As I Remember It
JOHNNY ST. CYR
This autobiography by Johnny St. Cyr was written a few years ago, but has not been published before this, as it was originally intended that the narrative would be in five parts, bringing the story right up to date — unfortunately we never received the fifth and last part. Johnny recounted these episodes from the earliest days of jazz to his friend John W. Slingsby, who faithfully transcribed them for us. For the past seven years up to the time of his death St. Cyr played banjo and guitar on the Disneyland ‘riverboat’ with ‘The Young Men From New Orleans’, thus returning, in a manner of speaking, to the place where he first made his name, the riverboat. He was born in New Orleans on 17th April 1890, and died in the General Hospital, Los Angeles on 17th June 1966. He was 76 years old.
PART ONE : EARLY DAYS
I will try to give you my recollections of what the music was like when I was a boy and young man growing up in New Orleans about sixty years ago.
Downtown was very much different in those early years. They had many functions, especially downtown balls and parties — people liked to have a good time, and there was always something to for musicians. They always had picnics on Lake Ponchartrain or at the pavilions out on the water, every Sunday each one would have a band of some sort. I remember there was Lucian’s Pavillion, out on the water, and Little Alice’s Camp on the land. The bands would play Saturday afternoon advertising the Sunday picnic on the lake, and the dance on Saturday night. The balls would be held on Saturday nights, so the hands would advertise the picnic, starting about 10 a.m.
To get out to the lake front there were two narrow gauge steam trains. One ran out Bienville to the Spanish Fort, the other ran out Elysian Fields to Milneburg. They did not go fast, and you could easily run and jump on or off. Everybody rode out on Sunday to the picnics this way. The fare was 15 cents round trip. Some would walk out there, but it was about 3 or 4 miles. Others might hire a wagon for a group.
The picnics at the lake were the ideal place for the younger people to hear the different bands and musicians as they would all he out there. We could hear them all at the different camps and picnic grounds, and needless to say, we all had our favourites. There would be seven or eight bands, as well as some smaller combos. Yes, there was plenty of music out there at the lake every Sunday in the summer.
In the very early days the bands played for subscription parties. You subscribed to a party (allowed to buy a ticket or tickets) and only ticket holders were admitted. This was the way in which they kept out the riff-riff. Of course, there were no radios, movies, or TV in those days — the only form of entertainment were the dances and parties. The bands played for birthday parties, weddings, anniversaries, births, and fancy balls, but the ‘young set’ were not allowed to go to the balls unless chaperoned. Lots of them, whose parents did not care for the balls, would give parties in the homes, hence the subscription parties. This was around the year 1900.
Orleans Street, with the Treme Market in the centre of the street, and Claibourne Avenue were the business streets of the Creole section. You could see these musicians going around here, and we knew them all. They were our inspiration.
These were all older musicians — Bab Frank, Peter Bocage, Jimmy Brown, Manuel Perez, George Baquet, B. Johnson, the Tio Brothers, Billy Marrero, Big Eye Louis Nelson, George Fields, Bouboul Augustin. Most of these musicians played for dances, picnics, parades. Some musicians, who were strictly brass band musicians, did not play for dances, but only did brass band work such as parades, etc., while the other musicians would play for anything that came along.
I can remember about this time, they would use furniture wagons, drawn by horses, with a band riding on the wagon playing from, say, Claiborne and Dumaine to Rampart and back to Galvez. They would cover a whole area; for example in the Creole section they would make both ends, covering all the area between. In later years, when using trucks to carry the musicians, they would cover the entire area or whole city. However, they did not advertise much from wagons at this time as was the practice some few years later. Maybe one band only on Saturday. In later years bands would be out in wagons almost every day of the week.
At the picnics on the lake the music was about the same as for a Saturday night dance. Every band had their specialties that they played hot, one out of every five or six selections. But the Golden Rule Band played everything hot, and played for those who liked that type of music.
It was the younger ones who liked the hot music, Adolph Alexander, Bab Franks, Alcide Frank, Bouboul Augustin, John Vigne, Jimmy Brown (bass), Rene Baptiste (guitar) — they were the original hot hand that I knew. In dance work the cornet would stay on the melody, or lead. The clarinet would play obligato, second, or side melody. The trombone played third or the bass part. There were no ‘slide’ effects, for they mostly used valve trombones. Tail-gate style came along a few years later. The bass hit 1 & 3, with little runs for two or four measures, and the guitar hit straight four beats, with, little runs, two or four measures to break up the monotony. The bass drum played straight on the 1st and 3rd beats. The snare drum was jazz drumming. They had got away from legitimate drumming and were putting their own ideas on the snares. Many of the drummers were different, each one putting in his own ideas and interpretations. ‘Old Man’ Louis Cottrell was the best I can remember. All the bass drums had a foot pedal, and I don’t remember when they had two drummers. I remember them using one drummer when playing for dances, and picnics. In parades the bass drum hit 4/4 time, but on 6/8 numbers they hit 2/4 time. The snares would stick close to the written parts on the marches, but coming back from a funeral or marching for a lodge or club they would cut loose and drum like the dance music; jazz drumming.
As for written music, the musicians would buy it at the big music stores, Werlein’s or Gunwald’s, and then change it around to suit themselves.
The Golden Rule Band was the first hot band to my knowledge. In fact, they were so hot that they were barred from some of the more dignified homes. It was the Robichaux Imperial Band that was popular with the Creoles. The Golden Rule was much like a swing band of today. They would learn the music as written and then kick it around as they wanted. They had a certain beat to all numbers. They played all ensemble as to style, no solos, using different strains to feature certain instruments, or for breaks. The breaks featured trumpet, clarinet or trombone. There were no long choruses. Also, no pianos were used until 1917 — they used violin. The violin would play ensemble and every strain — playing softly when featuring the clarinet in the low register. Playing very soft, featuring the clarinet and drums, the violin would then pick up the ensemble. The violin was also a lead instrument with the cornet and would take over when the cornet player would ‘take down’ in order to save his lip. The violin would play along with the trumpet player, not ‘getting off’, for the clarinet was the fancy instrument. The clarinet style is much the same now as it was in those days — also the trombone. Brass instruments, however, did not play as loud as they do today.
In the 1920’s it was René and Perez who played loud. Joe Oliver came up with Freddy Keppard, and you could bear him three blocks away. Manuel Perez only played loud in the funeral parades. On dance work he played medium-loud. He was a very popular musician, and very good sight leader. Henry Allen Sr., Manuel Manetta from Algiers, Adolph Alexander, Sr., and Jim Williams (E flat cornet) were all good brass band cornet men.
Even though a musician might regularly play with a seven piece group, he was still available to work with a three or four piece for a party. For a three piece group they would usually use one lead, clarinet or trumpet:, with guitar and/or bass. For softer music a violin was used. In those early days there were no telephones, so each musician used the corner grocery store or bar to receive or leave messages regarding playing dates. A musician was paid $1.00 for riding on a truck and playing for five hours. $2.50 if he played a ball, from 8 p.m. until
4 a.m., with one hour intermission. House parties paid $1.50 to $2.00 and you played about five hours — 8 p.m. to 1 a.m., or 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.
This does not sound like much money today, but it was good money in those days. A popular musician in those days would make a good living. Also, most musicians had other jobs too. During long parades, balls or picnics there would be a five to ten minutes break between each number — they didn’t play sessions like we do now, the reason being it gave people a chance to buy something, drinks or food. In actual playing time, you’d only play two full hours out of the five hours because of the intermissions. At midnight there was always a long intermission of 40 to 45 minutes, and you could visit with friends during the break.
During the intermissions a musician might walk over to another nearby hall to see who was playing, and to speak with the musicians he knew. For example, if Joe Oliver were playing at Economy Hall, I would walk over and have a word with him if I were playing nearby. The dances popular at that time were the quadrille, schottische, waltz, slow drag, one-step and two-step. The square dance of today was called a polka in those days. The schottische was a ‘round’ dance, in which you danced in a huge ring, around the hall. Some of the numbers and the music originated in France, the blues I am sure too came from uptown, but I really can’t remember any blues numbers. The uptown bands played the blues, and when in later years they began hiring downtown bands uptown, they started playing blues because that’s what they had to play.
