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Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia, 1930–1942

Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia, 1930–1942

Christopher Wilkinson
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia, 1930–1942
    Book Description:

    The coal fields of West Virginia would seem an unlikely market for big band jazz during the Great Depression. That a prosperous African American audience dominated by those involved with the coal industry was there for jazz tours would seem equally improbable. Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia, 1930-1942 shows that, contrary to expectations, black Mountaineers flocked to dances by the hundreds, in many instances traveling considerable distances to hear bands led by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Andy Kirk, Jimmie Lunceford, and Chick Webb, among numerous others. Indeed, as one musician who toured the state would recall, "All the bands were goin' to West Virginia."The comparative prosperity of the coal miners, thanks to New Deal industrial policies, was what attracted the bands to the state. This study discusses that prosperity as well as the larger political environment that provided black Mountaineers with a degree of autonomy not experienced further south. Author Christopher Wilkinson demonstrates the importance of radio and the black press both in introducing this music and in keeping black West Virginians up to date with its latest developments. The book explores connections between local entrepreneurs who staged the dances and the national management of the bands that played those engagements. In analyzing black audiences' aesthetic preferences, the author reveals that many black West Virginians preferred dancing to a variety of music, not just jazz. Finally, the book shows bands now associated almost exclusively with jazz were more than willing to satisfy those audience preferences with arrangements in other styles of dance music.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-169-4
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction: Coal, Railroads, and the Establishment of African American Life in West Virginia
    (pp. 3-32)

    “Well, all the bands were goin’ through West Virginia because the mines were in operation, and everyone, you know, was employed.” Jazz clarinetist and saxophonist Herbert Hall made this observation on February 23, 1980, in the course of an interview with Sterlin Holmesly, a journalist with theSan Antonio Express News. Hall recounted details of his life including his years as a member of a dance band that the New Orleans-born trumpet player Don Albert formed in October 1929, and broke up in the summer of 1940. While exploring Hall’s memories of his years with Albert’s band, Holmesly took up...

  5. PART ONE The Economic Foundation of Big Band Dance Music in the Mountain State

    • CHAPTER ONE From the Coal Face to the Dance Floor: Black Miners as Patrons of Big Bands
      (pp. 35-47)

      Understanding the connections between the work of coal miners, the major audience for jazz and dance music, and the big bands that played the music that meant so much to them during the 1930s and early 1940s is key to understanding the economic foundation of this musical culture. This chapter follows the money from the coal seam to the dance venue and from there to the band providing the music—and then, in many instances, to the New York–based corporation that managed that band, paid it a part of the proceeds of each engagement, but kept the majority of...

    • CHAPTER TWO Validating Herbert Hall’s Contention: Paul Barnes’s Gig Book
      (pp. 48-58)

      Herbert Hall’s recollection that “all the bands were goin’ through West Virginia in the 1930sbecause[emphasis added] the mines were in operation … and everyone was employed” is supported by evidence found in a rarely encountered document: a record kept by the saxophonist/clarinetist Paul D. Barnes (1901–1981) documenting various details of his performances. The term used by certain jazz musicians for such a volume is “gig book.”

      A native of New Orleans and known there by his nickname “Polo,” Barnes’s musical career was largely played out in the Crescent City and elsewhere in Louisiana, first as co-leader of...

  6. PART TWO Big Bands in Black West Virginia:: 1929–1935

    • CHAPTER THREE Newspapers and Radio Bring the World of the Big Bands to Black West Virginia
      (pp. 61-67)

      The establishment of big band music as a vital part of the musical culture of black West Virginia reflected the impact of multiple forces of which the two most powerful were newspapers and radio. African Americans in West Virginia were avid readers of thePittsburgh Courier, “thenewspaper for people of color” as Francis Flippen recalled (Flippen 2005). TheCourierappeared every Saturday and almost always devoted at least two full pages to news of the world of black entertainment, including the activities of leading dance bands. Some of this reportage took the form of short articles summarizing the future...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Local and Territory Bands in the Emerging Culture of Big Band Jazz and Dance Music in the Mountain State
      (pp. 68-85)

      The early 1930s were a time of near economic chaos in the coalfields. The newspaper record shows that in the Mountain State the vast majority of live dance music was provided by local bands and by touring “territory bands,” mostly based in the southeast and south-central part of the country as well as in the Midwest. These ensembles would be either partially or totally eclipsed when New York–based name bands began to arrive in the state with increasing regularity after the NRA stabilized the mining industry and wages increased beginning late in 1933.

