Crowder, Henry 1895–1954(?)–
Henry Crowder 1895–1954(?)–
Pianist, composer, publisher
It is no secret that the history of Western culture has been largely written by and about men. All too often a woman gets written into the story only because of the famous man with whom she was associated, rather than through any talent or accomplishment, no matter how great, of her own. Henry Crowder represents a rare reversal of that tendency. A skilled jazz pianist and composer, Crowder enjoyed a successful, if not world-class, career in music that spanned two continents and countless performing venues. Any lasting fame, however, came not from his musical achievements, but through his eight-year affair with poet, publisher, and political activist Nancy Cunard. After his relationship with Cunard—a partnership that combined art, business, and romance—ended in 1935, Crowder faded back into relative obscurity. In spite of his own fascinating life story, he is remembered chiefly for his role as an important, though secondary, character in the Nancy Cunard story.
Crowder was born in 1896, the youngest of 12 children, in Gainesville, Georgia, located in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. When he was still an infant, the family moved to the small manufacturing town of Buford, near Atlanta, where the leather industry was thriving. His father, the deeply religious “Brother” Crowder, found work in the tanneries, while his mother took in washing to help support the family. Religion was the dominating force in the Crowder household, and a rigid Christian morality, as learned from his father’s Sunday school lessons, stayed with Crowder his entire life.
The family moved again during Crowder’s childhood, this time to Atlanta. Although they were forced to live in a constant state of debt and squalor, Crowder and his brothers were at least able to receive an education in the big city. Crowder did well in school, and was noticed for his singing ability. He spent most of his spare time at the “colored” branch of the YMCA, where there was a piano in one of the lounges. It was there that he taught himself to play. Crowder’s singing ability eventually earned him the chance to visit the North for the first time, when his school sent a student quartet on a summer tour through New England This brief experience in the less segregated North had a profound effect on the way Crowder thought about race from that time on.
After graduating from high school, Crowder attended Atlanta University, but after a year he ran out of money and had to quit. He landed a job as a mail carrier, but before he could save enough money to return to school, he opted to leave town to avoid a shotgun marriage to a woman who had become pregnant either by Crowder,
At a Glance…
Born Henry Crowder in 1895, in Gainesville, GA; son of “Brother” Crowder (a tannery worker and church deacon); died c. 1954 in Washington, D.C.; married Mary Frances Turner, 1920s; children: Henry Crowder, Jr.; Education: attended Atlanta University and Chicago School of Music; Religion: Christian.
Began professional career playing piano in Washington, D.C. brothels, c. 1915; led own orchestra and organized most of Washington’s black jazz musicians, early 1920s; joined Eddie South’s band in Chicago, mid-1920s; resumed musical career in Paris, c. 1927; operated Hours Press with Nancy Cunard, 1938-34; published original jazz score for Henry Music, 1930; resumed performing career in London and Paris, 1934; U.S. Customs Bureau, clerk, c. 1940-54.
or, as Crowder insisted, by somebody else. Arriving penniless and friendless in Washington, D.C., Crowder found work as a restaurant dishwasher, then as a butler. After he was fired by his wealthy employers for “borrowing” piano sheet music, Crowder took a job playing piano at the dingy restaurant downstairs from the cheap room he was occupying with three other men. The job paid no salary, but including room, board, and tips. This marked the humble beginning of what would eventually become a successful musical career.
From the sleazy restaurant, Crowder moved on to a brothel, where he was paid fairly well to play and sing for customers. Because of his religious upbringing, Crowder felt guilty about working in a brothel, but the job enabled him to move to decent apartment in a respectable neighborhood. Eventually Crowder worked his way up in the red light district, until he was playing at the most select “house” in town, and bringing home as much as $90 a night, a fabulous sum for a musician at the time. By the time the brothels were shut down by Congress, Crowder was well enough connected to find a job with the orchestra that played for dinner and dancing in one of Washington’s best restaurants.
Over the next few years, Crowder’s career advanced steadily. He married a woman he had known in Atlanta and brought her back up to Washington. He soon became the leader of the restaurant band, and under his guidance the group became fairly well known around town. They began performing at parties and dances all over Washington. Before long, Crowder was acting as booking agent for several other “colored” bands. He became one of the key figures in the Washington jazz scene, as the de facto head of the unofficial black musicians union. Business boomed, and Crowder bought a big house, as well as a tailoring shop in the same building in which his office was located.
