Howard "Howie" JeffersonB:  1884 - New Bedford, MA
D:  October 17th, 1954 - Mashpee, MA
Instrument:  Piano

The wonderfully vivacious, confident and complex person who was known to the early jazz world as "Mamie Seals" and later "Mamie Moffitt" remains, even now, somewhat of an enigma.

Family records, numerous interviews and some official documents are enough to piece together a rough chronology of her life and her musical contributions.

Miriam Leona "Mamie" Seals (sometimes spelled Seales) was born in 1884 in New Bedford MA in a small house at 316 Middle Street. (See Photo Gallery for a picture of the home in which she was born.) Her professional career took her beyond New Bedford to NYC and later, Worcester, MA.

She embraced so completely her family roots (and made certain to pass down orally the history of her family), that it seems appropriate to begin the story of Miriam “Mamie” Seals Moffitt with her family lineage.

Both her paternal and maternal ancestry included African American and Native American roots. Her interesting heritage brought a richness to Mamie’s self image and undoubtedly impacted her colorful world view. (See Photo Gallery for family history memoirs from her brother, Charles, and her daughter Natalie.)

Her father was Harrison Seals who was born Jan. 22, 1847 in New Bedford, MA and died in 1942 in Mashpee, MA . How he was born in New Bedford makes for a very interesting story.

Harrison Seals' mother, Miriam (Johnson) Seals, was born on a Native American reservation in either North or South Carolina. It is believed that she had been stolen as a child and sold into slavery before she was four years of age (a deplorable, but not uncommon practice of the time). When she was freed from slavery after the Civil War, she and her 6 children (including Harrison with whom she was pregnant) made their way north in the wake of other freed slaves who were following Frederick Douglas.

She settled in New Bedford, MA and lived in a small house on Sullivan Street where she raised her children. (Listen to audio clips of Mamie’s grand daughter recounting her family’s history).

It was in New Bedford that Harrison Seals met and married Esther Fields (1854-1941) whose ancestry, like his, included both African American and Native American (Mohawk Indian) roots. (See Photo Gallery)

Besides Miriam ("Mamie), Harrison and Esther Seals had several children.

Esther Seals became aware of her daughter Miriam's considerable musical talent and arranged formal professional piano instruction for her at a young age. Always the supportive mother, Esther was also instrumental in securing Miriam's first professional musical employment which was with the New Bedford School of Dance. Her career developed quickly from this point.

Miriam, who was called "Maggie" by her family, began performing extensively in New Bedford and Cape Cod in the late 1800’s.

Her eclectic tastes and prodigious talents allowed her to gain employment in many diverse musical fields. Her advanced reading skills were utilized as a professional dance accompanist, theater musician and church organist. However, her propensity for improvisation became obvious when she began additional employment playing in silent movie theaters and on ships cruising the New Bedford harbor.

Mamie Seals remained a very active performer in this early part of her career, playing solo and with ensembles. In addition to her church and dance school repertoire, she played popular musical styles of the period including some Cake Walks, Rags, Two Steps, (many of these style names were used interchangeably during this time period) Marches, popular songs and dance pieces.

In 1901, Mamie Seals married John Thomas (who was a waiter on a New Jersey to NYC rail service). She relocated to NYC and continued her work in the same musical fields. In addition, she began teaching at this time and saw several of her students achieve national acclaim as jazz artists. Her students included Noble Sissle and, for a brief time, Lionel Hampton (according to written family records as well as an obituary in The Cape Cod Times).

Mamie (Seals) Thomas and her husband John Thomas had two daughters, Natalie (born 1902) and Dorothy (born 1907).

She and her small family were living in NYC during the productive period of "Black Consciousness". This exciting decade led to the vigorous artistic and intellectual period for African Americans, known later as the "Harlem Renaissance".

Family records indicate that Miriam and John Thomas were considered wealthy by the standards of the African American communities in which they lived . Miriam was depicted as often wearing diamonds and fur coats during this time. Their success was primarily due to John Thomas' wise financial investments. However, he lost all of his assets and was ruined financially around 1915.

Miriam divorced John Thomas and moved back to New Bedford with their two daughters. In 1918 she married musician Wallace Moffitt who was a cornet player from Worcester, MA. They moved there with Miriam's two daughters to join with Wallace's two children, Donald and Edna. (Later, Mamie and Wallace Moffitt adopted Madeline (James) Moffitt.)

