Gene Ramey: A Snapshot of Music in East Austin between 1910 and the early 1930s
In 1978, Gene Ramey sat down and spoke about his life with the writer Stanley Dance for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project. This was his second interview for the Smithsonian; the first had occurred the year before with Nathan Pearson and Howard Litwak.1 By this point, Ramey was a legendary bassist, having played in the crucial territory Swing groups of Jay McShann and Count Basie as well as in the early groups of modern jazz pioneers Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Miles Davis, and Sonny Rollins. Dance’s interview would ultimately end up at the Rutgers Institute for Jazz Studies and Dance made extensive use of it in his book, The World of Count Basie.
MR. DANCE: We were going to talk about how you got started in music, I think.
MR. RAMEY: Well, I -- where we were, I think I can remember, our families went to -- would go pick cotton every year.
MR. [DANCE]: That’s right. That’s where we were.
MR. RAMEY: And when we finished picking, we would sit out in front of that cabin until maybe midnight, singing songs, telling stories, you know. And we harmonized.
MR. [DANCE]: This would be the cabin at the farm?
MR. RAMEY: Yeah.
MR. [DANCE]: Where you were going to sleep?
MR. RAMEY: Yeah, where we would -- those two families would stay in that one big thing. All the ladies -- there’as two rooms, all the ladies in one room, and all the men in the other.
But we’d sit out there and sing. All the spirituals, and all those old good church songs, and some funny songs. Of course, my brothers and them were in the famous quartets. And I think I began to get it there. And actually, I composed […]my first song, which has never been written, when I was five years old. At that time I had turned out to be not only the sickly one of the group, but I was the preacher of the group. I was -- I had almost been ordained, then. Everybody knew I was going to be a preacher, because I could get out and preach when I was five years old.
I could tell ghost stories and scare all them, and scare myself more.
Here, Ramey discusses the presence of music in the home and its relationship to work. As a child, Ramey’s family, as he explains here, would pick cotton somewhere outside the city. The bassist was born in 1913, so this was probably in the mid-to-late teens, a period when African Americans were beginning to leave Austin for work in larger, more industrial cities. Many migrated to the growing oil metropolises of Texas, like Houston and Dallas, but significant numbers also moved North to Chicago or New York as part of the first Great Migration. Soon afterwards, African Americans would stop being the major source for labor for cotton in Central Texas, as new migrants from Mexico began to take their place in the 1920s and 1930s.
Interestingly, Ramey does not discuss song during work—as much literature about black vernacular music does—but after it. Music was a key part of post-labor leisure for his family. In a crowded cabin (two families in a two-room building), they would sit outside, singing songs well into the night. The families shared a repertoire of religious songs—spirituals and probably anthems—but they also amused themselves with comic tunes for fun.
As he notes, Ramey’s brothers were active within Jubilee quartets in Austin (his father and cousins were as well). Jubilee quartets were some of the most popular and most well-respected musical ensembles within black communities across the South during the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. The groups grew out of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a globally famous and influential choir at Fisk University in Nashville. The Fisk Jubilee Singers had pioneered a model of concert spirituals in the 1870s that merged this body of song with the idioms of Western art and choral music: they featured highly composed arrangements and a cappella pure tone singing. In the late 19th century, Jubilee Singers—and the smaller quartet versions—spread to black universities and churches across the U.S. and were often the preferred form of black music for white middle class audiences.
In Travis County, the two most well-known quartets were the Southern Jubilee Quartet and the Exclesior Quartets. Both were tied to black Baptist congregations. The Southern Jubilee Quartet came from Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Exclesior quartet was part of a Jubilee Singers ensemble tied to the St. John Association.
Ramey's brother Joseph sang with the Capitol City Quartet, but it isn’t clear which quartets his other relatives were in. We also know that Ramey’s aunt played piano at Ebenezer. Ebenezer and the St. John Association also had large choirs that were prominent throughout Austin. In 1903, Violet Carrington formed Ebenezer's main ensemble, a choir with 50 voices that became known locally for its highly-trained choral work. In the late 1930s, the group began weekly broadcasts on KNOW as the “Bright and Early Choir,” led by Virgie Carrington DeWitty, Violet Carrington’s daughter. The St. John Association—which was originally formed in the Wheatsville freedman community (now West Campus) after the Civil War--also organized the St. John Jubilee Singers, which played benefit concerts at UT and for the white community in order to collect money for their orphanage and school (now the area occupied by the Highland Austin Community College campus).
