In their 1962 book, Jazz: A History of the New York Scene, Charters and Kunstadt refer to January 20, 1922, as a “cold New York winter night.” Contemporary records show the temperature that night in Harlem reached a low of 32 degrees. Two weeks later, temperatures would dive down to zero and below. By that time, memories of the 20th were not likely focused on the weather, at least not for about 5,000 people who had spent the evening at Harlem’s Manhattan Casino, and especially not for four young women who had each awaited their moment in the spotlight. While dancing to the sounds of a New York National Guard Regimental Band, the audience members were abuzz with one question: Who of the four contestants will take home the ornate Silver Loving Cup? Finally, as reported by Charters and Kunstadt, “at midnight the floor was cleared and the stage given over to one of the brightest events of the entire glittering blues craze, the first blues contest.” Would the three respected judges come to agreement on the audience responses to each of the four women vocalizing what we now call classic blues, and thus on a winner? Would expectations that foresaw Lucille Hegamin walking off with the victor’s cup be realized?
After a century and change, a casual retrospective of this night might satisfice with a recitation of the singers and their songs, the judges, the winners, and the losers: a snapshot in time, a Harlem Saturday night in the Jazz Age, no more, no less. It certainly seemed to be a joyous night. Charter and Kunstadt’s account of the very first contest for best blues vocalist sparked my interest in writing such a retrospective. Once the details started coming together, however, my subject became much more than a night of jamming and dancing where Eighth Avenue meets W. 155th Street. It became an opportunity to consider the extreme zigs and zags in life, often unexpected and exogenously driven, confronting us as they do with challenges from the intensely personal to the globally geopolitical. Therefore, I will be getting to the details of the contest. However, I try to do so with an eye out for the many interconnections among the key figures of this night and how this seemingly localized social tapestry is in fact permanently woven into the larger story of American experiences in the Great War and the postwar America shaped by those experiences.
Our story begins, then, not with the postwar Harlem singing contest, but in 1913, when New York Governor Sulzer authorized the creation of an all-Black regiment of the New York National Guard. That day, June 2, was welcomed by civic leaders who had advocated for such a regiment since Blacks could not join existing National Guard units. Further patience was required, however, as the actual formation of the regiment did not occur for three more years. On June 16, 1916, William Hayward, a White lawyer, was named as colonel and tasked with standing up the “colored” regiment. As wartime deployment neared and the regimental band was short on personnel demanded by its exacting bandmaster, Hayward conducted a fund-raiser, with Daniel G. Reid donating $10,000 to the recruitment cause, and the band and the regiment at large were realized in full. Colonel Hayward’s adjutant and chief of staff was Major (later Colonel) Arthur W. Little, who would be active in Republican politics for fifty years following the war. Major Little was wounded in the war and received the Purple Heart in addition to numerous other awards from his country and from France. He would also feature prominently in the Manhattan Casino blues contest.
Prior to overseas deployment, several regiments of the New York National Guard and U.S. Army marched in parades, but when Colonel Hayward requested that the 15th Regiment march along with the 42nd Regiment, he was denied. The 42nd was known as the Rainbow Division, but, as Hayward was reportedly told, “black is not a color of the rainbow.”
The 15th New York Regiment, or the Black Rattlers as they were locally known, arrived in France redesignated as the 369th Infantry Regiment on New Year’s Day, 1918 (although some reports say it was December 1917), with Lt. James Reese Europe’s band playing La Marseilles in a jazz style that took the welcoming French soldiers a few stanzas before they recognized it and came to attention. As was the case for 90% of the 350,000 Black American troops in the era of World War I, the 369th was assigned not to combat operations, but as laborers building the infrastructure of war. This changed in March with a French request for reinforcements. General Pershing responded by deploying four Black regiments, including the 369th, to French command. By war’s end, the men of the 369th were known as the Harlem Hellfighters, in many accounts a name designated by German soldiers who faced them, and had spent 191 days at the battlefront, longer than any other unit of the United States Army. The regiment suffered more casualties than any other American unit, with nearly 200 killed in just a few days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, and over 1400 Hellfighters injured or killed during their 191 days of deployment.
