JAZZ: Scott DeVeaux, W.W. Norton & Company


What are territory bands?

Territory bands are – I think of them as minor league baseball teams. They, you have to remember that back in the ‘20s and ‘30s that dance music was local. If you wanted to hire a group for a dance you, of course, hired musicians that were around. It's really only with the Swing Era that you begin to get a sense that people hear, say, the Benny Goodman Band on the radio and they say, "Bring me the Benny Goodman Band," and . . . the music industry is actually able to bring them the Benny Goodman Band and charge top dollar for it. Otherwise you had a band that could actually be there say within 100 or 200 miles, you know, what you could manage to do in a day's drive. These bands were originally known as territory bands because they covered a territory around a particular place; . . . Kansas City is a good example of that.

But the fact is there are also like New England bands, there are bands in the Southeast, there are bands in the upper Midwest. Actually, Lawrence Welk was one of the big territory band-leaders during that period, or Guy Lombardo. And, of course, the different territories had different kinds of tastes, but in Kansas City these territory bands – especially in the Midwest – tended to be local groups that would cater to the kind of blues sensibilities that they had to deal with. They [are] quite interesting to look at; there are bands that nobody has ever heard of and they often have these remarkable names; like Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy, for example, is a great name. Art Bronson's Bostonians I think is great, because nobody in this band has ever come near Boston and this really is a midwestern band.

All these people are just out there in the countryside trying to, in a sense, make a career for themselves. Occasionally, they can move up into that sphere up to the big leagues. Like Jimmy Lunceford's band, I think, was originally known as the Chickasaw Syncopators or something like that. But eventually [it] just becomes known as the Jimmy Lunceford Band. This really is the avenue through which your average musician of the time would enter the music business[; he] would play for a territory band and then, ultimately, be picked up by one of the major swing bands, and it was like going from a minor league baseball team into the big leagues, at that point. During the Swing Era, that's one reason why you could have thousands of bands actually existing at any give time. Even though we don't really have recordings from all these bands, they were clearly operating in dance music across the country.

But the interesting thing is that in the ‘20s and ‘30s this also is a separate source of musical information into the music as it's developing, especially thinking about the bluesy sensibility that these bands had to deal with. There is a sense that groups like the Blue Devils, for example, probably the most famous of the Kansas City bands, was one of the groups that, um – this astonished Count Basie when he first saw it. He just said, these guys were just out there playing, without any music and able to create stuff on the spot, and he just sat there staring at them. He couldn't believe it, and he hung out and eventually became a member of the Blue Devils, but [he] began to realize this is a new approach that is quite different from having music in front of you and knowing what an arrangement is. These people could create stuff on the spot.