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American Frederick Thomas: 'The Black Russian' Who Connected Jazz To The Margins Of Asia

Arthur R George By

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Just as it was getting light you'd all get into a car and drive out to the Bosporus to see the sun rise and and sober up and wonder whether there was going to be a war that would set the whole world on fire again—and there damn nearly was. —Ernest Hemingway
The child of former slaves, Frederick Bruce Thomas' New York Times obituary called him "the sultan of jazz," for the jazz palace he founded in Constantinople (now Istanbul) after World War I, a jazz borderland beyond even the music's early Paris outpost. He was hosting bands in Constantinople in 1921 even before Louis Armstrong joined Joseph "King" Oliver (1922) or started the Hot Five (1925).

Frederick Thomas had journeyed from his 1872 birthplace in Mississippi northward, and then to England and Europe, before going on to Moscow at the turn of the last century. He became a proprietor of elegant dance halls in Tsarist Russia, and then fled to Turkey in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. In Constantinople, as he had done in Moscow, Thomas again created a grand nightlife. There, he introduced for that place the beginnings of what would become jazz.

Before and after World War I, popular western music was for dancing: the foxtrot, samba, tango, ragtime, the Charleston, the Shimmy, and the Black Bottom. "Jazz" was sometimes used as a catch-all term for energetic accompaniments. Thomas' bands played those earlier forms, and he provided a stage for a developing "real jazz" as it added improvisation to syncopation and swing.

Thomas' life was first detailed by Yale University professor Vladimir Alexandrov in his book The Black Russian. Alexandrov had been researching Russian emigre culture between the World Wars when he encountered the memoirs of a singer who had escaped the Bolsheviks and landed in a Turkish venue that belonged, as the entertainer phrased it, "to our famous Russian Negro Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, the owner of the famous 'Maxim' in Moscow."

Alexandrov's interest was piqued by the incongruities of race, wealth, Russian name / American origins, slavery, Jim Crow, migration, servitude, and sumptuous materialism. Thomas' story, obscure, dramatic, re-discovered and supplemented with additional research, provides a link in the history of the jazz diaspora across the globe.

A Developing Repertoire

To open Maxim in Constantinople in 1921, Thomas hired drummer Harry A. Carter to lead a "Shimmie Orchestra." Carter was a caucasian American from Minnesota who had been performing across Europe and in Egypt for several years. Later there was a house band under the direction of a local musician named Yonko. Jewish and Armenian musicians played key roles in filling the ranks. They had travelled for their businesses, and brought back the music they heard. Thomas also was known for drawing black American musicians scattered on performance circuits outside of the United States.

The U.S. Navy had ships stationed in Constantinople's port from 1919 to 1923, with its sailors forming amateur bands that played for recreation and society events, and giving lessons. Musicians on cruise ships that had sailed the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean might disembark for impromptu engagements. Local musicians sought instruction from these sources, formed bands, and worked at spots offering live performance. Sailors and other military on leave joined audiences as they chased the new music.

A band called 7 Palm Beach played Maxim and "not only taught Istanbul what jazz means, but every musician learned the tempo of jazz from them," wrote Fikret Adil, a Turkish chronicler of the nightclub scene then. The president of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, had heard a five-piece version of the band in a Paris cafe and invited them to Turkey, according to the group's pianist, Leslie Hutchinson.

Hutchinson, originally from Grenada, is said to have been the inspiration for the fictional jazz singer character Jack Ross in the TV series "Downton Abbey." He later become a society pianist in England. The band's drummer, Creighton Thompson, had sung with the "Harlem Hellfighters," James Reese Europe's segregated 369th Infantry Regiment army band, on their 1919 recording "Jazz Baby." Europe's music has been called "proto-jazz," a music preceding and heralding the development of jazz: ragtime with syncopation and some jazz-like elements, but not yet improvisation. Two other members were added to the Paris quintet, and as 7 Palm Beach they played Maxim.

