From Opera, Minstrelsy and Ragtime to Social Justice: An Overview of African American Performers at Carnegie Hall, 1892-1943

Sissieretta Jones
Sissieretta Jones, Sparkling Gems of Race Knowledge Worth Reading (Nashville: J.T. Haley & Company, 1897) by James T. Haley

“It is probable that this hall will intertwine itself with the history of our country,” said Andrew Carnegie in 1890, when he laid the cornerstone of the building that would become Carnegie Hall.  In keeping with Carnegie’s firm belief in egalitarianism and meritocracy, the hall that bore his name maintained an open-door policy from the beginning.  In June of 1892, at the end of the hall’s first full concert season, soprano Sissieretta Jones became the first African American artist to perform there on a concert presented by the black social organization The Sons of New York.  Although this performance took place in the 1200-seat recital hall on the hall’s lower level (today known as Zankel Hall), Jones returned eight months later to sing in the main auditorium on a benefit for the World’s Fair Colored Opera Company, at which Frederick Douglass delivered an introductory address.

Black social causes frequently found a platform at Carnegie Hall during its first half century.  Booker T. Washington made the first of his 15 appearances there in 1896, delivering an address at a Presbyterian Home Missions rally.  In January of 1904, Washington shared the stage with W.E.B. Du Bois on a three-day conference of African American leaders.  Du Bois returned in 1918 to speak alongside Theodore Roosevelt on a benefit for the Circle for Negro War Relief.  The more controversial Marcus Garvey, inspired by Washington but denounced by Du Bois, addressed Carnegie Hall audiences four times between 1919 and 1924.

Sissieretta Jones paved the way for numerous other black classical musicians who followed her to Carnegie Hall.  Tenor Roland Hayes became the first African American to give a full-length solo recital there when he made his debut on February 5, 1924.  Contralto Marian Anderson made her Carnegie Hall recital debut on December 30, 1928, more than ten years before she was famously barred from appearing in Washington’s Constitution Hall.  Bass-baritone Paul Robeson soon followed Anderson to the hall, making his debut on November 5, 1929.

Popular lore often maintains that Benny Goodman gave the first jazz concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938, but that distinction belongs to James Reese Europe and his Clef Club Orchestra, comprised of members of the first black musicians’ union, who performed a “Concert of Negro Music” on May 2, 1912.  One newspaper noted that the audience “was large and thoroughly well mixed, but united in its applause.”  An interesting sidebar to this event was the appearance of ragtime composer and comedian Ernest Hogan on a 1903 variety/vaudeville program at Carnegie Hall.  Hogan, who billed himself as “The Unbleached American,” is credited with the first substantiated use of the words “rag” and “rag-time” in a published song.  Although the negative associations of his role in developing the “coon song” genre followed him throughout his life (and beyond), less well-remembered was his formation in 1905 of the first all-black ragtime orchestra, The Memphis Students, featuring compositions by James Reese Europe, a member of the group.

The music heard at the 1912 Clef Club concert, a form of orchestrated ragtime, can be called jazz only by extension.  It took another seminal figure, who, like J.R. Europe, wasn’t a jazz musician per se, to finally bring full-blown jazz to the hall.  W.C. Handy, the cornetist and composer often credited as “The Father of the Blues,” brought his band to Carnegie Hall on April 27, 1928.  Featured on piano and organ that evening was one of jazz’s first bona fide stars, Fats Waller.

The details of Benny Goodman’s legendary 1938 Carnegie Hall concert have been thoroughly covered elsewhere, but the importance of a racially mixed ensemble on such a highly visible public stage cannot be understated.  “It was the first time black and white ever played together,” as vibraphonist Lionel Hampton often asserted of Goodman’s quartet, and although nightclub and ballroom audiences had seen Hampton and pianist Teddy Wilson in the group since 1936, it was a first for a prominent concert stage.  The list of other black musicians performing that night, all guests, not regular Goodmanites, reads  like a “Who’s Who” of 1930s jazz: pianist Count Basie; saxophonists Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, and Harry Carney; trumpeters Buck Clayton and Cootie Williams; and guitarist Freddie Green and bassist Walter Page.

Later that same year, jazz record producer John Hammond, the man who convinced Goodman to hire Hampton and Wilson, organized one of the most remarkable concerts in Carnegie Hall’s history, which he called “From Spirituals to Swing.”  True to its title, the December 23, 1938 concert covered every facet of the black musical experience.  Following an introductory segment featuring field recordings of West African tribal music and a quick tune from Count Basie and His Orchestra, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mitchell’s Christian Singers presented gospel music; harmonica player Sonny Terry and singer Big Bill Broonzy represented the blues; pianists Albert Ammons, Meade “Lux” Lewis, and Pete Johnson pounded out the pre-rock and roll strains of boogie-woogie; James P. Johnson and Joe Turner covered stride piano; clarinetist/soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet led a set of New Orleans jazz; and finally Count Basie returned with his Kansas City Six and full big band to close the concert with the newest jazz sounds.

The January 23, 1943 Carnegie Hall debut of Duke Ellington and His Orchestra stretches our somewhat arbitrary fifty-year time span, but not by much.  Although Ellington was celebrating 20 years as a bandleader by this point, this concert came during a period of extraordinary creativity for him as a composer, and kicked off what became a five-year stretch of annual Carnegie Hall concerts.  Thankfully, each concert was recorded, documenting not only excellent performances of his standard repertoire, but also premieres of new works written specifically for each occasion, such as Black, Brown and Beige, New World A-Comin’, and many others.

In the 65 years since Duke Ellington’s debut, representatives of nearly every facet of black culture have appeared regularly at Carnegie Hall, although any brief survey of necessity omits more names than it can possibly include.  One thing is clear: Carnegie Hall has certainly fulfilled Andrew Carnegie’s founding wish by intertwining itself with the history of our country, regardless of race.