Levee Land, William Grant Still and Florence Mills
© Bill Egan 1998
36 Gundara St
Levee Land, William Grant Still and Florence Mills
On Sunday evening January 24 1926 an event occurred at the Aeolian Hall, New York which was, in several respects, a significant landmark in the Harlem Renaissance but has since been largely forgotten. On that night the International Composers’ Guild presented a concert which included a performance by the black Broadway star Florence Mills. She sang a group of four jazz-based songs under the title Levee Land. These had been specially composed for the occasion by William Grant Still, a rising young African-American classical composer.
The concert included several other notable features: Florence Mills was conducted by Eugene Goossens in what was reported as his first encounter with jazz; Ottorino Respighi made his debut as a conductor, while his wife made her American debut as a concert singer; and a new sonata, by Italian enfant terrible Vittorio Rieti, was presented.
Nevertheless, it was certainly the Mills-Still collaboration that inspired the large attendance and the enthusiastic response from the press and audience. To explain why this was so, it is necessary to relate something of the careers and friendship of William Grant Still and Florence Mills.
William Grant Still
Born in Woodville, Mississippi, 11 May 1895, and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, William Grant Still was the acknowledged "Dean of Afro-American composers" by the end of his long life in December 1978. His early interest in, and talent for, classical music were not, however, any guarantee of quick recognition so, while pursuing his studies in that direction in the early years of the century, Still followed the route most readily open to talented African-Americans in those days. He took jobs with dance bands and played accompaniments for vaudeville acts. He worked for W.C. Handy, ‘King of the Blues,' in Memphis, playing in Handy’s Memphis Band and doing arrangements. This was a skill that would stand him in good stead in later years (arranging for Paul Whiteman and Artie Shaw, amongst others). Handy was a music publisher as well as composer and when he moved his publishing company to New York, Still joined him there in 1919.
In 1921 Still joined Harry Pace’s Black Swan Phonograph Corporation as Music Director, with jazz bandleader Fletcher Henderson being the Recording Director. The company was founded with the revolutionary policy of recording only black artists, from a wide spectrum of concert singers, glee clubs, vaudeville and blues performers. Still’s experience in jazz bands and vaudeville, allied to his strong classical training, would have fitted him well for this broad mandate. It is likely that he, along with Fletcher Henderson, moderated Pace’s well-known bias towards ‘serious’ music in favour of artists such as Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter and Trixie Smith, whose pioneering jazz and blues records were to be major successes for the company.
About this time Still was approached by a friend, violist Hall Johnson, (famous later as founder and leader of the Hall Johnson Choir) on the steps of the YWCA cafeteria. Johnson asked him if he wanted a job as oboe player in the orchestra of a new musical by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, Shuffle Along, in which Johnson was already playing. Still accepted and thereby became part of one of the most historical events in American musical entertainment.
Born into poverty in a Washington D.C. slum in 1895, Florence Mills was a medal-winning dancer by 4 or 5 years, entertaining the diplomatic set. She was featured as a guest star, ‘Baby Florence,' with the No. 2 Road Company of one of the famous Williams and Walker shows The Sons of Ham, in 1903. A few years later a lucrative spell as a dancing ‘pick’ (piccaninny), with a well-known white vaudeville act (Bonita & Hearn) ended when truancy authorities seized her as an underage performer, and institutionalised her away from her distraught family for a while.
A few years later, in 1912, she was back again as part of a singing and dancing act, the Mills Sisters, along with her two elder sisters. They played the tough Lincoln Theatre in Harlem, and black vaudeville theatres on the Dudley circuit, around the East Coast region. When her sisters dropped out of the act, she made her way to the teeming jazz world of Chicago’s South Side in 1916. There, as part of the Panama Trio, with Ada ‘Bricktop Smith’ and Cora Green, she performed alongside such people as blues singer Alberta Hunter and legendary ragtime piano player Tony Jackson. Her growing reputation earned her a place with a successful group, the Tennessee Ten, which incorporated a full jazz band, and also her husband to be, brilliant dancer Ulysses. S. ‘Slow Kid’ Thompson.
With the ‘Ten’, the pair spent another four years of tough apprenticeship on the vaudeville circuits (interrupted by Thompson's war service), before fame finally arrived for Florence. In 1921 she received an offer to replace one of the leading stars of the sensationally successful Shuffle Along. This was where she was to meet William Grant Still and form a friendship that would last the rest of her life, and inspire the music that is the subject of this paper.