The bands in the earlydays did not use singers, and there was little or no clowning on what they call showmanship. The musicians, when asked to sing, would say, ‘No, we are musicians’. No singing at all! They’d think it was a disgrace to the profession, as most of them were trained musicians. Understand — no clowning, but playing — that was your business as a musician.
There were probably thirty to forty well-known musicians, in those days, and the best bands were the Golden Rule, Imperial, Superior, Columbia. The personnels changed fairly often, and there would be reserves available to replace anyone who was playing another job. Then there were the pick-up bands — the bass player would play bass drum in a funeral parade, the guitar player might play alto in a brass band. The dance bands playing at night might have been the brass band that did the advertising in the daytime. There were ten to sixteen men in a brass band, depending on what they were playing for and on the money to be paid. If a small group was needed, they would use ten men. There were musicians who specialized in brass band work and would not play dance music, but the better nausicians played both. As far back as I can remember there was ‘second-lining’ behind the brass bands at the parades. The older Creole people did not like this, and they always tried to stop the young ones from following the parades. But the pull of the music was too strong, and the young ones kept it up.
People hired musicians for every occasion — wedding anniversaries, birthdays, house parties. Whenever a friend had a birthday there was a party and the musicians would get together and play. You’d send a person off somewhere, and the band and friends would get into the house and put the lights out. Then when the person returned the light would go on and everyone would yell ‘surprise’. The birthday party was on. Many times when returning home from a short job musicians would stop by a friend’s house and serenade him — quiet and soft like and maybe they’d set out a quart of whiskey on the window sill. In any part of the city all musicians were looked up to. I didn’t know too much about what went on uptown — all I knew were the Creole musicians.
In the early days the pianos had long harps. To get them up to the pitch of the brass instruments was impossible, as you’d break the strings. When they brought pianos with shorter harps they could be tuned to the instruments more easily. Pianos then were used entirely for solo work. The pitch of the piano was too low to be used with a band and brass instruments. Alphonse Picou the clarinettist was twenty-one in 1900, and was just beginning to get out and play. He was with Imperial at one time and then the Superior. Later he was the manager of the Excelsior Brass Band. He got all the music, and would run over all the numbers for each instrument. In High Society when he first saw the piccolo part he liked it so well he used it for his own instrument.
In my own family, my father played guitar and flute, and although he later played dances and with brass bands I don’t remember ever seeing him play in a band. The first time I saw him was when I was about nine years old, for he and my mother had parted when I was a baby. The churches always had music — singing — and the congregation would really swing, tapping their feet, clapping their hands, keeping time in rhythm, tapping, swaying as they sang their hymns. Most of the churches with the gospel singing were Baptist churches. These were all small churches, meeting in a store building or in a home. As you would walk down the street on Sunday morning you could hear there singing and clapping, and swinging right on down. The big churches were more solemn.
I was fourteen years old when I first heard Bolden at Lincoln Park. The brass band were on the big platform, and John Robichaux and sixteen men were playing. consisted of eight men who played for the dance from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. on Sunday. Sometimes there would be picnics at Lincoln Park on Monday night, with just a dance orchestra. A group would hire a band, rent the park for their dance and set tables out in the yard to sell food and drinks. They would have gumbo, ham and salad, chicken and salad, ham sandwiches.
Lincoln Park was on Carlton Avenue from Forshey to Oleander to Short Street. The parks were fenced, with only one entrance. Johnson Park was right back of it, and bands there would compete with the band at Lincoln Park. I could hear Bolden playing from Johnson Park, the band was just across the street. Bolden would put his horn out the window and blow at us. Not hot, just ordinary, but he had a little hot lick he used. To me he was not as hot as The Golden Rule Band.
Freddie Keppard and the Olympia Band set a precedent for hot bands at a later time, after the Golden Rule Band. Originally, Keppard played violin in the district. But ‘Fewclothes’, the band leader, had trouble in keeping a trumpet player — he only paid $1.00 to the trumpet player and on Saturday his regular men would go to the parks or balls for more money. Freddie Keppard said he’d play a trumpet if he had one, and Fewclothes said, ‘Meet me here Monday and I’ll buy you one.’ Freddie met him and he bought him a trumpet, so Keppard started taking lessons from Manuel Perez.
Within a year he was surprising everyone. A. J. Piron, later of the Olympia Dance Band, played violin, but didn’t play in the brass bands because he had a bad leg. He owned a barber shop and the musicians hung out there. It was their headquarters, where they received calls for work. This was at Claiborne near Columbus.
As far as the District is concerned I never went down there at this time. If they saw you there the police would run you out or take you in; arrest you. I have ridden through on the Villare Street street-car but I never stopped there. I would have been afraid to. Anyway, I don’t think there was so much music there then as there was later on. Nor did I hear many uptown bands at this time. Occasionally mother would go to a ball and then I’d hear an uptown band. Those led by Willie Cornish and Bolden didn’t make much of an impression, as I was just a young boy. When we were very young mother would not let us get further than the corner. It was later on, when we moved downtown, then I heard lots of musicians.
When I was growing up we had a guitar in the house, my father’s gift to my mother. The guitar was a very popular instrument in the homes at that time in New Orleans. My mother would not let me play this guitar of hers, so I made my own out of a cigar box with thread and fishing lines for strings. Soon I could make as many chords on my homemade guitar as mother could on her good one. After a while, she let me use her guitar. My brother had gone to work in the Cooperage shop, making barrels. It was there he met Jules Baptiste and Jackie Dowden. Jack and Jules would put on little parties on Sunday and always there was a barrel of beer. They would play and sing, the neighbours would come in and dance. Jack played the mendolin and Jules played guitar. They just played the popular songs of the day and a few blues.
They had a party at our house one Sunday and they asked me to play with them. I came in when I could on certain numbers in the key of ‘C’ and ‘G’. Jules took an interest in me and started giving me lessons. In a few weeks they took me out on jobs with them on Saturday night — fish fries mostly. People put on these parties in their homes to make a little money. The best music got the biggest crowd and we had it. Jack and Jules were great for serenading their friends late at night, on the way home from a little job. They would play a number, the people would get up and set out the whisky bottle. Then they would go on to the next friend’s house and repeat the serenade.
About this time I started to study the Spanish or solo type guitar, picking the strings with my fingers. I kept pretty busy with these little jobs and had no time to play with bands. I was apprenticed to the plastering trade about 1905, working with George Guesnon’s father, who was a journeyman plasterer. We worked for August Bon Hagen, a contractor. When I had served out my apprenticeship, I had saved a little money and was able to get out and go to halls and different functions where the bands were playing. I could study the different guitar players and see if I could pick up some more ideas. I didn’t get too much from most of these guitar players though. These bands would be the Silver Leaf, Imperial and the Eagle Bands, playing at Masonic Halls and at the parks. The balls were on Saturday, Sunday or Monday nights.
About this time I met Manuel Gabriel, who lived around the corner. He came and asked me to rehearse with his band. Manny played cornet. This was just a little neighbourhood group, but I got a start. Manny had one of his sons playing drums and another fellow, named Wade Waley (Whaley), playing clarinet. I was with them about four months. We just rehearsed and played a few small jobs, including a few weeks in the district.
At this time we moved ‘downtown’ and I renewed acquaintanceship with Piron and Paul Dominguez. They were fine musicians with legitimate training. Piron kept in his possession all the band music and I would go into the shop and Piron would let me go through it and help me. Both Piron and Paul were barbers by trade, and they both played violin. It was through Piron and Dominguez that I played with Freddie Keppard’s band. Freddie had been playing for ‘Fewclothes’ in the District the Olympia was the hottest band around at this time. Keppard was getting away from playing straight lead. He was the first of the ‘get off’ cornet then — getting away from the melody, more like the clarinet. Bands as a whole still played ensemble style. On certain numbers they would feature the cornet player, and sometimes the trombone, but the clarinet was always featured.
