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

Karl Ackermann By

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In the early-to-mid 1920s Kansas City based trumpeter Terrence Holder was a regular fixture in that city's territory bands when he formed his own, Dark Clouds of Joy. Holder had earlier played with Alphonso Trent and while his reputation as a musician seemed solid, as a leader he appeared to struggle. His group members decided to replace him in the late 1920s with their saxophonist and tubist, Andy Kirk. Holder spent the next decade working in and around Kansas City with the likes of Buddy Tate, Bud Johnson and Nat Towles but gave up the profession sometime in the 1940s. He went to work as a copper miner in Billings, Montana and was never heard from again. Meanwhile, the new leader had re-christened the group as Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy. Occasionally the group was billed as "The Twelve Clouds of Joy" though it did not have twelve members. Kirk, who had studied under Paul Whiteman's father, kept the band intact into 1948 and at various points in time the group featured Don Byas, Howard McGhee, Fats Navarro, Charlie Parker, Hank Jones and Joe Williams. The "First Lady of Jazz Keyboards," Mary Lou Williams, was the band's pianist and arraigner into the early 40s.

Nat Towles' orchestra was widely regarded as one of the best of the territory bands. The New Orleans native was popular from his home town up through Chicago and his group played with a different and powerful pulse that would later be the backbone of swing bands like that of Basie. As Towles moved north he established an early base in Austin, Texas and recruited well-trained students from a music program at Wiley College. In his book (written with Joseph McLaren) I Walked With Giants: The Autobiography of Jimmy Heath (Temple University Press, 2010) the saxophonist refers to a performance with Towles' band at the Prom Ballroom in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Working for Towles at the time, Heath notes that the engagement drew widespread media attention because the venue had not previously welcomed a band of color. It was the booking itself that Heath notes as a significant accomplishment for a black territory band. Towles changed the name of his band to The Nat Towles Dance Orchestra in the 1930s and emphasized swing music. He accepted residencies in a number of locations in and around Omaha, into Chicago, and finally, a date at Harlem's Apollo Theater. His band included trombonist Buster Cooper, who went on to be part of the Apollo's house band, saxophonist Red Holloway, who recorded into the 2000s, Billy Mitchell, who later played with Dizzy Gillespie, and saxophonists Buster Bennett and Preston Love.

They Covered the Waterfront

Following World War I, excursion boats began adding dance bands to their already burgeoning river tour businesses. Louis Armstrong was among the earliest musicians to take advantage of floating venues and he was followed into the water by performers such as Baby Dodds, Harry Allen, Bix Beiderbecke, Jimmy Blanton, Pee Wee Russell and Clark Terry. The Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio River Valleys encompass an area that touches on thirty-one states from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. The combined area reaches as far west as Idaho, and—to the east—New York State. More than the land-bound territory bands, the riverboat musicians were exposed to—and absorbed—the musical elements of regionalism across nearly half of the US. Just as it was with the Southern and Great Plains musicians, the vast majority of the riverboat performers labored in obscurity. Names such as Charlie Creath, Floyd Campbell, Thornton Blue and Burroughs Lovingood may have been well-known staples on the waterways, but despite word-of-mouth recognition of their talents, none received any lasting acknowledgment.

If the Mississippi River had a house band it would have carried the name of Fate Marable. Marable was born into a large musical family in Paducah, Kentucky on the Ohio River in 1890. Taught piano by his mother, he began playing on Mississippi River steam boats while still in his teens. In 1907, he was signed on as a bandleader on a Streckfus Line paddle wheel boat running on the Mississippi River between New Orleans and St. Paul, Minnesota. The Streckfus Line, for all intent and purposes, owned the riverboat business on the Mississippi with eight excursion boats carrying fulltime dance bands. John Streckfus, Sr. incorporated his existing shipping business in 1910 to expand on the entertainment component of his business. His four sons were all licensed boat captains who eventually took over the company and placed added emphasis on musical performances.

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