Recordially, Lou Curtiss

Jazz Comes to San Diego in 1912

July 2015

When New Orleans’ famed Storyville Red Light District was shut down in the early teens (1912, I think), lots of musicians, dancers, singers, actors, and folks in the olde profession found themselves out of work. A lot of them drifted up the river to Vicksburg, Memphis, Kansas City, St. Louis, and ultimately Chicago. However a fair number of folks moved out to the West Coast where there was starting to be a home for show folk in Hollywood and this new syncopated music called ragtime was really catching on. Also a bit to the South was Tijuana, Mexico where things were wide open (much like the hallowed days of Storyville). Moving West instead of North were artists like Kid Ory, Dink Johnson, the famous lady saloon singer known only as “Bricktop,” Tony Sheridan, and Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton.

It was only natural that along the way San Diego would draw some of this great music. Even though the city was dry (no booze as much as ten years before the Volsted Act (which brought in Prohibition nationally) there were still speakeasys and even some of the hotels like the U.S. Grant sold set-ups and kind of turned their back on folks bringing in their own hootch. In fact the hotel hired Jelly Roll Morton to play piano for a time. Jelly didn’t stay there too long as there was a white pianist also playing at the hotel and making twice what Jelly was. Morton quit and moved down to Tijuana and got a job at the Kansas City bar for quite a bit more money, where he became a sensation. A tune that he had composed in San Diego that he had called “The San Diego Stomp,” he had published as “The Kansas City Stomp,” confusing music historians for quite awhile as Jelly at that time had never played in Kansas City.

One of the more interesting aspects of Jelly and other musicians playing in Tijuana was that they weren’t allowed to live there. They had to return across the border into the U.S. each night after the bars closed. A tent and shanty city was set up on land south of Otay Lake and near the border where they could crash until it was time to go to work. I can only imagine some of the jam sessions with Jelly Roll, Kid Ory, and some of the visiting musicians on tour like King Olivers Creole Jazz Band, Freddie Keppard, Curtis Mosby, and others. I always thought this scene would make one hell of a book or a series of books or maybe one hell of a script for a movie. Sad to say all of the folks who remember those days are long gone.

I heard the story from Slim Gailliard originally, who said he got it from Jelly Roll himself (Slim might have stretched the truth a bit). That was in about 1960 when Slim was here in San Diego. However, I heard bits of the same story from Big Joe Turner who said he got it from Kid Ory. That was in about 1963 and San Diego’s own Fro Brigham had also heard the story about the Tent City. It’s a good story and one that somebody ought to do more research on.

Slim was a great one for stories about the early days of jazz. He told another one that related to San Diego. It seems that Victor Records got the idea of bringing Fats Waller down to San Diego to be recorded playing “the world’s largest outdoor organ,” i.e., The Spreckles Organ in Balboa Park. However, some of the city fathers in the late 1930s didn’t want a black man’s fingers touching their precious organ and turned Victor down. Victor then arranged for Fats to go to France to play the “world’s second largest outdoor organ” and be recorded. It says on the issued record “Played on the world’s second largest outdoor organ (in, I think, Tours, France).” There is no mention of San Diego.

Last month we got the news of the passing of one of the first ladies of traditional music: Jean Ritchie. I first saw Jean at a concert in Town Hall in New York in 1959. She was playing with Oscar Brand and Dave Sear. Later that summer I saw her at the Newport Folk Festival and became a devoted fan. In 1962 I was back in San Diego and she came here and played at the legendary Sign of the Sun bookstore. After that I had the good fortune to see her a couple more times at Newport (that’s Rhode Island not California), at the Berkeley and UCLA Festivals, at LA’s Ash Grove, and once at the University of Chicago Festival. When I started putting together the San Diego State Folk Festival I had Jean out here in 1972 and a couple of times after that. I also seem to remember she played at the San Diego Folk Heritage festival one year and I think at the Old Time Cafe.

At any rate this legendary Kentucky lady was a treasure trove of old ballads, party songs, and traditional Kentucky folksongs. She was one of those very unique personalities that just doesn’t come around much. It’s our good fortune that she left us with a whole pile of recordings to listen to. We are going to miss her. She was 89.

Lou Curtiss

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