They purchased a house in an all white neighborhood on Dell Avenue in Worcester, where, after some time, Mamie’s outgoing personality broke down initial racial distrust, and she was welcomed as a neighbor. The Moffitt family later moved to the African American district in Worcester, first to Caroll Street (adjacent to the Laurel/ Clayton neighborhood) and then to Summer Street. It is an unfortunate fact that Worcester remained a very racially biased city for many years. In fact, in October of 1924, there was a large gathering of the KKK and the Kleagles in Worcester. Racial tensions remained high for several decades. (see Photo Gallery)

By all accounts, Mamie (Seals) Moffitt was the most powerful seminal figure in the Central Massachusetts jazz scene. It is an unfortunate testament to the times, that racial segregation kept her musical contributions from being known outside of the African American community in which she lived while in Worcester, MA.

Sometime just before 1922, Mamie Moffitt assembled the very first professional jazz ensemble in Worcester, "Mamie Moffitt and Her Five Jazz Hounds". Members of this group included Mamie Moffitt on piano, her husband Wallace Moffitt on cornet, Wallace's brother Alfred Moffitt on saxophone, Alfred's nephew Harold Black on violin and banjo, John Byard on trombone (father of Jaki Byard) and "Boots" Ward on drums. Occasionally Wendell Culley (trumpet) played with this group. Unfortunately, no recordings exist of this earliest of Central MA jazz groups.

Through interviews with those who heard this ensemble, it is clear that they played the "hot" music of the period with outstanding improvisations and professional arrangements. Clearly, Mamie Moffitt brought her exceptional musicianship, New York sophistication", years of performance experience, pride in the music of her race, and self-confidence to the leadership of her ensemble. She led this group until about 1928.

Due to health problems, Mamie Moffitt retired from music in the late 1920's. In the early 1930’s, she and her husband Wallace opened a popular restaurant, “The Chicken Coop,” in Worcester. (See Photo Gallery for “Chicken Coop” memorabilia.) In 1949, Mamie and Wallace Moffitt moved to Mashpee, MA where they operated a guest house before retiring. “Moffitt’s Popponesett in the Pines” was an extremely popular vacation spot. (See Photo Gallery)

The significance of Mamie Moffitt and her Five Jazz Hounds cannot be over stated. From this one group, the chronological history of early jazz music in Central MA can be traced.

  1. Mamie and Wallace Moffitt ("Mamie Moffitt and Her Five Jazz Hounds")
  2. Boots Ward ("Boots Ward and the Nite Hawks")
  3. Freddie Bates ("Freddie Bates and the Original Nite Hawks"
  4. Barney Price and Howie Jefferson ("Saxtrum Club" founders)
  5. The Rockie Blunt All-Stars (First racially integrated jazz group in Worcester)

In 1928, Mamie's drummer, Boots Ward, went on to lead his own group, "The Nite Hawks" which included three members of Mamie Moffitt's Five Jazz Hounds: Boots Ward, Harold Black and John Byard. After the untimely death of Boots Ward, Ray Schuyler took over the band for a short period, and later, Nite Hawks member Freddie Bates led the group. (See Photo Gallery for a period picture.)

In 1929, while still under the direction of Boots Ward, two "young lions" of the Worcester jazz scene were asked to join the Nite Hawks. Trumpeter Elwood "Barney" Price, who was 16 years old, and his very close friend, saxophonist Howard "Howie" Jefferson, who was 15 years old. They remained with the Nite Hawks for 10 years.

A young high school student, Jaki Byard, began writing his first arrangements at this time and these were used by the Nite Hawks while it was directed by Freddie Bates. Jaki Byard also began playing piano on occasion with the Nite Hawks.

In 1938, Jefferson and Price spearheaded the creation of one of the first jazz cooperatives in the US called the "Saxtrum Club". Other original members included Dick Murray, Ralph Briscott, Jaki Byard, Ed Shamgochian (who sometimes played drums with the Nite Hawks), and Harold Black who played with both Mamie Moffitt's Five Jazz Hounds and with Boots Ward's Nite Hawks. Black's membership in the Saxtrum Club bridged the generation gap through his association with the younger players.

Nightly after hours jam sessions at the Saxtrum Club drew many, many national touring musicians who played with Worcester locals in friendly jam sessions and lively "carving" contests. Many of the young local musicians rubbed elbows with touring jazzers and learned their craft at the Saxtrum Club while making national contacts. These Worcester natives included Jaki Byard, Barbara Carroll, Don Asher, Don Fagerquist and others.

From the members of the Saxtrum Club, a permanent ensemble was formed by Roscoe Blunt Jr. called "The Rockie Blunt All-Stars". This was the first racially integrated jazz group in Worcester, and one of the very first to record. Jefferson and Price were members of this ensemble.

It is assumed that Mamie Moffitt's New York connections opened some opportunities for nationally acclaimed Worcester natives, including Wendell Culley (trumpet) with whom she maintained a lifelong friendship. In fact, Wendell Culley visited Mamie Moffitt shortly before her death in 1954. Miriam Seals Moffitt died October 17, 1954.

