Just after World War I, the musical style called jazz began a waterborne journey outward from that quintessential haven of romance and decadence, New Orleans. For the first time in any organized way, steam-driven boats left town during the summer months to tramp the Mississippi River, bringing an exotic new music to the rest of the nation. For entrepreneurs promoting jazz, this seemed a promising way to spread northward the exciting sounds of the Crescent City. And the musicians no longer had to wait for folks upriver to make their way down to New Orleans to hear the vibrant rhythms, astonishing improvisations, and new harmonic idioms being created.
Simply put, when jazz went upstream, it went mainstream, and in Jazz on the River, William Howland Kenney brings to life the vibrant history of this music and its seduction of the men and women along America’s inland waterways. Readers can learn about the lives and music of the levee roustabouts promoting riverboat jazz and their relationships with such great early jazz adventurers as Louis Armstrong, Fate Marable, Warren “Baby” Dodds, and Jess Stacy. Kenney follows the boats from Memphis to St. Louis, where new styles of jazz were soon produced, all the way up the Ohio River, where the music captivated audiences in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh alike.
Jazz on the River concludes with the story of the decline of the old paddle wheelers-and thus riverboat jazz-on the inland waterways after World War II. The enduring silence of our rivers, Kenney argues, reminds us of the loss of such a distinctive musical tradition. But riverboat jazz still lives on in myriad permutations, each one in tune with our own times.#
Kenney talks with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita about his book in a July 15, 2005 interview.
photo Duncan Scheidt
Aboard the S. S. Capitol, c. 1919
Left to right: Henry Kimball, Boyd Atkins, Fate Marable, John St. Cyr, David Jones, Norman Mason, Louis Armstrong, Norman Brashear, Baby Dodds
“A closer look at the outpouring of musical creativity that accompanied the Great Migration indicates that New Orleans jazz pioneers, and those with whom they performed on the river, became the heralds of their people’s migration northward. Whereas the blues singers became its musical voices, the jazzmen, led by Armstrong, trumpeted the Great Migration primarily to the wider white world of the racially segregated excursion boats. As heralds and troubadours, they experienced this great movement of people in a way that both paralleled and contrasted with that of the majority who were not musicians.”
– William Kenney
JJM You wrote, When perceived from the middle of the Mississippi River, North peacefully coexisted with the South, Confederate gray with Union blue, and whites with blacks. Riverboat jazz reaffirmed confidence in the United States. How did the music played on riverboats reaffirm confidence in the United States?
WK Six days out of seven, the audiences on the boats were white, and the music played by a black orchestra reassured them that the migration of blacks to the North would not be violent it could be something agreeable and distinctly non-threatening. It is almost as if you put a drummer out in front of your parade to attract peoples attention to it. I believe something like that was going on here, that the black musicians were dressed differently and doing new things on the boats, but they were peaceable and professional, and their music itself made people feel better.
JJM What were the market conditions that inspired the Streckfus family to add jazz to their excursion boats?
WK I am not certain about the economic conditions and how they would have influenced a decision by the Streckfus family, but I think they simply needed a hook of some sort to attract people to their boats. The trip itself was very slow, very quiet, and not particularly exciting, so this music gave them something to liven up the passengers experience, and that appealed to a younger crowd. I am sure that was the main reason they added jazz to their boats.
JJM People rode the boats for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that it provided some relief from oppressive heat of the summer.
WK Yes, the heat was a problem before air conditioning. St. Louis the central port for excursion boats was particularly hot in the summertime.
JJM How many people did a typical excursion boat hold?
WK According to their advertising, the dance floor of the Saint Paul which was the biggest boat could accommodate two thousand people. Since it ran virtually the entire length of this three hundred-foot craft, that could have been possible. Beyond the dancers, many people would stroll along the decks or eat in the cafeteria. So, somewhere in the range of between two and three thousand people was the maximum number of people on the boat. Exactly how many would depend of course on whether they were having a good day or a bad day attracting passengers.
