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Jazz on the River

Just after World War I, the musical style called jazz began a waterborne journey outward from that quintessential haven of romance and decadence, New Orleans. For the first time in any organized way, steam-driven boats left town during the summer months to tramp the Mississippi River, bringing an exotic new music to the rest of the nation. For entrepreneurs promoting jazz, this seemed a promising way to spread northward the exciting sounds of the Crescent City. And the musicians no longer had to wait for folks upriver to make their way down to New Orleans to hear the vibrant rhythms, astonishing improvisations, and new harmonic idioms being created.

Simply put, when jazz went upstream, it went mainstream, and in Jazz on the River, William Howland Kenney brings to life the vibrant history of this music and its seduction of the men and women along America’s inland waterways. Here for the first time readers can learn about the lives and music of the levee roustabouts promoting riverboat jazz and their relationships with such great early jazz adventurers as Louis Armstrong, Fate Marable, Warren "Baby" Dodds, and Jess Stacy. Kenney follows the boats from Memphis to St. Louis, where new styles of jazz were soon produced, all the way up the Ohio River, where the music captivated audiences in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh alike.

Jazz on the River concludes with the story of the decline of the old paddle wheelers-and thus riverboat jazz-on the inland waterways after World War II. The enduring silence of our rivers, Kenney argues, reminds us of the loss of such a distinctive musical tradition. But riverboat jazz still lives on in myriad permutations, each one in tune with our own times.

Read an excerpt.

248 pages | 23 halftones, 1 map | 6 x 9 | © 2005

Black Studies

Culture Studies

History: American History

Music: General Music


"Jazz on the River is the first book of its kind, a fresh look at a fascinating musical phenomenon that is familiar as legend and now accessible through the carefully inquiring mind of William Kenney. We are treated here to a heady mix of local history, riverboat mythology, trends in the making of jazz, and even biographies of its leading luminaries. This is a beautiful book full of color and detail."

Thomas Brothers, Duke University

"We’ve been skimming on the surface of this topic for years. Now William Kenney offers baptism by full immersion. Jazz on the River is a thoughtful and imaginative exploration of the American character in transition, illuminating how jazz reshaped perceptions of the river and vice versa."

Bruce Boyd Raeburn, Tulane University

"Because those legendary riverboat jazz bands were never definitively recorded, we don’t really know what they sounded like. But Kenney’s fascinating and compelling history breathes so much life into the old music you may actually believe you’re listening to it."

Krin Gabbard, author of Jammin' at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema

"After a century of loose talk about jazz coming ’up the river’ from New Orleans, William Howland Kenney makes sense of that phrase by putting us on those boats and showing us the life that Mark Twain never experienced. Jazz on the River gracefully guides us through the boat business, the entertainers that performed for the passengers and crew, and the culture of life on the riverboats. With this book, the history of jazz just became richer, deeper, and more wonderfully complicated."

John Szwed, author of So What: The Life of Miles Davis

"Kenney has staked out a fresh vantage point for viewing the development of jazz. . . . This is a rich, succinct, and unromantic treatment, clear-eyed and sensitive to the ambiguities, satisfactions, and discontents of this fascinating chapter in American history."

Library Journal

“The romance, the misery, and the music of migration are all captured in William Howland Kenney’s Jazz on the River, a book that narrates a history that couldn’t be captured merely by doting on scratchy records, tattered scores, and old reviews. It was commonly known that jazz was born in New Orleans and made its way up the Mississippi, but until Kenney no one had investigated the makers of the boats and the conditions of the musicians who worked on them. And no study before this one ever charted that northern migration so that we can appreciate the artists and how their musical communities were formed.”

David Yaffe | Nation

“By locating jazz ‘on the river,’ Kenney draws a picture of the Jazz Age that shifts attention from the nightclubs and dance halls of major cities, broadening the social and occupational histories of the first four decades of jazz performance. His portrait of aspiring musicians who used the river to enhance their social mobility also brings a new dimension to our understanding of the Great Migration. For Kenney, the shifting racial and cultural tensions communicated through jazz resound as jazzmen riff on the ever-shifting currents of these great heartland rivers.”

Kathy Ogren | Journal of American History

"Kenney presents an interesting, well-written, and concise study of American jazz music and its manipulation for economic, social, cultural, and historical purposes. He achieves his goal of writing a significant history of jazz without approaching it from a musicological perspective. Jazz on the River is accessible to the non-musician and provides the jazz studies canon with another view of jazz in the Midwest."

John D. Baskerville | Annals of Iowa

"This study fills in many gaps in the literature of jazz. . . . Kenney writes clearly and moves the reader along at a fast pace."

Frank A. Salamone | H-Net Reviews

“An intriguing and well-researched history. . . . William Howland Kenney amasses a wealth of fascinating detail. . . . His contrast of the life of Fate Marable with the white, upper-class trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke is insightful, and never reduced to polemics.”

Financial Times

Table of Contents

Introduction: Playing Changes: Music, Movement, and the Performance of Power on "America’s River Nile"
1. "Masters of the River": Streckfus Steamers, Inc. and the "Swan Complex"
2. Fate Marable, Musical Professionalism, and the Great Migration
3. Groovin’ on the River: Louis Armstrong and Riverboat Culture
4. From Beale Street to Market Street: Music and Movement Through Memphis and St. Louis
5. "Blue River": Bix Beiderbecke and Jess Stacy on the Mississippi
6. Steamin’ to the End of the Line: Jazz On, Along, and Beyond the Ohio River
Epilogue: The Decline and Fall of Excursion Boat Jazz in St. Louis
Appendix A: Excursion Boat Musicians
Appendix B: River Songs and Tunes

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