      Given the prominence of the name...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Big Band Jazz Comes to the Mountain State: 1929–1933
      (pp. 86-101)

      The complexities of the musical culture of black West Virginians before World War II should by now be obvious. Sacred and secular, oral and notated, indigenous and imported, the styles and genres of African American music found in the Mountain State during the 1930s were every bit as diverse as those found elsewhere in the nation. Situated between urban northern and rural southern black culture, the Mountain State accommodated the musics of both domains with equal ease. Black music had arrived from further south and east with the miners, railroad workers, and their families, while newer styles cultivated further north,...

    • CHAPTER 6 Comparative Prosperity Arrives: September 1933–April 1935
      (pp. 102-122)

      The fortunes of the Price Hill miners photographed in 1931 changed dramatically after September 18, 1933, as did those of miners throughout the Mountain State. For it was on that day that President Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 6137, “Code of Fair Competition for the Bituminous Coal Industry.” That order ratified labor agreements between the coal operators and the United Mine Workers of America and brought stability to an industry that had been in chaos since October 1929.

      As previously noted, the positive effects of the Bituminous Coal Code on the economy of the Mountain State in general and upon...

  7. PART THREE West Virginia in the Swing Era, 1935–1942

    • CHAPTER SEVEN The Place of the Mountain State on the Road Traveled by the Big Bands
      (pp. 125-139)

      Conventional wisdom, first expressed in 1956 by Marshall W. Stearns, holds that the Swing Era began on August 21, 1935, at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles (Stearns 1956, 211). On that night, following a decidedly lackluster tour that originated in New York, the Benny Goodman Orchestra appeared suddenly to find its audience for big band jazz. When the band played Fletcher Henderson’s arrangement of “King Porter Stomp,” half the crowd apparently stopped dancing to listen to the band and was vociferous in expressing its enthusiasm for this number. Goodman later recalled: “That first big roar from the crowd was...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT The Big Bands’ Audience in the Mountain State
      (pp. 140-147)

      We know where dances were held and who was responsible for getting the bands to those venues. But who danced to the music of the black name bands of the period in West Virginia, and what did they hear? First, we must examine the available evidence concerning the identity of the potential audience based on what can be determined about the larger African American population of the coalfields.

      Dances not organized by a local promoter, such as George Morton or one of his associates, were put on by a variety of organizations. This included social clubs such as Les Precieuses,...

    • CHAPTER NINE The Dance Repertory Played in the Coal Fields
      (pp. 148-164)

      In what ways does the admittedly rough sample of the black population of the southern coalfields discussed in the previous chapter—by implication an equally rough sample of those likely to attend dances—shed light on the variety of music which the touring bands would perform? First of all, consider the age range in 1930 of the sample. The youngest of them was Lola Perkins of Price Hill. She was just 16, thus born around 1914, and was the wife of eighteen-year-old Thomas Perkins who mined coal. The oldest was the McDowell County Justice of the Peace, Samuel Crider, age...

    • CHAPTER TEN The Party Winds Down
      (pp. 165-178)

      The coal industry provided the economic foundation for the culture of big band jazz and dance music in the Mountain State during the 1930s, and it would be that same industry that initiated its decline. Events following the start of World War II would complete that process.

      It will be recalled that at the beginning of the 1930s much of the work associated with mining coal was done by hand. In chapter 1, the work of “hand loaders” was summarized by William Purvience Tams Jr. Tams also discussed the modification of that job description that resulted when mine operators acquired...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 179-184)
  9. Works Cited
    (pp. 185-190)
  10. Index
    (pp. 191-197)