Stompin at the Graystone Jazz in Detroit: nineteen-seventeen to nineteen-forty by
Lars Bjorn

McKinney's Cotton Pickers
McKinney's Cotton Pickers
One of the highpoints in Detroit's jazz history must have been the Spring of 1927 when you could hear both the McKinney's Cotton Pickers and the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. These two bands were on the forefront of the development of big band jazz in the United States, but in two separate worlds of jazz before World War II: the black and the white. Except for histories of these two bands very little has been written about jazz in Detroit between the two world wars. This essay attempts to fill the gap in our knowledge through the use of interviews with some surviving musicians who heard the large majority of Detroit bands that never had a chance to record their music. Other sources of information for this historical sketch were newspaper articles and the existing literature on the better known bands.  Goldkette Orchestra
Goldkette Orchestra
  Nationally, jazz went through three stylistic time-periods: 1917-1922,1923-1929, and the 1930s(1). I The early period saw the first recording of (white) New Orleans style jazz and the migration of New Orleans bands northward to Chicago. Jazz historians generally agree that jazz-like musical forms were developing in many parts of the country in this period, even though the specific stylistic features of these are less well-known. The early period also marked the beginning of the dissemination of musical influence by radio and records, in addition to traditional or folk modes. The second period involved the creation of a big band jazz, a new and predominantly Northern style. During this period Detroit clearly assumed a central role in the stylistic development of jazz. During the 1930s the new jazz style reached musical maturation; it reached larger segments of the American public than ever before - or after.  
  1917-1922: Society Bands  
  The dance craze that started around World War I was to the tune of so-called society band music. Society bands had a repertoire of ragtime, light classics, and popular songs within an arranged format that allowed little or no improvisation. Both white and black jazzmen got their early training in big band playing in these society bands(2). The Black society band tradition in Detroit dates back from the Civil War. According to one account, the bands of Theodore Finney, Fred S. Stone and Benjamin Shook "monopolized the city's entertainment and social world to the almost complete exclusion of white performers… up into the 1920s(3)." Shook and Stone took over the Finney band some time after Finney's death in 1899; by the middle of the 1920s Shook was leading and booking several bands of up to twelve pieces playing almost exclusively to white audiences(4). Trumpeter Charles V. Moore and saxophonist Johnny Trafton, who are veterans of Shook's band, remember him as a musician well-versed in almost any musical idiom except the blues(5).  
  The most well-known Detroit band of the years during and after World War I was undoubtedly that of Leroy Smith. Born in 1888 in Romeo, Michigan, Smith's career was clearly within the society band tradition. His father was a trumpeter with the Finney band and in later years Smith praised his father's decision to put him under the supervision of one of the best private violin teachers in Detroit. In Smith's view, the well-schooled Detroit musicians of the 1910s compared favorably with those of the 1930s who "only had swing on their mind(6)." Critics and scholars who have analyzed Smith's recordings made in New York City between 1921 and 1928 have found that these reflect his attitudes toward music. These recordings emphasized full orchestrations at the expense of improvisation by some of his younger and more jazz-oriented players(7).  
  Starting in 1914 Smith led a 16-piece band at the Pier Ballroom, which was billed as a "ballroom of refinement" and catered to white audiences of relatively high social standing(8). After Smith moved to New York City in 1921, he began a long residency at the fashionable Connie's Inn.  
  Among white society bands, the most important to jazz historians was probably the one led by Paul Specht. Specht came to Detroit in the late teens and his band at the Addison Hotel included musicians who recorded some early jazz sides in 1922 and 1923 under the name of The Georgians(9). After a British tour Specht settled permanently in New York in the mid-1920s(10). There were other white society dance bands that played at downtown hotels and restaurants, but these bands did not include any know jazz pioneers ("hot" players)(11).  