JJM So, there were no sleeping quarters
WK No, these were excursion boats as opposed to the old packet boats which could have been these same boats but in an earlier period. Packet boats carried cotton bails and all sorts of primary products, and they had a number of rooms for musicians and crew, as well as a certain number of rooms for passengers. When the railroad put these boats out of business, they were reconstructed and converted into excursion boats that featured a dance floor instead of staterooms.
JJM What was the duration of a typical cruise, and what routes would they take?
WK People who rented the boats may have wanted it for the entire day, or they may have cruised between eight o’clock and midnight. Two and four hour cruises during the day were also common. Much of this was dependent on the deal arrived at with the riverboat representatives. They may leave from a port like St. Louis, for example, and head upstream past Alton, Illinois, and find a good picnic spot in a rural area, where they would let them out for a short while before bringing them back. They rarely traveled very far. If the group just wanted to dance at night, they would pull a short distance out into the river, away from the lights of the city, and float there while the passengers danced.
JJM Were people exposed to the music without getting on the boat?
WK Some of the music could be heard from the shore, particularly when the musicians played a calling concert, which is when the boats gang planks were put down usually at eight o’clock at night and the musicians played their flashiest material in an effort to attract nearby people who might have the money to get on board. Also, when they arrived at any given port they would usually play the calliope as loud as they could to alert people everyone except deaf people, and maybe even them of their presence. So, yes, in various ways people could hear the music from the shore, but if you wanted to dance, you had to pay money and get on board.
JJM Of the riverboat jazz orchestra leader Fate Marable, you wrote, Marable played a major role in the politics of the black heartland of the Mississippi valley, meeting, greeting, listening, chatting, networking, hiring and firing musicians. He was, after all, the crucial link between local musicians, regular employment on the Streckfus Line, exposure to the regional scene, and introductions to great national bandleaders such as Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Joe Oliver. Marable could make or break careers, and everyone along the river knew it. How did Marable become employed by Streckfus?
WK When Marable was first approached about working there, there was another black pianist who decided, after three years, to get off the river and continue his career at a conservatory in the East. Streckfus needed a pianist to replace him, and since Marable was known to have the ability to read music and act as a bandleader, they hired him. He played solo piano at first, and then added a musician, and then another. In 1918, the decision was made to feature a big band, so they started hiring twelve piece groups. It was a process of giving Marable as much responsibility as they could and to see how far he could go with it. He turned out to be a pretty reliable guy, except that he drank too much.
JJM It sounds like he may have been a tough guy to get along with…
WK Yes, it is a side to American society from that era we have forgotten. Playing music was a very serious business, and it was considered a skill that allowed for very little fooling around. Marable was not going to employ musicians who would drunkenly play their instruments in some bar at three o’clock in the morning. He expected his musicians to do precision, coordinated work and play music that all kinds of people would like, so he had that very strong no-nonsense attitude. It was even more important for African Americans of a certain educational level to assert that they were educated people, and that contrary to the stereotypes about them, they were moving up in the music world.
JJM One of the ways he wanted to communicate this was through his insistence that the musicians he hired read music.
WK Yes, and to play it at sight. Reading music is sort of a relative thing. Some musicians can read it pretty well, and there are others who are just sight readers who see it once and play it correctly the first time. Marable would have held up the highest ideals to them, and he then tended to be pretty difficult on them if they didnt match those ideals.
JJM Concerning Marable you wrote, Some musicians tried to dismiss his strict regard for the basic skills of orchestral performance as slightly darker reflections of the attitudes of his German American employers. How influential was Streckfus on Marable?
WK Well, he was The Man, as they used to say. He was the white man, the boss, and at that time you had to do what he wanted you to do. That was probably the single hardest thing for Fate Marable to deal with. It had to have been a terrible strain on him to realize that day in and day out he had to do what Streckfus wanted him to do, whether he wanted to do it or not. The musicians knew this as well, and would make him aware that they were aware of it. At the end of his life, he said he would not urge his children or grandchildren to go into music because it was just too difficult, and I think he was referring to the Jim Crow relations with the boss that had been so painful to him.
