The Dance Repertory Played in the Coal Fields
The Dance Repertory Played in the Coal Fields
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the repertory of music played by the touring bands at the numerous dances for which they were engaged in West Virginia during the 1930s and 1940s. It provides evidence to the diversity of tastes in dance music and suggests that the main types of audience, those who prefer swinging jazz and those who prefer sweet styles, were not defined by class. The chapter also suggests that all of the black bands were prepared to perform arrangements running along the spectrum of style from sweet to hot, and did so with great regularity.
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 62, born around 1868.
Just as forty-six years separates the respective years of Perkins and Crider’s birth, that same time period embraces a wide range of African American musical styles. Whereas Mr. Crider came of age before the advent of ragtime at the end of the nineteenth century, young Mrs. Perkins could have regarded jazz of the late 1920s as a well-established element of the American soundscape. The shared musical culture of these two would have been the variety of vernacular styles, both sacred and secular, that constituted the indigenous black musical culture of the Mountain State.
When we consider all thirty-two individuals discussed in the last chapter whose ages in 1930 were documented by the census enumerators (unfortunately, no data could be located for two of the Kings of Amusement: C. W. Hart or Thomas L. Mitchell, both of Charleston), the following facts come to light. First, the average age of this cohort is thirty-three years and five months. Second, the vast majority were in their thirties at the time of the census; the rest were distributed as follows: six were in their twenties, five in their forties, four in their teens, two in their sixties, and one was fifty years old.
(p.149) What do these data suggest about the nature of the audience for big band dance music in the decade to come? First, it must be conceded that an arbitrary sample of people from 1930, some of whom we know to have been actively cultivating an audience for this music while others constituted its potential audience, is not necessarily predictive of that audience five and ten years later. It does suggest, nevertheless, that the musical tastes of black Mountaineers were probably broad, extending outside the realm of what has come to be defined as big band jazz, something that would appear to be even more likely as they heard a increasing variety of musical styles aired on network radio.
Moreover, as noted earlier, when we look at statements by black Mountaineers that found their way into various newspapers in the 1930s—especially the Pittsburgh Courier during the course of its band popularity contests and in comments send to the radio editor of that newspaper, whose weekly column informed readers of upcoming broadcasts by black bands—the extent of the variation in preferences for dance music becomes clearer.
In October 1932, as previously noted, Talitha G. Saunders let the Courier know that “Noble Sissle and his international orchestra are to my way of thinking superior to all the rest. He is my ideal and is appreciated most because of his ultra rhythmic syncopation that is so sweet and hot” (PC 10.15.32, 2/1). Her sentiments were echoed by Gladys Mike of Wheeling who wrote to say that “I think that Noble Sissle has the only Negro band on the radio that can compare with my great favorite, Guy Lombardo. His band has tone, harmony, volume, and sweetness; in fact, everything to make an excellent orchestra. He has certainly made a hit with me” (PC 10.29.32, 1/5). Members of two fraternal organizations on the campus of West Virginia State College held a Snow Fest on December 7, 1935, for which, according to a reporter for the student newspaper, the Yellow Jacket, “Elmer Anderson and his Rhythm Kings played sweet music for the lovely dancers” (YJ 12.21.35, 3).
In contrast, a letter sent to Allan Eckstein, radio editor of the Courier, staked out territory at some distance from the domain of sweet music. A self-described “regular radio maniac” wrote that, while he was always happy to hear the bands led by “Fatha” Hines, Don Redman, Cab Calloway, and Noble Sissle, “if you want to give me an idea of Paradise kindly let me have an occasional idea of the whereabouts of the incomparable Duke Ellington, the renowned Fletcher Henderson, and the one and only (p.150) McKinney’s Cotton Pickers … these three constitute the radio world’s idea of heaven” (PC 12/20/32, 2/1).
Hardly surprising should be the fact that music associated with social events attracting a variety of people would reflect a variety of stylistic preferences. At West Virginia State College, a dramatic club known as the Mimes “danced to the familiar tunes of Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo, Chick Webb and many other popular bands” on December 16, 1938 (YJ 12.21.38, 3). One may infer that those “familiar tunes” were probably played on recordings. Previously mentioned was a radio party in Fairmont late in August 1934, hosted by Ernest Owens. As reported in the Courier, the broadcasts were of bands led respectively by Noble Sissle, Wayne King, and Claude Hopkins (PC 9.1.34, 2/6).
