African American Jazz Dancers in Africa until the 1970s

Written and copyright by Harri Heinila

African American jazz dancers have visited Africa since the Jazz Age between 1917 and 1930. The first jazz dancer in Africa was probably Louis Douglas who toured in Egypt for a month in 1927 and later between 1929 and 1930[i]. He was followed by Percy Winters and Cora Merano, who performed with a French revue in North Africa. They performed particularly in Tunis and also in Egypt for three months in the middle of the 1930s.[ii]

In the 1950s, the United States Department of State began to fund musicians and dancers who toured outside the US. With the help of President’s Special Emergency Fund, the State Department sent the Modern dance-based José Limón Company to South America in 1954. Two years later the State Department had the Cultural Presentations Program, and in 1965, it had the National Endowment for the Arts. All that made possible the rapid growth of the Modern dance-based dance companies in the 1960s and the 1970s because the State department mainly sponsored the US Modern dance-based dance companies and the US Ballet companies during the decades.[iii]

Another important organization that sponsored the US musicians and dancers was the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC), which was established in 1957. It ended in 1969 after losing many of its members when in 1967 it was exposed that the CIA had funded the organization. AMSAC consisted of 400 members who were mainly African Americans.[iv] The society included celebrities like musician Duke Ellington and the NAACP’s counsel Thurgood Marshall. AMSAC tried to enlighten African Americans regarding their cultural heritage and advance “mutual respect between Americans and Africans” by spreading information of the cogency of African and African American cultural contributions. AMSAC provided a liberal, anti-communist approach to African affairs.[v]

AMSAC sponsored the Festival of Negro Art and Culture in Africa and America in Lagos, Nigeria in December 1961, which marked the opening of the AMSAC cultural center in Lagos[vi]. According to historian Lonneke Geerlings, the event was meant to examine “the relationship between the culture and art of Africa and the Americas” in connection with the Négritude movement.[vii] Poet Langston Hughes as a narrator in the event, in addition to 37 other African American delegates, implied the connection[viii]. The delegates included jazz musicians like Lionel Hampton and Edward Pazant, and jazz dancers, Albert ‘Al’ Minns and Leon James. Because the cultural center in the Lagos was practically “an African American embassy on African soil” as Lonneke Geerlings argues[ix], this was probably the first time when the U.S. government-related institution sponsored authentic jazz dancing in the events outside the U.S.. It should be noticed that the prefix ‘authentic’ is used in this article for distinguishing real –jazz music-based– jazz dance from Modern dance-based ‘modern jazz dance’ at the time.

The AMSAC festival in Lagos between December 18 and 19 consisted of the two parts: African American and African performances. As to the African American performances, the Al (Minns) & Leon (James) jazz dancing was received positively by the Nigerian press. One local reporter praised them for being “a picture of perfection and precision” and overall the reporters appreciated their dancing. There were also some negative tones in the reviews as their dancing was dismissed strangely as “Tap dancing”.[x]

While the jazz dancers made it in the festival, the jazz musicians fared worse than them. The local press criticized harshly Lionel Hampton and his antics. According to the African American magazine Ebony, the Nigerian newspaper Lagos Daily Express considered Hampton “a cheap entertainer” who clowned like an idiot[xi].  On the contrary, the African American newspaper The Chicago Defender reported that Lionel Hampton was received on the stage by “a tumultuous ovation”[xii]. The Nigerian press also considered a Nigerian-born musician Michael Olatunji, who had moved to the U.S., “a sad spectacle” and even a betrayer of his home, Nigeria.[xiii]

African dancers in the festival seemed to fare worse than other performers. The African counterparts of the contingent of the US performers were lambasted in the Nigerian reviews. The Nigerian-based Alumn War Dancers were rated as “poor in taste” and even as a cultural insult towards Nigerians. Also the US-based African dancer George Holder’s performance was considered “rubbish”[xiv], although, according to the Ebony, the Lagos Morning Post praised him[xv].