JJM It sounds as if he had a difficult time meeting the expectations of Streckfus…
WK Yes. He was responsible for eleven other musicians, and if any of them messed up it would come down on him, so he had to come down on them. It was very delicate because, to a degree, Marable and his musicians were in danger when all of this took place in 1918 and 1919, which was during the height of racial violence in America. He had to be terribly careful to preserve the relationship with Streckfus because he needed him to protect himself and those in the orchestra. Marable and the members in the band were dealing with the mass public, and because of the racial tension of the era, there was no telling what would happen at any given moment. The support of Streckfus was absolutely essential.
JJM The early riverboat jazz bands were integrated, and in fact Marable led an integrated band
WK Yes, in the beginning there were some integrated bands, but the passengers were not.
JJM What provoked the subsequent segregation of the bands?
WK There is some evidence lacking so it is difficult to answer. It is possible that the Streckfus family felt they were doing a good thing for the black musicians by hiring black-only bands, keeping in mind the tradition of black roustabouts working on the boats in the past. Also, in St. Louis the musicians unions were segregated, and since Streckfus was known to hire through unions, a black-only union would only recommend black musicians.
The historical context in which all this took place likely contributed to the segregation of the bands as well. At the time, newspapers printed scare headlines throughout the white Mississippi Valley concerning the black migration to the North, and it could be that Streckfus felt it was important to reassure his southern white customer base that the Jim Crow barriers were going to hold up. It is possible that they didnt want to put an integrated band in front of such an audience for fear of what they would say.
JJM What influence did the river roustabouts have on this excursion boat culture?
WK Minstrelsy was the basic pattern of entertainment before there was jazz on the boats, so you have to think of the boat as a huge minstrel theater. The roustabouts were very musical during the course of their work. While carrying heavy loads on and off the boats, they would dance rhythmically together, and they would sing work songs learned while working in the fields of the plantations. When they stopped their heavy labor, the roustabouts would play a banjo or a harmonica and sing and entertain the passengers, probably making their own lives that much more agreeable in the process. This tradition of black music on the riverboats is the major gift of the roustabouts.
JJM Were elements of the roustabouts experiences part of Marables riverboat jazz?
WK Probably so. While he only recorded with his band once making one two-sided record one of those sides was their version of Frankie and Johnny, which was definitely a roustabout song that came out of late nineteenth century St. Louis, and was played in the black concert saloons along the river and in the ghetto they lived in. There is definitely a roustabout musical legacy there that Marable made an effort to remember in wax. There were other songs too; There Will Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight, is one of the songs that was written down on the cuffs of white promoters and turned up in sheet music stores, but in fact came out of the black culture in which the roustabouts lived when they werent on the river.
JJM The way Streckfus marketed his excursions is a reminder of how racist the deep South was at that time. Concerning this, you wrote, Their excursion lines magazine published articles filled with what would now be considered blatant racist stereotypes. For example, in an article in one Streckfus publication passengers were told to look for ridiculous antics of black-skinned, overgrown children who, in addition to driving nails with their foreheads, sang and played plaintive old plantation melodies with the twanging of banjo and guitar. The magazine described their presence as being just a bit of color. Pretty racist marketing strategy…
WK It is unfortunate to say, but yes, that is true. Their visual advertisements give you a clear sense that they wanted only a small black presence. It was calibrated, in a way, where they felt some black culture could be injected, but not a lot. The cartoon published in the book was extremely revealing. As a historian I have to put that in, but it is scandalous.
JJM During this same period of time, Americas popular culture was strongly tied to the river. The musical Showboat was a smash, and the novels of Mark Twain were very influential. So, Streckfus tied his marketing into the popularity of the river culture
WK Yes, he knew where to go with that. When discussing these issues, it is important to remember that St. Louis which was where the Streckfus family headquarters were until very late in the game was the major city in Missouri, which was a slave state.
JJM You wrote, In 1919, at the end of their first summer season, Joseph Streckfus made it crystal clear that the famous New Orleans jazz pioneers would not be allowed to rely solely on the polyphonic improvisations that they had invented in and around the Crescent City. His subsequent interventions in the orchestras rehearsals transformed the groups sound. How was their sound altered?