  Up to 1922, the society band tradition dominated both black and white dance bands. However, there is some scant information that more jazz-oriented Black bands also played in the city at this time. Given the considerable amount of scholarly attention given to the migration of New Orleans musicians northward, it seems probable that few, if any, of these musicians came to Detroit to play for long periods of time(12). Again, not an unexpected occurrence; only a small percentage of Black migrants to Detroit came from Louisiana. One of the few documented jazz bands in Detroit during this period came from a more common source of migrants - Kentucky. Between 1919 and 1920 pianist Hank Duncan led his Kentucky Jazz Band, including future star trombonist Jimmy Harrison, at the Hotel Ellwood. Harrison was born in Kentucky at the turn of the century and moved to Detroit with his family at an early age. About 1916 Harrison started playing locally with unnamed bands. He was soon joined by drummer George Robinson, another member of the Duncan band(13). When the band broke up, Harrison moved to Toledo, but Robinson remained in the city and later became a member of the Earl Walton band. Black Detroit vaudeville theaters were a common training ground for emerging jazz stylists, but unfortunately little is known about the musicians who played in them.  
  1923-1929: Big Band Jazz  
Sign advertizing a Cotton Pickers performance At no other time before 1950 did Detroit bands play as central a role in the stylistic development of jazz as they did during the period 1923- 1929. The Jean Goldkette Victor Recording Orchestra and the McKinney's Cotton Pickers both played well-documented roles in the early development of big band jazz(14). The Cotton Pickers was one of the pioneers of big band jazz in the 1920s along with a handful of other Black bands in the country, whereas the Goldkette band represented the avant-garde among white musicians by combining society music with "hot" solos. It was not until the middle of the 1930's that white big bands had fully assimilated the stylistic innovations of the Black pioneers.  
  A central figure in the development of big band jazz was arranger and saxophonist Don Redman. After three years as the chief arranger for the Fletcher Henderson orchestra in New York City, Redman came to Detroit in 1927 to take over the musical leadership of the Cotton Pickers. During the four years under Redman's leadership the band became the most influential exponent of big band jazz in the Midwest and through its tours it emerged as a national trend setter(15).  
Graystone Ballroom
Graystone Ballroom
When originally formed in Springfield, Ohio in the 1920s, the McKinney band was known as McKinney's Synco Jazz Band. The band played a number of engagements in southern Michigan in the first half of the decade before it was heard in Toledo by Jean Goldkette in 1925(16). Goldkette, like several contemporary bandleaders (white or black), was also a bandbooker. During its heyday in the latter half of the 1920s his booking organization managed around twenty different bands. In the fall of 1926 Goldkette brought the McKinney band to Detroit, first to the Arcadia and by early 1927 to his own Graystone Ballroom. The band became the first Black band to play at the Graystone, although not before it agreed, under management pressure, to change its name to McKinney's "Cotton Pickers(17)." Its immediate commercial success at the Graystone, as well as its RCA Victor recordings (1928- 1931), kept the Goldkette organization busy booking engagements until about 1931. Graystone Ballroom
Graystone Ballroom
Dancers at Graystone
Dancers at Graystone
When the McKinney band played at the Graystone, its audience consisted mainly of white dancers; only on Monday nights were Blacks allowed into the ballroom. Racial segregation pervaded Detroit dancing establishments in the '20s, although the Graystone and the Arcadia were the least discriminatory of the city's major ballrooms(18). The de facto segregation of Detroit ballrooms meant that the major Black big bands had to play a form of Black music to almost exclusively white audiences.  
Chocolate Dandies
Chocolate Dandies
The McKinney band is the best documented of Detroit bands, but there are others that escaped attention because they did not have the Cotton Pickers' good fortune to record before the 1940s. Three other Black big bands had frequent engagements in Detroit's ballrooms. Billy Miner's Melodians, the Chocolate Dandies, and Earl Walton's band were active between 1923 and 1929. The first two were closely connected with the McKinney band; they shared some of the same personnel and the Chocolate Dandies were also managed by the Goldkette organization. Organized by trumpeter Charles V. Moore, the Dandies were the major replacement for the McKinney band at the Graystone when the latter went on tour(19). Moore also played with the Miner band, which he joined in 1929 at the newly opened Monticello Ballroom The band was led by violinist John Lane, who in the 1930s became a leader of a spin-off from the McKinney band(20).  