In 1919, as World War I ended, both his music business and his tailoring business suddenly collapsed. With prospects in Washington suddenly limited, Crowder decided to move to Chicago, where a married sister lived. In Chicago, Crowder started a band and studied at the Chicago School of Music. When popular jazz violinist Eddie South needed a pianist, Crowder dumped his own band and joined South’s. With South, Crowder played in Chicago’s premier nightclubs, and made a recording on the Victor label. Just when everything seemed to be going smoothly, however, South abruptly decided to move the band to New York, where they failed to duplicate the success they had achieved in the Windy City.
Crowder and company landed a modest but steady gig at a downtown nightclub, and were eventually noticed by singer Marian Harris. Harris’s manager offered to fly the band to Paris to be the backup band for an act he was developing for Harris. The band happily accepted. Arriving in Paris, however, the manager suddenly disappeared, stranding Crowder, et. al., none of whom spoke French, in a strange city with no money and no friends. In spite of the difficulties getting started, Crowder welcomed the opportunity for a new start in a new place where there was far less racial discrimination than in the United States.
Paris of the 1920s was in love with American jazz, and Crowder and his bandmates had no trouble finding ample work opportunities. It was while playing a week-long engagement in Venice, Italy in 1928 that Crowder made the acquaintance of Nancy Cunard, a meeting that would change his life dramatically. The differences in background between Crowder and Cunard could not have been more striking. Crowder was a poor black man from the rural poverty of Georgia. Cunard was the great granddaughter of the founder of the famous Cunard ship line, and had lived a pampered childhood of nursemaids and riding lessons in the British countryside. Although her feelings for Crowder were apparently deep and genuine, the relationship had bonus appeal for her, in that it horrified her domineering mother, whom Cunard had come to detest.
Through Cunard, Crowder was able to meet a host of artists, writers, and other bohemian types that populated her circle of friends. An acclaimed poet in her own right, Cunard had launched her own publishing venture a few years earlier called the Hours Press. Crowder soon became her associate in Hours, assisting in every element of the operation. Between 1928 and 1931, Hours Press churned out 24 works, including material by such well-known poets as Ezra Pound and Robert Graves. An Hours-sponsored poetry competition was also largely responsible for the “discovery” of noted writer Samuel Beckett.
Many of Cunard’s projects dealt directly with problems of race and bigotry, and for some of the most ambitious of these projects, Crowder served as her inspiration. Henry; Music, published in 1930, was a 20-page collection of original music by Crowder set to lyrics written by several prominent poets. The cover featured a photomontage by Man Ray. Cunard’s essay “Black Man and White Ladyship” was aimed directly at her mother, attacking her for what Cunard saw as her hypocrisy and prejudice. Cunard’s master work was probably Negro: An Anthology. Published in 1934,Negro was a collection of works celebrating black history, culture, and achievement. It contained contributions by such high-profile black thinkers and artists as W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. It also included pieces by white intellectuals who shared Cunard’s views. Cunard dedicated Negro — a tome weighing in at some eight pounds and 850 pages—”to Henry Crowder, my first Negro friend.”
Crowder’s relationship with Cunard had more or less ended by the time Negro was published. Fed up with Cunard’s liberal attitude toward fidelity—she had too many affairs to count during their years together— Crowder finally managed to free himself from her spell. By the mid-1930s Crowder was on his own, first in London then back in Paris, supporting himself as a musician once again. In 1935 Crowder met an American journalist named Hugo Speck. Over the next months, Crowder and Speck collaborated on a memoir of Crowder’s years of involvement with Cunard. In the memoir, Crowder portrays himself as the victim of Cunard’s abusive ways. The manuscript remained out of sight for decades, until it was finally published in 1987, years after both Crowder and Cunard had died.
Crowder eventually returned to Washington, D.C. and took a job as a clerk in the U.S. Customs Bureau. He adopted a lifestyle that was much calmer than ever before, a situation he both appreciated and regretted. The epilogue to his memoir quotes him as writing in a 1953 letter that, “Life for me here in the USA is now following a set pattern. Pretty dull and monotonous but I am living and going through the motions of life without any special interest.” Another letter written the following year showed him equally ambivalent about his newly sedentary way of life: “As for nightclubs—all that is a thing of the past—never cared much for them anyway. I am not happy, and I am not sad.” It was in this apathetic state of mind that Crowder died, probably in 1954, leaving his expressed wish to someday return to Europe unfulfilled.
Crowder, Henry (with Hugo Speck), As Wonderful as All That, Wild Tree Press, 1987.
Cunard, Nancy, ed., Negro: An Anthology, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1970.
Ford, Hugh, ed., Nancy Cunard: Brave Poet, Indomitable Rebel, 1896-1965, Chilton, 1968.
Publishers Weekly, June 19, 1987.
Washington Post, July 15, 1979.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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