Here is the Introduction of my current writing project, titled Doin' the Charleston: The Music and Dance That Defined a Generation.
The Most Important Day in American Musical History
Thursday, May 2, 1912. The concert that night was an unusual affair, a benefit for the Music School Settlement for Colored People, a Harlem institution for artistically gifted children. This was going to be the largest group of African-American artists ever gathered in New York to perform together 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 perform before a sold-out mixed race audience on the same stage that had hosted Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Arthur Rubinstein.
David Mannes, concertmaster of the New York Symphony believed that music was the universal language and that this concert would bring whites and blacks together in a way most never believed possible. Mannes was, to be honest, a bit naïve and more hopeful than most white Americans at the time. The majority of whites did not understand black music and derisively called it “coon” music. It was considered to be 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. This "coon music" had no Brahms, no Puccini, no Gilbert and Sullivan. It probably didn’t even have a John Phillip Sousa.
Obviously, the concert was a risky venture for Mannes and things were not looking positive. He feared the concert would play to a half-empty house. Two days before the big night and barely 1000 tickets had been sold; Carnegie Hall held 2800 people.
That would be a public relations disaster not only for Mannes personally, but also for the school he was attempting to benefit. Despite his increasing fear and nervous reservations, Mannes had extreme confidence in the black musician who had convinced him 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 jazz musicians, Mannes knew that most of them were also “barbers, waiters, red caps, bell-hops” and could only attend rehearsals only when their other jobs allowed. Mannes' confidence was not bolstered when he discovered some of these “musicians” could not even read music! His deepest fear was that the concert would be not be just a "production of chaos,” but an out-and-out disaster.
Will Marion Cook was also skeptical. A brilliant violinist and classical composer, who had studied in Germany and performed for the English royal family, Cook was mercurial, moody, prone to quick anger. Several years before Cooke had become enraged when a newspaper reporter had called him “the world’s greatest Negro violinist.” He sought out the reporter at his newspaper 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 the fear that it might “set the Negro race back fifty years.” But in solidarity to his fellow black musicians, he decided to take his place in the string section of the Clef Club Orchestra and hope for the best.
The night before the concert a local New York paper 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 and culture. The best white musicians arrived. Music editors from the papers were in attendance. Prominent black ministers, lawyers and businessmen were present. Less than half an hour before the concert hundreds of people were still arriving by cabs, subway, buses, and on foot. 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 of the theater or in the balcony. No one was sure what to expect, or how to behave so when Jim Europe walked on stage before the 125 piece Clef Club Orchestra there was a palatable anticipation in the audience. He raised his baton to cue his musicians and as the first notes of Reese’s composition “The Clef Club March” filled the hall American music was never 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.”
America was in the midst of an amazing transformation during this time. The United States was doubling its size, admitting twelve new states. Within the next eight years seven new constitutional amendments would be made into law. The population doubled, as did the number of foreign-born citizens. Americans were becoming more diverse, more urban, and more mobile. But in the shabby old city of white Charleston, most of the tried and true conventions still applied. Despite the encroachment of modern life, formal rules of conduct in Charleston were well-defined. Etiquette, cleanliness and polite conversation in the parlor were all components of the finer southern lifestyle. For many, the rules of etiquette 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 only to use the back door, never the front street entrance.
No one could have anticipated that the political and social fall-out from this concert would resonate across America, and ultimately, the world. It would not only give legitimacy to African-American music in mainstream (white) culture, it would, over the next decade, ignite the largest dance craze in American history. And to prove that God does have an ironic sense of humor, the most overt symbol of this upheaval would bear the name of the “most mannerly city” in America. Within a decade millions of people across the world would be “doin’ the Charleston.”