There were stars of the stage as well as the band stand in the ‘Harlem Renaissance’. One of the earliest was Florence Mills, who had learnt her craft on the East coast vaudeville circuit with her two older sisters, and in a quartet of performers called the Panama Four.
But it was the Broadway success of Shuffle Along, the black jazz musical which marks the start of the Renaissance in 1921, that launched international careers for her and at various times for Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall, Lena Horne, Paul Robeson and Bill Bojangles.
One of the earliest musical revues written and performed by African Americans, it ran for around 500 performances on Broadway and on tour, and in London, Liverpool, Paris, and other European cities. See http://jass.com/sissle.html on its production history.
Mills’ voice was too soft to register well on the recording technology of the day, but she became a very popular performer nonetheless.
Mills is said to have turned down a starring role in Ziegfeld’s Follies to work on the revue Blackbirds with entrepreneur Lew Leslie. From the first 1926 version starring Mills, Blackbirds became an international success.
In London, Blackbirds was a sensation – Blackbirds parties were all the rage, and the cast were invited to fashionable ‘society’ events. The Prince of Wales said he had seen the show 11 times.
Its success proved Mills’ undoing. The London show ran for more than 250 performances during 1926 – something like five shows a week for a year – and it took its toll on her health. She returned to the US unwell the following year, dying of an infection while in hospital, aged just 32.
Thousands of admirers came to the funeral home and to the funeral. Duke Ellington memorialised her in a piano composition. Rooted in the ‘stride’ style of Harlem, it’s notable for being a solo composition reaching into the parlours of white American and middle-class black American culture – a piano is a weightier investment than the brass instruments of New Orleans jazz. Here it is, played in October 1928. You can hear the Duke finding his voice in this tribute to Florence Mills.