The criticism could be partly explained by the US neo-colonialism claims stated by the Nigerian press because the critics were aware of using Lagos as a “battlefield in the cold war”. At least some of the artists and the audience understood that the festival was more like “a cultural imperialist performance” than an innocent celebration. Also the festival did not satisfy the critics because the artists were considered mediocre by African standards.[xvi] Thus, being in effect an insult towards real African dancing and music. Lonneke Geerlings argues that Al Minns & Leon James’ jazz dancing was rated as relevant because jazz was African American and it had roots in Africa[xvii]. However, the press lambasted Lionel Hampton because of his antics, and even his jazz music could not better the situation. Therefore, it would be more correct to say that the Minns & James performances were more respectable than Hampton’s and jazz dance likely helped in that because it was an American invention with African roots, which did not insult African standards.

In spite of the criticism, the festival enhanced the US participants’ feeling of their African heritage and probably bettered communication between African Americans and Africans[xviii]at least in formal situations because jazz dancer Al Minns complained that they could meet only few ordinary Lagos residents[xix].

African American jazz dancers returned to Africa in 1969 when the Cultural Presentation Program of the State Department sponsored Russian-born dancer Mura Dehn’s American Folk Dance Theater that visited Morocco, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Somalia, Nigeria, Gambia, Guinea, and Senegal between June 7 and August 3. The dance theater consisted of jazz dancers, Avon Long, Cook & Brown, Albert Gibson, Buster Brown, James Cross, Pepsi Bethel, and the Mama Lou Parks Dancers including Louise ‘Mama Lou’ Parks, Gloria Thompson, Jessie ‘Gi Gi’ Brown, Micki Wall, Gregory Arnold, David Butts, and Dickie Harris. Dick Vance led the orchestra. Mura Dehn acted as the organizer and director.[xx].

The American Folk Dance Theater was an authentic jazz dance and jazz music-related production. That was the first time when the State Department sponsored a genuinely African American jazz dance and music production in Africa. The aforementioned AMSAC production in 1961 had also non-jazz artists[xxi]. The State Department had sponsored the US jazz musicians like Wilbur De Paris and Louis Armstrong in Africa before the jazz dance productions took place.[xxii]

According to Mura Dehn, almost all of the concerts in the tour ended with a standing ovation.[xxiii] Dehn’s claim is supported by the unpublished film called ‘The Jazz Dance Theatre’ which depicts the African American jazz dancers and their interaction with the audiences in various countries in Africa. The applauding audiences are captured in the film in most of the visited countries.[xxiv] Also documents on their visits in countries like Morocco speak for the appreciation. Regarding their visit in Morocco, and there in Tangiers, Marrakech, Casablanca, and Rabat, an undated document, supposedly based on the U.S. embassy comments, states that they packed houses in those towns, appealed to various social classes, and achieved cultural communication to a great extent.[xxv].

The members of the theatre interacted also with local residents in the African tour. The film shows that the members were interested in various African culture forms in their spare time[xxvi]. Partly, that was likely for the US propaganda for emphasizing the harmony between African Americans and Africans. Historian Clare Croft has suggested, that using dancing in the US foreign politics was a method for bringing out the US more like a global partner than “a dominant power”[xxvii]. In the case of the dancers of the theatre their interaction with local residents was mostly depicted in a very dignified manner. Whether the film was intended for the propaganda purposes or not, the members of the theatre were genuinely interested in the African cultural heritage[xxviii].

The African tour turned out to be a success also when, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Emperor Haile Selassie presented all the members of the theatre with gold medals. According to a press release, the Ethiopian newspapers considered their show “the best musical and dance performance ever presented in Addis Ababa’.[xxix] Similarly, other notable African politicians like the Prime Minister of the Gambia, Sir Dawda Jawara, and the Governor of North Central State in Nigeria, Colonel Abba Kyari, met with the members of the theatre[xxx].  In addition, the US Ambassadors in the visited countries treated them as guests of honor and gave them a reception.[xxxi] Another recognition of their performances was when, according to Mura Dehn, the director of the Addis Ababa national museum visited in every performance in Ethiopia. She also suggests a larger public interest in the jazz dancers when in Somalia, a nomadic tribe, in a friendly way, started a challenge dance against the dancers at a formal reception, and in Nigeria, after the performances, the public followed the jazz dancers into nightclubs for learning dancing from them[xxxii].

