Just before the start of the twentieth century, brass bands comprising African American children from Charleston’s Jenkins Orphanage began to travel throughout the eastern United States and as far away as Canada and Europe. They performed rhythmically spirited “ragged” versions of marches, rags, dance tunes, and popular songs of the day. The bands received international acclaim and served as training ground for several of the top jazz musicians of the first half of the century. The Reverend Daniel J. Jenkins founded the private orphanage in 1892. Around 1895 Jenkins organized a band as a means of soliciting funds for the institution. Beginning with local street corner performances, the young musicians eventually toured the eastern United States and visited England, France, Germany, and Italy. By the time of their return from their first trip abroad, newspaper accounts of their experiences had afforded them an international reputation. They subsequently participated in the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, the inaugural parades of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and London’s Anglo-American Exposition in 1914. In 1927 a Jenkins Orphanage band appeared in the New York stage production of DuBose Heyward’s Porgy.
As many as five Jenkins Orphanage bands were on tour during the summers of the 1920s. By the 1950s, however, so few children required the services of the orphanage that it could support only one band. And by the 1980s, the Jenkins Orphanage bands had ceased to exist.
Although the Jenkins groups were not improvising jazz ensembles, but rather brass bands that performed written music in a somewhat jazz-like manner, many members went on to successful careers as jazz musicians. A few, such as trumpeters Augustine “Gus” Aitken, Cladys “Jabbo” Smith, William “Cat” Anderson, and Herbert “Peanuts” Holland and drummer Rufus Jones, became well-known stars.
Chilton, John. A Jazz Nursery: The Story of the Jenkins’ Orphanage Bands of Charleston, South Carolina. London: Bloomsbury Book Shop, 1980.