Keppard, Racquet, Eddie Vincent, Joe Brooks (guitar), Jimmie Brown (bass), E. Tripiannia (drums), Piron (violin) made up the Olympia Band. Then Joe Brooks left to go with the Imperial Band to replace Renee Batiste who joined the Superior Band, so I went with the Olympia Band. We played parties, balls, picnics, banquets, parades and on advertising wagons. Banquets were always held on Mondays. Sundays were the club parties and picnics. We played both for white and coloured, all over New Orleans one night out on St. Charles Avenue for a private party at a fine home for wealthy white people, next night we might play in the District. It was about this time that Piron left the band.
One night at Economy Hall, Piron went down on the floor during intermission to talk to a girl he knew. Freddie Keppard hollered to him, ‘Come on man, we’ve got to play some music.’ Piron called back, ‘Don’t yell at me, man.’ Piron got real hot about this and he put his violin on his chair and refused to play. During the course of the number, he forgot his violin was on the chair, and he sat on it. The members of the band laughed so hard, he packed up and went home. And that the last time he played with the Olympia Band — Jimmy Palao took his place.
The guitar player, Leon Williams, got the band on to the vaudeville circuit, and as he went as guitar player that left me out. They travelled all over the United States, and to the best of my knowledge, they were the first band to take New Orleans music to the rest of the country. Keppard and Baguet never came back to New Orleans. Of course, I played with Keppard in Chicago with Doc Cook. It has been my good fortune to have played with three of the geniuses of jazz — Freddie Keppard, Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong. I also played with Celestian around New Orleans for a while in 1912. We had Pete Bocage, Johnny Lindsey, Louis Cottrelle, Bebe Ridgely and Lorenzo Tio Jr. Celestin was not singing or clowning at that time — he played straight lead, loud and strong. We played the usual types of job and also went on the road with John Rucker’s Minstrel Show in Northern and Western Louisiana. We were rained out everywhere, and only had one good night. We finally broke up at Morgan City, and made our way back to New Orleans on an excursion train.
Then Celestin got a good offer to go into the Tuxedo Dance Hall. He was using a piano there, no bass and guitar, so I was left out. This was shortly before the shooting, when the owners of the ‘101’ and the ‘Tuxedo’ shot and killed each other. This shooting caused things to be shut down in the District for a while.
A short while later I got the opportunity to join the Kid Ory Band. Ory had two fellows, brothers, called ‘Chiffs’, cornet and ‘Stone’, guitar; Ed Garland, bass; Henry Martin, drums; Emile Bigard, violin; Johnny Dodds, clarinet. Well, one night they had a job out on St. Charles Avenue, and ‘Stone’ showed up very drunk, so Ory sent him home. Then ‘Chiffs’ got real hot and so he too quit and went home.
So Mutt Carey came in on cornet and I came in on guitar. A little later Henry Martin left and Baby Dodds joined us on drums. We would hold rehearsals at one or the other’s homes. We would have a pot of gumbo or a Cowien (turtle), and after we had eaten, we would rehearse and work out the new numbers. I never remember learning a number by ear from hearing another band playing the number. If we heard a new piece we liked, we would go to Werlein’s and buy the arrangement and learn it. Then we would change it around to suit our style of playing. It seems that new numbers did not come out as often then as they did later on.
We would learn about ten or twelve new numbers a year. A band would have a repertoire of about thirty or forty numbers. Most of the men could read and if they couldn’t read, at least they could spell. Every band had some good readers in it. The hot playing, improvising, came after we learned the number, usually a ‘head’ arrangement. One man could go from one band to another and fit right in, no trouble. We used to play the verse as well as the chorus on popular songs and most of the numbers had different strains to them, usually three — High Society is a good example of this. That’s a’Plenty is another old number, also Weary Blues, Frankie And Johnny, Stewed Chicken, Grace And Beauty, Rubber Plant, Black And White, Maple Leaf, and Climax Rag.
Clarence Williams and Piron had a music publishing house located at 1315 Tulane Avenue, between Liberty and Franklin. Among the tunes they published were Sister Kate, Brownskin, Who You For?, Mama’s Baby Boy (tune same as Do What Ory Say), You’re Some Pretty Doll, Mama’s Gone Good-Bye, I Can Beat You Doing What You’re Doing To Me, Call Me Shine, If You Don’t Want Me Please Don’t Dog Me ’Round, You Missed A Good Woman When You Picked All Over Me, Long, Long Time Before You See My Face Again. Of course we all played their numbers. I also worked for them in my spare time, building shelves, pigeon holes, helping to fill orders, packaging and mailing music.
When they went on their vaudeville tour, they finished up in Chicago, but Clarence wanted to go on to New York and give the publishing business a try. That’s where the money was. Piron wanted to return to New Orleans, so Clarence went to New York alone. He eventually got financial backing in New York, and bought Piron out for $800.00.
If whatever band I was playing with was the first to get a new number, we would always cut the name off the music after we’d learned it, for other musicians would come snooping around and try and find the name of the tune if the crowd seemed to like it. If we had a new popular number worked up real good, this made for more jobs. They would hire the band that had the new stuff. Also, some of the guys would go into the music store and ask for a new number. Well, the clerk would bring out the arrangement, fifteen or eighteen parts in a folder. Then they’d ask for some obscure, old piece, and when the clerk turned his back to look for it, then they’d slip out the violin and cornet parts, so that if another band got it, they couldn’t play it anyway.
PART TWO : STORYVILLE DAYS
Piron, Pete Bocage and Robichaux made simple arrangements, but I don’t know of anyone who ever made any jazz arrangements in those days. We had no special uniform for dance band work, just our regular suits, but around 1906 or 1907 the parade bands all got uniforms. They were known as the Boys in Blue — the Boys in Brown, etc., but they went back to white shirts and dark blue pants a few years later.
Another place where we played quite a few jobs around this time was in the Irish Channel. This was the neighbourhood along Tchoupitoulas, from Annunciation to Orange. The people were all longshoremen and screwmen (screwmen packed the cargo of cotton bales in the ships. They used screw jacks to get just the right pressure so the cargo would not shift while at sea, and yet not too much pressure to damage the ship. This was a skilled type of work). They made good wages and liked to have a good time, drink and dance, but most of all they liked to fight. We would play in the homes down there. I never played in a hall in that area, just in the homes.
Well, after the party would get going good then a fight would start. They never bothered the
musicians, but the would sometimes break up the instruments, or it would be such a disorganized party that we could not get our money. Then too, they would get ‘wound up’ and keep us playing long past our quitting time before we could get paid. We finally had to quit them for awhile, until they got a way worked out so we would not have all this trouble. I played down there with Celestin, Ory and different pick-up groups. We would get $2.00 or $2.50 a man a night for playing.
I have read several articles written about the District (Storyville) that were uncompleted, so I will try and describe it to the best of my knowledge, and recollections.
There were about eight cabarets or dance halls in the District that used music. These were along Customhouse Street (now Iberville) and a few on Bienville Street. Thev were in a small area about three blocks on each street from Franklin (now Crozat) to Villere. For all the different uses they just took over the existing buildings, for there were no new buildings built except in one or two cases. These buildings were all old — houses or stores, but most of the places on Basin Street were more elaborate, all were old dwellings. The rest of this area was just an ordinary neighbourhood, one or two storey frame buildings, and a few brick buildings. This is all torn down now, and a new housing development is built there. Even the streets are gone.
The cabarets just occupied old store buildings. They would have about a thirty foot width and about a hundred foot depth. There would be a bar, tables and chairs, dance floor, and band
stand — usually at the back. The band stands were not high up like the stands in the old halls, just about two or three feet high. These places were all fixed up, painted, and very nice. They catered to a good class of trade. No rough stuff here. Anybody who started any trouble in these places would be bounced right out. The rough stuff went on a few blocks uptown, around Perdido and Liberty Streets. This is where the shootings, the stabbings and the fights occurred. In the District, everything was well policed — anyone would be safe to go into these cabarets. The dance halls were just the same as the cabarets except they were larger. They did not serve food in these places, but all along the curb were these push carts that sold hot sandwiches, stuffed crab, hot tamales and different kinds of food.