MR. DANCE: We'd better get back to that cabin where you're singing, now.
MR. RAMEY: Singing. I began to learn to sing. I used to -- this cousin Helen, and my sister Ethel, used to sing with what was known as the Alto. And I was so crazy about them anyway, and, I'd get right in between them, and I'd try to sing in their voice. I was throwing everybody off, but I stayed right in the middle of them, and I learned to sing their voice. Sing right along. They'd tell me, get out of the way, you're throwing us off. But I stayed right there until I learned. Several us were doing it, but we enjoyed it.
Ramey's family shows how the home could be a place to learn and practice playing with others. Singing a cappella (he does not mention instruments) like this in a group would require one to be able to harmonize with others by ear. In such a setting, one learned to adjust the sound of one’s voice to compliment others. Such situations trained Ramey to perform by hearing others and knowing which sounds fit.
Ramey’s interview gives us a sense that this sort of family-centered song was quite common in Austin’s black community. He remembers that, when they sang in the evenings, they were often surrounded by others doing the same in the distance.
And you know, the funny thing about Texas, it's such a Plains country, that when we stopped singing, we could hear another family maybe three miles away singing. So at times we would all get together and sing, like that.
MR. DANCE: Well, where does music come into it? Did your mother play anything, or --
MR. RAMEY: Well, she wasn't really taught as a musician. Her sisters -- there were eight sisters and three brothers. And I think five of her sisters were good musicians. Good piano players. But somebody loaned my mother one of thoseold foot organs. And some songs I remember today, nobody else has played them -- now as I try to play them, I find out how difficult they were.
One I think is an old English song, "He married another, oh dee." (Phonetic).
MR. DANCE: Oh, yeah, I remember that.
MR. RAMEY: He [sic] used to play that song, somehow. And then she used to play a thing about three little babes that were lost in the woods. She played that for us. And those are pretty hard tunes to play. Played and sang those for us.
MR. DANCE: That was really a poem that people used to recite, where the sparrows came and covered them over with the strawberry leaves.
MR. RAMEY: Right. She used to play those things. And "Boilin' Cabbage," she could just tear that up. You know how to play "Boilin' Cabbage" don't you.
MR. DANCE: No, what's that?
MR. RAMEY: (Humming.)
MR. DANCE: Oh, no, I don't know that.
MR. RAMEY: That was more like a reel in the South, you know. They played that and the people would be doing their dance, see.it later on. But my grandfather, Jack Ramey, was a whiz on violin. And they said -- funny thing, they said that I took some of it after him, although I never saw him. They said when he played, sometimes he'd have his foot as much as a foot off the ground, patting his foot, you know. And you know, I play patting my feet. I can't play unless I pat my feet, you know.
My mother told me, she said, you know, you got that from your grandfather.
MR. DANCE: Your father didn't play anything?
MR. RAMEY: My father played a little banjo, but he was an athlete, and he sang in the quartet. As did my brother. Now, my brother was with the famous quartet in Texas, the most famous quartet in Texas. And my brother was also a prize fighter, my oldest brother.
Religious music was not the only thing played in the home. Ramey’s mother, although not trained, had learned, we assume, to play the organ and sing through listening to family or to other musicians in public. In addition to spirituals, hymns, and comedy songs, there were also old time English ballads, poems, and reels. His father and grandfather seemed to gravitate towards string music, playing fiddle and banjo.
MR. RAMEY: So that was my first composition. And they used to ask me to sing that song and then I'd sing it all over. Then I'd get out there, and I could preach. I could roar, and I could get down there and say, "Oh, brother, don't you want to go to heaven?"
MR. : Oh, you really did sort of preach?