The story of Shuffle Along has been told many times. It’s a rags-to-riches tale of a show put together on a shoestring budget. Against all odds, it recreated the golden age of black musical entertainment, the era of Williams and Walker, Cole & Johnson, and Ernest Hogan, while breaking away from the stereotypes they had to live with. The singing and dancing in Shuffle Along was a revelation to white audiences, accustomed to the statuesque showgirls of the Ziegfeld Follies. It opened up Broadway to black shows and entertainers and provoked a string of imitations throughout the Twenties.
Apart from William Grant Still, Florence Mills and Hall Johnson, Shuffle Along also launched, or helped, the careers of an extraordinary number of other talented performers, including Adelaide Hall, Josephine Baker, Mae Barnes, Freddi Washington, Eva Taylor, Lucille Hegamin, Caterina Yarboro, Blanche Calloway and even, briefly, Paul Robeson. The show’s creators were music writers Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, and scriptwriters and comedians Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. The orchestra was led by the brilliant Will Vodery, who was the arranging genius behind the music for the Ziegfeld Follies (and later for Jerome Kern’s Showboat). Bruce Kellner comments that Shuffle Along is "often credited with having sparked the Harlem Renaissance."
As mentioned earlier, Florence Mills was not part of the original Shuffle Along cast. She joined in August 1921 when entrepreneurs Hurtig and Seamon lured away one of the leading performers, Gertrude Saunders, to star in Reisenweber’s cabaret. Mills’ demure personality caused cast members who were unfamiliar with her performance style to fear she would not be an effective replacement for the dynamic Saunders, but in Noble Sissle’s words "She was Dresden china and she turned into a stick of dynamite." On her first night, she was an even bigger sensation than Gertrude Saunders, becoming the toast of Broadway. She stayed with the show until May 1922 when she left to be the star of her own show, Plantation Revue. During her time with Shuffle Along, William Grant Still became a close friend of Florence and husband Kid Thompson.
The intervening years
When Florence Mills left to star in a show designed specially to showcase her talents, Still continued with Shuffle Along. Although it did not represent the direction he wanted to pursue for his eventual career, it was a steady job that paid the bills while he studied. He probably took some consolation from the fact that he was sharing the company of many brilliant musicians. Apart from his friend Hall Johnson, there was leader Will Vodery, orchestrator and arranger extraordinaire, and Eubie Blake, one of the all time great ragtime and stride piano players and also a great composer of popular songs.
"The pit band of Shuffle Along always drew comment because it played without music, having committed the entire score to memory. ‘We did that because it was expected of us" remembers Blake. "People didn't believe that blacks could read music - they wanted to think that our ability was just natural talent.’"
Verna Arvey recounts that:
"Bored playing the same score over and over, night after night, the musicians began to improvise. They improvised so much from night to night that if, at the end of the run, they had played the score exactly as written, the cast wouldn’t have recognized it. Sometimes Eubie himself would add something unusual for the piano, or Still would write out something for the rest of them to try."
After a record breaking New York run Shuffle Along went on the road, including an extended stay in Boston. There Still was fortunate enough to be able to seek lessons from the well-known composer and music educator George Chadwick. Impressed by the young man’s compositions, Chadwick insisted on giving him lessons for free, a major developmental step in his musical education. Still subsequently returned to New York where he rejoined Harry Pace’s Black Swan Company, replacing Fletcher Henderson in the vacant position of Recording Director.
In the meantime Florence Mills successes on Broadway had brought her to international attention. English impresario Charles B. Cochran, considering her Plantation Revue the cream of black entertainment, brought the entire troupe to the London Pavilion in May 1923, as part of a mixed black and white show, Dover Street to Dixie. In spite of prejudice against black actors displacing white English ones, the show was very successful. It played for four months till Cochran grew tired of battling officialdom for labour permits. On her return to New York Florence Mills was feted, becoming the first black star to head the bill at the Palace, the acme of vaudeville. She refused an offer to star in the Ziegfeld Follies, saying she preferred to create employment for her fellow African-Americans in all-black shows built round her.
