For over a century from 1851 great exhibitions attracted millions who saw items from all over the world, the latest manufactured goods, art and costumes, and walked in exotic gardens and plazas – and were entertained by bands. Broadly educational, basically a sophisticated fair, exhibitions were mounted in most European countries and in many cities. Bradford in Yorkshire sold 2.4 million tickets for its exhibition in 1904. The Franco-British Exhibition in west London in 1908 included a “Senegalese Village” numbering 130 Africans. Its buildings, painted white, were called the White City. The name was eventually given to a nearby tube station, otherwise there are few reminders of the exhibition site a century later.
In 1914 impresarios Hurtig & Seamon contracted with Revd Daniel Jenkins of Charleston, South Carolina for a band from his orphanage to work for ten weeks at the Anglo-American Exposition – paying $1,000 plus transportation, uniforms and accommodation. Having checked all aspects, Jenkins agreed and he and a band arrived in May: a party of 28 “inmates” with supervisors. Named the “American Picaninny Band”, 17 playing at any one time, 6 commercial postcards were soon on sale (see above).
Their success led to the contract being extended until the end of the Exposition scheduled for October. A programme dated 24 July shows there were two other bands: 20th Hussars, and the Lincolnshire Regiment. The black orphanage band worked from 11.45 for one hour, had a 2 hour break, played for two hours (15 min break), then from 6 to 7.30 (one break), 8.30 to 9.45, and from 10.15 for 30 mins. The soldiers played until 11.30pm but started at 1pm. When war broke out in early August those soldiers went away, and a programme 1 Sept stated there could be no guarantee that “the Bands will play as announced”; the show now closed at 10. The Jenkins band was one of four – just one a military group. 21 lads (the oldest was 21, the youngest aged 10) left on the St Louis from Liverpool on 5 September 1914 (Revd Jenkins left on 8 August 1914).
The band was seen by Sol Plaatje, officer of the African National Congress; probably by Battersea’s mayor John Archer; and by Kemper Harreld and his wife who taught in Atlanta – and had been in Berlin (he studied the violin there, and his wife was a teacher of German). Harreld had taught music to Revd Jenkins’ son Edmund, who was playing the clarinet at the Exposition – and who started seven years of studies at the Royal Academy of Music, London, later in 1914. The other clarinettist was Emerson Harper, who befriended Langston Hughes and had Hughes’ The Big Sea (1940) dedicated to him. Several others went on to play with leading jazz groups, often in New York, and their story has been told in John Chilton’s A Jazz Nursery (1980).
Jeffrey Green, Edmund Thornton Jenkins (Greenwood Press, 1982) is available in British and US libraries. Check out the Charleston Jazz Initiative website for other details. See also Jeffrey Green, “An American Band in London, 1914” Musical Traditions 9 (Autumn 1991) cover and pp 12-17.