Bill Egan

Florence Mills: Harlem Jazz Queen

The Scarecrow Press, Inc. ISBN 0-8108-5007-9

I must confess to never having heard of Florence Mills - although I am certainly old enough. But not that old, because the lady was at the height of her fame in 1927. Since this is the only study of Florence Mills, it must remain the definitive one. Mr Egan has taken on a burden beyond the call of duty with an obvious love of his subject because this "Harlem Jazz Queen" remained unrecorded - unless you count a voice test that has, anyway, been lost.

So why, we may ask, did Bill Egan go to all the trouble? The research here must have shriveled his bank account and cost him a great deal of time. Well, why not? The woman was a star by all accounts - someone who was revered by one and all, from the man and woman in the street to royalty. She sang, danced, performing in revue and all manner of stage productions. She traveled widely, bringing her art to many outside of the US and received at least as much adulation as was given to her at home. The lady worked seemingly without letup. Her long and much feted visits to Paris and London led to engagements from the Rothschilds. Edward Prince of Wales was a fan and so, apparently, was the Queen Mum.

Florence Mills was, in the parlance of the entertainment world, a trouper. She knew all about the shabby hotels, crafty managers and dodgy producers that is the lot of most theatre folk, until they get famous enough to start returning punches - and then not always.

As a Negro performer, she also knew the pain of prejudice and much to her credit she fought it throughout her life. The lady had character, it seems, and there was rarely a chance left untested in which she did not give the world a piece of her mind about the iniquity of false thinking, inner worlds in confusion and the abysmal hatred that seems to be our lot. It is amazing that with what was apparently sheer niceness Florence Mills broke down one racial barrier after another. She promoted the NAACP and humbled bigots to the extent that one journalist, from the London Times, to the disgrace of that one-time great newspaper, was actually won over by her perseverance, charm and talent and reversed his racist opinion. She is also reported to have spent time after shows traveling around London to help the city's less fortunate. Evelyn Waugh somehow got Florence into his classic "Brideshead Revisited", but only after being initially "negative" about Negroes. But the truth about Waugh's dislike was open to misunderstanding for he was too intelligent to have been merely racist and he is more likely to have stood for equality at a level often much deeper than most would perceive - Waugh really objected to the idea of the "token Negro" that became quite the thing among the "beautiful young people" in London at that time; although it seems inconceivable that the likes of Harold Acton and Robert Byron (mentioned in the book as an actor, but surely the author of the marvelous "Road To Oxiana") could have been so silly.

Without recordings it is hard to, in any way, give estimate to the claim of "Jazz Queen". Florence Mills did, of course, have extensive contact with the Jazz personalities of her day. Duke Ellington dedicated his "Black Beauty" to her and she was associated with such names as Fats Waller, Eubie Blake and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and a great many others. Paul Robeson was a dedicated friend, but then Florence Mills, was not one to make enemies. She enjoyed a happy and faithful marriage to her one-time stage partner Ulysses "Slow Kid" Thompson in the face of the usual media shenanigans, which is bent on making personalities suspect and thus good copy.

Florence Mills died in 1927 and her funeral sparked tremendous waves of public grief among literally thousands of people. This was the end of a life of dedication to her art and the spreading of goodwill. It was the life of a small, modest, sweet person called "...the greatest Negro star I ever saw" by Oscar Levant and "...the greatest of all colored performers" by [Irving] Berlin.

Read the book and enjoy what is a labor of love and great show-biz documentation. Bill Egan is to be applauded for this sterling effort.

by Lawrence Brazier

Copyright Jazz Now, January 2005 edition, all rights reserved