A brief history of the Clef Club

Volume 115, No. 2February, 2015

Jacob Goldberg

The bandleader and composer James Reese Europe spent his first years in New York playing cabaret piano and mandolin in black shows. But by 1910, this work had begun to dry up. Undeterred, Europe organized a group called the Clef Club and began to notate and orchestrate ragtime. His organization did more than perform. It functioned as a booking agency, as a social club, and as a sort of trade union. It began to secure work for black musicians in society bands, playing for private parties and high social events. As a result, Europe provoked a profound change in how black musicians became professionals. Black musicians would perform vernacular music, make it popular music, and then make it professional music. The importance of this achievement cannot be underestimate. Europe, said the pianist Eubie Blake, “did as much for [black musicians] as Martin Luther King did for the rest of the Negro people.”

Europe made everything about this transformation deliberate. The Clef Club musicians dressed professionally, performed punctually, and practiced persistently. In performance, they wore suits and military costumes. At one concert in 1910, one audience member observed, “Some of the musicians were dressed as French cavaliers, others as Hessians, and others as English students.” They drew white audiences. After a concert in October 1910, a New York Age reporter noted, “In the gathering was noticed a sprinkling of white citizens, and they were quite a study, appearing very much surprised, with eyes, mouths and ear wide open so absorbed were they in the work of the musicians.”

Europe ran a tight ship in rehearsals. His music was not improvised. “I have to call a daily rehearsal of my band to prevent the musicians from adding to their music more than I wish to….I have to be continually on the lookout to cut out the results of my musicians,” he told the Literary Digest in 1919. In short, Europe made ragtime into a professional music by carefully controlling his musicians.

He also had a strong belief in the importance of black expression and organization. He became convinced that the best music black musicians could produce was music that drew on black folk forms and lived experiences, not one that aped white styles. “Negroes,” said Europe, “should write Negro music. We have our own racial feeling and if we try to copy whites we will make bad copies.” And he was more convinced that with proper organization and agitation, black musicians could force employers to recognize them as respectable professionals. His organization got quick results.

Before the creation of the Clef Club, a black musician might show up at a job and learn that, instead of playing music, he would have to work as a dishwasher or janitor. His employer would then require him to play music only for tips and pay him only for menial labor. Europe set a fixed salary and stipulated that the Clef Club receive employment only as entertainers. For engagements outside of the city, he demanded that musicians get room, board and transportation, as well as a salary. He told his musicians to receive engagements as “Clef Club musicians,” thereby increasing the visibility of his organization and the clout it held.

James Reese Europe and other African American musicians benefited from a rising leisure culture and especially from the emergence of social dancing as a prevalent form of entertainment. In the 1890s and 1900s, as historians Lewis Erenberg and Kathy Peiss have shown, social dancing became less formal, more accessible, and commercialized. By the 1910s, over 500 dance halls coexisted in New York City, and over 100,000 women and men learned social dancing at dancing academies. With its rhythmic emphasis and steady beat, ragtime was the perfect dance music. By the mid-1910s, ragtime musicians controlled much of the dance business. “The Negro musician is today engaged at most of the functions given by society, especially its dances,” lamented one white New York musician in 1915, “It will not be long before the white musician will be obliged to blacken his face to make a livelihood or starve.”

This article was condensed and edited from a thesis written by Jacob Goldberg for Amherst College in 2008. The thesis is available as a book for purchase at Allegro will publish the next installment of this story in a future issue.