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River Shows, Blues, Ragtime, Jazz and Country Music - Swing Beat
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.
Dancers get into the swing at the New York World's Fair, circa 1939. Tommy Dorsey plays trombone. Courtesy of the New York Public Library
World War One enlistment reduced musician ranks in the upper delta while jazz interest skyrocketed.
“Jazz music has become all the rage for dancing, and most every band and orchestra is trying to play jazz according to their own ideas,” a reviewer commented. Bands were organized for theaters, opera houses and riverboats. Flapper dancers did the “shimmy,” “bunny hug” and “toe wiggle.” Ringling Brothers Circus advertised elephants that danced to jazz, appearing at Cairo among delta stops.
Ringling Brothers Circus elephants march from the railyard in Jackson, Tenn., late September 1916. The giant “Big Bingo” leads 41 elephants as his trainer rides at streetlight level. Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library & Archives
The Jaz-E-Saz Band of Fate Marable plied the Mississippi on excursion boats, succeeding Handy’s Memphis orchestra in delta supremacy. Dance audience had grown around Marable for years, beginning when his players were mostly white. His new Afro-American band had “a peculiar style all its own which is very catchy,” praised a river scribe. In 1919 Marable introduced Louis Armstrong on the Upper Mississippi, teenager from New Orleans whom the bandleader nicknamed Satchel Mouth, “Satchmo.”
In 1920, Armstrong’s second season out of New Orleans on the Streckfus Line, crowds waited at every river stop. Armstrong played his first cornet solo on a riverboat at Caruthersville, Mo. The band came down from St. Louis aboard the Capitol, new party steamer, and thousands converged around the boat in the upper delta.
Steamer Capitol with decks loaded, circa 1920, at a lock and dam on the Upper Mississippi. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri
At Cape Girardeau, Jess Stacy rushed through his after-school job downtown, finishing as Marable’s calliope echoed from the river. Steamboat Capitol was arriving and Stacy, 16, clad in knickers, sprinted atop the levee as the boat docked. The Capitol towered above him, mammoth, billed as “unsinkable,” a beautiful four-decker painted white and trimmed in red and blue. American flags, a half-dozen flying, set off the patriotic motif. Stacy came for the band and was taken aback, impacted. He later recalled the experience in interviews, of seeing Marable and Armstrong, and their effect on his music, dreams.
“The band played Skeleton Jangle, Tiger Rag, and they played the big popular ballad of the day, Whispering,” Stacy said. “But most exciting of all was their tearing into something called Railroad Man. Louis must have been in his late teens.
"You can’t imagine such energy, such musical fireworks, as Louis Armstrong on that boat.”
Marable band circa 1919, from left: Warren “Baby” Dodds, drums; William “Baba” Ridgley, trombone; Joe Howard and Louis Armstrong, cornets; Fate Marable, piano; David Jones, French horn; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; George “Pops” Foster, upright bass. Carl J. Mangan, press secretary of Streckfus Steamers, stands behind Jones. Courtesy of wikimedia.org
Fate Marable's boat band stamped youthful minds and ambitions all along the river. Kids flocked to Steamer Capitol in 1920. There was Jess Stacy at Cape Girardeau, future piano great. rushing to the wharf to see his heroes in black tuxedos: Marable, Armstrong, Norman Mason, Pops Foster, the Dodds brothers, David Jones, Johnny St. Cyr and Boyd Atkins. At Cairo a 13-year-old shadowed their bandwagon, Eddie Randle, with 20,000 in the streets. Randle on trumpet later led St. Louis bands of clubs and radio, and he taught music, reputedly as the only instructor with the respect of Miles Davis. At Paducah, 12-year-old Jack Staulcup was inspired of the Marable band and Armstrong’s style, someday leading his own dance orchestras. The Paducah papers proudly identified their hometown musicians, Marable and Atkins, in reports and advertising.
“I can’t tell you how we felt when we heard Fate Marable’s band,” Stacy said. “Pops Foster, Johnny and Baby Dodds, Louis Armstrong. It was our inspiration and I wanted to play in a band like that above anything else in the world.”
Passengers loaded excitedly at both ends of the boat while Stacy and his music chums, white and black, soaked up free melody from the levee. An evening river ride was at hand for more than 1,000 dancers and band spectators, formally attired.
The boat crew withdrew gangplanks and ropes and the engines fired. The Capitol steamed out to the main channel with partygoers at the rails, waving and cheering. From the shore, Stacy saw only the band.
“The music sounded so good out on the river. They’d go out in the middle of the river and the paddlewheel would be turning slowly to keep it from drifting downstream. People danced there. That band carried me away. When I heard that band I said, That’s what I want to be; I want to play on the riverboats.”
The Capitol moved on to Cairo, where 1,500 merrymakers ferried in from Paducah for a day of music and dancing. Cairo’s American Legion broke out its new Jaz Bandwagon, toting the Marable players through streets and landings packed with an estimated 20,000. Downriver, Caruthersville awaited the boat but especially the band, billed as “ten Palmetto Jazzerites under the director of Prof. Fate Marable.”
Louis Armstrong in 1953, incomparable on trumpet, according to bandleader Fate Marable. Courtesy of wikipedia.org
“Louis Armstrong is a superman,” Marable said later. “You can’t compare him with any other musicians; he’s in a class by himself. There’s no man that ever lived that could cut Louis [in dueling horns].” Armstrong was “musically born,” added Peter Bocage, New Orleans musician. “It was born in him, that’s all there is to it.”
“When he first started, you could see he had plenty talent,” Bocage said. “All the little different improvisations he would make were so pretty, you know. Like, if somebody would be singing, he would cut in and make a little part. You could just see the talent there.”
“And he was the featured man with that jazz… people started to fall over themselves just to hear him play.”