This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

The Columbia Concert Band

28 July 2012

click the image to expand
What is outside the frame? What's beyond the image borders? That hidden time and place adds the historical dimension that the camera can't see and gives any photograph a second story. This band's photo is a perfect example of that extra measurement.

The large unmounted photo shows a 27 piece band of African-American musicians called the Columbia Concert Band with conductor Norman L. Black. A concert band often programed  more formal classical music than a marching band, and today it might be called a wind ensemble. Dressed in dark suits instead of the typical band parade uniforms, these gentlemen are ready to play some serious music on an indoor stage. 

The photographer, L.L. Foster, provided nice captions that explain the background story. On the bottom right is Federal Music Project, W.P.A. The Works Project Administration was a government relief program started in 1935 during the Great Depression as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal. It provided over 8 million people with jobs in public works construction, which built bridges, dams, roads, firehouses, libraries, schools, theaters and parks all across the United States. The W.P.A. helped thousands of communities and millions of families to survive the crushing problems of high unemployment and economic depression. It lasted up until Pearl Harbor and WW2 with a changeover to defense contracts, but was discontinued in 1943.

In the depression of the 1930s, musicians struggled for a livelihood too. Music halls and theaters had only just converted from live music shows to cinemas showing "talkies". Radio was still a new technology that was rapidly changing the public's taste for jazz and dance music. Even Prohibition had changed the way music was presented in hotels and clubs. One of the WPA's subsidiary programs was the Federal Music Project which employed hundreds of musicians and composers to produce concerts for the public. The FMP also promoted music instruction programs and some of the first studies of folk music traditions in America. Funding didn't last as long as the W.P.A. and ended in 1939. Among the many symphony orchestras and bands created by this agency was this one - the Columbia Concert Band of Chicago, Illinois. Their first gigs were summer park concerts on Chicago's Southside in 1936, and performances returned until 1940.

The band's photo has some interesting details. The fourth clarinet seated from the left holds a silver metal clarinet which was usually in the key of C, a whole step shorter than the other B flat clarinets. Developed for outdoor use with marching bands, it became popular with early jazz bands. They are no longer made but I have one which I converted to a more useful life as a table lamp.

The three players in the center are a flutist with a piccolo, an oboist with a larger English horn, and a bassoonist. An oboe, English horn, and bassoon are a special mark of quality as they were not common band instruments. Seated on the outside right, the first player holds a cornet while his colleagues all have trumpets. By the late 1920's, the trumpet was supplanting the cornet as the lead instrument in bands. On the second row is a quartet of mellophones, which are right handed, the opposite from horns. 

The band leader, Norman L. Black stands on the right, and this is where we go outside the frame. The Library of Congress keeps an online archive of posters made for the many WPA projects. Included is this poster from Chicago, for the Colored Concert Band, Norman L. Black conductor. I found a dozen Chicago newspaper notices for Norman L. Black and his band from 1936 until 1940. All refer to the Federal Music Project and sometimes call it the Columbia Concert band or the Colored Concert Band.

Despite these very good clues, I can't make a good confirmation of Norman in any census. But I have come tantalizingly close. In 1943, a Norman Louis Black registered for the draft in Chicago. Unemployed but his physical description is negro, 5'8", 155 lbs, complexion: light brown. Of note is his birthplace listed as 1893, Lincoln University, PA which was the location of the first black university in the US.

Using this information I found another Norman Black  in the 1910 census for the Pennsylvania State Industrial Reformatory in Huntingdon County. He was a little older, age 19, but he was also a negro and more importantly his occupation read: musician, band. But other than this citation, I found nothing else conclusive. 

A check of Norman's draft card gave an address and contact: Billie M. Black (no relationship marked) at 509 E. 48th St. Chicago. The 1940 census is not yet indexed for Chicago but you can still browse the new online images, and if you know the street address you can find the appropriate district records. Unfortunately Norman was not at this address in 1940, a dense working class neighborhood of porters, seamstresses, laborers, maids and steel workers, every one marked negro.

What draft cards were adjacent to Norman's in 1943? The name just before his, though only because of alphabetic order, is Nathaniel Hawthorne Black, born 1895, Pulaski PA, employer: US Post Office. His address in Chicago, 517 Oakwood Ave. was only a few blocks away from Norman's address. Could they be brothers? Again no luck for finding either man in this other district's records, but I did discover that in Nathaniel's block there are dozens and dozens of musicians living in apartments or sharing rooms - all listed as negro. One musician is Arthur Crittendon, age 24, occupation: musician, WPA project. There is Les Hites and Jimmie Noone: band leader. Al Morgan, Floyd Turnham, Frank Pasley, Nat and Aaron Walker, and Tiny Parnham: musician, orchestra. Alexander and Alestha Robinson, husband and wife: arranger, music house and pianist, orchestra. And another woman, Toni Anthony: vocalist, orchestra.