What are the implications for the music played for black Mountaineers by the black name bands? It seems clear that those bands must have played in a variety of styles ranging along a continuum from hot, uptempo jazz at one end to sweet, “mellow” dance music at the other. For reasons to be discussed below, it also appears probable that in the period under discussion, touring dance bands played their most diverse repertories on the road, including during engagements in West Virginia.
Consider the four types of settings in which dance bands performed in the 1930s and early 1940s: first, location jobs in northern big-city hotels and ballrooms; second, sponsored or sustaining radio programs often emanating from those hotels; third, the recording studio; and, finally, engagements played on tour. Each had its own set of expectations for the repertory performed, some most welcome by the musicians, others less so. Of the four, it seems certain that among the most inflexible were associated with hotel ballrooms and similar venues. There the constraints on repertory and style of performance reflected the time-tested musical preferences of regular patrons combined with the ambience of the establishment, which its management was committed to maintaining.
Consider the Roosevelt Grill in the Hotel Roosevelt in New York. Beginning in 1929, this venue became, and for several decades would remain, Guy Lombardo’s home base. In his autobiography, Auld Acquaintance, the bandleader claimed that the success of his Royal Canadians lay in the fact that “our listeners recognized the melody because we didn’t dress it up with fancy embellishments…. We were playing for the people who demanded the melody of their favorite songs and the beat that encouraged them to dance” (Lombardo 1975, 80). In addition, the Royal Canadians had established a reputation as a quiet band even before it went to New York, (p.151) which, according to Lombardo, enabled patrons “to talk or whisper to each other as they danced…. It is difficult to offer an endearment if you have to compete with a loud orchestra” (Lombardo 1975, 40).
Such a formula proved highly successful, and the band’s popularity with the patrons of the Roosevelt led to the expectation that, when Lombardo was on tour, any band that might substitute for the Royal Canadians would adhere to the same standards. Obviously these expectations would not have been consonant with the style of a jazz band the distinctive style of which depended on the “fancy embellishments” he decried, the product of innovative arrangements and individual players’ improvisations. Also to be expected was that a jazz band would typically perform at a higher volume so that those improvised solos could be heard over a noisy crowd. Benny Goodman’s band did not follow Lombardo’s lead, the patrons at the Roosevelt did not welcome it, and it was quickly let go (Erenberg 1998, 4).
When the fit between the audience’s preferences and a band is a good one, the band can expect to settle in for a long stand. One obvious example of such a good fit brought together the dancers who patronized the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem and the band led by drummer Chick Webb. The audience was young and mostly black; the music was hot; the Lindy Hop was the dance of choice. Lewis Erenberg observed: “Chick Webb, leader of the house band, gloried in his ability to work the dancers into a frenzy with ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy,’ ‘Don’t Be That Way,’ ‘In the Groove at the Grove,’ ‘Undecided,’ and others” (Erenberg 1998, 111). Simply put, by fulfilling his audience’s expectations, Webb’s band became the major force in creating the “Home for Happy Feet” that was the Savoy and would serve as its house band for five years as a consequence.
When considering the impact of radio, what must be borne in mind is that whether a broadcast originated in a venue suitably equipped for transmission (having a “radio wire,” in other words) or in a broadcast studio, a band had to accept the constraints both of time and of commercial sponsors’ expectations. A thirty-minute program probably included no more than eight arrangements, few much longer than three minutes, to allow time for commercial advertisements and announcements of each number. A fifteen-minute program would require half that number. An unsponsored sustaining program might allow somewhat greater discretion as to choice of music to perform, but as a band’s self-interest dictated presenting listeners—its potential audience during subsequent local engagements and on tours—with as much music as possible to curry (p.152) interest in its sound and style, there, too, arrangements would be short and the style varied.
In the recording studio, the Artist and Repertory (A&R) men or other recording company executives determined what was to be recorded, just as they would determine if and when a number would be released, in how many copies, and in what regions of the country. Black bands were presumed to be recording for the “race,” meaning African American fans, and blues and jazz was to many in the recording business the self-evident music to record.
Well known is the determination of Andy Kirk to break out of that stylistic straitjacket when dealing with Jack Kapp of Decca Records in 1934. Kirk, whose Twelve Clouds of Joy also included crooner Pha Terrill, wanted to record a ballad. Kapp initially rejected the idea. “What’s the matter with you? You’ve got something good going for you. Why do you want to do what the white boys are doing?” Kapp later backed down, and when “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” was released in 1936 it was a hit with both black and white audiences (Kirk 1989, 84–86).
