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At my age, the hard part is getting to the gig. The playing is easy - 102-year-old Fred Staton, still getting paid gigs playing tenor sax

Author Topic: Walter Barnes - The Natchez Fire  (Read 2426 times)

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Offline dj

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Walter Barnes - The Natchez Fire
« on: July 08, 2012, 01:58:11 PM »
Today is the birth date of jazz saxophonist/clarinetist and bandleader Walter Barnes.  Bunker Hill sent me an article on Barnes by Albert McCarthy, first published in Jazz Journal in 1970.  It's fairly long, but I thought I'd post it here (in two parts) for several reasons. 

First, because reading the article I was struck by how similar the life of a second-rank jazz band leader in the 1930s was to the life of a country blues musician of the same period.  Barnes made more money than someone like Bo Carter or Tommy McClennan, and his travels were a bit more organized, but their lives weren't all that different. 

Second because Barnes' decision to tour extensively in the south meant that, while he was virtually unknown to whites and even to a lot of northern blacks, he was a jazz and swing star in the places where country blues players lived.

And third because the disaster that took Barnes' life and those of his band and audience was one which impelled many artists to sing about it, putting the Natchez Fire in the same category as the sinking of the Titanic or the death of Casey Jones.  Luigi Monge, in an article in Nobody Knows Where The Blues Come From, quotes nine songs on the subject, with Howlin' Wolf (1956) and John Lee Hooker (1959, 1961, 1963) recording songs about the fire long after it had faded into the past.

Here's the article.  It's well worth at least a skim:

Life & Death of Walter Barnes
Albert McCarthy

THE TERRIBLE FIRE which caused the death of bandleader Walter Barnes, along with over two hundred other victims, resulted in a number of recordings by blues singers partially documenting the event. The reverse of the Baby Doo recording quoted right was Gene Gilmore s The Natchez fire, while the Lewis Bronzeville Five made Mississippi fire blues and Natchez Mississippi blues (Bluebird B8445), and there is at least one Library of Congress item dealing with the holocaust. Although the lyrics provide no evidence of a direct link it is likely that Howlin' Wolf's Natchez burning was also initially inspired by the tragedy. Yet it is doubtful if more than a handful of either blues or jazz collectors know anything about Barnes other than that he was a touring bandleader with headquarters in Chicago, though he had achieved a quite considerable success amongst his own people in the years prior to his death. What follows is an attempt, made possible by Walter Allen's researches into the files of prominent negro newspapers of the late twenties and thirties, to sketch in details of Barnes's career.

Walter Barnes was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 8th, 1905. He moved to Chicago in 1922 and completed his education at the Wendell Phillips High School and the central YMCA. College. The Pittsburgh Courier of May 4, 1940 mentions that he took a course in auto mechanics at Greer College, suggesting that he had not initially decided to take up music as a permanent career. However, within a short while he was engaged in full time musical studies at the Chicago Musical College and the Coleridge-Taylor School of Music, his chief tutor being Franz Schoepp. One aspect of jazz history that has been almost totally overlooked is that of the influence of certain outstanding teachers on the development of the music, for Schoepp, referred to with great respect by Benny Goodman in his book The Kingdom of Swing, taught not only Barnes and Goodman but also Buster Bailey and Jimmie Noone.

Lord (Now) I want everyone (of you) to listen (to) listen to my
lonesome song (2)
Now I want to say what happened, to poor old Walter Barnes
Now it was just about midnight, just about 12 o'clock
Poor Walter playin' his theme song, the dance hall begin to rock
Lord (Now), and the people all was dancing, enjoying their life
so high [[[2)
Just in a short while, the dance hall was full of fire

(From The Death of Walter Barnes by Baby Doo (Leonard Caston). U.S. Decca 7763)

The first known reference to Barnes occurs in the Chicago Defender of September 11, 1926, where a group is mentioned that consisted of?Wright (tpt), Walter Barnes, Jr (sax), Mrs Collins (p) and Alice Calloway Thompson (d), though no location is given. Trumpeter Wright is in all probability George Wright who played with Barnes s big band two years later. At the time of his death several obituary notices stated that in 1926 Barnes had joined Jelly Roll Morton's touring band and had remained with it for about a year making records with Morton in addition. The only issued title on which Barnes could be present is the Gennett band version of Mr. Jelly Lord (Riverside (E) RLP9816) where the identity of the sax players has not been established. A fascinating article in Ragtimer (April 1967) titled "Jelly Roll in Chicago: The Missing Chapter", written by Karl Kramer of the Music Corporation of America, makes it clear that Morton did not have a regular band around 1927 and went on tour with pick-up groups, and mentions that one such unit was led by a pianist called Anderson whose band around this time included Cab Calloway. Whether there is any significance in the name of the female drummer mentioned above can only be a matter of conjecture, and Barnes s association with Morton is shadowy, though there can be little doubt that he did work with him for a period around 1926 or early 1927.