WK For one thing, it was altered by having them play written arrangements. Secondly, it was altered because they were prevented from playing really slow belly rubbing tunes a phrase I picked up when I played in a Dixieland band which were too sensuous and too suggestive. At the same time, however, they were prevented from playing barn burners, which were up-tempo numbers that could have possibly put too much of a strain on the old riverboats. That left the riverboat bands with a repertoire made up of pop songs, and there was a demand for about fourteen basic waltzes a night. There were also a few hot jazz numbers they would play, the occasional feature for Louis Armstrong, and that sort of thing.
JJM You wrote, In ways that have not been understood heretofore, Armstrong played a particularly influential and controversial role in the riverboat experience. What was Armstrongs controversial role, and what was not understood about it before?
WK Since they were calling the music they presented on the boat jazz, or what they actually called jess, claiming that the word was derived from the name of their first riverboat, the J.S. a pretty far-fetched claim one is a little surprised to find out that they insisted on playing straight dance music played off of charts sent to them from Broadway. This contributed to the basic tension that existed during the two-and-a-half years Armstrong played on the river, because he clearly felt he could do so much more. While he learned very well to play his written parts, he wrote in his autobiography that it bothered him to do that because he couldnt see the people, they couldnt see him, and he couldnt communicate directly with them the way he could when he was improvising. He never felt comfortable with that, but they wouldnt give him the individual space he deserved as an emerging major jazz soloist, so he quit. Because he became so important in the years after he quit from 1921 on and because he was such an astounding improviser for his time, everyone lamented the fact that he had to quit. So Armstrong sets up this other approach, the aural approach making music by ear, and playing jazz as a soloist, making it a kind of show business music. Armstrong went on to a big career, of course, and the riverboats became sort of a backwash of an earlier time.
JJM Everyone who played with Marable were basically taking reading lessons from him
WK Yes, and what I gathered from some of the sources I used from the University of Southern Illinois at Edwardsville, many of the black musicians, after having the time to reflect on it, said that the riverboats were their conservatories. In working with Marable, many of the people who had been denied a formal music education in the deep South found a way to learn and be paid at the same time.
JJM What routes along the river did Armstrong typically travel during the two-and-a-half years he played on the riverboats?
WK He went all the way up the river, and I believe he even played in Minneapolis.
JJM Right, but would he work out of a city for a few months and then move on to another city for an extended time?
WK No, he stayed on the same boat all the way, going the entire length of the river. He wouldnt get off the boat in areas where they thought there wasnt a big enough black community in which to perform, jam, and talk with like-minded people who were all involved in the migration. While the people of Davenport believe they may have certain connections to Louis Armstrong, there is no record of him getting off the boat there, whereas he would have taken to St.Louis because its large black community would have encouraged him to jam off the boat at night.
JJM You mentioned that Davenport, Iowa feels a connection with Louis Armstrong. There is a story that Bix Beiderbecke may have heard Armstrong playing on a boat from the Davenport riverbank. You learn any more about that during your research?
WK No. Thanks to the work of several people, there is a lot of good scholarship on him, but there is no real hard and fast information about this.
JJM You wrote of Armstrong, “He and his jazz, even the partially tamed jazz that he played on the excursion boats, took some of its optimistic spirit from an important link between music and movement.” This connection between music and movement is a major theme of your book. Can you talk a little about that?
WK This is an idea that came to me from my years playing jazz as an amateur musician. It seems to me that there is a mysterious parallel between moving northward towards a better life, and all the rhythmic, harmonic and melodic movement involved in jazz. When I first began listening to jazz, I loved that sense of a rushing forward movement that came with the experience. I loved the fast numbers as a kid, for that reason. It is a marvelous, thrilling feeling to wing through the air, and it seems appropriate that jazz a music associated with the great migration North can create a similar feeling. It is no surprise that jazz was the kind of music people turned to, because it was a joyous, fast moving music that paralleled the movement and pace of the country as well.
JJM Of Armstrong’s music, you wrote that it expressed the special kinds of movement characterized by migration, Diaspora, and steamship voyages.”
WK Armstrong traveled constantly during his career, so much so that it is said he was hardly ever at his home in Queens. He spent his life traveling, so this connection seemed to fit.
