The Cradle of
Reverend Daniel Jenkins and his orphanage band
It was a bone-cracking cold morning in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 1909. The night before, a blizzard had struck the nation’s capital, leaving a hazardous slick of ice and slush down Pennsylvania Avenue. The procession of the President-elect, William Howard Taft of Ohio, crept down the narrow lane cleared for the inaugural parade behind a marching band from Charleston whom Taft had personally asked to perform. This band was different from the usual school groups and Rotary-sponsored clubs from towns across the country. It was made up of boisterous black children wearing cast-off uniforms from the Citadel’s cadet corps, rattling drums and waving batons before a line of trombone and trumpet players who were belting out the music in an unusual, syncopated beat. As the band reached the grandstand, they peeled off to the side and stood in line, waiting for Taft to pass. The portly politician, who was not known for his love of either children or music, smiled as he went by, where two of the littlest musicians could be seen holding up an out-sized banner that read “Jenkins Orphanage Band.”
In legend at least, the Jenkins Orphanage, and later on, its world-famous band, was born in 1891 in an empty railroad car. But then, there was much about this institution, as well as its charismatic founder, that could be called legendary. Daniel Jenkins, an African American laborer who earned a meager living hauling timber for the lumber mills, had gone to the railroad yard that morning to retrieve a consignment of wood. While there, he discovered four little black boys huddled against the cold in an empty car. When he asked them why their parents had let them go out in such frigid weather, he learned that they had been abandoned.
Although Jenkins had children of his own already – and precious little money with which to take care of them – he nonetheless took the four orphans home to his wife, Lena, and gave them food and beds. This simple act of charity would turn out to be the advent of an enterprise with far-reaching achievements: It would export Southern jazz to the rest of the world, incubate the talents of some famous African American musicians, and even create a new dance step that would come to define the “Roaring Twenties”.
(Jenkins & staff)
Man of Many Means
Daniel Jenkins made an impression on everyone who met him. He was tall, with strong features and a level gaze. When he spoke, he projected an aura of self-confidence and determination that belied his origins in the farmland of Barnwell County. Jenkins had been born into slavery in 1862 but emancipated just before the end of the Civil War. He lived a hardscrabble existence as a sharecropper with his wife Lena James, a light-skinned girl from the family of one of South Carolina’s colored elite. He “married light,” as the saying went, and thus married up, but he and Lena had no great financial resources when they took in the little boys he’d found in the railroad car. However, Jenkins believed that the meeting was not a random event – he felt that he had been chosen for a higher purpose; to be a missionary to the thousands of unwanted black children who had been left out of Charleston’s system of public care.
That Sunday, Jenkins who had just become pastor of Charleston’s Fourth Baptist Church, made an appeal for the boys from his pulpit. He also suggested that an association be founded to help all black orphans; within a year he had secured a charter from the state to operate an orphan aid society. The orphanage started out in what was little more than a shed, at 660 King Street, but Jenkins – an articulate speaker as well as a savvy businessman – soon persuaded the South Carolina Medical College to give him the old Marine Hospital at 20 Franklin Street in the city’s “penal district.” It was not the choicest of neighborhoods – the city jail was right next door – but Jenkins didn’t mind. In fact, the nightly moans and wails of prisoners’ baleful voices seeping through the stone walls of the ominous-looking, castellated building may even have helped reinforce Jenkins’ dire warning to his urchin charges of the Dickensian horrors to come if they didn’t stick to the straight and narrow.
The orphanage thrived. Within two years Jenkins had 360 boys and girls in his care and two years later more than 500; “black lambs,” he called them. Newspapers, in turn, called him “the Orphanage Man” and virtually canonized him for his selfless service. He became known as Reverend Jenkins, or simply “the Parson.” Many thought him to be a saint, yet there was something faintly military about him, too. He dressed in a sort of uniform with epaulets, stripes down the trouser legs, and a cut-away jacket with tails - a severe, formal-looking ensemble that may have been calculated to impress people with the fact that he had reached a higher station in life than perhaps (it was then thought) he was entitled to. Reverend Jenkins was a man of many facets, but only one public faced – the savior of unwanted black children.
The Sounds of Success
The instrument of this orphanage’s success was music. Probably taking his cue from the Fiske Jubilee Singers in Nashville, a coral group that performed black religious music, Jenkins organized 11 to 12 of the boys into a band in 1892. He hired two local musicians to teach them to read music and, because of the group instruction, each band member became proficient at playing all the instruments they had; obo, clarinet, bell, drums, coronet, and even triangle.