The few published reports on Barnes's career state that he formed his first big band to play at the Arcadia Ballroom, Chicago in 1927, my own guess being that it was probably quite late in that year. Its personnel is listed in the Chicago Defender of April 7, 1928 as follows:- George Wright, James Hill (tpt); Edward Burke, Hot Papa' Bradley Bullet (tbn); Lucius Williams, Earl Anderson, Erby Gage (saxes); Paul Johnson (p); William Hall (bj); Charles Harkless (tu); William Winston (d); with presumably Barnes leading on clarinet and sax. During that summer the band played at the Merry Gardens, returning to the Arcadia Ballroom again on September 8th. The Chicago Defender listed the personnel once more in the September 22, 1928 issue, by now Laurence Thomas (tpt), Wilson Underwood (sax) and Quinn Wilson (bs) replacing Hill, Anderson and Harkless. The reputation of the band must have extended beyond Chicago by the following year, for in the autumn of 1929 it appeared at the Savoy Ballroom in New York City, Orchestra World of November 1929 listing the personnel as above but with trumpeters George Thigpen and Leon Scott replacing Wright and Thomas, banjoist Richard Bates (doubling violin) taking the place of Hall, and Louis Thompson coming in for Wilson.

ALTHOUGH THE U.S.A. was now entering the depression years, Barnes seems to have worked steadily and from late 1929 to around July 1930 was based at the Cotton Club in Cicero, Ill. with an unchanged personnel. This club was run by Ralph Capone, brother of Al, and the Chicago Defender of August 2, 1930 reported that the job came to an end when Capone was prosecuted by the federal authorities. For the remainder of the Year and the whole of 1931 it appears that Barnes gravitated between local jobs and touring the Midwestern states, references in the Chicago Defender giving brief details of a car accident when travelling between Fairmont and Huntington, W.Va. (March 7, 1931), the fact that the tour was booked by M.C.A. (May 9), another car accident in which Lucius Wilson and Charles Barnes (Walter's brother) were injured at Pierre, S.D., a two week engagement at the Rigadon Ballroom, Sioux City (May 23), another two week engagement at Brown Valley, Minnesota, around which time the band missed a date at Lakehurst Dance Pavilion, Maquoketa, Illinois through a car being delayed by a storm and faced a suit for damages from the management as a result (June 20), a two night date at Leroy, Minn. (July 11), and finally the opening of a four week engagement at the Michigan Theatre, Chicago on October 4th followed by a Halloween ball at the 8th Regiment Armoury (October 3, 10, 17, 24, 1931). The same newspaper s issue of May, 16 1931 gave the personnel of the band that went on this tour as Robert Turner, Claude Alexander, Leon Gray (tpt); Augustine DeLuce (tbn); Walter Barnes, Wilson Underwood, Frank (Franz)? Jackson, Lucius Wilson (sax); Paul Johnson (p); Claude Roberts (bj); John Frazier (bs); Ralph Barrett (d). At the close of the Michigan Theatre date the Barnes band auditioned at the Englewood Theatre, Chicago for the R.K.O. chain, but in late November they played a date at Chicago s Savoy Ballroom in which they were pitted against the Erksine Tate band. The personnel underwent numerous changes and is listed in the Chicago Defender of November 21, 1931 as Raymond Whitsett, Doll Hutchinson, Bob White (tpt); Charlie Lawson (tbn); Laurence Brown, Lucius Wilson, Ernest Smith (sax); Henry Palmer (p); Fred Edwards (bj); Lawson Buford (bs, tu); Clifford 'Snags' Jones (d); Walter Barnes (sax, vcl); A month later the Barnes band opened at the Club Congo at 35th and State, Edward Burke (tbn), Zinky Cohn (p) and Harry Gray (bs, tu) replacing Lawson, Palmer and Buford, Lawson and Buford having joined the Tiny Parham band at the Granda Theatre.
« Last Edit: July 09, 2012, 07:03:28 AM by dj »

Offline dj

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Re: Walter Barnes - The Natchez Fire
« Reply #1 on: July 08, 2012, 01:59:32 PM »
Part 2:

N 1932 BARNES developed his activities in a number of directions, foremost being the setting up of the Walter Barnes Company Music Corporation to handle the business side of his affairs. It was in this year also that he planned more extensive tours, above all to take in the deep south. Coming from the south himself he realised that the big name bands were infrequent visitors in many southern areas and conceived the idea of an annual tour covering most towns or cities of a reasonable size; From 1932 until the time of his death he made Jacksonville, Florida, his winter headquarters, and built up a considerable reputation throughout the south as a result. This was an astute move economically, for as his following increased he was able to obtain reasonably well paid jobs at important social functions in addition to the more run of the mill dance hall engagements, and in all probability his financial returns at this time and in subsequent years rivalled those of all but a few of the major coloured bands. One-nighters brought their inevitable hazards of course?it was as late as 1940 when the American Federation of Musicians brought in a rule that no band should cover more than four hundred miles daily on touring schedules?and the Chicago Defender of May 14, 1932 carries a report that as a result of lack of sleep Barnes was involved in an accident in which his car overturned, fortunately with no serious consequences to the passengers.

Walter Allen has combed out references to the Barnes band in various 1932 issues of the Chicago Defender, referring to their presence at the Trianon Ballroom, Ind. (March 12 issue), a tour of Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky during March and the first part of April, a brief return to Chicago and a further tour from late April until July which took in Midwestern states, Atlanta, Georgia (May 28 issue), Vicksburg, Miss., Clarksdale, Miss. (were Patton, Brown, House, Johnson, Morganfield listening enquires Walter!) (May and June), Bristol and Knoxville, Tenn. (July), Winston Salem, N.C. (July) and a return to Chicago reported in the July 16 issue. It was at this time that Barnes married, and his wife, Dorothy Parrott Barnes, became his secretary and helped to run the business side of his affairs, quite frequently accompanying her husband on tours. Dolly Hutchinson left the band at this time, but by August Barnes was again out on tour and there is a reference to record breaking crowds turning out to hear the band in the Chicago Defender of August 20, 1932, and to an engagement in Cincinnati in the issue of September 17.

This was the pattern of Barnes's activities in the remaining years of his life. As a result of his playing so often away from the major entertainment centres his activities were seldom if ever mentioned in the magazines that jazz record collectors obtained, but during these years his popularity with his own people was considerable and he was responsible for discovering numerous first class musicians in the south. When he worked in Chicago it appears that he often used several of the top musicians in that city, but not many of these men were willing to undertake the gruelling tours. His band in 1934 consisted of Tom Watkins, Odis Williams, Orlando Randolph (tpt); Richard Dunlap (tbn); Chick Gordon, Jim Coles, Joe Gauff (sax), Don Q. Pullen (p); Harry Walker (g, bj); Jack Johnson (bs); Bud Washington (d) and Walter Barnes (sax, clt). In March 1935 the trumpet and rhythm sections were unaltered, but the trombones were now John Fryer and James Cox, and the saxes Les Cadwell, Wallace Mercer, Jim Coles and Chick Gordon. During 1936 and part of 1937 Barnes contributed a column to the Chicago Defender, unfortunately not a particularly informative one, and various issues in 1937 detail locations at which he played. The March 13 number has an interesting reference to the band playing at the Tick Tock Tavern in New Orleans and mentions that Punch Miller was in the personnel, his presence after ten years away from his native city drawing considerable crowds. I n fact Miller played with Barnes regularly from 1937 until a week before the fire, though neither Samuel Charters's Jazz: New Or/eans 1885-1957 or Edmon Souchon's and Al Rose's New Orleans Jazz: A Family Album make any reference to this in their entries on Miller.

Down Beat mentioned Barnes for the first time in 1939, the issue of November 1st reporting that he was playing at the Chicago Savoy Ballroom with a new band and listing the personnel as Otis Williams Ellis Whitlock, Frank Greer (tpt); Preston Jackson, Calvin Roberts (tbn); John Reed, Lucius Wilson (alt); James Cole, John Hartzfield (ten); Clarence Porter (p); Harry Walker (9); Arthur Edwards (bs); Oscar Brown (d) and Walter Barnes (sax, clt). Several of these musicians went out on the ill fated final tour a few months later and lost their lives.

