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The Story Is Told

The Harlem Jungles

Jazz Dancers.jpg

Pianist Willie 'The Lion' Smith remembers the early days of The Jungles in Harlem. It raises the question of whether Duke Ellington's 'Jungle Music' related to the Harlem 'Jungles' or the sounds of the jungle (or both). Jungle Nights and Echoes Of The Jungle are two well-known titles he recorded, although it is generally thought that East St Louis Toodle-oo was the first tune to introduce the sound Bubber Miley and Duke Ellington developed. In Jazz, A History of America’s Music it says: "... In those days… practically every thing we wrote was supposed to be a picture of something,” he (Ellington) said. “We were walking up Broadway one night after playing the Kentucky Club, and we were talking about this old man, after a hard day’s work in the field, where he and his broken walk [arel coming up the road. But he’s strong, in spite of being so tired, because he’s headed [home] to get his feet under the table and to get that hot dinner that’s waiting for him. And that’s the ‘East St. Louis Toodle-o.'” (He had intended to call it “East St. Louis Todalo” - a 'todalo' being a kind of halting dance - but the person who typed the copy for the record label evidently got the name wrong and it stuck.) ...."


"Harlem itself did not become heavily populated until during the war when a great many Negroes from the South came up to work in the plants. But the section called San Juan Hill, or The Jungles, located west of Broadway from Fifty-ninth up to Sixty-fourth was growing steadily. West Fifty-third Street started to become the meeting place of entertainers and musicians.....


"... By this time Eubie Blake was becoming known as a composer, and we all liked the rag he had written called 'Chevy Chase'. I think some of his earlier tunes were better than the ones that he became famous for in later years. Everybody should remember his better-known songs like, "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and "Memories Of You".

"The place where the real action was in those days was right in the heart of The Jungles. One wild place was called Drake's Dancing Class (on Sixty-second Street) because they couldn't get a license to operate unless they taught dancing. We called it The Jungles Casino and it was really a beat-up, small dance hall; it was in a cellar where the rain used to flow down the walls. It was so damp down there that they used to try to keep the piano dry by placing lit candles around it. The furnace, coal, and ashes were located right in the same room with the old upright. There were plenty of dancers but no teachers down there. It was some "ratskeller".

"Many of the customers came off the boats that docked in the West Sixties. The piers in that area served the ship lines that ran between the southern ports, like Savannah and Charleston to New York and Boston, via the Ward Steamship Line. ..... These people came from around the Carolina and Georgia sea islands. They were called Gullahs and Geechies. These folks worked and played hard; they were able to dance all night after spending the day throwing boxes around as longshoremen  .....

"Quite a group of us made that Casino because those Geechies  really went for our style of playing .... Our soft, slow, four-o'clock-in-the-morning music got to those  folks from the South. They danced cakewalks and cotillions; by this time we had learned to play the natural twelve-bar blues that eveolved from the spirituals. We all knew W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues", "Memphis Blues", "Beale Street Blues"  and "Yellow Dog Blues".


"The Gullahs would start out early in the evening dancing two-steps, waltzes, schottisches; but as the night wore on and the liquor began to work, they would start improvising their own steps and that was when they wanted us to get-in-the-alley, real lowdown. Those big Charleston, South Carolina, bruisers would grab a girl from the bar and stomp-it-down as the piano player swung into the gut-bucketiest music he could.

"It was from the improvised dance steps that the Charleston dance originated. All the older folks remember it became a rage during the 1920s and all it really amounted to was a variation of a cotilllion step brought to the North by the Geechies. There were many variations danced at the Casino and this usually caused the piano player to make up his own musical variation to fit the dancing. One of James P. Johnson's variations was later published as a number called "The Charleston", and was used in the show Runnin' Wild on Broadway in 1923. Yes sir, The Brute's "Charleston" became a dance craze by the mid-twenties and is still being revived ...."

From Music On My Mind by Willie The Lion Smith.

Listen to James P. Johnson's recording with a short video about the origins of The Charleston

Interestingly, the San Juan Hill area is now the location of the famous Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts. There is more about it here in a 2023 article by Seton Hawkins.

There is also information about the Gullah people in the article here where there is a video about them and their culture.

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