April 20, 2009
Swing Territory, Part I
Douglas Henry Daniels, One O’clock Jump: The Unforgettable History of the Oklahoma City Blue Devils (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006, 274 pp.)
Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix, Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop—A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, xi + 274 pp.)
by Todd Bryant Weeks
The Oklahoma City Blue Devils, the ne plus ultra of all the territory bands, still command legendary status among generations of jazz musicians, scholars, critics, and collectors. The band’s undiminished reputation is based, in part, on the paucity of recorded evidence (a sole 78) but also on the illustrious assemblage of players who passed through the group’s ranks between 1923 and 1933. Many of these musicians (Walter Page, Buster Smith, Eddie Durham, Hot Lips Page, Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, and Lester Young among them) were virtuosos who made definitive statements on their instruments, and in the process helped to redefine the notion of what it meant to swing. As a working big band, the Blue Devils could reputedly tackle complicated ensemble passages with the kind of precision and assurance unmatched in the highly competitive dance halls of Oklahoma City, Kansas City, and other towns from the Mexican border to Omaha. That they apparently worked from head arrangements only made them all the more remarkable. Several Blue Devils went on to become key members of the Bennie Moten Orchestra, and, in what is now the stuff of legend, Motenites went on to become Basieites. Accordingly, for those whose idea of swing begins and ends with Basie, the Blue Devils may be said to sit at the center of the big band Vorstellung. In addition, their commonwealth approach to running a band—the musicians shared equally in all profits and expenses—has long endeared them to writers who champion the notion of jazz as a democratic process.
Given the dearth of research on southwestern jazz, aficionados have long awaited the publication of these books. The more problematic of the two is One O’Clock Jump: The Unforgettable History of the Oklahoma Blue Devils, by Douglas Henry Daniels, a professor of history and black studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Daniels’s narrative, interwoven with band members’ biographies, is a kind of patchwork of stories and assorted facts that occasionally cohere into a more composite picture of the Oklahoma City music world in the 1920s and 1930s. His previous jazz book, Lester Leaps In: The Life and Times of Lester “Pres” Young, demonstrated his facility with obscure sources (e.g., parish records in backwater communities like Woodville, Mississippi) and this new work is equally research-intensive. His genealogical research, which unearthed new data on Buster Smith, Hot Lips Page, and others, lends depth and authenticity to the book. He exhaustively plumbed the Oklahoma City Black Dispatch, Kansas City Call, Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, and lesser-known papers such as the Sioux City Journal, the St. Louis Argus, and the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. He also interviewed Blue Devils Buster Smith, Leonard Chadwick, Le Roy “Snake” Whyte, and Abe Bolar extensively. Through this painstaking research, Daniels traces the band in its various incarnations from their early days in the dance halls and lodges of Oklahoma City to their final, infamous gig in the mountains of West Virginia. The author provides illuminating accounts of each musician’s early history, such as singer Jimmy Rushing’s 1920s Los Angeles period and his family life in the African American Oklahoma City neighborhood known as “Deep Deuce.” Here Rushing worked in a confectionary–sandwich shop operated by his father before becoming floor manager at the Blue Devils’ Oklahoma City headquarters, Slaughter’s Hall. On this gleaming dance floor, the youthful, trimmer “James” Rushing set the tempos for the musicians and demonstrated the latest steps for the dancers.
Readers will have difficulty culling a clear, sequential chronology from Douglas’s nonlinear narrative, especially as each band member’s story begins anew. Daniels relies heavily on quotations, often stringing together disparate “bites” without much concern for matters of style. His factual information should prove extremely helpful to researchers and historians, but the reader must tread carefully. While presenting new research that compellingly documents the young Hot Lips Page sojourning to Chicago in 1926 to meet his idol, Louis Armstrong, Daniels erroneously states that Armstrong initially arrived in Chicago in 1921, rather than 1922 (87). He locates the famous Bennie Moten 1932 Victor sessions in “Brunswick,” rather than Camden, New Jersey (88). An interview with Eddie Durham is dated November 7, 1988, over a year after Durham’s death. He also confuses the date of the Blue Devils’ one and only recording session, first correctly specifying November 1929 (55) and then switching to 1928 (63, 242). Still, we discover many unknown or unpublished accounts of the band, from its 1920s vaudeville beginnings with the Billy King Road Show to its later working environment to the social background of its local black audience.
This audience was decidedly middle class, and Douglas goes to some length to describe the important relationship between the black business community, black churches, and various fraternal orders that helped to support the dance bands in Oklahoma City. The band’s onetime director Willie Lewis and a later director, Walter Page (that most preeminent of jazz bassists) were once music instructors at the Coleridge Taylor School of Music in the Sooner capitol, where they often gave classical recitals, sometimes joined by the whole band. Daniels suggests that Oklahoma City’s unique middle-class environment “provided fertile grounds for the development of a rich Southwestern music tradition that is often overshadowed by the emphasis on Kansas City” (12).