The ‘houses’ just used pianos for music, or a mechanical piano you’d drop a nickle in. Most of the houses did not keep a piano man steady — the madam would phone around the saloons to get one if a crowd came in. Some guys could only play one number, just play it over and over, until the crowd left. They’d get $1.50
I don’t know just when bands started playing down there. They probably started with string trios, then it kept growing until they were using full bands. I first played there with Manny Gabriel about 1908. We were using cornet, clarinet, etc., but we only had the job for a few weeks. At one time or another all the musicians in New Orleans must have worked someplace in the District. You see, these jobs did not pay very much, just a $1.00 per night, plus tips. The regular wage for other jobs would be $2.00 to $2.50, plus a good meal at 12 o’clock. Now, in the District they served no food, so of course there was no dinner at 12 o’clock. They would give you a drink on the house once in a while. You had to depend on tips to make anything. Many nights the tips were very poor, maybe only 25c per man. Friday and Saturday nights were better. Sunday would be the day off for the regular bands and the string bands would take over, playing soft music. This observance of the Sabbath was strictly enforced — no loud music on Sunday even in the District. The practice of the men in the band taking a night off to work a better paying job was the accepted thing. In most places the regular house band would only be complete about two or three nights of the week. Some members would be out playing a ball or banquet. Also, a lot of the men worked Brass Band parades, or played in the advertising wagons in the day time and might take a night off to rest up.
Naturally, there was a lot of sitting-in, or substituting. In fact, some men would just go there, take their instrument along and took for a last minute opening, taking the place of someone who didn’t show up to work. Because of this sitting-in the music was of different quality in the cabarets every night. I used to leave my guitar in a saloon, in the District, as I was down there almost every night anyway, and I
could get the guitar quickly if a job turned up at the last minute.
All of these cabarets and saloons catered to white trade with the exception of Pete Lala’s Cabaret and the Big 25. If I wanted to talk to a musician working in one of these other cabarets, I would just walk in and go up to the stand and sit down and talk to him. The Big 25 was one of several gambling houses. Gambling was illegal, but tolerated by the police. The gambling places had a bar in front with a back room devoted to gambling. Many of the places had pool tables up in the barroom and all the pool
sharks would play and bet on their skill. Most of the gambling was done at a game called Cotch, or Spanish Poker. I never did understand
this game myself, as it was very complicated. However, I would sometimes bet along with a professional gambler I thought would win.
There was no music in these gambling places, but the musicians would gather there after working a job, to drink and talk. These places
were always open, twenty-four hours a day — always something going on. The general appearance of Custom House Street at night would
be a lot like Bourbon Street today, lots of lights, music, push carts along the curb, people walking up and down the street.
I met Sidney Becket through his brother Joe, who was a plasterer. He told me about his young brother and the clarinet, and that he just couldn’t keep time. I told him to bring Sidney over to my house and I’d see if I could help him. I lived just a few blocks away, so he came over and we worked together for a while. We just played together once in a band, the Eagle Band. The Eagle Band was going to make an excursion trip. A lot of people would go to the station when an excursion left. The band would play a few numbers on the platform just before the train pulled out. Brock Mumford’s girl friend didn’t want him to go on this excursion. She caught him at the station, got hold of his guitar and hit him across his fat belly with it, which busted the guitar all up. I was asked to make the trip in his place, so I hurried and got my guitar, and arrived back at the station just before the train left. After the excursion I played a ball at Masonic Hall with the Eagle Band, then Brock got another guitar and took his job back.
At one time Sidney Bechet was taking some lessons from Old Man Tio. He was warming up with some of his hot licks, but according to Sidney Old Man Tio told him, ‘No! no! no! — we do not bark like a dog — or meow like a cat.’ But Sidney was playing up a storm at a very early age. He was playing with the best of them by the time he was fifteen years old. Of course, he was up against the toughest kind of competition — Big Eye Louis, Lorenzo Tio, Jr., Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds, Alphonse Picou. And Emile Barnes and George Lewis were also coming up about this same time. George Baguet was about the top man until he left with Keppard. Then there was Willie Warner, the
only man who triple-tongued the clarinet. He was always good for a free drink if you told him, ‘Willie, you’re the greatest clarinet player in New Orleans’. He’d say, ‘Now, there’s a man that knows — what will you have to drink, my boy?’ Then he would say, ‘They all ask me, how do you do it? How do you triple-tongue a clarinet?’ Willie would stick out his tongue, tap it with his fingers and say, ‘That is my secret.’ Then how he would go on!
I first remember Emile Barnes playing for Henry Ponce, who owned the Northside Athletic Club at Peyrouse and Roman. They would have prize fights during the week, then on Saturday night they took out all the chairs and had a dance.
Alphonse Picou was also a sheet metal worker — he worked on the copper domes on the Jesuit Church on Baronne near CanaI. The church domes are still there today. Picou was a good reader, as well as playing hot. He played a lot for the Creole Societies, as they put a lot of
stock in good reading. Of course, they frowned on the hot music. They said it caused the younger set to misbehave on the dance floor. My guess though, is that they enjoyed it all right themselves. I think Picou liked the hot music, but of course this kind of work for the Societies paid good. These old Creole Societies would always pay the band, even if no one showed up at the dance. Some of these other clubs wouldn’t pay the band if they had a poor crowd, or some member would take off with the money and the band would’t, get paid. This happened at parades too — some member would be supposed to pay the band. They’d say meet me at so and so’s saloon, then they’d take off with the money. There was always plenty of music played, and some never paid for, in New Orleans.
Lorenzo Tio, Jr., was a very good hot man, as well as legitimate. His father and his Uncle Louis were strictly legitimate. They were both wonderful musicians and teachers. Of course, they could play by ear and improvise, but they did not play hot and did not care to play with hot bands. The younger hot musicians did not care too much about playing with them, and used to make jokes about them behind their backs. Charlie McCurtis was in the same class as the elder Tios; he played mostly with Robichaux and did not job around too much. Lorenzo Tio, Jr., took up the tenor sax about this time. He was also a very good teacher, and taught many of the New Orleans sax men to read on this instrument.
At my earliest recollections, the clarinet style was already established and it remains about the
same to this day.
George Fields, trombone, was one of the older musicians, a good reading musician, who took up the hot style and played with the best in both legitimate and hot. He was one of the first ones to go to Chicago, where he remained. After 1914, I went out to Tranchini’s with Piron. It was at Tranchini’s that I got the idea of playing a banjo. I pulled the neck off a banjo and put a guitar neck on it, that I had made myself. Piron and Clarence Williams got booked at the Pantages as an act, and I was suggested to go on that trip with them. But they had a comedian named Davis, and lie said if they’d take him back with them, he knew all the hot spots in New York and he could get them extra work after hours. So they took Davis back with them instead of me.
Arthur Campbell, piano, was left in charge of the band, which was still at Tranchini’s when Piron left. Felix Tranchini was sort of managing the place for his father. He would tell us, ‘Keep your eye on the customers — when they’re not buying, take a rest for yourselves and have a smoke.’ When customers didn’t order anything, then we’d go out to the kitchen and have a smoke. The head waiter would come in the kitchen and say, ‘Customer’s here, play some music.’ We’d peek out the door and if there were no new customers, we’d go back and sit down. What the head waiter did was to go tell old Mr. Tranchini that we spent most of our time in the kitchen smoking. They took out the benches in the kitchen so we couldn’t sit down,
then, instead of serving us supper, they’d give us sandwiches.
One night on the way out to Tranchini’s I saw Paul Dominguez, who was working out that way. He asked me, ‘What happened over at Tranchini’s? Old man Tranchini called me up and asked me if I could get him a band. I told him I’d see what I could do, but I didn’t intend to do anything until I could see one of you.’ I said, ‘I didn’t know what the trouble was.’ The train stop was about one and a half blocks from Tranchini’s, so I waited there for the rest of the boys instead of going out and setting up the bandstand. I told the boys what Paul had told me, and I said, ‘I’d dump him right tonight.’ Campbell said, ‘We’ll drop him like a hot potato.’ We went directly to the office and asked him what was wrong. ‘Gus Buckle’ (the head waiter) he said, ‘tells me that you spend most of your time in the kitchen smoking.’ We asked him who took the benches away, and how did he know if Buckle was telling the truth or not. Campbell said, ‘O.K., we quit as of tonight.’ Trancini said, ‘What’ll I do for a band Saturday and Sunday?’ Campbell retorted, ‘What would we do for a job on Saturday and Sunday?’