MR. RAMEY: I was. Yeah, listen, I'd get out there, they'd sing a song and I'd be out there. Sometimes while they were singing, I would, I'd be doing it, you know. I'd be like, kind of commentating.
MR. : Well, was this something you picked up from going to church?
MR. RAMEY: Going to church, sure. And see, we had whole lots of what they called camp meetings in and around us. In fact, they had the St. John Association every summer, and there was a Holiness church that had a camp meeting, that was about a block from our house. In fact, my brothers used to help park cars for the white people. You know, they'd come out there in droves, just to watch and listen to thosepeople sing and shout, and do the, speak the unknown tongue, and all that, you know.
MR. : It was like entertainment.
MR. RAMEY: Yeah. Oh, man, that place, it was out in a great big pasture, and that place would be full of white people. And naturally, the church appreciated that, because they got a good collection everynight, you know. But the people were there, and --
MR. : Well, what -- in those days, would the white people and the black be mixed up, or would they sort of be --
MR. RAMEY: No, there was always that line. But now, in things like that, you see, they, the white people would not come into the tent.
MR. : Oh, I see. Got you.
MR. RAMEY: They would stand outside the tent. And the black people would stay out of the way so they could see. There were black people there to witness, too, but they would probably get along this side, or on that side, and so the white people could see, you know.
Same way at the dances, you know. They had that rope. And although it seemed that whenever they had bands coming in -- well, I'm getting off on a tangent now, you noticed that.
This discussion gives us a sense of how far the sounds of religion permeated Ramey and his family’s musical life. It was reflected not just in the types of songs that his extended family sang, but also the way he approached interacting musically with his brothers. Spontaneity, ecstasy, and individual-group interaction were at the center of his church experience and its dynamics gave young Ramey a model of how to improvise against a composed background. As he describes here, his brothers would break into song around the house and Gene, the youngest son, would mimic a preacher, spontaneously commenting and riffing off the music they created.
For Ramey, these camp meetings resonated throughout his life and he heard it in the playing of musicians he met later on. He believed that the sounds and ethos of Holiness music carried on into the territory big band music of Kansas City during the 1930s and 1940s. For him, the music of Count Basie and Jay McShann, both of whose orchestras he played in, had a similar type of freedom and spontaneity. The bands did not perform a great deal of pre-composed and arranged music, but would play along spontaneously with short melodies made up by a band member.
MR. : You were talking about your definition -- of jazz -- Kansas City --
MR. RAMEY: Well Kansas City's like an old a camp meeting or a revival meeting, you know, like a church meeting. You hear the people shouting, you hear that in Basie's band, you know.
MR. : Right.
MR. RAMEY: It's just a happy-go-lucky thing, if you'll notice that the -- the trumpets are going one way, the saxophones, are going another way, the trombones are still going a different way --
MR. : Right.
MR. RAMEY: And that rhythm section is still just straight ahead.MR. RAMEY: And see what I'm trying to give to you is this, for example, the Basie band, the rhythm section never read the music after the first time.
MR. : Did all ahead arrangements.
MR. RAMEY: See the rhythm section is supposed to be free, you know, because spose [sic] I'm going to tell you to play, C, G, E, C. You know. Well you might hear where you can play C, E, G, C. You know. In other words, as long as you know that you was in due bounds, you know?MR. RAMEY: Yeah, you just got up and __. Now it's the same way we been doing in Kansas City all the time. We'd have a jam session, the guy's [sic] just get in there -- this guy sits and riff over here and this one sets a riff over here and another sets another riff and so -- the guys just go onswinging so you know -- and each chorus, they'd build it up, you know, like that. Just things they thought of in their mind, you know? And -- but it turned out that was even better -- easy, although it didn't help in the publishing business. But they people didn't --
MR. : (Unintelligible).
This sort of freedom and feeling wasn’t exclusive to Kansas City bands, it seems. Ramey participated in a similar style of band performance in Central Texas before he departed in the early 1930s for Missouri. In another oral history in 1980, he describes the groups he played in in Austin—Sammy Holmes’s orchestra, George Corley’s Royal Aces —as similarly riff-based, improvisational groups.
