CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One of the more unusual works featured at the West Virginia Book Festival next weekend will be the saga of a West Virginia musical movement almost lost to history.
"Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia, 1930-1942" by West Virginia University music professor Christopher Wilkinson tells a story that many Mountain State residents have probably never heard: Duke Ellington, Count Basie and other giants of American music coming to West Virginia in the years before World War II, making the state a musical nexus for jazz and big-band music.
Wilkinson will talk about his book at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the festival, but he was kind enough to answer a few questions via email. A longer version of this interview is online at West Virginia Book Festival: The Blog.
Q: How did you learn about this subculture of big band black music, which had been almost entirely forgotten? For that matter, how does a movement that seems as vibrant as the one described in your book almost become lost to history?
A: Quite by accident. While working on the biography of a New Orleans-born trumpet player, big-band leader during the 1930s, and, later, nightclub owner named Don Albert, I listened to an interview with Herbert Hall, one of the players in Albert's band. The conversation turned to the band's tours and related topics, and at one point Hall stated that "All the bands were goin' to West Virginia because the mines were operating and everyone was employed."
That statement contradicted my assumption that, particularly in the years of the Great Depression, money was scarce for most people in the Mountain State, including those in the mining industry. It also contradicted my assumption that big-band jazz and other dance music would have had no appeal to West Virginians in any case. Herb Hall's statement upended both ideas.
The history of big band jazz in West Virginia before World War II became lost, I believe, because just before the war, and continuing thereafter, the large black population residing in the southern coalfields migrated out of the state in the direction of northern cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Toledo, leading the way for white out-migration when increasing mechanization of coal mining put thousands of white Mountaineers out of work.
Q: Why West Virginia? How did a poor, small, largely white state become a center of this subculture?
A: Beginning in the 1870s, African-Americans began migrating into the state to build the railroads that cross the southern part of the state and to work in the newly developing coal mining industry. Their numbers would grow steadily through the 1920s and '30s. According to both the 1930 and 1940 U.S. Censuses, one quarter of McDowell County's residents were black. Fayette, Kanawha, Logan, Mercer and Raleigh counties also had substantial African-American populations in that period of which most of the men either worked in the mines or on the railroads that served those mines. In racially segregated West Virginia, these folks constituted the audience for black dance bands on tour through the region.
Q: Since your book has been published, what's the reaction been like? Have people been skeptical of your findings, or willing to acknowledge that music historians might need to adjust their ideas about the origins of big band music?
A: So far, the response has been quite favorable from both the scholarly community and to me as importantly from the general public. Both groups seem more than willing to revise their understanding of the musical past of the Mountain State. My research only adds to the picture of West Virginia's diverse musical culture and heritage. Already a fascinating history, this adds another dimension to our knowledge of our state's past.
Q: Would you like to see the state (or WVU, or someone else) commemorate this part of the state's history in some way?
A: Already, the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame has honored several of the participants in this musical world, and as more come to light I am confident their contributions and memory will be honored as well. I am anticipating preparing a radio documentary program on this subject to include the voices of some of the folks I interviewed during the course of my research as well as some of the music recorded by the big bands during the period in which they toured the Mountain State. As this subject is made known both to West Virginians as well as to others, I am hopeful that we will be able to learn still more about big-band jazz in black West Virginia during the 1930s and early 1940s.