Despite the success, there were also obstacles on the road. According to the late jazz dance historian Terry Monaghan, one of the members of the theatre, the late Dickie Harris, told a story about how Mura Dehn persuaded the members to participate in an impromptu performance in Nigeria when there was a curfew at night because of the Nigerian civil war. Soldiers with submachine guns checked Dehn and the group of dancers, but let them go after finding out that they were American jazz dancers.[xxxiii] Mura Dehn did not discuss the incident, but she mentioned in her unpublished article that in Nigeria, in one of their performances, the chief commander of armed forces jumped onto the stage and joined the dancers in the finale.[xxxiv]

Terry Monaghan claimed that “a number of the dancers” did not want to work with Dehn anymore after the incident in Nigeria[xxxv]. That is not necessarily true when judging from newspaper articles published after the African tour. Her group continued almost with the same dancers.[xxxvi]

It seems that the State Department did not sponsor authentic jazz dancers after the African tour. According to Clare Croft, since the beginning of the 1960s, the support for performing arts was slowly decreased. In the late 1960s, because of global politics that were largely tied to the US participation in the Vietnam War, the support for dance companies was more decreased. By the end of the 1970s, the funding for large dance company tours had almost disappeared.[xxxvii]

The Mama Lou Parks Dancers went back to Africa when a member of the dance company, David Butts, and his partner Lola Love, performed with James Brown in a music festival in Zaire in September 1974. The music festival was planned to happen just before the famous boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Because George Foreman hurt himself in rehearsals, the boxing match was rescheduled to October. The music festival took place between September 21 and 23. It was filmed and later published in the movie, ‘When We Were Kings’, which also depicted Muhammad Ali preparing for the boxing match. David Butts and Lola Love can be seen dancing in the film.[xxxviii]

It seems that their participation in the James Brown performance was not reported in the US press.  Although The New York Amsterdam News reported that James Brown succeeded in the festival[xxxix], the festival was not a real success. The New York Times wrote that there were 10,000 people in the audience in the first night when James Brown performed[xl]. The Washington Post stated that James Brown with other stars sang to very few in a 60,000-seat stadium in the second night when there were only 1,000 people listening to the stars because ticket prices were extremely high for an average Zairian[xli].

In spite of a few setbacks in the success of African American jazz dancers in the African tours, authentic jazz dance was significant in the relations between the US and African countries, which speaks for the fact that it was a serious vehicle in foreign policy of the US. It seems that Africans perceived authentic jazz dance positively and recognized African American jazz dancers as a continuation of the African heritage, therefore recognizing the jazz dancers as remarkable cultural exponents of the heritage.

However, there is needed more research how much the jazz dancers affected communication and relations between the US and African countries. Also why the State Department did not sponsor more the jazz dancers’ touring productions in Africa needs more research. There might have been more privately funded jazz dancers touring in Africa, which should be researched as well.

Endnotes:

[i]Ivan H. Browning, ’ Across the Pond’, The Chicago Defender, May 28, 1927, p. 6. ’Louis Douglas and Show Touring Europe’, The Chicago Defender, November 9, 1929, p. 7. ’Negro Troupe in Egypt’, Variety, December 18, 1929, p. 3.

[ii]Edgar A. Wiggins, ‘Hands Across the Ocean’, The Philadelphia Tribune, March 12, 1936, p. 15. Edgar Wiggins, ‘Across the Pond’, The Chicago Defender, March 14, 1936, p. 8. ‘Winters and Merano Dance Team “Take” Parisian Fans’, The Philadelphia Tribune, April 23, 1936, p. 14. ’Across the Pond’, The Chicago Defender, June 26, 1937, p. 10.

[iii]Clare Croft, Dancers as Diplomats – American Choreography in Cultural Exchange(New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 6 and 15.

[iv]Lonneke Geerlings, ‘Performances in the Theatre of the Cold War: the American Society of African Culture and the 1961 Lagos Festival’ in the Journal of Transatlantic Studies, 16_1, 2018, pp.  1-2.

[v]Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008), pp. 205-206, 209. See also Geerlings 2018, p.  2.

[vi]Geerlings 2018, p. 2. ’33 U.S. Negroes Off For 2-Day Cultural Program in Nigeria’, The Chicago Daily Defender, December 12, 1961, p. 4.

[vii]Geerlings 2018, p. 2.

