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 }

All That Jazz Man

31 March 2017

What good is melody, what good is music
If it ain't possessin' something sweet?
Nah, it ain't the melody and it ain't the music
There's something else that makes this tune complete

Yes, it don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing.
(Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah)
(Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah)

 Well, it don't mean a thing, all you got to do is sing
(Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah)
(Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah)

 It makes no difference if it's sweet or hot
Just give that rhythm everything you got
Oh, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing
(Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah)
(Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah)
"It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)"
 Songwriters: Duke Ellington / Irving Mills

If you met him
you'd not soon forget
smiling face,
as it's on his bass drum too.
He's Jazz Varadys the drummer.

He left a message
on the back of his postcard
and, unless I'm mistaken,
he is a Hungarian Jazz Drummer.
From 1926.

The best I can do with Google translate is that the the first two words "Igaz baráti" means "True friends" in Hungarian. The date is in typical Hungarian style too. 1926 VI 5 (or maybe VII 5).

The phrase "Jazz music" doesn't appear in American newspapers until around 1916-17. In Europe it first shows up a bit later in 1918 when the United States joins the allies and American troops are first sent to France. It becomes a "craze" in Paris.

Pall Mall Gazette
28 September 1918

In September 1918 the Pall Mall Gazette reported: 

It is the cult of the Jazz Band. Everywhere in the world of entertainment this American innovation is to heard, and is hailed with amused and amazed enthusiasm. A Jazz band is nowadays the chief feature of a revue, and the mad beating of cymbals, the negro cries, the spectacle of a lunatic drummer wildly striking bells and blowing motor horns in an indescribable cacophony of so-called music, have tickled the fancy of Parisians for the moment.   

When the war ended two months later, Europe was ready for a change. The empires of Germany, Russia, and Austria were no more. New nations emerged to rebuild a modern Europe. The old world culture was rejected for something new and fresh. America's Jazz music proved just as contagious as the great influenza epidemic. Soon everyone, even musicians in Hungary, were tapping their feet to infectious dance rhythms from the New World.

In April 1919, even the Yorkshire Evening Post reported on how easy it was to make a Jazz Band. 

Yorkshire Evening Post
15 April 1919

With just a brief lesson by "an expert from America" who took away the band's music; gave tin saucepans to the two trombonists; showed the pianist how to play runs and scales with just his thumb; got the clarinetist to wail and moan; and conspired with the drummer to add a motorhorn and two handbells, "almost any five competent bandsmen can be made into a Jazz band."

Nonetheless the housekeeper's cat was so disturbed, that after the rehearsal it was found four streets away with "a dazed expression on its face and has looked thoughtful ever since." 

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where no one every loses their head.

Music Long Ago and Far Away

25 March 2017

A very short fiction
teased out of an old photograph.

The cardboard box groaned as the bottom gave out. A flurry of papers spilled onto the floor. "How'd that happen!" the girl cried. "I'm sorry, Gramie." She set the box onto the bed and stared at the mess.

"Better get some tape and fix it before you use it again," said the old woman. She continued folding clothes and placing them carefully into another cardboard box. The dresser was nearly empty. "Go ask your brother where the packing tape is." She turned to see the child stoop to pick something from the scattered paper. The girl held a large faded brown photo up to the light.  

"Who these girls, Gramie?" She squinted for a closer look. "They playing in a band or somethin'?" 

Stepping over to the bed, Ruth turned the photo toward the window. "Yes, that was my band." She smiled as her granddaughter's eyes widened. "Can you find me?"

The girl frowned and then pointed. "This you?" An eyebrow raised in disbelief, "You played a trumbet?""

"A Trum-Pet, Annie" said Ruth. "No, not a trumpet really, but a cornet. Almost the same instrument, just more rounded." She handed the photo back. "I got pretty good too. Played lots of solo songs"  

"That's my sister, Aunt Nannie with the big ol' tuba. She was a year younger than me but taller, taller than all us girls, so Professor Jefferson gave her the biggest brass horn to play." Ruth pointed to the woman at the back. "That's Mama J, she was the band leader and her daughter Sadie played the little tuba."