BEFORE DEALING with Barnes's tragic end it is worth speculating as far as it is possible on the nature of his musical achievements. He was himself, by all accounts, a highly proficient musician who took solos on alto and baritone saxes and clarinet, in later years usually being pictured with the latter instrument, no doubt the result of the immense success of clarinet playing leaders like Goodman and Shaw. There are a total of seven issued titles by the Barnes band, recorded at four sessions between December 1928 and July 1929, only two of which have to date been reissued in microgroove form. As a whole these recordings are not particularly outstanding, though there are some well played ensembled passages with a frequent use of a clarinet (presumably  Barnes himself) in a lead role. The best soloist is undoubtedly trumpeter Laurence 'Cicero' Thomas who on It's tight like that, for example, takes a fair chorus. Thomas had a considerable local reputation around the Chicago area in the late twenties and is heard to advantage on Boot it boy by Thomas Devils (Historical (A) H LP-27 ?"Trumpet Blues 1925-29" ). In general, the Barnes recordings are typical of the secondary big bands of the period, but by all accounts these early titles were made some years before the band attained its musical peak. Several musicians have recalled hearing the band in the latter part of the 'thirties and they are unanimous that it was a good one, with cleanly executed ensemble passages, high overall standard of musicianship, a number of individual arrangements, and several good soloists. Budd Johnson told me that it was a hard swinging band in the late thirties and expressed surprise that it had not been recorded at this time. This is puzzling to some extent, particularly as it enjoyed a good local reputation, but its continual absence away from Chicago was probably the main reason for its not being recorded. Another musician who heard it during two of its Southern tours commented that as it visited areas where the big name bands seldom played it had in its books many cover versions of the hits of the latter groups, but that when it played original scores and material it was an impressive unit. It is unlikely that we shall ever have aural evidence on these points, though as the band broadcast quite frequently over Chicago radio stations at one period it is an outside possibility that someone recorded one or more on the then inevitably primitive home equipment.

EARLY 1940 found Barnes on one of his regular southern tours and an April 23rd the band arrived to fulfil a date in Natchez, Mississippi. Punch Miller left Barnes a week before the fire, and even luckier, according to one report were trumpeter Tommy Watkins, pianist Edgar Brown, and vocalist Gatemouth Moore who left one day prior to the fire. The band that took the stand at the 'Rhythm Club on April 23rd consisted of Paul Stott (Scott?) (tpt); Calvin Roberts (tbn); James Cole, John Reed, Jesse Washington, John Henderson (sax); Clarence Porter (p); Harry Walker (9); Arthur Edwards (bs); Oscar Brown (d); Juanita Avery (vcl); Walter Barnes (sax, clt, Idr). Down Beat of May 15, 1940 reported that the three musicians named above left the band the previous day, but the New York Amsterdam News of May 4, 1940 claims in a report that it was Ellis Whitlock and Frank Greer (or Grier), both trumpeters, who had deserted the band on April 22nd when it reached their hometown on Louisville, Ky., and in view of the fact that only one trumpeter was present on April 23rd this seems the most accurate story.

NATCHEZ, in 1940, had a population of 16,000 of which 9,000 were coloured. The latter, by the somewhat lowly standards of the south, included many who were in a reasonable economic position, vouched for by the fact that the admission charge was $2.50, a sum that would be far too high for the bulk of the coloured population in many other southern towns. The following account of what happened is a considerable condensation of very full reports that were printed in the Pittsburgh Courier of May 4th, 1940 and, particularly, in the Chicago Defender of April 27th and May 4th. The latter covered the tragedy in great detail and I am told won an award for their reportage.

The Rhythm Club, originally a church, subsequently became a blacksmith shop and later a garage. It was then converted into a night club and though the interior was attractively redecorated the outside was left unaltered, the metal sheathing on the exterior being allowed to remain in place. It was a long frame building and to prevent anyone entering without payment the rear door was kept heavily bolted and the windows were solidly barred, so that the only entrance and exit was through the front door. One man truly
described it to the Courier reporter as the worst fire-trap that could possibly be imagined. Barnes had been playing some while when the first intimation of disaster struck, and according to one of the survivors, when the fire was discovered he called out to the dancers to leave in an orderly manner and to avoid panic. At the same time he pressed his musicians to keep playing?they were in the midst of Marie at the time?but events made his gallant attempt to control the crowd little more than a heroic gesture. It is not known for certain what started the fire, though it is believed to have been a carelessly thrown away cigarette, but in a short while the whole of the inside of the building was an inferno of flames, made worse by an exhaust fan that was turning at top speed and thus spread the fire at lightning pace, and by the fact that masses of dried Spanish moss festooned walls and rafters on the interior of the galvanised-iron framework. Witnesses told the Courier reporter that they heard a hissing roar like a heavy gust of wind blowing through a forest, and then the entire inside of the building was filled with flame and smoke. Those inside who were not by the entrance had no chance of escape and the death toll, mainly the result of asphyxiation, was well in excess of two hundred. Of the Barnes band, all but bassist Edwards and drummer Brown were killed, though three non-playing members of Barnes s organisation also survived, including his brother Allan. Oscar Brown described what he remembered of the events in the May 15, 1940 Down Beat, and both the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier printed gruesome accounts and horrifying photographs of the fate of the victims. A final note of grim irony is that Barnes had sent his wife a letter telling her that he would be back in Chicago on Friday, April 26th. She received it on that day, a few hours before his body arrived.

