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)

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With Thomas’ help, Johnson departed for Europe (the boxer will also appear in a later column in this series). Thomas remained in Moscow, however, his fate (and wealth) too tied to the Russian Empire to abandon. During the war, Thomas did his part to support the war effort by holding benefits for soldiers, but when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsar (and later, the provincial government), laying the groundwork for the Soviet state, none of that mattered. Not even Thomas’ clubs’ status as “the favorite place of Muscovites” could insulate him from the storm of revolution. To the followers of Lenin, he was just another Tsarist “White Russian” whose properties needed to be nationalized.

Fleeing to Odessa, then as a refugee to Constantinople, Thomas, at 47, had to reinvent himself again — this time with only $25 to his name. Adding to the pressure, he had his wife and three children (a fourth was missing) to support, with his second wife, Valentina Hoffman, (and other children) about to be nipping at his heels for money all the way from Western Europe. The amazing thing is that he almost pulled it off, which brings us back (or forward) to our American tourist looking to chase a good time with good money.

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.