Annie frowned again. "Girls can play brass horns? They can do that?"

"They sure can!" Ruth raised her shoulders back. "We gals could play as loud and strong as any boys' band! And we knew our tunes by heart."

Annie touched a finger to the photo. "What's this instrument? It's got another funnel thing. Is it a tuber too?"

Ruth laughed, "Tu-Ba. No, this one's no tuba. It's a double-bell euphonium. A bell is what they call the end of a trumpet or tuba where the sound come out." She held her hands up in a vee shape. "This horn had a special valve that let you play from either the top big bell or the little front bell. Florence was my best friend in school and a natural musician. Law, could she sing on that euphonium! Got married to a railroad porter and last I knew she went on to Philadelphia ." 

"I know that one. That's a claronet," said Annie. 

"Yes, clarinet, that's right." Ruth sighed, "Two nice girls that I haven't thought of for ages. I guess there's some good to come out of moving house. Let's see. May...Beth? Mable Beth... Lewis, I think. And her sister...Rose. They was orphans and didn't have no folk so they lived at the school 'till they got out. Believe they moved on up to Chicago in the 20s."

The little girl looked up. "School? Who lives at a school?"

"Well back then lots of children had to, Annie. Some didn't have a mama or daddy, or least wise no one who could take care for them. So they lived at the home, that's what we called it. Had a dormitory, a big room with lots of beds, up over the classrooms. My mama didn't have the money to keep me on the farm, so I was there for five years until I got of age." The old woman blinked away a tear as she counted the years.

"That's Marie and Gladys on trombones. Little Christy on snare drum and my cousin Elsie on bass drum. She went out to California during the hard times. Lost touch with her before the war." Too many years, way too many.

"But where was this, Gramie? Was this in Milwaukee?" asked Annie.

Ruth smiled. "No, child, this was in the Carolinas. Down south in the Low Country. Mama J took us on a boat to the Ebeneezer Church up river. We played a kind of contest for a benefit concert. Our prize was this photograph. The first time I ever saw a picture of me. Didn't get another until I came up to Milwaukee" 

Breathing in, she could almost taste the salty marsh air. "It was far away and a long time ago." She paused. "I used to think it was home."

 * * *

This large format photo of a band made up of sixteen young African-American girls and their chaperone/teacher has no marks to identify its time or place, much less the names of the musicians. At a guess their dress and the style of photo date them around 1900-1910. They look like a school group but I suspect they may be wards of an orphanage as in this era public schools did not typically have bands like this. Their instruments are all free of dents with a matching shine so I believe they were purchased as a lot. Maybe mail ordered from Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Wards, or direct from the music instrument manufacturer.

Brass bands (which sometimes had clarinets) for girls were quite popular in many white communities in the Eastern and Midwest states. But this is the first evidence I've seen of young African-American women playing wind instruments. It was not unknown for black female musicians to take up band instruments, but there are few photographic records. In the 1890s a few traveling shows promoted having a Colored Female Brass Bands as a way to add an exotic element that would distinguish their show from others. This advertisement for Stetson's original big double spectacular Uncle Tome's Cabin Co. which had two bands, blood hounds, Shetland ponies, cake walkers, Eva and her golden chariot, also included Miss Nettie Hyson's colored female band.    

Carlisle PA Evening Herald
21 September 1900

In July 1902, several newspapers around the country ran a report that a female brass band has been organized by a number of young colored women of Baltimore. The idea was originated by Elizabeth Davis, of South Baltimore. 

Carlisle PA Evening Herald
12 July 1902

In my story from last week, The King of Cornets, the featured musician's real name was Ellis T. Jackson. From 1902 to 1907 he was a music teacher and bandleader in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. In my research I discovered that in 1905 he formed a Female Brass Band in addition to his all-male band. It had 15 members and Prof. Ellis T. Jackson claimed it was the only colored female band in the North.

NYC New York Age
25 January 1906

Jackson's Female Brass Band developed well enough to give regular concerts at fraternal halls and church events. In 1906 it played a concert and dance at the Newport Masonic Hall and Master Ellis T. Jackson Jr., age 11, (but actually 15) was also on the program making smart speeches, telling jokes, and playing three instruments at one time.