When the group was deemed good enough to perform, Jenkins took them out onto the streets of Charleston, where they gave bright, natural, highly energetic performances, like electrical currents crisscrossing the air. The concerts always concluded with Jenkins stepping out into the crowd to solicit donations. At the end of each foray, he usually collected enough to feed the orphans for a week.
Of course, the idea of a municipal band was nothing new. Just about every two-street village in the country had a marching band that played at county fairs and ribbon-cuttings, kitted out in resplendent uniforms and carrying shiny brass instruments, like the 76 trombones in Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. The Jenkins band, however, was hardly sartorial, and the instruments they played were scratched-up hand-me-downs donated by local churches. And yet these uneducated children danced and played with an urgent intensity born of their need to live free and prosper.
It was not what they played, but the way that they played it that secured the band’s place in musical history. In a typical performance, they would start out with a Sousa March - a standard part of the regimental band repertoire - then segue into a “cakewalk,” a high-kicking, strutting parody of the formal ballroom dances of the white elite. The crowds, initially bewildered, gradually succumbed to the band’s charming musical camaraderie and nimble talent. They laughed at one of Reverend Jenkins more effective gimmicks - having the band “led” by the smallest boy of all, a diminutive “conductor” in a cap three sizes too big who cut the air with a baton the length of his own arm. Like manna from heaven, coins and bills fell into the outstretched hands.
The most distinctive feature of the band’s music was the way they abandon the neat, harmonic structures of the standard tunes and played them in a new style, characterized by highly staccato rhythms, a lot of minor chords, and virtuosic solo performances.
The new kind of music – “ragtime” - got its name from the black piano players in saloons and roadhouses who would “rag” or “jazz up” a standard tune by corrupting the traditional “four-four” beat. The distinctive sound of rag could be heard when the pianist played the bass or octave on beats one and three and the midrange cords on two and four. This gave the music a kind of staggered, or “ragged” time. As one band member put it,” When we played, it was very tough on his own bottom."
Ragtime also had foundations in an earlier, distinctive African-American musical tradition deeply rooted in Charleston - the call and response rhythms of the spirituals and work songs sung by slaves and later co-opted by white musicians like George Gershwin (“ I Got Rhythm”) and the Charleston – based folk opera, Porgy and Bess. Headlining performers like Al Jolson (“ The Jazz Singer”) also made their fortunes by adopting this form of playing and singing, and one of the most prolific songwriters in America, Irving Berlin (“ Alexander’s Ragtime Band”), paid homage to the black influence on his own compositions by referring crudely - but probably with admiration - to the way the new music relied on cords that primarily use the black, instead of the white, piano keys.
The Show Hits the Road
Eventually Reverend Jenkins took his band on the road. They traveled up and down the eastern seaboard in the dingy nonwhite seating section of the Clyde Line, the steamship company that served Charleston and a dozen other port cities along the Atlantic. Although they rearly stayed in any city for very long, finding sleeping arrangements in Jim Crow-era America was sometimes a problem. But when hotels turned them away, local churches usually put the children up.
White businesses may not have wanted the band’s patronage, but when it came to hearing them perform, whites flocked to the concerts in droves. The band became so popular - and so profitable - that soon there were two bands training and performing simultaneously, and later still, a third, fourth, and fifth. Typically, when the group arrived in a town, there was no need to drive anywhere. They would simply walk two blocks in one direction, set up, perform, then pack up and do the same thing two blocks the other way. As one band member recalled, “on the street corners, it was every kid doing his own thing. All you needed to know was the melody, and then you’d take off from there.”
As they became more renowned, the Jenkins bands hit Harlem nightclubs like Connie’s Inn and the Cotton Club, where it was the 1920s fashion for upwardly mobile whites to go and listen to new talents like Cab Callaway, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters while “slumming” in a part of town where they would never be seen during daylight. At these gigs, the Jenkins band would start doing Gullah or Geechie dance steps and the audience would shout, “Hey, Charleston, do your Geechie dance!” From this Southern African American tradition came a host of new piano tunes to accompany these dance steps. James P. Johnson, the famous jazz pianist, wrote eight such Geechie tunes, or “Charlestons,” as he called them. One of those eight tunes became wildly popular and caught on with white audiences across the country. It was known simply as “The Charleston.”
Newspapers dubbed Jenkins’ musicians “the Pickaninny Band,” a condescending way of referring to black children. Jenkins understood the insult, but he allowed it anyway because he knew that sort of name was probably good for donations from white audiences.