Thomas assigned Maxim's house band the duty of listening to 7 Palm Beach to learn their repertoire and arrangements, but listening alone was never enough to learn the sophisticated music. After each night's performance, Adil said, the sheet music was locked in Maxim's safe, but Thomas let the house band secretly copy the scores. After 7 Palm Beach moved on, Maxim's resident orchestra played the duplicated arrangements.

Service, Not Servitude

Upstairs/downstairs, backstairs, front of the house: Frederick Thomas had learned every aspect of the business of hospitality working in fine hotels in Chicago and Brooklyn: learning the trade, organizing staff, providing high levels of service, maintaining confidences. He took that knowledge abroad, first venturing to London as a valet and waiter in 1894, and then built upon that across the continent.

Studying vocal music had been his goal: he thought that in Europe he might earn his way for lessons and performance more easily than in a prejudicial America. But his success in hospitality left his performing career, except as an impresario, forever in the wings.

As he moved toward new opportunities and new places, he committed to learning French, German, Italian, Russian, and Turkish. Thomas is said to have been friendly by disposition, and able to charm his customers for the simple reason that this was usually the easiest way to get what he wanted from them. In 1896, he was appointed headwaiter at the Hotel des Anglais in Cannes.

He went to Russia in 1899 as the valet of a nobleman there and stayed, until cast out after the Russian Revolution. He was considered a class enemy, not because of his race but because of his entrepreneurial success.

In Moscow, Thomas reported he had not encountered a "color line." The fact that he was black did not matter so much. A variety of ethnicities from Europe and Asia filled the city, although there were few blacks from anywhere. In a decade there, Thomas went from being a waiter, to a maitre d' hotel, to a senior assistant to the owner of the most elegant restaurant in Moscow, "Yar," favored by millionaires and nobles.

Thomas was so skilled in servicing his clientele and made so much money from their freely-handed tips that in 1911, with two Russian partners, he rented a large entertainment garden called "Aquarium" near the city center. Within a year, he had transformed it into one of the most successful outdoor venues, offering cabaret, vaudeville, acrobats, and dancing.

In 1912, Thomas reinvested his profits in a variety theater in the center that he named "Maxim," which also immediately became a favorite of Moscow's night life. Occasional American tourists who passed through Russia on their European tours reported their astonishment at having encountered a "prosperous" and "diamond bedecked" black American in such an unexpected setting.

In Moscow, Thomas' entertainments went even to promotion of a boxing exhibition by another black American, Jack Johnson, the former world heavyweight champion. He hosted Johnson just two weeks ahead of the start of the Great War. Almost six decades later, Miles Davis memorialized the fighter in his 1971 fusion album Jack Johnson.

In 1919 Thomas fell afoul of the communist revolution. In the eyes of the Bolsheviks, anyone who had done well under the old regime was on the wrong side of history. He escaped, barely and with difficulty, across the Black Sea to Turkey.

One of Many Shades

On arrival in Constantinople, skin color was again of little concern, Alexandrov reports. Black was just one of many shades among peoples in the racially disparate Ottoman Empire compromised of Slavic regions, Greece, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Persia.

Soon after arriving in Constantinople in 1919, Thomas found partners to construct a dance villa on what had been an unused lot. The success of that venue led to his next club, named Maxim after its Moscow predecessor. Again Thomas replicated a Parisian sense of grand nightlife, in a city that was in ferment and disruption.

Scottish writer Stephen Graham reported in 1920 that Constantinople "has five times as many people as it can house, a city now of appalling unhappiness and misery, and of a concomitant luxury and waste." Journalist Thomas Roueche wrote that the city sat astride a fault line more than it was a bridge between east and west.

The Ottoman Empire, with Turkey at its center, had been on the losing side of World War I. A war of independence followed from 1919 to 1923 against occupying western Allied powers and regional partisans, creating tens of thousands of refugees. More than 150,000 Russians had fled to Constantinople, like Thomas, leaving much of their former fortunes behind, and desperation populated the streets.