NYC New York Age
22 February 1906

The girls' band photograph is unmarked and I have no reason to think they are Jackson's Female Band. Actually I think they may be a long ways from Pawtucket because there is a subtle clue hidden in the foliage. Behind the band, high up in the trees are the ragged wisps of Spanish Moss hanging from the branches. Having lived in Savannah, GA for a number of years, it is a familiar arboreal decoration.

For comparison here is a color image of a similar tree with Spanish moss from Hilton Head, SC. Note also that just to the left of the tuba is ghostly hint of Palmetto leaves, a native plant of the coastal south. Here it is seen below the oak tree.

Spanish Moss, Hilton Head, SC
Source: Wikimedia

What we see in their youthful faces is pride. These young ladies had an air of self-confidence that exalts in their musical accomplishment. They were a team, a family even, who shared the bond of making music. And their photograph once meant something important to the person who preserved it.
Music from long ago and far away.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where every rivet counts.

The King of Cornets

18 March 2017

It's all in the lips.
Whether it's the brilliance of a trumpet,
the brashness of a trombone,
the bluster of a tuba,
or the boldness of a horn,
the sound of a brass instrument
starts with a vibration in the lips.

It's a singular sensation that's unlike speaking,
as the musician blows a stream of air
through pursed lips pressed against a small metal cup.
The mouthpiece contains the resulting buzz
allowing the player to adjust
the air speed for tones high and low.
One note at a time
he basic technique
is not hard.
But blow two notes at once?
Unless you have lips
like this master musician.
He was
Capt. T. Jackellis
The King of Cornets.

Dressed in a formal white tie and tailcoat with medals pinned to the lapel, a man holds two cornets, one in each hand. They look identical, just standard B-flat cornets with three piston valves. His hair is carefully groomed. He sports a small Chaplinesque mustache. He is also a black man.

Across the photo is written:
Yours in Music
Capt. T. Jackellis
King of Cornets

Clearly a professional performer, this musician's promotional postcard had no date and no name other than his signature. It's a curious photo, obviously a vintage postcard from the early 20th century.  What kind of surname is Jackellis? Why does he have two instruments? When did he play? And most peculiar, how did a black musician of an earlier era happen to have his photo postcard printed by The Strand Studios, Piccadilly, Hanley?

Hanley is in Staffordshire, England, southeast of Liverpool. It is one of six towns that in 1910 merged into what is now the city of Stoke-on-Trent. Since the Strand Studios' address uses only Hanley it suggests Capt. T. Jackellis's photo may have been produced prior to the city/county union. But if it dates to the 1910s, the heart of England seems an unlikely place to find a black cornet player.

Yet in February 1913, T. Jackellis was on the playbill for the Palace Theater in Dundee, Scotland. At 7 and 9 the public was encouraged not to miss Kitty Stuart & Players, introducing T. Jackellis, the Greatest Double Cornet Soloist in the World.  Also on the bill was Flora MacDonald, the Scotch Lassie, Comedienne and Dancer, in addition to the usual programme of B.B. Pictures.

Dundee, Scotland Evening Telegraph
19 February 1913

The Dundee Evening Telegraph offered a review of this show which mixed variety acts around their silent films. Kitty Stuart and her players did a musical comedy which included Jack Ellis, a marvel cornetist, whose double cornet solo called forth unstinted applause. Evidently Capt. T. Jackellis possessed a very rare skill that let him play simultaneously two cornets at one time. 

Dundee, Scotland Evening Telegraph
18 February 1913

But Kitty Stuart was
quite the accomplished multi-instrumentalist too.
She could play both the cornet and piano at the same time.

Despite the greenish sepia color of the half-tone image, this young woman's sequined gown and plumed bonnet sparkle in the photographer's light. Seated at an upright piano, her right hand holds a cornet to her lips while her left hand is at the keyboard. She is a buxom beauty with, I suspect, red hair. A suitable color for any Scottish lassie. 

