Jazz in the Cathedral

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
12th June 2007

Tagged: music slavery

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What do William “Cat” Anderson, Gus Aiken and Cladys “Jabbo” Smith have in common? They all played trumpet and were famous in their day as leading exponents of jazz. But what was their other important connection?

It is the same connection between Freddie Green and Rufus “Speedy” Jones. Green was a guitarist, Jones a drummer, but they also enjoyed this same link.

Most of them played with Duke Ellington—some played with Count Bassie. But each of them started out playing in the same band. It was a band associated with Porgy and Bess and the invention of the Charleston. It played in the Inaugural Parades of President Roosevelt in 1905 and President Taft in 1909. Based in Charleston, South Carolina it played across the USA and in several trips to Europe.

But there is more to this connection than the band. It is to the institution that created the band and the vision and drive of an extraordinary man.

Daniel Jenkins was born a slave in 1861. He gained his freedom at the end of the Civil War. Early in life he was orphaned. Time Magazine reported that “turned off a plantation near Charleston S.C., he said: ‘I took God as my guide.’” Starting as a farm worker, he became a Baptist minister.

In 1891 he came across a group of cold, hungry and homeless orphans. Apart from meeting their immediate needs he started agitating to found a home for the many young African American orphans. The Jenkins Orphanage provided them with food and shelter, an education and diversion from criminal behaviour. Within a few years he was responsible for over 500 children at a time.

His attempts to raise money, to provide for these children and teach them skills for life, met with solid resistance. So he started the Jenkins Orphanage Band to raise money. It had the double benefit. It gave the children a musical education. It also provided the money necessary to run the orphanage. One of his aims and achievements was to buy a farm to teach them life-skills. His concern was for their future. In 1935 he claimed that less than 10 of the thousands of children who had graduated out of the orphanage had finished in gaol.

Initially the Orphanage Band met with little success. But in time it grew in national and international reputation. Ultimately there were five Jenkins Orphanage Bands performing at any one time around the USA.

The Orphanage Band was the important nursery for many of the Jazz musicians of the twentieth century. As a Southern, Christian and African-American orphanage it expressed three cultures. It combined the traditional music and dance of African and Gullah (or geechie) culture with western musical training and Gospel songs.

The Jenkins Ophanage Band was one of the vehicles for moving Jazz music into the cultural mainstream. They played both conventional and jazz music to audiences across the American cultures.

It has even been credited a key role in the Charleston dance craze. It has been said that the Charleston was “born on King Street in Charleston by the Jenkins Orphanage.”

Gershwin's musical Porgy and Bess is based upon a novel and play by Debose Heyward called simply “Porgy”. Heyward wrote of his experiences amongst the African-American and Gullah in Charleston. The Orphanage Band frequently played around the town. Naturally Heyward referred to the band. Heyward insisted that only African American performers be in his play. So for the whole first season of Porgy, the Jenkins Orphanage Band performed on Broadway.

This is a great story of rescuing people out of oppressive poverty and making significant contribution to the culture of the nation. But the whole story came from the Christian compassion and dedicated hard work of a man who played no musical instrument.

In 1935 Time Magazine told the story of the Jenkins bands finishing up by quoting the Rev. Daniel Jenkins: “I'll carry on till Jesus calls me home.” That call came on July 30th 1937.