Jane Phillips: Kinston’s first world-famous musician — James 'Tim' Brymn
James “Tim” Byrmn was born in Kinston, the son of former slaves, Peter and Eliza Brymn. His father worked at the Daily Free Press in Kinston before the paper had steam, oil or electric power to run its press. As a youngster, Tim Brymn stood by his father’s side as they worked together to manually operate the press at paper’s office.
As a teenager, Tim stirred the ire of some of Kinston’s African-American population and he had to leave town as a result of misdeeds on his part. I have read numerous sources recounting this, but no details have ever been given as to what the misdeeds were. He left town with little except an innate ability that had yet to be developed.
However, he showed promise with his intellect and music ability. At some point in time, an unknown benefactor sent him to the Christian Institute in Franklinton and then to Shaw University in Raleigh.
He was in New York by the mid-1890s working as a porter. He attended the National Conservatory of Music where he fine-tuned his natural talent. He was an accomplished pianist and could play the cello and brass instruments.
It was about 1900 while attending the National Conservatory, his first popular song was published. Many other compositions followed. He was a phenomenal pianist and could play music, but ragtime was his love. The first decade-plus years were spent playing in clubs, composing and arranging.
Tim took advantage of the rise of the black musical to expand the range of black music. Brymn became a participant in the new black musicals appearing in Manhattan. He contributed "Josephine, My Jo" to Sons of Ham (1900) and in 1904 he became musical director for Williams and Walker's touring shows, traveling to England with In Dahomey, a musical.
In the summer of 1914, Tim came back to Kinston to visit his father, who was very ill. He returned in October to attend his funeral. The newspaper account reported how respected the elder Brymn was by the people of Kinston.
The following year, Tim sent a copy of his music “North Carolina Blues” to the local paper and he dedicated it to Kinston.
He had much success as the musical director and writer for the Smart Set, an African-American touring ensemble.
When the United States entered World War I, Tim was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, serving with the 350th Field Artillery for the duration of the war. He was a composer and the bandleader of his regiment’s 70-piece band known informally as The Black Devils.
Due to their popularity and talent, Tim and the Black Devils are often considered one of the biggest influences in introducing jazz music to France. In 1919, the Black Devils were even asked to play at the opening of the Paris Peace Conference where they received the opportunity to impress President Wilson and Gen. John J. Perishing.
When the war ended, there was a parade in New York. Tim and his Black Devils band were marching, and the sound of jazz filled the air. President Wilson was so caught up in the music he had his car stop, and for a short way he walked and danced down the street alongside them. Brymn's band was described at the time as "a military symphony engaged in a battle of jazz." Brymn was now known as the most famous African-American band leader in the world.
Brymn now turned his energy to a series of all black reviews that started in 1921. He stopped using the name Black Devils for his bands, although he held on to the title “Lieutenant” for the rest of his career.
After the war, Brymn led his orchestras at two leading New York nightclubs, Ziegfeld's Roof Garden and Reisenweber's Jardin de Dance, and made a series of recordings for Okeh Records. Later, in the 1920s, he became the musical director for the Broadway show Liza. With Chris Smith and Cecil Mack, he wrote "The Camel Walk", a popular dance tune in 1925.
Tim was the composer of the show (Dinah) that introduced the Black Bottom dance to American in the Roaring Twenties.
Tim wrote songs for five decades, from the 1900s to the 1940s, and had big hits in at least four decades, from the 1900s through the 1930s. In 1933, it was worth his while to join The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, an American not-for-profit performance-rights organization that protected its members' musical copyrights.
He worked with many of the greats of his day such as W. C. Handy, Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington and others. He was billed as “Mr. Jazz, himself” in newspapers that would also report that “Tim Brymn and jazz are as one.”
Over the years it was reported he had been married five times. He had only one known son, James Tim Brymn Jr. In the l930s, Tim took more time for his family. Reports of Brymn’s performances and activities waned in newspapers at the onset of World War II and his public performances lessened after he enlisted to work for the Works Progress Administration at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn.
,Tim died Oct. 3, 1946 in the Bronx Veterans hospital. He is buried in Long Island National Cemetery. Some of the biggest Broadway figures attended his funeral.
Hardly a person alive today remembers Brymn, who for the first 40 years of the 20th century was a famous and celebrated African-American musician, composer, conductor, arranger and music publisher.
Now he is almost lost to history. Why do so many allow this to happen to great people? Kinston, bring back the memory of his accomplishments and talents.
Sources for this column included:
Kinston Daily Free Press Articles
North Carolina African American Music Trail
Library of Congress Biographies
Chronology and Itinerary of the Career of J. Tim by Peter M. Lefferts