  The band led by violinist Earl Walton bridged the gap between the earlier society band tradition in Detroit and the new sounds of big band jazz. Walton's band replaced Floyd Hickman's society band at the Palais de Danse in 1923 and remained there during the mid 1920s(21). Its instrumentation was amenable to the society band style, although its musicians were a mixture of young and old. The Walton band, according to several accounts, was among the most popular bands in the 1920s with Black as well as white audiences that typically frequented the Palais(22). It was during Walton's stay at the Palais that "Midnight Dances" were first organized for Blacks. In comparison with society bands like Leroy Smith's at the Pier Ballroom a few years earlier, the Walton band played to a more ethnically diverse, youthful, and lower class audience. A few years later, the same audiences frequented the Graystone.  
  The jobs available in the major ballrooms were probably the best paid and most stable for Black jazzmen during the 1920s(23). Less materially rewarding jobs were found within the black community at cabarets, restaurants, theaters, and blind pigs. Sometimes audiences were integrated as can be seen in the development of black-and-tan cabarets in the mid1920s(24). These cabarets provided entertainment by Black performers for white audiences "slumming" the Black community.  
  The central figure in the white dance band world in Detroit in the 1920s was without a doubt Jean Goldkette. While there is no evidence that he ever learned to play "hot" music himself, he did employ musical directors and musicians who were among the leading white jazz musicians of the decade. Goldkette led a variety of bands, the most important of which was the Goldkette Graystone Ballroom Orchestra (the Victor Recording Orchestra). It had evolved from a strict society band at its inception in 1922 to one that frequently played hot numbers under the leadership of violinist Joe Venuti, trombonist Russ Morgan, and, above all, alto saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer. It was the latter who brought legendary cornetist Bix Beiderbecke into the Graystone Orchestra in the fall of 1926(25). Until its final break-up in September of 1927 this was the hottest white big band in the country and the key ingredient was the driving horn of Beiderbecke. Goldkette also employed Bix in smaller bands that played at various resorts in Michigan, where the music was more freewheeling and "hotter" than that typically played by the Graystone band(26).  
  Simultaneously, other bands under Goldkette's name played mainly society music at the posher hotels and private clubs in Detroit. Goldkette led his first band in 1921 at the elite Detroit Athletic Club and soon became the club's musical director(27). The Jean Goldkette Book Cadillac Orchestra played both for dancing and dining in the hotel's Blue Room between 1924 and 1928 and broadcasted nightly over WCX(28). A third Goldkette society band, the Orange Blossoms, was first organized in Detroit around 1926. It became one of the premier white bands of the early 1930s as the Casa Loma Orchestra under the leadership of Glen Gray after leaving Detroit for New York in l929(29).  
  The 1930s: Paradise Valley Days  
  During the 1930s the most important change in the Black jazz community was the gradual shift from big ballrooms to small cabaret bands. This change in size and source of employment reflected the growth of the black-and-tan cabaret and the emergence of Paradise Valley as the major entertainment spot in Detroit. The Valley was located within the Black community on the city's near East Side around the intersection of St. Antoine and Adams.  
  The Graystone ballroom was the only major ballroom that regularly employed local Black jazz bands during the decade. The McKinney's Cotton Pickers worked for the Graystone booking organization until 1934 and remained the most wellknown Detroit band during the decade(29). After Don Redman's departure in 1931 the band went through several musical leaders and by 1934 only one of the original members of the Synco Jazz band was left. A large number of local musicians were involved in the various versions of the band which suggests the ease with which the innovative big band style of the 1920s became common property within the Black jazz community(30).  
  Other Black big bands emerged during the decade and some of them played at the Graystone. The Howard Bunts band spent much of the first half of the decade at Detroit's most illustrious ballroom and the band was considered "second only to the Cotton Pickers" by local musicians(31). Former bandmember Junior Warren remembers that on Monday nights the band would be part of "band battles" with bands led by, among others, Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington, who by the 1930s had begun touring on a nationwide basis(32). On these occasions the ballroom was crowded with Black dancers and local Black and white musicians. Another less frequent Black band at the Graystone was Stutz Anderson's Shufflers(33).  
