New Orleans-Area Musicians on the West Coast, 1908-1925

By Gushee, Lawrence | Black Music Research Journal, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview
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New Orleans-Area Musicians on the West Coast, 1908-1925


Gushee, Lawrence, Black Music Research Journal


Although the basic pattern of development of jazz up to 1940 is articulated in terms of regions (the Midwest, the Southwest) and cities (New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Kansas City), only one of those locales has been studied in any detail. Many amateur, semiprofessional, and professional researchers have investigated and written about the music of New Orleans. There is but one book-length study on New York, now over twenty years old (Charters and Kunstadt 1962), and one on Kansas City and its region (Russell 1982). (1) There is no substantial study of Chicago and not even a respectable number of essays, although of course a great deal of jazz biography necessarily deals with musicians originating there or importantly active in the city. Finally, there is no major study devoted to that sizable part of the country west of the Rocky Mountains. The recent book compiled by Tom Stoddard, Jazz on the Barbary Coast (1982), defines its subject by time, place, and ethnicity somewhat narrowly but is nonetheless useful and interesting for that part of the California story involving black musicians in San Francisco and Oakland.

Among the stories that we have been accustomed to tell using this geographical approach is the dissemination of southern dance music and performing styles, particularly those developed in New Orleans, to the rest of the country. We think of Chicago as especially favored in this respect, since a cadre of some three dozen, mostly black, New Orleans musicians was well-established there between approximately 1918 and 1928. They were well-established not only as club, cabaret, and dance hall musicians but also in the recording studios of Okeh, Vocalion, Columbia, Gennett, Paramount, Victor, and a few others. Actually, the bulk of the recording work went to a group somewhat smaller than three dozen.

So far as New York City is concerned, for most jazz historians the story of New Orleans musicians there begins and ends with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the handful of black New Orleanians who recorded between 1923 and 1925 under the direction of Clarence Williams. This story is long overdue for revision, although it has to be said that the kind of musicianship required to survive in New York did not match the skills of most New Orleans jazz musicians and their way of making music in ensembles. By the end of the decade, however, one big band, that led by pianist Luis Russell, showed that Crescent City musicians could not only survive but even outclass many an eastern band on its home turf.

For the last twenty-five or thirty years, an alternative story has frequently been proposed, namely that of the more or less simultaneous origin of jazz in any city where there were significant assemblages of Afro-American instrumentalists. Three problems beset this story (or hypothesis): first, the enormous discrepancy between the amount of knowledge we have of music in New Orleans and in other locales; second, the question of the overlap between ragtime and jazz, perhaps even between ragtime and whatever preceded it; and finally, insufficient knowledge of the travels of New Orleans musicians to cities other than Chicago and New York.

Since very little of the voluminous literature of jazz devotes significant attention to what was going on with hot music in the West, it goes without saying that the story of the spread of New Orleans musicians westward has had to be inferred, as it were, from hints scattered here and there through the documentation of the activities of New Orleans musicians. Some of the major reference tools, however, have a bias that renders them of little use for the topic under investigation here. The chief biographical dictionary for New Orleans musicians (Rose and Souchon 1984) either ignores or inadequately reports any musical activities outside of New Orleans of the hundreds of musicians included (although the numerous photographs often testify to them). There is, nonetheless, a story, and one trusts that in due course it will be worked into the tapestry of jazz history.

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