Meet the Philadelphian who introduced Jazz to Denmark in 1925
Imagine it’s 1925. The world is pivoting from the atrocities of World War I and the ravishes of the Spanish influenza pandemic. Europe and America were enjoying a rebound of economic prosperity while the dawn of a new era of technological innovation and artistic creation pushed the Old World further into oblivion.
The nearly three-and-a-half million people of Denmark are still very isolated. Few Danes have ever even seen a Black person at this point in time. Just 20 years ago, they were putting Black children on display in the Tivoli Gardens amusement park.
Enter Sam Wooding, a jazz pianist and bandleader from Philadelphia. Wooding is not a major stylist in jazz history, overall, but he’s incredibly important to the story of jazz in Denmark. He’s the first person to bring Black American music to the small, white, outlying country.
The commercial posters for Sam Wooding's 1925 visit to Copenhagen raised quite a few eyebrows. “The great American sensation —The Chocolate Kiddies, Sam Wooding with the world's best jazz band,” the poster announced. The band was part of a vaudevillian troupe of Black Americans touring Europe —chorus girls, singers, comedians and Wooding’s 11-piece orchestra that played music by Duke Ellington, blues stomps, and other popular music.
A 15-year-old Peter Sigfried Cospor Cornelius, who would become a leading figure in Danish jazz, persuaded his mother to attend the show. “It was a wild lifestyle that I never knew existed, before then,” he says in an archival interview for Danish Radio. “There were hookers and all kinds of stuff. I took it all in. We were up close by the band, and the musicians were looking at us. They could see we were excited. Even my mom thought it was interesting to be there, in the thick of the action. I was ecstatic. Because that was the first time I really heard live jazz.”
The concert with Sam Wooding’s band caused a stir among the audience, to put it mildly. There were two sectors of Danish society at the time—the cultural pessimists who dreaded a new age and everything unknown that came with it, including modern experimental and provocative art forms. There were also the cultural radicals, who enthusiastically immersed themselves in everything new.
Then there were the reviewers and critics who considered the performance subhuman and primitive, even though the people playing it were modern metropolitan Americans. But they were Black.
"The chocolate dolls are nothing but what they pretend to be: a large toy for the whites, a collection of screaming balloons for big children." "One simply sat with the impression of being in a large pig slaughterhouse, where the victims sentenced to death protested against the fate that was intended for them." "You should kill them, but you must embrace them!"
This is just a tiny sample of the overt racism and blatant outrage that filled the pages of Danish newspapers in the days that followed. Jazz wasn’t just new, foreign music, but after Sam Wooding’s visit, it was now synonymous with rampant savagery, unbridled sexuality, and hypnotic energy that would send modern man back to a primitive state.
There were supporters though. The Danish poet and writer Tom Kristensen wrote a letter to the editor in the newspaper Ekstrabladet, in which he defended the new music. The headline read: “Cheers to Jazz!”
“Jazz needs to be heard with the whole body— just as it’s played with the whole body. Jazz is not horniness, Jazz is body culture... Jazz melodies are muscle melodies...Jazz is not the past—jazz is the future. It’s dependent on its own imagination, its ability to find new variations, and it gives the body freedom to find an individual form of expression.”
Sam Wooding's trip to Copenhagen came at a pivotal moment. Before he arrived, Danish jazz was stiff and largely absent of the freedom that’s essential to its creative identity. When Wooding left Copenhagen, the Danes were left with a taste of true improvisation.