Monday, January 30, 2006

The Clef Club, 1910


The idea for an organization devoted to furthering the professional interests of black popular musicians, singers, and dancers in New York City, given the rising demand for their services downtown, proved a timely and popular one. By April 28, when Lester Walton announced in his column in the Age that a new organization, composed of "well-known musicians and singers of Greater New York, the majority of whom play and sing in the leading hotels and cafes of New York City and provide entertainment for the smart set" had been formed, membership had already grown to more than 135. Among the "well-known musicians and singers" were current or future band leaders Joe Jordan, Ford Dabney, Egbert Thompson, and Arthur "Happy" Rhone; singers Tom Bethel, Henry Creamer, and George Walker, Jr.; and pianists Clarence Williams, Irving "Kid Sneeze" Williams, and John Europe (Jim's older brother). The majority of the original members of the Clef Club, however, played one or several of the stringed instruments then popular in the hotels and nightclubs. Among these were musicians trained in the standard instruments drawn from the European symphonic tradition (violins, celli, violas, and double basses), but the vast majority were players of instruments then associated with American minstrelsy and eastern European and Mediterranean folk music: banjos, mandolins, bandoris (a cross between the banjo and the mandolin), and harp guitars - an awkward double-necked hybrid of an instrument. The most significant technical aspect of the latter instruments is that they must be plucked or strummed, rather than bowed, in order to be played, and their sound, therefore, has a strong percussive, or rhythmic, quality. It is interesting that while there were a few true percussionists (timpani and trap drum players, the latter having recently emerged from the marching band, but considered at the time little more than a vaudeville novelty), there appear to have been no woodwind or brass players in the original Clef Club.
From A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe, by Reid Badger, Oxford, 1995.
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