Queer's in Jazz History
Gladys Bentley; the Bulldagger who sang the Blues!
Where does one start with Jazz but in Harlem. Harlem was transformed by a large migration of southern African Americans (Queer and not) in the opening decades of the twentieth century. The neighborhood north of Manhattan's Central Park became the most popular African Americans community in the United States.
By the 1920's Harlem's nightlife, for African Americans and even whites had emerged as a center of Black American music. Literature and art know culturally as the Harlem Renaissance. The Jazz Age offered Harlem a license that combined with both art and sexual ambiguity to members of their own sex. In Harlem the Jazz Age brought a period of political and intellectual ferment. Many of the leading figures were primarily inclined towards members of their own sex. They were "In The Life" as they called it in Harlem (from an essay by Margaret Graham 1998).
Advertised largely by word of mouth to those "in the life," Queer nightlife thrived in Harlem. Greenwich Village and Harlem were the city's main areas that countenanced homosexual gatherings. Richard Bruce Nugent, himself gay, recalled that the two bore many similarities. "You didn't get on the rooftop and shout, "'I fucked my wife last night.' So why would you get on the roof and say 'I loved prick.' You didn't. You just did what you wanted to do. Nobody was in the closet. There wasn't any closets."
Harlem churches were strictly anti-homosexual, but the community provided a model of tolerance.
Many of the Harlem Renaissance's key literary figures were Homo- or bisexual (among them Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, and perhaps enigmatic Langston Hughes) as were many of Harlem's best-known performers (among them Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Jackie "Moms" Mabley, Mabel Hampton, Ma Rainey, and Ethel Waters). Dancing was an expression of the music so vital to the African American; dancers like Leon James and Al Minns were rumored to be in the life of the sexual ambiguity of the time (check out the Queer Swing Dancing Old Timer's page). Though rarely identified as homosexual, same sex relationships were fluid in Harlem. Men and women were expected to marry. But in their circle, performers such as Bessie Smith " The Empress of the Blues", Ma Rainey " The Mother of the Blues", Alberta Hunter, Jackie "Mom" Mabley, Josephine Baker and Ethel Waters all cultivated a lesbian or bisexual image. For female jazz and blues singers, being attracted to other women was chic.
Ma Rainey several times was in trouble with the police for her lesbian behavior. In 1925, she was arrested for taking part in an orgy at home involving women in her chorus. Bessie Smith bailed her out of jail. Ma Rainey's album "Prove to Me Blues," a monologue about women who love women, showed reference of a women in appearance to Rainey, in hat, tie and jacket talking to a flapper. In the distance a policeman observes. The copy reads "What's all this? Scandal? To look at the words, the song goes: "Went out last night a crowd of my friends. They must 've been women, cause I don't like no men... They say I do it, ain't nobody caught me, They sure got to prove it to me..."
Bessie Smith " The Empress of the Blues" auditioned for Moses Stoke's traveling show at 18, through her brother, Clarence, a dancer and comedian with the show. Among the cast was Ma Rainey. Rainey was a Lesbian who had no children of her own. She took Smith under her wing to introduce her to the world of professional singing. Although married Smith had an on going affair with a chorus girl named Lillian Simpson. Smith's husband Jack Gee, married in 1922, tried to bring balance to her life even though Smith did hanker to the "life." Smith would disappear for weeks on end, ending up in jail, only to have Gee bail her out. The excitement of young people and parties she claimed was part of the "life on the road" and that wasn't any of his business.
Three of Bessie Smith's Nobody-titled songs seem to sum up a working woman's experience in the Sporting Life (though all were actually written by men). These would be: "Nobody In Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine," by Clarence Williams; "'Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do," written by Porter Grainger (her homosexual African American pianist remembered for gentlemanliness, pressed suits, spats and walking stick); and Jimmy Cox' Depression-era lament of an ex-big spender, "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out."
In 1923, Frank Walker's studio cut Smith's first record in Columbia's "Race Records." Smith's records each sold 20,000 copies or more. Frank Walker had struck out the royalty clause in Smith's contract, she was only to receive a fraction of the money she could have earned. Bessie Smith's career rode on the fortunes as well on the Theater Owner Booking Association (TOBA) in the south. TOBA sponsored and booked African American singers and entertainers throughout the 1920's. To the less successful African American entertainers TOBA was know as "Tough on Black Artists." For Bessie Smith mobs of patrons stood in line for hours to hear her strong & powerful voice.
Another of the well known performers of their time was Gladys Bentley, a three hundred pound alto singer and piano player who dressed in a white tuxedo and top hat. She performed at Harry Hansberry's Clam House and was famous for inventing obscene lyrics to popular songs. She is said to have married a woman in a Jersey ceremony. Some say she was the only performer to publicly exploit her lesbian identity. She belting out double-entendre Iyrics to popular songs like "My Alice Blue Gown," or "Sweet Georgia Brown," and encouraging her audiences to join in on the lewd choruses. "If ever there was a gal who could take a popular ditty and put her own naughty version to it," observed one journalist, "La Bentley could do it."
The Clam House was the best known of the Queer hangouts was the long, narrow room on 133rd Street's Jungle Alley, was described in Vanity Fair as "a popular house for revelers but not for the innocent young." Downtown celebrities went on bisexual sprees- among them were Beatrice Lillie, Tallulah Bankhead, Jeanne Eagels, Marilyn Miller, Princess Murat from Paris, and-dressed in matching bowler hats-came chanteuse-Libby Holman and her heiress lover, Louisa Carpenter du Pont Jenney.
