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

Blue Highways and Sweet Music: The Territory Bands, Part II
Karl Ackermann By

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Jazz came to America three hundred years ago in chains. —Paul Whiteman
Part 1 | Part 2

Part 1 of Blue Highways and Sweet Music: The Territory Bands looked at the roots, drivers and challenges of the travelling groups who brought jazz music to the non-urban areas of the Southern Plains, through one-night-stands, in often impromptu venues. A black phenomenon, often misappropriated by white musicians, promoters, record labels and venues, the most active period of territory bands coincided with the rise of post-slavery American racism. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan reached its peak membership of more than four million, openly functioning as a guerrilla faction of the Democratic Party in the South and intimidated blacks with extreme violence. The discriminatory Jim Crow laws that began after the Civil War, flourished well into the 1940s and the black music that so many middle-class whites found liberating, excluded the very people who created that music.

In the era of the territory bands, it was more often the media, critics and cultural institutions that usurped black musical culture, as opposed to the white musicians and band leaders themselves. One of those white musicians happened to be the press-designated "King of Jazz," of whom, in 1919, the Pasadena Evening Post said: "the friends of Mr. Whiteman have with much enthusiasm bestowed the title of "King of Jazz" upon him." While Paul Whiteman was heavily criticized for wearing the crown, it was not one that was self-attributed or with which he felt completely comfortable. Nevertheless, Whiteman was a brilliant marketer and used his notoriety to become the most financially successful bandleader of the 1920s. He had taken territory bands to franchise-like status with dozens of road versions carrying his name and crisscrossing the country. If he was conflicted by the racial injustices within the music business, he made some cursory efforts at integration. In the 1920s he helped launch the careers of artists of color, including Paul Robeson, Mildred Bailey—a member of the Coeur d'Alenea Native American nation—and later, Billie Holiday. Beyond the music, Whiteman's own words resonate with far more conviction. In his autobiography, Jazz (Popular Culture in America)

(J. H. Sears, 1926), written with Mary Margaret McBride, Whiteman opens the first chapter with this stark acknowledgement: "Jazz came to America three hundred years ago in chains. The psalm-singing Dutch traders, sailing in a man-of-war across the ocean in 1619, described their cargo as 'fourteen black African slaves for sale in his Majesty's colonies.' But priceless freight destined three centuries later to set a whole nation dancing went unnoted and unbilled..." Whiteman's group, by virtue of his worldwide fame, is an unlikely candidate to qualify as a territory band, having quite a few regular bookings in locations such as New York, Paris and London. Nonetheless, he toured all forty-eight of the then incorporated states by his own account with a particular focus on the Great Plains locations of Denver, Minneapolis, Topeka, St. Paul, Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Kansas City, and Cleveland. As the economy of the US slowed down in its approach to the Great Depression, the consolidation of talent became a matter of survival for many bands and Whiteman was not alone in the move north.

The Great Plains

During World War I agriculture in the Midwest had largely converted to wheat farming as a means of cheaply feeding the troops. With the end of the war, demand for the crop dropped. Agriculture was the primary business in the rural Midwest and farmers were feeling the effects of a downturn long before the crash of 1929. With the start of the Great Depression an already struggling economy hit rock bottom and beginning in 1933 the catastrophic drought that came to be known as the Dust Bowl, forced half a million residents from their homes. Populations of six states plunged as did disposable income. Many of the travelling bands were no longer sustainable, further concentrating the hubs for territory bands and drawing more musicians to the remaining music centers. Kansas City, in particular, benefitted from the migration, where under the corrupt political regime of its mayor, Tom Pendergast, the city was a wide-open mecca for entertainment and vice. The income generated in Kansas City from Prohibition alcohol sales and gambling, made some aspects of the city temporarily depression-proof. The confluence of talent in Kansas City also impacted the makeup of territory bands and the overall style of the jazz they played; soloists took center stage with more frequency and force. Performing groups grew in size, the blues played more of a part in jazz and instrumentation changed with the guitar and bass easing out the banjo and tuba.

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