Who Was the Sultan of Jazz?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: This black man ruled nightlife in Moscow and Constantinople.

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The Sultan of Jazz

Frederick Bruce Thomas was not only co-owner of two successful clubs in Constantinople. He was their frontman "directeur-propriétaire" (as his business card stated) and a very different kind of sultan, "the Sultan of Jazz" (a title coined by an American obituary writer). Whatever Thomas' virgin experience of jazz music was, he gave his refugee city its first taste at his Anglo-American Garden Villa (the "Stella Club") on August 31, 1919, with acts by "Mr. F. Miller and Mr. Tom." At his second club, also called Maxim, he hired Harry A. Carter and the Shimmie Orchestra to headline the first season in 1921 to 1922.

Others would follow. While it is impossible that Thomas heard jazz music as we know it firsthand in America (it didn't get going in Harlem until the 1920s), he always had "a nose for innovation," Alexandrov writes, which I guess makes Thomas "the Cyrano de Bergerac of Jazz," because you'd have to have some nose to sniff it all the way from Turkey in 1919. More likely, he sampled it in Europe or by trying out musical acts passing through.

Still, it is amazing, even astonishing, that a black American expat who'd left the U.S. in 1894 -- and had become a Russian citizen in 1914 -- was bringing America's greatest musical gift to the other side of the world by hosting black jazz bands in Constantinople before Louis Armstrong had even joined King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band or moved to New York City. But Thomas had already done similar things for the tango in Russia, Alexandrov writes, and whatever obstacles he had to overcome as a Russian refugee, in Turkey, at least in Ottoman, there was no word for "Negro." There were second acts, however (to riff off Thomas' Jazz Age contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald). Actually, by then Thomas was on his third or fourth act, telling those who visited his clubs "he was 'conservatively rated to be worth at least $250,000,' which," Alexandrov notes, "would amount to $10 million today."

Whatever you, our American tourist, had been looking for at Stella or Maxim -- the music, the food, the drinks, the former Russian noblewomen Thomas had saved by hiring them to dance -- Thomas could have greeted you in a number of languages. Had English been your tongue, that's when you would've recognized his Southern drawl; otherwise he might have projected what he thought you expected to see in Turkey -- a dark Muslim in a classic fez -- and order you a glass of champagne to sip along with other members of the Lost Generation. 

At his clubs, the music was always front and center. One proud Turk who'd spent time in the States observed of the Stella Club (as quoted in The Black Russian):

Every one seems to be intoxicated and the weird music of a regular jazz band composed of genuine American negroes fires the blood of the rollicking crowd to demonstrations unknown even to the Bowery in its most flourishing days before the Volstead Act. Much bejewelled and rouged "noble" waitresses sit, drink and smoke at the tables of their own clients. The proprietor of the place, an American coloured man who was established in Russia before the Bolshevic revolution … is watching the crowd in a rather aloof manner. Frankly he seems to me more human than his clients; at least he is sober and acts with consideration and politeness, which is not the case with most of the people who are here.

Another guest was more ecstatic about what he saw and heard at Maxim:

We came into the well-lit basement. This is where the famous Black music was being played. What a crashing of percussion instruments, what a noise, what a cacophony of sound … One fellow was beating on the cymbals with all his might; another, seized with some rage, kept running his fingernails across a thick-stringed instrument, as if he had gone quite mad; while the violin, the piano, and the drum all mixed it up with them … it reminded me of the wild musical rituals performed by old [African] Arab pilgrims on their way to Mecca … I could no longer feel, hear, or walk; in short I was no longer among the living.

Yet even when the U.S. Consulate in Constantinople admitted that Thomas ran the "highest class cabaret" in the city, to visiting Americans, including one Southern white woman, Thomas would always be a "good, polite Negro," though one "rolling in wealth." Others couldn't help but over-sexualize him in their gossip, despite Thomas' long record of protecting his dancers from abuse. For this reason and others, Alexandrov explains, it would never be the same for Thomas in Constantinople as it had been in Moscow. While he certainly benefitted from (and was part of) Turkey's increasing secularization in the 1920s, he always seemed to be fending off rumors or creditors insisting he owed them money.