  By the middle of the 1930s the cabarets in Paradise Valley provided most of the jobs for Detroit's Black jazzmen. These jobs required musicians who were skilled readers well-versed in a number of musical idioms, that is, the skills typically required by big band players. The most exclusive cabarets were black-and-tan. They catered mainly to audiences of disproportionately upper-middle class backgrounds(34).  
  The Plantation, later Club Plantation, at 550 East Adams was the most prominent of the black-and-tans during the 1930s. Andrew "Jap" Sneed managed the club, and his partner, Stutz Anderson provided the music at the opening in the fall of 1933(35). Before the club closed in 1939, bands led by Earl Walton and Cecil Lee played there. Lee's band included a number of musicians who started their careers in Detroit during the 1930s and later moved on to jobs with well-known bands(36). This pattern of recruitment of Detroit-raised musicians continues up to the present time.  
  Another Black-owned black-and-tan cabaret was the Chocolate Bar, which for many years had a houseband led by guitarist George Dawson. Trumpeter Russell Green, who was then 22, remembers being self-conscious about his age when he joined the Dawson band in 1936. The band at the time included musicians from Earl Walton's band and the Cotton Pickers who had more than a decade's experience with jazz(37). At the opening of the Melody Club in 1937, the housband was led by Cassell Cox, a veteran drummer from the Howard Bunts' band(38). In early 1939, veteran Cotton Picker Dave Wilborn led the houseband, which included other McKin- ney veterans. The Cozy Corner was the home of trumpeter Bill Johnson's band until 1940. Johnson's showmanship and the musicianship of its sidemen made the band one of the most popular in the city(39). The band made frequent tours of the midSouth, and several of its members later joined prominent national bands(40). The M.D.L. Club was another black-and-tan with the houseband led by, among others, saxophonist Jimmy Strong and pianist Clarence Johnson(41).  
  Club Harlem was one of the few whiteowned black-and-tan cabarets. The owner was Morris Wasserman, who later owned The Flame which in the 1950s became one of the city's major jazz clubs. Bands led by Ernest Cooper, Monk Culp and Milt Buckner played at Club Harlem.  
  Paradise Valley was also the place where musicians found after-hours spots for jam sessions and socializing. All the after-hours spots catered to integrated audiences. Jess Faithful's Rhythm Club and the B&C Club owned by Roy Lightfoot were the two most prominent spots during the decade.  
  During the decade, Black jazz bands made inroads into jobs outside the Black community in taxi-dance halls and cabarets. Previously, these had been white dominated. The taxi-dance halls used bands of varying sizes. One of the largest was Howard Bunts and "His 13 Monarchs of Rhythm" who opened the New Hollywood Ballroom in late 1934(42). About 1930, pianist Eric Bolen led a band at the Tree Dance Studio, and after a year saxophonist Johnny Trafton took over the band and moved into the El Dorado nightclub, also located on Woodward Avenue(43).  
  Trafton's engagement at the El Dorado was an exception to the largely segregated entertainment world in Detroit in the 1930s. Black musicians typically performed for white cabaret audiences within the black community, but the El Dorado, as a major nightclub on the city's major thoroughfare, had integrated audiences. Trafton stayed at the El Dorado for about four years and became musical director of the floor show. During the daily radio broadcasts, Trafton was strongly aware that as a "Black man in a white world" his musicianship was at stake(44). He also recalls that fellow Black bandleaders helped in perfecting various musical technical aspects of the broadcasts, actions which suggest the social significance of race in structuring the Black jazz community in Detroit before World War II.  
  What happened to the white jazzmen during the 1930s? While this question still requires additional research to be fully answered, some major lines of development during the decade can be discerned. Some of the major "hot" players from the Goldkette heyday remained in Detroit but did not remain close to jazz music. Russ Morgan became the musical director for WXYZ in the early 1930s after working as the leader of the pitbands of some of the major movie theaters in town. By the middle of the decade, Morgan left Detroit for New York and California to do studio work and to lead a dance band(45). Other alumni of the Goldkette bands went on to similar careers combining studio and dance band work in larger cities. Goldkette bassist Steve Brown illustrates a career closer to the Detroit jazz scene. After a brief time in New York in the late 1920s, he returned to Detroit to lead a number of bands under his own name for the next three decades(46).  
