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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Jazz Life, Interrupted

A recently acquired National Museum of American History Archives Center collection, the Maceo Jefferson Papers, 1898-1974, relates to a little-known but extremely interesting jazz musician and composer named Maceo Jefferson (1898-1974). Though possessing an impressive resume that included associations with such notables as Duke Ellington, W.C. Handy, Louis Armstrong, The Blackbirds, and others, he never attained fame for himself. He was a prolific composer and arranger, and lived an extremely interesting and eventful life. The rich archival collection donated by his great-nephew to the Archives Center gives us glimpses into the very earliest years of jazz and life for jazz musicians in the years between the world wars, and it opens up opportunities for researchers and scholars of this era. Only a few of our jazz collections document this formative era. Jefferson’s correspondence (he saved carbon copies of letters he sent--a luxury for a researcher) documents his efforts to have his music recorded and heard by the public. Reading Jefferson’s letters, one gets the sense of a likable, generous man with an ebullient personality and a wry wit, one who made the best of things when his career and life were derailed by circumstances beyond his control.

Jefferson’s early jazz life was probably typical of many musicians in the 1920s and 1930s, as he went from band to band, nightclub to nightclub. Many of these bands and clubs are documented in photographs in the collection. Born in 1898 in Beaufort, South Carolina, Jefferson, who came from musical parents, showed early aptitude for both banjo and guitar. In a document, he described lying awake nights listening to music from a dance hall down the street. He attended the Avery Institute in Charleston for two years, but the deaths of his parents ended his chance for further education. He served with the Coast Guard on a cutter, and with the Navy in World War I, and in a letter he stated that he “saw death staring me in the face dozens of times.” After his military service, he went back to music. He played in a nightclub in Norfolk, Virginia, for two years. He then spent another two years in a nightclub in Washington, where he met Duke Ellington and was one of the original members of his band, the Washingtonians. According to Jefferson’s nephew, he was the original arranger for this act, but Jefferson and Ellington had a falling out. He moved on to New York and worked in a succession of clubs there. He described the transformative experience of seeing and hearing Fats Waller play the piano in the Gaiety Theater. He joined Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds orchestra in 1926 and went on a European tour with them throughout 1927, and another with Leon Abbey’s band in 1928, eventually relocating to Paris. He lived in France for several years, married a Parisian costume designer, Yvonne Runtz, in 1937, and worked with several jazz bands and musicians including Louis Armstrong’s Plantation Orchestra, and then returned to New York. He played in Willie “The Lion” Smith’s band and later toured with blues composer W.C. Handy.

 Photographer unidentified. Jefferson (front row, wearing arm band) with Louis Armstrong (top row, far left) and his orchestra. Maceo Jefferson Papers, No. 1370-0000005.

Photographer unidentified. Jefferson (at left, seated, having his shoes shined) with the Leon Abbey Band. Maceo Jefferson Papers, No. 1370-0000004.

Photographer unidentified. Jefferson (holding banjo) with the Four Harmony Kings.
Maceo Jefferson Papers, No. 1370-0000006.

The late 1930s found him back in Paris. Soon afterward, Jefferson’s life took a radical detour. The Germans invaded Paris in 1940. After the closing of the Moulin Rouge left Jefferson without work, he worked with the Red Cross delivering U.S.-donated food and medicine to civilians and prison camps. In a 1967 letter, he said that “the Germans considered most of us working with the American Red Cross a bunch of spies.”


Photographer unidentified. Photographs taken of Jefferson while he was working for the Red Cross. Maceo Jefferson Papers. Top, No. 1370-0000008. Bottom, No. 1370-0000010.

The Nazis arrested Jefferson three days after Germany’s declaration of war on the U.S. (December 11, 1941), and he spent the next 27 months in an internment camp in Compiegne, France. Compiegne held political prisoners, French Jews, employees of the French government, and resistance fighters to the Vichy government. While imprisoned, Jefferson led an orchestra in the camp. According to his nephew, this may have saved his life. A concert program, hand-made, survives in the collection. The musical pieces played at this concert are an eclectic mix of fox trots, waltzes, hymns, solos, and just one composition by Jefferson.


 Program from a February, 1942 concert held inside the Frontstalag 122, Compiegne, France, led by Maceo Jefferson. Maceo Jefferson Papers.  Top: Cover, No. 1370-0000001-01.
Bottom: Inside text, No. 1370-0000001-02.

Jefferson’s wife Yvonne came regularly to see him in the camp, and bring him food. In a letter he wrote late in life, at a time when he had to make many sacrifices to take care of his wife, he said “she came 72 times to see me…walking from home to the station and after arriving at Compiegne she had three miles to walk to the camp, and that back… she has shown me her courage now it’s my time.”

In a 1967 letter, Jefferson describes his wife Yvonne’s heroic efforts to sustain him during his imprisonment by the Nazis. Maceo Jefferson Papers, No. 1370-0000002.
He was released in 1944 in a prisoner exchange, and returned to the United States in diminished health. At this point he resumed club work and songwriting, and in fact, in his later years he concentrated on composing, on developing new arrangements for old songs, and on getting his music performed and recorded. Letters in the collection document Jefferson’s contacts with performers such as Liberace, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Peggy Lee, and others, offering his compositions for their use. Guitarist Ray Rivera and blues singer Alberta Hunter did accept his offers.

A letter from Tennessee Ernie Ford declining Jefferson’s offer of musical compositions, 1956.
Maceo Jefferson Papers, No. 1370-0000003.
Maceo Jefferson died in 1974, leaving behind a sizable but largely unknown musical legacy. The above-described archival materials comprise just 1/8 of the collection. The other 7/8 contains a couple of recordings, one of which is a very early wire recording, and hundreds of Jefferson’s compositions.


By Cathy Keen, Archivist
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

3 comments:

  1. Very informative on a person I had not heard of before. The letters from the internment camp give a different view of life during the war in France.

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