James Arthur Briggs
by Kathleen Wyer Lane; (c) 2001
We have so much to share when we write our history. Included in all our family’s lore is a circle of friends who’ve added a special dimension and texture to our story. They don’t have to be famous, or infamous, just participants in our ancestors’ lives. They could be “surrogate” family, or as we call them in the South, “play cousins, play aunts and uncles.”
I encourage you to remember them in your writings. I’m sharing a bit of my family history about a friendship that touched three generations of the Wyers of Florida.
James Arthur Briggs became a part of the Wyer family history in 1919. In the beginning of that year, America celebrated the end of the Great War. New Yorkers pushed aside their racism and cheered the leaders of the Victory Parade. Decorated with France’s Croix de Guerre, the 369th Regiment of Harlem and its famous band stepped onto 5th Avenue to lead the parade UP Fifth Avenue. The sons of Harlem, Puerto Rico and a teenager from Charleston changed the parade route forever. The “Harlem Hellfighters” marched past the rows of apartment buildings and mansions of the rich and continued North to Harlem. Arthur Briggs was part of the band but was too young to go to war in France. He told me that his mother wouldn’t let him go.
Six months later, a few men from the 369th Regimental Band returned to Europe. Their soldiering was over but their role as early messengers of jazz was just beginning. In June they joined Will Marion Cook’s legendary Southern Syncopated Orchestra and sailed for England. Three of its musicians were Sidney Bechet, John Paul Wyer and Arthur Briggs.
After a command performance at Buckingham Palace and concerts throughout England, Wyer and Briggs left for the promise of the City of Light. Their music was a prelude to Josephine Baker and La Revue Negre’ s arrival five years later. Great Uncle Paul joined Mistinguett’s band and sailed for Buenos Aires where he mixed jazz and tango as the bandleader at the Alvear Palace Hotel. His friend and protege, Arthur Briggs stayed and became one of the jazz legends in Europe. Arthur knew Josephine well and shared many a tale about her, the Prince of Wales and Bricktop.
Josephine’s early life doesn’t mirror mine in any way, but her life in Paris has always been an inspiration. Sometimes when someone in Paris mistakes me for an entertainer, I laugh and think of her. I always felt the pull of that era when I would visit Arthur Briggs each year in Paris.
My great-uncle’s dear friend Arthur is now at rest at the Cemetery Montmartre. His tombe is down a quiet street from Toulouse Lautrec’s fabled La Goulu. On his tombstone encased in glass is a photo of Arthur in profile, playing his trumpet in that classic 1930's musician’s stance. If you were in Paris, I would invite you to Les Palmiers in the Place Blanche for a glass of Ricard and toast Arthur. I used to meet Arthur there for coffee or for his favorite Ricard. He told me that he had been coming there since the ‘30's. One late June afternoon, I got to Les Palmiers very early. I told the waiter that I wanted to sit outside and that I was waiting for Monsieur Briggs. The waiter bowed and gave me a table that he said was Arthur’s favorite. Les Palmiers is directly across from the Moulin Rouge in not the most elegant arrondissment of Paris. As I watched the crowds of tourists, ladies of the evening, elegant drag queens and working class people troop past, I heard one of the “drageurs” ask the waiter who I was. The waiter told him to be respectful and laisse…I was a guest of Monsieur Briggs.
Arthur was in his 80's by then. He was not the stereotype of an aged American jazz musician, but rather an elegant and proper gentleman, ramrod straight and speaking polite and impeccable French to the waiters. I was surprised when he spoke to me in English. He had the lilt of my grandmother’s Charleston accent. As a young boy, Arthur was a member of the city’s famous Daniel Jenkins Orphanage Band. His American slang was circa 1930's. It was laced with lots of “Gee” and “It was swell.” It wasn’t surprising since Arthur, like my great uncle Paul, chose to live out his life as an expatriate rather than return to America.
Along with his fame in Paris and Europe, Arthur had endured a great deal. During WW II he was arrested by the Gestapo and survived two concentration camps. I’ve read stories about his life during the war that glossed over his internment. Arthur told me a different story of near starvation, cruelty and brutality at the hands of the Nazi’s. He talked about John Paul and their early days in London and Paris and unwittingly revealed stories about my father’s life in Europe after the war.
Arthur put me in a cab and gave strict instructions (and money) to the taxi driver to take me back to my hotel. I remember leaning back in my seat, peppered with questions from the cab driver about Arthur. When we reached the Place des VOSGES he refused my money. But not before asking me if I was free for lunch. When I repeated the story to my friends that evening, they roared with laughter. “Obviously his invitation could only be for lunch. He wasn’t “free for dinner” because he was married!”