070: A ‘Jazz’ Enigma, 1898

"Charleston Messenger" issue 7 May 1898
“Charleston Messenger” issue 7 May 1898

Access to musical instruments can be overlooked by historians of music, but James Lincoln Collier in his The Making of Jazz: A Comprehensive History (1978) wrote that ‘with the conclusion of the Spanish-American War in 1898 there came onto the market a flood of used band instruments sold off by the army…from about 1900, the secondhand shops of the city [of New Orleans] contained a plethora of clarinets, trombones, drums, and cornets.’ (pp 63-64). As army musicians would be unwilling to part with their instruments perhaps this is romantic invention? Certainly, as the US invasion of Cuba was about to take place, the black-edited weekly Charleston Messenger carried an advert (above) proclaiming British-made band instruments were available from the sole US-importer, the Jenkins Orphanage of Charleston, South Carolina.

The orphanage had bands – for vocational training and publicity – by 1894, the year the Charleston Messenger started. One band had been in England in 1895. Importing new instruments reflects the wisdom of Revd D. J. Jenkins and strongly suggests the ‘secondhand shops’ as sources in New Orleans could be a myth. The musicians produced by the Jenkins Orphanage were to work with New Orleans players, song writers and band leaders in the 1920s and 1930s, for the tutors at the orphanage were skilled and encouraging.
There are no files of back copies of the Charleston Messenger which ran from 1894 to 1938, an absence that severely handicaps our understanding of music at the Jenkins Orphanage and warps our awareness of the development of jazz. What might be documented is hinted at by Charles J. Elmore’s All That Savannah Jazz (1999) which is based on the back issues of the Savannah Tribune. A factory fire in north London in 1976 destroyed the files of the company that had absorbed A. Collins, but we know that Abraham Collins and Co was founded in England in 1865 and had a central London office from 1891. It had solid reputation as a maker of band instruments.
During the make-over of Covent Garden, when the one-time fruit and vegetable market was becoming full of boutiques and restaurants, I happened to walk down Endell Street. A shop’s fascia was being removed, exposing the old paint – and revealing this had been Collins’s shop. The sign claimed the company was the successor to the Distins. The Distins were two English brothers and their four sons who were very successful making saxhorns (‘the rapid expansion of the amateur brass band movement in England about the middle of the last [19th] century was due in no small measure to the success of the Distins with their saxhorns’ – Anthony Baines (ed.) Musical Instruments Through the Ages [Pelican, 1961, p. 313]).
As sole import-distributor the Jenkins Orphanage management had – one hopes – a profitable enterprise, a market among other black institutions in and beyond South Carolina, and a source of good quality instruments for the orphans. The music training of African Americans is now known to have included formal lessons often under visionary leaders (N. Clark Smith in Chicago, Alabama and Kansas City 1901-1922; Kemper Harreld in Atlanta from 1906 are just two – neither in Collier’s The Making of Jazz). The distribution of musical instruments, in the light of this 1898 advert, needs to be examined. Mail order catalogues encouraged folk musicians to purchase guitars, then paying the mailman small weekly installments, as blues historians have noted. Black institutions with bands may well have copied the Jenkins Orphanage, and purchased instruments from the factories.
This enigma needs to be resolved. Until it is supplies through secondhand shops should be treated with some scepticism.
Thanks to Nic Butler of Charleston Public Library.
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