Her postcard has a signature written across the image
nearly identical to the one written on Capt. T. Jackellis's.

Yours in
Kittie Stuart
March 1914

Below is a printed caption:

Kittie Stuart the Original Lady
Playing Cornet and Piano at the same time.
P.A. 25 Gassiott Road, Tooting, London

The back of the postcard has a personal note:

In remembrance of a
pleasant week.
Your true Friends
Kittie Stuart Players

The postcard was printed by the Imperial Publishing Co. of Longton, Staffordshire, another of the towns that united to form Stoke-on-Trent. It was never posted but the signature date of March 1914 makes this an image from before the start of the Great War. To my eye the handwriting is the same on both postcards, though Capt. and King of Cornets appear to be added in darker ink.

Miss Stuart's portrait is a very conventional postcard for an artiste of  the European music hall circuit of the 1900s. Jackellis's photo is also not unlike those of countless vaudeville performers of this era with one notable exception. He is a musician of color. And needless to say, his association with Miss Stuart's Players in a Scottish theater begs a lot of questions.

This is a photo detective mystery I did not expect to solve as I've had these two cards for some time while I searched for another card that would definitively connect the two musicians, but alas I have yet to find it for sale. Nonetheless the story is too good not to make an exception to my rule of only posting images I own and therefor I include this next image which was taken from an online auction.

It's another postcard that shows T. Jackellis dressed in a white summer weight suit while again holding two cornets. On a side table are three more instruments, a soprano slide trombone/trumpet, an absurdly elongated trumpet, and a coach horn. Across the image is another signature in the same hand as the other cards:

Yours in Music
T. Jackellis
March 1914 

At the bottom is a long caption.

T. Jackellis, King of Cornets
Challenges the World for £50 to £100
Played before Their Majesties
King George & Queen Mary, July 11th, 1914
The Gold Cornets used by T. Jackellis were made by J.W.
York & Sons, Grand Rapids, Mich. U.S.A.
With Kittie Stuart & Players
P.A. — 25 Gassiott Road, Tooting, London 

Falkirk Herald
15 July 1914

In the second week of July 1914, King George V and Queen Mary paid a royal visit to the Scottish town of Falkirk, about halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh. It was a very big occasion for a very small place. The local newspapers ran full page reports that were dense with names and titles and details.

The afternoon was very warm and sultry for Scotland. One newspaper reporter ventured into the great crowd of loyal subjects that lined the streets awaiting the arrival of their Majesties' motorcar.

On the outside sill of a window in the High Street sat Mr. T. Jackellis, a coloured cornet expert, who was appearing in the Electric Theater. He was garbed in white, and sported a sash of royal purple. He helped considerably to beguile the heavy-hanging time for the waiting people by discoursing melodies of every description, including the ever-popular ragtime, on his cornet. When the royal car put in an appearance in High Street, Mr. Jackellis played "God Save the King," and subsequently "Rule Britannia," with variations and in harmony on two cornets at the same time.

* * *

The Falkirk Herald did not report whether King George and Queen Mary were amused or abused, but for a music hall artist this busking event was close enough to be a Royal Command Performance. The King was probably distracted because two weeks later on July 28th, Britain, along with the rest of Europe became engulfed in a terrible storm of war.  It would not end until over four years later.

Certainly a talented musician like T. Jackellis
would know "God Save the King" by heart.
Except that he knew it
by a different title – 
"My Country 'Tis of Thee."

Because Capt. T. Jackellis
was not a British subject.
He was an American citizen.
And his name was not T. Jackellis.
It was Ellis Thompson Jackson.

Just a bit over a year later in August 1915, Capt. Jackellis wore his purple sash for another photo. This one he took to the United States consulate in Birmingham to apply for an extension to his passport. Again he holds a cornet in each hand. His mustache now has a more politically incorrect Prussian curl.

The application was dated August 6, 1915. Ellis Thompson Jackson solemnly swore that he was born in Oxford, New Jersey on the 5th day of May, 1869. He was 46 years old. His permanent address was
5 Green St., Morristown, New Jersey where his occupation was music teacher. He left the United States on September 17, 1907 and was temporarily sojourning in Birmingham and working as a Stage Music Artist.  He intended to return to the U.S. in 2 years.