Only a few black bands recorded in a variety of styles along the hot-to-sweet continuum, Kirk’s being one example. One of the most frequently recorded black bands, presenting a varied repertory, touring extensively, and by all accounts with great success, was Jimmie Lunceford’s Orchestra. Its success was surely due in part to its ability to gratify a variety of musical preferences. As previously noted, Lunceford’s band came to West Virginia nineteen times between 1934 and 1942, far more than any other band in that period.
Before looking in detail at the live music played in West Virginia by touring bands beginning with Lunceford’s, it is important to consider the fourth setting in which bands performed: engagements played on the road. Here I want to review the conditions encountered in the Mountain State. First, there were few permanent venues; most dances were staged in armories and other multi-use spaces. Each dance therefore was a product of the local booker’s initiative, the diverse audience’s musical tastes, and the repertory of the band that came to play. A vision of regular patronage by people whose musical preferences were well known, as would have been the case in the venues of the big cities, did not apply here. Second, the majority of black bands were playing for a percentage of the gate, not a fixed fee, and thus were obviously interested in attracting the largest crowd possible. In those instances where bands had been guaranteed a fixed fee, the local entrepreneur had a major interest in gratifying the tastes of as (p.153) many attendees as possible to ensure a large attendance and thus more revenue.
Engagements on tours held the promise of a far greater return than did the location jobs in New York where bands were contracted for fixed weekly wages often so low they were in effect working at a loss. In “The Dance Band Business: A Study in Black and White,” published in Harper’s Magazine in June 1941, Irving Kolodin drew on the testimony of an unidentified bandleader in observing that:
a struggling pianist can no more hope to make money by a Carnegie Hall recital than a bandleader can add directly to his savings by an engagement in a New York hotel. As one of them sadly remarked not long ago: “We opened at the Pennsylvania [Hotel] last fall with an $8,500 pay roll to meet. We got $2,500 a week from the hotel for the job that took most of the time.” It was the total of his earnings from radio and recording contracts that made it possible for him to play the hotel job.
(Kolodin 1941, 75)
The Pennsylvania Hotel welcomed only white bands, which also had far greater access to radio networks than did black ones. That the bandleader cited by Kolodin had one or more recording contracts put him in an elite company. Most black bands were paid a flat fee per side recorded, and a low one at that. The record companies cashed in on the proceeds of sales without paying royalties.
A third consideration is reflected in the demographic survey of black West Virginians presented earlier: a wide range in age, suggesting the probability that musical preferences would be as widely varied. This was obviously very different from the Savoy Ballroom, for instance, where teenagers and those in their early twenties appeared to dominate the dance floor, making it possible for bands to concentrate on playing swinging jazz arrangements, or, for that matter, the upscale white audience for Guy Lombardo’s “Sweetest Music this Side of Heaven” at the Roosevelt Hotel.
Thanks to radio and newspaper publicity, many of the name bands that came to the Mountain State had already established reputations, thus accounting for the fact that hundreds of black West Virginians turned out for their dances, often traveling many miles to do so. What they expected to hear included the music they had already heard, but a four- to six-hour dance would have exhausted that repertory fairly quickly. What else was (p.154) played and how did the bandleaders ensure maximum interest in part to hold on to those present and, perhaps, to attract latecomers?
It seems reasonable to suppose that just as a football team may plan out its first twenty plays as a way of testing the defensive ability of the opposition, so too bandleaders developed fixed set lists for the early part of an engagement to assess audience preferences. Those numbers surely represented various styles of dance music, some hot, some sweet, some somewhere in the middle, a fast Lindy Hop to get the younger audience out on the floor, a waltz for the older attendees, a ballad crooned by a band member for dancers and listeners of all ages. The measure of popularity would have been fairly obvious: the greater the number of patrons on the dance floor for a particular style of music, the greater the number of arrangements in that style as the evening wore on.
