Al Jolson - Performing in Blackface - Relations With African Americans

Relations With African Americans

See also: African-American – Jewish relations

Jolson first heard African-American music, such as jazz, blues, and ragtime, played in the back alleys of New Orleans, Louisiana. He enjoyed singing the new jazz-style of music. Often performing in blackface, especially in the songs he made popular, such as "Swanee", "My Mammy", and "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody". In most of his movie roles, however, including a singing hobo in Hallelujah, I'm a Bum or a jailed convict in Say It With Songs, he chose to act without using blackface. In the film The Jazz Singer (1927), he performed only a few songs, including "My Mammy", in blackface, but the film is concerned in part with the experience of "donning a mask" that the young Jewish singer embraces in performing popular songs onstage.

As a Jewish immigrant and America's most famous and highest-paid entertainer, he may have had the incentive and resources to help break down racial attitudes. For instance, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) during its peak in the early 1920s, included about 15% of the nation's eligible voting population, 4-5 million men. While D. W. Griffith's movie The Birth of a Nation glorified white supremacy and the KKK, Jolson chose to star in The Jazz Singer, which defied racial bigotry by introducing American black music to audiences worldwide.

While growing up, Jolson had many black friends, including Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who later became a prominent tap dancer. As early as 1911, at the age of 25, Jolson was already noted for fighting discrimination on the Broadway stage and later in his movies:

  • "at a time when black people were banned from starring on the Broadway stage," he promoted the play by black playwright Garland Anderson, which became the first production with an all-black cast ever produced on Broadway;
  • he brought an all-black dance team from San Francisco that he tried to feature in his Broadway show;
  • he demanded equal treatment for Cab Calloway, with whom he performed a number of duets in his movie The Singing Kid.
  • he was "the only white man allowed into an all black nightclub in Harlem;"

Jolson once read in the newspaper that songwriters Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, neither of whom he had ever heard of, were refused service at a Connecticut restaurant because of their race. He immediately tracked them down and took them out to dinner "insisting he'd punch anyone in the nose who tried to kick us out!" Subsequent to their meeting, according to biographer Al Rose, Jolson and Blake became friends. Rose writes:

This didn’t have anything to do with the theater, because they never worked together. Rather, they both had a love of prize fighting and used to go to boxing matches together, engaging in jocose discussion of the relative merits of Negro with Jewish pugilists. They would occasionally wager a bottle of whisky on these bouts.

Film historian Charles Musser notes that "African Americans' embrace of Jolson was not a spontaneous reaction to his appearance in talking pictures. In an era when African Americans did not have to go looking for enemies, Jolson was perceived a friend."

Jeni LeGon, a black female tap dance star, recalls her life as a film dancer: "But of course, in those times it was a 'black-and-white world.' You didn't associate too much socially with any of the stars. You saw them at the studio, you know, nice—but they didn't invite. The only ones that ever invited us home for a visit was Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler." Brian Conley, former star of the 1995 British play Jolson, stated during an interview, "I found out Jolson was actually a hero to the black people of America. At his funeral, black actors lined the way, they really appreciated what he’d done for them." Noble Sissle, then president of the Negro Actors Guild, represented that organization at his funeral.

Jolson's physical expressiveness also affected the music styles of some black performers. Music historian Bob Gulla writes that "the most critical influence in Jackie Wilson's young life was Al Jolson." He points out that Wilson's ideas of what a stage performer could do to keep their act an "exciting" and "thrilling performance" was shaped by Jolson's acts, "full of wild writhing and excessive theatrics." Wilson felt that Jolson, along with Louis Jordan, another of his idols, "should be considered the stylistic forefathers of rock and roll."

According to the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture: "Almost single-handedly, Jolson helped to introduce African-American musical innovations like jazz, ragtime, and the blues to white audiences.... paved the way for African-American performers like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Ethel Waters.... to bridge the cultural gap between black and white America." Jazz historian Amiri Baraka wrote, "the entrance of the white man into jazz...did at least bring him much closer to the Negro." He points out that "the acceptance of jazz by whites marks a crucial moment when an aspect of black culture had become an essential part of American culture."

In a recent interview, Clarence 'Frogman' Henry, one of the most popular and respected jazz singers of New Orleans, said: "Jolson? I loved him. I think he did wonders for the blacks and glorified entertainment."

Read more about this topic:  Al Jolson, Performing in Blackface

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