We had been playing soft, dinner-type music and he hired Celestin to come in there, making loud music. Joe Delebirdie was assisting head waiter when Buckle was busy. When Celestin cut loose with the loud music, the customers were sticking their fingers in their ears. People complained so about the loud music that Celestin only stayed two weeks. Old man Tranchini heard Piron was back and sent Delebirdie
to see about getting the band back in there. Piron asked, ‘Where is the Old man — out to the place?’ Delebirdie said he was. Piron called to see him and said, ‘This is going to be different than before — one price for the band, one half hour off, supper or dinner and no sandwiches — and if there is any grievance, bring it to me and I will talk to the men.’ This was on a Wednesday and we were to start there Thursday. Piron said, ‘John, we’re opening at Tranchini’s on Thursday night.’ I asked him, ‘For the same price?’ He said, ‘Well, no — I’ll pay Peter Bocage, $5.00; Arthur Campbell, $2.50; Joe Lindsey, $2.50; Louis Cantrell, $2.50;
Philip Knickerson . . . — then he stopped. I said, ‘What about me?’ Guess what he told me? ‘We’re good friends I said, ‘I won’t go back for the same money.’ He said, ‘I’ll have to pay you out of my own pocket.’ I said, ‘Just forget about it’.’
After the job at Tranchini’s blew up in 1916, I played a few jobs with Joe Oliver’s Magnolia
Band. We had Joe, cornet; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Ernest Kelly, trombone; Willie Foster, violin; Pops Foster, bass; Henry Zeno, drums — Joe worked steady in the District, at Pete Lala’s. The Magnolia Band worked parades, wagons, picnics, balls, banquets, anything we could get.
Of course, we would only have two or three jobs a week that interfered with Joe playing at Lala’s, and then he would just take a night off,
and get a substitute. This is how he and Louis Armstrong got together.
I first met Louis Armstrong through my brother, who lived on Perdido Street. He was acquainted with May Anna, Louis’ mother, and Louis. My brother got me to come down there and Louis. Re was playing at Spano’s Tonk at Franklin and Poydras, with Boogers on piano. They were just playing the blues and Sister Kate. Then, however, they called it Who Threw the Bricks on Katy’s Head. Just a few little things they had worked up. Boogers could only play on the black keys of the piano. This was in the toughest part of town and Spano’s was one of the roughest places down there, so I didn’t go down there too often, or stay too long. But Louis was always so clean and neat. He would get all cleaned up and dressed up to go to his job at Spano’s. My brother would go up to Louis, and throw his arms around him and kiss him. This would embarass Louis and he’d say, ‘Don’t do that, people will think I’m funny.
So Joe Oliver was looking for a substitute cornet player he could use when he wanted to take a night off. I mentioned Louis to him and Joe got hold of him. Louis had a wonderful ear, and he learned Oliver’s repertoire from him in about three days. And that’s how Louis came to play in Oliver’s place at Lala’s when Joe was working with the Magnolia Band. They had to keep the noise down after midnight and used mutes in the cornets. Well, the waiters and everybody around there liked to hear Louis get off, so they would talk him into taking the mute out of the cornet.
Now, old man Lala had quite a limp and he would come across the floor, limping and shaking his finger at Louis, when he’d take the mute out of the cornet. After he had turned his back, Louis would go into a little dance which would end up with him taking a few steps with a limp and shaking his finger, just like the old man. This, of course would bring the house down. Louis was always a comedian and he was always coining up with something. A little later, of course, we were on the boat together with Fate Marable.
Piron had a job at the Country Club evenings from two ’til six. Four strings, guitar, bass, banjo, violin and piano. Before that time he had Peter Bocage, plus Charles Bocage, who could sing. Charles learned to play the banjo on the job with help from Pete. Before Piron got the job at the Country Club, Lorenzo Tio, Jr., had hired the Bocage’s. He had Pete and Charles Bocage playing out at West End on Sunday afternoons. So I played that job with
Piron at the Country Club for about three weeks, Saturdays and Sundays. About the fourth week Tio lost his job, and Piron came to me and said, ‘John, I’ll have to let you go. Tio lost the job out there, and I must take Pete and Charles back with me, and I can’t use you as you are not a member of the regular band.’ ‘Suppose you tell him (C. Bocage) I owe you some money?’ I said. Piron answered, ‘I couldn’t make him understand that.’ I said, ‘O.K. you stood responsible for getting me back in the Union, and I still owe you $12.00 — when you give me a job, I’ll pay you back.’ He (Piron) had me up before the Board, so I told them, ‘Well, the conditions were that I was to work with him Saturday and Sunday afternoons and pay him S4.00 a week, until I’d paid the whole amount, which was $24.00. I worked three weeks and I paid S12.00, but he let me out and took someone else and I can’t pay him if I don’t work. The Vice-Chairman of the Board said, ‘Piron, return the man to work until he pays you.’ But Piron had no jobs, except for the regular band on Saturdays and Sundays. It was then that I went back to my plastering trade and worked around New Orleans.
PART THREE : THE RIVERBOATS
About two weeks after, Fate Marable asked me to come on the river boat. I had a friend named Buford, who had a bar room at Gasket (Gasquet) and Villery (Villere), and I used to hang around there. I was living out back of town and Buford played a little, I left the banjo there, as I was in town every night, so I’d not have to go clear back home for the banjo if a job turned up. Buford asked if I minded if he played a little, and I said no. Marable went into Buford’s one Saturday night about midnight, after he left the boat, and Buford was playing the banjo. Marable said, ‘When did you buy the banjo,’ and Buford replied ‘It belongs to Johnny St. Cyr. He’s back there in the other room.’ Marable said to me, ‘Come out here and I’ll buy you a drink.’ He asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was playing out at the lake tomorrow. He asked me, ‘Why don’t you come out on the boat, take a ride with us, bring your banjo.’ He said, ‘The only way you’ll come out there is if I take your banjo.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ Buford and I almost had a fight over the banjo — but I promised to have it back there that Sunday night. I played with the band on the boat and one of the Strekfus Brothers called me into the office and asked me if I wanted to play with the band regularly ‘What are you paying?’ I asked. He said, ‘In New Orleans we are paying $30.00 a week, and when we get to St. Louis we pay $52.50 a week.’ I said ‘I’ll try it.’ He said, ‘You’ll get paid for all you did today’ — and I did get paid. I worked 1918, 1919 and 1920 on that boat.
I finished the season in New Orleans and got ready to go to St. Louis. Piron called me up and said, ‘Come down to the shop, I want to talk some business with you.’ I went over to see him and he said, ‘Well, John, I finally talked the old man into giving me a little more money, and I want to get you back with the band out there, to work with us.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t make it.’ Piron said, ‘I just talked the the old man into giving me some more money so I could get you back.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m going away on the boat.’
I will try to give a little of the history of the Strekfus line, to the best of my recollection. Originally this was a packet line, hauling freight, on the river. After about 1900 the railroads started giving so much competition to the packets that they were gradually being driven out of business. Mr. John Strekfus got the idea of making one of his packets into a floating dancehall, working out of his headquarters in St. Louis. At first his sons Joe, Roy and Johnnie, were the only musicians. They all had musical training and were good, legitimate musicians. This idea caught on with the public and soon they had more boats and the boys took over the management and hired musicians to play for them. The boys were all very good steamboat men, pilots, engineers, electricians and captains. At first they hired white bands to play for them. Fate Marable was playing piano with one of these bands. He was very light complexioned and a very good musician. Well, they started sending a boat down to New Orleans for the winter season. Fate got around town and liked our music, so he convinced Strekfus to try a band of New Orleans musicians, also he would be a leader in his own right, and he would collect leader’s pay. In 1918 I was asked by Fate to join his band. Of course, they had other boats and other bands all this time, in fact, at one time they had a total of four boats working.
There were other people who tried this same idea on the river, but the Strekfus people were very smart politicians and they got all the best landings tied up in every city. These other guys would find themselves out of town when they went to dock, but the Strekfus boat would be right at the foot of the main street of town.
