Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia, 1930-1942 by Christopher Wilkinson

Almost heaven … for big bands

Books Reviews
Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia, 1930-1942 by Christopher Wilkinson

West Virginia is arguably the most geographically muddled state in the Union.

Some Northerners think of the state as “the South.” I remember Chris Matthews referring to it off-handedly as a “Confederate” state several years ago in a “red state” election round-up.

Some Southerners think of it as “the North.” Again, that’s sort of fair considering the state seceded from Virginia to join the Union during the Civil War.

Either way, West Virginia sits firmly in the Appalachia region. The irony of that term—Appalachia—is that it comprises a few common-knowledge Southern states (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Carolinas), parts of three obvious Northern states (New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania), and one Midwestern state (Ohio).

So West Virginia belongs to the South and the North, but also to neither, and to all three of those Appalachian regions … and none of them. It’s a state with its own mythology and archetypes—coal mines, whitewater rafting and the Hatfields & McCoys being some prominent tropes.

Musically, the go-to archetype for the state is hillbilly music—folk, bluegrass, and country. In most pop-culture depictions of coal mining, that’s the music that accompanies men going down into the mines. And why not? Hillbilly tunes are beloved in the region, as chronicled by Ivan Tribe’s Mountaineer Jamboree. In the foreword of that book, the late Senator Robert C. Byrd wrote, “People often ask me, ‘What is folk music?’ ‘What is country music?’ ‘What is bluegrass?’ ‘What kind of music do you have in West Virginia?’ These are not easy questions to answer, and they will perhaps never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction.”

He’s right—West Virginia’s music is a muddle, too. The state has been home to Bill Withers, Hasil Adkins, Daniel Johnston, punk bands, Greg Dulli, countless fiddlers, jazz session men, rock session men, folk singers, nu-metal bands, and country stars. There’s no simple answer to Byrd’s final hypothetical. But Senator Byrd and author Tribe go on to primarily discuss the stereotypical hill music which Byrd himself knew well. (The man released a surprisingly great album of his own fiddle music while he was serving in the Senate.) So West Virginia music turns out to be a lot like the state’s placement in the country—several things, not any one thing.

So what about the black coal miners? Sure, hillbilly music informed James Brown and countless other Southern R&B, blues and soul singers weaned on country radio. (For a long list, read Barney Hoskyns’ country soul opus Say It One Time for the Broken Hearted.) But what did these Appalachian African-Americans listen to?

Again, it isn’t exactly North and not quite South, and that geographic gray area affected listening patterns. West Virginia counted thousands of black miners, especially in the 1930s and ‘40s, the era of the blues, medicine shows and most prominently for the national African-American community, jazz.

Like everyone else at the time, African-Americans listened to big band. So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that black West Virginians, both in the middle class and in the coal mines, heard big band jazz not only on the radio and in concert halls, but also in coal camps.

Naturally, that’s the subject at hand of Christopher Wilkinson’s exhaustively researched Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia, 1930-1942. The book depicts West Virginia’s relationship with big band, showing the state as an unlikely—and oddly ideal—environment for hosting big band jazz during those 12 Great Depression/WWII years.

When coal started to become a big business, giving the local economy a bump, more and more African-Americans moved to Appalachia for work. Mining, after all, paid better than agriculture and even factory jobs in cities. What’s more, in West Virginia black men could vote and get equal pay for equal work in the mines. The miners sent their kids to school, creating a black middle class of teachers and local business owners. For about 12 years in the 20th century, West Virginia became, more or less, a great place to live for black families. And coal money went into the pockets of big band legends.

Most notably, Joe “King” Oliver, the mentor of Louis Armstrong, set up headquarters in Huntington for about a year between 1934 and 1935. To learn why, author Wilkinson looked at booking records. He found that musicians earned the best money in West Virginia—because of the aforementioned equal pay, black families had extra money to spend on dances. Other parts of the country didn’t generate the same kind of earnings. Oliver could jump from coal town to coal town and make money all along the way. The majority of the shows Oliver played that year took place in West Virginia, with a few in Ashland, Kentucky (directly across the Ohio River from Huntington, W.V.). Clearly, West Virginia held an eager audience for big band.

I was born and raised in Huntington, and believe me, this came as a surprise—I’ve long harbored an interest in music history, and I knew nothing of all this.

When it came to my hometown’s history, I knew a few things growing up. Huntington is home to Marshall University. It’s a port town, and even though it’s in the coal state, you’d have to travel a while to hit a proper mine. Still, I knew of no local music history to speak of … unless, again, you’re talking about the state’s hootenanny lineage.

Even so, I wasn’t surrounded by jug band jam sessions (though that would’ve been awesome). In high school, the only concerts in town came courtesy of Journey, ZZ Top, Staind, and a handful of other acts of similar quality and aesthetic. (The best local show I saw around that time was a Blue Oyster Cult show in Charleston.)