As celebrated in the essays of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray (and the oft-cited sentiments of Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis) the Blue Devils have assumed a singular place at the center of the rhetorical construct of “jazz as America’s music.” Accounts of the band often take on a mythological-literary aura rooted in anthropological models, where the musicians are depicted as hero-warriors who are chosen from among the ranks of the plebeians and who then go on to lead the fight against bigger and stronger but ultimately less charismatic adversaries; the “Little Band That Could,” as it were. Perhaps the band’s story is most deeply experienced through these constructs.
In “Remembering Jimmy,” his 1964 homage to Jimmy Rushing , Ralph Ellison vividly remembered hearing the band as a teenager growing up on the East side of Oklahoma City:
When we were still too young to attend night dances, but yet old enough to gather beneath the corner street lamp on summer evenings, anyone might halt the conversation to exclaim, “Listen, they're raising hell down at Slaughter's Hall,” and we'd turn our heads westward to hear Jimmy's voice soar up the hill and down, as pure and as miraculously unhindered by distance and earthbound things as is the body in youthful dreams of flying. “Now, that's the Right Reverend Jimmy Rushing preaching now, man,” someone would say. And rising to the cue another would answer, “Yeah, and that's old Elder ‘Hot Lips’ signifying along with him, urging him on, man.” And, keeping it building, “Huh, but though you can't hear him out this far, Ole Deacon Big-un [the late Walter Page] is up there patting his foot and slapping on his big belly [the bass viol] to keep those fools in line.” And we might go on to name all the members of the band as though they were the Biblical four-and-twenty elders, while laughing at the impious wit of applying church titles to a form of music which all the preachers assured us was the devil's potent tool.
Ellison’s treatment of this narrative is in itself a kind of apotheosis, and we may grant him a bit of poetic license. And yet this is a first hand-observation. As a lover of jazz, a dedicated student of the trumpet, and a would-be classical composer, Ellison made a concerted effort to get acquainted with individual Blue Devils and purportedly loaned his mellophone to Hot Lips Page on occasion in exchange for the privilege of sitting in on the band’s rehearsals. Ellison’s fascination with jazz and the roving dance bands of the Southwest would inform much of his writing on a variety of subjects and remained strongly evident in his final novel, Juneteenth, in which one of his main characters is an ex-jazz musician turned preacher. In a 1977 interview the author remarked that “jazz was a part of a total culture, at least among Afro-Americans. People saved their nickels and dimes in order to participate in it. Hell, we used to work like the dickens to get the admission fee when a dance was being played by someone we admired. Jazzmen were heroes. . . . I guess they still are.”
Ellison often invoked the Blue Devils when articulating his deeply felt ideals about jazz as a collaborative art and true expression of what democratic American life was meant to be, particularly as expressed by the hands, and in the hearts, of black Americans. And for Ellison the pursuit of those ideals was made manifest in the rituals of the public jazz dance and in the sweeping evocations, both comic and tragic, of the blues, which he saw as a form of symbolic action. To Ellison this music, and the action it demanded, were in their nature essentially American.
But what of this ritual mythology and “symbolic action” as it applies to the Blue Devils? Were these musicians really, as Ellison scholar Robert O’Meally has written, “prototypical American[s], cut in the hero’s mold,” participating in a process that “embodies democratic communication at its finest: an artistic and implicitly political gesture…toward perfection”? Or were they just a group of men who went to work day in and day out, simply trying to feed their families? And is there a difference?
Ellison developed as an artist and thinker in a time of great social and political upheaval in the United States. The Great Depression of the 1930s was a potent and alarming backdrop to the daily life of most Americans, and southwestern blacks were no exception. In the years before the crash, oil development in Texas and around Oklahoma City brought about unrivalled prosperity. This prosperity, while not shared equitably with the black community as a whole, did help foster a thriving Negro middle class, of which Ellison was very much a member, in aspiration if not in income. His early musical training was considerable, lending credibility to his accounts of the Blue Devils’ musical prowess.
During his youth Ellison was exposed to the writings and speeches of a generation of spiritual and civic leaders whose rhetoric was rooted in the Reconstruction ethos of their parents. Often highly educated, this generation (which also included members of the Blue Devils) had seen great social progress in their lifetimes but also understood how it felt to be on the short end of compromise. Despite the injustices plainly evident on the segregated streets of Oklahoma City, these leaders, through their good works and confident sense of their own righteousness, insisted on a stronger and more equitable social compact. Roscoe Dunjee’s Oklahoma City Black Dispatch helped set this tone for Ellison by reporting on the fight for equal rights in the courts or by simply repeating the words of local preachers like the Rev. John Wesley Oveltrea of the Tabernacle Baptist Church. In the January 9, 1930, issue, Oveltrea called for greater economic integrity and race consciousness among parishioners:
A system of slavery exists today in our group. . . . No race is free that has not learned to respect itself and support and encourage its group enterprises. No race is free that does not cooperate unreservedly with its men of ability and vision. The . . . emancipation will be a reality when we cease to consider “black” as an emblem of inferiority, it will come when we are not economic beggars and learned to produce wealth as well as consume wealth. No race is free who depends on other races for jobs and sustenance. The Negro must take his place in every important function of life and government before we have achieved our freedom.
