The remains of Jax's ragtime, blues and jazz age
Modern Cities takes a look at the remains of the South's most overlooked substantial African-American entertainment district during the formative years of ragtime, blues and jazz in the early 20th century.
615 Ashley Street
On July 19, 1908 Frank Crowd, a prominent barber and shooting gallery owner, opened the Bijou Theater on July 19, 1908. Ashley Street’s first theatre was a new three story building with 218-seats that featured silent films as its primary attraction. “The Story of Moses, sometimes considered the first feature-length film, was shown at the Bijou. A few months later, Kalem Studio’s “The Artist and the Girl”, one of the earliest films produced in Jacksonville, made it to the Bijou’s screen. By May 1909, Crowd had expanded the Bijou with a stage for vaudeville shows.
However, the neighboring Colored Airdome caused Crowd to close the Bijou in 1909. Down but not out, Crowd invested $25,000 into his theatre adding new inclined floors, a balcony, private boxes and an all-tungsten lighting system. On January 17, 1910 he reopened as the Globe Theatre. In addition, the team of Rainey and Rainey joined Crowd’s Globe Stock Company that January. At the time, Ma Rainey (Gertrude Pridgett Rainey) was billed as a “coon shouter” and the attraction of her powerful moan was undeniable. It was observed that she was receiving three or four encores every night. By the end of her career, Ma Rainey had become billed as “The Mother of the Blues”, making several recordings with influential jazz figure Louis Armstrong. Jelly Roll Morton, the father of Jazz, also performed at the Globe on a regular basis during his brief time living in LaVilla.
In Jacksonville my girl friend, Stella Taylor, got dissatisfied and so I quit, too. I sent my trunks with all my clothes to New Orleans and just kept a blue suit, which needed pressing. I took it to a shop on Pearl Street near the railroad station and, as I had some business to attend to, asked the man for a pair of pants to wear. He gave me an old pair, torn and full of holes. When I went back to get my suit, this guy drew a baseball bat on me and forced me to leave without my suit. I went back to the hotel and somehow Stella and I got into a quarrel. The way those things go, we said things we both regretted later on, among which Stella told me she had found a guy she liked better than I. It so happened that I knew the fellow; he was a supposed-to-be pool player. I looked this gentleman up in a pool hall and just naturally beat him to death playing pool and took every nickel he had in the world. I told him I hoped he would have a nice time with Stella, who was a girl with very expensive habits, I'm telling you. Then I walked off and left him. I just hung around Jacksonville, might have been a couple of months, feeling low on account of what had taken place between me and Stella. I even bought a trombone and practiced awhile. Then I heard that Billy Cassans was putting together a show in Memphis and I decided to join him, which I did. We went on a tour and in this show I acted as straight man to Sandy Burns, the blackface comedian and the first eccentric dancer in the United States, and it was through him I happened to get the name, Jelly Roll.
Source: Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz”
During its heyday, the Globe was acknowledged as the anchor to the southern road shows and its Russell-Owens stock company was one of the most influential pioneering African-American theatrical stock companies in the country. The Great Migration and newer theatres in LaVilla eventually led to the Globe’s closure in 1916. In 1934, the vacant building became the new home of Eartha Mary Magdalene White’s Clara White Mission.
Eartha Mary Magdalene White, who sang as a lyric soprano as a cast member of John Ishma’s “Oriental America”, was a noted local humanitarian and civil rights activist. Notable guest and friends who visited the mission during White’s lifetime include Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Dedicated on December 17, 1978, the Eartha M.M. White Memorial Art and Historical Resource Center is a museum on the second floor of the building that contains most of her furniture, objets d’art and possessions.
601 West Ashley Street
1913 Sanborn map of theatres on West Ashley Street between Jefferson and Broad streets. (Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department)
In 1909, Lionel D. Joel and Mr. Glickstein open the Colored Airdome Theater at 601 West Ashley Street. With a seating capacity of 800, the Airdome was said to be the largest theater exclusively for black people in the South. The popular theatre quickly became known for its nightly standing room only audiences. Popular acts included Petrona Lazzo, the “Cuban soubrette”, and “Chinese impersonator” Coy Herndon and comedian Slim Henderson. Other performances included “Mr. Joplin’s Ragtime Dance” and the “Jacksonville Rounder’s Dance.” Renamed the Black Bottom Dance, it become the nation’s number one social dance after it was performed on Broadway in 1926.
The Colored Airdome put the city on the map when it was identified as the location of the first published account of blues singing on a public stage on April 16, 1910. The end of the Colored Airdome came as a result of the women’s clubs of Jacksonville persuading the mayor to ban all theaters, vaudeville shows and movies to close on Sundays. By 1915, the Colored Airdome was no more.
Here is singer, songwriter, and vaudville star Perry Bradford with his Georgia Strutters and the Original Black Bottom Dance from 1926. Perry Bradford's sheet music had the music as well as the dance instructions printed on them. Bradford says that he first saw the Dance done in Jacksonville and decided to write a song about it in 1907 called the "Jacksonville Rounders Dance" which used the term "Black Bottom" to describe the dance, but the song was not popular because "Rounder" meant "Pimp" (for the Pimp Walk) and no one wanted to dance to it, so he re-wrote the song as the "Original Black Bottom Dance in 1919", and introduced it in Nashville, Tennessee.
Source: Bruce Victrolaman Young at Youtube.com
After its closure, a building housing the popular Hollywood Music Store was constructed on the site of the Airdome. In addition to selling records, the Hollywood Music Store was known for bringing live performances from Nat King Cole, Count Basie and Earl “Fatha” Hines to town. In 2002, the Clara White Mission expanded their facility with a transitional housing and vocational training complex on the site of the former Hollywood Music Store. The new building was designed to include a replica facade of the historic building that once stood at that location.