Josephine Baker While Jim Crow laws were reeking havoc on the lives of African Americans in the South, a massed exodus of Southern musicians, particularly from New Orleans, spread the seeds of Jazz as far north as New York City. A new genre of music produced fissures in the walls of racial discrimination thought to be impenetrable. Musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, “King” Oliver and Fletcher Henderson performed to the first desegregated audiences. Duke Ellington starred in the first primetime radio program to feature an African American artist. And a quirky little girl from Missouri conquered an entire country enthralled by her dark skin, curvaceous body and dynamic personality. Josephine Baker was more than a Jazz musician.
She embodied the freedom and expressiveness of that which is known as Jazz. Born Josephine Freda McDonald on June 3, 1906, Josephine Baker was the product of a “footloose merchant of whom the family saw little, and a mother [who] supported herself and the children in a slum hovel by taking in laundry.” # Later, her mother had three children with another man, Arthur Martin: Richard, Margaret and Willie Mae. Ms. Baker was enrolled in a school in St. Louis until the age of six. When the family was experiencing financial difficulties, she was sent to perform domestic chores in the homes of white families.
“When only seven, she worked for a woman who frequently beat her, made her sleep in the cellar, and who, after Josephine accidentally broke some china, thrust her hands into scalding water. Neighbors, hearing her agonizing screams, called the police and she was taken to the hospital.”# By the age of ten, she had worked as a kitchen helper, baby-sitter and maid. In early adolescence, Josephine Baker went to a vaudeville house at least once a week to watch the dancers and learn innovative dance steps. While still in elementary school, she began dancing part-time in a local chorus line. She left home at the age of 13; waiting tables most of the time and working on stage whenever possible.
She joined a group of street musicians who called themselves the Jones Family Band. The work with the Band paid off when Baker acquired her first stage appearance at the Booker T. Washington Theater, St. Louis’s black vaudeville house. Also appearing was the all-black dance troupe, the Dixie Steppers.
“The manager of the Dixie Steppers took a liking to Baker and decided to make her part of the group. Since he couldn’t find anything for her to do onstage, she became a dresser, principally for the troupe’s star, Clara Baker.”# By 1920, she was married, divorced and married again – the second time to Willie Baker, a Pullman porter, from whom Baker took the name she used on stage. In April 1921, while the Dixie Steppers were touring in Philadelphia, one of the chorus girls hurt herself. For nearly a year, Ms. Baker had been studying the choreography of the show and practicing the steps behind the scenes.
Another dancer was aware of Baker’s abilities and suggested she fill in for the injured chorus girl. Ms. Baker took her place in the chorus line. Because she was much more lively and animated, she stood out from the rest of the ladies, which, obviously, is not the point of a chorus line. When the lyricist/composer team of Nobel Sissle and Eubie Blake’s show Shuffle Along came to Philadelphia, one of the chorus girls from the Dixie Steppers brought Baker to the theater and recommended her for the position. Unfortunately, Ms. Baker was only fourteen, and considered too young to join the company, which was going to Broadway.
Baker was so obsessed with the idea of being a dancer for the troupe; she left her husband and went to New York City. Again, she took a job as a dresser and learned all the songs and dances. Ms. Baker caught her big break in 1922 when one of the chorus girls was too sick to perform. “Placed at the end of the line of dancers, she drew attention and applause by her flair for improvisation and mimicry.”# Langston Hughes, who attended a performance of Shuffle Along, recalled in the March 27th, 1964 New York Post “There was something about her rhythm, her warmth, her smile, and her impudent grace that makes her stand out.”# In one night Ms.
Baker succeeded in becoming “a box office draw and was singled out for reviews. She joined the company when it went on the road, and remained with the show until it closed in January of 1924.”# Immediately after Shuffle Along, Sissle and Blake tapped Ms. Baker’s relentless energy and on-stage antics for their new production Chocolate Dandies. In spite of her effort, the show was unsuccessful and folded in 1925. Soon she was offered parts in the floorshows at both the Plantation Club and the Cotton Club. One night at the Plantation Club, a wealthy black producer, Caroline Dudley, visited with the intention of recruiting Ethel Waters, a featured performer, for a black revue Dudley wanted to take to Paris.
Waters declined, so Baker took the part in La Revue Negre instead. Dudley had seen Ms. Baker in Shuffle Along and admired her abilities. For the new group being organized, Baker wanted to sing, but Dudley wanted her as a comic. After successfully persuading Dudley to raise her weekly salary from $125 to $200, Baker sailed for France on September 22, 1925.
The American production opened in Paris at the Theatre des Champs-Elysses. With this revue, jazz invaded France. In the eyes of audience and critics, Josephine Baker was its personification. “Baker’s exotic dancing, uninhibited sexuality, and negligible attire – which included a skirt of feathers – suited the continent much more than America, and she became an overnight sensation.”# New Yorker correspondent Janet Flanner vividly described her opening night: “She made her entry entirely nude except for a pink flamingo feather between her limbs; she was being carried upside down and doing the splits on the shoulders of a black giant [Joe Alex]. Mid-stage he paused, and with his long fingers holding her basket-wise around her waist, swung her in a slow cartwheel to the stage floor, where she stood .
. . . She was an unforgettable female ebony statue. A scream of salutation spread through the theater.
Whatever happened next was unimportant. The two specific elements had been established and were unforgettable – her magnificent dark body, a new model that to the French proved for the first time that black was beautiful, and the acute response of the white masculine public in the capital of hedonism of all Europe – Paris.” # Shortly after La Revue Negre opened, Baker was asked to join Folies-Bergeres, the premier Paris music hall, for its new show. “French audiences’ fascination with the black culture was apparently based on dubious impressions – Baker remarked that the white imagination sure is something when it comes to blacks – and La Revue Negre catered to that fascination with exaggerated stereotypes.”# At the Folies-Bergeres, Baker was billed as “Dark Star.” She created a sensation by dancing on a mirror; nude except for a string of plush bananas swathed around her waist. She became immensely popular with European audiences. Her good humor, grace and sensual movements were exciting for people looking for a break from their war-torn reality.
Donald Bogle commented in an article in Essence magazine: “For a weary, disillusioned, post-World War I era, she epitomized a new freedom and festivity.”# By the fall of 1926, thousands of banana-clad “Josephine” dolls were being sold to both children and tourists. Baker also cashed in on perfume and a substance, used by women to duplicate her slicked-down hairstyle, called “Bakerfix.” In December 1926, she opened a nightclub, “Chez Josephine,” but it closed down a year later. She also made a motion picture, “La Sirene des Tropiques,” and recorded several songs for the record company Odeon. By the end of 1927, Baker had received approximately 40,000 love letters, nearly 2,000 of them proposing marriage. From 1928 to 1930, Josephine Baker embarked on a twenty-five-country tour, which included both the United States and Argentina.
More importantly, however, she underwent a transformation from a gawky, chorus line dancer, to a complete artist and master of her skills and abilities. Several biographers have attributed this “metamorphosis . . . to a man named Pepito Abatino, who became her business manager, lover, and unofficial husband, but it was quite likely that a good deal of her new style and worldliness was achieved on her own initiative.”# She learned to speak French in order to converse, and sing, to a country that adopted her so completely that, eventually, she officially became its citizen. In the fall of 1930, the “new” Josephine Baker opened at the Casino de Paris. Henri Varna, the show’s producer, bought Baker a leopard.
Ms. Baker and the leopard, Chiquita, became a sensation in fashionable Parisian …