The Cape Cod Enterprise reported that her funeral was "attended by a large throng of mourners, white, colored and Indian". (See Photo Gallery for Mamie’s official death certificate and obituary). It is noteworthy that her official death certificate lists her race as “Red” , meaning Native American.

Mamie was loved by all whom she met throughout her life. She was vivacious, extremely sociable, always fashion conscious, and so lovingly warm to her adoring family.

Somehow, her life seems to have been orchestrated by the polarities dealt to her. As the grand daughter of a former slave, Mamie insisted on being self-reliant and independent. She chose to play solo piano and to travel alone early in her career (late 1800’s). This was especially unusual for a black woman of that time. (See Photo Gallery)

Her mother instilled in Mamie a fierce pride in her heritage. She was African American (which, in her case, meant that her ancestors were TAKEN FROM their native African homeland and brought to this country as slaves),

and she was also Native American (a people who remained IN THEIR COUNTRY, but whose land was continually taken from them). Despite the indignities suffered by her ancestors, she was never bitter and embraced life long friends of all races. She was always cheerful and quick with a smile.

Miriam “Mamie” Seals Moffitt died on October 17, 1954. As she requested, her urn was buried in the gravesite of her mother, Esther, in Rural Cemetery in New Bedford, MA.

Above all, it should be remembered that Miriam Seals ("Mamie" Moffitt) was a dedicated and elegant church musician who was also very stylish and fashion conscious, a fiery "hot jazz" musician who freely shared her love of music and considerable knowledge and experience with the second generation of jazz musicians in Central MA. (see Audio for Ernestine Gray's description of Mamie Moffett.)

For the sharing of her personal uniqueness and musical gifts, and for her advancement of the language of jazz, the jazz world is grateful.



  • Brann, Evelyn. Personal Interview. Telephone. 2 Dec. 2003.
  • Bergman, Peter M. and Bergman, Mort N. The Chronological History of the Negro in America. New York: New American Library, 1969.
  • Cape Cod Times. Obituary for Miriam Seals Moffit. 19 Oct. 1954.
  • Erenberg, Lewis. Steppin' Out, New York Night Life and the transformation of American Culture 1890-1930. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1981.
  • Estrella, Miriam. Personal Interview. Telephone. 7 Nov. 2003.
  • Estrella, Miriam. Personal Interview. Mashpee, MA. 14 Nov. 2003
  • Estrella, Miriam. Personal family library.
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  • Hampton, Lionel. Hamp. New York: Warner Bros., 1989.
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  • Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy. London: Methuen, 1982.
  • Peretti, Burton. The Creation of Jazz, Music, Race, and Culture in Urban America. Chicago: U. of Illinois Press,1992.
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  • The Enterprise. Obituary for Natalie Thomas. 25 July 1992.
  • Williamson, Chet. Personal resource library.
  • Williamson,Chet. “When Nite Hawks Made Shadows Danced” . Worcester Magazine. 21 Feb. 2001.
  • Talkin' History: Jazz In Worcester Then and Now (Symposium.Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) Worcester, MA). Videocassette WCCA TV, 25 Feb. 2001. Video interviews of Central MA jazz artists. Videocassette of panel presentations.


  • Estrella, Miriam. Recorded interview on location in her home, Mashpee, MA. And used with her permission.18 Nov. 2003. Recorded by Lee Whalen. Re-mastered by Michael Drnek. Dec. 2003.
  • Talkin' History: Jazz In Worcester Then and Now (Symposium.Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) Worcester, MA). Videocassette WCCA TV, 25 Feb. 2001. Video interviews of Central MA jazz artists. Videocassette of panel presentations.


  • Photos provided by Miriam Estrella, and Chet Williamson, from their personal libraries. Used by permission.

Primary Source Materials:

Letter from Charles Seals (brother of Mamie Seals Moffitt) regarding family history with a focus on his grandmother Miriam Johnson Seals who was a former slave. Written in his own hand. Provided by Miriam Estrella. Used by permission.

Letter from Natalie Thomas written in her own hand clarifying details of her paternal great grandparents (parents of Harrison Seals). Provided by Miriam Estrella. Used by permission.

Writings of Miriam Mamie Moffitt’s oldest daughter: Natalie Thomas’ original memoirs written in her own hand, detailing much of her mother’s professional performance career and family history. Provided by Miriam Estrella (grand daughter of Mamie Moffitt and daughter of Natalie Thomas). Used by permission.

A VERY SPECIAL THANK YOU to Mrs. Miriam Estrella for her generous contributions to this article. Thank you to Chet Williamson for his continued generosity.