"Jenkins Orphanage " Julie Hubbert





























Jenkins Orphanage Band, Charleston, South Carolina

In 1891, the Reverend Daniel Jenkins, pastor of a small African American church in Charleston, South Carolina, stumbled on a group of four black youths huddled in an abandoned building on the edge of town. Not only were the boys under the age of twelve, but as Jenkins discovered, they were all orphans. Their plight had special meaning to Jenkins. Born a slave on a plantation just outside of Charleston, Jenkins himself had been orphaned at a young age and had been turned off the plantation. He spent most of his formative life moving from farm to farm working for room and board. Seeing other children suffering a similar fate, and such a young group of children in a city as sophisticated as Charleston, moved the Reverend Jenkins to act. He immediately took the orphans in with the resolve of establishing something Charleston did not have-- an orphanage for African-American children. The text of his Sunday sermon on charity became an impassioned speech before the Charleston city council. If the city would allow him to use the abandoned warehouse next to the prison on the waterfront, Jenkins promised to rid the city of its "roaming, thieving wild children." With their agreement and a small stipend of $100, the Reverend Daniel Jenkins Orphanage was born.

From the beginning the orphanage was a success in terms of its mission. The first year alone, over 360 boys settled into their new home. They ranged in age from 5 to 18 years old, but soon Jenkins was accepting children as young as 3 and letting many of the older boys stay until they were 20. The location of the orphanage next to the prison was not always ideal. Many nights, Jenkins remembered, the inmates’ noise and outcries kept them awake. But the prison also served as a reminder for those who didn’t heed Jenkins strict and moral instruction. Jenkins was a strict disciplinarian, reinforcing in his charges the virtues of hard work and responsibility. Most of all, however, he wanted the orphans to be self-sufficient, to be able to grow their own food and to feed and clothe themselves and not be at the mercy of the charity of others. The orphanage would need land to farm if Jenkins was to realized his vision. Jenkins petitioned the city for money to buy property but was denied and his requests for donations from the public produced few results. So the Reverend settled on an unusual solution. He would raise the money by assembling a brass band and tour the northern states is search of support and sponsorship.

The call for donations of musical instruments, in fact, proved much more successful than the call for money. Now all that was need was someone to instruct the boys on the instruments. Not being a musician at all himself, Jenkins hired two local Charleston musicians—P.M. "Hatsie" Logan and Francis Eugene Mikell-- to tutor the boys in music. Although information on the band’s earliest training is scant, evidence suggests that the boys were taught to read music and that because of group instruction techniques each boy, while perhaps excelling at one instrument, became proficient at playing all the band instruments, which at the beginning included coronets, trumpets, trombones, tubas, clarinets, bells, triangles and drums. Later in their reminiscences and memoirs, several band members recall an orphanage filled at night with the singing of African American spirituals and popular tunes. The music of rural African American life, one not far removed from the plantation culture of the antebellum south, was no doubt an important part of player’s musical education.

Charleston, SC (c. 1905)

In many respects, Jenkins’ idea for a brass band was inspired by the tradition of the municipal bands that were popular in the late 1800s. There was hardly a town in American that did not have a brass band to give local field concerts and accompany festivals and parades. Most municipal bands, were, themselves an extension of the regimental or military band. Used both for marching and for ceremonial events, by the mid-1800s military bands in the U.S. had become sophisticated musical organizations with well-trained musicians. During the civil war, several colored regiments in the union army supported their own regimental bands. Several of these African American brass military bands became independent, touring and concertizing and becoming famous in their own right. Frank P. Johnson’s colored regimental band, a prominent east coast group, was one of the most well-known bands in the 1870s and 80s.

The Jenkins Orphanage Band also seems to have been formed with another precedent in mind. There was also a traditional of brass bands in many of touring black minstrel shows in the late 1880s and 90s. Part of a larger movement to recognize but often exploit and parody African American culture after the civil war, minstrel shows centered on aspects of African American life, especially on southern plantations. A dramatization of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the most ubiquitous minstrel show plots, as were the shows In Old Kentucky and The South Before the War. While earlier versions of these minstrel shows were performed entirely by white actors in blackface, by the turn of the century, many of these show began featuring African-American performers, too, in minor or musical roles. Their inclusion was thought to lend an air of authenticity. The Reverend Jenkins’ idea to form a boy’s brass band, in fact, may have been inspired by one of the minstrel shows in particular. In the show In Old Kentucky, the producers imported, in addition to a number of African American musical groups, a boy’s brass band called the Whangdoodles, a Pickanniny Brass Band. The Jenkins Orphanage band would also called itself, on a number of prominent occasions, "A Pickinnany Band." Whether Jenkins’ band was inspired by the tradition of regimental bands or by minstrel shows, their early repertoire was no doubt formed from both. Programs from performances later in the early 1900s reveal a mix of military marches, by Souza and others, and popular airs, folk tunes and cake walks.

