Sunday, July 16, 2006

21 Questions with R2C2H2: Author Bill Egan shines spotlight back on The Blackbird and Jazz Queen of Harlem after 79 years in obscurity...

Above: Author Bill Egan

Mr. Bill Egan is a good friend of mine whom I never met or spoken to in the flesh...I was actually made aware of Mr. Egan's existence, who lives in Australia, when I accidentally stumbled upon his website almost 6 years ago...I was thoroughly impressed with his website for its thorough and meticulous detail and information on some of the U.S.A.'s greatest Black performers of the early 20th Century...As a matter of fact Mr. Egan is one of the world's greatest experts on the incredible life and career of Florence Mills...He has just recently wrote and published the definitive and only biography on Florence Mills, an effort and labor of love which took him 10 years to complete...The name of the book is Florence Mills: Harlem: Jazz Queen...For about 4 years I have been keeping correspondence with Mr. Egan through e-mail and he has been very generous in answering the following 21 questions...

21 Questions for Bill about Florence Mills

1.) When was the first time you heard jazz??? Who was it by???
My most vivid early memory is seeing the movie The Strip, with Mickey Rooney as a jazz drummer, and featuring Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines and many others. In my web site I also describe (see how exposure to the AFN (American Forces Network) radio from Germany introduced me to an exciting type of music that supplanted my interest in conventional pop.

2.) Why should we remember Florence Mills?
That she was an extraordinarily talented performer who changed the nature of Black entertainment and thereby American popular culture, paving the way for generations of African American stars, is in itself reason enough. When you add to that her remarkable personal character, charitable nature and early outspokenness on racial equality she is a treasure that should not be lost.

3.) When was the first time you heard about Florence Mills?
Probably sometime in 1993, after retirement from work and listening to more Ellington music, especially earlier Twenties and Thirties. "Black Beauty" fascinated me and I was amazed that with my knowledge of people like Ethel Waters, Adelaide Hall, Lena Horne, Josephine Baker, Valaida Snow I had never heard of the person this lovely music was written for.

4.) How long did it take you to write the book?
Pretty much ten years all up, which included four trips to USA and Europe from Australia

5.) What has been the response to the book? Have you gotten any negative responses?
No negatives, lots of very good reviews. Click here to see a summary selection of reviews on the publisher's web site or more detail on my web site. It's classified as an academic book so doesn't get onto the shelves of the big stores with huge sales figures but sales are steady, especially to libraries and universities. People who know the history have been very generous in their feedback.

7.) What can the United States do to honor Florence Mills' legacy?
Well, the little state of Grenada honored her with a postage stamp so perhaps the US could do the same. Otherwise a statue or memorial somewhere in Harlem would be good, perhaps either near the Duke Ellington memorial or at the site near the Dunbar Apartments where Bill "Bojangles" Robinson wanted a memorial drinking fountain for her.

8.) Can you share with us some of the things you had to do and endure in order to write such an important book?
The biggest problem was being located in Australia, far away from most reference sources. I had to fund all the travel costs from my own pocket - very expensive but also enjoyable because of all the great people I got to meet. Also a big problem was that I was starting so long after Florence's death and so many of the key players had passed on but I was lucky enough to find a few who had known or performed with her - even those are gone now, alas.

9.) Why do you think that some of the best books about jazz and its creators are written outside of the United States?
The Europeans, especially the French (and more recently the Scandinavians) have always had a clearer grasp of the cultural importance of jazz than Americans - something to do with a prophet being without honor in his own country! Many of the cultural leaders of the Harlem Renaissance (e.g. Du Bois, White) believed that African Americans would earn respect and status in White eyes by achievements in the European classical canon, failing to appreciate the gems they had in their own Black tradition - blues, spirituals, jazz etc.

10.) Are you a musician? If so what instrument(s) and genre(s) of music do you play?
I'm a frustrated would-be musician; I dabbled in several instruments (piano, guitar) but don't have the ear. I used to be able to play some traditional Irish tunes on the tune whistle but even that's gone now.

Florence and her husband comedian and dancer U.S. 'Slow Kid' Thompson

11.) Do you plan to write more books? If so, on what and/or whom?
In the following order:
a) A history of a major Australian chess tournament - started many years ago but abandoned in favour of the Florence Mills book

b) A history of all the Black entertainers who came to Australasia between 1865 and 1941, which even includes Florence Mills' husband U. S. Thompson who spent two years here in the Thirties, and many other notables including the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

c) A history of all the Lew Leslie revues, including of course, Blackbirds of 19XX

12.) In your opinion is there anyone out there today that comes close in career, talent, appearance, etc., in resembling the amazing career and legacy of Florence Mills?
It's a bit like asking if we can identify a modern equivalent in the arts of Leonardo Da Vinci. Florence Mills was truly a Renaissance Woman of her era in the field of entertainment. There are many talented performers today but there's so much packaging and hype and so much specialisation that it's hard to see anyone with her versatility. Nevertheless, I'm sure she would have loved listening to someone like Audra McDonald.

