Jack Johnson’s Jazz Band

In stark contrast to the Uncle John Scruggs video, check out this video of Jack Johnson’s Jazz band performing “Tiger Rag” on December 21, 1929 in the great city of New York, NY.

Image of jack Johnson via wikipedia

Now, I’m not sure how much you know about Jack Johnson, but if you are new to this phenomenal figure of the early twentieth century, I strongly urge you to read more about him on Wikipedia here. I first learned about Johnson from a Christmas Present I got back in 1999, the book published by ESPN titled “Sports Century,” which was also a series of documentaries on the network. The first chapter of this book is dedicated to Johnson, and after I read it I was amazed by this monumental figure, who may very well be one of the great characters of the last century. His story inspires nothing short of awe, and while he was by no means a saint, his accomplishments in the face of wide spread racism accompanied by his staunch refusal to accept the status quo are remarkable to say the least. He is probably best known as boxing’s first black Heavyweight Champion of the World from 1908 to 1915. And for good reason, for such this title was deeply segregated:

His efforts to win the full title were thwarted as world heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries refused to face him. Blacks could box whites in other arenas, but the world heavyweight championship was such a respected and coveted position in America that blacks were not deemed worthy to compete for it. Johnson was, however, able to fight former champion Bob Fitzsimmons in July 1907, and knocked him out in two rounds.

He eventually did win the title by defeating Canadian Heavyweight champion Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia in 1908. To quote his Wikipedia article again:

After Johnson’s victory over Burns, racial animosity among whites ran so deep that even a socialist like Jack London called out for a “Great White Hope” to take the title away from Johnson — who was crudely caricatured as a subhuman “ape” — and return it to where it supposedly belonged, with the “superior” white race. As title holder, Johnson thus had to face a series of fighters billed by boxing promoters as “great white hopes.”

He did get to face Jeffries after all in on July 4th, 1910 in what is termed “the Fight of the Century”:

Image from the Fight of the CenturyJames J. Jeffries came out of retirement and said, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.” Jeffries had not fought in six years and had to lose around 100 pounds to try to get back to his championship fighting weight.

At the fight, which took place on July 4, 1910 in front of 22,000 people, at a ring built just for the occasion in downtown Reno, Nevada, the ringside band played, “All coons look alike to me”. The fight had become a hotbed of racial tension, and the promoters incited the all-white crowd to chant “kill the nigger”. Johnson, however, proved stronger and more nimble than Jeffries. In the 15th round, after Jeffries had been knocked down twice for the first time in his career, his people called it quits to prevent Johnson from knocking him out.

The “Fight of the Century” earned Johnson $225,000 and silenced the critics, who had belittled Johnson’s previous victory over Tommy Burns as “empty,” claiming that Burns was a false champion since Jeffries had retired undefeated.

So with all of this sports background to contextualize the “Galveston Giant’s” career, it is wild for me to see Jack Johnson in the video above conducting a Jazz band at a club in Harlem, New York in 1929. In fact, Johnson owned and operated his own club in Harlem for three years from 1920-1923 until he sold it to Owen “the Killer” Madden in 1923, and soon after it became the legendary Cotton Club).  He was also known for his involvement with white women throughout his public career, one of the greatest race taboos which was in many ways responsible for his arrest and imprisonment for “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.” It is always interesting for me to think about a figure like Johnson as the Heavyweight Champion of the World in 1915, the same year D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation redefines film narrative, with the controversial theme being very much the horror of inter-racial sexual relationships.

So, to hear Johnson referring to his boxing career, as well as to watch him conduct and shadow box to the music is quite an experience, particualrly since this man embodies an era and so many of the most complex issues of the US throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

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3 Responses to Jack Johnson’s Jazz Band

  1. Luke says:

    Great video find and riff, Jim.

    Johnson’s reign coincided not only with the rise of Jim Crow (a moment John Cell has called “the highest stage of white supremacy”), but also with an extended moment when sport took on extra allegorical weight as a national enterprise, and when boxing came out of the shadows to thumb its nose at Victorian mores.

    The Johnson-Jeffries fight was followed by ticker by crowds who gathered around the country; in New York, thirty thousand New Yorkers– almost entirely white men– gathered in Times Square to look at a special bulletin on the front of the Times Building (the paper had run a special wire from an office in Reno for fast returns).

    Following Johnson’s dominating victory, violence broke out on street cars, in work camps in the South, and as bands of drunken Jeffries fans wandered into black neighborhoods looking for Johnson fans. A black waiter named George Crawford was beaten to death on the West Side of Manhattan, and a black man in Hells Kitchen was strung up to a lamppost (before being rescued by policemen… and then charged with carrying a weapon).

    The rioting following the Johnson fight was the worst New York had seen since the Draft Riots in 1863, and foreshadowed the race riots of 1917-1921. No other sporting event in American history has so stirred the pot; and race riots have only erupted simultaneously in multiple locations across the country at one other point– following the assassination of MLK. At least ten men were killed by fight-related violence that night.

    The reactions were about race; but they was also about the power of a new stage in the development of mass media to connect people, and not in good ways. The build up to the fight was like never before, and the ability of followers to react instantly and passionately to a result was new, too.

    In those days, most heavyweight championship fights were filmed and then shown in movie theaters… a movement emerged immediately following the fight to stop distribution of the film, supported by references to the riots, to threats to white supremacy, but, mostly, by Progressives, to boxing’s ugliness as a pursuit.

    So Johnson’s life tells us a lot about race and racism; but it also tells us a lot about the birth pangs of both modernism and the American century….

    Sorry for rambling… you got me excited, you rascal.

    • james says:

      I’d like to know more about Johnson’s remark to the African-American community that they should spend time absorbing the symphonic classics and classical music and moving away from jazz. This problematic statement is so much more interesting than reading about white supremacy and other feel-good accounts delivered to a PC audience. I first heard about Johnson’s negative reaction to jazz in the Ken Burns/PBS film on Johnson. Believe me it was a “fleeting” comment, as if the Negrotarian Burns had said something terribly out of place and had to rush along to more acceptable themes.

  2. Reverend says:


    To think that 30,000 people gathered around a ticker in Times Square for updates on the fight is wild. Moreover,the idea of an technology of immediacy galvanizing racial violence simultaneous to the event is equally intense. Ranking it up there with the Draft-=Riots puts in perspective just how important this moment was for the vision of some kind of Social Darwinist notion of physical and intellectual supremacy.

    This comment needs to be a post in and of itself, about the convergence of this new century with the convergence of technology, race, and sport that, as you say, frames some of the most important historical threads over the course of the 20th century. Amazing stuff, Luke, I m lucky to have someone as intelligent as you reading the bava and bringing my plagiarized Wikipedia quotes to the next level. And further deepening my interest in both Jack Johnson specifically,and history more broadly. You rule!

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