The musicians who left the band the day previously were not the only fortunate ones. In The Country Blues Samuel Charters tells how Will Shade and Charlie Burse were due to play at the Rhythm Club that night but were delayed by a flat tyre, along with drummer Otto Gilmore and pianist Robert Lee Lesters, arriving finally to find the dance hall enveloped in flames.

By all accounts part of Barnes s great success on his tours was the result of his possessing an exceptionally amiable and courteous personality, sometimes resulting in the band playing considerably longer sets than were scheduled in response to enthusiastic receptions. The death of himself and most of his musicians?not to mention the earlier escapes from motor accidents?throws its own light on the conditions in which all but the very top leaders worked quite frequently during the thirties. The big band era was an exciting one in many ways, both for musicians and listeners, but the jazz historian would do well to remember the darker side of the picture, for to many of those involved any success attained was gained at high cost in terms of human endurance and dignity.

(I am greatly indebted to Walter C. Allen who supplied all the newspaper cuttings quoted liberally during the course of this article. Without his research this piece would not have been possible in the present form. I am also grateful to Bertrand Demeusy, Karl Gert zur Heide, Budd Johnson and J.S. Shipman for their assistance on points of detail. A.McC.)
(from Jazz Monthly, January 1970, p. 7-10, less 3 photos)

Offline TonyGilroy

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Re: Walter Barnes - The Natchez Fire
« Reply #2 on: July 09, 2012, 06:43:29 AM »

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Walter Barnes - The Natchez Fire
« Reply #3 on: July 09, 2012, 06:43:57 AM »
Thanks for that, dj and Bunker Hill. Interesting and sad to read. I'd forgotten that Will Shade and Charlie Burse story too. Talk about a lucky flat tire.

Offline Kflove

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Re: Walter Barnes - The Natchez Fire
« Reply #4 on: February 05, 2013, 01:41:48 AM »
Thank you for the information.  My cousin, Dorothy V Parrott Barnes often told me about how she traveled with her husband, Walter Barnes.  I always called her Aunt Dorothy.  She was a fascinating storyteller and made those days come alive for me as a little girl. She told how he wired her that he would be coming home after that gig and how he did come home the day he said, but sadly, he came in a casket.  Fate, I guess, that she did not go with him to Natchez.  She travelled with him often.  I'm so proud that he and his band tried to sooth the stampeding patrons by continuing to play.  Those were men.  Real heroes.

She had hundreds of pictures of Walter Barnes and she and the band and many musicians.  Wonderful pictures.  Sadly, they disappeared after the handling of her estate.  Possibly, they were considered unimportant.  The men of her day were elegant and stylish and had class.  She told me how Al Copone treated his hired musicians well.  I so enjoyed that I read about him and her on this site!  May God continue to Bless this wonderful site.

Offline jrn

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Re: Walter Barnes - The Natchez Fire
« Reply #5 on: February 05, 2013, 05:32:07 AM »
I was reading about the fire just yesterday. Living Blues Dec. 2010 issue featuring Natchez musicians.

As far as wether or not Howling Wolf's "Natchez Burning" was inspired by the tragedy or not, I'm thinking I've read that it was. I believe Wolf was telling Sumlin the story. Seems like they might have been at the site. I'm pretty sure it was in the HW biography. If not it was in Hubert's biography. I don't recall the names of either of the books offhand. But I've got both of them and can find the story in question.

Kflove,   Thank you for posting your memories and thoughts. Very interesting!
Quitman, Mississippi

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Walter Barnes - The Natchez Fire
« Reply #6 on: February 05, 2013, 05:37:32 AM »
A Mississippi Blues Trail marker was unveiled April 18, 2008, in Natchez:

Also Luigi Monge contributed a chapter in Nobody Knows Where The Blues Come From (Ed: Robert Springer, Mississippi UP 2006) entitled Death By Fire: African American Popular Music On The Natchez Rhythm Club Fire.

(This book may have been discussed elsewhere at Weenie)

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