Discovering the types of music played by any particular band is not easy, nor is the evidence comprehensive to any extent. Most desirable would have been for a bandleader or sideman to go beyond general descriptions of a band’s repertory to citing titles of arrangements associated with various styles of dance music. That such testimony is largely missing from the historical record is understandable: most bands whose members attracted the attention of scholars and critics were associated with jazz, and their contributions to the jazz tradition is what was of interest. Beyond the fact that attention has been focused on the evolution of big band jazz styles, the recordings documenting the work of these bands were in most instances recordings of jazz. As a consequence, perceptions of bands’ musical endeavors not only focused on their cultivation of this one musical style but also reflect an unmistakable condescension by authors when dealing with evidence of a band’s performances of “commercial music,” whether recorded or not. In some instances, there is a sense that such an ensemble let down the side, so to speak, by failing to adhere exclusively to the highest standards of jazz expression.
Gunther Schuller was clearly ambivalent about the intrusion of the commercial into the domain of the artistic, that is, performances of sweet music by bands that otherwise played jazz and did a pretty good job of it. Consider observations made in connection with a discussion of the Erskine Hawkins Band in the chapter of The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930–1945 entitled “The Great Black Bands”:
But, as we have often seen on these pages, the temptations of commercial success were never far away in those days, nor are they today. (p.155) The fusion then of “sweet” and “hot” styles—“commercial” and “creative”—have been replaced in recent years by another fusion: pop/rock and jazz. And then as now, many musicians under the pressure of economics in what is—we must remind ourselves—essentially an “entertainment” field, succumbed to those commercial temptations. For many 1930s-40’s bands a sweet trumpet solo or a couple of singers, or some novelty tunes were sometimes the difference between survival and demise.
(Schuller 1989, 406)
Schuller’s argument that economic pressures compelled some bands to play in styles that were not artistically rewarding is true (after all, eating is a hard habit for anyone to break, even a musician). What it fails to take into account is the possibility that bands that ultimately acquired significant reputations in the history of big band jazz may have also taken pleasure in their collective ability to perform a variety of styles and genres including sweet music and pride in being able to do so in a manner that appealed to the diverse tastes of their audience. Andy Kirk made plain that the Twelve Clouds of Joy was, fundamentally, a versatile dance band. “People were dance crazy in those days. And if you played the kind of music they liked to dance to, that’s what mattered. As I’ve said, our band didn’t stress jazz, though we played it. We emphasized dance music—romantic ballads and pop tunes and waltzes—Viennese as well as standard popular waltzes like ‘Kiss Me Again’ and ‘Alice Blue Gown.’ I loved to play waltzes. We were first and last a dance orchestra because people were dancing” (Kirk 1989, 61–62).
Studies of other black bands of the period confirm that many now understandably celebrated for their contributions to big band jazz, as documented by their recordings and personal testimonies, tended to resemble Kirk’s definition of a “dance orchestra” when performing live, and nowhere would this be more true than on the road.
Consider the testimony of former members and observers of several black bands, all of which played in West Virginia for black audiences in the 1930s. Concerning Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra in its final years, reed man Russell Procope recalled that it “played tangos, waltzes, foxtrots, college songs, current hits, excerpts from the classics in dance tempos, just about everything.” Henderson biographer Jeffrey Magee noted that “for Procope that kind of versatility marked success” (Magee 2005, 138). In an interview with Stanley Dance in 1966, pianist/arranger Nat Pierce recalled hearing that Chick Webb “had a library of waltzes.” Furthermore, (p.156) he asserted that “It wasn’t a crime to play a waltz then—not just a jazz waltz, but a regular waltz with a pretty melody” (Dance 1974, 343–44).
A territory band based in Indianapolis and later Cincinnati, Speed Webb’s band returned several times to play for dances on the campus of West Virginia State College. A member in 1929 and 1930, trombonist Vic Dickenson remembered that “Seven guys arranged in that band,… and every week we had seven new arrangements. Of course, we played everything in the way of dance music in those days—waltzes, pop songs, everything” (Dance 1974, 303). Given that the socially conservative president of West Virginia State, John Davis, reportedly frowned on dancing, certainly of the more physical and demonstrative types such as the Lindy Hop, and given the fact that by the later 1930s Webb’s interest in the band business was waning, it is logical to suppose that commercial stock arrangements of waltzes and pop songs in moderate tempos dominated his band’s performances on campus and thus met “Prex” Davis’s expectations (Belmear 2000; Scheidt 1965, 52).
