From the Jubilee Singers to Jazz: Musicians, Dancers and Variety Artists in Berlin
Douglas’ article would have come as no surprise to those who had, over the course of the previous half-century, bought a songbook of German-translated spirituals, danced the Cakewalk in a Ballsaal, seen an all-Black revue in the variety theaters, or visited a jazz club in the Schöneberg neighborhood: Berlin’s culture, it was clear to those living within it, was fundamentally influenced by African American artists.
Their assumed racial difference was scrutinized and debated in conversations that provided ideological support for the German Empire’s expanding colonialism. Nevertheless, the Fisk Jubilee Singers returned several times, and inspired other ensembles, like the Clifton Jubilee Quintet or the Black Troubadours, to bring their music to the German capital.
African American community
By the end of the 19th century, the African American community in Berlin had grown and cemented its place in the city, organizing community events like an 1895 summer festival in the popular lakeside idyll Müggelschlößchen. In addition to the ensembles, classical musicians, opera singers, circus artists, and variety performers came to Berlin on tour.
Here they enjoyed better pay and working conditions in comparison to the US, and some decided to stay long term. Outside of the music and entertainment industries, the career possibilities for Black people in Germany were extremely limited, which would not fundamentally change until the second half of the 20th century. So, the African American community in Berlin consisted predominately of artists and students.
The lavish dress and elegant self-presentation of the Cakewalkers, like the Jubilee Singers, stood in contrast to the still prevailing stereotypes from minstrel shows. In the years that followed, African American Cakewalkers like Johnson and Dean, David and Besie Banks, or Emma Harris and her Louisiana Troupe would make numerous appearances in Berlin’s best-known variety theaters.
The trendy Cakewalk was quickly appropriated by non-African American dancers in Berlin. Professionals incorporated it into their acts, and ballroom attendees learned the new social dance. Local studios began selling and producing ragtime records, Cakewalk’s accompanying musical style, which would go on to influence jazz. Cakewalk’s exaggerated gestures, elegant dress, and playful gender roles also made their mark far beyond music and dance, in fashion, advertising, and print culture.
Rufus’ Cake-Walk, ca. 1905
Cultural heritage from the Alps
Surrounded by the multidirectional cultural exchange and the market pressures of a cosmopolitan city, Black American performers in Berlin expanded their repertoires. Many borrowed from the cultural heritage of the Alps, a genre particularly popular with audiences. Arabella Fields specialized in German Lieder and Alpine folk songs (complete with yodeling), which she sang wearing a traditional Tracht.
War-related exodus and return
With the beginning of World War I in 1914, the majority of African Americans left Berlin. Many, including Louis Douglas and the Black Diamonds, spent the war years in London. Johnson and Dean returned to the U.S; David and Besie Banks toured South America; Emma Harris became a film actress in Russia. Arabella Fields, now a German citizen, at first stayed in the country, but left for the neutral Netherlands in 1915.
Comeback of the “All Black Revue”
This was the high point of Black revues, led by producers like Louis Douglas and Will Garland, who had first developed these touring variety shows inspired by New York’s Black musical theater scene, as well as by minstrelsy, operetta, and Cakewalk, at the start of the century. In borrowing from the tropes of minstrel shows and the colonial visual lexicon of human zoos, the revues both parodied and reproduced the racism of the period’s popular entertainment.
Their heyday was ushered in by dancer Josephine Baker, whose European debut in 1925 featured Douglas as the male lead. Building on its success, Douglas wrote two new Black revues, “Black People” and “Louisiana”, which he premiered in Berlin in 1926 and 1929.
End of an era
In the early years of National Socialism, Black actors could still perform in these stereotypical roles, as propaganda for the Nazi’s racial ideology. Jazz, on the other hand, was condemned as a “degenerate” product of Black and Jewish culture. In the face of increasing state repression, the majority of African Americans, enabled by their US passport, fled Germany. Louis Douglas and Marion Cook moved to Paris, leaving behind the city in which they had made a career as artists amidst an ambivalent interplay of liberties and constraints, self-expression and exotification, community and isolation, success and rejection, fame and obscurity.