Barbecue and, of course, jazz come to mind when contemplating Kansas City. On a recent road trip to this Midwestern metropolis, I followed a pulled pork sandwich at Arthur Bryant's with a walk around the nearby 18th and Vine District, the African American section of town where Kansas City's blues-based, riff-propelled, Territory bands emerged in the 1920s and 30s. During that infamous Pendergast era, named for the town's progressive, but mob-controlled mayor, Tom Pendergast, Kansas City was wide-open, shielded by Pendergast and his cronies from Prohibition restrictions enforced virtually everywhere else in the United States. And nowhere was this more true than in the 18th and Vine District. Awash in mafia money, free of nighttime curfews, and immune to moratoria on alcohol consumption, gambling, and prostitution, the District's fifty nightclubs vibrated with the pulsating music of Count Basie, Pete Johnson, Andy Kirk, Jay McShann, Benny Moten, Walter Page, Charlie Parker, Jimmy Rushing, Buster Smith, Big Joe Turner, Ben Webster, Mary Lou Williams, and Lester Young, among many others, all within a four square block area.
Walking the 18th and Vine District today, however, it is hard to imagine the vitality of those vice-ridden decades. The streets now are sadly quiet and desolate, and not a single nightclub from the Pendergast era can be found. Gone is the Reno, where Basie led the house band; razed are the Subway and the Sunset, both managed by Piney Brown, forever memorialized in Big Joe Turner's "Piney Brown Blues;" and erased from the map is the El Capitan, where Charlie Parker held forth as late as the 1940s -- all victims of the crackdown and subsequent urban development that followed Pendergast's 1938 imprisonment for tax evasion. Most of the facades of the few old buildings that do exist are not even original; they are trompe l'oeil depictions left behind by the film crew of Kansas City, director Robert Altman's 1996 movie celebrating the District's illustrious musical past.
Thankfully, some historic structures have managed to avoid the wrecking ball. Most prominent among them is the Art Deco Gem Theater that still anchors the District on 18th Street directly across from the recently-opened American Jazz Museum. On an adjacent corner, where Highland crosses 18th Street, is another important building--the former Highland Garden Theater--that time and the conflicting interests of progress somehow forgot. Billed upon its opening in 1922 as "Kansas City's finest outdoor theater for colored people," the venue was enclosed and rechristened the Boone Theater in the 1930s. The name prominently emblazoned on its marquis, I would soon find out, paid tribute to none other than Blind Boone (1864-1927), the sightless African American pianist/composer from Missouri who was a musical forebear of those Territory bands that developed their sound on these very streets, and who is the subject of this CD.
Marshfield Tornado, a reference to Boone's never-published and never-recorded signature piece of the same name, is an appropriate follow-up to John Davis Plays Blind Tom, my 1999 Newport Classic recording (NPD 85660) of piano compositions by the Georgia slave sensation, Thomas Wiggins. After all, Boone modeled his early career on Blind Tom's, and fashioned his Marshfield Tornado after Battle of Manassas, one of many Blind Tom hits in his repertoire. Largely forgotten today, Boone was an enormously important transitional figure, the last, in my view, of a trio of overlapping nineteenth-century pianist/composers (before Boone, came Blind Tom; and before Blind Tom, Louis Moreau Gottschalk of New Orleans) who were seminal links between rural African-American folk culture of the Deep South and the more urban rhythm and blues, jazz, and pop styles to emerge in Kansas City and beyond in the twentieth century. Marshfield Tornado, forever lost as a piece of music, conjures the mystery behind Boone's influential yet largely ignored career, as well as the dusty Midwestern frontier that was this pianist's world.
John William Boone's first taste of that hostile environment came on May 17th, 1864, the date of his birth in a Union army camp in Miami, Missouri. The newborn's mother was Rachel Boone, an army cook and former slave to descendants of Daniel Boone. His father was an unidentified white bugler for the Seventh Missouri State Militia, Company I, recently suggested by local Missouri historian, Mike Shaw, to have been Private William S. Belcher. Although Boone's early biographer, Melissa Fuell, referred to Boone as having had five brothers--Ricely, Edward, Sam, Tom, and Harry--, it is likely, according to Shaw, that, except for a half brother, Edward (alternately referred to in census records as both Wyatt and Edward), all were step siblings via Rachel Boone's 1871 marriage to James Harrison Hendrick (a.k.a. Harrison Hendrix).