13.) Why do you think that Josephine Baker is better remembered than Florence Mills?
She lived longer and was filmed and recorded. She was also a very good self-publicist while Florence shrank from publicity.

14.) If Florence Mills was a car she would be a...
Citroen Pallas - beautiful sleek lines, nothing flashy, full of style.

15.) By researching and writing on Florence Mills what has been one important thing that you learned about yourself?
That you can imagine things your friends think are crazy but if you stay focused you can make them come true.

16.) How do you think history would have been changed had Florence Mills lived longer?
Apart from electrical recording techniques capturing her voice, I think she would have moved into straight drama and perhaps movies, and made a big impact. At the time of her death there was an expectation that she would develop in new directions and that in doing so she could help establish a Black theatre. On her return from Europe one Black paper wrote:
"Miss Mills can do more than anyone else to satisfy the latent hunger for race drama . . . helping to establish a real Negro theater and a genuine race drama will win her a warmer place in the hearts of posterity and more pages in the strangest of all books - history."

17.) Had Florence Mills lived in Europe instead of America like Josephine Baker would she be better remembered?
I think it's more to do with not being filmed or recorded. I also don't think Florence would ever have lived in Europe. Josephine rejected the US but Florence loved it despite its racial problems and loved living in Harlem.

18.) Where can we go to learn more about Florence Mills, you and also to purchase a copy of your book?
There's my Florence Mills web site, which I plan to upgrade very soon with lots more info that's not in the book. For purchasing the book, there are the obvious places like Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, but in Harlem the beautiful Hue-Man bookstore is excellent and in DC the Howard Uni Bookstore is very pleasant. Local bookstores will usually order a book on request (just mention ISBN: 0810850079). For those who find it expensive or can't afford to buy books, many libraries have it (I plan to list them on my web site soon) and local libraries will often acquire a book on readers request.

19.) Do you feel that you are a pioneer and trailblazer for writing the definitive and only book so far truly dedicated to the life and career of Florence Mills? Why or why not?
Yes, it has been an immense source of pleasure and satisfaction to me. Once I found out who Florence Mills was and learned about her, I had a burning desire that the world should know her story, especially her own people that she loved so much. I also felt she was an outstanding role model for young African Americans today.

20.) Was it hard for you as a White man from Australia to write a non-fiction book about a Black woman from the United States ? Why or why not?
Apart from the obvious difficulty of locality, it wasn't especially hard. Obviously anyone who writes from outside a particular culture has some disadvantages but possibly also some compensating benefits. It always pleases me as a Dubliner that so many academics, especially American, want to write about that quintessential Dubliner James Joyce. Apart from my lifelong interest in jazz (actually because of it!) I had read widely in Black culture and literature, Booker T. Washington,James Weldon Johnson, Ralph Ellison, James Wright, James Baldwin,Chester Himes, Angela Mayou, Claude McKay and many others but especially my favorite Langston Hughes. I felt an affinity for the people I read about, as well as the great jazz musicians who I admired and respected.

The biggest concern I had was that in coming to the USA I might find African Americans asking, "Who is this guy to think he can come and write about one of our icons," but in fact I found the opposite - huge support and encouragement. Had it come up, my response would have been that, though Florence Mills was first and foremost a proud member of her race, she was also a citizen of the world who belongs to us all.

21.) Do you have any more words of wisdom and food for thought for our readers?
One of my hopes has been that in telling Florence Mills' story I might be able to reach some younger African Americans for whom the ideals she cherished have not yet been fully achieved (legal equality, yes, but many problems persist in today's society), and help them to understand some of their own history a little better. As I said in the preface to the book:
"A revival of the memory of Florence Mills does more than present an inspiring
story. It provides a valuable role model today for younger African
Americans struggling to understand their history and define their sense of
identity. In an earlier era, many African Americans held an optimism that
reason and logic would in time prevail over the injustices of racial persecution
and discrimination. Today, in many communities the hopes fueled by
the victories of the civil rights struggle have turned sour. Anger and frustration
have replaced optimism. Many turn to confrontation and feel alienated
from the wider society. Florence Mills never wavered from her belief that persuasion and leading by example could overcome prejudice. Her life and its remarkable achievements are a shining testimony to this truth."

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