“...we can’t tell you what a ‘Jass’ Band is because we don’t know ourselves. As for what it does—it makes dancers want to dance more—and more—and yet more!”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 20 May 1917
Folks weren’t exactly sure what it was or what to call it. At first it was “jass,” a derogatory term that soon came to mean just the opposite. Some called it “wild, weird and woozy.” Others called it “pep,” “ginger,” “snap,” “zippy,” “snappy,” “synco,” “jas,” “jaz,” “jazbo,” “jazzy,” and ultimately... “jazz.”
It wasn’t long before the word “jazz” was being used in conjunction with almost anything exciting—theatre, sports, automobiles, clothing, dance, and of course, music.
“Putting Pep in Slowtown”
The first two decades of the twentieth century saw great change in American popular culture. A younger generation of listeners continued its fascination with African American music, which had grown considerably since the 1890s. With the advent of ragtime, social dancing became more popular than ever. But if ragtime started a fire, jazz turned that fire into an inferno.
“Five fellows who cannot read music are given five different pieces to play at once. They are equipped with a Razzoo, a Bazzoo, a Blam Blam, a Wahoo and a Wheezer. They are then filled with Jamaica ginger, barbed wire, Rough-on-Rats, rock salt and TNT and turned loose. The noise that results is jazz. When people hear it they say “they could just die dancing.” Many of them do. Fifty years ago the waltz was something awful. If our dear old forefathers could only see us do the Shimmy! Hot Dog!”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 17 June 1919
Ragtime was immensely popular in Kalamazoo (and elsewhere) during the first decades of the twentieth century, as were the bands that played it. Instrumentally, the structure of these early performance units can be traced back to the minstrel bands of the mid-nineteenth century, and carried forward through the social and dance bands of the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ragtime and early jazz combos typically consisted of four to seven musicians, though some had as many as ten or more. Violin, cornet, brass or string bass, and banjo were mainstays of the minstrel era that remained, while the minstrel “tambo” (tambourine) and “bones” (clackers) were taken over by a “trap” drummer. Exciting new textures then appeared, led by the clarinet, saxophone, trombone, mandolin, guitar and piano.
Improvisation Meets Syncopation
Early jazz (often called “hot music”) was filled with brisk tempos, sudden breaks, quirky sound effects and crazy on-stage antics—much of which can be directly attributed to the novelty acts on the vaudeville circuits. But the most significant change came about when musicians in the South began to add improvisation to syncopated popular music (ragtime, marching band music and blues).
“What differentiated Jazz from these earlier styles,” explains Scott Alexander of The Red Hot Jazz Archive, “was the widespread use of improvisation, often by more than one player at a time. Jazz represented a break from Western musical traditions, where the composer wrote a piece of music on paper and the musicians then tried their best to play exactly what was in the score. In a Jazz piece, the song is often just a starting point or frame of reference for the musicians to improvise around. The song might have been a popular ditty or blues that they didn't compose, but by the time they were finished with it they had composed a new piece that often bore little resemblance to the original song.”
After decades of slow but certain change, an explosion occurred in popular music in early 1917. America had lost its innocence, and audiences simply could not get enough.
Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band
From as early as March 1917, ads by the Cable-Nelson Piano Co. began appearing in the Kalamazoo Gazette blazon with the new term, “jazz.” On March 7th, the Victor Talking Machine Company released “Livery Stable Blues” backed with “Dixie Jass Band One-Step” by the Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ (Jazz) Band, commonly regarded as the first jazz record ever.
“Livery Stable Blues” performed by The Original Dixieland Jass Band
Victor Records No. 18255 take 1, recorded 26 February 1917
Audio Archive | download mp3 (2.9MB)
“A brass band gone crazy!”
Local excitement over the new record grew quickly. On 15 April 1917, Fischer’s Music Shop announced that a shipment of 500 copies of the “special Jass Band dance records” had just arrived from Chicago. Fischer even published the complete telegram from the Chicago Talking Machine Company to prove it! A Kalamazoo Gazette advertisement on 28 April 1917 for Victor’s upcoming May releases included a headline, “Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band plays whirlwind dance numbers.” An ad for Fischer’s Music Shop in May 1917 described the Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band as “organized disorganization, a brass band gone crazy!”