[viii]Geerlings 2018, p. 4. For Langston Hughes’ connection with the Négritude movement see Anna Micklin, ’Negritude Movement’, June 29, 2008, published on the Internet at https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/negritude-movement/.

[ix]Geerlings 2018, p. 7.

[x]Geerlings 2018, pp. 9-10.

[xi]’African-American Cultural Exchange’, the Ebony, p. 88. See also Geerlings 2018, p. 11.

[xii]’Lionel Hampton Heads Star Group In Africa’, The Chicago Defender, January 6, 1962, p. 10.

[xiii]Geerlings 2018, pp. 11-12. See also ’African-American Cultural Exchange’, the Ebony, p. 88.

[xiv]Geerlings 2018, pp. 10-11.

[xv]’African-American Cultural Exchange’, the Ebony, p. 88.

[xvi]Geerlings 2018, pp. 11-12.

[xvii]Geerlings 2018, p. 10.

[xviii]Geerlings 2018, pp. 14-15.

[xix]Robin D. G. Kelley, Africa Speaks, America Answers – Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012), p. 69.

[xx]’Dance Theatre Returns’, Back Stage, August 22, 1969, p. 18. ’ Jazz Dance Group Home’, The New York Amsterdam News, August 16, 1969, p. 18. Jesse H. Walker, ‘Theatricals’, the New York Amsterdam News, June 7, 1969, p. 43. Regarding the visited countries, the list is based on the unpublished film called  ’The Jazz Dance Theatre’ which depicts the 1969 Africa tour.  The author of the article has seen a copy of it. The list is similar to the list published in the August 16 issue of The New York Amsterdam News and to the list mentioned in Mura Dehn’s unpublished article, but Gambia was not mentioned. In addition to the other countries, Dehn mentions Cameroon. See Mura Dehn’s list ’Black-American Folk Dance in Africa 1969’ in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 1, folder 9, the New York Public Library. See for the members of the group the endnotes of the unpublished film.

[xxi]Geerlings 2018, p. 10.

[xxii]John S. Wilson, ‘American Jazzmen Overseas’, The New York Times, July 14, 1957, p. 83.Penny M. Von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World – Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), p. 58.

[xxiii]’Black-American Folk Dance in Africa 1969’ in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 1, folder 9, the New York Public Library.

[xxiv]The unpublished film, ’The Jazz Dance Theatre’.

[xxv]See ’American Embassy in Rabat Comments on Successful Visit of Jazz Dance Theater to Morocco’, undated, in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 21, folder 251, the New York Public Library. See also ’Rabat… LE PETIT MOROCAIN…June 16, 1969 (At the National Theatre of Mohammed V)’ in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 21, folder 249, the New York Public Library and ’Casablanca… LE PETITE MOROCAIN’, undated, in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 21, folder 251, the New York Public Library.

[xxvi]The unpublished film, ’The Jazz Dance Theatre’.

[xxvii]Croft 2015, p. 14.

[xxviii]This is demonstrated, for example, in Louise ’Mama Lou’ Parks’ comments in Nigeria regarding her mother who was from Nigeria. Concerning the dancers interaction with the local residents, there is one scene in the film where Louise Parks looks angry after visiting in a local shop in Morocco. However, that is a rare exception in the film. See the unpublished film, ’The Jazz Dance Theatre’.

[xxix]See the press release ‘FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE (August 1969)’ in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 21, folder 250, the New York Public Library.  See also ’Jazz Dance Group Home’, The New York Amsterdam News, August 16, 1968, p. 18.

[xxx]‘The Prime Minister of the Gambia, Sir Dawda Jawara, congratulates the JDT after their hit in Bathurst.’ and ‘Dancers Meet Governor:’ in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 24, folder 313, the New York Public Library.

[xxxi]See the press release ‘FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE (August 1969)’ in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 21, folder 250, the New York Public Library. The receptions were depicted also in pictures captured in the African tour. See ‘Members of the Jazz Dance Theatre Meet Ambassador Henry J. Tasca’ and ‘20. Orchestra Ethiopia shown performing at Ambassador and Mrs. William Hall’s reception in honor of the Jazz Dance Theater.’ in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 24, folder 313, the New York Public Library.  See also ’Jazz Dance Group Home’, The New York Amsterdam News, August 16, 1968, p. 18.

