Florence Mills: Harlem Jazz Queen.
Author: Bill Egan.
Scarecrow Press Inc., Maryland, USA.

A research work that was 10 years in preparation and showing every loving moment of it, this autobiography honours one of the greatest artists of the 1920’s, whose influence has permeated the work of many jazz singers, including Ivie Anderson, Adelaide Hall, Josephine Baker and Lena Horne. Florence Mills was born on January 25, 1896, the seventh of eight children who lived in abject poverty in Goat Alley, Washington DC for much of their youth. Their father died in 1910 after a long battle with tuberculosis and their mother took in washing for the whores of the red light district, where Florence obtained her first experience of singing to her mother’s customers at the tender age of three. She began winning awards for her singing talents at the age of five years and, in her early teens, was earning “pennies” as a street singer. These earnings enabled her to visit theatres where she came under the influence of the finest black entertainers of the early 20th Century, such as Black Pattie, Bert Williams, Aida Overton Walker and Benita (Pauline Hall). At this time, the Cakewalk was the dance of the black and white communities and Florence soon showed her proficiency in this art, which stood her in great stead when she obtained work, still in her teens, with two of her sisters as a cabaret act, later gaining fame as The Panama Trio. During a tour of Virginia and Washington, they shared the bill with the pianist Perry Bradford, who became a successful jazz composer and impresario after taking Florence’s advice to move to New York City. In some of her finest shows, the cast included The Tennessee Ten, which featured Florence with a jazz band that was compared favourably with the Bill Johnson Creole Band, later to be taken over by King Oliver. Her association with the jazz community over the next several years, included pianists Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Willie“The Lion” Smith, Luckey Roberts and the greatest of them all, Tony Jackson, composer of Pretty Baby and many other hit tunes of the day. These, together with trumpet players Johnny Dunn and Doc Cheatham all extolled Florence’s talents, while the legendary dancer, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, took on the role of her mentor. She played in many touring shows throughout the USA as her career blossomed, with Folly Town, Shuffle Along and Will Vodery’s Plantation Revue being best known, the latter eventually being taken to England where Florence was the brightest star in a form of entertainment that was previously unknown to the theatre-going public of London. Her classic songs from this period include ‘Homesick Blues’, ‘Aggravatin’ Papa’, ‘You Gotta See Mama Every Night’ and the one that she will always be associated with, ‘I’m A Little Blackbird’. At the height of her fame, she died on November 1st, 1927, at the age of 31, her funeral attended by 5000, with an estimated 150,000 lining the streets of New York. Duke Ellington is reputed to have dedicated one of his finest compositions, ‘Black Beauty’, to Florence Mills, Jazz Queen. The author, Bill Egan, is a Sydney resident of Irish-Australian nationality and has added many interesting historical touches to set the scene of this work of dedicated research, resulting in an absorbing book deserving of a place in every Conservatorium Jazz syllabus and being read by all devotees of theatrical and musical history.

Reviewed by Ron Spain

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Original at: http://www.jazzscene.com.au/reviews_cd.htm