"The seventy or eighty thousand indigent Russians in Constantinople belong mostly to the upper classes," Graham wrote. "They are well-educated people, speaking English and French, and well-read and accomplished. But how little are those modem accomplishments when it comes to the elemental realities of life. Alas, the temptations are great. Need becomes more and more incessant. Starvation stares thousands in the face. They sell all their jewels and then they sell the last jewel of all."

People traded on all that remained: beauty, elegance, and their knowledge of languages. Prostitution was rampant. Drugs flowed freely; opium as a crop and heroin production as an industry were important to the economic recovery of the country.

Grandeur Amid Despair

Amid that, Thomas found a place off Taksim Square, central to the European part of the city, in the basement of one of Constantinople's largest and most luxurious movie houses. From the theater's elegant main entrance a broad staircase led down to a high-ceilinged hall that could accommodate several hundred people at a time. The far wall had windows and doors that opened onto a broad terrace with views of the Bosporus, the waterway flowing out toward the Sea of Marmara, the Aegean, and the Mediterranean.

Thomas designed Maxim to appeal to the upper echelons of the city's westernized Turks, others from the eastern Mediterranean, and foreign visitors.

Thomas transformed the space to luxurious style, with ornate plaster ceilings, richly decorated columns, and polished metal and wood. In warmer weather, the terrace became a spacious garden with gravel paths and cypresses framing the views across the Bosporus to Asia.

Reviews applauded "an extraordinary tour de force... grand luxury... modern comfort... richness that does not exist elsewhere... a fairytale-like atmosphere... a real jazz band." Thanks was given to the "genial director," whose "organizational skills" and "taste for the beautiful" ensured "complete success."

For all his accomplishments, Thomas appears to have been no saint, catering to the appetites of his patrons. American tourists quickly spread the word that Maxim was the fanciest nightclub to be found, and for the next few years many of Thomas' former countrymen made it a required stop during their visits. High on the list of attractions was having a drink at a stylish place with music and dancing, something that had been banned at home since the start of Prohibition.

The fame and success that Maxim acquired immediately after opening were due not only to Thomas' talent for serving up an intoxicating mix of first-class cuisine and drinks, hot music, and a series of variety acts. Beautiful Russian waitresses were among the former elites who had fled their country, now required to support themselves, perhaps available for other assignations.

Thomas put himself on center stage as Maxim's public face and animating spirit. Impeccably dressed in black tie, worldly, poised, with a broad smile and a welcoming word for new arrivals which he could deliver in half a dozen tongues. Thomas enjoyed his creation as much as any of his most enthusiastic fans. Alexandrov reported that Thomas "thrived in the gaiety, the din of the jazz band, the dazzling luxury, the women, amidst beautifully appointed tables decorated with flowers and crystal."

Hemingway In a Mad Time

It appears to have been a mad time generally, simultaneously stylish, festive, and tragic. A 23-year-old Ernest Hemingway was there in October 1922, and described the city as "purgatory: its citizens could not surmise the future of the city, hence the future of their lives."

Of the nightlife, he wrote: "no one who makes any pretense of conforming to custom dines... before nine o 'clock at night, the theaters open at ten, the night clubs open at two, the more respectable night clubs that is, and the disreputable night clubs open at four in the morning."

He wrote to a friend that he had three very fine weeks in "Constant," when just as "it was getting light you'd all get into a car and drive out to the Bosporus to see the sun rise and sober up and wonder whether there was going to be a war that would set the whole world on fire again—and there damn nearly was."

However, in his short story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," Hemingway recycled his memory of Turkey into the flashbacks of his narrator, a writer who had seen refugees destined for death. The narrator recalled that when he returned to Paris "he could not talk about it or stand to have it mentioned," just as Hemingway himself had retreated there to meditate upon his future.

