Mass Unemployment, the Great Migration, and the Rise of Big Bands

Philadelphia’s Black Musicians’ Union, Local 274 PART II/IV

Philly Jazz: An Overview to the Founding of Musicians’ Protective Union Local 274: A four part series 

By the 1920’s, Black urban workers sought opportunities in the music industry as an alternative to high unemployment which plagued their community. With the continuation of Black migrations from the South to the North, there was a rise in African-American urban populations. These increases resulted in a demand for Black entertainment, which meant an increase in jobs in the music field. William Randle, Jr. confirms the availability of jobs during this era. He states that “Blacks worked in cabarets in such cities as Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles. There were a great many black bands working as dance orchestras during the l920’s. It is in these cities that entertainment centers for black audiences developed during the l920’s.”   Baylor recalled, “Big bands were all over the place….We find out you could make a few more dollars with entertainment if you would break in – the era was prohibition – speakeasies were available and dances were in vogue. There was St. Peter’s Clavier’s, l2th and Lombard, the only Catholic Church for our folks; Waltz Dream on Broad Street. Musicians were needed…”

Black workers preserved various elements of Black folk life in cities, resulting in the development of uniquely American musical art forms such as blues, gospel and jazz. The popularizing of Black musical forms gave the Black musician a certain amount of prestige inside of their communities. Although blues, gospel and jazz originated in the Black community, they would also be adopted in the larger White community as forms of entertainment. Philadelphia had its share of big bands in the 1930’s. With the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment which banned the manufacture, sale and transport of alcohol by the Twenty-First Amendment in l933, there were more employment opportunities for musicians in nightclubs, cafes and restaurants serving liquor. This helps explain why the music industry thrived in Philadelphia during the Depression (1929-1939).  

There were theaters where Black musicians were hired in the city such as the Gibson Theater, S. Broad and Lombard Streets; the Royal Theater, South Street near S. 16th Street and the Standard Theater, South Street near S. 12th Street. These factors might account for the rise in Black bands and orchestras that Mr. Baylor recalls in Philadelphia. In the city during the latter part of the decade, they included names such as L. Johnson’s Jazz Orchestra, Mrs. I.O. Keene’s Orchestra, Bobby Lee’s Orchestra, the Lomax Trio, and the Pioneer Symphony Orchestra.  

There were also other social functions held during the l930’s which provided outlets for “live” music and jobs for musicians. Speakeasies remained popular from the 1920’s throughout the 1930’s. Fraternal organizations, such as the Quaker City Elks, 20th and Christian Streets held various social affairs which included dances and parades, accompanied by music. Bandleader, composer and trumpeter Charlie “old Devil” Gaines’ and Joe Smalls’ orchestras played at the O.V. Catto Elks Home, l6th and Fitzwater Streets for a Thanksgiving Day Matinee. The admission was thirty-five cents. On February 16, 1936, The Philadelphia Tribune wrote about Charlie Gaines that he wrote a new song which was a “smash-hit ‘Can’t Dance Got Ants in Pants; swept the country a few years back, will soon release a new number “The Stroller Man” which he expects to be another smash-hit.”A number of other social organizations existed in the Black community, for example, a group known as the Pleasure Pirates held its anniversary dance on Labor Day night, Monday, September 3rd, l934 at the Strand Ball Room, Broad and Bainbridge Streets, featuring Doc Hyder and his Southernaires. Their added attraction was Rhythm “Skates” Brown, who resided in Philadelphia, known as “Harlem Dancing Sensation.” The dance was from 9PM to 2AM with the admission of fifty cents. Another employment outlet for Black musicians was teas sponsored by various men’s and women’s clubs on Sunday afternoons. Local swing bands performed on these occasions. There was also the Colored Kiddie Hour which was created by Sam and Harry Kessler of Parisian Tailors at 1413 South Street. It was held at the Lincoln Theater at Broad and Lombard Streets on the weekends and a number of musicians were hired to perform there. Helen Page, a jazz vocalist, was chosen to appear in the first show of Parisian Tailors’ Colored Kiddie Hour in l932.  She became the signature girl for the show.

Read Part III & Part IV or go back to Part I

Dr. Diane D. Turner is Curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries. Dr. Turner holds three Temple University degrees.  Her areas of specialization and research include African American Labor, Cultural and Social History, Philadelphia Jazz History, Independent Black Filmmakers, Oral History and Public History.  Her dissertation is entitled Organizing and Improvising: A History of Philadelphia’s Black Musicians’ Protective Union Local 274, American Federation of Musician.  She has taught African-American history at the university level including Brown University, Northeastern University, Rowan University, University of South Florida (Tampa, FL) and other institutions.  She has authored My Name is Oney Judge (2010), Feeding the Soul: Black Music, Black Thought (2011) and Our Grand Pop is a Montford Point Marine (2018), co-authored with her father, Corporal Thomas S. Turner Sr.  Her writings appear in anthologies and scholarly journals.  She serves as a consultant on a number of advisory boards and committees such as Bethel Burial Ground Historic Site Memorial Committee, Third World Press Foundation, Scribe Video’s Precious Places and others.  She is president of the Montford Point Marines Association, Philadelphia Chapter #1 Auxiliary.  Her current book projects document Philadelphia jazz history.

A footnoted version is available here

This is part two of a four part series.

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