While Florence Mills was establishing herself as the leading black show business personality, Still continued to develop his talents and reputation. In 1923 he began a period of private study with avant-garde composer Edgar Varese that would span over several years. His symphonic poem Darker America was composed in 1924. However, there were bills to pay and a living to be made and when Black Swan was taken over in 1924 he found himself unemployed. It was a relief when Will Vodery offered him a steady job, in a pit orchestra again, this time with Florence Mills’ new show Dixie to Broadway. Verna Arvey says: "He stayed with Dixie to Broadway for many months, all the time cementing his friendship with the star and her husband, 'Kid' Thompson, and increasing his admiration for Florence Mills' artistry and personality."
Arvey goes on to report:
"Sometime in 1925, Still had asked Florence Mills whether, if he wrote some music for her, she would sing it in concert. She agreed, and so did her manager, Lew Leslie, even though she was not to be paid for the concert. . . . So it happened that Still wrote Levee Land, consisting of four songs with orchestral accompaniment. With his one-finger piano technique, he taught the songs to Florence by rote, doing them over and over until she had mastered them. She never even heard the basic harmonies until the first rehearsal with the orchestra. She was so patient, so willing to learn and to accept suggestions that many times since when certain other artists felt that they were doing him a favor to perform his works, he thought back to one of the biggest of them all, who counted Levee Land a milestone in her life."
On the night of the performance, the Aeolian Hall was packed, largely because of the novelty of a leading Broadway entertainer’s appearance as a concert singer. The audience included such notables as Arturo Toscanini, George Gershwin, Carl Van Vechten, James Weldon Johnson, Walter F. White and Mrs Otto H. Kahn as well as the other illustrious musicians included on the program. Little wonder that even a seasoned performer like Florence Mills felt nervous. Perhaps George Gershwin, who barely two years before, had waited nervously in the same Aeolian Hall for Paul Whiteman’s introduction of his Rhapsody in Blue, would have felt a twinge of sympathy for her. Though previously trained in the songs by Still, Mills had only half an hour on the night, to rehearse them with Goossens and the orchestra. Goossens was impressed by her skill in picking up her cues, "A tribute", he said "to her superb musicianship."
The audience responded enthusiastically. Toscanini went backstage specially to congratulate Florence Mills. The critic for the New York World reported:
"A Harlem heroine went artistic yesterday, a la Whiteman of a few years ago, and as a result the concert of the International Composers Guild in Aeolian Hall was a success. Florence Mills graciously consented to be one of the guest artists of this fearless guild and promptly there was standing room only.
Miss Mills sang a group of songs by William Grant Still, entitled Levee Land. Curious and elemental were these songs by this brilliant young Negro composer, plaintive in part, crooning and sparkling with humour, and Miss Mills gave them a perfect interpretation. She sang them sensuously and lovingly, but she did more, she rolled her eyes here and she shrugged her shoulders there and the audience squirmed excitedly and laughed like a good neighbour. It was a pretty jolly evening for a concert hall."
Other reports were equally enthusiastic, though the critic for the New York Evening Journal took Still to task for being under the influence of Varese. When Eileen Southern asked Still, many years later, what had been his first ‘smash hit’, he replied "Well, I don’t think there’s ever been a smash hit in the current acceptance of the term, but the thing I wrote for Florence Mills, the Levee Land suite, attracted lots of attention from the critics." According to Verna Arvey, Still: "felt as if he had found a co-creator, and as if the piece had been composed for chamber orchestra and Florence Mills, rather than soprano and orchestra, as it might otherwise have been described."
What of the four pieces themselves? Described as Still’s first experiments in symphonic jazz, they were quite different and contrasting in styles. The first, Levee Song, is a lover’s bluesy lament for her neglectful man, "Very slow and very soft (as if heard from afar)." Number two, Hey-Hey, is "moderately fast" with the vocal consisting solely of the words "Hey-Hey" spoken three times, "as if surprised", "as if questioning" and "as if disgusted," each with precise instructions as to the singer’s posture. Croon, as the title suggests, is wordless with the singer required to hum the vocal line "very slow." This would not have been hard for Florence Mills, as wordless vocalising was one of her trademarks, and probably helps to account for the frequent description of her voice as bird-like.
The last piece, The Backslider, "moderately slow, with expression," is probably the most dramatic of the four. A tale of religion lost through "Jazz", it might well have raised a few frissons amongst the staid audience of serious musicians and classical fans. It’s not hard to imagine that it might have stimulated some ideas in George Gershwin’s mind for his future Porgy and Bess, as it could well serve as an anthem for Bess. It was probably this piece, and Hey-Hey, that caused the excited squirming in the audience, noted by the World critic, in response to Florence Mills' dramatic postures and jazz intonations. However, examination of the score shows that she was following the composer’s instructions.
