Blue Highways and Sweet Music: The Territory Bands, Part I

Karl Ackermann By

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A huge marine stepped onto the bandstand, came over to me and told me that if we played the anthem once more, I may not live to see the sun come up. —Elroy Vernon Lee
Part 1 | Part 2


By the second half of the 1920s, New York had supplanted Chicago as the center of jazz. The "Jazz Age"—a label incorrectly ascribed to F. Scott Fitzgerald—could rationally have been framed as the "Dance Age." Prohibition, and the speakeasies that it spawned, were packed with wildly enthusiastic patrons of the Charleston, Black Bottom, Shimmy, Collegiate Shag, the Baltimore and the Lindy Hop. It was often a simple step or two that distinguished one dance from another, but the physical demands of those dances made them the domain of the young -the ideal target market for the venues and the merchandise that they offered. Many historians of the Jazz Age attribute the popularity of the era's new dance music—and the bands that played it—to one incomparable couple: Vernon and Irene Castle.

A native of Norfolk, England, Vernon Castle and his New York-born wife, Irene, came to prominence in a 1914 Broadway production of Irving Berlin's Watch Your Step where they had polished and promoted the recently developed Foxtrot. That popular dance had been attributed to a white vaudevillian actor and dancer—Harry Fox—but multiple sources credited Castle with having witnessed the dance being performed by African Americans fifteen years prior to Fox's "invention." The Castles also helped to popularize ragtime, jazz rhythms, and African-American music for dance, and the pair was highly in demand as dance instructors and performers. After establishing themselves in New York, they became stars in Paris, and returned to New York more famous than when they left. The Castles became major dance entertainers on Broadway, appeared in movies and toured with the famed black orchestra, of James Reese Europe. Vernon Castle was a decorated pilot in the Royal Air Force in World War I and died—at the age of thirty—while training other fighter pilots. Already renowned globally, the emotional impact of Castle's death cemented the couple's place in modern dance history, and dance bands across the U.S. and Europe were influenced by their artistry. The British tabloid The Daily Express cited the Castles as the "world's most influential dance team" (Oct 6, 2014).

The relative affluence of the 1920s (after a brief post-war recession) was driven in large part by an end to the economic repression of World War I. The public and manufacturing sectors conserved their spending and now had amassed stockpiles of money. Technologies, in the form of radio, cinema and more affordable automobiles, allowed the mass public to hear, see and be part of the proliferation of new music in a way that had been previously limited. But the benefits of this phenomena were not equally distributed among Americans, and the economic boon felt in the cities was not realized over the rest of the country. For the first time, more people were living in major cities where production facilities and corporate offices were based, and jobs were plentiful. In rural areas, a decades-long collapse of agricultural prices began in the same time period, and farming jobs—which had accounted for nearly half of all pre-war U.S. jobs—were now half that number. Still, those living in rural areas had access to local movie houses and radio and they were an enthusiastic audience for dance bands. Many areas of the South didn't have electricity until the mid-1930s, but even in these remote locations, crystal radio receivers were common; not requiring electricity, and frequently built from home kits, they were relatively inexpensive. Radio crossed geographic, racial and economic barriers, bringing the likes of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Paul Whiteman and Duke Ellington to the majority of U.S. households. Far beyond the epicenters of 1920s jazz—Chicago, New York and Los Angeles—largely unknown musicians in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, Missouri and other locations had ambitions of capitalizing on the mass popularity of the movement. Those aspirations were the anthropological reason for the creation of the territories bands. The performers were not only responsible for bringing live, early jazz music to much of the country, but they also produced a substantial number of artists who would go on to become major attractions.

Two Realities

A comprehensive history of territory bands does not exist though there were hundreds of these professional and semi-professional bands from the 1920s to the 1960s, but far fewer post-Great Depression. They were a critical part of the dissemination of jazz inside the United States but their nomadic nature and instability made the vast majority of territory bands unsustainable and difficult to document. For each musician that came out of the ranks of these bands and went on to fame, hundreds of others were lost to the past. The bands propagated a variety of popular music styles of the era including swing, jazz, and sweet music. "Sweet music" was a somewhat disparaging branding of styles that were often in direct opposition to jazz: waltzes, polkas, and light mood music of European origins. The bands brought their music to hotels, run-down bars and clubs, dance halls and local lodges disregarded by national booking agents. The defining characteristics of physical "territories" left enough slack for some crossover. Larger groupings were based on traditional geographic regions such as Northeast, Southeast, etc. Groupings of states emerged, marked by the acronyms "MINK" (Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas) and "VSA" (Virginia, South Carolina, and Alabama) while Texas had so many bands that it constituted its own group. Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, Austin, and Amarillo were just a few of the Texas cities that served as hubs for territory bands. Those bands had large in-state followings and they rarely found it necessary to cross state lines for work. The largest concentrations of territory bands were in the Great Plains, with urban hubs in Kansas City, St. Louis, Omaha, Oklahoma City, Dallas and Houston. In smaller numbers these bands existed in many other parts of the U.S. from New York to Los Angeles; smaller centers were located as far north as Fargo, North Dakota, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee and east to Atlanta and Charlotte, South Carolina. Booking agencies assembled traveling bands from the regional pools and arranged successions of one-night performances in more remote locations within their area.

