Happy Birthday, Clef Club!

One hundred years ago this week, a group of Harlem musicians formed an organization that changed the way black musicians were perceived and treated.

James Reese Europe & The Clef Club Band

Virginia Woolf famously wrote that on or about December 1910 human character changed. Another important change happened in 1910, when on April 11, the Clef Club was founded over a dinner of possum at the Marshall Hotel in Manhattan. Shortly thereafter, the way black popular musicians in New York City were treated and viewed nationwide most certainly changed for the better. 

The Clef Club was an association that functioned as a sort of union/hiring hall/booking agency. In those carefree days before income taxes, wealthy New Yorkers were hiring black musicians en masse to play ragtime or perhaps early jazz at their lavish parties. The imaginative musical pioneer James Reese Europe (whom Eubie Blake aptly dubbed a master thinker) built an institution that undercut not only race prejudice but also the ideology that equated musical professionalism with the ability to read music. 

Though the American Federation of Musicians was founded in 1896, membership was limited to musicians who could read music and Local 310 in New York excluded black musicians. There was a black organization called the New Amsterdam Musical Association, but according to Europe’s biography, it was not particularly interested in having popular musicians–especially those who did not read music–as members. Many black musicians could not read music and thus could not be protected by a union or benefit from a union’s contacts and logistical know-how. (The prejudice against non-readers was strong. In 1956, the great non-reading jazz pianist Erroll Garner–the composer of the beloved standard Misty–was given honorary membership in the Pittsburgh local.) James Reese Europe–who was able to read music and was a member of a Chicago local himself, saw the need to organize a large musical workforce. But the Clef Club was not founded strictly as a labor organization. 

Marva Griffin Carter wrote in Swing Along: The Musical Life of Will Marion Cook (2008), that the Clef Club aspired to gain respectability by adhering to a strict dress code: tuxedos for advance bookings, and dark suits, white shirts and bow ties for pickup engagements. Their desire for racial uplift was also evident in their removal of the minstrel format in segments of their performance. In Dvorak to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America’s Music and Its African American Roots (2004), the conductor-scholar Maurice Peress characterized James Reese Europe as a Moses of African-American music who single-handedly led black musicians and their music into the land of respect, professionalism and pride. 

A near-contemporary account of the Clef Club can be found in Black Manhattan (1930) by poet, diplomat, songwriter, novelist and memoirist James Weldon Johnson. Johnson writes of the Clef Club’s founding: 

James Reese Europe] gathered all the coloured professional instrumental musicians into a chartered organization and systematized the whole business of ‘entertaining.’ The organization purchased a house in West Fifty-third Street and fitted it up as a club and also as booking-offices. Bands from three to thirty men could be furnished any time, day or night. The Clef Club for quite a while held a monopoly of the business of ‘entertaining’ private parties and furnishing music for the dance craze, which was just then beginning to seep the country. One year the amount of business done amounted to $120,000.