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Clef Club Orchestra, 1912
*On November 10, 1909, we celebrate the Clef Club of New York City, Inc., founded in New York by James Reese Europe and his associates.
They were a fraternal and professional organization for the advancement of African American musicians and entertainers. The Clef Club was a popular entertainment venue and society in Harlem, achieving its largest success in the 1910s. Incorporated in 1910, it was a combination musicians' hangout, fraternity club, labor exchange, and concert hall, across the street from Marshall's Hotel. In its best years, the Clef Club's annual take exceeded $100,000.
For musical entertainment in the club, Europe created the first all-Black orchestra in the country called the Clef Club Orchestra. This orchestra numbered around 125 members and consisted of a wide variety of instruments. Among the instruments included violins, violas, cellos, basses, and the normal wind and brass instruments, but also included mandolins, guitars, banjos, ukuleles, and a large bass drum. These “strummed” instruments were not in small amounts either. According to one account, the orchestra included “thirty strummers- ten each of mandolins, guitars and a rare harp guitar, and banjos.” The orchestra was also frequently joined by a men's chorus, eight pianists, and various soloists. Very few of these musicians had any musical training, and hardly any could read music. The conductor is quoted as saying: “I always put a man who can read notes in the middle where the others can pick him up." In 1912, the Clef Club orchestra performed on the stage of Carnegie Hall in New York City.
This concert stands as a crowning achievement for both the orchestra as well as Europe. The orchestra was very well received, and it is said that during one concert march in particular “music-loving Manhattan felt a thrill down its spine such as only the greatest performances can inspire.
Europe left the Clef Club in 1913 and formed another organization, the Tempo Club. The new club served much the same purpose as the Clef Club, booking black musicians for the dances which were sweeping New York City social life. In 1914, Europe formed an association with the popular dancing duo Vernon and Irene Castle. Europe invented the turkey-trot with the Castles, and the fox-trot, which are still popular.