by JASON BERRY Louis Armstrong’s train ride from New Orleans to Chicago in August 1922 is a pivotal episode in early jazz. The 21-year-old trumpeter leaves the town that nurtured his talent for the muscle of the Midwest, where his mentor, Joe Oliver, has offered him a job. At the cavernous Lincoln Gardens, he plays his first gig with Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.
“Joe would make his horn sound like a baby crying, and Bill Johnson would make his horn sound as though it was a nurse calming the baby in a high voice,” he wrote in the memoir Satchmo. “I was up North playing with the greats. I was playing with my idol, the King, Papa Joe Oliver. My boyhood dream had come true at last.” Thus ends the book of his early years.
The problem with those lines is that Bill Johnson, whose voice famously cried, “Oh, play that thing” on the recording “Dippermouth Blues,” was not a horn player. Johnson played stand-up bass and, on the early records, banjo. How could he have played a horn duet with Oliver that night in Chicago? Was Armstrong mistaken in his memory?
Such questions haunt the researchers of early jazz. Memories are fallible, hence, a welter of conflicting dates, places, facts asserted. In Pioneers of Jazz: The Story of the Creole Band, Lawrence Gushee makes a herculean attempt to chronicle the band that set out from New Orleans for California in 1914 and emerged as a highly influential ragtime ensemble in the waning years of vaudeville, with Bill Johnson as its longest-running member. Joe Oliver, who had left New Orleans in the wake of Storyville’s demise, met up with Johnson in Los Angeles in 1921. That April, reports Gushee, Oliver was “playing at the Wayside Park with, among others, Jelly Roll Morton and at the Hiawatha Dancing Academy.”
Los Angeles was the way station of the New Orleans diaspora before the early pioneers found a hub in Chicago, where recording labels and South Side clubs catering to Southern blacks provided fans, money, deals and buzz. “While we can’t assume that Bill Johnson went back to Chicago with Oliver, there’s no reason to doubt that soon after Oliver’s return he took up his post in the band at the Lincoln Gardens,” notes Gushee cautiously.
Gushee identifies the song where Oliver and Johnson engaged in the baby-and-nurse routine as “That Eccentric Rag” and gently corrects Armstrong’s memory: “Bill would make the bass [emphasis added] sound as though it was a nurse calming the baby.” Gushee, professor emeritus of music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has made many research trips to New Orleans over the years, which shows in the new book.
The problem with Pioneers of Jazz is the author’s obsession with research as an end unto itself, and the overstressed importance of other historians such as the late Bill Russell – a pioneering force, to be sure, yet one whose presence better belonged in footnotes rather than text. There are so many cul-de-sacs in the story that one imagines the author talking to his colleagues, both living and dead. It weakens the narrative drive. Too often, the story of the players in the band and how the band developed devolves into writing about research, puzzling out why a given detail is incorrect and where the superior trail of facts will take us. All this leaves the reader hungry for more of the human side, a sense of the personalities and interplay among the artists who created early jazz music. Joe Oliver never emerges as a full character in this telling.
One makes such points with reluctance; Gushee is a major figure in jazz history, a generous scholar whose work sparkles with insights and intelligence. “The Creole Band that Bill Johnson had brought together in Los Angeles in the spring of 1914 certainly didn’t have a show business career in mind at the outset; they were still a dance band,” he writes. “At the beginning of 1915 one could say that the Chicago scene was ready for hot New Orleans ragtime.”
After the long detour out West, with shifting personnel, the Creole Band returned to Chicago in 1921 but fell apart when Freddie Keppard, a red-hot trumpeter, failed to make a gig there. The band regrouped under Papa Joe Oliver, and when Armstrong arrived the following summer, naïve to the ways of the big city but full of brilliance and fire in playing his instrument, the stage was set for the artist who would revolutionize the idiom as a soloist, singer and entertainer. •