Who Was the Sultan of Jazz?

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

Frederick Bruce Thomas (National Archives, NARA II)
Frederick Bruce Thomas (National Archives, NARA II)

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 40: How did the son of a former slave defy the color bar to become a wealthy fixture of European nightlife during the Jazz Age?

If, after the First World War, you had been an American tourist looking for a good time in Constantinople, late capital of the Holy Roman Empire, then of the crumbling Ottoman sultanate, you likely would’ve been directed across the Golden Horn to one of the popular Russian-Western, European-style “cafés chantant,” where you could order a drink (outside of Prohibition), sample the finest cuisine, listen to all kinds of music and dance. In between spots, you might’ve been swept up by the views of the Bosporus, perhaps the sound of praying across the ancient city, but at some point, hearing the weird yet disarmingly familiar sounds of that original American art form, jazz, your ears and feet would’ve whisked you off again.

You would’ve known you were there when, in a crowd of British sailors, secularized Turks, Levantines and other international seekers, you were greeted by one even more exotic yet familiar: the man responsible for importing jazz to Byzantium, Frederick Bruce Thomas, the “ebony black,” in one visitor’s words, with his signature black tie and top hat. Based on his years in the business, working his way up from stateside waiter to Russian maitre d’hôtel and club owner, across three continents, Thomas would’ve known all he needed to know about you in an instant. But whatever stories he would’ve shared about where he was from (Mississippi; Louisville,Ky.; Brooklyn, N.Y.; Chicago) or what his intentions were (to stay, to return to Russia to look after his investments or to go “home” to educate his sons in American schools), you’d never know the whole truth about him — at least not until 2013.

Many contemporaries knew Frederick Bruce Thomas by his Russian name, Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas. When I first heard of him a few weeks ago in an email from his current (and only) biographer, Vladimir Alexandrov, a professor at Yale, I knew I was in for an amazing story of “an indomitable character,” as Alexandrov later described him over the phone, “and how he managed to reinvent himself repeatedly in the face of world historical changes,” from the Jim Crow South to the Russian Revolution to World War I and the rise of the Turkish Republic. Early into an already-hot summer, reading Alexandrov’s new book, The Black Russian, transported me across 25 different locales, all part of Thomas’ improvisational life mapped out on the book’s endpaper. It also filled me with wonder and sadness.

How had I not heard of Thomas before? What might he have accomplished if he’d gotten out of Constantinople with a new U.S. passport? Could he have done it again in Paris or even Harlem to keep the Renaissance going? Yet if he had returned to the U.S. — a big if — would he have been able to stand life back over the color line, or gone insane or — with a white wife and biracial children — been arrested or worse?

Vladimir Alexandrov has done a remarkable job piecing together the puzzle of Thomas’ life (in fact, Alexandrov said the detective work became as compelling to him as the man himself, as was the writing), but he readily admits there are some secrets we will never know: among them, the first time Thomas heard jazz music and what his real view was of the racism he encountered repeatedly and very harshly in Constantinople, from American tourists and, more consequentially, U.S. consulate officials. As Alexandrov put it over the phone, by the time Thomas arrived in Turkey in 1919, “He had lived away from the States for 20 years and had had little contact with Americans, but was he ever far enough away to feel aloof from Jim Crow racism, or was it something more visceral still grabbing at his soul?”

Thomas’ Greatest Secrets

Of all the secrets Frederick Bruce Thomas kept under his hat, for life, two stand out as most impactful. The first was the death of his father, Lewis, a former slave and landowner who had been swindled out of 600-plus acres in Coahoma County, Miss., by a white neighbor (the litigation would last years, befitting a Dickens tome). In late October 1890, just a few months after moving the family to Memphis, where he took work as a flagman for the railroad, Lewis Thomas was hacked to death in bed by a vengeful black tenant angry over Lewis’ interference in his love life. Not only did Frank Shelton’s ax slice Lewis’ face and arm, it cleaved his victim’s 17-year-old son’s past and future. Just a short time later, Frederick Bruce Thomas, who’d only known life in the South, hopped on the rails (presumably on a Jim Crow car), first to Arkansas, then to St. Louis, Chicago and Brooklyn — anywhere, it seemed, but home.