I may not be able to find Norman L. Black until the index for the 1940 census is complete. But I think I found the musicians he knew and maybe even some who are in this photo of the Columbia Concert Band. (Want to bet that the name of the trombonist standing on the right was Tiny Parnham?)

((OK I lose my own bet. He is not  Tiny Parnham, who was a pianist, organist and arranger who worked for a time at Paramount Records, and who was a big guy too!  Instead I think it may be Fred Garland identified  in this image found at of Chicago bandleader, Doc Cook and his Dreamland orchestra. Garland is the trombone on the left. He also played trombone with P.G. Lowery's great circus band ))

(((And I've just noticed that the musician on the right, identified as Clifford King, has a bassoon along with his other woodwind instruments. I think he is the bassoonist in the Columbia Concert Band.)))

But the larger history here is the way our society and culture used to have a very distinct line drawn between race. In 1936-39 when this photograph was taken, even Chicago, Illinois had segregation, even if it was not as overtly oppressive as the Jim Crow laws of the southern states.

When professional white musicians of Chicago organized their first labor union in 1901 with Local 10 of the American Federation of Musicians, the black musicians followed in 1902 with Local 208. It was the first and largest protective union for negro musicians in the country, and would include some of the great names in American music. King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Cab Calloway, and Nat King Cole were members. The two Chicago A.F.M. locals continued on these separated but parallel paths until finally merging in 1966.

One of the questions on the 1940 census was to list the city of residence for April 1st, 1935.  Many of the musicians I found in that Chicago neighborhood had called New York City and Los Angeles their home in that year. They probably came to Chicago because it was the "Second City" where the arts were flourishing for all races, though in different worlds. Norman L. Black and his musicians of the Columbia Concert Band played for the black orchestras in the segregated theaters and nightclubs; toured with the many black musical groups on the vaudeville circuits; and recorded with the bands of the early record industry.

Undoubtedly they were very talented musicians but in this era they were prevented from ever appearing on stage or directly competing with white musicians. As ugly as that history is, it gives this sepia photograph a different story than the similar but paler band photos in my collection. Segregation would remain part of the entertainment industry for many more years, as orchestras and bands in America did not begin to hire black musicians until the 1960s. Thankfully those abhorrent traditions that kept music divided by race have long disappeared, but this photograph serves as a small memento and indeed a memorial to the many black musicians who struggled to play music during that difficult era.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday,
where you might learn the difference between pitchers and bowlers. 


Alan Burnett said...

Wonderful post Mike. You are so right about such photographs being half a story that almost beg you to discover the other half - the context. And how fascinating that context proves to be in this case. Modern politicians could do far worse than learn a lesson or two from projects such as this.

Rosie said...

Too bad for segregation, white people missed out on hearing these superb musicians! I'm glad it is not like that now. Great post Mike, lots of research.

Rosie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sheila @ A Postcard a Day said...

The time and place are what makes the images so interesting, but so too are the details. I particularly noticed that you made a table lamp out of a clarinet. One of a kind!

Little Nell said...

It's always a pleasure to read the results of your detective work. Some fascinating details have emerged this time. I'm also trying to picture your unique table lamp!

Bob Scotney said...

Fascinating; a music history background I would never have found out about but for this great post.


I find the pergola above their heads a little rustic in this grand decor, but an interesting picture. Segregation appears to have disappeared but people of that mind remain and a shift in politics could bring it back in some form, but it wouldn't be without causing more social unrest and mayhem. Some folks will never evolve and transmit their values to their kids... Some of the black culture was denied its proper place and it is our collective loss, but one can only look forward to ensure fairness in these matters.
Music and food for thoughts,
great post!!

Wendy said...

It makes me proud that our Depression-era government recognized the importance of music by funding the music program under the WPA. It seems that today when money is tight, the arts are the first to go.

Peter said...

I admire your detective work!

Brett Payne said...

I note that the photograph appears to be a print, I'm guessing a contact print, from a large format negative inscribed EASTMAN - SAFETY - KODAK. If I'm correct that it was a contact print, i.e. not an enlargement, one might be able to deduce a date range from the size of the print.


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