Most of us were not real good readers and Fate agreed to help us with out parts until we caught on. We had William ‘Bebe’ Ridgley on trombone; Joe Howard, cornet; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Dave Jones, mellophone; Geo. ‘Pops’ Foster, bass; Warren ‘Baby’ Dodds, drums; myself on guitar and banjo; and Fate on piano. Well, we needed another cornet to fill out the band. We all had our eye on Louis Armstrong as the coming man on this instrument in New Orleans. So we were all bucking to get him in the band. At this time Louis was working for Kid Ory. Louis had gone in ‘hock’ to Ory for a new cornet and was paying back so much a week. When the time came for Louis to join us, Ory said he couldn’t take his horn because it wasn’t paid for. Louis came around very sad, said he couldn’t make it as he would have no instrument. We went to Roy Strekfus and explained the situation to him. He said, ‘Is this the man you want? Can he play the music?’ We said, ‘Yes.’ Strekfus replied, ‘Then I’ll give him an order for a new horn and he can pay for it so much a week.’ That was how Louis was able to join the band. Most of this band had been with Fate before I joined it in the early summer of 1918. They had no banjo before I came into the band. Johnny Dodds had replaced Sam Dutrey, Sr., then Louis came in a little later to fill out the cornet section. This was on the Steamer Sidney. This was their first and smallest boat. We were playing at night, plus Sunday afternoon and evening. We were getting $35.00 a week. Johnny Dodds left the band shortly after I joined and Sam Dutrey came back. As I recollect, Johnny just took Dutrey’s place for a few weeks. I don’t think Johnny ever played on the boats regularly.
Here’s a couple of little stories that happened in New Orleans in the summer of 1918. One night ‘Bebe’ Ridgley went over to Algiers after work to a party with some friends. Well, I guess it was a very good party, because when he came back the next morning he was still feeling pretty good. He was telling us all about the wonderful things they had to eat. They had chicken, they had gumbo, they had shrimp and so on. ‘Well,’ Fate said, ‘It sounds to me like you’re eating better than Roy Strekfus.’ ‘Breakfast, man I had breakfast, dinner and supper,’ ‘Bebe’ replied.
Fate used to have a little Ford car that he kept on the boat so he could get around town. One evening several of us were going up Canal Street with him and we almost hit a woman, who was walking across the street. Louis Armstrong said, ‘You’d better watch out, you’ll get arrested for emergency.’ We all said, ‘Emergency, what’s emergency?’ Louis said, ‘You hit that woman and you’ll soon find out what emergency is!’
Now, the music we played — how the band sounded — this would be more like a swing band than the New Orleans type jazz band. Strekfus had a standing order with the music publishers and they shipped him all the new arrangements right off the press. He just paid them by the month. We just played the arrangements as they were, we never changed them. We had no staff arranger, no special jazz arrangements.
The other bands used the same music we did.
We just had that feeling, that rhythm, that swing. We were very popular in New Orleans that summer and fall, so they made arrangements to take us to St. Louis for the next summer season. We rehearsed one morning a week (Tuesdays) for two hours, we played the same programme all week and changed on
Sunday night. One of the Strekfus brothers was always at rehearsal to make sure everything was just the way they wanted it.
This was strictly a reading band, no hot solos. We played all through the winter in New Orleans, then we went to St. Louis in April, by train, where we joined the St. Louis Musician’s Local, then up to Davenport, Iowa, where the boats were stored. Steamer St. Paul was our boat. Now, if Bix Biederbeke came out to hear us, I couldn’t say, but many musicians did come out to hear us and he may very well have been there. From Davenport we worked our way up to St. Paul, then back to St. Louis by Decoration Day (May 30).
The first season in St. Louis we worked from 9 o’clock in the morning until 6 p.m., with an hour off at noon. Then back from 8 p.m. ’til 12.15 a.m. for the night trip. We were provided with room and board on the boat. The food was very plain, and sleeping accommodations not the most luxurious, so we all ate and slept ashore. ‘Pops’ Foster and I roomed together in a family home in St. Louis. We stayed with the same people every year.
At first we got New Orleans pay, $35.00 a week
in St. Louis, then later the Union got us the proper scale of $52.50.
We had been very popular in New Orleans and had always drawn good crowds. This was where we were known and our music was not a novelty. We were a sensation when we hit St. Louis. There would be a crowd on the dock when we pulled in after our day trip. The same people every day, just to hear us play the last number as the boat docked, including all the Strekfus office workers.
When we worked, we did not play one number right after the other. There would be about five minutes between numbers. We would have fourteen numbers in the first half of the programme, then a fifteen minute intermission, then ten more numbers. We were allowed two requests in
each half of the programme. ‘Bebe’ Ridgley left the band after a few weeks and returned to New Orleans. He was replaced by a St. Louis man, Grant Cooper.
We had a very good front line that was used to playing jazz in New Orleans, and they could put that feeling into the arrangements we were using, although they were mostly just ‘stocks’. With men like Louis Armstrong, Dave Jones, Joe Howard, Sam Dutry (Dutrey) and ‘Bebe’ Ridgley — we just couldn’t miss. Also we had a very powerful rhythm section. Fate Marable was a very strong man on the piano, very good rhythm and he played very good chords. I will say now, that he was the equal of any band piano man that I ever played with anywhere. Fate also played the steam calliope on the upper deck and this was something to hear. This calliope could be heard for blocks and was a very good advertisement.
The work of Baby, Pops and myself, is maybe better known because of our work on recordings, but well, Fate was right in there with us. In the rhythm section we could put in the little extra things just as we did in New Orleans. So, the band had a solid foundation. If this band ever recorded I am sure the records would still stand tip today. Of course the tempos were a little faster than those used today, because the one-step was still the big dance. The old recordings I’ve heard that sounded much like we did was the old Fletcher Henderson recording of Mandy Make up Your Mind. The ensemble parts of this number sound about like we did, we had no hot solos. Any solos would be
Sometimes one of the Strekfus family would hear a band play an arrangement that appealed to them. They would buy it from the leader and we would play it. The Strekfus family always travelled around to other cities and visited the ballrooms so they could keep up with what was
going on with the bands.
It was in the summer of 1919 that I bought the guitar-banjo that I still have today. Some fellow had hocked it with a pool room proprietor. He asked me to look at it for him. I did and asked him what he wanted for it. ‘$20.00’, he said, so I bought it. This is the instrument that I used on all my recording dates with the Hot 5 in Chicago several years later. I still have it and play it now and then, when a banjo is required on the job. Of course, it has been worked over several times, but it is still with me.
In the fall of 1919 we went back to New Orleans on the Steamer Capitol. Davey Jones had taken up the saxophone and was playing well, and Norman Mason of St. Louis was added on sax, doubling on trumpet. Sam Dutrey and Joe Howard dropped out, I had taken up the mellophone under Dave Jones and did a little doubling myself. Saxophones were coming in at that time and getting to be very popular. After the winter of 1920, we returned to St. Louis for the summer and back on the Steamer St. Paul. We only played the night programme this year. The Union made them hire another band for day programmes.
There were a couple of cabarets in St. Louis and one in East St. Louis that featured jazz music. Sometimes they would hire some of us from the boat to come in as an added attraction. Sometimes Louis and Baby would go to these places to sit in and blow off steam. For the most part we got all the playing we wanted on the boats and didn’t go out and sit in at these cabarets.
During this summer Fate seemed to be getting bored with helping us with our reading. We were all getting dissatisfied with his attitude. So, because of this, we would not sign up for the winter in New Orleans of 1920-21. Well, Joe Strekfus looked into the matter and as a result he gave Fate the winter off, and made Ed Allen
who had come into the band as a trumpet player, the leader playing piano in Fate’s place. My last summer on the boats (1921) Pops and I played with the Creath Band. When we returned to New Orleans that fall, I left the band and the boats for good.
Plastering business was good at that time. I built a new home with the money I made on the boats and went back to nay trade. I played a few jobs around town, including a few parades in which I played Alto Horn, until I got the job at Pythian Roof Gardens with Manuel Perez. Joe Oliver sent for me in the late summer of 1923. He needed a good banjo player for his recording work and he assured me I could find plenty of steady work in Chicago. I was not hired to play with the band, just to record. I was a little doubtful about making this big step, but Manuel Perez encouraged me to go. He said, ‘They’ll be crazy about your work in Chicago’.
