Born in South Carolina, Jefferson showed early aptitude for both banjo and guitar. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War I, he came to Washington and worked in a nightclub, where he joined Duke Ellington's band, the Washingtonians. After leaving the Washingtonians he moved to New York and worked in a sucession of clubs, then joined the Blackbirds and went on tour with them to Europe. He stayed in France for several years and returned to New York, later going back to Paris, where he was arrested by the Nazis after the U.S. declared war on Germany. He spent 27 months in a concentration camp in Compiegne, France. After his release he resumed club work and songwriting, and arranging. He died in 1974.
The collection documents the life and career of jazz musician, arranger, songwriter and bandleader Maceo Jefferson. The collection includes biographical documents such as birth and marraige certificates and passports; letters, mostly relating to the music business and including carbon copies of letters sent by Jefferson; photographs, many inscribed, including photographs of performers from the early jazz era; a hymnal used by Jefferson; several pieces of published sheet music written by Jefferson; concert programs, including a hand-made one for a concert given inside a Nazi internment camp where Jefferson was detained for two years; lyrics to songs; some business records, many in French; legal records; recordings, including 78 r.p.m. records; and music manuscripts, which comprise roughly three fourths of the collection. Additionally, Jefferson's wife, Yvonne Runtz Jefferson, was a costume designer, and there are photographs relating to her work in the collection.
Maceo Jefferson Papers, 1898-1974, Archives Center, National Museum of American History