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

Karl Ackermann By

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In the prime years of the territory bands, popular music was in a wild state of flux. Ragtime's popularity had faded and New Orleans style music gave way to the flavorless dance music of the early-to-mid 1920s. The prevalent styles of the era included show tunes, sweet music, and oddities such as the kitchen sink approach of Skiffle, where black musicians mixed homemade "instruments" like jugs and washboards, with conventional acoustic instruments. Stride piano had become popular in the early 1920s and a wave of jazz recordings came from stride pianist James P. Johnson (The Harlem Strut), Fats Waller and Count Basie. The dancehalls of the southern plains gave birth to Western Swing in the 1920s. The genre merged country music with polka, folk, Dixieland, jazz and blues; its rhythm and instrumentation bearing similarities to Django Reinhardt's Gypsy Jazz. The popularity of the Blues was spreading with singer Mamie Smith recording twenty songs in a band that featured Coleman Hawkins. Race Records came into existence in the 1920s with labels such as Okeh marketing black artists in jazz, blues, and gospel music, to black markets. Major record labels began their own race-based subsidiaries and black music spread to the white demographic. All of these activities helped whet the public's appetite for live music.

Part II of Blue Highways and Sweet Music: The Territory Bands moves north into the territories of the Great Plains as well as the undesignated "territory" of the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio Rivers. The careers of some standout performers such as Alphonso Trent and Fate Marable will be examined.

Texas & Tennessee Territory Bands: 1928-1931 (Retrieval, 2006)

With the exception of the Race Labels, recording contracts generally went to white bands. Some of those bands are represented on Texas & Tennessee Territory Bands: 1928-1931 while others are difficult to identify at that level. Four of tracks are from Sunny Clapp whose own history is thin despite having written more than a half-dozen popular songs that had been recorded by Dizzy Gillespie, Etta James, and Charles Mingus.

Slim Lamar's Southerners account for seven pieces on Texas & Tennessee Territory Bands. Another artist whose history is all but lost, Lamar's Southerners played Biloxi, Mississippi, Memphis, Tennessee, Louisville, Kentucky and as far north as the Egyptian Room of the Kosair Hotel in Indianapolis.

That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History (1895-1950), Vol. 1 (1895-1927) (West Hill Radio Archives, 2011)

That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History (1895-1950), Vol. 1 (1895-1927) is an ambitious and wide-ranging collection of nine CDs. Taken from their original 78rpm format, it is an assortment of names that may be familiar listeners with a sense of history, as well as those who are unknown. Information on the tracks is scant and there are some tracks that are not as listed.

Mamie Smith, Bennie Moten, Charlie Creath and Fate Marable are among the artists whose history includes time with territory bands. The overall collection pre-dates the territory band era and includes The Original Dixieland Jass Band, Jelly Roll Morton and Bix Beiderbecke.

Photo Credit: countbasieinconcert.com

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