The West Virginia coalfields would seem an unlikely place to hear Big Band jazz during the Great Depression. But research by Christopher Wilkinson, a professor of music history at West Virginia University, has documented that the Depression years saw black West Virginians flock to dances by the hundreds to hear bands led by such jazz greats as Count Basie, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
Indeed, Wilkinson has found that one of the well-known band leaders of the day, Joe "King" Oliver, briefly lived in Huntington and used it as his band's base of operations as it played dances in the region in 1934-35.
Now, Wilkinson has written a book "Big Band Jazz In Black West Virginia, 1930-1942," (University of Mississippi Press, $55) in which he shares what he's discovered about this all-but-forgotten chapter of the state's musical history.
Wilkinson specializes in the history of African-American music, with particular attention to jazz. In an interview posted on the WVUToday website, he traces his interest in Big Band jazz in black West Virginia to a day he was researching another project and listened to a recorded interview with New Orleans clarinetist and saxophonist Herb Hall, who traveled with the touring bands of the 1930s.
"All the bands were going through West Virginia in those days," Hall said.
Hall's comment intrigued Wilkinson and he started searching newspaper archives for news stories or advertisements about jazz bands appearing in West Virginia during the Depression years. He found that dances, especially black dances, were frequent happenings and often attracted some of the biggest musical names of the day.
How could that be? After all, the Depression years were tough times in West Virginia, with many families struggling to put food on their tables. But as Wilkinson discovered, the black miner in West Virginia was, comparatively speaking, far better paid than the typical black worker elsewhere in America. Thanks to the federal government's recognition of the United Mine Workers union, the state's black miners at last were earning the same wages as white miners. And, after listing to jazz bands on the radio, they were more than willing to spend a few dollars to hear those bands in person.
Traveling by bus, the bands played dances in Huntington, Charleston, Beckley, Bluefield, Welch and Williamson in the state's southern coalfields. In northern West Virginia, dances were held in Fairmont, Morgantown and Clarksburg. Typically, the bands played in National Guard armories, black high school gyms or other rented spaces. Black dancegoers often would travel for hours by car, winding their way via two-lane roads to attend one of the dances.
The dances were, of course, always segregated. Sometimes a black dance would offer a balcony area where whites could sit and listen to the music, and occasionally a black band would play a whites-only dance.
In the course of his research, Wilkinson found tattered ledgers in which talented musical sideman Paul D. Barnes made brief notes about each time he played in a band, including appearances with Joe "King" Oliver. (Musicians who keep such written records often call them "gig books.")
Wilkinson writes that Oliver and his band arrived in Huntington at the end of September, 1934, and settled in for a five-month stay, until the end of February, 1935. During that time the band played 52 engagements. It played six dances in Huntington and drove to play numerous other dances. Most were in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, but others were as distant as South Carolina and Tennessee.
Huntington, Wilkinson notes, was a good choice for the band. It was the largest city in West Virginia and a highway hub. "Where there are a lot of people, there may be gigs," he writes. And the band's tour bus became a frequent sight heading along U.S. 52 from Huntington to the coalfields. But what really attracted Oliver to Huntington, the WVU professor writes, was the presence of "a small black community that could provide accommodations for the band."
Specifically, Wilkinson cites Huntington's Sylvester Massey as the "owner of a hotel and restaurant catering to African Americans" and an experienced musical promoter who booked regional bands. It seems almost certain, he suggests, that Oliver and Massey worked together. (The 1932 edition of "Polk's City Directory" for Huntington identified Massey as the proprietor of the Massey Café and Hotel at 1609 8th Ave. and lists his residence as 821 7th Ave.)
By the time he arrived in Huntington in 1934, cornet artist King Oliver was well past his musical prime. A Louisiana native, he began his musical career in New Orleans but his big break came in Chicago in 1922 with the debut of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and the subsequent addition of a young Louis Armstrong to the group. Together, Oliver and Armstrong made several early recordings that today are looked on as jazz classics. The band broke up after only two years and Oliver went on the road. He suffered from a gum disease, which made playing increasingly difficult and painful for him. Some accounts suggest that by 1935 he no longer played at all but simply fronted the band. He died in Savannah, Ga., in 1938, dead broke. He had long since pawned his horn.
The outbreak of World War II brought a crashing halt to the Big Band dance era in West Virginia and elsewhere. Beginning in June of 1942, gasoline and tires were rationed, forcing the bands to park their tour buses and prompting former dancegoers to hoard what little gasoline they could buy and nurse their worn-out tires.
Looking back on the vanished era, Wilkinson argues that the Big Band dances were important events that brought together hundreds of members of the state's black community, allowed people from different locales to meet and get to know each other and, of course, enabled all the participants to hear and dance to some of the greatest American music ever played.
James E. Casto is the retired associate editor of The Herald-Dispatch and the author of a number of books on local and regional history. His latest, published in January, is "Legendary Locals of Huntington, West Virginia," (Arcadia Publishing, $21.99).