The second page of the application has a description. His age has 56 inexplicably typed onto the page. His height was 5 feet, 5 inches. He had a high forehead, brown eyes, and a broken nose. His mouth was large. Chin: regular. Hair: black. Face: oval. Complexion: colored.

At the bottom of the page
the photo of Ellis T. Jackson
was affixed and embossed with the official consular seal. 

It takes real bravura to use a publicity photo like this on a government identity document. We have to wonder what the consul thought when he interviewed Ellis T. Jackson, aka Capt. T. Jackellis. Did he demonstrate his split lip skill? But for future researchers, one could not ask for a better identification.

I should explain that this document was found at based on other clues I discovered online. Various comments and questions that people left behind on the internet while searching for Capt. Jackellis's genealogy roots enabled me to piece together a fantastic story of how an African-American musician from New Jersey became a British music hall performer. 

It required talent, courage, and hard work. Lots of hard work.

In 1900, Ellis T. Jackson with his wife Annie E. Jackson lived at 26 Water Street in Morris Township, Morris County, New Jersey. Ellis was age 31, born May 1869 in New Jersey. His occupation was musician. His wife Annie was 28. They had been married 10 years and had two children, a son, Ellis T. Jr. age 8, and a daughter Lillian G. age 10. A brother, Harvey Jackson, age 23 lived with them too. He was a laborer.

It was not uncommon for a black man in 1900 to find employment as a musician. It was a skilled trade that could pay well. But it was never regular. Ellis listed 0 months employment while his brother had 6 months as a laborer.

It was the American age of segregation. Races did not mix except under strict rules, some decreed by law, others by custom. An African-American musician in 1900 would not expect to work on stage with white musicians. But he still might find work in show business. Performing in a popular entertainment that oddly was derived from African-American traditions. It was called the Minstrel Show

Beginning in the decades before the Civil War, before the end of slavery in America, traveling theatrical groups developed a variation on the classic musical comedy. White entertainers wearing blackface makeup and dressed in gaudy costumes performed a burlesque show with songs, dances and jokes that lampooned black people and denigrated slave and freedman alike. It was vulgar. It was tawdry and unsophisticated. It was racist in the extreme. Yet it was also immensely popular and produced a formula theatrical show that lasted for over 100 years.

After the war ended in 1865, it didn't take long for genuine Negros to recognize an opportunity. Many minstrel shows began adding African-American bands for parades or as a sideshow to the main show. Some white producers presented minstrel shows with all black performers ironically imitating the imitation by wearing blackface makeup too. In the 21st century it's very difficult to understand how bigotry and racism could be so successful but 19th century sensibilities on nationality, religion, ethnicity, gender, and race were very different and today's modern showbiz culture has deep roots in the old minstrelsy traditions.

Ellis T. Jackson was one of these black musicians who performed in minstrel shows, and he was good enough to be a band leader. His name appears with several minstrel shows in the 1890s. He toured the country from Oregon to Kentucky to Kansas to Michigan. But his home was Morristown, NJ where he and his wife raised a family. And where he taught them music.

In August 1897, the Nashville Tennessean rand a short article on A Juvenile Prodigy from Morristown, a boy not 5 years old – Ellis T. Jackson Jr.  He was a gifted child who could play several musical instruments. He demonstrated the cornet by playing above the staff. He blew another brass horn down to low G. He danced. He sang. He could plucked the mandolin with great skill as well as a banjo, violin, and guitar too. Even more impressive, when his father played a melody, the boy wrote out the tune in musical notation on a chalk board.

His father, Ellis T. Jackson Sr., was also teaching him to box. With his older sister, Lizzie.

Nashville, TN Tennessean
22 August 1897

By February 1904, the Jackson family was no longer in New Jersey. Their new home was in Pawtucket, Rhode Island where little Ellis T. Jackson Jr. got his picture in the local newspaper.

