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While Jim Crow laws were reeking havoc on the lives of African Americans in the South, a massed exodus of Southern musicians, particularly from New Orleans, spread the seeds of Jazz as far north as New York City. A new genre of music produced fissures in the walls of racial discrimination thought to be impenetrable. Musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, “King” Oliver and Fletcher Henderson performed to the first desegregated audiences. Duke Ellington starred in the first primetime radio program to feature an African American artist. And a quirky little girl from Missouri conquered an entire country enthralled by her dark skin, curvaceous body and dynamic personality. Josephine Baker was more than a Jazz musician. She embodied the freedom and expressiveness of that which is known as Jazz.
Born Josephine Freda McDonald on June 3, 1906, Josephine Baker was the product of a “footloose merchant of whom the family saw little, and a mother [who] supported herself and the children in a slum hovel by taking in laundry.” #
Later, her mother had three children with another man, Arthur Martin: Richard, Margaret and Willie Mae. Ms. Baker was enrolled in a school in St. Louis until the age of six. When the family was experiencing financial difficulties, she was sent to perform domestic chores in the homes of white families. “When only seven, she worked for a woman who frequently beat her, made her sleep in the cellar, and who, after Josephine accidentally broke some china, thrust her hands into scalding water. Neighbors, hearing her agonizing screams, called the police and she was taken to the hospital.”# By the age of ten, she had worked as a kitchen helper, baby-sitter and maid.
In early adolescence, Josephine Baker went to a vaudeville house at least once a week to watch the dancers and learn innovative dance steps. While still in elementary school, she began dancing part-time in a local chorus line. She left home at the age of 13; waiting tables most of the time and working on stage whenever possible. She joined a group of street musicians who called themselves the Jones Family Band. The work with the Band paid off when Baker acquired her first stage appearance at the Booker T. Washington Theater, St. Louis’s black vaudeville house. Also appearing was the all-black dance troupe, the Dixie Steppers. “The manager of the Dixie Steppers took a liking to Baker and decided to make her part of the group. Since he couldn’t find anything for her to do onstage, she became a dresser, principally for the troupe’s star, Clara Baker.”# By 1920, she was married, divorced and married again - the second time to Willie Baker, a Pullman porter, from whom Baker took the name she used on stage. In April 1921, while the Dixie Steppers were touring in Philadelphia, one of the chorus girls hurt herself. For nearly a year, Ms. Baker had been studying the choreography of the show and practicing the steps behind the scenes. Another dancer was aware of Baker’s abilities and suggested she fill in for the injured chorus girl. Ms. Baker took her place in the chorus line. Because she was much more lively and animated, she stood out from the rest of the ladies, which, obviously, is not the point of a chorus line.
When the lyricist/composer team of Nobel Sissle and Eubie Blake’s show Shuffle Along came to Philadelphia, one of the chorus girls from the Dixie Steppers brought Baker to the theater and recommended her for the position. Unfortunately, Ms. Baker was only fourteen, and considered too young to join the company, which was going to Broadway. Baker was so obsessed with the idea of being a dancer for the troupe; she left her husband and went to New York City. Again, she took a job as a dresser and learned all the songs and dances. Ms. Baker caught her big break in 1922 when one of the chorus girls was too sick to perform. “Placed at the end of the line of dancers, she drew attention and applause by her flair for improvisation and mimicry.”# Langston Hughes, who attended a performance of Shuffle Along, recalled in the March 27th, 1964 New York Post “There was
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Harlem Renaissance, Bisexual women, Josephine Baker, Women in World War II, Duke Ellington, Josephine, Baker
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