[xxxii]’Black-American Folk Dance in Africa 1969’ in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 1, folder 9, the New York Public Library.

[xxxiii]Terry Monaghan, ‘The Legacy of Jazz Dance’, in the Annual Review of Jazz Studies, 1997/1998, p. 300.

[xxxiv]’Black-American Folk Dance in Africa 1969’ in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 1, folder 9, the New York Public Library.

[xxxv]Monaghan 1997/1998, p. 300.

[xxxvi]See for example Linda Winer, ’The Jitterbug Is Back in Town’, the Chicago Tribune, October 17, 1972, p. B4. ’Jazz Dance Theatre opens at Goodman’s’, The Chicago Defender, October 14, 1972, p. 20. Basically, only Pepsi Bethel and Avon Long from the African tour were not part of Mura Dehn’s jazz dance group in 1972.

[xxxvii]Croft 2015, p. 23.

[xxxviii]See ’When We Were Kings’, Polygram Filmed Entertainment, 1996. See also Ulish Carter, ’Comment on Sports’, The New Pittsburgh Courier, September 28, 1974, p. 25. ’Better Line Up an Exhibition in Gabon’, The Evening Press, September 17, 1974, p. 12-A. Brad Pye Jr., ’Muhammad Ali Is Still Something to See’, the Los Angeles Sentinel, September 26, 1974, p.  B3.

[xxxix]’Theatrical Spotlight’, The New York Amsterdam News, October 19, 1974, p. B6.

[xl]Thomas A. Johnson, ’100’000 Cheers Greet Mobutu ’Gift,’ a Rebuilt Stadium’, The New York Times, September 23, 1974, p. 3.

[xli]David B. Ottaway, ’Zaire Festival, a Comedy of Errors’, The Washington Post, September 25, 1974, p. D1.

Sources

Bibliography

Archive Sources

New York Public Library:

Papers on Afro-American social dance circa 1869-1987, Mura Dehn, 1902-1987, Jerome Robbins Dance Division.

Newspapers & Magazines

Back Stage, New York, New York, 1961-2000.

Chicago Daily Defender, The, Chicago, Illinois, 1961.

Chicago Defender, The, Chicago, Illinois, 1909-1967.

Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Illinois, 1963-1996.

Ebony, Chicago, 1945-2015.

Evening Press, The, Bingham, New York, 1974.

Los Angeles Sentinel, Los Angeles, California, 1934–2005.

New Pittsburgh Courier, The, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1966 – 1981.

New York Amsterdam News, The, New York, New York, 1922-1993.

New York Times, The, New York, New York, 1857-2011.

Philadelphia Tribune, The, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1912-2001.

Variety, Los Angeles, 1905-2000.

Washington Post, The, Washington D.C., 1877-1998.

Audio & Video

The Jazz Dance Theatre, unpublished, the author of the article has seen a copy of it.

When We Were Kings, Polygram Filmed Entertainment, 1996.

Literature

Croft, Clare, Dancers as Diplomats – American Choreography in Cultural Exchange(New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Geerlings Lonneke, ‘Performances in the Theatre of the Cold War: the American Society of African Culture and the 1961 Lagos Festival’ in the Journal of Transatlantic Studies, 16_1, 2018.

Kelley, Robin D. G., Africa Speaks, America Answers – Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012).

Micklin, Anna, ’Negritude Movement’, June 29, 2008, published on the Internet at https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/negritude-movement/.

Wilford, Hugh, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008).

 

About authenticjazzdance

The author of the site is Harri Heinila, Doctor of Social Sciences, political history, and the former Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political and Economic Studies at the University of Helsinki. He is interested in Authentic Jazz Dance: all jazz dances from different eras of jazz. E.g. Cakewalk, the Charleston, Black Bottom, The Lindy Hop, Mambo, Rhythm Tap. Heinila researches jazz dance, in particular, in the context of Harlem, New York. His doctoral dissertation, An Endeavor by Harlem Dancers to Achieve Equality - The Recognition of the Harlem-Based African-American Jazz Dance Between 1921 and 1943 is a groundbreaking study in the field of jazz dance and Harlem. His ORCID iD is 0000-0002-7783-9010 .
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