SH: Did you swing on 'em. Improvise or stick pretty well with the charts?
GR: We improvised. We rarely used the chart except for the first and last chorus.
SH: Just get started and stop.
GR: Right. And that was the general idea of most of the bands from Texas, all that we encountered.
SH: That was about 1930, '31?
GR: '30, '31 and early '32.
MR. RAMEY: Those things, yeah. And we had a guy there who was really terrific, a Sergeant Willis. He was a drummer and a ukulele player. And he used to walk up and down the streets playing that ukulele. And there's such things as the blues and say "Five foot two, Eyes of Blue, has Anybody Seen My Gal," you know.
MR. : Well, I take it there were blues singers around too, weren't there?
MR. RAMEY: You know, the way I see it practically everybody around there sang the blues. But there wasn't hardly any occasion where I could name anybody, except the great piano players who played and sang.
We are used to thinking of the blues as a distinct and individual genre of music, but this type of conceptualization is something that came to be over the course of the twentieth century. It isn’t clear what exactly Ramey means by the blues here, however. The blues can be both a song form and a wider set of performance practices. The song form—a chord structure and lyric pattern--was first developed in black vaudeville across the South around the turn of the century. After its initial emergence in theaters and tent shows, composers and performers began to turn it into a consistent compositional structure during the 1910s and 1920s.
We can only speculate on what exactly Ramey meant, but it is reasonable to assume that he is pointing to how Sergeant Willis performed his songs, not the compositions. In this sense, the blues that he says were present all over East Austin were vernacular performance practices of the black community, handed down over decades. Music historians like Thomas Brothers have identified the blues in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a “set of gestures and a feeling of how to place them…shades of phrasing, precise effects of timing, meticulous bending of pitch at the right moment in the right way, judicious distribution of growls and distortions of timbre, all of it wrapped into linguistic dialect and pronunciation—these are the markers of skillful blues.”2
The blues of Sergeant Willis most likely represented musical practices that freed people had brought with them to Austin from Texas slave plantations. These African American styles were never isolated, but were an evolving dialogue between African-derived musical idioms with other forms of American, European, and Latin American music. This vernacular music background included rich vocal styles, ways of “ragging” or syncopating the rhythm of a song, and “blue notes.”
MR. RAMEY: Yeah, around that time. See, my brothers and sisters didn't let a record come on the market that they didn't get it, that had any kind of singing, any kind of jazz in it. And especially my older sister, Nellie, she could sing just -- she could imitate Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith, and Clara --
MR. : Oh, well, this is where you were picking up --
MR. RAMEY: Yeah. And I heard this all day and all night long. And that record company, you'd see that dog sitting there looking at the master's voice, on the record, and I'd be sitting on the floor, just like that dog. Looking at that thing (chuckles).
MR. : And would you -- would they get records of bands, as well?
MR. RAMEY: Oh, yeah, everything. Louis Armstrong. Everyone of us in our family could sing -- could hum every Louis Armstrong note. In fact, even that thing, "A ChocolateDrop, that's me, 'cause My Head Is Curly," and all that stuff. And I like the way on the solo, we'd sing it, everything and scat, just like it. That's how my cousin, Duke, became like what they call the Texas offering of a Cab Calloway, you know. He had the long hair like the white man, you know. And he would do a Cab Calloway, and throw his hair all over his eyes, all those contortions.
Ramey’s memory of his sisters' fascination with records is a case in point. His siblings are a good example of the way that records, along with community and family, provided models for performing. Recorded music didn’t just provide an awareness of the new voices of America, but offered a way to learn by imitating 78 rpm discs over and over again.
And one thing I do remember mostly, is that every Friday night, as soon as school was out, until time for school to start, there was a band concert in the park. Now, at that time -- when I left Austin it was 32,000. Every family that was able to make it to that park would come down there. That's where the highway goes through now, but at that time it was just a great big park, and the parents would be sitting, listening to the music, and the kids would be out there playing on the grass, and running, you know.
MR. : What sort of band would that be? Like a military type?