For Black volunteers and conscripts deploying to Europe, there was some optimism that the war was a “God-sent blessing” as a paper of the time was later quoted in the Washington Post. The 369th bandleader – and second in command of the 369th’s machine gun company and the first Black officer to lead troops in combat – Lt. James Reese Europe is quoted by the New York Archives magazine as saying, “our race will never amount to anything, politically or economically, in New York or anywhere else unless there are strong organizations of men who stand for something in the community.” It was a transactional aspiration: the respect earned through patriotic wartime duty would mitigate hardships borne of inequality and racism. The wartime patriotic duty of the men in this story was unquestionably demonstrated, and readers are commended to the numerous books and articles on the Hellfighters, including Colonel Little’s own 1936 memoir, From Harlem to the Rhine. From Harlem to the Rhine had been the name of a 1920 film and slide presentation about the Hellfighters that was shown to great acclaim and to raise funds for veterans. In his book, Colonel Little felt driven as a White commander of a Black regiment to write passionately about the abuses the troops faced in their short training tenure in Spartanburg, SC, and about their bravery and sacrifices in war. It would take another, even more devastating world war to come and go before the United States armed forces would be desegregated, although well in advance of many civilian institutions.
In the meantime, the non-combat role of Lt. Jim Europe and drum major Lt. Noble Sissle in the lead of the 369th Regimental Band should not be understated. Europe’s star had been rising quickly in prewar times, having arrived in New York from Mobile, “with a strong pair of lungs to ‘jazz’ the trombone and some ideas about syncopation that other musicians refused to accept,” according to his obituary in the New York Times. Europe would team up with performers Irene and Vernon Castle, dancers who appreciated Europe’s musical talents as well as personal leadership skills. The music was slowly transforming from ragtime to jazz. As quoted by author Daniel B. Moskowitz, Irene Castle offered the following description of jazz: “The colored bands jazz a tune. That is to say, they slur the notes, they syncopate, and each instrument puts in a world of little fancy bits of its own.”
The New York Archives magazine quotes Colonel Hayward, commander of the 369th Infantry Regiment: “without the band of the 369th United States Infantry the regiment would never have performed the long and difficult service both in America and in the A.E.F., and without Lieutenant Europe, there would have been no band.” The colonel had agreed to Europe’s initial caveat that it would be “the best band in the country,” and once in France took the band with him when he secured a meeting with General Pershing to convince Pershing to stop relegating Black units to non-combat laborer status. They then toured, playing for American and French servicemen to great praise from the audiences. It was not all one long jam session, however. The band members, including Europe and Sissle, engaged in direct combat. It was Sissle’s experience that led him to begin composing “On Patrol in No Man’s Land,” to which Lt. Europe would contribute while recovering from a German gas attack. The song would be recorded after the war.
Returning to our blues contest of January 1922, in all likelihood Jim Europe would have been conducting the band that night rather than William Vodery. After all, in May 1910, Europe’s new Clef Club Orchestra debuted at the Manhattan Casino to a crowd every bit as large as the one cheering on the blues contestants in 1922. Additionally, of course, there was Europe’s reputation and direct prewar and wartime experiences with others involved in the event such as Noble Sissle. Unfortunately, in 1919, Europe, home from the war for less than a year, was murdered by one of his drummers during a live performance. Despite its tragic circumstances, introducing Will Vodery into the story adds another important aspect to the network of personalities tying the recent war to the glittering night in Harlem.
Will Vodery, like Jim Europe, was well regarded as a musician, arranger, and songwriter in prewar New York social circles. In a 2014 retrospective, “Will Vodery: Musical Genius,” the Amsterdam News lamented, “Few African-American classically trained musicians are as obscure as Will Vodery,” although he was collaborator to Ziegfield, Kern, and Gershwin. Duke Ellington considered Vodery to be a mentor, summarizing his feelings in his memoirs as only Duke could: “Boss musician, baby.” Stationed in France in 1918, Vodery was bandmaster of the 807th Engineering Regimental band, the Pioneers, which also gained a measure of fame and popularity. During his time in Europe, Vodery was the only Black musician to attend an eight-week bandmaster’s school in Chaumont, headquarters of the American Expeditionary Force. According to author Mark Tucker, 40 bandmasters were chosen out of 162, and Will Vodery earned the highest score on the final exam.