PART FOUR : CHICAGO DAYS
I left New Orleans to go to Chicago in September, 1923. I bought a round trip ticket as I did not know if I would stay. I stayed six years. I was to play with the King Oliver Band for two weeks at Lincoln Gardens to catch their style. I received $75.00 a week which was also to cover my fees for recording.
I knew everyone in the band except Lillian Hardin. She had heard about me from all the other fellows in the band and we became good friends right away. Lillian was a very friendly, wonderful person. Charlie Jackson was playing bass-sax with the band at that time. He played all the bass instruments, viol and tuba as well. Bill Johnson had already left, but where he went I don’t know, as I never saw him in Chicago. We had played together with the Olympia Band in New Orleans. I had no trouble playing with this Oliver band as they were playing exactly the same style as in New Orleans.
The Lincoln Gardens was a black and tan club, no segregation, it was a great musicians hangout and musicians from all over came in there to hear the band. The recordings made by this band give a good idea as to the way it sounded. That is to say, they played the numbers on the recordings exactly the way they played them on the job. There were however a lot more numbers in their repertoire than ever got recorded. The recording companies liked to record unpublished numbers so they would not have to pay royalties if they got a hit record. They just bought the numbers outright for $25.00.
I roomed and boarded with Joe Oliver and his family when I first arrived in Chicago, this was part of our agreement. When my two weeks with the band was about up and I was in need of a job, Darnell Howard came in one night. He heard me working with the band and asked Joe, ‘Where can I find a banjo player like that?’ Joe told him I would be free after the week was up. Darnell had the band at the Arcadia Ballroom at Sunnyside and Broadway on the North side, so I went with him for $50.00 a week. We played stock arrangements, nothing special in the way of music, the same type of stock arrangements we used on the riverboats. After two months Darnell lost the job and the band broke up.
Joe Oliver had asked me to find other accommodations, as he just had a small apartment and we were a little crowded. Louis Armstrong and Lillian were planning on getting married and had rented. a house, but had not moved in yet. They told me to move in there and make myself at home. I stayed there for a while with them after they were married.
Charlie Cook had used me on a recording date he had at Columbia while I was with Darnell Howard’s band. He liked my work and told me to look him up if I ever needed a job. When Darnell’s band broke up I let Cook know I was available. He hired me and I went right to work with Cook’s Dreamland Orchestra at Harmon’s Dreamland Ballroom located at Paulina and Van Buren Streets.
This was the first band I ever played with that used their own special arrangements on every number that we played. Also, the first arrangements in a jazz style. We had many specials, strictly in the jazz style, but all arranged, written out. Doc Cook did all his own arrangements. He played piano and organ. He was just an average piano player, but he was at his best at the organ. The use of ad lib, hot solos, etc., had not come into too much use at this time in the larger bands. Two of my old friends from New Orleans were in this band, Freddie Keppard and Jimmie Noone.
Jimmie Noone had an after hours job at the Edelwiess Club at 48th and State, using Joe Poston, alto, Earl Hines piano, and Johnny Wells, drums. This was a black and tan club with singers and dancers. As my family was still New Orleans, I had plenty of time on my hands, and so when we were finished at the Dreamland at 12.30 a.m., I started going over to the Edelweiss and sitting in with the group. I was not on salary, but I got my share of the tips, and they were good enough to pay me for my work. This started me off with the Jimmie Noone Orchestra, and so then when Jimmie, Joe and Earl went into the Apex Club in December, 1926, I went with them.
This was one of the best jobs I ever had — the management was the nicest I ever worked for. They gave us each $5.00 for a Christmas present, although we had only been there a few days. The Manager also gave us tips on the quiet. This was also an after hours spot.
We would go over after we had finished our regular job. Shortly after this Jimmie had a big fuss with Doc Cook one night and Cook gave him his notice. As the Apex Club was doing so good and Jimmie was then available they started opening up earlier in the night. Bud Scott took my place till I could get over, then he went to a job he had at the Regal Theatre. One night Jimmie got to talking about why Doc Cook had let him go. Jimmie acted as if he didn’t know why Cook had let him go, so to be helpful, I told him. That made Jimmie mad at me and he fired me. Bud Scott didn’t want to take the job under the circumstances, but I told him, ‘Go ahead, take it, I won’t be there so you might as well take it, if you want it, it’s a good job!’ Shortly after all this took place this group made several recordings for the Brunswick Vocalion Company. These recordings are a very good example of the music that was being played in the clubs, at that time in Chicago. These recordings are just the way we played on the job.
A couple of little incidents that struck me as very humorous come to my mind. At that time the real sharp cats used to have their hair very long, in a straight pompadour, then cut straight across the back. One night Earl Hines was playing some of his solos for the crowd, which was a very popular feature of the Club. He got a big hand when he was through. The Master of Ceremonies walked over to him and said, ‘It’s sure a good thing you can play the piano like that, or you’d sure be out of luck, you hammer-headed son-of-a-gun.’ This just about broke us up on the stand. There was a girl singer at the Apex by the name of Edna. She was a good singer, nice looking, but she had an impediment in her speech. When she would sing with this sort of lisp, everybody in the place would get to laughing at her. They then would be generous
with their tips. She would tell me, ‘They’re laughing at me, but when I pick up the tips, I’m laughing right with them.’ Her special number was California, Here I Come.
In the afternoon I used to go over to the Musician’s Union Hall at 49th and State. This was a three storey building owned by the Local. The second floor was a recreation hall for the members of the local. There were card tables, and pool tables, with sandwiches and soft drinks on sale, and of course, crap games and a bootlegger who could always get you a pint.
This was a great hang-out for a lot of musicians, including Freddie Keppard. Freddie was drinking a lot by this time, although, he never seemed to let it interfere with his work. We spent a lot of time together at the Union Hall and were the best of friends. Freddie was playing very well, with Doc Cook, as well as all the gigs we all used to get around town. In spite of some of the stories about him, he was a pretty good reader, he played all those arrangements Doc Cook wrote, as well as playing with other bands on gigs. These bands would have their own library of music. He had been reading violin music many years before in New Orleans, before he took up the cornet.
Freddie had been, in New Orleans, the first of the get off men on cornet, a real pace setter and pioneer. In Chicago, he was more satisfied to let music just be his work. His inspiration to be coming up with something new seemed to be gone. To compare him to Louis Armstrong I would say: they both started out about even as to ability and inspiration, but music was Louis’ whole life and with Freddie Keppard, it got to be just the way he earned his living, just a job. He also had that independent Creole temperament and was not always the easiest guy in the world to get to cooperate. He had his own ideas about a lot of things, but he was a great jazz musician and a good friend of mine.
A lot of the New Orleans musicians didn’t hang around the Union Hall at all; for example, Joe Oliver and Johnny Dodds. Johnny was a quiet, serious man, all business. Although we recorded together a lot, this was about the only time we would meet. We never played together on a job except the first few weeks when I came to Chicago. Johnny had come to Chicago several years before I did. Fie had bought a small apartment house where he lived with his family. I would only see him once in a while at the Union Hall when he came in to pay his dues or on a record date. We were always friendly, but not what could be called close friends. I had been good friends with Joe Oliver in New Orleans and of course kept this friendship up in Chicago. Joe didn’t come around the Union Hall much either, although I used to visit him at his home. Joe didn’t like to go out much. He was such a big eater, he always said it embarrassed him to go out to eat, so I would stop by his home now and then for a visit or a meal. He never asked me to join him as he knew I was set with Doc Cook. He was a good-humoured man, liked to joke with his friends, talk with them. He was very business-like, a good band leader and organizer. Jimmie Noone didn’t come around the Union Hall much either. He was quite a ladies man, and usually spent his spare time visiting one or the other of his girl friends. Of the other musicians around in those days George Fields, Ray (Roy) Palmer, Honore Dutrey, Kid Ory, Jelly Roll Morton, Richard M. Jones never spent much time around the Union Hall. Jelly Roll and Richard M. Jones spent most of their time around Melrose Bros Music Store. That is where I first met Jelly Roll. I had known him in New Orleans very slightly. Richard M. Jones kept himself busy with the Okeh Record Company. He was their contact man for their race records. He was a fine fellow, very jolly and a good organizer with a good head. He knew music very well, but he was just an ordinary piano soloist, nothing special.