Pawtucket RI Times
17 February 1904

He stands wearing a white cap and uniform as he holds a trombone. At his side is a cornet on a case. The article headline reads
E. T. Jackson, Jr., A Boy Prodigy.
Only 8 Years Old But Can Play
Remarkably Well on Many
Musical Instruments,
Sing and Dance.
President McKinley and
Former President Cleveland Delighted
by His Instrumental Work.

Pawtucket RI Times
17 February 1904

It seems accuracy on ages was only approximate in the Jackson family. In February 1906, another photo of Ellis Jr. appeared in the New York Age, an influential weekly black newspaper with a national readership. The grainy image shows him in a military style band uniform and holding a trombone. The photo was attached to a report about the two juvenile bands that Prof. Ellis T. Jackson, Sr. was leading, one for boys and a second for girls. The two ensembles had already given several  concerts in Providence as well as Pawtucket.

New York City New York Age
22 February 1906

The Jacksons were a very musical family where everyone played several instruments. Ellis Sr. also lead a proper band of adult musicians who found seasonal employment at seaside resorts or on excursion cruise ships in the Rhode Island region. In 1906 he was honored by a gift from his band of an ebony baton with silver mounts. He seemed to have achieved a rare high level of success for an African American musician. But it was not enough.

In September 1907 he took passage from Boston to Liverpool, England. On the S.S. Bruce ship manifest he is listed with a group of about twelve Theatrical people. On the UK immigration record Mrs. Jackson and daughter Lillian are not listed, instead he is accompanied with just one companion, his son, Ellis T. Jackson Jr.. On the manifest the father's age was 38 on the immigration document only 36. The son's age was written as 11 but he was really 15 years old.   

Eight years later Ellis Thompson Jackson needed someone in England to vouch for him, to affirm to a United States Consul that they knew him by that name. That person was Ellis Thompson Jackson Jr. who swore that he had known the above-named individual personally All my life. On the application  Ellis Jr. wrote his address as 245 Rosendale Rd, London, S.E.

So why did Ellis T. Jackson change his name? It was for the same reason many entertainers need a unique stage name. He didn't want to be mistaken for someone else.

In the decade before the war, a vocal group from Jamaica made several successful tours of Britain. Originally called the Kingston Choral Union and later the Jamaica Choir, its music proved very popular with British audiences. The choir's founder and director was a African-Jamaican named  Thomas Ellis Jackson, (1861-?) and usually written as T. Ellis Jackson in programs and newspaper reports. So in order to prevent confusion with another black entertainer, Ellis T. Jackson, the greatest double cornetist in the world, needed a different moniker. So he became Capt.T. Jackellis. How or why he chose the honorific Capt. is still a mystery.

The Jacksons, father and son worked together on the British music hall circuit. At some time before 1913 they joined up with Kittie Stuart and Players. That act lasted until at least 1916. Beginning in 1917, Capt. T. Jackellis, was part of new group – The Brazilian Trio. He continued to promote his double cornet skill and the trio's hook was evidently more instruments than players, as other members were also multi-instrumentalists. I don't have proof but it's possible that Kittie Stuart was part of this musical triangle but under a different name, as one report described a cornet/piano number played by one musician.

Shields Daily News
23 July 1918

In 1918, American forces joined the allies on the battlefields of France. Ellis Sr. was too old to serve, but his son, Ellis Jr. was 27 and still a US citizen, so he had to register for a U.S. draft board. The archives of preserved his registration card which was filed in August 1918 with an American consul in Britain. His address was the 245 Rosendale Rd. in West Dulwich, London, the same as in his father's 1915 passport application. His occupation was Music Hall Artist employed by Ellis Thompson Jackson. Ellis Jr. asked for an exemption on Domestic Grounds as he was married with 5 children.

Finally in 1918 the war ended and Europe and Britain could return to peaceful endeavors. As far as I could learn, neither Jackson, father or son, ever returned to the United States. Ellis Sr. continued his double cornet act and took on a management role acting as a theatrical agent booking shows around the British Isles. He played theaters in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, as well as England. He likely made trips to the Continent too. It was Show Biz and it was work.

