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

Karl Ackermann By

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Alphonso Trent

The best of the Southern Plains territory bands, in whole or in part, migrated north in the mid-1920s, ahead of the larger exodus. A highly popular figure on the southwest circuit, pianist Alphonso Trent was a teenager when he began playing with local Arkansas bands. At eighteen, in 1923, he was fronting a band in in Muskogee, Oklahoma and shortly afterward he had moved on to a Dallas-based group which came to be known by his name. In 1925, that city's historic Adolphus Hotel—built in 1912 by beer baron Adolphus Busch—offered Trent an extended engagement; a rarity for a black territory band in the south. Even rarer was that the Dallas radio station WFAA began to regularly feature the Alphonso Trent Orchestra, something that had never been done for a black group. Jimmie Lunceford—one of the bona fide stars to come out of the territory bands—heard Trent's band in Tennessee and his praise of the group resonated and led to their first recording session with Gennett Records, a growing label in the 1920s. There was a dark irony in the arrangement. The label recorded Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Earl Hines in their early days but, according to a 2013 Public Broadcasting System (PBS) investigative report, Gennett also produced at least two sides for the Ku Klux Klan. Those recruitment anthems came about as a result of the label's philosophy of eschewing formal contracts, opting for a pay-per-session business model. So along with sides such as "E Flat Blues," Gennett was producing "The Bright Fiery Cross" (with the footnote: "Sung By 100% Americans") and "The Jolly Old Klansman."

It was not unheard of for the more successful territory bands to retain their original home base but expand their geography as their popularity grew. Count Basie and Andy Kirk had done just that on their way to national recognition. From 1927 through 1929 Trent's group played in Cincinnati, Louisville, Buffalo and Ontario. They made one trip to New York City for a date at the Savoy Ballroom and in the "battle-of-the-bands" tradition of territory bands, Trent's orchestra took on one led by Armstrong. Trent disbanded his orchestra in 1934 but returned with a septet four years later, and with guitarist Charlie Christian on board. Christian proved additional star power and Trent drew larger audiences and expanded his territory up through the Northern Plains into the Dakotas and Wyoming and to the east. Trent gave up music professionally in the early 1940s, going into real estate, but he continued to play as a soloist or with a small group in his native Arkansas.

The best of the Kansas City-based territory bands were often a jumble of interchangeable players including several who went on to national prominence. Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra was one of the most successful territory bands of the Midwest and toured throughout the U.S. Moten—a pianist and the orchestra conductor—was one of the earliest black musicians to record with Crawdad Blues in 1923 (Okeh Records). Walter Page had been a bassist in Moten's band but left in 1923 joining Billy King's Road Show and touring the Theater Owners' Booking Association circuit across the country. The band included the well-known blues singer Jimmy Rushing and pianist Count Basie. King was born in Alabama shortly after the Civil War had ended. While in his twenties he joined a group of Georgia-based minstrels and developed himself as a vaudeville comedian, eventually starting a touring company that included comedy, chorus lines and a well-seasoned dance band. King's troupe drew wide attention at a national level and his satirical references to race issues made him popular among members of the Harlem Renaissance movement, including Langston Hughes. As King focused more on his own vaudevillian stage presence, the supporting band disintegrated leading to the formation of Walter Page and the Blue Devils. In the six years that the Blue Devils existed, the group featured Basie, Rushing, saxophonist Buster Smith, Lester Young, and trumpeter Hot Lips Page (no relation).

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