"Little Willie," as John William was called, and his mother soon moved to Warrensburg, Missouri, where, at the age of six months, the infant developed "brain fever," variously diagnosed in historical sources as encephalitis, meningitis, or Opthalmia neonatorum, a condition that, according to medical practice of the time, required his eyes to be removed and his eyelids sewed shut. The resulting loss of sight, rather than undermining the boy's happiness and self-esteem, only fueled an upbeat sense of purpose that was to become a hallmark of Boone's adult character and onstage persona. If anything, he said, "I regard my blindness as a blessing, for had I not been blind, I would not have given the inspiration to the world that I have."
Little Willie's penchant for music first manifested itself in his vocal imitations of the sounds of animals and nature, and his rhythmic beating on a tin pan to accompany his singing. By the age of five, he was playing tin whistle and harmonica in a seven-piece street band he had formed with friends. The group's local popularity exposed Boone's talent to the same members of Warrensburg white society for whom his mother was a domestic servant. In 1873, Rachel Boone's employers contributed money to send her nine-year-old son to the St. Louis School for the Blind, known, in Boone's day, as the Missouri Institute for the Education of the Blind.
There, Boone proved an inattentive student, and, as punishment, was demoted to making brooms in the school's trade department. "I'm just not a broom man," Boone would later admit, but it was in that trade department that he first became fascinated by the sounds played by students taking lessons on a piano nearby. One of them, Enoch Donley, became his first piano teacher. So fast was Boone's progress under Donley that within a year he was asked to perform regularly for the school superintendent. He further expanded his repertoire playing at church services and socials during summer vacations.
In Boone's second year at the school, a new administration policy of racial segregation was instituted that left the boy both despondent and ostracized from the white student body that, up to then, had so readily embraced him. Stripped of his sense of belonging, the budding musician began to take frequent all-night excursions to hear ragtime in St. Louis, a habit that led to his expulsion from the school after only two and a half years.
Too ashamed to confront his family in Warrensburg, Boone remained in St. Louis, panhandling on Franklin Avenue and Morgan Street in the heart of the city's tenderloin district. Soon thereafter, upon learning that Mark Cromwell, a local gambler, had kidnapped Boone and offered him as barter in a card game, Boone's stepfather, Harrison Hendrix, and the police hunted down Cromwell and returned the boy to his mother.
Back in Warrensburg, Little Willie's wanderlust won out again. In exchange for travel fare, he began singing and playing harmonica on trains traversing the Midwest. Between Glasgow and Mexico, Missouri, he formed a trio with fellow itinerant musicians, Tom Johnson, a Sedalia banjo player, and Ben Franklin, a tea cup artist. Boone also played in the black churches of Glasgow and Fayette.
A turning point in Boone's career was his appearance on an 1879 Christmas concert at the Second Baptist Church in Columbia, Missouri. At that event, he met John Lange Jr., a former slave, who, as a building contractor, had amassed considerable wealth constructing roads, public schools, and churches, providing, in the process, much-needed jobs for the local African American community. So impressed was Lange with Boone's pianism that he offered to become the young musician's agent. The subsequent agreement between the parties, guaranteeing Boone's mother $10 per month until her son reached twenty-one and the pianist equal partnership thereafter, was the beginning of a long, warm, and fruitful relationship between musician and manager.
Aware, however, of his client's need for further artistic development, Lange initially kept Boone out of the limelight, arranging first for him to study piano with a professor (probably Anna Heuermann) at Christian College in Columbia who introduced the boy to the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Lange would later have Boone take lessons with Mrs. M. R. Samson of the Iowa State Teachers' College. Boone's official coming out party, in fact, did not occur until March 3rd, 1880, the date of a playoff Lange was able to orchestrate at Garth Hall in Columbia between his protege and Blind Tom, by then one of the most celebrated pianists of the era. After the local favorite purportedly matched Wiggins note for note, it was reported (probably apocryphally) in the Kansas City Star that a humiliated Blind Tom "disappeared backstage. He left town the next day and never again crossed Boone's path."