  During the 1930s, several new white dance band leaders emerged in Detroit, but their music seems to have remained closer to a "sweet" rather than "hot" style. Bob Chester and Art Mooney led bands that were close to the Glenn Miller dance band sound(47), and other bands were led by Seymour Simons and "hot" tenorist Sam Donahue(48).  
  Between the two World Wars, big band jazz became a popular and artistically viable music in Detroit. The new music was largely created by a young generation of Black musicians who replaced the society dance band tradition with one that was closer to the Black American musical heritage. Among white dance bands, the society band tradition proved more resistant to change, but Detroit did harbor a number of influential white jazz soloists in the late 1920s. During the '30s, a musicians' subculture, including some white players, developed around the jam sessions held at the after-hours spots in Paradise Valley. This provided one of the institutional foundations for the later development of a new jazz style: bebop.  
  Lars Bjorn is a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan's Dearborn campus. Bjorn is working with fellow jazz historian Jim Gallert on the first full history of jazz in Detroit. This article first appeared in "Detroit Jazz Who's Who" in 1984. That publication by the Jazz Research Institute is out of print.
  1. Thomas K. Hennessey, "From Jazz to Swing: Black Jazz Musicians and Their Music" (Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 1973).
  2. Lars Bjorn, "The Mass Society and Group Action Theories of Cultural Production: The Case of Stylistic Innovation in Jazz," Social Forces, 60 (1981): 2.
  3. Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, They All Played Ragtime (New York,1966), p. 104.
  4. "Theodore Finney," Fred Hart Williams Papers, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library (hereafter cited BHC).
  5. Author's interviews with trumpeter Charles V. Moore and saxophonist Johnny Traftoll in 1978. These interviews, as well as those noted below, are part of an ongoing project on the "History of Jazz in Detroit" by the Jazz Research Institute.
  6. I)etroit Tribune, 11 February 1939.
  7. Hennessey, "From Jazz to Swing," p. 93; Albert McCarthy, Big Band Jazz (New York, 1973), p. 53.
  8. Advertisements for the Pier Ballroom in Detroit Saturday Night in 1922; interview with Charles V. Moore. Violinist Floyd Hickman led another black society band at the Palais de Danse in the early 1920s.
  9. The musical leader was trumpeter Frank Guarente and the band also included some future members of the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. A British record company (VJM Records) has recently released The Georgians (2 records).
  10. Leo Walker, The Wonderful Era of the Creat Dance Bands (Berkeley, 1964), p. 29.
  11. William Finzel's band often played at the Arcadia and recorded as Finzel's Arcadia Orchestra in 1923 and 1925, according to Brian Rust, The American Dance Band Discography, 1917-1942 (New Rochelle, NY, 1975), p. 521. Stephan Pasternacki formed a band around World War 11, and he comments that "hot licks were an unknown phenomenon" at the time "except maybe by 'Satchmo'"(TheKeynote,40(1976): 3). The Danny Russo-Ted Fio Rito orchestra from Chicago made its breakthrough at a longer engagement at the Oriole Terrace nightclub. The band recorded as the Oriole Terrace Orchestra between 1922 and 1924, before returning to Chicago (Rust, The American Dance Band Discography, p. 549- 551; Leo Walker, The Big Band Almanac (Pasadena, 1978), p. 368.
  12. Of the 111 Black jazzmen who were active during the period and could be identified by name, only one was from New Orleans.
  13. Ceorge Hoefner, "Jlmmy Harnson: Forgotten Giant," Jazz,2 (1963): 9.
  14. The best summary is found in McCarthy, Big Band Jazz, p. 74-79, 184187.
  15. Hennessey, "From Jazz to Swing," p. 93.
  16. John Chilton, McKinney's Music (London, 1978).
  17. Ibid, p. 9.
  18. Author's interviews with bandleader Wilson "Stutz" Anderson (1978) and Charles V. Moore.
  19. The Chocolate Dandies' musical directors included: James Cook, Bill Canada and Lankey Bowman, according to interviews with Charles V. Moore and the late singer-guitarist-banjoist Dave Wilborn (1977).
