The Muskogee – Waukesha -Bismarck Triangle

 In the Chicago area in the early thirties, Lester William Polfus (or Polsfuss), of Waukesha, Wisconsin (a.k.a. “Les Paul“, a.k.a “Rhubarb Red”) made a good living as a country musician, but he played jazz and blues on the side, and when he got to New York he mostly played jazz (including early bebop at Minton’s)  or a jazzy kind of pop. By 1938 he was a regular on one of the top national radio shows.

But his mom preferred country music. In his own words:

The year was 1938. I was living in New York and playing on the NBC radio network., five nights a week. It was a coast-to-coast broadcast of The Chesterfield Hour with Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, featuring the Les Paul Trio….. One day my bass player Ernie Newton says to me: “We’ve been working hard, knocking our brains out. Let’s go to Chicago. Let’s go out to Wisconsin, see your mom, take a couple of weeks off.” So we went up there to Waukesha. And to my surprise, my mother is not too enthused that I’m featured on the biggest radio program in the United States. I thought she’d be beaming with pride! But she says “You know, Lester, that show is too classy”. She was always a lover of country and bluegrass– that’s why I started off as Rhubarb Red, influenced by my mother’s love of that type of music. “You stick around” she days. “I’ll make you some chili, and I’ll dial this radio station. I want you to hear this music. So she tunes in KVOO in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I hear Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. “They got drums and everything in there,” my mother says to me. That’s where you should go”….

Pretty soon we were jamming [with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys], having a helluva good time, when I notice this young black fellow standing down below me and looking up at me. We took a break, and this guy says to me, “Mr. Paul, can I get your autograph?” So I give him my autograph. “I play the guitar”, he tells me. I say, “Well, are ya any good?” He says, “Yes sir.” I ask him his name. He says, “Charlie. Charlie Christian” I handed him the guitar and he played a little. I says, “Jesus, you are good….”

Les Paul, notes to Charlie Christian: Genius of the Electric Guitar (Sony-Columbia-Legacy)

Les Paul was a self-taught engineer who designed and modified his own electric guitars and who also put together the first 8-track recording studio. (His first multi-track recording was W. C. Fields’ “The Day I Drank a Glass of Water”). He helped Christian out in New York and at one time gave him a guitar, and in New York Christian quickly got a job with Benny Goodman, and also joined Thelonious Monk and the others to lay the foundations for bebop.

Variations of this story took place in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where Les Paul encouraged the young Charlie Christian who taught Barney Kessel, and in Bismarck, North Dakota, where Christian inspired the teenage Mary Osborne. (The jazz singer Peggy Lee, née Norma Jean Engstrand, came from Jamestown North Dakota, and Barney Kessel at least passed through Minot) . By 1945 all four of these guitarists had made the big time in New York or LA, and by then T-Bone Walker, who had known Christian in Oklahoma, was also pioneering a jazzy kind of electric blues, mostly in Chicago and LA.

Now,my point is that these five guitarists all came from the middle of nowhere:  Waukesha (WS), Oklahoma City (OK), Muskogee (OK), Minot (ND), and the environs of Dallas (TX). They were all more Western than Southern,  and their musical environment was countryish. All of them had careers in the boonies before they reached the big city, and all of them were at the top of their trade by the time they reached New York. New York was marketing a music which had matured elsewhere.

This tradition included elements of pop, jazz, blues, and country-western (with the emphasis on the “western”), and it would develop into be-bop, but it wasn’t “eclectic” — it just hadn’t been disambiguated yet.  Les Paul ended up as a countryish pop singer, Christian and Osborne as proto-bop jazz musicians, Barney Kessel as a studio musician and one of the founders of lounge jazz, and T-Bone Walker as a jazzy electric bluesman, but they could all do all that stuff.

Maybe this has something to do with the Louisiana Purchase, with New Orleans the hub of a Mississippi River musical universe. Or maybe it’s a relic of the frontier and the Old West — Oklahoma had been  Indian Territory until 1907, and Deadwood was a rough town where Christian played a lot. (Ralph Ellison argued for the Westernness of jazz: “The Charlie Christian Story”in Shadow and Act. Ellison knew Christian and his family personally and has a lot to say.). It’s an understatement to say that this part of the US is no longer regarded as a hotbed of musical creativity, but during the first half of the nineteenth century big-time jazz men came from all over the area — Kansas City, St. Louis, Minneapolis (Lester Young) and even Davenport, Iowa (Bix Beiderbecke).