By 1921, peace reigned, but the effects of the unit’s experiences with the French military lingered, as a report describes the uniform designed for the Harlem regiment by Colonel Little who was now in command: “Jacket tight-fitting, of French horizone [sic] blue, knickerbockers red, black gaiters and stockings, in imitation of French Zouaves” (light infantry.) As commander, Little sponsored the January 20th social event to commemorate the official redesignation of the old 15th Regiment as the 369th. The 67-piece band under Vodery’s direction provided the pre-contest entertainment, which included Noble Sissle singing “On Patrol in No Man’s Land,” bringing his personal experience in war to a patriotic postwar audience.
The one-hour contest commenced at midnight after hours of dancing to the regimental band. Music to accompany the four singing contestants was provided by James P. Johnson and his orchestra of “syncopated jazz artists.” The night was given a boost in prestige with the presence of New York Governor Nathan L. Miller. Other VIPs included Ms. Irene Castle and the widow of the recently departed Enrico Caruso, Dorothy. The judges were Colonel Charles W. Anderson, Fred R. Moore of the New York Age, and Major Fiorella LaGuardia. Major LaGuardia’s participation is another link to the war in our postwar story. After the United States entered the war, New York 14th District representative La Guardia, 35 years old and five-foot-two, joined the aviation section of the Army Signal Corps as a Lieutenant, and was soon promoted to Captain. Before long, however, an accident in aerial training injured Captain LaGuardia and he would not see combat, though he was promoted to Major as he continued to promote the war effort.
There were four contestants, each “beautifully dressed in rich satin gowns,” as described by Charters and Kundstadt. Among the song selections were two by Clarence Williams of Plaquemine, LA, sung by Ms. Martin and Ms. Carter, and one by Spencer Williams, who was born in Vidalia, LA, performed by Ms. Hegamin. Daisy Martin, “The Girl with a Smile,” sang “If You Don’t Believe I Love You (Look What A fool I’ve Been).” Alice Leslie Carter, “The International Blues Singer,” offered “Decatur Street Blues,” while Lucille Hegamin, “Harlem’s Favorite” and “The Georgia Peach,” sang “Arkansas Blues,” which her husband Bill Hegamin would soon record. Finally, Trixie Smith, “The Southern Nightingale,” sang her own composition, ‘Trixie’s Blues.’ The contest lasted an hour, with the audience excitedly engaged with each offering.
The Southern Nightingale, Trixie Smith, possibly born as Teresa Ames, was from Atlanta and attended Selma University in Alabama. She moved to New York in 1915 as a 20-year-old, in the midst of building a career as a vaudeville and minstrel entertainer. Trixie toured through the Theater Owners Booking Association, the subject of a new book, titled, T.O.B.A. Time by Professor Michelle R. Scott.) It was not an easy gig, indicated by Black performers referring to T.O.B.A. as standing for Tough on Black Artists.
On the night of January 20, 1922, however, Trixie Smith became a star, in part thanks to Bob Slater, theater columnist for the New York Age. Ms. Smith not being known in the city, Slater’s influence secured Trixie a spot in the competition. About the contest results, the Chicago Whip declared that “Miss Smith scored such a distinct and unexpected victory. . .her stock took a sensational rise.” The Billboard reported, “Among the participants were Daisy Martin, Lucille Hagemann, and Alice Leslie Carter, all famous for their delineation of syncopated melody. It remained, however, for Trixie Smith, a singer unknown to the record companies or to metropolitan audiences, to become the recipient of the old loving cup, presented on behalf of the band by Miss Irene Castle. . . . The newly acclaimed champion spent the next few days dodging recording company offers that were in staggering figures. Thus a new star in the firmament of ‘blues’ has been found.”