By the end of 1917, several of Kalamazoo’s leading local musicians had already jumped on the “jazz” and “pep” bandwagon with their own compositions and renditions of well known jazz numbers. Among the most successful were the bands led by James H. “Jazz” Johnstone, Ed Snuggs, Herman Salomon, Charles Brocato, and the Fischer brothers.
James H. “Jazz” Johnstone
Ace Kalamazoo stringman James Hart “Jumpin’ Jazz Jimmie” Johnstone fronted several local musical organizations, and was one of the first in Kalamazoo to feature jazz in his programs. Johnstone’s mandolin ensembles included the Gibson Plectral Sextet and the YMCA Mandolin Orchestra. He also fronted the Kazoo Banjo Bugs, and founded the Kalamazoo Chapter of the American Guild of Mandolinists, Banjoists and Guitarists. A feature of Johnstone’s early act was “Yankee Doodle Backwards,” where he played the mandolin behind his head with his back turned to the audience.
In May 1918, The Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company announced that it would begin manufacturing a tenor banjo “to keep the ambitious ‘Jazz’ players supplied.” Johnstone, a supervisor in the stringing department at Gibson, publicly praised the new instrument, saying “it’s in a class by itself.” Soon thereafter, he began offering a series of lessons in his popular folio, How to ‘Jazz’ on the Tenor Banjo and Mandolin-Banjo.
“‘Jazz’ music, as applied to Banjos, is just another term for Ragtime or syncopated music, only a more intensified form. The player should learn all the different styles and strokes, both single notes and chords.”
—James H. Johnstone, 1919
Johnstone was also a successful composer and active local music publisher. His own compositions included “The Red Triangle” (for mandolin orchestra), “The Palms” (tenor mandola solo by Faure, arr. by Johnstone, 1919), “Tenor Mandola Solos” (unaccompanied, ca. 1916), “Frolic of the Kazoos” (mandolin, 1916, and guitar solo, 1918), “Jimmie” (banjo duet, 1922), “A Live Wire” (march, 1919), “Jacksonian” (march, 1919), “Camp Custer” (march, 1919), “The Banjo Bugs” (rag, 1916), “Ka-Zoo-Za-Lum” (rag, 1919), and others, many of which were of ragtime and jazz interest.
Fischer’s Jazz Band
Charles and Burton Fischer were no strangers to innovation. Some twenty years earlier, their orchestras had been the first to feature ragtime music locally, and by the spring of 1917, Fischer’s Jazz Band was including the latest popular jazz pieces in its repertoire.
To take advantage of the newest trends in music and sound reproduction, Charlie and Burt took their outfit to Camden, New Jersey, in October 1917 to cut a few test sides for Victor Records with the hope of securing a recording contract. According to Victor ledgers, the band cut four numbers on 10 October 1917, some of which were of jazz and ragtime interest. During the sessions, Burton Fischer’s “Casino Jazz” and “Oodles of Pep” were attempted, plus “Annie Laurie,” a trombone and cornet duet by Ed Snuggs and Will Reifsnyder.
In 1922, Fischer tried again, this time traveling to Richmond, Indiana, to record a pair of sides for Gennett Records, known today as the “Birthplace of Recorded Jazz.” According to discographer Brian Rust, two pieces were attempted during the October 7th session; “Maggie Blues” (no. 11198) and “Faded Love Letters” (no. 11199). Unfortunately, it appears that none of the recordings from either session were ever issued commercially.