While Jenkins was successful at forming a small proficient band, he was not immediately successful at raising money to cover the orphanage’s expenses. After raising only meager sums playing on the streets of Charleston, Jenkins decided to take his group on the road. With the idea that northern audiences would be more appreciative of an African American band than southern, Jenkins’ used what little money he had and took the band to New York City. While trying to secure concert venues, the band played on street corners throughout the city. Unable to secure either performances of money for his group in New York, however, Jenkins borrowed money and purchased passages on a ship to London for himself and the 13 young boys in the band. The British, he was told by several concert promoters, would be very receptive to their music and their cause.

London, however, did not prove to be any more amenable to securing concert performances, and the band spent more of its time honing its act on the streets. In fact, it was as a result of their colorful and spirited performances that Jenkins received any attention at all. After being arrested for creating a public disturbance, the Reverend Jenkins found a receptive ear, not in the court, who would only help the group find lodging until passage back to the states could be secured, but in the court of public opinion. Reports of the arrest of this unusual American musical group were recounted in The London Times and soon several local churches came to their aid. After playing to packed crowds at meeting houses in and around London, Jenkins soon raised money for their return and more. From their escapes in England, they returned to Charleston not only funding, but with something of an international reputation. Back home in Charleston, the Charleston News and Courier had followed the progress of its citizens with great interest, reprinting the Times reports in full. Shortly after their return, Jenkins purchased a small plot of land outside of Charleston and established the orphanage farm.

Although Jenkins continued to struggle to support the orphanage and the three to five hundred boys he frequently found himself in charge of, he continued to focus his fundraising efforts on the band. By 1896, the band had an established touring schedule that took them regularly to New York and other east coast cities in the summer and Florida in the winter. With each passing year, the band’s reputation, and orphanage coffers, seemed to grow. In 1902, the Jenkins band played at the Buffalo Expo. In 1904, they had their own stage at the St. Louis World’s Fair, and later played the Hippodrome in London. Churches in both London and New York’s Harlem, in fact, continued to be the band’s main benefactors. By 1905, the band had developed regular east coast and European tours that took them even to Paris, Berlin and Rome. The pinnacle of their success in the first decade can be measured, however, in two invitations they received. In 1905, the Jenkins Orphanage Band played in the Presidents Roosevelt’s inaugural parade, and in 1909 they repeated the honor for President Taft.

By 1907, the Jenkins band had grown to 30 pieces and was touring as far away as Maine. As their fame spread, children in other orphanages, and even some not yet orphaned, flocked to Charleston in the hopes of being in the band. By 1913, Jenkins was forced to create a second band, an apprentice group to feed the premier touring one. The Orphanage now supported eight full time teachers, two of them for music lessons only. Most of the instructors, such as Alonzo Mills, an instructor from 1907 to the mid 20s, extended Jenkins rigorous teaching philosophy to band training. Alumni from these years remember getting exhaustive "blackboard" training in music theory as well as a working knowledge of all instruments.

Jenkins Orphanage Band
Anglo-American Exposition, London (1914)

The first real glimpse we have of the band’s repertoire comes from the groups invited attendance at the Anglo-American Expo in London in 1914. By all accounts, the Jenkins Orphanage band’s participation in this event was highly regarded. The event’s organizers not only paid for the bands passage, they provided money for sleek, new uniforms. In order to maintain their own pavilion, the band undertook a rigorous performing schedule that called for continual playing from morning until late evening. In addition to performing traditional Souza marches, the "Pickaninny Band" (as they chose to be called on their big bass drum) also played ragtimes and popular tunes. In addition to their repertoire, the groups enduring subtitle, ‘pickaninny,’ which referred originally to plantation musicians in the antebellum south, continued to reveal them as a group straddling two traditions—white military or regimental bands and rural African American musical culture. Souza marches were interspersed with cakewalks and "hot" or "ragged’ performances of popular tunes, many coming from traveling minstrel shows. This unique African American group may not have been at the forefront of the movement that created ragtime, but they were some of the new music’s greatest promoters. In terms of creating a unique blend of western and African American musical traditions, southern African American traditions in particular, however, the Jenkins’ Orphanage Band day on the international stage in this regard would soon come.

But first came the interruption of World War I. When fighting broke out in Europe and Germany declared war on England, the Expo was cut short and the Jenkins Band, along with many Americans citizens, was temporarily stranded in London. When a transatlantic ship was finally secured for return to the states, the Reverend Jenkins arranged passage not only for the band but for many other stranded Americans. Jenkins apparently committed a large portion of the band’s expo profits to helping Americans abroad, whose assets and bank accounts had been frozen by the war, purchase tickets home. Several newspaper accounts and personal reminiscences document Jenkins unhesitant kindness and generosity.

