Born June 3, 1906
While racism reeks havoc on the lives of African Americans in the South, a massed exodus of Southern musicians, particularly from New Orleans, spreads the seeds of Jazz as far north as New York City. And this new genre of music produces fissures in the walls of racial discrimination thought to be impenetrable. Musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson perform to the first desegregated audiences. Duke Ellington stars in the first primetime radio program to feature a black artist. And a quirky little girl from Missouri conquers an entire country enthralled by her dark skin, curvaceous body. and dynamic personality.
Josephine Baker os more than a Jazz musician. She embodies the freedom and expressiveness of that which is known as Jazz. Born poor in a broken family, Baker helps her family with domestic work but is drawn to the local vaudeville house to watch the dancers and learn innovative dance steps. While still in elementary school, she begins dancing part-time in a local chorus line. She leaves home at the age of 13, and like performers before and since, works as a waitress while she looks for gigs. He first stage appearance is with a group called the Jones Family Band at the Booker T. Washington Theater, St. Louis's black vaudeville house. Soon after she appears with the all-black dance troupe, the Dixie Steppers, which stars Clara Baker.
At the age 14--in 1920--she marries for a second time and by April the following year she gains a place in the chorus line. In 1922 she leaves her husband, travels to New York, and joins the show Shuffle Along, quickly migrating from dresser to chorus girl. Her animated dancing is immediately noticed and she remains with the show until it closed in 1924.
Baker Goes to Paris
Baker quickly becomes a regular at the Cotton Club and the Plantation Club in New York, and by September of 1925 is signed to headline La Revue Negre in Paris. When the production opens at the Theatre des Champs-Elysses Josephine Baker os its personification and an instant star (JB2510). Her exotic dancing, uninhibited sexuality, and negligible attire--which includes a skirt of feathers--takes Paris by storm.
Shortly after La Revue Negre opens, Baker is asked to join the Folies-Bergères, the premier Paris music hall, for its new show, where she is billed as "Dark Star" (JB2610). She becomes immensely popular with European audiences and before the end of 1926, thousands of banana-clad "Josephine" dolls are being sold to both children and tourists. Baker also cashes in with a substance used by women to duplicate her slicked-down hairstyle, called "Bakerfix." And she will continue to do one sensation show at the Folies after another (JB2720, JB2730, JB2740). Her adventures for the balance of the 1920s including opening a nightclub, shooting a motion picture, recording songs, and a world tour.
By 1930, the worldly 24 year-old opens at the famed Casino de Paris, another of Paris's topless nightclubs. Henri Varna, the show's producer, buys Josephine a leopard named Chiquita, creating another sensation in fashionable Parisian circles. The new show, Paris qui Remue, features Baker singing in French and wearing glamorous costumes (JB3010). Her topless review is also a headliner in Germany (JB3020).
Throughout the early 1930s Baker continues to be a Paris headliner and becomes immensely famous and wealthy. She stars in two films, as well as Jacques Offenbach's operetta La Creole at Theatre Marigny in Paris in 1934, and she continues to dance at the Folies Bergères (JB3610).
In 1936 she returns to America to star in a show with the Zeigfeld Follies, but receives mixed reviews. White audiences used to black performers in "Negro" roles have difficulty accepting a seasoned black star.
A Warrior for Causes
After France declares war on Germany in 1939 Baker works with the French underground but eventually flees to Morocco and does not return to France until 1944. In 1946 she is awarded the Rosette de la Resistance and is made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor. And she regularly stars at the Folies-Bergères (JB3910) and the new medium of television.
After 1947 she retreats to an estate in France and begins her work with animals and adopts a "rainbow tribe" of 12 children of many races. Her later visits to America are marked with a more strident stand against racism, including participating in the 1963 Washington march in which Dr. Martin Luther King gives his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Throughout her final years she continued to performs. She dies on April 12, 1975 of a stroke.
Her role as the first black performer to break the racial sex barrier and her compassion ensure her memory. She has said, "Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one's soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood."
[This article borrows freely from a treatment found in at essays..
Josephine Baker proves to Europe that black women can be sexy too.