One of the most important sections of jazz critic and historian John Chilton's Who's Who In Jazz; Storyville to Swing Street constitutes five lines of italic type following an entry on Eugene Mikell, Sr. "It is beyond the scope of this work to present a detailed study of successful music teachers, but I felt that some tribute is due to the following tutors, whose names figure prominently in many entries in this book." Also known as Francis Eugene Mikell and F. Eugene Mikell, the brilliant teacher from Charleston, South Carolina, is assuredly on the short list of such great teachers among the superlative company of Fess Whatley from Birmingham, Alabama and Manuel Manetta of New Orleans, Louisiana. Skilled music instructors such as this form the deep background for jazz and its stylists, major and minor. While a listener cannot actually hear Mikell Sr. making sounds on a record, the sounds on many records do indeed owe him a debt: teachers not only help to unlock creative insight but positively maintain and establish important professional and technical standards.
Mikell, Sr. influenced a lengthy list of musicians that includes his sons Gene Mikell and Otto Mikell, both of whom began playing reeds professionally in the late '20s. The former is sometimes designated as Eugene Mikell, Jr.. Among the father's many students from outside the family were Arthur Briggs, Pete Briggs, Russell Procope, Rudy Powell, and Freddy Jenkins. Mikell's activities as a music teacher could be said to pre-date the use of the word jazz by at least a decade. In the late 19th century the Reverend Daniel Jenkins established an orphanage for African-American children in Mikell's hometown, where an early priority was hiring several local musicians to teach music to the children, which turned out to be Mikell and P.M. "Hatsie" Logan.
While the body of their syllabus has been lost, it is apparent that Mikell and Logan led classes in traditional reading skills and taught actual instrumental techniques in group rather than private sessions, resulting in a student faculty adept on several different instruments each. This early generation of multi-instrumentalists served as a great inspiration for jazz artists of many subsequent generations. Said to have himself been proficient in more than one family of instruments, Mikell conducted the Jenkins Orphanage Band in prestigious appearances at the 1914 London Exposition.
Mikell had studied at and graduated from the Avery Institute. During the First World War he became a member of the famed 369th Infantry, a combination machine-gun company and regimental band. The musicians in this outfit all fought in battles; indeed, Mikell was supposedly known for telling all manner of harrowing war stories once he got home. As a musical group the 369th Regimental Band was considered one of the greatest army bands of all time, but they could hardly be accused of concentrating too heavily on marches. Led by the innovative James Reese Europe with Mikell rising to rank of bandmaster, the group exposed European audiences to ragtime and other early jazz styles, even "starting France's and England's love affair with American culture" according to one enthusiastic pundit.
Much detail about the black regiment, including more information about Mikell himself, can be found in Stephen L. Harris' superb book entitled Harlem's Hell Fighters. With the exception of a collection of recordings by Jim Europe's 369th Infantry Hellfighter's Band, any Eugene Mikell or Gene Mikell recording credits belong to junior.