Original Document
Original Document
Garvin Bushell Recalls Playing Philadelphia in the early 1920s

Perry Bradford took on Edith Wilson after Mamie Smith got out from under him. As I said, Perry lived right behind us on 129th Street, and I first met Edith and her husband Danny Wilson the same way I met Mamie–right over my backyard fence. I don't know if Perry had sent for Edith or whether she'd already come to New York from Louisville, Kentucky. But Edith and I became very good friends and remained so down through the years.

Perry coached Edith and had her trying to sing like Mamie Smith. Edith had a good voice, sounding like a combination of Mamie and Ethel Waters. Edith's diction wasn't as clear as Ethel's; a lot of her words you couldn't understand. But she sang well, and when she hit on a pitch, she stayed there.

I played on a few record dates with Edith in 1921. That same year, Fletcher Henderson introduced me to Ethel Waters. Fletcher was then working as a song plugger and arranger for Black Swan, the record label started by Harry Pace after he left W. C. Handy. Black Swan had its offices on 46th Street for a while, then it moved uptown, to the east side of Seventh Avenue between 134th and 135th. I never saw Pace; he had nothing to do with recording. But Lester Walton used to come in all the time–he was one of the other partners in Black Swan.

Fletcher was in charge of the record dates. He might pick the numbers in the office, present them to the vocalists, then we'd have rehearsal and get it together. Often there were only two pieces of music, one for the piano and one for the trumpet (or violin). Sometimes everybody had a part.

Ethel had been in cabarets all her life. She didn't sing real blues, though: she was a jazz singer. She syncopated. Her style was influenced by the horns she'd heard and by church singing. She literally sang with a smile, which made her voice sound wide and broad.

Ethel turned out to be an important influence. Mildred Bailey had some of her style, Lena Horne has a lot, and there were others. I'd say the three major influences in jazz singing have been Ethel, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday. (Of course, in Ella Fitzgerald's case, Connee Boswell was the major influence.)

Fletcher never wrote out anything for Ethel, since she didn't read music. Very few singers could read in those days. Ethel had a great memory for Iyrics, though, and a great ear, like Ella Fitzgerald.

Since we couldn't use a bass drum or a bass the rhythm tended to get ragged. Also, we'd be in awkward positions and scattered all over the place, which made it hard to keep together. But when Fletcher was in charge it was usually a little more organized, and we'd have good musicians who were concerned about what they were playing.

The records we made were called "race records." The record companies wanted original tunes by black composers, which would appeal to the Negro population. The white market didn't know anything about them. A composer like Maceo Pinkard was an in-between; his tunes weren't usually so black-oriented, but were ones that whites would accept–like "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Give Me a Little Kiss," and "Drafting Blues." Pinkard's and Handy's tunes weren't as crude as those of Perry Bradford and some of the others. You'd never hear white audiences singing "It's Right Here for You" or "He May Be Your Man (But He Comes to See Me Sometimes)." This music was strictly confined to the race catalogue until, for the most part, the time of Louis Jordan...

In the fall of 1921 I went on tour with Ethel, opening in Washington and then going on to the Standard Theater in Philadelphia. Our band had Gus Aiken, trumpet; his brother Buddy, trombone; Charlie Jackson on violin; Bill D. C. on baritone saxophone; Joe Elder, tenor; Paymond Green, xylophone and drums; and Fletcher, piano.

Like any band then that got on stage, we had to do a specialty of some kind. So we had an act in which I was a cop and Green was a preacher. He'd be standing there on the street preaching at what looked like an altar, but it would be his xylophone, covered up. I'd come out in a cop uniform and chase him off the street. Ray Green was a very funny character, and a good drummer, too.

At the Standard Theater, the heavyweight champion Jack Johnson was on the bill with us. He'd just gotten out of Leavenworth. He did some shadow boxing and some talking. People just wanted to look at him. Jack also did a mock fight with Sandy Burns, a blackface comedian. Burns was a light-skinned Negro who played the Apollo, the Harlem Opera House, the Lafayette, and TOBA theaters all across the country. For that appearance at the Standard we also had Slick White, who had one of the most fabulous tenor voices I've ever heard. He sang blues, also arias from operas.

We stayed at the Horseshoe Hotel, where all the toughs lived. While we were there someone tried to rob me, but I pulled my gun and ran everybody out of the room. In those days a Negro didn't have much protection from the law and so had to protect himself. You were supposed to have a license to carry a gun, but nobody ever did–all the old-time performers had pistols. Charlie Jackson kept a .45 in his violin case, and Buddy Aiken had a .25 automatic under his derby. When Buddy took off his hat, he meant business.

In Philadelphia I got full of that Prohibition gin and accidentally shot a girl who was trying to frame me. I was fooling around with two girls, and one of them didn't know it was supposed to be on the Q.T., so she told the other and they both jumped on me about it. I was half-drunk, so I said, "Who do you think I am? I'll show you who I am" I shot down at the floor but the bullet glanced up and struck one in the heel. That quieted everyone down. And nobody bothered with the little clarinet player no more, either.

Another time I cut Charlie Jackson. He did something, so I lunged at him with this big pushbutton knife I had and cut a big chunk out of his arm. That hurt me, because he and I were so close. Oh, I was mean, then. I had a short temper and was going in the wrong direction.

Credit: Garvin Bushell, Jazz From the Beginning, By Garvin Bushell as Told to Mark Tucker. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990): 31-33.
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