Even before the war broke out in Europe, however, the phenomenon of ragtime had begun to sweep the nation. In addition to introducing a new repertoire, ragtime introduced a new style of playing characterized by highly syncopated rhythms and virtuosic solo playing. Even old popular tunes and folk melodies began to be played in this new style as soloists, dance bands and orchestras, too, began to "rag" or "jazz" up their standard repertoire. Not to be left out of this musical revolution sweeping the nation, the Jenkins Orphanage Band, too, when it was appropriate, began to cultivate the practice of "ragging" or jazzing their performances of some tunes. Several reviews of their performances in the late teens and early 20s mention the remarkable ability of the group to play in this new, "hot" style.

In the early 1910s, rag and early jazz was also promoting the rise of the individual performer. Players who were particularly adept at improvising in the new hot style were featured either in cadenza sections of a given tune, or by playing above the band in an elaborate manner. A new virtuosity was taking a hold of most dance and concert bands and orchestras in the country. This phenomenon, too, was echoed, not just in the Jenkins Orphanage Band, but all the orphanage brass bands that seem to have sprung up in its wake. In 1914 in New Orleans, for instance, in the Color Waif’s Home Brass Band, a young trumpeter in the group named Louis Armstrong was already distinguishing himself as a great exponent of the new "hot" solo style of playing. At virtually the same time, the Jenkins Orphanage Band was also training two trumpeters or coronet players who would also go on to have successful solo careers. In 1915, a young waif from Savannah named Cladys Smith, came to the orphanage. "Jabbo," as the other boys immediately nicknamed him, soon became one of the groups preeminent trumpeters. Jabbo Smith (the boys got his name from a Indian chief in a movie western) would go on to play first at Small’s Paradise in Harlem in the early 20s, and then later in Duke Ellington’s orchestra through out the late 20s and 30s. In 1919, William "Cat" Anderson also joined the orphanage band. He, too, would go on to be a well regarded trumpeter in New York and mid-west dance bands. Sylvester Briscoe also joined the Orphanage Band around this time. Briscoe would later be one of the lead trumpets in Benny Moten’s Orchestra. Freddie Green, who would later become the guitarist for Count Basie’s Orchestra, also got his start in the Jenkins Orphanage Band in the 20s. Green, who wasn’t even an orphan, was never actually a ward in Reverend Jenkins orphanage. But his case is testimony of how an important a force the Jenkins Orphanage Boys Band had become in supporting the creation of early jazz, and how instrumental a role southern musical institutions, especially non-professional ones like the orphanage band, were in this regard. Even one of the ophanage teachers would go on to an illustrious career. One of the group’s first tutors, Francis Eugene Mikell, would become one of the bandleaders for the Fifteenth New York Regiment Band under Lt. James Reese Europe. At the end of World War I, in 1917, it was the famous "Hellfighters" Band, as they were soon known, that brought ragtime to Paris and made early jazz the rage throughout Europe in the 1920s.

The Jenkins Orphanage Band did more than incubate some of the best talent that served the most famous jazz bands and dance orchestras in the 1920s, however. In one particular instance, the band itself actually appears to have instigated a musical trend. In Charleston, the players were exposed to an African American community singular in the nation. From pre-colonial days, South Carolina was one of the most active participants in the slave trade importing slaves from all over the African continent and Caribbean plantations. Charleston, South Carolina’s and one of the nations largest ports throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, became the center for this mass migration. As a result, an intermixed community began to thrive in the sea islands off the Charleston harbor, a community that soon developed its own language (a mixture of English with many African dialects and syntax structures) and culture. The Gullah, as they came to be known, exists still today in the isolated community of John’s Island. Their music, too, reflected a mixture of African, Caribbean and western influences. The Gullah’s unique musical rhythms and dance rituals surfaced from time to time in the music of Charlestonian musicians and musical organizations, the Jenkins Orphanage Band being one of the most visible. Starting in the early 1920s, observers noted that band often played a number of "geechie" tunes, geechie being another name for Gullah. As in the Gullah culture, music was not separated from the dance it accompanied, which is no doubt why most accounts also describe the orphanage band performances of geechie music being "conducted" in front by a young boy dancing "geechie" steps.

A native Charlestonian improvises the "Charleston" dance during a
street performance of the Jenkins Orphanage Band (date unknown).
The inspiration for the new "hot" music and dance craze that swept the country in the early 20s originated with Jenkins Orphanage Band. The band brought the syncopated Gullah or "geechie" rhythms to Harlem on their many fundraising trips to New York City.