Nevertheless, Wiggins' influence on Boone's career was profound. Boone's programs, like his predecessor's, featured performances of his own compositions, well-known opera transcriptions, and mainstream classical works by Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Thalberg, and Gottschalk, the first person to compose concert music influenced by African American culture. Boone's appearances also included several of Blind Tom's signature stunts: imitating various musical instruments and mechanical devices on the keyboard; rendering three songs at once, one in the right hand, another in the left, and the third vocally, each in a different key; and playing back clusters of random notes and an original piece performed moments earlier by a local pianist onstage. Newspaper descriptions of the time leave no doubt that Marshfield Tornado, Boone's hugely popular musical recreation of the catastrophic storm that struck Marshfield, Missouri, on April 18th, 1880, was inspired by the older pianist's Battle of Manassas. Even "Blind John," an early stage name Boone adopted but later abandoned in favor of the more alliterative "Blind Boone," was an homage to Wiggins.
However the Boone Concert Company, officially established in 1880, also departed significantly from the Blind Tom model. Its motto, "Merit, Not Sympathy, Wins" discouraged the kind of sordid attention to the star's disabilities that had served as such an effective drawing card in Wiggins' career. (Wiggins, probably autistic as well as blind, was promoted as a "mental defective.") An activist impulse, in fact, lay at the core of the Boone Concert Company mission. By exposing both blacks and whites in the audience to African-American-inspired music, Boone and Lange sought to break down those racial barriers that had been so zealously exploited by Blind Tom's handlers. In what Boone liked to characterize as "putting cookies on the lower shelf so that everyone can get at them," the Missourian included camp meeting tunes, coon songs, negro spirituals, and ragtime on every program, thereby becoming the first instrumentalist (preceded only by the Fisk Jubilee Singers) to bring into the concert hall all manifestations of nineteenth-century rural black folk music. And by incorporating a violinist, banjo player, and a well-trained singer (among those in this role was his future biographer, Melissa Fuell) into each performance, the Blind Boone Concert Company could be viewed, along with the minstrel show, as a precursor to the soul and rhythm and blues "revues" that would become staples on the chitlin' circuit during the post World War II era. Even the jewel-encrusted pocket watch, numerous gold rings, and diamond-studded cross Boone always wore alongside a dazzling array of secret society pins (proudly displayed military-style on his vest in order to draw attention to the many fraternal organizations to which he belonged) anticipated the sartorial splendor of the show business era to come.
Further distinguishing Boone from Blind Tom is the greater extent to which the Missourian's own music drew upon black culture. Among Boone's eighteen published solo piano works (fourteen of which are included on this CD), at least seven--the Southern Rag Medleys Nos. 1 and 2; the Caprices de Concert: Melodies de Negres Nos. 1 and 2; the Danse des Negres: Caprice de Concert; the Grand Fantasie on Stephen Foster's Old Folks At Home, and Camp Meeting No. 1 (heard here in Richard Egan's transcription of Boone's 1912 QRS piano roll performance)--are direct outgrowths of African American folk life. In these, syncopated plantation melodies, a stride bass, call and response patterns, Bamboula rhythms, walking bass lines, minstrel tunes, and coon songs--many of the signature components of rural black music that would become the building blocks of ragtime and the blues--can be heard. The same is true of six of his eight published songs--Dat Mornin' In De Sky, Dinah's Barbecue, When I Meet Dat Coon Tonight, Whar Shall We Go When de Great Day Comes?, Melons Cool and Green, and Geo'gia Melon--the lyrics of which are all written in black dialect. And, if Edward A. Berlin's suggestion in his book Ragtime is correct--that the "Alabama Bound" section of Southern Rag Medley No. 2 (heard here in my own arrangement) may have been the first published boogie-woogie--Boone, in turn, could be credited as the first to draw the connection, in print, between ragtime and the blues.