The band developed several rituals that endeared them to their white neighbors back in Charleston. One was to stop their bus two or three blocks away from the orphanage when returning from a road trip and to march in the rest of the way, triumphant, while lines of white children followed them, puppy – like and adoring. Another was to go to white neighborhoods on Christmas Eve and serenade the residence from beneath their windows. Local children used to anticipate the advent of the orphanage band on Christmas Eve as much as they did the appearance of Santa Claus. For their parents, a visit from the band constituted a kind of ironic social horror. Sons and daughters were known to have begged their parents to put them in the orphanage so that they could be traveling musicians, too.
For some 20 years, the Jenkins Orphanage Band reigned supreme, playing all over the country and even embarking on three tours abroad. They opened expositions and ceremonies, played concerts for Presidents, and were often heard on the radio. They were even seen on the New York stage in 1927 when Porgy author DuBose Heyward call them to Broadway to perform in the non-musical stage version of his best-selling novel. Many critics claim that just seeing the band was worth the price of the ticket.
And the Band Played On
Orphanages in America – especially during the Depression – had no great ambitions for their charges. Most of the “graduates” went into trades like house painting, shoemaking, or car repair. Many drove taxis or became maids and waiters. But in the Jenkins Orphanage, an impressive number overcame the odds and made careers in music.
Many of these musicians became legendary figures in jazz. One such star was William “Cat” Anderson, a trumpeter who played with Lionel Hampton. Sylvester Briscoe, another of Jenkins’ orphans, became one of the lead trumpeters in Bennie Moten’s orchestra. Freddie Green, who wasn’t even an orphan, was nonetheless taken in by Reverend Jenkins and later became the lead guitarist for Count Basie. He played with Basie at Pres. Kennedy’s inaugural ball in 1961, and in 1981 was honored by President Reagan for achievement in the performing arts. Tom Delaney,” Geechie” Fields, “Peanuts” Holland, and “Speedy” Jones played the piano, trombone, drums, and trumpet with the likes of “Jelly Roll Morton,” Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and “Red” Allen.
One of the music teachers that Jenkins hired, Francis Mikell, earned a coveted spot in the 15th New York Regiment Band under Lieutenant James Reese Europe, a famous black conductor. This outfit, “the Hellfighters Band” (whose members included Edmund Jenkins, the Reverend’s son), stayed in Paris following World War I and was instrumental in bringing ragtime to Europe and making the French capital the Mecca for nightclub jazz in the era of the Lost Generation.
One reason these players were able to achieve the level of fame was that southern jazz created the rise of the individual performer – in 1914 in New Orleans, for instance, a young trumpeter named Louis Armstrong was a star attraction in the Colored Waifs Home Brass Band. At about the same time, Reverend Jenkins began a young black boy from Savannah, “Jabbo” Smith, who would vie with Armstrong for the title of jazz virtuoso in trumpet playing. Smith played at Smalls Paradise in Harlem in the 1920s then went on to work with Duke Ellington’s orchestra.
The long reach of the Jenkins orphanage band shows how Southern musical institutions were a driving force in the formation of jazz. Even as, in the World War II years, the “big bands” led by white conductors like Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller edged out the smaller, black ensembles like those of Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton in the concert halls, black bands still dominated the nightclubs and smaller circuits, “jazzing” their spellbound listeners with an earring rhythmic tact.
End of an Era
The orphanage itself had a less auspicious life, even after so many of his foundlings went on to musical greatness. Reverend Jenkins died in 1937, considerably weakened in strength and spirit after a fire nearly destroyed the second floor of the orphanage in March 1933. The blaze became an excuse for the city Council to force the orphanage out of the neighborhood, into which many whites had recently moved Jenkins had lost his earlier influence with the mayor and city councilman, and he was formally charged with negligence. There were also accusations - to some degree true - that he may have profited disproportionately from the income generated by the orphanage’s bands and the city canceled a major appropriation of funds in the wake of eight Time magazine story that aired the charges. Under pressure after her husband’s death Ella Jenkins (the Reverend’s second wife) struck the deal whereby she surrendered the Franklin Street property; space in return, the city built a new facility for the orphanage away from downtown. Today the former Marine Hospital is occupied by the city Housing Authority and the school of the Building Arts, and the renamed Jenkins Institute remains in operation in North Charleston.
A 40-year tradition may have ended, but Charleston’s jazz orphanage nurtured and nourished talent that still influences the music world today. It’s been said that the passion of the human soul finds this food in music. Daniel Jenkins must have believed in this deeply, for the husky melodies and rhythmic richness of his jazz band make sure that none of his “little black lambs” - or their enchanted audiences- ever went hungry.
This article was written by James Hutchisson, an English professor at the Citadel, and it is reprinted here with his permission. The article originally appeared in “Charleston” magazine in the April 2005 issue.