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.
One crucial innovation of the Clef Club was the requirement that musicians hired through the Club to play at social functions were hired to play music and nothing else. Carter writes Europe made sure that musicians were given a salary for entertainment only, as well as transportation, and room and board when required. The Club's musicians could not be asked to help with the dishes, schlep ice, lug plates, polish silverware, shampoo the rug, start or maintain fires in the fireplace, or cook or serve the food. This was a major innovation that helped bring predictability to a gig; acknowledging the Club's members as modern professionals, treating them as white musicians would be treated.
The Clef Club wasted no time in making its mark on popular consciousness. On May 27, 1910, it held a Musical Mélange and the Dancefest with more than 100 musicians and other acts at the Manhattan Casino on 155th Street. (Casinos were more like urban indoor tennis clubs, not Vegas-style gambling emporiums.) A year later the Club would throw a Monster Mélange and Dancefest. In the mean time, the Club had hit the road, performing as far away as Ohio, bringing pride and professionalism wherever it went. On May 2, 1912, their greatest moment came when the giant Clef Club Orchestra gave a landmark concert at Carnegie Hall. The orchestra performed a wide array of music, from spirituals to popular songs of the day, and was conducted by James Reese Europe and Will Marion Cook. Maurice Peress recreated the concert at Carnegie Hall in 1989 and describes the original concert and the re-creation of it quite interestingly in his book.
In 1914, Europe left the Clef Club and formed the Tempo Club. After surviving combat World War I with the Harlem Hellfighters (369th Infantry Regiment), Lieutenant Europe was stabbed by one of his own musicians and died on May 9, 1919. Nobody can really verify that human character changed in 1910, but the Clef Club exposed a generation of American elites to a positive black image, unquestionably helping to pave the way for future changes.
Paul Devlin is a graduate student at SUNY Stony Brook.