JJM There is certainly a lot of truth to the fact that the era of the Great Migration as it came to be known brought on a physical movement north that the music of the riverboats heralded. Also, there was a movement in the way people thought an ethical advance of our society. Jazz music and jazz musicians clearly helped initiate a breaking down of the hatred so persistent in American society.
WK I wrote in the book that it is not true that all jazz musicians were somewhere else when history was being made they were right there, taking chances, and doing so at a time when it was not particularly safe to be doing so. As time goes on, it gets generally more assumed that they should have taken these chances, but it is important to remember how precarious that era was regarding racial harmony. Jazz musicians certainly made their contributions.
JJM Who was the leading white riverboat jazz band?
WK It depends on how you define jazz. The leading white jazz bands would have probably come out of Davenport, the Carlisle Evans and Tony Catalano groups come to mind. Catalano was treated by Down Beat as the spokesperson for white jazz musicians who played on the river, and he was frequently interviewed about this when they wanted to write about jazz on the river. The musician who did the most stylistically was Bix Beiderbecke; although as a musician he wasn’t up to the rigors of playing on the riverboats. It is important to remember that his parents were from the upper middle class, so he took a more artistic approach to playing music. He played music when he felt like it, and he drank as much as he wanted, whenever he wanted. He had an individualistic approach to making music, which didnt work on the riverboats, where it was said that every musician had to play until they were practically comatose. They played for so long that it would wear them right out, and Bix simply wasn’t up to that, nor did he really want to be.
JJM What were the contrasts in Beiderbeckes and Armstrong’s musical interpretation of the river culture?
WK I judged Armstrong’s interpretation of it from his river recordings made many years after he left the river, and they were hot. They were wonderfully performed, tight, big band stomps with commercialized lyrics that hearkened back to the roustabouts, to the stevedores, to the Mississippi basin, and to New Orleans. It was the kind of music he wasn’t allowed to play on the boats because it was considered to be too fast and too dangerous because of all of the dancers on board. When listening to Beiderbecke play a piece like “Blue River, on the other hand, you hear a slow tempo, slightly melancholic ballad that would have been more in tune with the style the boat captains were looking for. So, Armstrong is hotter, more gutsy, energetic and fast moving, while Beiderbecke is more laid back, sweet and melancholic.
JJM Did the music played on the Ohio River boats differ from that being played on the Mississippi?
WK It didn’t differ when the Streckfus line took their boats up the Ohio to Pittsburgh. There are photographs showing dynamite jazz musicians like Jimmy Blanton and other really excellent players traveling up the Ohio under the Streckfus banner. However, most of the riverboats on the Ohio River were not working under a jazz policy, in particular the famous Green Line which became the company that owns the Delta Queen today. According to the people I was able to talk to, these boats did not promote jazz. The Ohio River was further away from St. Louis and New Orleans and Baton Rouge and other cities we seem to associate with jazz, and those images of jazz music that the boat line was trying to sell would have had less of an impact there. The Clyde Trask band out of Cincinnati an orchestra that stayed together fourteen years was a very popular Ohio River band, and they really just played a kind of nice, sweet dance music; they didn’t claim to be a jazz band.
JJM Of the music played in Pittsburgh, you wrote, “The musicianly sophistication of black jazz in Pittsburgh surpassed that of any other river city including New Orleans.” Did riverboat jazz contribute to this sophistication?
WK When I wrote that I was thinking about the sophistication of the musicians who had migrated to Pittsburgh already. I am quite amazed at the strength of the musicians that came out Pittsburgh, starting with the pianists. Earl Hines was the source for the jazz sophistication of Pittsburgh, and then add the likes of Errol Garner, Mary Lou Williams, and Billy Strayhorn who was of course an incredibly sophisticated musician. Beyond the pianists, there were so many terrific instrumentalists bass players like Ray Brown, guitarists like George Benson, trumpet players like Roy Eldridge, and a whole string of vocalists.