There are few first-hand accounts of life on the road but if Elroy Vernon Lee is to be believed, this description would represent a typical night in the life of a territory band: under the pseudonym, Lee Barron, he was playing a one-night stand at a barroom in St. Joseph, Missouri in 1944. While his thirteen-piece namesake orchestra was performing, a brawl broke out and quickly escalated, with broken beer bottles and their owners scattering across the dance floor. Quickly thinking, Barron sent a covert signal to the band and they seamlessly transitioned to their version of the National Anthem, bringing the scuffle to an immediate halt as the room sprang to standing attention, hands over hearts. The Lee Baron Orchestra resumed their planned program only to have fighting break out three more times; each incident was stopped by switching to the anthem until the bodies were dragged from the dance floor. On the band's next Pavlovian attempt at peace, Barron remembered: "A huge marine stepped onto the bandstand, came over to me and told me that if we played the anthem once more, I may not live to see the sun come up."

Barron's Odyssey of the Mid-Nite Flyer is the only known full-length book dedicated to the subject of territory bands. A 1987, self-published, uncorroborated combination of picture book and memoir, it is told from a single point of view. Though the book is described by the author as "a history," it offers little in the way of perspective on territory bands, other than by omission. The critical lapse is in Barron's near-complete disregard of the role of black musicians in his account of territory band folklore. The book contains roughly two-hundred publicity photographs of bands and leaders, only one being of a black group -equal to the number of photos showing a white musician in black-face. In his text, he offers a single sentence to the influential bandleader Nat Towles, and that is a subtext to praising Towles' booking agent. There is little comparison in subject integrity between Mid-Nite Flyer and the thirty pages that Gunther Schuller dedicates to territory bands in his seminal work, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1989). In the second-part of his history of jazz, Schuller is very specific in his observation: territory bands were black bands. The underlying forces that support Schuller's case are in the different dynamics of the black and white barnstorming groups. Generally speaking, white bands were given preferential treatment in choice of venues, length of engagements, recording opportunities and travel accommodations. Barron is hardly alone in his questionable ignorance of the black territory bands. Jack Behrens' self-published American Music Makers: Big Band & Ballrooms 1912-2011 (2011) is cheerfully oblivious to the contributions of musicians of color. It was outside the U.S. that a jazz historian painted a more color-blind picture of the era, with English discographer Albert McCarthy's Big Band Jazz (Exeter, 1983) providing much needed coverage of the black bands of that time period.


Texas provided its self-contained territory bands with more well-established—and permanent—ballroom venues than any of the other Great Plains states. While speakeasies, nightclubs and lodges accounted for many venues, groups were regularly booked into the ballrooms of hotels such as the Galvez Hotel in Galveston, Rice in Houston, Mineral Wells' Baker Hotel, the Plaza Hotel—one of many venues in San Antonio—the Waco Hotel and the Adolphus in Dallas. Dallas had a number of talented bands but the city presented black groups with a harrowing societal enigma. In his book Blue Highways—A Journey Into America (Fawcett Crest, 1982) William Least Heat-Moon talks about the dilemma of blacks traveling in the Deep South, saying that it was "easier for a black man to get a lift on the small roads where there were more Negro drivers." What was a convenience in Least Heat-Moon's 1978 travelogue was more a matter of survival in the 1920s Texas. Henderson, Texas is located about two hours southeast of Dallas though the ride would have been considerably longer and more convoluted in the 20s. For black territory bands of the era, Henderson was among the destinations that provided safer venues; safety being a major concern as Dallas was then considered to be the most racist city in America. As reported by the Dallas Morning News on April 5, 1922, one out of every three males in Dallas was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, including white-collar professionals, government officials and members of law enforcement.

Texas State Road 40 was long gone when Least Heat-Moon travelled that area. It existed only from 1919 until 1939 running from the Oklahoma-Texas border, southeast to Port Arthur, on the Gulf of Mexico, and passing just west of Henderson. Part of the two-lane, undivided road ran through Cherokee County and the small cities of Nacogdoches and Peppervine, the ghost towns of Ghent, Manila and Java and vast expanses of wild grasses, thistle, and bamboo. Small, unincorporated pockets of civilization with a gas station, grocery store and planked walkways, popped up in the middle of nowhere. The physical landmarks beside that long-gone highway have changed little since the 1920s.


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