  20. Interviews with Charles V. Moore.
  21. Interviews with Charles V. Moore and guitarist Wilson "Junior" Warren (1978).
  22. McCarthy, Big Band Jazz, p. 163; interviews with Wilson Anderson and Charles V. Moore.
  23. Chilton, McKinney's Music, p. 10; interviews with Charles V. Moore and Dave Wilborn.
  24. See the description of The Palms at 1935 St. Antoine in Detroit Saturday Night, 28 March 1925.
  25. Charles H. Wareing and George Garlick, Bugles for Beiderbecks (London, 1958). Beiderbecke also spent the last few months of 1924 with the Goldkette band and was present for the RCA recording in March 1924 at the Detroit Athletic Club. For the most complete biography to date on Beiderbecke see: Richard M. Sudhalter and Philip R. Evans, Bix: Man and Legend (New Rochelle, NY, 1974).
  26. Interview with late pianist Reuel Kenyon in 1979.
  27. Prior leaders of the band were Irving Riskin and Henry (Hank) Biagini; the latter a well-known Detroit band leader in the 1930s. The major arranger for the Casa Loma band was Gene Cifford who had started out as a Goldkette staff arranger in the late 1920s (Albert McCarthy, The Dance Band Era, Philadelphia, 1971, p. 189).
  28. The Keynote, 40 (1976): 2. Coldkette also organized the first radio band for WWJ in 1925.
  29. The renown of the Cotton Pickers took a blow with the nonrenewal of their RCA recording contract in 1932 (Chilton, McKinney's Music, p. 49).
  30. A similar point is made for the New York jazz scene by Hennessey, "From Jazz to Swing," p. 286.
  31. Interview with pianist Wade Boykin in 1979.
  32. Hennessey, "From Jazz to Swing," p. 432- 436. Interview with Wilson Warren.
  33. A number of local Black big bands played at similar ballrooms in the Black community. The following names of bandleaders emerged from interviews with surviving musicians: Monk Culp, Van Moseley, Jimmy Williams, Billy Richardson, Ted Paige and Joe Moxley (also with the McKinney band).
  34. Interviews with Wade Boykin, journalist Ulysses Boykin (1979), trumpeter Russell Creen, saxophonist Johnny Trafton (1978), and Dave Wilborn.
  35. Advertisement in Sneed File, BHC.
  36. For example, in 1939 Teddy Wilson hired trombonist Jake Wiley and trumpeter Karl Ceorge, Detroit Tribune, February 11, 1939.
  37. Interview with Russell Creen.
  38. Detroit Tribune, 12 June 1937.
  39. Interviews with Wade Boykin, Russell Creen, Wilson Warren and Dave Wilborn.
  40. Best known is drummer J.C. Heard who continued his career with, among others, Cab Calloway's big band.
  41. Interview with Wilson Warren. The Strong band included saxophonist Ted Buckner.
  42. Detroit Tribune, 13 October 1934.
  43. Interview with Johnny Trafton.
  44. Ibid.
  45. John Chilton, Who's Who in Jazz (New York: Chilton Books, 1972), p. 276; Ceorge T. Simon, The Big Bands (New York: MacMillan, 1974, rev. ed.), p. 375.
  46. Chilton, Who's Who in Jazz, p. 55.
  47. Walker, The Big Band Almanac, ,u. 78 and p. 302.
  48. Simons had sung with the Coldkette Victor Recording Orchestra in the mid-1920s and had his own band since that time. Detroit-born pianist Bob Zurke was one of the members of the band (Chilton, Who's Who in Jazz, p. 410). Donahue was also born in Detroit and started his own band in 1934. In 1938 he left the city to become a soloist with Cene Krupa's band (McCarthy, Rig Band Jazz, p. 279).

for more information contact the IPL at:

Swinging Through Time - Reading Room - Stompin Essay

© Blank Heron Productions is a non-working email address. Please use the ipl2 Contact Us form instead.