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

Karl Ackermann By

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Marable wrote only one original song in his career and recorded just two sides, "Frankie and Johnny" and "Pianoflage" in 1924. Marable was considered a stern bandleader, but one who nurtured young musicians and encouraged them to work toward their strengths. His riverboat band members were expected to play either by memory or ear and from sheet music. Streckfus Steamers included the Dixie Belle where Marable began his career with a group called the Jazz Maniacs. Louis Armstrong had his first river engagement on the same boat. In 1920, Marable had moved to the paddle wheeler, Capitol, now leading a band that included Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and Johnny St. Cyr. The same players, with the addition of Erroll Garner, played on Streckfus' riverboat Sidney in 1924. The company's ship President was commissioned in the early 1930s, again with a band led by Marable. For more than thirty years, Marable led bands on the Streckfus Steamers and alumni included Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Fats Waller, and Chick Webb. The company still exists and, as of 2005, Captain Lisa Streckfus, and her cousin, Mary Jo Manthey, both descendants of the founder, were still active pilots on the Streckfus line.

Play Like a Girl

If a definitive history of territory bands is scarce, the documentation of All-Girl Territory Bands, female leaders, and key players, is exponentially thinner. Jazz, dance music and, for that matter, many types of music performed before a live audience, have been subjugated by men. Female singers aside, women musicians—regardless of their talent—were often used as gimmicks or curiosities in otherwise male-oriented bands. The sexual objectification of women in these bands was a marketing ploy that did little to advance critical reputations of females as musicians, so it is all the more impressive that a number of them had the patience, perseverance and talent to go on to national prominence. As mentioned earlier, Mary Lou Williams was at the forefront of territory band graduates.

A native of Atlanta, Williams was a prodigy with perfect pitch who was regularly performing as a pianist while still in grade school. In the mid-1920s, after Andy Kirk replaced Terrence Holder as leader of the re-christened Clouds of Joy, Williams was signed on for various tasks before winning the regular piano role. Williams' contributions expanded as she took on most of the arraigning for Kirk. Kirk's group was considered one of the most popular and durable of all the territory bands -their run lasting more than two decades. They recorded more than fifty sides, mostly with Decca Records but some with the Brunswick label. Kirk was considered an excellent musician but he rarely recorded a solo. His own written account of the territory band years, Twenty Years on Wheels (University of Michigan Press, 1989), is a remembrance, not just of the music, but the realities of being a black, travelling musician where the homes of ordinary people served as a proxy for the shelter and food that establishments did not offer to blacks. Kirk, however, wrote little about the musicians who played for him, and almost nothing about Williams who was generally considered the driving force behind much of the success of the Clouds of Joy.

In her book American Women in Jazz (Wideview Books, 1982), author Sally Placksin writes about the ground-breaking events of Williams career and her impact on the broader music scene. "In 1930 Mary Lou Williams made her historic solo piano recording of 'Night Life,' something she improvised on the spot, unaware that it was even being recorded. With the distinctive Williams touch and colorations, and the strong, propelling left hand, this forthright, joyful piano heralded what the thirties Kansas City 'swing' style would be all about. Within a year of the recording, Williams would become a full-time member of the Kirk band and one of the music's strongest guiding forces." Her accomplishments as an arranger with the Clouds of Joy resulted in Williams sharing compositions and arrangements with Tommy Dorsey, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and many other prominent bandleaders. After leaving Kirk's band in 1942, Williams settled in Harlem, performed at a number of Greenwich Village clubs and on a weekly radio broadcast, and mentored Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and others.

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