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

Karl Ackermann By

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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

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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