Perhaps the clearest evidence of black bands’ capacity to step outside the domain of jazz during dance dates was provided by none other than Duke Ellington himself during an engagement at the Crystal Ballroom in Fargo, North Dakota, on November 7, 1940, most of which was recorded by two local fans of the band, Jack Towers and Dick Burris. Not only did their initiative enable us to hear that band live, it also revealed Ellington’s careful use of a thirty-minute sustaining radio broadcast early in the evening to showcase his music as well as well as the band’s versatility, not only for listeners but also for those attending the dance itself.
The broadcast presented a total of seven arrangements, five by Ellington and his band members and two by other composers. After playing a portion of his “Sepia Panorama” as background music for the radio announcer’s introduction of the band to listeners of Fargo’s local station, KVOX, and to announce the first number, the band swung into its recently recorded, but not yet released, blues-based uptempo jazz number “Koko,” a showcase for the timbres and talents of trombonists Juan Tizol and Lawrence Brown.
If “Koko” could be regarded as representing the “hot” jazz end of the spectrum of dance music styles, what followed took listeners to the other extreme. “There Shall Be No Night,” composed in 1940 by Abner Silver with lyrics by Gladys Shelly, could be regarded as Ellington’s take on Guy Lombardo’s sweet style. The tempo is slow; the brass and reed sections play in close harmony and quietly; Jimmy Blanton’s bass beats four-to-the-bar. (p.157) The solo passages by muted trumpet and, toward the end, Ben Webster’s distinctive tenor saxophone are, at most, light paraphrases of the song’s melodies. In other words, there were none of the “fancy embellishments” that Lombardo avoided in his band’s arrangements. The sentimental lyrics were crooned by Herb Jeffries, who might be said to be the Ellington Orchestra’s equivalent of Pha Terrill, Andy Kirk’s singer whose recording of the ballad “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” was such an unexpected hit with black audiences.
Four Ellington compositions followed this ballad: “Pussy Willow,” “Chatterbox,” “Mood Indigo,” and “Harlem Airshaft.” Of these, “Mood Indigo” was the only piece in a slow tempo comparable to that of “There Shall Be No Night.” The rest were mid- to uptempo fox-trot/Lindy Hop arrangements. Ivie Anderson then appeared to sing a chorus of a fore-shortened arrangement in Ellington’s style of “Ferryboat Serenade.” After that “Warm Valley” served as background to the radio announcer’s signing off “and returning [listeners] to our studios.” Thereafter, the music continued through four sets, the dance ending around 1:00 a.m. on November 8.
Later that evening Jeffries returned to sing another pair of songs coupled into a medley. The recording captures only a portion of the second of these songs, the arrangement of which appeared to be on the sweet side, but considering the entire performance it seems apparent that the Fargo crowd did not need Ellington to step outside his own style to satisfy its musical tastes. The performance of “Mood Indigo” probably assured any doubters that if they wanted a slow, quiet number during which “to offer an endearment” à la Guy Lombardo, Ellington could accommodate them on his own aesthetic terms.
Surely his strategy for determining the best music to play for a particular audience, in operation at the dance in North Dakota, had been regularly used on the road for a number of years, including the three occasions on which he performed in West Virginia. The first occurred late in March 1935, and according to James West, Fairmont correspondent to the Pitts-burgh Courier, “a large group of local dance lovers motored to Charleston to dance to the music of Duke Ellington and his famous orchestra” (PC 3.30.35, 2/7). On April 19 of the same year, on the evening following an engagement in Cincinnati, the band made its first appearance in the northern part of the Mountain State, playing at the Fairmont armory. The article in the Courier informing readers of this occasion claimed that “This affair looms as the ‘biggest affair of the season’ and it is expected that hundreds (p.158) of people from surrounding towns will help to make of the affair a howling success” (PC 4.13.35, 2/8). On Christmas Eve 1937, Ellington returned to Charleston to play for a benefit dance sponsored by the 20th Century Athletic Club to raise funds to buy Christmas presents for disabled children in six counties in southern West Virginia. The Courier’s story also noted that the bandleader was entertained the previous night by, among others, LeRoy “Texas” Fonteneau. It will be recalled that Fonteneau was one of the Kings of Amusement who collaborated with George Morton in booking dances. That same article drew attention to the fact that the 20th Century Athletic Club was holding a New Year’s Day dance on January 1, 1938, for which Chick Webb had been booked along with “the captivating songbird, Ella Fitzgerald” (PC 1.1.38, 2/12).
It is by virtue of the Fargo recordings that Ellington enters this narrative to demonstrate the requisite diversity of style that audiences on the road expected. There is no doubt that the bandleader who made such diversity a cornerstone of his style (or perhaps, under these circumstances, “styles”) was Jimmie Lunceford.