I had made arrangements in 1917 to go to Chicago to join Charlie Elgar, but it was a very cold winter and the spot we were to play in never opened for that reason. Charlie Elgar was a good legitimate musician and his musicians were more on the sweet side. He was active as a leader while I was in Chicago.
Joe Poston was one of my special friends in the Doc Cook Band. He was from Alexandria, Louisiana. He played saxophone and oboe. His music was more on the sweet side. He and Doc Cook and myself were called the Three Musketeers as we always rode to work together. Then, sometimes after work, we would get a pint of prescription whiskey from a druggist we knew and go over to Doc Cook’s. Joe and I would sit around and have a few while Doc worked on his arrangements. Doc always worked at a high desk and stood up to write. He could write out music as fast as I could write a letter. Stump Evans was one of the few musicians not from New Orleans who seemed to fit in with our bunch; that is, his style of playing. He was from St. Louis and had picked up our style off the riverboat bands before he came to Chicago. He was the first sax player I ever heard to play slap tongue. We all liked his work and he got in on a lot of record dates with us for this reason. He played regularly with Erskine Tate at the Vendome Theatre and hung around a pool room at 35th and State. He was very short in height, which gave him his nickname Stump and not Stomp as it is sometimes misspelled.
The Musicians’ Union, Local 208, owned their own three storey building. The first floor was offices of the Union, the second floor was devoted to a recreation hall for the Union members. The third floor was a hall rented out to lodges and groups of that type, George Smith was the president of the local at that time.
When a band leader would get a gig he could just come down to the local and get all the men he needed. There were a lot of the theatre pit orchestras then, Iike Dave Peyton’s, Erskine Tate’s and Charlie Elgar’s. When they would get a dance job they would pick up some dance men at the Local. Willie and Lottie Hightower had a gigging band. That is to say they had no regular location job. Thee would fill out the band with men from the local. I played many gigs with all of these groups. These leaders all had their own music libraries, and were mostly reading bands, but playing in the hot swing style. Lottie Hightower was the secretary of the local and worked in the office. I had known Willie Hightower in New Orleans. Lottie was from Louisiana, but not from New Orleans. She played good band piano, and Willie played in the New Orleans style, good swinging lead. I knew them both well and played many gigs with them. They used me whenever I had the time off and could make a job with them. There were so many great musicians around Chicago at that time I would never be able to name them all. Also singers, they all worked in Chicago at one time or another when I was there.
Doc Cook’s Band worked in the winter at Harmon’s Dreamland Ballroom. In the summers we worked, during the hot weather, in the amusement parks, Riverside, and White City. These parks had all types of amusements such as roller coasters and things of this type. These parks also had large ballrooms for dancing. In the summer of 1929 there was a general decline of business and Doc Cook was told to cut the payroll of his orchestra by $200.00 a week, so was compelled to cut his fourteen piece band down to a ten piece band. I was one of those laid off as I only played banjo and guitar. I was replaced by a man who played banjo and doubled on violin.
After I was laid off by Doc, I met a fellow called Dago. He played the banjo and sang. We had a couple of rehearsals and then went out to the dog races in Gary, Indiana. We played and he sang and we passed the hat. Then we went up to Kenosha and Milwaukee and worked the joints up there. We made out fairly good, but he got mixed up with a girl friend and decided to stay in Milwaukee. I went back to Chicago alone. I went around to this barber shop where a lot of New Orleans people hung around and inquired if anyone had a return trip ticket to New Orleans, but was not going back on it. I got a ticket the next day and left Chicago to return home to New Orleans.
A list of numbers played on the Riverboats, 1918—1921 — Courtesy of A.S.C.A.P. Forty Years of Hits:
Ragging the Scale
Jelly Roll Blues
Song of the Islands
Roses of Picardy
Sweetheart of Signa Chi
Beale St. Blues
Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning
Alice Blue Gown
Mandy, Make up Your Mind
Peg O’My Heart
I Used to Love You, but It’s All Over Now
Apple Blossom Time
When My Baby Smiles at Me
Young Man’s Fancy
I’m Just Wild About Harry
Kitten on the Keys
Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me
Wang Wang Blues
HOW WE SOUNDED
A selected list of recordings that help to recreate the music of the period of 1908 to 1918:
Comments by John A. St. Cyr.
1 — Kid Ory’s Band on Good Time Jazz (L-10). — Panama; Do What Ory Say; Get Out of Here.
This is the old time jazz — this is what we sounded like 45 to 50 years ago, I could suggest no changes whatsoever — this is it!
2 — Original Dixieland Jazz Band in in Hi-Fi ABC Paramount No. 184. — Sensation Rag.
Too stiff and mechanical, not relaxed and swinging. The style of the ensemble playing with the short breaks is the style we were using. The rhythm section is not powerful enough.
3 — Original Dixieland One Step.
A little better, more relaxed and swinging.
4 — Livery Stable Blues.
The same. The style is there all right, but piano and drums do not swing the band like a full rhythm section.
5 — Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Label X, No. 3007 (same numbers). (Original 1917 recordings).
In spite of the old poor recordings, the band is more relaxed and swinging. On the whole, the style is there, but not the beat, or the swing.
6 — Wooden Joe Nicolas on American Music Records, No. 640 — quartet — Shake It And Break It.
Yes, this is a good example of what four pieces could do. This is one of the better recreations. The group is right together all the way.
7 — King Oliver Creole Jazz Band on Epic LP,
No. 3208 — Snake Rag.
This is the old jazz or ragtime music. The rhythm is weak without drums and bass due to the early recording limitations. The front line is right there. This is the early New Orleans style. Also shows Oliver’s famous break style. His specialty was trick effects on breaks: bark like a dog; crow like a rooster; neigh like a horse.
8 — Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5, Columbia JZ No. 1 Records — Jazz Lips.
A good example of the New Orleans style with plenty of breaks. A good example of New Orleans playing. This would be a specialty number worked up by the band.
Bunk Johnson’s playing on the records he made during the 1940’s sounds just about like what he was playing many years before. He played the same after his come back as he did
when he was one of the best and most popular cornet men in the city. He could have played with any band he wanted to in those days.
9 — George Lewis Jazz Band on Blue Note, No. 1206 — Climax Rag.
This is one of the old rag numbers, we all played it. The band is not quite together on this, particularly the rhythm section. The style is okay, but the band is probably not rehearsed enough, not used to playing together.
BRASS BANDS – RECORDINGS
1 — Tuxedo Band on Atlantic, No. 1297.
Very authentic, just the way they have sounded ever since I was just growing up.
2 — Eureka Band on Folkways, No. 2462 and Paradox, No. 9001.
Yes, this is very good. The Parade Bands have kept their style to this day.
3 — Zenith Brass Band on Riverside, No. 12-283.
Also very good examples of New Orleans Marching bands, especially the numbers in 6/8 time.
The dance numbers in this list all show the influence of the type of dancing they were being played for. The One Step was all the rage in those days, but when the Fox Trot came in about 1920, we had to slow the tempo down a little, and give it a different swing. The blues make an ideal music for the Fox Trot.
We were dance bands one hundred per cent, and if not playing for a dance we would be advertizing one. Naturally we played with this swing, this rhythm, because we wanted to get the good paying jobs, and there was plenty of rough competition — plenty of other bands wanted those jobs too. We had to please the public and play what they wanted. Then, when we were pleasing them this would make us feel good and we would play better. You see, at most of the balls and functions, we would be playing for a lot of people we knew, friends of ours.
§ § §
The above full-scale article, JAZZ : As I Remember It by Johnny St. Cyr, was serialised in the Jazz Journal magazine, Part One: Early Days, dated September 1966, Vol. 19, No. 9, pages 6—8 and 10; Part Two: Storyville Days, dated October 1966, Vol. 19, No. 10, pages 22—24; Part Three: The Riverboats, dated November 1966, Vol. 19, No. 11, pages, 6—7 and 9; and Part Four: Chicago Days, dated January 1967, Vol. 20, No. 1, pages 14—16.
Note: See also Brian Goggin’s essay of John Alexander St. Cyr accompanied by his WWI Draft Registration Card.