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February 2023
Vol. 22, No. 5
In Good Company

Recordially, Lou Curtiss

A Not So Very Modest Proposal

by Lou CurtissJuly 2012

In 1915 was the Pan American Exposition in Balboa Park and out of that closest thing to a World’s Fair yet held in San Diego came one of the Parks great museums (Was it the Natural History Museum, I think so). With the second World’s Fair held in the late ’30s came one of the other great museums (The Museum of Man), which has continued as a permanent fixture in the park’s landscape. Other museums have been set up to become fixtures in the park as well (certainly the Art Museum, the Aero Space Museum, the Reuben Fleet Space Museum, have all contributed to a vital entertainment destination as well as educational scene in the park).

So in 2015 comes the 100th anniversary of that first fair in the Park and it becomes a question of what this celebration will leave as a monument to its significance and thus comes my proposal: A Southwestern Folk Life Museum & Center. This would be a place where the traditional and popular music past and present could be discussed, performed, studied, and preserved. It could have concert space for kinds of music not often given space in San Diego. It could be a place where collectors of memorabilia, old records, books, might be able to donate their collections to develop a preservation archives for future generations to enjoy.

And yes I would like to be involved in the discussions that set up this presentation. My digital archives of music, my record collection (which is extensive), my books about all kinds of music, my experience as owner of a collector’s record store for 45 years, organizer of 56 music festivals in nearly every kind of musical genre (traditional folk song, jazz, blues, vintage country music, various kinds of ethnic music, rhythm & blues, rock, and a whole lot more), make me more than qualified to help set the course of this center.

I have observed Folk Life projects at World’s Fairs in Seattle, Spokane, and the Smithsonian Folk Life presentations in Washington D.C. as well as most of the well known music festivals in the United States and Canada. I’ve seen the contributions that these events have made on their cities. If we don’t remember all the various places we’ve been with music in all its varying manifestations as well as the personalities of the folks who made it and the stories about them, I think we are in a much sadder and eminently much more boring space. I think we have a real chance to develop a performing and archiving space here in San Diego that can be a lasting contribution to the life of our city. If someone can get these thoughts to the folks in charge of the 2015 Balboa Park 100th anniversary festivities. Please let them know that I have a lot more ideas and I’d sure like to sit down and talk to them about some of them. It’s so important that we don’t let this upcoming event become a commercial bombast and sell-a-thon. We need to have an event we can all be proud of. I want to help. I hope you do too.

It was shortly after the famous Storyville red light district in New Orleans closed that out-of-work black musicians started an exodus up the river to future jazz towns like St. Louis, Kansas City, and, ultimately, Chicago. We’ve all heard many stories about this migration. What we don’t hear near so much about are the trips many of these musicians made to Southern California and ultimately to the wide open scene south of the border in Tijuana. In the mid to late teens it wasn’t unusual to have New Orleans Creole musicians like Kid Ory, Curtis Mosby, Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, and Mutt Poston play dates here in San Diego and wind up playing south of the border in Tijuana. Jelly Roll Morton got a job playing piano at the U.S. Grant Hotel but quit after they wouldn’t pay him as much as a white man got. He went down to Tijuana and got a job at the Kansas City Bar. He changed the name of one of his self-penned tunes he had been calling “San Diego Stomp” to “Kansas City Stomp.” The song went on to become one of Jelly’s best known, and San Diego missed out on some jazz immortality.

One of the problems with playing music in Tijuana, however, was that black musicians weren’t allowed to stay south of the border overnight in those days, so the musicians and other entertainers built a tent city just north of the border near Lake Otay so they could cross the border each night. It was an inconvenience and most of the people, including Jelly, moved on to cities in the East and Midwest after only a few years. The good money to be had only made it tolerable for awhile and for a few years the border town not only had a stable of legendary regulars but also hosted traveling bands like King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and other bands that were willing during the cold months in Chicago to take a trip West where the weather was a little warmer. The living conditions, however, didn’t make for many return visits and after awhile, the regulars, most of them, drifted on, too, ending a few boom years when jazz flourished just south of the border.

The music scene in Mexico varied throughout the 1920s when Prohibition was king in the United States. Many from the Hollywood crowd made Tijuana and the Agua Caliente Race Track and hot springs their own personal party destination. The next opportunity for jazz and blues and even country music came with the rise of the border radio stations. The ones south of California, although not so well known as their Texas counterparts, had more of a variety of music, being closer to Hollywood entertainment centers. Texas bluesman Thomas Shaw had no trouble getting a radio show when he came to San Diego in 1934 playing his mix of old Blind Lemon Jefferson, Texas Alexander, as well as some of his own songs. He remembered meeting Cowboy Slim Reinhardt and Jessie Rodgers, who were singing country songs on the same station. He also said there was a big band swing group playing. Stations like XELO and XERB were keeping the music flowing all the way up the coast to Seattle where as a boy I remember picking up their 150,000 watt signal late at night.

Along with the music were the endless ads for rose bulbs from Texas, baby chickens, cures for just about anything that ailed you and all those preachers offering just about any way to salvation that you needed. However, you did get some good music and that was the important part.

Lou Curtiss

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