The Most Important Day In American Musical History

Storming the White Bastion of Carnegie Hall

The Most Important Day in American Musical History
by Mark R. Jones

Thursday, May 2, 1912. The concert that night was a curious affair, a benefit by black musicians for the Music School Settlement for Colored People, Harlem’s institution for artistically gifted children. This would be the largest assemblage of African-American artists ever gathered together in New York to perform 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 play before a mixed race audience, on the same stage that had hosted the likes of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Arthur Rubinstein.

Although Emancipation was fifty years in the past, blacks were still viewed as a lower class of people by the majority of white Americans, and black musicians were held in even lower esteem. However, David Mannes, concertmaster of the New York Symphony, believed that music was a universal language. This concert, he thought, would bring together whites and blacks in a way most never believed possible.

In reality, Mannes was a bit naïve and more hopeful than most white Americans at the time. Most whites simply did not understand black music, derisively calling it “coon” music. It was considered 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. Coon music obviously had no Brahms, no Puccini, no Gilbert and Sullivan. It probably didn’t even have a John Philip Sousa.

The Carnegie Hall concert was a risky venture for Mannes. Two days before the performance barely 1000 tickets had been sold and the Hall held 2800 people. Mannes feared the concert would play to a half-empty house which would be a public relations disaster not only for him personally, but also for the school he was attempting to benefit. Despite his secret fear and reservations, Mannes maintained confidence in the talents of the black musician he had chosen to host and organize the event – James Reese Europe.

Jim Europe was the head of the first black music society in New York, the Clef Club. Formed two years before in 1901 at the Marshall Hotel, the Clef Club was a group of black musicians, dancers and singers. Jim Europe was elected its first president and conductor of its symphony orchestra. Their goals were simple, which they spelled out in their charter:

“We, the members of said organization, have established, organized, and incorporated the Clef Club of the City of New York, in order to inculcate the science of vocal and instrumental music, technique, and execution of vocal and instrumental music, and to promote good fellowship and social intercourse.”

Simply put, The Clef Club was going to function as a fraternal organization, musician’s union and booking agency for its members. Jim Europe also saw the Club as a showcase to prove to the world that an ensemble - an orchestra! - of black musicians was capable of performing music in a dignified manner, while also reflecting the unique qualities of the African musical tradition.

Within a few weeks the Club had more than 100 members, and purchased a building on West 53rd Street to serve both as a club and booking office. Two of the most important members were pianist-composer Eubie Blake and singer-lyricist Noble Sissle. These two became Europe’s right hand men in the running of the Clef Club. Ten years later, Sissle and Blake would become Broadway’s most successful black song writing team.

On May 27, 1910, six weeks after the formation of the Clef Club, they hosted a “Musical Melange and Dancefest” at the Manhattan Casino in Harlem, on 155th Street and 8th Avenue. The performance of a “large and efficient body of colored musicians,” 100 members of the Club, singers, dancers and musicians, created a stir among the New York musical community. For the next two years, under Europe’s musical direction, the Club prospered and raised the professional reputation of dozens of black artists, including Sissle and Blake.

Sissle became the de facto office manager for the Clef Club, hiring musicians, finding engagements and keeping the books, while Europe and Blake were more involved on the performance side. Over the next two years, The Clef Club Symphony orchestra performed concerts to great acclaim throughout the city. Europe wisely limited the performances to light classics, military-style Sousa numbers and a few compositions by Clef Club members, including his own “The Clef Club March.” As the first all-black orchestra in America, the Clef Club Orchestra consisted not only of traditional symphony instruments like violins, cellos, brass and wind, but also featured more than twenty strummed instruments - mandolins, banjos, ukuleles and guitars.

During this same period Europe also became involved with the Music School Settlement for Colored People of Harlem. The school was organized by Mannes who had received his early musical instruction from the black violinist John Douglass and wanted to do something to honor his former teacher. Mannes convinced several New York philanthropists to establish the school for the musical education of black students. Mannes stated that “through music, which is universal, the Negro and the white man can be brought to have a mutual understanding.”

Jim Europe and a staff of black volunteer Clef Club music teachers were soon giving daily lessons in piano, violin, voice, sight reading and musical theory – at twenty-five cents per lesson. Europe also suggested to Mannes that the Clef Club Orchestra perform a benefit for the school. He was stunned when Mannes recommended that the concert be performed at Carnegie Hall.

The Carnegie board of directors had been looking for one of New York’s student orchestras to perform a concert that consisted entirely of music by Negro composers. Mannes convinced the Carnegie board that the Clef Club Orchestra was the most outstanding Negro Orchestra in the world and its director, “Big Jim Europe,” was the man who could make the concert a success. The performance was set for May 2, 1912.

