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The Jazz Age




The stories of 3 jazz greats from the golden years of jazz.

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker was born 1906 on June 3rd in St. Louis, Missouri. She was born to Carrie MacDonald and Eddie Carson. At the age of 13 she moved out of her parents’ house, got a job as a waitress, and soon after was married to a man named Willie Wells. However; the marriage ended in divorce a few years afterwards, and she returned to waitressing. While living in St. Louis, Josephine joined the Jones Family Band, a group of performers. She had her stage debut at the Booker T. Washington Theater, a black vaudeville house in St. Louis. At the age of 18, Josephine moved out of Missouri to New York, where her performing career began. Josephine worked in several troupes; her early performances included Ziegfield Follies and the famous Le Negre Rouve (in Paris). While in Paris, Baker was introduced to Jazz. In 1920, Josephine married her 2nd husband, Willie Baker. Due to the recognition she had already gained as a stage performer, she soon began to record for Columbia Records. Josephine toured Europe and stared in two films entitled Zou-Zou and Princess Tam Tam. In 1935 Josephine returned to America in search of the success that she attained in France, however was unsuccessful due to American unwillingness to accept a black woman with the style, grace, and sophistication that Baker possessed. In 1937 she married Jean Lion, a French sugar broker, however 14 months later, the marriage ended. During WWII Josephine became an “honorable correspondent” for the French Resistance. She later was promoted to sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary of the French Air Force. By 1942, Baker had returned to performing for the resistance. In 1944 she returned to France and married Jo Buillon in 1947. In 1948 Josephine and Jo went to America and became activists for civil rights. By 1954, Baker returned to France to begin raising a family of ethnically diverse children that she had brought to France from her tours around the world. Baker dubbed her twelve adopted children the “Rainbow Tribe”.

During Bakers life, she overcame all the obstacles and limitations that were imposed upon her because of her skin color, she became one of the most versatile entertainers by performing on stage, screen and recordings. Josephine was decorated for her undercover work for the French in WWII. She advocated Civil Rights in her home country of America. During her entire career, Josephine refused to perform for segregated audiences, which led to the integration of Las Vegas nightclubs that wanted to have Baker perform. Josephine Baker died on April 12 of 1975 in Paris. She died in her sleep after a large party that was thrown in her honor, and partly due to the recent release of “Josephine” a play based on her life.


Eddie Cantor

Eddie Cantor was born on the Lower East Side of New York in 1892. Due the early loss of his parents, his exact birth date is in question. Eddie was taken in by his grandmother, Esther. At an early age, Eddie showed signs of interest in performing. His grandmother ran a small employment agency for girls who hoped to work as servants. It is remembered that Cantor would sing, dance, and juggle in the streets to make a spectacle of himself. As Eddie reached his teens, he began to win talent contests at theaters like the Miners Bowery. Eddie also gained recognition of Ida Tobias who became is wife in 1914. Eddie and Ida spent their honeymoon in London, where Eddie appeared in his first musical. Soon afterwards, Eddie was booking himself in Los Angelos along with songwriter Earl Carroll and Al Lee. Eddie was featured in Oliver Morosco’s show Canary Cottage. Eddie’s biggest break was appearing in Zeigfiel Follies of 1917, 1918, and 1919. Cantor enjoyed the recognition that he gained in the Follies. He also met fellow performers who became close friends such as W.C. Fields, and Will Rogers. Cantor also became active in the Actors Equity Association. In fact, he organized strikes against Broadway theaters in order to give rights to actors. These strikes resulted in several theaters closing, and Cantor was in turn kicked out of the Follies. Soon after, Cantor was cast in Midnight Rounders, a touring revue. By 1927, Eddie appeared again in the Zeigfield Follies of 1927.

Cantor became a millionaire as a result of his song “Making Whoopie”. However, much of his fortune was lost in 1929 during the stock market crash. Cantor later released a book entitled “Caught Short” which was an enormous hit, partly due to the fact that Cantor was already one of the most popular stars of the time. When WWII broke out, Cantor supported and entertained the American and Allied troops tirelessly as he toured Europe and aided in evacuation measures at certain points. Canto aided President Roosevelt in creating the March of Dimes to cure infantile paralysis.

Eddie Cantor died on October 10, 1964.


Al Jolson

When Al Jolson was born in the Pale of Settlement of Russia in the 1880’s, there were no formal birth certificates. While it is often stated as a fact that Jolson was born on May 26th, Jolson actually chose this day because he liked the idea of having a spring birthday. The year of his birth has been variously given as 1885 or 1886; however, 1886 is most commonly used.

Jolson’s folksy, informal attitude toward audiences made him stand apart from other performers of the time. In the 1920’s, entertainers were expected to act with deference and respect toward their audiences, instead, Jolson treated them as old friends. Jolson also was uncomfortable with radio broadcasts because of the disconnection that he felt from his audience. It is often said that live audiences were Al Jolson’s lifeblood.

Despite his undeniable talent, and unconventional associations with his audiences, Jolson’s work was often dismissed due to his blackface performances. These blackfaces were products of a racist society, and reflected Jolson’s racism as well. His demeaning depiction of African Americans, while pleasing to audiences at times, only led to the dismissal of Al Jolson as one of the great entertainers of the 20th century.

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