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

Karl Ackermann By

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Coda for the Territory Bands

The beginning of the end for the majority of territory bands was the Great Depression, and at its worst in the early 1930s, many of the groups broke up—some in the midst of engagements where they found themselves unable to even pay for transportation home. There were pockets of the US that still had disposable income for entertainment and cities that did not rely on heavy manufacturing fared better than port towns or steel production centers. Some rural areas that relied on farming, did not feel the effects of the depression as severely as mining towns or cities connected with construction or the auto industry. So, the survivors played their way through the devastated economy and into the 1940s. By that time there were more recent circumstances that finished off the bands: increasingly restrictive union regulations, the popularity of smaller combos and the improving technologies in radio and recording. While some musicians emerged with an elevated status, most were never known at all. For every Jimmie Lunceford, Illinois Jacquet or J. J. Johnson that appeared from the territories, there were dozens more like Smiling Billy Stewart's Celery City Serenaders, Jimmy "Dancing Shoes" Palmer, and Leo Peeper and His Orchestra.

The timeline of jazz—viewed through its various eras—is filled with relatively brief periods of reinvention. The most widely popular era—swing and big band—lasted about fifteen years while bop, cool/West Coast jazz, and hard bop each had peak periods of only about five years. The significance of the territory bands was in their ability and willingness to cast a wide stylistic net; New Orleans, Chicago and Kansas City styles, hot jazz, swing/big band, and gypsy jazz were all part of their repertoire. In the face of obstacles that should have been unthinkable in the US, these bands disseminated music to every corner of the country, often in anonymity.

Related Recordings

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm Hot Licks (Sounds of Yesteryear, 2006)

The Sweethearts recorded a handful of 78s for Guild Records but they seem to have vanished. Hot Licks is a compilation from radio broadcasts that were recorded near the end of their run, from 1944 to 1946. The sixteen tracks are a mix of standards such as "Sweet Gerogia Brown," "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Tuxedo Junction," as well as some originals. In 2011, the Smithsonian paid tribute to the group and several surviving members, including Roz Cron and Willie Mae Wong were in attendance.

Baby Dodds Talking and Drum Solos (Atavistic, 2000)

Warren "Baby" Dodds learned to play on a drum that he built himself. He began playing in New Orleans street parades and funeral marches and was later recognized as one of the first jazz drummers to improvise while performing. Dodds played in a number of territory bands but, most notably, spent several years with Fate Marable's riverboat band. Talking and Drum Solos is literally what the title says. Dodds alternates playing drum solos with spoken explanations of his technique, and a bit of history thrown in. The CD is an odd one in that the first eight tracks feature Dodds and the remaining twenty tracks are divided between two rural brass bands with no obvious connection to Dodds. These latter bands are almost comically amateurish and yet there is a charm about their performance that makes for entertaining listening.

Various Artists The Frog Blues & Jazz Annual No. 3 (Frog UK, 2014)

A CD and book combination, the music is culled from historic 78s including one of the two sides recorded by Fate Marable. Marable's Society Syncopaters contribute "Pianoflage" to a twenty-five-track collection that includes Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton & His Red Hot Peppers and blues artists such as Big Bill Broonzy and Poor Boy Lofton.

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