ted Vincent in his groundbreaking Keep Cool: The Black Activists Who Built the Jazz Age, the origins of the Jazz Age predate this myth to as far back as the turn of the century, growing out of the various struggles by African-Americans for equality and social justice. Indeed, Vincent asserts that all significant developments in black music originate out of political activity, particluarly jazz and blues, and this book presents an unprecedented view of the early jazz period in connection with its concurrent political climate.

Widespread discrimination in the entertainment industry of the early 1900's sparked African-American musicians to demand the right to perform their own engagements, produce recordings, unionize for fair wages and working conditions, curtail segregation in theater seating, and elicit critical respect for jazz and blues. Also committed to these goals were many unsung heroes of the movement: promoters, publishers, critics, writers, and community leaders made enormous contributions, and the heart of the book profiles these individuals and their considerable achievements.

The author identifies and celebrates six who helped "light the fuse" of the movement toward bringing jazz into the mainstream. Lester A. Walton, known in his later life as a tireless civil-rights activist, was from 1908 to 1921 theater and music editor for the New York Age, founder of prominent Harlem dance halls and theaters, co-founder of the booking agency Quality Amusement Corporation, and tour manager for singer Ethel Waters. His newspaper influence helped to decry segregation in venues and promote black entertainment among his readership. Composer/bandleader W. C. Handy's promotion of the blues also had an underlying political edge: Vincent highlights the mutually-rewarding affiliations between Handy and Cyril V. Briggs, head of the African Black Brotherhood (ABB), and his sympathy toward Garveyite ideas. Clarence Williams, pianist/composer, not only operated a larger song-publishing firm than that of Handy, but also deserves true credit for securing Bessie Smith a contract with Columbia Records, refuting the standard belief that businessman Frank Walker was responsible for her "discovery." Homage is also paid to Reverend D.L. Jenkins, who ran the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston, S.C., in which music teaching played such a tremendous role that many graduates were able to fill the ranks of the top bands and combos of the 20's. Sherman Dudley helped launch many young artists' careers by organizing the first black theater circuit, and later co-founded the powerful Theatre Owners and Bookers Association (TOBA). Lastly, bandleader James Reese Europe earns praise for organizing trade unions for African-American musicians, in response to exclusion by the AFM. Parenthetically, one correction warrants mention: Vincent misidentifies the Buffalo man who became the national enforcer for black locals of the AFM as John Jackson; his actual name was Raymond E. Jackson.

In the early twenties, other individuals furthered the efforts of the early pioneers to support racial equality and promote jazz. Romeo Dougherty of the Amsterdam News and James A. "Billboard" Jackson of Billboard were prominent in voicing strongly that jazz and blues artists were deserving of cultural elevation and wider success. In his columns Dougherty assailed Harlem theater owners for doing a disservice to audiences by booking cheaper, lower-quality entertainment in their venues, and railed against the fact that so many Harlem theaters were under white ownership and control. …

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