In the homosexual iconography of the period, the African American male vied with the swarthy Italian youth and the sailor in uniform as the iconic love object. "Negroes" were also regarded as sexually flexible. (A common pickup line at that time among available African Americans: "I'm a one-way man-now, which way would you like?" And in a period when syphilis was rampant, sex between men was popularly rationalized, "Better a little shit than a chancre."86) The Mafia looked upon African American men's attractiveness to white men as a phenomenon to exploit (nor did it hurt that Al Capone's cousin was homosexual and poet Parker Tyler reported numerous attempted seductions by gangsters).
Harlem's homosexual haunts were varied bars like the Yeahman and the Garden of Joy catered to mixed crowds; "pansy entertainment" spots such as The Ubangi featured a sepia- toned female impersonator called Gloria Swanson, who belted out "Hot Nuts, get 'em from the peanut man!"; buffet flats such as Hazel Valentine's Daisy Chain offered sexual tableaux-both hetero and homo- staged in apartment chambers; homosexual house parties like those hosted by Casca Bonds and Alexander Gumby.
The most spectacular homosexual events were the costume balls held at the cavernous Rockland Palace on 155th Street. "Of course, a costume ball can be a very tame thing," reported the gossipy black weekly The Interstate Tattler, "but when all the exquisitely gowned women on the floor are men and a number of the smartest men are women, ah then, we have something over which to thrill and grow round-eyed." These drag balls were reported in the black press and surrealistically dramatized in America's first unashamedly homosexual novel, Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler's "The Young and Evil" (1933). Not all the guests were homosexual; many came to gawk. These onlookers ascended a gold-banistered staircase to the box seats that ringed the huge ballroom and looked down on the Grand March of ersatz divas promenading beneath a colossal crystal chandelier and a sky-blue ceiling. The women mostly dressed in drably colored loose-fitting men's suits (rarely a tuxedo) while the men outdid themselves as extravagant señoritas in black lace and red fans; as soubrettes in backless dresses and huge spangles; as debutantes in chiffon and rhinestones; and as a creature called "La Flame" who wore only a white satin stovepipe hat, a red beaded breast plate, and a white sash.
The Savoy Ballroom also hosted gala drag balls, where the sartorial achievements were given prizes. (Artist "Sheriff" Bob Chanler, hostess Muriel Draper, and Carl Van Vechten comprised one panel of judges, and they awarded first prize to a man who wore only a cache-sex, silver sandals, and apple-green paint).
Harlem's gaudy conglomeration of homosexual and lesbian hangouts reflected a zone in which sexual ties of all stripes could flourish. "In Harlem I found courage and joy and tolerance," observed a homosexual character in Blair Niles's 1931 novel "Strange Brother." "I can be myself there.... They know all about me and I don't have to lie."
Queers would be found at private residents like the "Rent party's" too. These were private affairs held in flats whose tenants needed to pay the rent, and in which each room featured a different pleasure--sometimes very different ones, as in bull-dagger "jaspers" or "freakish" men, drag queens waiting and available, even erotic animal acts. "Rent parties" were among the few racially-mixed venues of their time, and one of the gayer aspects of the literary and cultural era that later came to be called the Harlem Renaissance.
Harlem was also a magnet for the best and brightest in all of America's African American communities. When a fresh-out-of high school kid in Pittsburgh met Duke Ellington on tour and played him a few of his songs, the great bandleader wrote out directions to his home and told the black teenaged prodigy to visit if he were ever in New York. The young Billy Strayhorn TOOK him literally, then on the train ride there turned the scrawled note's text into the lyrics for a song. And that's how "Take the A Train (If You Want To Go To Harlem)" was born, along with a lifelong musical relationship between the young gay songwriter and his Sugar Hill mentor.
The bruiser as male ideal was deflated by the androgynous influence of Rudolf Valentino. The whole nation (women especially) fell under the sway of his overly-pretty "Sheik," and all of a sudden it was "okay" to be a lover man. Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards, who later became best known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket, in the Twenties did vocal drag imitations of Mae West and was heard to wink while singing to the young college bearcats, "If you can't land her on the old verandah, then you can't land her at all!"
Eddie Cantor would open his eyes wide as saucers to complain saucily in 1921 that "Ma! (S)he's Makin' Eyes At Me." Three years later in Ziegfield's "Kid Boots" he was singing "He's the Hottest Man in Town" with a verse that includes the electrifying line, "He's got 'em guessin', he's incandescent." Then he made himself top banana on Broadway with Walter Donaldson's music, Gus Kahn's 1928 lyrics about infidelity and alimony in "Makin' Whoopee!"
Mrs. Vincent Astor: "How do you know me, young man?" Grand Central Station porter: "Why, ma'am, I met you last weekend at Carl Van Vechten's." "You can see I am hardly seeing any white people at all!" - Carl Van Vechten to Fania Marinoff. A dance and music critic, a popular novelist, later a photographer, Carl Van Vechten used parties as a means of connecting people from all his different worlds, and in the process made a significant contribution to American culture. Primarily homosexual, he nonetheless sustained a marriage (to actress Fania Marinoff) for nearly a half century. During the 1920s he was particularly interested in the cross-fertilization of African-American culture and the progressive white culture exemplified by Vanity Fair magazine.