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River Shows, Blues, Ragtime, Jazz and Country Music - Jazzers

From the upcoming book, July 2023 release: River Shows, Blues, Ragtime, Jazz and Country Music, by Matt Chaney, Four Walls Publishing.

Matt's books are on Amazon.

Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Kent Library, Southeast Missouri State University

American music rang over southeast Missouri, jazz, blues, gospel and “hillbilly” songs, in raw landscape. The Missouri delta remained an American frontier after World War One, with 10 counties subject to flooding by major rivers. At highest water the Mississippi and Ohio went everywhere, 70-miles wide sweeping south, sparing only the ridge lines of limestone uplift.

The region was often wet with muddy roads, whether in hills or bottoms. But musicians carried on, like jazz bandleader R.F. “Peg” Meyer at Cape Girardeau, where flatland met high ground.

“Managing a jazz band in the 1920s was an enlightening experience due to all of the predicaments that could suddenly pop up,” Meyer later recalled. “If we booked a job five miles from home, and it rained, we never knew if we could get there or not.”

Road bog in delta bottoms outside Cape Girardeau, Mo., 1919. This was Bloomfield Road, typically the best route south from town, often traveled or attempted by Peg Meyer's jazz quartet. Courtesy of the Missouri State Archives

Heading for a wedding dance in the hills, Meyer’s Melody Kings sank their Model T in mud. The four jazzmen got out in tuxedos and pushed, wallowing like hogs in the muck. One fell in ditch water up to his neck. “It is easy to imagine the expression on the faces of the wedding party when we entered the hall,” Meyer noted.

The band trekked to gigs down in the delta, including at Portageville, 70 miles from Cape Girardeau, where rain-soaked flats had “no bottom,” Meyer described. “Roads through the sandy sections of the area were soft and produced no mud or chuck holes, but were marked by two ruts which the wheels of the car followed as closely as wheels on a railroad track.”

“The only difference was that railroad tracks were straight, and the sand ruts were like a snake’s trail. You could just turn the steering wheel loose, and the car would follow the ruts.”

Returning home one night in the Ford, from deep in the Missouri Bootheel, the Melody Kings heard talk of a new highway, a graded section of road destined to become federal Route 61. The roadbed remained under construction but led due north, a tantalizing prospect for the Cape boys. They heard police barred traffic at daytime but locals cruised over the grade by night.

“We started up the new roadbed and it was fine, straight as a ruler,” Meyer wrote in his book Backwoods Jazz of the Twenties.

“With nothing in sight we were sailing along at a good clip when all at once I saw a telephone pole lying across the road, obviously to prevent vehicles from entering… Fortunately both front and rear wheels hit the pole at the same angle, and we just took a flying leap and landed on all fours. What elevation we reached I do not know.”

Meyer decided to accompany the band's wunderkind pianist, Jess Stacy, into riverboat entertainment for smoother travel and better pay. They had a blast. “The wild Twenties brought everyone to life. Musicians in the Twenties practically became contortionists playing their musical instruments in any unconventional manner, standing on chairs, swaying in unison to the rhythms, wearing crazy hats and clowning in general.”

“Many times I saw Jess Stacy standing on the piano stool, squatting down just enough to reach the piano keys. Much of the popularity of bands in the Twenties came from their actions as much as their musical production.”

Stacy went on to Chicago, following riverboat jazzmen like Louis Armstrong to the Windy City. In 1935 Stacy joined a New York group bound on a western tour, later known as the Original Benny Goodman Band. “Big band” jazz pushed American music through boom times and bust, and Stacy, born at Bird’s Point, Mo., contributed memorably in the Depression era.

“Jess Stacy was my first piano player, and he became one of the best jazz pianists in the world,” Meyer stated.

Floyd Town and the Midway Gardens Band, Chicago, in 1927. Jess Stacy is the piano player. Standing from left: Muggsy Spanier, cornet, Al Waller, drums, Danny Altier, reeds, Cy Simadel, trombone, Frank Teschemacher, clarinet, Earl Wright, banjo, George Tupper, tuba, unidentified cornet player, and Floyd Town, reeds. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Kent Library, Southeast Missouri State University