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Jonathan Bogart

Jonathan Bogart is a listener and writer in Chicago whose writing on music has been published by The Atlantic and Da Capo Best Music Writing. He works for the Chicago Public Library for love and money, and researches the popular culture of the 20th century for love alone. He blogs about music, comics, literature, art, and culture at jonathanbogart.tumblr.com, and tweets about the weather at @jonathanbogart.

“Blank Space: The Unrecoverable Voices of Florence Mills”
Florence Mills was the most famous Black entertainer in the English-speaking world for five years—from the 1922 death of comedian Bert Williams to her own death in 1927—well into the era of recorded music, and two years after Mamie Smith showed that Black records could be a sales bonanza, but she left no audible record of her existence.

We have a wealth of recorded material from peers like Josephine Baker or Ethel Waters, and even some from predecessors like Williams or Elsie Janis, but nothing at all from her, whose voice was described in rhapsodic terms by Black and white critics alike, as imitating bird song and saxophone wails, as moving packed theaters to tears with its sensitivity and fragility, as being almost unearthly in the purity of its tone and in the imaginative leaps of Mills’ improvisation. She sang blues songs, jazz songs, torch songs, protest songs, “coon” songs, and art songs composed expressly for her voice, and her stage presence was reportedly electric. All now unrecoverable.

The reasons for this hole in history are several: institutional racism; a lingering snobbery among legitimate theatrical stars about the idea of recording; the difficulty that early recording technology had in capturing high, delicate voices like hers; the punishing performance schedule which left her little time to record; and the lack of interest in preserving her memory in subsequent decades means that even the test recordings she did have now vanished.

What are the implications of such a gap in popular music, of jazz, of Black history in America? How do we fill it: with our imagination, with extrapolations from what we do have, with the exercise of our own artistic powers? And what can the elusive Florence tell us about our own era of hypervisibility and constant recording?

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