Owing mostly to the historic importance of that piece, Boone is rightly regarded today as one of ragtime's pioneering figures. However, his warm relationship with the ragtime pianist, James Scott, aside, Boone, the composer, inexplicably never fully embraced the ragtime movement taking shape all around him in the Midwest. The majority of Boone's published works, in fact, are not ragtime at all, but virtuoso salon pieces that fuse the European concert music of Franz Liszt (Boone's favorite composer), Chopin, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, and Schubert, with rural American and black folk traditions. Among these are not just the overtly African American-inspired works mentioned above, but also his waltzes (Grande Valse de Concert, Op. 13, Aurora Concert Waltz, Last Dream Waltz, and Love Feast Waltz), a polka (Josephine Polka), a gallop (Sparks: Grand Galop de Concert), a song without words (Serenade), a spinning song (Woodland Murmurs), and several short character pieces (The Hummingbird, The Spring, and Whippoorwill). Not even Boone's Southern Rag Medleys, Nos. 1 and 2 and his Camp Meeting No. 1, the only Boone titles that explicitly reference ragtime, could be considered conventional rags. As handed down to us in their sheet music and piano roll forms, they are more akin to proto-rags, absent of the structural hallmarks of so-called "classic ragtime" and filled with unconventional rhythms presumably intended to evoke the components of rural black folk music that cannot be accurately notated.
Following its inaugural concert in 1880 at the Columbia courthouse, the Blind Boone Concert Company's early tours were marred by a shortage of funds, three fires, two train wrecks, and the racial segregation of the Jim Crow era. In some cities Lange had to organize two concerts, one for whites, the second for blacks. Boone's assumption of full partnership in 1885 and his 1889 marriage to Lange's sister, Eugenia, a union that would produce no children, coincided with the Company's peak period. Between 1885 and 1916, Boone and Lange toured the Western and Midwestern United States, Canada, and Mexico virtually nonstop, traveling ten months out of the year, giving six concerts a week, and, between them, taking in $150 to $600 a night, income that Boone then used to purchase significant parcels of real estate in Columbia and Warrensburg. By 1891, Boone's popularity had soared to such heights that the Chickering Piano Company manufactured an oak encased concert grand for the pianist's own personal use. And the signing in 1912 of a contract with the QRS Company allowed Boone to become the first African American to record piano rolls and one of the earliest musicians of any color to make "hand-played" rolls, the first such recordings fashioned directly from actual performances by the artist.
But Lange's sudden death in 1916 at age seventy-five of a cerebral hemorrhage stemming from an automobile accident was an emotional and commercial blow from which the pianist never recovered. Now sole owner of the company that bore his name, Boone hired John and Marguerite Day and then Wayne B. Allen as managerial assistants. Competition over the next decade from movies, radio, and other emerging forms of entertainment made bookings increasingly difficult to secure. Other than a tour of the East coast in the 1919-1920 season, during which Boone performed at Harvard and Yale Universities as well as in New York and Washington, D.C., engagements during this period were mostly limited to smaller towns in the Midwest. By the 1920s, Boone's net income had plummeted to a mere $50 to $70 per night, and, to make ends meet, he was forced to sell off much of his land holdings back in Missouri. Struggling financially, contemplating retirement, and convalescing in Warrensburg from a case of "dropsy" (probably congestive heart failure), Boone suffered a heart attack on October 4th, 1927, and died at age sixty-three in the backyard of the home of his stepbrother, Sam Hendrix. At the time of his burial three days later at Columbia Cemetery--in a grave that remained unmarked until 1971--Boone's once sizeable estate consisted of his Columbia home, his beloved custom Chickering, a couple of pieces of jewelry, and $132.65 in cash.
So ended the life
of a forefather to Kansas City's bluesy, big band sound just then
emerging in the nightclubs of the 18th and Vine District. A few years later, Blind
Boone's impact on Benny Moten, Count Basie, and all the other local
jazz luminaries that would hone their musical chops on those streets,
was honored with the renaming of the theater on the corner of Highland
that still bears his name. The collective memory of Boone, however,
would prove short-lived, and his influence and accomplishments would
slowly disappear from the annals of music history.
Until now, that is. Roots music lovers, join me in helping Marshfield Tornado do for John Boone what John Davis Plays Blind Tom did for Thomas Wiggins -- draw further attention to a previously unacknowledged American roots music and to a seminal figure in the development of twentieth-century popular music in the United States. I hope you enjoy Boone's evocative compositions, and don't forget to watch Music Miner, the bonus track featuring Joan Grossman's film about my ongoing "archeological" adventures unearthing America's buried musical past. It can be viewed on any home computer, so just insert and play!
© John Davis 2012