New York was where the money was, and New York’s catchment was ultimately the whole world.  In New York the North Dakotans met some actual New Yorkers (e.g., Bud Powell and Thelonius Monk) but mostly they met migrants. Benny Goodman himself came from Chicago, and his parents had originally had come from Hungary. (A side note: 1940 Goodman commissioned a clarinet piece by the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, now a refugee. Bebop had a real connection to the avant garde classical music of the time — Dexter Gordon specifically mentioned Bartok. According to Bartok’s niece Eva Toth (Bartok and his World, ed. Lati, p. 245), Bartok in faroff Hungary had teased his mother in 1926 by playing “Negro music” for her. Of all the great XXc composers, Bartok was the one most interested in alternative musics, and if he’d lived longer after he came to New York I suspect he would have ended up spending some time on the scene).

The musical world in which Bismarck, N.D. was able to support two cutting-edge musicians was  fragile and transient. The radio and the phonograph brought sophisticated music everywhere, but were not yet so powerful that they had replaced the live musicians entirely. But the musicians eventually all went to New York, returning home only on tours, and as time went on the recorded-music biz matured to the point that it ended up replacing the real thing. Styles changed, too. For example, when I was growing up, Benny Goodman was my parents’ music, and I wouldn’t listen to it. I first found out about Barney Kessel only recently, on the record he made with Julie London, and earlier I would never have listened to that kind of 1955 pre-Elvis lounge music either. Elvis et al blew a lot of better musicians out of the water: in the words of the T-Bone Walker bio, “Rock’s rise had made Walker’s classy style an anachronism”. But at least their music is still there to listen to now.

History of amplified guitar
Adolph Rickenbacker, a Swiss immigrant, developed the first electric guitar in Santa Ana (CA), and Leo Fender developed his in Fullerton (CA). The techies of the electric guitar were Westerners too. The Dopyera brothers, Slovak immigrants who invented the non-electric but amplified Dobro, worked out of LA. The early electric guitars tended to be associated with country music, and many of the early amplified instruments were steel guitars (first developed even further west, in Hawaii).

Les Paul in Chicago

By the early ’30s he was making $1000 a week at the country stuff; but in the bustling Chicago music scene there was so much more to hear and play. ‘In the morning I was hillbilly, and at night I was playing jazz with Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Nat Cole and Art Tatum.’ He cut his first records in 1936, backing blues singer-pianist Georgia White as she belted out Andy Razaf’s raunchy threat, ‘If I can’t sell it, I’ll keep sittin’ on it, before I give it away.’

Barney Kessel’s beginnings

Born Oct. 17, 1923, in Muskogee, Okla., Barney Kessel first came across the guitar while passing a music store on his paper route. He liked its look and the fact that it came with a booklet, “How to Play the Guitar in Five Minutes,” which he believed. Although it took a good deal more than five minutes, Kessel learned to pick guitar by copying western-swing musicians he heard on the radio. He left school at 14 to begin his professional career and soon began working professionally in Ellis Ezell’s band as a teenager – a standout in 1937 not only because of his youth but also because he was the only white musician in an all-black band playing black clubs throughout Oklahoma.…..I decided that no matter how much I liked Charlie Christian or anybody else, they would remain only influences,” Kessel recalled in his “Guitar Journal” (Guitar Player, February 1977). “I began thinking in terms of absorbing these influences, rather than being absorbed by them.” Kessel’s ‘declaration of independence’ spurred him to leave Oklahoma in 1941. “I started with traveling bands in North Dakota and Minnesota,” he told Gitler. Kessel was furthering his self-education in any way he could: he remembers the happy accident of finding a book, Allan Reuss Guitar Solos, “while walking down the street in Minot, North Dakota, around 1941,” he reported in his “Guitar Journal”

Mary Osborne Story

In the late 1930’s she moved east [from North Dakota] to Pittsburgh and later to New York. There her talents as a jazz player caught the ear of some of the jazz greats like Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and Art Tatum all of whom used her as rhythm and solo guitarist in their bands. In the period of 1945 – 1947 she made a number of recordings with several important jazz figures; Mercer Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, Coleman Hawkins, Stuff Smith and Meryl Booker.

Jazz in Muskogee

is study determines why the relatively small town of Muskogee, Oklahoma produced more jazz musicians per capita than any other town of its size in the United States in the 20th century. It examines the years 1795 to 1945, from the time of European settlement through World War II. An account of the cultural history of Muskogee germane to the development of jazz and the critical history and contemporary perspective of the eight musicians are accompanied by unpublished oral histories with five of the musicians: Aaron Bell, Barney Kessel, Clarence Love, Jay McShann, and Claude Williams. Don Byas, and Joe and Walter “Foots” Thomas are also discussed in the study.

Jazz from Muskogee, Oklahoma: Eastern Oklahoma as a hearth of musical culture, Foley, Hugh William, Jr.,  Oklahoma State University. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2000. 9979190).