James Tim Brymn (1874-1946)
Little is written of James Tim Brymn’s childhood or early life in his birth town of Kinston, NC, though newspaper reports of the social life of Kinston hinted at an apparent scandal that labeled him as a ‘worthless sort of boy’ (Lefferts, 2016). After leaving Kinston, Brymn put himself through schooling in New York, playing piano, cello, and brass instruments, and later studying at the National Conservatory of Music and working with Cecil Mack (“James Tim Brymn,” n.d.). By the 1910s, James Tim Brymn established himself as a bandleader in Chicago and in well-known hotels and clubs in New York City. He then made a name for himself as a composer, conductor, and music director while touring with the Williams and Walker Company in their London exhibition of Dahomey(Gates & Higginbotham, 2009).
When the First World War broke out, Brymn joined the army and became a bandleader of the 350th Field Artillery regimental band, the “Black Devils” (“James Tim Brymn,” n.d.), reported as the largest music unit serving in the war (Lefferts, 2016). The exploits of Brymn and his “Black Devils” were followed eagerly by those at home. In an open letter to the States, “"TIM" BRYMN SENDS GREETINGS FROM FRANCE,” shared by Lester A. Walton in the New York Age, he wrote:
“I am still in the land of the living and enjoying the best of health. We are doing excellent work in my regiment perhaps you have heard. My band now is increased to one hundred musicians, as we are considered A-l in the army. I am working pretty hard to bring to America a fine organization. The colored officers and men are performing what seems almost a miracle in the way of nines and discipline. I was in Paris some weeks ago and I saw "Jim" Europe. He is well and doing fine. LIEUT. JAMES TVBRYM”
--letter from Brymn printed in the New York Age, October 26, 1918, p. 6
The 350th Field Artillery unit was part of the 92nd Infantry Division, organized with African American soldiers from all states. It’s nickname, the Buffalo Soldiers Division, was inherited from the 366th Infantry, one of the first units the division organized. (“92nd Infantry Division,” n.d.)
In 1919 Brymn’s Black Devils performed at the opening of the Paris Peace Conference in front of Woodrow Wilson and John Pershing, earning him notoriety for introducing jazz to France. It was widely reported afterwards that the president was so invigorated by the performance of the Black Devils during the parade procession to the conference that he got out of his limousine to walk the route, saying, “I simply must march to that music, it is irresistible.” W.E.B. Du Bois, observer at the Peace Conference, would report:
“In France . . . .Tim Brimm [sic] was playing by the town pump. Tim Brimm [sic] and the bugles of Harlem blared in the little streets of Maron in far Lorraine. The tiny streets were seas of mud. Dank mist and rain sifted through the cold air above the blue Moselle. Soldiers ---soldiers everywhere---black soldiers, boys of Washington, Alabama, Philadelphia, Mississippi. Wild and sweet and wooing leapt the strains upon the air. French children gazed in wonder ---women left their washing. Up in the window stood a black Major, a Captain, a Teacher, and I--- with tears behind our smiling eyes. Tim Brimm [sic] was playing by the town pump." --printed in The Crisis 17/5 March 1919, p. 215-6
Brymn’s style was ‘northeastern hot style jazz’ (“James Tim Brymn,” n.d.) and he brought it and his Black Devils, including the “great Harlem stride pianist” William H. Smith, or Willie the Lion, to tour the U.S. after the war (Lefferts, 2016). He was an early member of New York’s Clef Club, “a professional and fraternal organization that not only helped improve working conditions for black musicians, but also showcased their talents" (North Carolina Arts Council, 2013), worked with W. C. Handy, and later became manager of the publishing house of Clarence Williams and Armand Piron (Gates & Higginbotham, 2009). He would be billed as “Mr. Jazz, himself” in newspapers that would also report that “Tim Brymn and jazz are as one” (“Phonograph House to be Opened…,” 1921). Reports of Brymn’s performances and activities waned in newspapers at the onset of WWII and his public performances lessened after he enlisted to work for the Works Progress Administration at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, NY (Lefferts, 2016).
James Tim Brymn in the news:
Songs in the USF Libraries digital African American Sheet Music Collection: