Jazz in Tennessee

Memphis is known for blues and early rock-n-roll traditions, and Nashville is famous for country music, but both also move to the strains of jazz. In no part of Tennessee, however, did jazz ever enjoy commercial or popular success, or make a lasting cultural impression. Nevertheless, Tennessee can claim to have shaped national jazz personalities and has contributed several native-born musical talents who influenced jazz.

At the turn of the century Memphis musicians played classical and popular forms of music in theaters and musical shows, while local parade and military bands performed standard American fare. In addition, the Memphis nightlife also attracted smaller groups that played a rural blues music. It was these players from the Delta and Memphis who inspired W. C. Handy to compose the forms and lyrics that brought him fame. Unlike Handy, however, most musicians bypassed Memphis for work in Chicago.

Two major female jazz figures had their start in Memphis. Alberta Hunter was born on Beale Street and learned to sing there before moving first to Chicago and then New York, where she made some early blues recordings. Lil Hardin was born in Memphis, got her musical training there, and studied music at Fisk University in Nashville. She too relocated in Chicago. While playing piano with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, she met and married young Louis Armstrong. At her encouragement, Armstrong left Oliver to go to New York to launch his own career. Hardin's compositions offered ample harmonic structures for his innovative solo work. In the 1930s she led a number of groups (including an all-female group) and continued to perform, record, and tour.

Erskine Tate, born in Memphis, received his musical training in Chicago and organized an orchestra that played the Vendome Theatre, the Savoy Ballroom, and the Cotton Club. During his tenure, the Vendome was an important stepping stone in the careers of many jazz musicians. Although not native to Tennessee, Jimmy Lunceford taught music in a Memphis school after taking a music degree at Fisk. In Memphis he formed the nucleus of another important band that changed the sound of dance music in the 1930s and 1940s. Among Lunceford's ranks were Tennesseans Moses Allen (tuba and bass); George Clarke (tenor saxophonist) who performed, recorded, and toured with Stuff Smith, Cootie Williams, and Jonah Jones; Rozelle Claxton (pianist and arranger), who played in the bands of Bennie Moten and Harlan Leonard and toured with Pearl Bailey; and Jimmy Crawford (drums), who played with Ben Webster, Billy Taylor, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Fletcher Henderson, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and on Broadway.

Memphis produced a number of other musicians of note. Buster Bailey, clarinetist, played with Handy, Tate, Joe Oliver, Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra, John Kirby, Wilbur De Paris, Henry “Red” Allen, and Armstrong's All Stars. George Coleman, saxophonist, played alto with B. B. King and tenor with Walter Perkins, Max Roach, Miles Davis, and Herbie Hancock. Johnny Dunn, trumpeter, studied at Fisk and did solos in Memphis before joining Handy's band in New York. He played and recorded with Mamie Smith, led his own band, and toured Europe. Fred Robinson, trombonist, played with many prominent African American bands in Chicago and New York. He recorded with Armstrong's Hot Seven. John “Bearcat” Williams, saxophonist and clarinetist, played with Andy Kirk and Cootie Williams. Johnny Williams, bassist, began with southern territory bands, played or recorded with notables like the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Armstrong, Teddy Wilson, and Johnny Hodges, and toured later in life. Phineas Newborn Jr., pianist, was a colleague and inspiration to a group of Memphis musicians, including Booker Little Jr., George Coleman, Frank Stozier, Hank Crawford, and Harold Mabern, who is noted for his associations with Lionel Hampton and Charles Mingus.

In the post-World War I period Nashville cultivated the same forms of popular music that Memphis had before the war. With the opening of radio station WSM in 1925, Nashvillians heard regular broadcasts of popular dance and novelty tunes in the performances of Francis Craig and Beasley Smith. Craig operated a longstanding “hotel” band. Beasley Smith's groups played more “hot” music and seasoned many musicians who went on to other successes, including Matty Matlock, the clarinet player who replaced Benny Goodman in the Ben Pollock Orchestra and who went on to join Bob Crosby's bands. Another musician who launched his career with Smith was Ray McKinley, the drummer who eventually played with singer Smith Ballew, the Dorsey Brothers, Jimmy Dorsey, Will Bradley, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and his own groups. For the next twenty years, Smith was musical director of WSM and finished his career composing and publishing songs.

The universities in Nashville, especially Fisk, not only provided work and study opportunities for African Americans, but provided music gigs as well. A number of black jazz and dance bands performed in Nashville, including those led by John Douglass “Chick” Chavis and Don Q. Pullen. Perhaps the best-known jazz figure to emerge from Nashville was Adolphus Anthony “Doc” Cheatham, who played trumpet. While on tour in Chicago, Lil Hardin got Cheatham work at the Dreamland Cafe, and he substituted for Armstrong at the Vendome Theatre. Cheatham also recorded with blues singer Ma Rainey. He eventually played with Chick Webb and toured Europe with Sam Wooding's revue Chocolate Kiddies. He also played with McKinney's Cotton Picker, Wilbur De Paris, and Cab Calloway while recording with Benny Goodman. He remained musically active with tours and recordings until his death in 1997.

Chattanooga also contributed some unique and important talent to the jazz world. Bessie Smith was perhaps the most prolific and influential of the early blueswomen. Lovie Austin, a pianist, gained her musical training touring the vaudeville circuit in the South, led her own groups, and recorded with jazz musicians and blues singers in Chicago. Jimmy Blanton, the young bass player who enhanced the sound of Duke Ellington from 1939 until his death in 1942, reconfigured bass ensemble and solo concepts and set the stage for bebop bass rhythms. Yusef Lateef, reeds player and composer who has played with Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, and Cannonball Adderley, incorporated unusual eastern rhythms and instruments into his playing and compositions. Other Tennessee-born jazz figures include Dickie Wells (trombone), Bob Shoffner (trumpet), and Jimmy Cleveland (trombone).

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  • Article Title Jazz in Tennessee
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 24, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018