“Oodles of Pep” One-Step, by Burton E. Fischer, 1917
Midi sequence by James Pitt-Payne, London, UK, ca. 2004
Fischer’s Jazz Orchestra
Boasting several of Kalamazoo’s best musicians, including James H. “Jazz” Johnstone on the tenor banjo; Bert Reeves, the “Australian violinist;” and “Memphis Davis,” a “sensational jazz drummer;” Fischer’s Jazz Orchestra was the star of the show in 1918 when the Elite Theater put on its Big Jazz Novelty night in November. The band went on to achieve great success with Burton Fischer’s own compositions, and interpretations of others’, including “Tropical Blues” (written by Edward Schroeder of Battle Creek) and “Wabash Blues,” both widely heard on records by the likes of Joseph Samuels and Isham Jones.
Fischer’s Jazzadours and Banjo Phiends
By 1919, Fischer’s Jazz Orchestra had become so popular that a second band and even a third were required, just to meet the growing demand. (At one point, Fischer had at least six different bands on the road throughout the Midwest.) Fischer’s Jazz Orchestra staged two extensive tours of Pennsylvania during the spring, then split its membership three ways and hired extras to fill multiple ten-week summertime engagements, including the Casino in South Haven and the Manitou Beach resort near Jackson. During 1919 and 1920, Fischer’s Jazz Band played daily at Kalamazoo’s Oakwood Park and for Godwin’s weekly dancing assemblies, while Fischer’s Banjo Phiends and Fischer’s Jazzadours received extended bookings at resort hotels throughout Northern Michigan, plus steady work at regional fairs, local parties and dances.
Brocato’s Original Jazz Orchestra
Originally formed in 1915, Charles G. Brocato’s six piece Novelty Orchestra made its public debut on May 31st, 1917, at Myers Park on Whites Lake. The band featured a quartet of saxophones, plus piano and drums. Brocato’s orchestra made further appearances at Oakwood Park during the summertime, at the Auditorium Theater in the fall as part of Will Godwin’s dancing assemblies, and at the Knights of Pythias Temple with Howe & Fry’s Thursday evening dancing parties, providing “Jazz” and “Pep” for local dancers at 50¢ per couple.
Brocato’s expanded (eight piece) Novelty Orchestra enjoyed continued success with a special program of jazz music at the Auditorium in January 1918. Soon after, the group changed its name to Brocato’s Original Jazz Orchestra, based on its success with Original Dixieland Jazz Band numbers like “Livery Stable Blues” and others.
During the 1919-1920 season, Brocato’s ten piece Novelty Orchestra included Charles Brocato himself playing clarinet and saxophone; William Wilkinson and Stanley Brothers, violins; Flutell Bowman, cornet; Harold Schrier, trombone; Louis Vaupre, saxophone and oboe; Ed Greene, clarinet and saxophone; Charles Springs, marimbaphone and chimes; Nahum Davison, piano; and “jovial Ed Howard, dispensing jazz as you like it, with his new jazz drummers outfit” (Gazette). New jazz hits featured by the group included “War Bride Blues” and “I’m Sorry I Made You Cry.” As manager of the famous dance pavilion at Oakwood Park, Brocato featured his group for five performances each week throughout the summer months between 1918 and 1921.
Herman Salomon’s Orchestra, best known for its sweet dance music, was most popular in Kalamazoo and throughout the state during the ragtime era at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet nearly twenty years later, the group proved it was still “up-to-date” with a series of Moonlight Dances at the Auditorium in 1918, “featuring saxaphones(sic) and other novelties, jass and pep.”
Ed Snuggs’ Dixieland Jazz Band
At the age of sixteen, Edward Snuggs was a featured soloist in George B. Newell’s massive College Band. He later went on to become a key member of Fischer’s famous orchestras and is remembered to this day for directing the summertime concerts in Milham Park during the 1950s and early 60s. During the Jazz Years, numerous local bookings featured “Genuine Southern Jazz by Eddie Snuggs and his Dixieland Players.” Winter months saw Snuggs and his Jazz Orchestra providing the music for Snuggs & Byers Assemblies, where dancers could learn all the latest steps beginning at 8 pm, then dance to “a real Jazz band” from 9 until midnight. When summertime rolled around, Snuggs and his band of “all jazz artists” were booked for dances every night of the week at the new White’s Lake Pavilion.