In the Blue Devils’ music, Ellison saw a reflection of the core democratic values embraced by Dunjee and other prominent local figures. But how exactly were the Blue Devils part of this ethos? And how would a conception of the band as socially conscious middle-class strivers jibe with the popularly held notion of early jazz musicians as roustabouts, itinerants, and independent-minded artists living outside accepted codes of behavior—codes honed and upheld by those same community leaders who hired the Blue Devils to perform at their dances week after week? Perhaps out of necessity these musicians were able to move in both worlds, as suggested by some of Daniels’s accounts. Social and economic disparities between band members could even be worked to their advantage. Buster Smith recalled that upon arrival in a new town, the band would have a booking but no publicity, and they relied on themselves to spread the word and scare up an audience. In a scenario only Hollywood could imagine, the musicians would split up and travel to different sectors of town, with the sophisticates like Lawrence Williams and Willie Lewis (who spoke French and German) working the more prosperous restaurants and expensive shops, while the rougher, more streetwise types hit the pool halls and barbershops. Daniels does address these disparities but is not very interested in them; the musicians are generally held up as men of high moral character with few, if any, faults. These social distinctions among individual band members are important, because they complicate any attempt to harness the entire group to any predetermined ideological narrative; the band has become a kind of canvas on which modern proselytizers for jazz as “America’s music” paint in romantic shades, depicting struggle, triumph, and eventual tragedy, followed by a kind of deification.
Of course Ellison’s idealization of jazz is rooted not only in sociopolitical values and symbolic action, but also in pure celebration. In this way jazz becomes a conscious and unconscious ritual of catharsis through dancing, singing, and carrying on: a “purging of blue devils” providing spiritual armor against invisibility and negation. But how were the more concrete realities of these performances transformed in Ellison’s imagination? Have we perhaps relied too strongly on his eloquence? What was the band’s actual relationship to its community, which kept its musicians afloat by attending their performances at dances and tea parties and recitals and midnight rambles? All of these questions, it would seem to me, should be posed before one writes a book on the Blue Devils. In defense of Daniels, he does make some attempts to answer these questions, and perhaps it’s unfair to expect a sociological dissertation when he has provided so much important, original research. But in seizing on the “upright” character of the Blue Devils, he often detracts from the bigger picture; ultimately Ellison’s vision is broader and more humanistic.
Daniels’s focus is decidedly Afrocentric, and his interviews tend to draw out details supporting his vision of a band founded by clearheaded, clean-living family men rooted in the philosophical tradition of black self-reliance. Though I do not doubt this vision has a basis in truth, the author often seems bent on instructing us that not all early black jazz musicians were scalawags.
Daniels’s emphasis on the grassroots nature and community orientation of the Blue Devils is appealing but ultimately reductive, overshadowing other issues that beg consideration. The next book on the Blue Devils could dwell more incisively on the band’s musical style and antecedents; its relationship to the traditions of minstrelsy and black vaudeville; its repertoire and what that repertoire signified about performance contexts; and its typical performance routines, etc. Daniels does try to recreate their performance atmosphere somewhat, but only in fragmentary segments folded into other factual material.
In the end, what is missing in this book is the kind of narrative that allows us to relax into an integrated world partly of our own imagining. Daniels wants us as willing participants, and his biographical accounts are almost always engaging, sometimes harrowing, and ultimately inspiring. But what of the need to clarify and understand the import of these musicians’ work in the wider context of jazz history and American history? Perhaps that is too much to ask when the band left so little recorded evidence, but the Blue Devils’ legacy is too vital to leave this question unaddressed. Walter Page’s contributions alone could fill a whole book. Daniels speaks to his influence on other band members and its eventual transmission to Jo Jones and Freddie Green of the Basie band, but the wider import of Page’s achievement—its far-reaching effects on the development of jazz—is addressed solely by the statement: “In their own way, these musicians [Durham, Rushing, Basie, Lips Page, and Walter Page] along with [Eddie] Barefield and [Ben] Webster and the more famous East Coast composers and arrangers, charted the development of swing and the music’s future.” This is, in a word, inadequate for a book that claims to be “a corrective to jazz histories that overlook the Blue Devils’ important contribution to this quintessential American music.”
[To be continued]
Todd Bryant Weeks is a jazz historian, educator and trade unionist. His first book, Luck’s In My Corner: The Life and Music of Hot Lips Page, was published in 2008 by Routledge Press.
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