Interviews

William Kenney, author of Jazz on the River

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.

 

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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

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“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

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Frankie and Johnny, by Fate Marable

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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 people’s 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 passenger’s 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 boat’s 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 didn’t 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 musician’s 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 didn’t want to put an integrated band in front of such an audience for fear of what they would say.