The Great War
The first World War had tremendous impact on American popular culture. According to Ed Esterman, a local amusement park manager, “the war changed everything.” America entered the war in Europe in August 1917 and each day sent thousands of soldiers overseas. With the armistice of November 1918 and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles the following June, these Americans returned home with new ideas and new expectations. The automobile added mobility, and the sudden proliferation of phonograph records made popular music inexpensive and portable. For less than a dollar, fans could purchase recordings of the latest popular selections performed by the artists themselves and enjoy them almost anywhere. By 1919, the production of talking machines exceeded $158 million and the overall value of manufactured musical instruments in America exceeded $320 million, much of it due to the success of jazz.
Support for the Troops
With many Kalamazoo musicians eager to support the troops overseas, “Jazz” Johnstone, arranged a benefit performance in January 1918 to aid the Kalamazoo Gazette with its “Smokes for Sammies” fund, which supplied American soldiers in the trenches with tobacco products from the home front. The Gibson Plectral Sextet, the YMCA Mandolin Orchestra, and the Kazoo Banjo Bugs (all led by Johnstone), along with Fischer’s (newly organized) Jazz Band and several others assisted with the performance, which raised more than $400 for the cause.
Entertainment at Camp Custer
Johnstone took his jazz and mandolin bands to Camp Custer more than thirty times during the summer of 1918 to entertain the doughboys. In all, Johnstone gave nearly sixty concerts for the troops at the camp, including numerous appearances with the Kalamazoo YMCA Mandolin Orchestra and “Jumpin Jimmie Johnstone’s Jubilant Jazzers.”
Fischer’s Music Shop joined the war effort and worked with the Boy Scouts to collect more than one thousand phonograph records (“ranging from ‘jazz’ to grand opera”) to be donated to the troops overseas as part of a nationwide “Slacker Records Drive.” Each record would carry a personal message from the donor to the soldier who received it.
Peace Jubilee Week
When the War came to an end in November 1918, tens of thousands lined the streets in Kalamazoo to witness the parade of marching bands, floats, and jazz bands. Hundreds attended the Liberty Ball and danced to jazz music by Brocato’s Novelty Orchestra. A week of celebration followed, culminating with a “Big Jazz Novelty Night” at the Elite.
“Dance music that keeps the toes a~tripping”
Prohibition came to Kalamazoo in 1915, which closed the saloons and breweries but did little to stop music lovers from enjoying the latest popular trends. The locals were eager to learn how to dance to the new “stuff,” and kept the weekly dancing assemblies by Will Godwin and George Byers filled to capacity. Godwin featured Fischer’ Jazz Band, while Byers partnered with Ed Snuggs and his Jazz Orchestra. Charles Brocato sponsored similar dances, featuring his own Original Jazz Orchestra. Often, up to six or more dance instructors were enlisted for each session to meet the growing demand.
In part, the burgeoning popularity of jazz may be attributed to the sudden proliferation of phonograph records and piano rolls. For the first time ever, music lovers no longer had to settle for do-it-yourself re-creations when actual recordings made by the original artists could be enjoyed right in one’s own home.
“Newest Jass Hits”
For home enjoyment in Kalamazoo, jazz piano rolls by Q.R.S. and Imperial were available at Grinnell Bros., 107 East Main. “Good Jazz Records” and jazz piano rolls could be found down the street at the Cable-Nelson Piano Company, 128 West Main. A free copy of Agnes Lynn’s Columbia record, “Jazz Baby,” could be had with the purchase of a new phonograph at B. M. Jones Piano Company, 320 South Burdick, where select Victor, Gennett and Emerson “Double Face” records were just 42¢ each. Victor Records could also be found at Grinnell Brothers Music House on East Main, and at Fischer’s Music Shop on the third floor of the Gilmore Brothers Department Store. Records by Wilbur C. Sweatman’s Original Jazz Band and others were available at the Home Furnishing Company on North Burdick Street, and the “Newest Jass Hits” on Columbia Records were just 65¢ each at Hoover-Bond’s, 227-231 East Main.
