Art Hickman, Boyes Springs & Jazz -- long note

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Thu Dec 31 21:50:21 UTC 2009

        Ben Zimmer quotes my recent post:
> >        Hickman described his band as playing jazz in 1919:
> >        "Jazz music was always a success.  The St. Francis was brave
> enough to install it in its principal ballroom, and the society matron found she didn't have to
> go slumming in order to  hear bright and snappy melodies.  It has been refined.  ***  [A
> Symphony orchestra] plays but twenty weeks in a year.  My orchestra entertains people for
> fifty-two weeks.  A legitimate musician must play according to his music.  He can't improvise.
> that's where we jazz musicians have the advantage.  ***  When liquor goes, jazz will be
> the only thing with a kick.  Instead of making people weep, we will give them an enjoyable pill
> of jazz."
> >        San Francisco Chronicle, June 15, 1919.  p. S16, col. ?

        He comments:
> This is a very interesting find, since the quotes I've seen from
> Hickman around this time were more disparaging of "jazz". Lawrence
> Gushee, in _Pioneers of Jazz_, suggests that Hickman might have had
> reason to distance himself from "jazz" after moving on from Boyes
> Springs to high-class venues like the St. Francis.
>  ---
> _San Francisco Examiner_, Oct. 12, 1919, p. W16:4 (cited by Gracyk)
> "Hickman does not like the use of the word 'jazz' in relation to
> music. 'It has no association with music,' he said. 'It means
> something effervescent.   ***

        I think that what happened was that Hickman liked the association of "jazz" (in the Boyes Springs usage) with "energy", "vigor" "sparkle" and took it as a brand for the lively dance music his band played -- I think of Lawrence Welk and his "Champagne Music".  Once the ODJB released their first records, in 1917, the brand became tainted.  One of the ODJB's first hits was "Barnyard Blues", which included whinnies and bleats.
        Edward B. Edwards, who gave us his engraved card which read "Trombonist" and who is the leader of the originals, said: "A Jass Band is composed of oboes [!], clarinets, cornets, trombones, banjoes and always a drum. . . .  But the music is a matter of the ear and not of technique.  None of us knows music.  One carries the melody and the rest do what they please.  Some play countermelodies, some play freak noises, and some just play.  I can't tell you how.  You "got to feel" Jass.  The time is syncopated.  Jass I think means a jumble.
        New York Globe & Commercial Advertiser, March 14, 1917, p. ?, col. ?  Quoted in Lawrence Gushee, Pioneers of Jazz: The Story of the Creole Band, N. Y., &c: Oxford U. Pr., 2005, p. 206 and p. 342, fn 68
        Once the fad became establlshed, vaudeville was full of bands that 6 months earlier would have been billed as "novelty orchestras".
         Usually, the jazz band is made up of a pianist who can jump up and down while he is playing, a saxophone player who can stand on his ear, a drummer whose right hand never knows what his left hand is doing, and a violinist who can dance the bearcat.  ***  The jazz band players usually lack reserve.  ***  Before the jazz band is reached on the [vaudeville] programme the worst is yet to come.
        Los Angeles Times, June 4, 1917, section II, p. 4  [from The Youngstown Telegraph]

        This is not what Hickman was about.  His musicians didn't whinny or bleat or make "freak noises", and they could read music -- they could read flyspecks, as the jazz expression has it.
        It seems that as late as 1919 Hickman was of two minds whether to keep the brand or not.  Whether he liked it or not, the "jazz" brand stuck to him:
        Art Hickman's Engagement to Mrs. Sidi Spreckels Rumored
        Noted Jazz Orchestra Leader Admits They're Close Friends and Shows No Surprise at Report.
        [photo of the lassie]  Mrs. Sidi Wirt Spreckels, who, rumor insists, is engaged to marry Art Hickman, impresario of jazz.  The rumor comes from Los Angeles.  [caption]
        With all the nerve-shattering crash of the most exaggerated bit of jazz which Art Hickman's orchestra ever perpetrated came the rumor of Mrs. Sidi Wirt Spreckels' engagement to Art Hickman himself yesterday  ***
        San Francisco Chronicle, February 4, 1922, p. 13, col. ?

        I despair of documenting any of this from sources 1913-1918.  It would be nice if there had been a SF newspaper or magazine that made a point of covering the nightlife scene -- and nicer if I knew which paper it was.  But I doubt there there was such.  I spent an afternoon a couple of years ago in the NYPL skimming The Argonaut, which seemed likely, but turned out to be not the answer to a maiden's prayer.
        The ads in the SFChronicle for the Hotel St. Francis were a 1 column square, more or less -- only as high as wide, and as interested in promoting the businessman's lunch as "Hickman's Orchestra".
        Perhaps there's a placard in some collection somewhere advertising his St Francis gig or some dance that would promote his band and his music in more detail?  Dating from the teens, that is.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

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