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

Karl Ackermann By

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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."

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