Had this music been absorbed by any other performing group the outcome might not have so influential. As it was however, the Jenkins boys often played this geechie music on tour, especially in musical circles in New York’s thriving Harlem district. It was there that several famous musicians remember hearing the unusual syncopations of the Jenkins Orphanage Band. As Willie "the Lion" Smith remembered it in his biography Music on My Mind, the inspiration for a new "hot" music and set of dance steps in the 1920s originated with orphanage band and other musicians from the south. One musician, "Russell Brown," Smith remembers, "used to do a strange little dance step and the people of Harlem used to shout out to him as he passed by ‘hey Charleston, do your Geechie dance.’ The kids in the Jenkins Orphanage Band also used to do Geechie steps when they came to Harlem on their annual tour." Allen Carter, the chairman of the Charleston Dance Committee, also credits the Jenkins band with bringing this element of uniquely southern African American music to early jazz. It was a dance "born on King Street in Charleston by the Jenkins Orphanage," he said. From this southern African American dance tradition came a host of newly written, geechie-inspired synocopated tunes and dance steps. Jazz pianist James P. Johnson penned eight such geechie tunes or "charlestons", he remembers. One those eight tunes eventually caught on and became known simple as "The Charleston." Together with the dance steps illustrated by various visiting Charlestonians, but most probably and prominently by the dancing conductors in front of the band, The Charleston was a music and dance phenomenon that soon swept through both African American and white communities across the nation. That the Jenkins Orphanage Band was instrumental if not solely responsible for starting this phenomenon is an impressive part of the group’s history.

The importance of the Jenkins Orphanage Brass Band to the unique cultural heritage of Charleston was also made known by a famous novel that was written at virtually the same time. Debose Heyward’s Porgy, a novel set in Charleston’s African American and Gullah communities, became an instant best seller. In its pages the Jenkins Orphanage Band are described as one of the distinctive sights and sounds of Charleston’s colorfully complex black community. Even before the music of Heyward’s novel was brought to life in Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess (which premiered in New York in 1929) Heyward himself turned the novel into a popular stage play on Broadway. In doing so, Heyward insisted the cast be African American, a novelty for Broadway at the time to have an all-black cast. In addition to trying to import the dialect of black Charlestonian , Heyward insisted on importing the music itself. From 1927 until the show closed to tour in 1928, the number one Jenkins Orphanage Band played every night in the stage performance of the play. Many of the players remember the New York episode as one of the most exciting times ins the bands history. The Broadway run was also one of the most fruitful episodes monetarily speaking in the charity’s history. A year later, in 1929, when the stage Porgy toured the country, the orphanage band accompanied them on the east coast and throughout the Midwest, but returned to Charleston when the production went further west. Even to an amateur group like the orphanage band, the great cities of the eastern U.S. and Europe and not the American west, defined American musical culture, popular music especially, in the early decades of the twentieth century.

In the only published history of the Jenkins Orphanage Band, author and jazz historian John Chilton concluded that the Jenkins Orphanage band, while incubating some of the best talent early jazz bands saw, probably had no lasting or profound affect on the formation of early jazz styles and traditions themselves. It is an interesting claim, especially considering the impact the geechie music the Jenkins band popularized in the 20s became an international dance and music craze. Part of Chilton’s caution, however, he admits stems from the unfortunate circumstance that there is little audio evidence to help support such a claim. No recordings made of the Orphanage Band before the 1940s are known to exists, he observes. What Chilton may have forgotten in researching his excellent biography of the Orphanage published in 1980, is that audio recordings were not the only medium used to capture musical performances in the 1920s and 30s. There is indeed a recording of the group that while it doesn’t date from the band’s earliest days, does give us a glimpse of the sounds and traditions of southern African American music in the late 1920s. In 1928, just a few years after the advent of sound film, a Fox Movietone News crew filmed and recorded the Jenkins Orphanage Band in performance in Charleston, and from several outtakes made a news story of the group to be shown to movie audiences across the country before the theaters feature film. The outtakes from that story have been preserved and are now viewable from the University of South Carolina’s Film Library (Fox Movietone News Outtakes: Jenkins Orphanage Boys Brass Band). Even better than an audio recording, this film captures the music, the repertoire, the look, the gestures, movements and attitudes of one of the more influential southern African American musical voices in the earlier twentieth century.

Before the end of the 1920s, Jenkins saw his dream for the orphanage fully realized. Not only did the orphanage have an extensive and self-sufficient farm in nearby Ladson, S.C, but the city expanded the orphanage into a second building and continued to provide modest financial support. It was Jenkins musical vision, however, that proved the most profitable. Before his death, the orphanage had five bands and two vocal ensembles, The Suwannee River and the Jubilee Concert companies. Over the years, Jenkins received numerous awards and distinctions from both the white and black communities in the south. His international fame and reputation, however, were cemented when Time magazine profiled him in the music section of their August 26, 1935 issue.