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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.


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