The trail of the name of Capt. Jackellis and his double cornets in Britain is nearly continuous from 1912 to 1938. As Ellis T. Jackson, his career started in the age of American minstrel farce. In Britain he evolved in a time of ragtime and silent films. He finished in the modern era of jazz,  radio, and cinema with recorded sound. 

British theatres retained the tradition of variety acts for a long time, perhaps because its theatre circuit covered a smaller country with better rail connections. In October 1938, Capt. Jackellis was on the bill at The Alhambra theatre in Plymouth. The headline was Dr. Walford Bodie who combined  ventriloquism with an original electric chair from Sing Sing.

The musical act included Capt. Jackellis performing a treble-tongued polka on two cornets simultaneously, an accomplishment all the more remarkable since he will soon be celebrating his 80th birthday. 

He was actually only 69 years old.

Plymouth, England Western Morning News
04 October 1938

* * *

Music is an art that requires dedication to be successful. For a brass musician, maintaining the lips over a lifetime is incredibly difficult. It demands constant practice to keep the facial muscles in concert shape. For a musician whose specialty was playing two cornets at once, the effort must have required extraordinary stamina to perform two or three shows a day for years on end. The technique of vibrating the lips at both corners of the mouth is understandable, and the symmetry of the two cornets' valves makes it possible to imagine the fingering. But humans have only one tongue and how Capt. Jackellis managed the articulation on two brass instruments at one time is a true wonder.

What makes this man's story so interesting is that he accomplished something that was very rare for an African- American musician from the late 19th to early 20th centuries to do. Forced by the  circumstances of America's apartheid racist culture, he struggled to be an artist in the U.S. But by moving to Britain he discovered an audience that had no strictures against performers of color. He was now at liberty to make his own music without the debasing styles of the blackface minstrel show.

This is not to say that Ellis T. Jackson did not find bigotry and discrimination in Britain. Hatred has no national boundaries, and likely as Capt. T. Jackellis, he experienced a lot of prejudice and unfair treatment in British society. But the British culture must have seemed more favorable for him to stay in England for so long.

If the year of his birth, 1869, is correct, and because it is recorded on several government documents we must assume that it is, then Ellis Thompson Jackson was a contemporary of the first great African-American cornetists. He was older than W. C. Handy (1873-1958) the so-called father of the blues and a musician whose career in minstrel shows and early ragtime/jazz music parallels Jackson's life. He was older than King Oliver (1881-1938), one of the first great cornetists and bandleaders to come out of the New Orleans's jazz scene, and who was a mentor to Louis Armstrong (1901-1971). And Jackson was the same age as Perry George Lowery (1869-1942), the celebrated cornetist and circus bandleader, and whose Wikipedia page sadly is only published in German.

What did Ellis T. Jackson bring to Britain? A novel American musical style? A talented son who found a life in England? Did his wife Annie ever come over from Pawtucket? Did he ever return to America? There are still many unanswered questions about this remarkable man's story that I hope one day to solve. According to an incomplete family tree of Ellis T. Jackson on, he 1948 in England.

He was only 79 years old.
Long live the King of Cornets.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where every weekend is swinging.

The Gang at the Sleepy Hollow Ranch

10 March 2017

 It doesn't make a sound.
It takes no real skill to master.
It doesn't need tuning
because it can play in any key.

And yet it's a musical instrument
with such dynamic power
that it changed music forever.
It is a radio microphone.

In this particular case it's an image
of the microphone on the sound stage
of Radio CKLW
broadcasting from Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

 Standing around it are Elmer, Andy, and Pat
on violin, accordion, and bass fiddle.

On the other side are Mike, Pancake Pete, and Happy
playing accordion, guitar, and another bass fiddle.

In the center closest to the microphone
are Julie Murray and Sophie Murray
on mandolin and guitar
backed up by Red and Ken
on violin and guitar.

And let's not forget
Hiram Hillsberry and Uncle Hal
sitting down front on the floor.

Wearing the best in Western fashion
with ten gallon hats, neckerchiefs, and fancy shirts,
they all send

Season's Greetings
from the
Sleepy Hollow Cowboys
and Cowgirls
and the Vagabond Cowboys. 