I moved to Chicago, despite my West Virginia pride, for two (in my mind) equally big reasons: College and Concerts. (From Huntington, the closest concerts of interest most often happened three hours away in Ohio.) It came as an enormous revelation, then, that Oliver, one of the founding fathers of jazz, held a residency in my hometown months before he died. And that didn’t just surprise me—none of my audiophile friends in Huntington knew about Oliver’s residence either. That’s probably the greatest gift of Wilkinson’s book—he offers a largely untold West Virginia music history for music nerds like me.

It’s easy to see why the subject had never been explored prior to Wilkinson’s book. Big band and West Virginia just don’t aesthetically fit together. Big bands and big cities? An obvious fit—YouTube videos of horn players in tuxedos performing for aristocrats makes that clear. Big bands in the South? Again, it makes sense—in the simplified origin story of the genre, jazz’s forefathers migrated from New Orleans and the Deep South to Chicago, New York, Paris and beyond. But jazz jumped in the Mountain State, too, and Wilkinson does an excellent job at proving its little-discussed presence.

Wilkinson looks at census records, old newspapers, gig books, personal interviews, and countless other resources to fully understand where the music played, who made up the audience, who played, what was played, and so on. As a researcher, he’s spot-on—he only settles for inferences when he’s exhausted every possible coal seam of research. He also teases out the economy of coal in the ‘30s, specifically noting that Executive Order No. 6137, “Code of Fair Competition for the Bituminous Coal Industry,” stabilized the industry, an essential bit of information in understanding how big band music could possibly thrive in the state. That said, Wilkinson may also sometimes throw in too much context: “The formation of West Virginia’s coal deposits began in the Pennsylvanian or Upper Carboniferous Period around 323 million years ago.”

This tends to be how Wilkinson works as a writer. In discussing how miners and West Virginians could’ve heard big band music, he finds several sources that discuss the locations of radio stations, how radio was distributed throughout the state and what music stations played. Then, just when Wilkinson has made his point with adequate proof, he too often gives even more proof. So the information tends to drag on a bit long, a testament to Wilkinson’s excitement at finding a gig book or a relevant article in The Pittsburgh Courier. At its heart, this book turns out to be an educational study, which is entirely appropriate—Wilkinson teaches music history, specifically jazz history and bibliography methods, at West Virginia University. Here, both in content and approach, is Wilkinson’s craft in a nutshell.

The author’s greatest triumph as a researcher and writer comes when he directly correlates the coal industry to the success of big band in the state. Coal money proved a major factor for why Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and nearly every other big band legend of the time traveled through Appalachia. But Wilkinson also uses research to prove that coal turned out to also be the downfall of big band in West Virginia. As in the John Henry legend, the early ‘40s saw machines replace some of the miners. The first to be fired? African-Americans.

Wilkinson verifies this heartbreaking story with statistics and anecdotal evidence—families had to leave their homes and find work in factories or farms for far less money. In some cases, it turned out to be much less dangerous work, but without black miner families, the black middle class dissipated. Within a few short years, big band lost a large chunk of its audience in West Virginia. World War II added the burden of rationed goods and services, which meant that if a band’s bus tire stripped, it couldn’t get a new one. Metal rationing made the purchase of new instruments largely out of the question. Limited gasoline took extensive tours off the table. Many big bands, as Wilkinson puts it, “went out of business.” It’s a sad ending, but the way Wilkinson connects the dots is impressive.

Personally, knowing that big band greats gigged around my home state fascinates me on its own. But I’m even more grateful for a chapter on West Virginia’s local big bands. We have no way today to hear those bands or know what they sounded like. An example? Gilmore’s Midnighters, a big band from Piedmont that Wilkinson describes from old interviews. He recounts where the band played (high school gymnasiums and American Legion halls), for whom it played (segregated crowds) and, most importantly, what Gilmore’s Midnighters played (“Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Nagasaki” appear on the play list).

Wilkinson writes in the middle of this volume a sentence that could be his book’s thesis statement: “Indeed the image of a rural, agricultural (and almost entirely white) world shapes many peoples’ perceptions of West Virginia’s musical culture to this day.”

While that’s obviously true, as made evident by Senator Byrd’s foreword, Wilkinson didn’t pore over his subject to only say, “Hey, there’s more to West Virginia than hillbilly music.” He tells a story untold for the last seven decades—of a sophisticated, predominately black music that invaded the hills despite its historical association with the cities. Wilkinson approaches his subject with footnotes, charts, and graphs, but amid all the visual aides and parenthetical citations, he plays us an amazing history.

Evan Minsker is a writer and West Virginia native who blogs and tweets.

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