Decked out in traditional Lederhosen and often found performing ethnic Bavarian dances, the Four Black Diamonds made an unforgettable impression in central Europe. Originally from San Francisco, the group began their European career in October of 1905 and are thought to have never returned to America. While members likely rotated over the years, H.M. Johnson, Walter Dixon, Norris Smith, and Eugene Abbott formed the original lineup. The group performed for over a decade throughout Europe, and after a 17-year-long run, the quartet split up shortly after 1922. The Four Black Diamond’s greatest success with the German and Austrian public came from their adaptations of Alpine folk songs, which deviated from the typical German norm because they used the instrumentation of a military band, not a traditional brass band. During their musical career, particularly between 1907-1909, they recorded around 270 unique songs, mostly ragtime arrangements and cakewalk songs, These African American musical styles became extremely popular in Europe throughout the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries due to the contributions and representations by bands such as the Four Black Diamonds.
One can learn much about the Four Black Diamonds through the numerous press reviews of their performances, which demonstrate the considerable impression that the group made with their concerts throughout Europe. These artists were particularly praised in central European media, where one critic from Leipzig in 1907 stated that “The Four Black Diamonds, humoristic song and dance quartet, carry out everything possible in the well-known manner of nimbleness and noise of the black gentlemen,” while another Prussian critic in 1909 proclaimed that the “… The Four Black Diamonds are unsurpassed in their genre. Particularly as black Tyrolese these recommendable artists have created an inimitable specialty.”
Through these texts and many other indicators, it is clear that these artists made a lasting, positive impression in central Europe and beyond. In the timeframe that they performed, their musical contributions fostered a greater diversity of music and culture in central Europe.
– Olivia Blackmore (University of Missouri)
Rainer E. Lotz, “Black Diamonds are Forever: A Glimpse of the Prehistory of Jazz in Europe,” The Black Perspective in Music 12.2 (1984): 217-234.