Many of the Clef Club musicians, however, could not read music. During a performance, Jim Europe placed the musicians who could sight read in the center, so the surrounding musicians could pick up and play off the reader. In one of the best early descriptions of jazz music Europe stated that: “Good musicians can catch anything if they hear it once or twice, and if it’s too hard for ‘em the way it’s written, why they just make up something else that’ll go with it.” From the beginning, the Clef Club Orchestra was an odd mix of traditional symphonic music played by musicians who typified, and invented, the loose ragtime sensibility - the first Jazz Orchestra.

Although some members of the Clef Club were professional musicians, Mannes also knew that some of them were “barbers, waiters, red caps, bell-hops,” and could only attend rehearsals when they were free from their jobs. Even the discovery that many of these “musicians” could not read music did not weaken his faith in Jim Europe. However, he secretly admitted that his deepest fear was that the concert would be a production of “chaos.”

Will Marion Cook was even more skeptical. A brilliant violinist and composer who had studied in Germany and performed for the British royal family, he was moody and quick-tempered. Several years before, Cook became enraged when a newspaper reporter called him “the world’s greatest Negro violinist.” He sought out the reporter at his 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 his fear that it might “set the Negro race back fifty years.” But, he also respected and trusted Jim Europe’s musical talent, vision and determination, so he decided to take his place in the string section of the Clef Club Orchestra and hope for the best.

If the idea of being responsible for conducting the first Negro orchestra to perform at the greatest concert hall in America was not daunting enough, the colossal task of preparing the musicians for the concert left Jim Europe with little choice but to work harder than ever. As he told his good friend, Noble Sissle: “Day and night for months I sat and rehearsed each one of the individual sets of instruments in their parts – I tell you Sissle, half of the boys didn’t read music, and I would have to take the guitar and mandolin players and place their fingers on the different strings, and correct them time and time again, till I finally taught them the entire program chord by chord, note by note. You see the thing that made it doubly hard was the fact that as no two rehearsals was there the same set of men. I could not compel them to rehearse … I was not paying them … so I only could get results by patiently coaxing them.”

Tickets sales were anemic, less than one thousand of the 3000 seats sold. But on the day of the concert, the New York Evening Journal published an editorial which read:

“The Negroes have given us the only music of our own that is American – national, original and real. This concert, which is organized for tonight at Carnegie Hall, will be from beginning to end a concert by Negro musicians. The musicians volunteer their services. The proceeds of the concert will be devoted to the Music School Settlement for Colored People. This school is intended to encourage and develop musical talent in Negroes, and there is no doubt that those taught by it will contribute to the pleasure of the public and make valuable additions to the musical works of this country. 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. Music editors from all the papers were in attendance. Prominent black ministers, lawyers and businessmen were present. Most of the well-known white musicians arrived in a show of support. Half an hour before the performance, hundreds of people were still gathered in front of the box office, with more arriving by foot, cab, subway, and bus. 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 wing or in the balcony. No one was sure what to expect, or how to behave. When James Reese Europe walked on the stage before the 125 piece Clef Club Orchestra there was a palpable anticipation in the audience. He raised his baton to cue his musicians and when the first notes of Reese’s composition, “The Clef Club March,” filled the hall American music was never to be the same again.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Clef Club concert in the history of American music. This was twelve years before the Paul Whitman / George Gershwin “Rhapsody in Blue” concert at Aeolian Hall and twenty-six years before Benny Goodman’s famous jazz concert at Carnegie Hall. Jazz, blues and ragtime music were still living the cultural gutter. Jim Europe had spent all of his considerable energy and talent organizing an event that would to present Negro music to the larger musical world and convince them it was worthy as the works of the accepted white European classical masters.

James Weldon Johnson described the night in his book, Black Manhattan:

“New York had not yet become accustomed to jazz; so when the Clef Club opened its concert with a syncopated march, playing it with a biting attack and an infectious rhythm on the finale bursting into singing, the effect can be imagined. The applause became a tumult.”

The concert’s success elevated Jim Europe to heights never imagined. He was now considered one of America’s best composers and conductors. The New York Tribune reported that his music was “worthy of the pen of John Phillip Sousa.” It also gave the Clef Club Orchestra greater respectability among white society, which led to lucrative engagements at many of the most elite functions in New York, London, Paris, and aboard yachts traveling throughout the world.

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.” Eight years later, during the Roaring 20s, the entire world would be doin’ the Charleston to the soundtrack of black syncopated music.

Badger, Reid. A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe. New York and London: Oxford Press, 1995.

Harris, Stephen L. Harlem’s Hellfighters: The African-American 369th Infantry in World War I. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2003.

Johnson, James Weldon. Black Manhattan. New York: De Capo Press, 1991.

Schuller, Gunther. Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development. New York and London: Oxford Press, 1968.

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Mark Jones