Hemingway had been shaken by his witness of a 20-mile long trail of refugees from the Greco-Turkish War in northwest Turkey, "a ghastly procession" he had called it. Hemingway returned to Paris by train and stayed there for a month. Thirty years later even the swaggering Hemingway recalled being heartbroken by what he had seen, and having used the time in Paris to decide whether he would dedicate his life to do something actual about such misery, or instead commit to presenting the "truth" about such things as a writer.

Research into the time soon after the end of World War I in which Frederick Thomas first held forth in Constantinople fills a gap in what historian G. Carole Woodall of the University of Colorado calls the "master narrative" of jazz history. That storyline suggests there was not much jazz so far east until sometime later in the 1920s, mid-decade, when it was imported from Paris by Leon Avigdor, an Armenian musician.

Now, an earlier origin is identified through Frederick Thomas and a blend of other influences. The crossroads of Constantinople is seen as creating a "transnational" form of jazz rather than a straight import from the U.S. or filtered directly through France. Woodall suggests that listening for jazz in Constantinople in the window just after the Great War distinguishes the music from other overlapping sounds in the period. What results is a more nuanced narrative of the music and cultures, politics, and events: what the world looked like then.

Race, Ruin, and Remains

By 1927, Woodall reports, there were more opportunities for musicians to play jazz in Constantinople. Black American trombonist and composer Earl B. Granstaff told a correspondent for the New York Amsterdam News that "black musicians are occupying more and higher positions in Constantinople than in any other place."

But economic success was again Thomas' undoing. The scene Thomas had fostered bred competition. An emergent Turkish Republic favored entrepreneurship of its own nationals over foreigners. A casino with financial support from the government and multiple entertainment levels exceeded even Maxim's grandeur. A waterfront location Thomas tried upstream on the Bosporus failed.

Business began to decline, as foreigners and other patrons left the city. Embassies and their staffs were transferred to the new capital, Ankara, almost 300 miles east. Thomas followed them there, but that bureaucratic center lacked Constantinople's passion for high living. Thomas became over-extended financially, hounded by creditors, deep in debt, pushed into ruin.

Race finally made a fatal appearance, biographer Alexandrov describes, in the failure of the U.S. State Department and its local consulate to assist Thomas with a U.S. passport or other protection. Questions, amid prejudices, arose as to whether Thomas' American citizenship had lapsed or been forfeited during the many years abroad, whether he could provide facts establishing American birth, and about his three marriages, consecutive and apparently legal, but to German women, and his five children from these different mothers.

Thomas died at age 55 in 1928 of pneumonia after time in a debtors prison, and was buried in an unmarked grave. Maxim had closed, but lingered in various iterations for almost 80 years, a landmark in the history of Istanbul nightlife. The building itself endures, its exterior preserved, remodeled and re-opened in 2019 as a Sofitel luxury hotel.

Before the renovation, the old nightclub had been gutted for use as an indoor parking lot. Gaping holes in its walls looked outward, where its once-grand windows had been hollowed out. Remainders of its ceiling ornamentation and a grand mirror still adorned what once again had been reduced to just a basement.

In the years preceding his death, Western music, which the Bolsheviks had banished along with Frederick Thomas, and the jazz he had introduced, briefly returned to the Soviet Union. A Russian, Valentin Parnakh, brought the music there from Paris in 1922. In the spring of 1926, Sam Wooding and his Chocolate Kiddies Revue, an American 11-piece jazz orchestra on an extended tour of Europe with an assemblage of singers, comedians, and 30 dancers played for weeks in Moscow and Leningrad.

Duke Ellington had composed four songs for the show, his earliest work for a revue production. Josef Stalin is reported to have seen the show in Moscow, but the music would be suppressed again later. Alfred Lion, founder of the Blue Note jazz label, saw the show as a 17-year-old in Berlin. He had never before seen black musicians nor heard such music.

In 1927, New Orleans clarinetist and saxophonist Sidney Bechet, featured in Frank Wither's Kings of Jazz, performed in Baku, Azerbaijan, a Soviet state. They were all far from home. Photo source: Wikipedia Commons

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