29 April 2014

Jazz owes a lot of its popularity to the
phonograph, going back to the early days, when
Thomas Edison invented the musical box that
brought jazz to people who lived outside of the
areas where jazz musicians played. Through
phonograph records, they could hear the music of
such people as "King" Joe Oliver. He was the
first of the legendary great trumpet players to
come out of New Orleans, the city where most
experts in the field say that jazz originated. Jazz
was played in the whorehouses in that city, and
Louis Armstrong credits Oliver as being one
person from whom he learned his style of playing

The earliest phonographs I remember were the
old type; you would wind the machine up in the
same manner that one wound a clock or watch,
until you could wind no longer. Then you placed
the record on the turntable and turned on the
switch, and the music would blare out of the
megaphones. Most records sounded very tinny,
but the volume could be raised or lowered by
another switch.

The first electric phonographs made the music
sound much better, and there was a constant
improvement in the machines until the 1920s,
when radios began to be produced at the
electronics plants.

Some record companies, like Victor, Columbia,
Brunswick and Vocalion, recorded black
entertainers, such as the comedy team of Miller
and Lyles, Bert Williams, Bessie Smith, Mamie
Smith, and Ethel Waters, who made the big time,
appearing on the Broadway stage. Plus she was
a headliner on tour for the Orpheum Circuit,
which gave performers an opportunity to become
nationally famous.

Decca Records hit the market about 1925, and
featured more black entertainers than the others,
including Jimmie Lunceford, Chick Webb and
Ella Fitzgerald, who became a star at 17 when
she won an Amateur Night contest at the Apollo

Jazz reached its height after the repeal of
Prohibition in 1933, when liquor could legally be
sold by the glass. All the bars or taverns had
large jukeboxes containing all the hits.

Black musicians appeared on the white-owned
radio stations as far back as the 1920s. Ethel
Waters was probably the first great black female
singer to sing both pop songs and blues numbers
on the radio; she was first to get really into the
white world.

Fats Waller was also frequent. I recall him
singing two recordings of "Honeysuckle Rose,"
once accompanying himself on piano and the
other time with his group. It became one of his
biggest hits. He was as well-known for the songs
he was composing as he was as a vocalist. And
Louis Armstrong was played on the radio very
early in his career. Everybody loved his style of
singing. Like most successful black musicians of
the time, he played both Negro music and
popular music.

Freeman Gosden (l.) and Charles Correll, creators
of Amos 'n' Andy, portrayed all the male voices
on the radio show from 1928 until 1943. The
series concerned two young black men from
Georgia who moved to Harlem to seek their
fortunes, and derived its humor from racial
stereotypes. The radio series continued until
1960. A television version starring black actors
ran on CBS from 1951-53, then appeared in
reruns until 1966, when it was driven off the air
by protests from the NAACP.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, it was station
KRE in Berkeley that furnished a
seven-day-a-week jazz menu, and kept jazz lovers
up to date on the different artists. KRE was the
station that first presented the Mills Brothers,
who as a group of four brothers, sounded just
like musical instruments. They were a national
sensation, but we only heard them on the air.
They never came to Northern California, but they
did play in Los Angeles.

Opportunities for blacks in radio were very
limited in the 1920s and 1930s. The radio
stations created their own celebrities. They had
people who performed from the studio, and they
didn't have to depend upon records. Most radio
stations had a policy of not hiring black

The first black entertainer to get on a radio show
in San Francisco was Henry Starr, a fine
Oakland-born musician. He had left Oakland in
the 1920s to work in Los Angeles and on the
East Coast as a piano player, with some of the
very good black entertainers of that period. He
was gone for a long time before he came back
home. Then he was hired as a star of a variety
show known as the Edna Fischer Show on KFRC
in San Francisco. It became very popular.
Thousands of listeners turned their radios on
every morning, and the names of the stars were
well-known locally.

Starr sang and accompanied himself on the piano.
Rumors were that he was paid $100 every week,
which was a lot of money in 1929 for anyone.
Houses then sold for less than $5000.

Starting in 1928, one of the most popular radio
shows across the country was Amos 'n' Andy.
Blacks listened along with the general population.
I think everybody enjoyed the comedy at first,
even though they knew the actors weren't black
men. Everybody was listening to it, because
that's the talk I heard.

Guys were even quoting the way they were trying
to use that speech form, as a joke. It was always
in a manner that they thought blacks spoke --
uneducated people who mangled the King's
English. I imagine you did hear people talking
like that in some areas of the rural South.
Because I could see the difference in the way
blacks talked, when I came out to California.

I held mixed emotions about the two white
comics who blacked their faces and used what
they called a black form of speech on their highly
profitable show. A lot of people began to realize
blacks were depicted as being buffoons and fools
in the show. I took some comfort in that their
portrayal was not like any black people I
personally knew.