In Rhythm Is Our Business: Jimmie Lunceford and the Harlem Express, Eddy Determeyer argued that “the ability to play romantic ballads next to novelty numbers and hard-swinging killer-dillers or flag-wavers put the Lunceford band in the vanguard with both the dancers and the listeners” (Determeyer 2006, 87). Two elements of this statement merit comment. The first is the implicit inclusion of several styles of music performed by Lunceford’s band. In a passage from The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller reflected on the realities of life for black dance bands in the 1930s when it came to deciding what sort of music to play and what to avoid. In comparing Lunceford to Ellington and Basie in terms of balancing artistic and economic interests, he observed:
They all made their peace with compromise of one kind or another. Thus the real and only valid criterion of judgment is to what degree economic and commercial pressures made inroads on artistic/aesthetic decisions—not whether, but how much…. In that regard I think the Lunceford band, at least in its early days and perhaps through the 1930s, could hold its own with any of its contemporaries [including Ellington and Basie]. As previously stated, the Lunceford formula—his and his soloists’ and arrangers’—was to serve up a diversified musical menu for a variety of appetites.
(Schuller 1989, 213)
(p.159) Evidence of that “diversified musical menu” was discussed in chapter 6 in connection with Lunceford’s first engagement in the Mountain State in September 1934 at the Fairmont armory. Seventeen recordings the band made in the first nine months of that year covered the spectrum from sweet to hot, slow to fast, quiet to loud. The band returned eighteen times prior to the shutting down of tours through West Virginia in the summer of 1942. There were four engagements in 1936, one in 1937, five in 1939, one in 1940, five in 1941, and the final pair toward the end of April 1942. Given the regularity of Lunceford’s recordings throughout that period, it is easy to document the continuing creation of a diverse repertory.
Lunceford recordings beginning in the mid-thirties document arrangements of popular songs by Irving Berlin (“He Ain’t Got Rhythm” and “Easter Parade”), Hoagy Carmichael (“Stardust”), and Cole Porter (“Miss Otis Regrets”), among many others. There were novelty numbers such as “The Merry Go Round Broke Down” and instrumental dance compositions including “For Dancers Only,” “Uptown Blues,” and “Lunceford Special.” There were even some arrangements of art music for the band, including one of themes from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano, Opus 13, “Pathetique,” by Chappie Willett, whom we previously encountered as a student bandleader at West Virginia State and then as the leader of Edward’s Collegians after that band left Bluefield for Cincinnati and Philadelphia (Determeyer 2006, 277–91).
The link between recordings and the road for Lunceford was a close one, according to Eddy Determeyer; arrangements were “test-marketed” on tours before a decision was made to record them. As some of Lunceford’s tours lasted several months, there were numerous opportunities to gauge the reactions of fans to a particular number. “Uptown Blues” was apparently introduced to fans at the Paramount Theater in New York sometime late in September 1939. It was not recorded until December of that year (Determeyer 2006, 79, 171).
Given his frequent trips through West Virginia, it is obvious that Lunceford enjoyed the same popularity in the Mountain State as elsewhere. Newspaper coverage provides evidence of the nature of that appeal and to whom within the black communities. On February 17, 1936, the day of its debut in Wheeling, “a number of West Virginia State co-eds and male college students will be included in the in the welcome reception committee to greet Jimmy [sic] and the boys when they arrive at the Wheeling Market Auditorium” (PC 2.15.36, 2/6). The presence of the West Virginia State (p.160) students is remarkable because Wheeling is about 200 miles north of the West Virginia State campus. Moreover, the next night the band appeared in Charleston, less than twenty miles from campus.
So successful was its appearance in Charleston that the band returned on April 15 and was expected to draw several thousand to its dance. The unsigned article in the Courier announcing this dance noted that those who had attended the February engagement “were conquered by the music of the ‘sweetest’ band they had ever heard.” Significantly, readers were informed of the band’s popularity on various university campuses, perhaps a not-so-subtle outreach to middle-class blacks (PC 4.11.36, 2/10).