JJM Art Blakey was from there as well
WK Yes, the drummer Art Blakey. As I say, the quality of the musicians was amazing. Writing about Pittsburgh, in fact, is my next project, and I think the big story that I will find there is that these musicians stayed a while in Pittsburgh because there were plenty of clubs to play in. While the money wasnt great, at least there were places to play. That is hard to imagine now because the urban renewal of the fifties which took place first on a large scale in Pittsburgh basically erased the jazz culture on the Hill district. This was the first of many such instances where urban renewal policies eliminated much of a citys cultural past the same thing happened in St. Louis. When I wrote about Chicago jazz, I went to 35th and State to see the area where Armstrong and the rest of them played, and it was all urban renewed the only thing there was the Illinois Institute of Technology. I believe the destroying of the connections of jazz to our past through the urban renewal projects of the fifties and sixties is a major story that has yet to be told. There are many discussions about why jazz entered a period of great difficulty during this time, and I think on a grass roots level the urban renewal movement is a contributor, and it should be explored.
JJM Interesting idea. When are you going to start on that?
WK Pretty soon. I have been finishing up a few things associated with promoting this book, and once that starts to calm down I will head over to Pittsburgh to see what I can find.
JJM Which recordings best exemplify the kinds of music that were played on the riverboats?
WK The best representative of riverboat music was Marables band. He was the man for forty years on the river. His recording of “Frankie and Johnny,” and the flip side, “Pianoflage had a moderate to slow tempo there isnt any wild soloing going on. There is a very attractive polyrhythmic effect to it that features all the musicians playing together, which is something I used to hear in Duke Ellingtons band. They are all playing together, but they are all phrasing rhythmically just a little bit differently from one another. I thought that was Marables best quality. The best jazz ever made out of riverboat music was Armstrongs big band recordings of the thirties and forties that I call his river recordings. They are hot, wonderful recordings that are not frequently mentioned.
JJM A 1940 WPA survey titled “The Negro in Pittsburgh” wrote of Marable, “Fate Marable carried jazz up the Mississippi and Ohio to every town along the banks. He himself played it. He picked up one man after another, trained him soundly in musical technique, and watched him leave the river to carry the gospel into cities inland, on lake shore, prairie, and mountainside from coast to coast.” How important are Marable’s contributions to jazz?
WK Marable lived through a period when jazz changed what it was. He was not himself a great soloist, but when he started, jazz wasnt necessarily a music for soloists, whereas it was when he finished in the forties. He represented an earlier era he wrote a rag and had it published, and in some ways he came out of the ragtime tradition, which was an old-fashioned tradition. Apart from the music itself, the major contribution Marable made was in creating work for musicians who had talent and ambition. Provided they did a good job for him, Marable was able to make the connections for his men with the leading black band leaders in the country, many of whom went on to have some very nice careers.
JJM Could it be said that his career served as a symbol for new opportunity for black musicians?
WK Absolutely, and also a symbol of something that may not have, in the end, appeared. There was a bittersweet quality to it because, as we all know, scholars debate the final legacy of the “Great Migration.”
William Howland Kenney
About William Kenney
JJM Who was your childhood hero?
WK I was a Boston boy, and in those days the Boston Braves were one of the two in-town teams the Red Sox being the other. They were a team that had pitching more than anything else, so much so that the phrase Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain and pray for rain caught on. I would say that Spahn was my hero at the time.
William Howland Kenney is professor of history and American studies at Kent State University. He is the author of Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890 – 1945; Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, 1904 – 1930; The Music of James Scott; and Laughter in the Wilderness: Early American Humor to 1783.
Praise for the book
After a century of loose talk about jazz coming ‘up the river’ from New Orleans, William Howland Kenney makes sense of that phrase by putting us on those boats and showing us the life that Mark Twain never experienced. Jazz on the River gracefully guides us through the boat business, the entertainers that performed for the passengers and crew, and the culture of life on the riverboats. With this book, the history of jazz just became richer, deeper, and more wonderfully complicated.
John Szwed, author of So What: The Life of Miles Davis
We’ve been skimming on the surface of this topic for years. Now William Kenney offers baptism by full immersion. Jazz on the River is a thoughtful and imaginative exploration of the American character in transition, illuminating how jazz reshaped perceptions of the river and vice versa.
Bruce Boyd Raeburn, Tulane University
William Kenney products at Amazon.com
This interview took place on July 15, 2005
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with writer Terry Teachout, who talks about work on his Louis Armstrong biography.
# Text from publisher.