Smith chose Swan Records, the first Black-owned record manufacturing company recently formed by W.C. Handy’s business partner, Harry Pace of the Pace Phonograph Company. Soon to emanate from 2289 Seventh Avenue, Trixie’s Blues on the Black Swan label featured not only Trixie’s name and writer’s credit, but also included “Winner of the 15th Regiment Blues Contest.” For years after the contest, advertisements for shows in which Trixie Smith was appearing included her victory in the first known blues singing contest. For example, nearly three years after the contest, in the December 27, 1924, issue of J.A. Jackson’s Page in The Billboard, there is a note on a new Broadway club opening on the 29th. The first show was to feature among 20 performers, “Trixie Smith, the cup-winning blues singer.”
Trixie’s victory propelled her into a recording career and solidified her position as one of the celebrated classic blues singers of her time, recording with Louis Armstrong in the 1920s and Sidney Bechet through the 1930s. She might not have achieved the fame of Mamie Smith or Bessie Smith, but Trixie was also adaptable. By the late 1920s into the ‘30s, when, so to speak, radio killed the vaudeville star and the circuit theaters also suffered the effects of Prohibition followed by the Great Depression, Trixie then appeared on the theater stage and in movies. Sadly, she would become ill and die at only 48 years old.
The 6000-capacity Manhattan Casino, sometimes referred to as the Inter-Manhattan Casino, would not survive for very long following Trixie’s big night. For some years, besides band concerts and other social events, the Casino earned revenue by renting space to the fast-growing number of basketball teams in Harlem, as did the nearby Renaissance venue. A recent analysis shows how the effects of Prohibition on social events forced the owners to raise fees on the basketball teams until the whole situation became untenable and the teams dissipated. Before long the Great Depression took its toll throughout the country. The times also gave us the cultural progression of music from ragtime’s syncopations to Louis Armstrong’s pioneering solos to Robert Johnson’s macabre blues. To this day the core of jazz appreciation for many lies in its blues roots. In the fast-changing postwar years, the two were not clearly distinct idioms, but times were changing. The Manhattan Casino, intended to serve Harlem and indeed known as the People’s Palace, came to its demise after being transferred to private interests. A May 12, 1936, photo includes an explanation in its caption, featuring one of the judges of the blues contest: “Central Park: Workmen demolishing the Casino in accordance with Mayor LaGuardia and Park Commissioner Moses plan to return all public parks to the general public. During Mayor Walkers incumbency this structure was leased to a private restaurant corporation which through its extreme prices created an exclusive atmosphere.”
In the midst of economic depression and between two wars of mass destruction, Robert Johnson reminded us of life’s crossroads and hard bargains in 1936. The choice of great nations to enter the realm of mechanized slaughter punctuated by a period of peace and rearmament changed the course of the 20th century and beyond. Understanding World War I and its consequences, however, requires more than a grand map of decaying empires and their trenches of warring twentysomethings. Rather, we can recenter our focus on a small community of talented and patriotic Americans, who were part of creating a new musical phenomenon often called the one true American cultural innovation, who joined a new National Guard unit borne from their exclusion from all others, and who then found themselves at the bloody threshold of victory in a great war far from home. Their fears and struggles and sacrifices did not remain on the battlefield but were carried back home and shared with their neighbors through songs like “On Patrol in No Man’s Land.”
During the Harlem Hellfighters’ deployment, however, there was more exchanged than gunfire. The likes of Jim Europe, Noble Sissle, and Will Vodery brought innovative musical forms to their French freres d’armes, who welcomed not just these new sounds but, human-to-human, the Black Americans who brought this music and who could not find an American Expeditionary Force combat unit with which to serve.
No wonder then, even after being home for over two years, Colonel Little, the White Republican politician now in command, wanted to commemorate the transformation of the “old 15th” into the 369th Regiment not with a bureaucratic stamping in a clerk’s office but with a public celebration attended by the governor and featuring something new, something that reflected the dynamism of the times – a glittering social event attended by top society influencers of the day, and featuring a contest of singers performing songs of heartache set to a musical style in subtle transition from syncopated ragtime to swing.
Gregory P. Granger, Ph.D., is Professor of History at Northwestern State University of Louisiana. His teaching and research interests include issues of national and international security and, more recently, the place of music and musicians in American history.