On July 23, 1937, Lunceford played a dance at the Vanity Fair Ballroom in Huntington, like the Charleston engagement a year earlier a single appearance in the state (PC 7.17.37, 20). Two years later, one can see both a further surge in his popularity as well as the efficiency of booker George Morton in organizing four dances to take place between March 25 and March 29, 1939, in Charleston, Mount Hope, Bluefield, and Fairmont. Reference was made in one of two Courier articles to the fact that Lunceford, a member of Kappa Alpha Psi at his alma mater Fisk University, would be greeted at both West Virginia State and Bluefield State Colleges by members of the local chapters of that fraternity. Indeed, the brothers at Bluefield State were reportedly going to discuss with Lunceford the possibility of his band playing for a future prom (PC 2.25.39, 21; 3.11.39, 20).
A third Courier story, datelined March 23 from Charleston, drew attention to the fact that, in advance of the show at the armory in Mount Hope, “Morton’s Drug Store has already had its largest advance sale since Cab Calloway made his late appearance in the state.” The drugstore in question was owned by George Morton’s father. Attention was also drawn to the role of a “young college graduate and wide-awake hustler” named Yancy Whittaker who “joined Universal Promoters to bring [Lunceford] into Fairmont, W. Va at the Fairmont Armory” (PC 3.25.39, 20).
Beginning in 1940 the Courier’s coverage of big bands, including Lunceford’s, was often reduced to a single column that listed the dates and destinations of a portion of various bands’ tours. Largely absent was information that would shed light on the circumstances surrounding a dance, such as the name of the local promoter, anticipated size of the crowd, or mention of previous engagements and their impact. An early instance of this sort of reportage appeared in the issue of May 20, 1940, in which, on page 20, one encounters a column entitled “Lunceford’s Route” which listed all known performances that month, including one held on May 30 (p.161) at the Crystal Cavern Ballroom in Martinsburg, West Virginia, located in the state’s eastern panhandle, far removed from the coalfields and quite possibly a dance for whites. Two days earlier, the band had performed in Providence, Rhode Island, and on May 31, it was performing the first of two engagements at Clemson College in South Carolina (PC 5.20.40, 20).
Similar coverage early in January 1941 revealed that the Lunceford band was scheduled to play five engagements in the Mountain State beginning in Huntington on February 6 and concluding in Wheeling on February 11. In between it played in Beckley, Charleston, and Bluefield on February 7, 8, and 10 respectively. While the band played two engagements in November 1942, the first on the 24th in Beckley and the second the next day in Huntington, the February 1941 series of engagements was its last extended visit to the Mountain State before World War II (PC 1.4.41, 18; 3.21.41, 20).
Examining Jimmie Lunceford’s tours of West Virginia enables one to consider a number of related issues in terms of audience reception: the diversity of musical styles in which his band performed, the consequent large attendance at his dances, and the ways in which Lunceford’s image was central to his appeal.
Concerning the diversity of styles performed by black bands when the situation warranted it, I drew attention both to contemporaneous characterizations of his style as well as to documentation provided by Lunceford’s recordings. Andy Kirk emphasized that his band played “dance music” and “didn’t stress jazz, though we played it” (Kirk 1989, 62). Duke Ellington appears to have been able to finesse the expectation of sweet music by composing ballads and ballad-like pieces that served the same purpose.
Lest the impression be created that in the Mountain State bands played no jazz, explicit evidence to the contrary appeared in connection with several engagements in the late 1930s. When Lunceford appeared in Charleston on February 18, 1936, the Courier reported: “An added attraction that night will be a ‘Truckin’s Contest’ sponsored by the Tuxedo Club to the winners of which cash prizes will be awarded. Participants for the contest must register prior to February 18” (PC, 1.25.36, 2/6). Tiny Bradshaw’s engagement at the Charleston armory on September 24, 1938, included a Lindy Hop contest. “Couples representing Charleston, Huntington, Parkersburg, Beckley, Mount Hope, Logan, Montgomery, Cabin Creek, and other smaller towns have been contacted and have consented to join in and see if they can’t win one of the three cash prizes that are to be given away.”
The article went on to suggest that any couple hoping to break into the entertainment business that also proved to be of above average talent (p.162) might anticipate being hired by Bradshaw for subsequent engagements (PC 9.24.38, 20). Beyond the evidence that younger black Mountaineers were up on the dances of the day, this article provides further confirmation of the geographical range of audiences for this music. Several of the towns mentioned were at least an hour away from Charleston by automobile, Parkersburg more than three. That the promoters of this dance knew whom to contact when rounding up contestants is evidence of the regularity with which certain people traveled to Charleston for dances and demonstrates that some had already developed local reputations as good dancers.