Popular Blues and Jazz Records
Beginning in 1920, popular blues and jazz records on Pathé and Okeh were available in the Gilmore Brothers Store and in the Blanchard Music Department of Horace Prentice & Son, 137 South Burdick. By 1922, the new Aeolian Vocalion Red Records could be found at Frank Talbot’s in the Burdick Street Arcade, and at the B. M. Jones Furniture Company, 148 South Burdick.
Radio was in its infancy in 1922 when the Fischer Orchestra broadcast for the first time from the News Building in Detroit. For just over an hour on Wednesday evening, 7 February 1922, radio operators for hundreds of miles around listened in on Fischer’s “Radio Concert.”
“Radio instruments at Western State Normal received the entire concert very clearly and a large number of amateur sets in the city recorded the entertainments. An instrument in one Ohio city ‘cut in’ and asked Fischer’s to repeat “Wabash Blues,” one of the selections on the radio phone concert. This was done.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 9 February 1922
Fischer’s Orchestra was the first Kalamazoo musical organization to perform a concert over the radio, though others soon followed. In May, Fischer repeated the stunt with a special radio concert broadcast from Milwaukee and played for eager listeners at a special Oakwood Park “Radio Dance.”
The Biggest Names in Jazz Play Kalamazoo
“There is something very appealing about a ‘Jaz’ Band, and this company of colored entertainers is the greatest of all the bands of its kind.
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 3 February 1917
Tennessee Ten Jazz Band
Among the first of the “big name” jazz performers to come to Kalamazoo during the early years of “The Jazz Age” was Ralph Dunbar’s Tennessee Ten, who visited the city on three separate occasions in 1917 and early 1918. The “Ten” featured singer Florence Mills, “The Harlem Jazz Queen,” plus Thomas Morris, Ed Garland, and ‘Jimmy’ O’Bryant, all of whom went on to make records in the 20s. For their first appearance, Col. William Marshall of the Majestic Theater brought them in for a half-week stay in February 1917, which featured “the very latest thing in the cabaret line... the ‘Jaz’ band.” A three-day run followed in August, which included “the drummer with the juggling sticks, the whirling bass player and all the old favorites [that kept] the audience in an uproar.” A popular attraction on the Keith vaudeville circuit, the Tennessee Ten Real Original Jazz Band returned for a third engagement at the Majestic the following April with a promise to “keep the syncopation at fever heat.”
“T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do” instrumental performed by the Tennessee Ten
Victor Records, No. 19109-B, recorded 26 June 1923
Audio Archive | download mp3 (3.1MB)
The Original New Orleans Creole Band
The Original New Orleans Creole Band, including founding member and string bassist William Manuel Johnson, brought its brand of “Real Jazz Music” to the Majestic Theater in Kalamazoo for a four day run in December 1917. As it turns out, this band was an early ancestor of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, which included Johnson, plus the famous Joe “King” Oliver and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. Billed as “The Original New Orleans Creole Rag Time Band,” they introduced Kalamazoo audiences to “some ‘Jazz’ music that [had] never been equaled here.”
Henry Santrey and his Jazz Band
Henry Santrey and his Jazz Band appeared at the Armory for three nights in September 1919, then again as Henry Santrey’s Vaudeville Jazz Band in October. Santrey cut several records for Cameo in the mid-twenties. During the September series, audiences enjoyed “two hours of high class entertainment” from Santrey and his band, then danced until midnight.
John Philip Sousa
John Philip Sousa brought his band to Kalamazoo more than a dozen times over the course of his touring career, and he was seldom afraid of new and different ideas. Sousa was an outspoken proponent of ragtime and later embraced jazz. During his October 1919 performances at the Armory, the band featured Sousa’s “Impression at the Movies” Suite, which included “The Jazz Band in Action.”