Levee Land was never again performed in William Grant Still’s lifetime. Florence Mills died tragically, aged 32, less than two years after the sole performance. In later years, when Still was asked about it, his invariable reply was "Where can we find another Florence Mills?" The piece vanished into obscurity until, fairly recently, it was restored from old photostats by William Grant Still Music. It was not till the 100th anniversary celebration of Still’s birth in 1995 that it was finally performed again, by the Northern Arizona University Wind Symphony Orchestra (Dr. Patricia J. Hoy conducting), with Florence Mills singing role taken by Celeste Headlee, grand-daughter of William Grant Still.
Why was Still so disinterested later in a piece he acknowledged had stimulated considerable critical interest? The loss of his collaborator and close friend Florence Mills is a simple, and perhaps sufficient, answer. However, other speculations are possible. Was the New York Journal critic close to the mark with his complaints about a Varese influence? In his interview with Eileen Southern, Still had acknowledged that some of the early work he did under Varese’s influence had been "foreign to my nature." However, in the same interview he gave no indication that he considered Levee Land to be tainted in that way. For a layperson listening to it today, it does not appear unduly avant-garde or inaccessible. Judith Still, the composer's daughter, believes that her father ultimately disowned all the music of this period. However, Samuel Floyd Jr. sees Levee Land as marking a departure from the Varese period:
Still quickly deserted this "ultramodern" style, however, and turned to tonal music with a racial theme, composing in 1926 Levee Land, a work that led, stylistically, to the Afro-American Symphony (1930).
Carol J. Oja reflects a similar theme in his BMR article.
Those with a sound technical knowledge of Still’s music are better qualified than I am to comment on how it stands in the total corpus of his work. There is, however, one other possible explanation of his later indifference, which brings me to my opening assertion that the Aeolian Hall performance was "a significant landmark in the Harlem Renaissance." What has been described so far could only be viewed as a curiously interesting footnote to that remarkable cultural phenomenon. Why then should it be accorded greater significance?
Levee Land and the Harlem Renaissance
Whether the start of the Harlem Renaissance is dated from 1925 (as per When Harlem was in Vogue by David Levering Lewis), or 1921 and Shuffle Along (as quoted from Kellner above), or even earlier as others believe, there is no doubt that the Aeolian Hall concert falls within it. If you also agreed that William Grant Still and/or Florence Mills were important figures in the Renaissance then there would be little difficulty in assigning some significance to the concert. However, a glance at some of the leading works on the subject shows neither being assigned more than a very peripheral and incidental role.
The index to Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue shows only four references to Still. These include passing references, along with other names, to his presence in the Shuffle Along orchestra and the Harlem Symphony; his role as music director of Black Swan; and a parenthetic reference, in an item about Bruce Nugent, to Still as composer of the music for the ballet Sahdji. Nowhere is he noted as an important creative figure in his own right. Florence Mills fares no better - again four references; in the same listing of Shuffle Along personnel, then amongst a list of prominent entertainers, and two references to a letter from that indomitable correspondent, Walter White, chiding her over "stereotyping" in Dixie to Broadway, (which was attributable to producer Lew Leslie rather than the performers). Again, nowhere is there acknowledgment of her extraordinary achievements in gaining worldwide respect and admiration for black artistry.
Lest it be thought this is picking unfairly on Lewis, the situation is even worse with Harlem Renaissance by Nathan Irvin Huggins, with only one reference each to Still and Mills - Still for putting music to a Countee Cullen poem, Mills noted as starring in Dixie to Broadway and Blackbirds. Finally, Women of the Harlem Renaissance by Cheryl A. Wall makes no reference whatever to Florence Mills, in spite of passing references to great blues singers Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox and Ma Rainey.
No doubt the authors of these otherwise excellent and authoritative books could defend them on the basis of their intended scope, and their judgement of what was important, but that begs the question. They lend credence to the widely promulgated view that the Harlem Renaissance was an essentially literary phenomenon with an occasionally garish backdrop of jazz clubs and speakeasies. Samuel A. Floyd makes the point well in Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance:
"The Harlem Renaissance has been treated primarily as a literary movement, with occasional asides, contributed as musical spice, about the jazz age and the performances of concert artists. . . . The cultural environment created by Renaissance leaders promoted only literature, but [the Harlem Renaissance] stood as a network of physical elements that consisted of nightlife, cocktail parties, literary discussions, and strategy sessions - an environment in which all the arts were supported, albeit some only indirectly. . . . The music of the black theater shows, the dance music of the cabarets, the blues and ragtime of the speakeasies and the rent parties, the spirituals and the art songs of the recital and concert halls all created an ambience for Renaissance activity and contemplation."
