Gustav Mahler and Bricktop

I want to start this post with a very brief tribute to Gustav Mahler whose birthday is July 7. I’m not going to try to write a post about him. I don’t know his music well enough for that, although I never hear the songs or the symphonies without being deeply moved by them.

Gustav Mahler, 1909. Photo by either Aimé Dupont's wife, Madame Etta Greer, or their son Albert Dupont.

The first time I heard one of the symphonies—I have no idea which—I was in an apartment in San Francisco’s Chinatown, on the main drag itself as I recall it (Grant Street). The windows were open to the night; the volume was raised so that the music seemed to fill the whole visible and audible world. I remember that I was a very young college student, and that I knew, hearing that music, that life was as important as I’d thought it would be.

Unfortunately, I’ve only spent real-time with the Fourth Symphony. Says Thai conductor, Somtow Sucharitkul, “No. 4 is a good way to ease yourself into Mahler; it is like reading The Hobbit in preparation for The Lord of the Rings.” I hope that a few years from now I’ll be able to talk about the Rings.

The other subject of today’s post is a very different person: the proprietor of Chez Bricktop and one of the central figures of the jazz age. Born Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith in 1890’s West Virginia, she moved with her family when she was still a child to Chicago where, at a very tender age, she was caught up in the saloon life of the city. It was there that she acquired the nickname Bricktop for her flaming red hair and freckles. By the time she was sixteen, she was a touring vaudevillean and in her early twenties in New York City, she’d already changed the future of American entertainment by getting the young Duke Ellington one of this first gigs.

Photograph of musicians and entertainers in Los Angeles, California, at the Cadillac Club, c. 1917 or 1918. From left to right, "Common Sence" Ross, Albertine Pickins, Ferd "Jelly Roll" Morton, Ada "Bricktop" Smith, Eddie Rucker, Mabel Watts.

By 1924, she was in Paris. Having captured the enthusiastic attention of Cole Porter, who hired her as an entertainer, retaining her especially to teach his guests the latest dance craze such as the Charleston and the Black Bottom, she began operating the clubs where she performed, especially Chez Bricktop where her headliner was Mabel Mercer (see my last blog). The celebrities of the day flocked to her club, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Tallulah Bankhead and, of course, Cole Porter himself. Langston Hughes, of all people, was a busboy (or a dishwasher, depending on what you read) in her club. Josephine Baker (who must be the next post), was one of her protegés, and the two women enjoyed a lesbian affair for a time.

Ada "Bricktop" Smith. Photographer: Carl Van Vechten. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Van Vechten Collection, reproduction number 5a51751.

These amazing women, bi-racial and African-American, became the cultural doyennes of their time, and that, when the world was mired in racial injustice: Bricktop, Mabel Mercer, Josephine Baker, Alberta Hunter (the post after Baker’s)….

Bricktop broadcast a radio program in Paris from 1938-39, but returned to New York when World War II broke out. She published an autobiography in 1983 crammed full of stories about the 20th century’s rich and famous. She died in 1984 at the age of 89.

There are bits and pieces of Chez Bricktop on YouTube. Try them out! And, there’s almost a Broadway show, produced by Whoopi Goldberg and others. Something to be devoutly hoped for!

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2 thoughts on “Gustav Mahler and Bricktop

  1. This is a very interesting subject for a blog, I have found that I’ve become a much better artist after getting closer to facing mortality. I see some things much more clearly, though more things slip my mind, too.

  2. I’ve thought for a long time that the proximity of death must make a difference in art. If you could elaborate on the subject, I’d appreciate it. I hope to at some point.

    In any event, thank you so much for the response.

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