Jim Europe’s 369th Infantry “Hellfighters” Band
Lieutenant Jim Europe’s 369th Infantry ‘Jazz’ Band (known as the “Hellfighters”) appeared at the Fuller Theater on 23 April 1919. According to jazz writer Floyd Levin, James Europe “introduced the sounds of American ragtime to Europeans during the World War I. Although his career was brief, he profoundly influenced the course of popular music, not just in the United States but throughout the world.” (Red Hot Jazz Archive)
The 369th Infantry Jazz Band recorded two dozen tracks for Pathé in March and May 1919, and was ranked among the best bands in the world. Just three weeks after his Kalamazoo appearance, Lieutenant Europe was stabbed to death in Boston by one of his musicians.
“Crazy Blues” performed by Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds
Okeh Records No. 4169 (7529 take C), recorded 10 August 1920
Audio Archive | download mp3 (3.2MB)
Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds
In April 1922, Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds made a stop at the Fuller Theater for two shows, sharing the bill with comedian “Boots” Hope and the duo of Harrington and Birdie. Smith, known as the “Queen of Syncopation” and famous for her million-selling “Crazy Blues,” had a wildly successful career and recorded dozens of sides for Okeh, effectively setting the standard for future female blues singers.
The Jazz Hounds featured George Mullen, cornet; Curtis Mosby, drums; and George Bell, violin. During the same tour, Smith managed to convince a young Coleman Hawkins to join her band, though it appears Hawkins joined sometime after her Kalamazoo appearance.
House of David Band
In May 1925, Benton Harbor’s famed House of David Band headlined the Fuller Theater in Kalamazoo for the final stop on its national tour. Billed as “The Greatest Jazz Band in Vaudeville,” the “bewhiskered sheiks of syncopation” made a significant name for themselves as a touring novelty act throughout the 1920s, appearing at many of the most renowned venues in the country. While membership in the jazz band (known as the Syncopep Serenaders) changed throughout the years, some of its members made significant contributions to recorded jazz.
“The House of David Blues” performed by Elmer Schoebel’s Chicago Blues Dance Orchestra
Columbia Records No. A3923, recorded 30 May 1923
Audio Archive | download mp3 (2.5MB)
Ephraim and “Cookie” Hannaford
Founding member and trombonist Ephraim “Eph” Hannaford left the organization in the early 20s and appears as a session musician on numerous jazz and dance recordings, including stints with Roger Wolfe Kahn, Nathan Glantz’ Orchestra, the Synco Jazz Band, the Dixie Daisies, and Mamie Smith. He also made records on the Banner and Regal labels as Eph Hannaford’s Broadway (Dance) Orchestra. His brother, Ezra “Cookie” Hannaford, played alto saxophone and clarinet, and led the House of David jazz band until 1927, when he left to make records with Vincent Lopez and His Casa Lopez Orchestra in New York.
Celebrity endorsements soon followed. Banjoist Wesley “Slim” Schneider claimed to be “100 percent Gibson” in a 1920s Gibson Company catalog, and “Cookie” Hannaford was publicized in association with Columbia Records and MCA.
“Gee! but ain’t it grand to hear that band...”
Penned in 1923, “The House of David Blues” poked fun at the “longhairs” from Benton Harbor and quickly became an early jazz standard. Not to be outdone, the House of David Band adopted the song as its theme, and performed it during House of David basketball and baseball games. As legend has it, their fellow barnstormers, the Harlem Globetrotters, liked the idea and adopted “Sweet Georgia Brown” in response. The rest, as they say, is history.
Jazz Begins to Swing
By the mid-twenties, jazz—although scorned by some as evil and unsophisticated—had become the popular music of its time. The style that was once confined to New Orleans and the South spread throughout the United States and Europe. San Francisco to Memphis to Chicago to New York—where each region developed its own distinctive flavor.
The novelty antics and crude performances were soon replaced by cool sophistication and musical dexterity as jazz evolved into swing during the 30s and big band during the 1940s. Still, the brief period when ragtime grew into jazz during the late nineteen teens and early twenties remains an exciting and important time in American history.
Like many of our Local History essays, this article is by no means a definitive study; rather it is a continuing work-in-progress. If you have new information, corrections, or items to share, please contact the author or the Local History Room.
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