In 1938 you could hear them on the radio Wednesdays at 3:30 PM in the Detroit, MI and Windsor, ON area. This photo was likely sent out so listeners to radio CKLW could put faces to voices. My guess is that Uncle Hal did the introductions as the show's emcee and Hiram Hillsberry provided colorful commentary with a joke or two. Julie and Sophie Murray were the featured vocal stars while  Elmer and Pancake Pete added the solo instrumentals. I suspect the Vagabond Cowboys are the four musicians on the back row. Two accordions might seem excessive but then this was the land of polkas which are not far removed from western swing music.

Detroit Free Press
9 February 1938

In 1938 the Sleepy Hollow Ranch was just one of hundreds of entertainment choices available to radio listeners in the Great Lake Region of Michigan, Ontario, and Ohio. The radio microphone brought all kinds of music to a new audience over the radio airwaves. For the first time symphonies and operas could be heard in rural homes far from big city concert halls. And likewise small bands performing blues, jazz, and country western music introduced America's urban population to new styles and rhythms. At the center of this new medium and entertainment industry was the microphone. The sound it captured was monophonic, low fidelity and broadcast over an AM signal but people couldn't get enough. Radio shifted the concert experience from an audience watching live musicians on a stage to a network where thousands of individuals listened to music coming from an electronic speaker on a radio cabinet.  Imagination supplied the visuals, and sometimes the postcards at least helped fans visualize the right shade of cowboy hat.

There is no date on this photo which was printed larger than a postcard and in newspaper halftones, so we can't know the precise Christmas season. But the earliest mention of the Sleepy Hollow Ranch on radio schedules was October 1937 and the last was October 1939. But they did not drop off the air, they only changed stations.

Pottstown PA Mercury
29 June 1940

The band had two leaders, Elmer and "Pancake Pete" Newman. In the late 1930s they each married one of the two Murray sisters, whose real name was Bogdonovich. Pete with Sophie were wed in 1936, and Elmer and Julie the following year. 

After some success in the Great Lake market, in 1940 they moved to the Philadelphia area and together opened an amusement park called the Sleepy Hollow Ranch located on Route 663, between Pennsburg and Quakertown. Visitors were entertained by farm animals, pony rides, merry-go-round, picnic food, square dancing, and country western music. The big Sleepy Hollow Barn Dance was broadcast on Philadelphia's WFIL and WEEU radio. 

Much of this information I found on a website devoted to Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia. A second website on Philly Regional news had a 2013 article on the story of this popular park from the perspective of two younger Newman brothers who grew up in the family's Sleepy Hollow Ranch. The radio broadcasts made the park an important venue for country and western artists to include on a concert tour. Patsy Cline, Roy Acuff, Roy Rogers, Minnie Pearl, Merle Travis, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Eddie Arnold were among the many notable singers who played the Sleepy Hollow Stage.

* * *

The Sleepy Hollow Ranch was not the only cowboy music venue in the region. In 1940 the entertainment listings for the Labor Day weekend in the Pottstown, PA Mercury included Carolina Slim and his Mountaineers, with Ray Meyers the Armless Wonder, who plays the electric guitar with his feet, at Hickory Park. Over at Quakertown's Circle J Ranch the Nationally Known Group, The Carter Family performed with the Westward Hoo Cowboys, the Calgary Kid of WCAU, and Acrobatic Dancer Dorrie Dale. The Bar C—C Ranch in Elverson had Gene Autry's sidekick Smiley "Frog" Burnette & His Rhythm Wranglers along with the Georgia Crackers, the 3 Cortellis trapeze performers, Wally Walters Jr. and his 3 dummies, and the Cowboy Caravan.  

For Philadelphians the Wild East seemed to have
just as many cowboys and cowgirls as the Wild West.

Pottstown PA Mercury
31 August 1940

Courtesy of the magic of YouTube
we can hear what
the gang at the Sleepy Hollow Ranch
sounded like.
Here is their version of Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.

* * *

* * *

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where every story sounds better in Sepia Stereo.


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