A third description of a dance provides additional confirmation of interest in big band jazz but at the same time acknowledges a comparable interest in sweet music. Two Chapters of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, one in Charleston, the other nearby in Institute, the home of West Virginia State College, cohosted an annual formal dance in Charleston at the Knights of Pythias Hall on March 25, 1938. Music was provided by two bands: the West Virginia State Collegians and Locklayer’s Virginians. “The two orchestras were in contrast, the West Virginia Collegians playing snappy swing rhythms that gave pep and gaiety to the proceedings, and the Virginians playing the sweet, muted syncopations that is [sic] so pleasant to dance to” (PC 4.2.1938, 9). As noted previously, the president of West Virginia State frowned on dancing, but presumably as this dance took place off campus, the college band was not constrained in the music it performed.
There would seem little reason to doubt that the African American audience for dance music in West Virginia was representative of the larger black audience for big band jazz and dance music in the nation. Just as it embraced both working- and middle-class blacks, so too it embraced a variety of musical tastes, which challenges the conventional wisdom that blacks liked jazz more or less exclusively while whites preferred something sweeter. For black Mountaineers dance music was not “all jazz all the time”—and in saying this, I am arguing that their preferences were not significantly different from those of African Americans living in northern cities, nor for that matter of the American population in general, black and white. Because, in a sense, every dance venue in West Virginia attracted such a diverse audience, bands did not have the luxury of devoting themselves exclusively to a single style of dance music, even if their reputations would appear to have favored such narrow focus. On the one hand, whether or not broadcast performances by Noble Sissle’s band reminded Wheeling resident Gladys Mike of her favorite orchestra, Guy Lombardo’s (p.163) Royal Canadians, Sissle would have had to perform some uptempo swing to appeal to a significant portion of his audiences in Charleston, Huntington, and Welch when he toured to those cities in 1934. On the other hand (and we know this because the bandleader said it himself), at each of the ten engagements in West Virginia played by Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy between October 1936 and July 1941, an array of dance music made up the program, and undoubtedly prominently featured was their sweet ballad, “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” (Kirk 1989, 88).
The evidence taken together also suggests that the black audience for big band jazz and dance music in the Mountain State included members of both the working and middle classes. Unlike the large northern cities where venues for entertainment existed in sufficient numbers to allow patrons to sort themselves out by shared levels of income, common forms of employment, and even age should they have chosen to do so, in West Virginia the armories, high school gymnasiums, and other improvised venues provided a common social ground for people who were economically and occupationally diverse. Teachers and miners, trackliners and doctors, civil servants and teamsters, along with their spouses or significant others assembled to waltz, fox-trot, and Lindy Hop, and, presumably, to watch others do the same.
It is easy to imagine couples from the company towns grouping themselves in one part of the venue, those from the larger communities elsewhere. No doubt people came in groups as well and naturally would sit and dance together. At the same time, such an occasion enabled those with friends or relatives residing elsewhere in the coalfields to meet for several hours to catch up on one another’s news and discuss, if not solve, the problems of the world. Geraldine Belmear recalled that the four dances her father Samuel Carpenter booked in the mid-1930s attracted people from all social classes (Belmear 2000).
Dressed in their best to honor the occasion, to an outsider the day jobs of the dancers hardly would have been apparent. Undoubtedly, to the musicians for whom each engagement represented just another stop on what after a while may have seemed a perpetual tour, the black Mountaineers they entertained probably looked and acted little different from those making up the other audiences for whom they played on the road.
What bands may have found initially surprising were the sizes of audiences in a state that may have seemed to outsiders to be extremely rural with only a small population. Not only would that assumption have been quickly contradicted by the hundreds who turned out to see the touring (p.164) bands, just as quickly invalidated would have been the corollary that as the state’s population was presumably small, so too would be the night’s wages. By 1935 when Herbert Hall, as baritone saxophonist and clarinetist in “Don Albert’s Music: America’s Favorite Swing Band,” first came to Charleston, he and the rest of that band were introduced to the prosperity enjoyed by African Americans in West Virginia’s coalfields. As he would note years later, this was not news to any of the bandleaders and their managers at the time. The industriousness of the miners and the local economies that prospered thanks to their labor would in turn have assured most bands that their night’s work in the Mountain State would be better compensated than was the case elsewhere in the region.