"In the early years of the Renaissance, there was a sharp line dividing intellectuals from 'show people' (Redd, 1981). As far as creative artists were concerned, literary writers, classical musicians, and actors in the legitimate theater were in the former category, while the latter category comprised jazz and pop musicians and other entertainers."
Still, of course, moved comfortably between both camps. He knew the entertainment world intimately, having sustained his musical development through his work there, but as the rising genius of ‘serious’ music he was clearly also one of "the intellectuals," one of Du Bois’ Talented Tenth and well equipped to progress Alain Locke’s dream of a fusion between "The art music and the folk music." Florence Mills, on the other hand, was one of the "other entertainers," the motley crew of dancers, singers, comedians and special acts who struggled for a living in the face of prejudice and exploitation. While the literary figures of the Renaissance could aspire to grants and endowments from wealthy patrons, the entertainers lived or died by the reactions of audiences, largely white and frequently with stereotyped expectations.
Reading the entertainment pages of the black press in that period, e.g. the columns of J.A. Jackson (Billboard), Romeo Dougherty (Chicago Defender), Lester Walton (New York Age), one senses a tremendous hunger amongst the black entertainment fraternity for recognition of their talent and worth; a huge pleasure when someone like Florence Mills was internationally honoured, a pride in the dignity of a Bill Robinson or Sissle and Blake, approval when shows like Shuffle Along eschewed traditional stereotypes, anger at artistes who exploited vulgarity. Though they operated within the constraints of the commercial world, dominated by the white dollar, they had a sense of dignity, which sought continuously to roll back the barriers and achieve a status based on recognition of true worth.
Nevertheless, the attitude of the leaders of the Renaissance (typified mainly by some of the "Six" identified by David Levering Lewis as self-appointed cultural arbiters of the movement) was ambivalent at best.
"Although black musical theater flourished during the years of the Harlem Renaissance, it was treated with grudging respect by the cultural leaders of the movement. While they were aware of its popularity amongst both black and white audiences, spokesmen for the movement were critical that the books, music and lyrics of black musicals did not project the appropriate intellectual image of the "New Negro."(John Graziano)
The elitism of this outlook would not have gone unnoticed by the entertainment fraternity and the implied slur would have stung. Their cause, however, was not without sympathetic defenders, who would certainly have included James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes and of course, William Grant Still.
Still understood the hopes and aspirations of the entertainers. He had been one of them, lived with them, suffered their failures and lived their triumphs with them. They were his close friends. Apart from his experience in dance bands and pit orchestras, his experience with the Black Swan Company would also have given him day to day contact with a large range of artistes. At the same time, by 1926 he was a highly regarded intellectual figure, recognised by the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance as one destined to excel in the field of classical music and in a position therefore to exert some influence.
I believe that when Still approached Florence Mills and asked if she would sing his compositions in concert, it was his way of demonstrating to the intellectuals of the Renaissance, in front of an international and multi-racial audience of their peers, that his friends the entertainers also had style and talent. It was his way of paying back something in return for the support their world had given him over the early years of struggle. This also offers another possible explanation of his apparent indifference to Levee Land in later years. With the dramatic performance on that glittering night it had served its purpose, a brilliant flare, briefly illuminating the firmament of the Harlem Renaissance, bearing testimony to the dignity and talent of a generation of black entertainers, personified by Florence Mills.
Florence’s star was to shine brightly in that firmament for less than another two years before her untimely death. Still was to go on to a brilliant and long career during which he never forgot their friendship, maintaining contact with her husband, Kid Thompson, for the rest of his life. The Harlem Renaissance was soon to wither in the bleak climate of the Depression, but the black music and entertainment that nurtured it would go on to become America’s most noteworthy cultural contribution to the world. One of its high priests, Duke Ellington, would give Florence Mills her most enduring monument, "Black Beauty," his "Portrait of Florence Mills." Finally, in 1995, Levee Land would at last be revived.