Christopher Wilkinson talks about “Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia”

October 1, 2012 by Greg Moore

One of the more unusual works featured later this month at the West Virginia Book Festival will be the saga of a West Virginia musical movement almost lost to history.

“Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia, 1930-1942” by West Virginia University music professor Christopher Wilkinson tells a story that, even as a lifelong state resident, I’d never heard: Duke Ellington, Count Basie and other giants of American music coming to West Virginia in the years before World War II, making the Mountain State a musical nexus for jazz and big-band music.

Wilkinson will talk about his book at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 13, at the festival, but he was kind enough to answer a few questions about his book and research via email:

Q: How did you learn about this subculture of big band black music, which had been almost entirely forgotten? For that matter, how does a movement that seems as vibrant as the one described in your book almost become lost to history?

A: Quite by accident. While working on the biography of a New Orleans-born trumpet player, big-band leader during the 1930s, and, later, nightclub owner named Don Albert, I listened to an interview with Herbert Hall, one of the players in Albert’s band. The conversation turned to the band’s tours and related topics, and at one point Hall stated that “All the bands were goin’ to West Virginia because the mines were operating and everyone was employed.”

That statement contradicted my assumption that, particularly in the years of the Great Depression, that money was scarce for most people in the Mountain State, including those in the mining industry. It also contradicted my assumption that big-band jazz and other dance music would have had no appeal to West Virginians in any case. Herb Hall’s statement upended both ideas.

The history of big band jazz in West Virginia before World War II became lost, I believe, because just before the war, and continuing thereafter, the large black population residing in the southern coalfields migrated out of the state in the direction of northern cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Toledo, leading the way for white out-migration when increasing mechanization of coal mining put thousands of white Mountaineers out of work.

Q: Why West Virginia? How did a poor, small, largely white state become a center of this subculture?

A: Beginning in the 1870s, African Americans began migrating into the state to build the railroads that cross the southern part of the state and to work in the newly developing coal mining industry. Their numbers would grow steadily through the 1920s and ’30s. According to both the 1930 and 1940 U.S. Censuses, one quarter of McDowell County’s residents were black. Fayette, Kanawha, Logan Mercer, and Raleigh Counties also had substantial African-American populations in that period of which most of the men either worked in the mines or on the railroads that served those mines. In racially segregated West Virginia, these folks constituted the audience for black dance bands on tour through the region.

Q: What would you consider the high point of this movement in West Virginia?

Duke Ellington (left) and Count Basie, among the bandleaders who visited West Virginia in the heyday of big band music here, according to Wilkinson.

A: In terms of the number of bands that played in West Virginia, both in the southern coalfields and, less frequently, in Fairmont, in the northern field, the period from 1935 to the very end of 1939 was the high point. This was due primarily to George Edward Morton of Beckley, who served as a regional booking agent for one of the nation’s most powerful managers of big bands in the period, Joe Glaser. Between April 1935 and December 1939, Morton organized a total of 46 dances in various cities in the southern and northern coalfields for the entertainment of black Mountaineers. The bands who came to play included those led by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Andy Kirk, Chick Webb (with singer Ella Fitzgerald), as well as that led by Jimmie Lunceford, who played nineteen engagements in the Mountain State between 1934 and 1942, more than any other band.

Q: What were the reasons the movement ended? And if World War II was one of those reasons, why didn’t the movement resume after the war?

A: It was not because the music fell out of favor. The reason the culture of big-band jazz and dance music among black Mountaineers came to an end in the middle of 1942 was because the War Department imposed strict rationing of rubber and petroleum as America was plunged into World War II. Black bands toured by bus for the most part, and when tires for civilian use virtually vanished from the scene and gasoline strictly limited, the tours came to a halt and, in truth, many black bands ceased to exist.

After the war, American culture underwent major changes in values regarding entertainment. Veterans returned to complete their educations, get jobs, marry, and start families (leading to the Baby Boom). Going out to dance in public was no longer a popular activity except in big cities. The nightclub replaced the ballroom as the site in which what would become known as “modern jazz” would be performed. Some big bands would endure, but touring to West Virginia was no longer part of their business plans.

Christopher Wilkinson

A: So far, the response has been quite favorable from both the scholarly community and, to me as importantly, from the general public. Both groups seem more than willing to revise their understanding of the musical past of the Mountain State. My research only adds to the picture of West Virginia’s diverse musical culture and heritage. Already a fascinating history, this adds another dimension to our knowledge of our state’s past.

Q: Would you like to see the state (or WVU, or someone else) commemorate this part of the state’s history in some way?

A: Already, the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame has honored several of the participants in this musical world, and as more come to light I am confident their contributions and memory will be honored as well. I am anticipating preparing a radio documentary program on this subject to include the voices of some of the folks I interviewed during the course of my research as well as some of the music recorded by the big bands during the period in which they toured the Mountain State. As this subject is made known both to West Virginians as well as to others, I am hopeful that we will be able to learn still more about big-band jazz in black West Virginia during the 1930s and early 1940s.

One Response to “Christopher Wilkinson talks about “Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia””

  1. Pam May says:

    The WV Music Hall of Fame’s traveling exhibit is at the Book Festival this weekend, too. Please stop by and see it in the Festival Marketplace.

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