MR. RAMEY: It was more or less a military band.
MR. : Brass band?
MR. RAMEY: Brass band, yeah. But it was about 20 pieces. And those people, they were all black, you know, andthey seemed to be so devoted. In fact, Mr. Timmons, who was the bass horn player, was the only teacher I had in Texas on my musical instrument. And he -- I think he was the only bass horn player, and there was about 20 -- might have been two bass horn players, but he's the only one I know. He was a barber in town.
There wasn’t just the informal music of ukulele players in the streets and green spaces of black Austin. Ramey recalls that there was a brass band concert in East Avenue Park (now I-35) every Friday night during the summer. East Avenue, the dividing line between African/Mexican American and Anglo Austin, was itself segregated. Although parks ran up its entire length, the city restricted African Americans to a specific section of the larger park.
Brass and military wind bands were some of the most popular ensembles in America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For decades, they provided a great deal of the music that could be found in open-air public. John Phillip Sousa, who is still remembered as an icon of the American Victorian period, was the most famous bandleader in country during his day. One usually thinks of military marches in connection with these groups, but their popularity was linked to their versatility. The played a wide range of popular and light classical repertoire, from ragtime pieces and cakewalks to opera overtures.
East Austin’s brass band seemed to have been central to its public life, for its concerts were a centerpiece of summer weekends. The ensemble most likely drew formally trained local musicians who were not full-time professionals, as exemplified by the barber who gave Ramey his only formal lessons in Texas. All African American brass bands were common in the South and they played a key role in American pop music history. The scholar Thomas Brothers argues, for example, that the earliest jazz developed from black brass bands adopting vernacular blues practices to their instruments in New Orleans between 1890 and 1910.3
MR. : Well, how did you learn? Who taught you to read, now.
MR. RAMEY: Among us -- we had the basic learning in school, you know.
MR. : Which school? Before high school?
MR. RAMEY: No, in Anderson High School.
MR. : Oh, in high school you had that?
MR. RAMEY: Yeah, but I didn't know how to apply it to the bass clef.
MR. : I see.MR. RAMEY: Yeah, practically all my learnings were, by that time, was in the high school. I'd say anywhere from thetime I was 11 until I started playing tuba when -- I was 13.
MR. : Well, what sort of tuition did you get there? What was the teaching like in -- music teaching?
MR. RAMEY: Well, we did have music fundamentals in school, where they taught you the A B C D's of music a little bit. And I took that course. Good enough so I would know how to read the treble clef. This lady was also the choir leader. She taught our quartet. And I sang in the quartet. The high school quartet. And being in the Boy Scouts -- the one thing I can say, I have to say that in Austin we were very blessed, something that very few other cities that I think had, we had in Austin.
We had the old people, say our fathers and mothers, and the people of Austin really cared about us, you know. To keep us out of trouble they had -- the churches had little basketball teams, and little sandlot baseball teams. They had, in the four districts of Austin, different ex-soldiers formed little Boy Scout groups, and we had to drill every afternoon.
Anderson High School was another source of music education. As Ramey explains, the public school was a major places for formal training for African Americans. At Anderson, students learned how to read music and got the basics of theory. If the family and the streets were the place to learn the subtleties of vernacular practices, the teacher in their segregated high gave African Americans much of their basis in European harmony and melody.
MR. : Well, when you -- you played the tuba in high school, too, did you?
MR. RAMEY: No there wasn't anything in high school, no band at that time in high school.
MR. : Oh. Well, when did you play this?
MR. RAMEY: Now, that's a round-about story. We -- as I said, we had clubs and things. I mean, they had parties things.
MR. : But where was it you got this sort of tuition?
MR. RAMEY: We organized a club. There were other clubs; my club was the Moonlight Serenaders. And there was -- I had to write these names down, because I didn't remember them, too well. One of them was the Wild Fire Sheiks, andanother was the Mystic Knights.
MR. : Which was yours?
MR. RAMEY: Mine was Moonlight Serenaders. So now, we would take turns in giving dances. Sometimes we'd give dances on the same --
MR. : So these were dance bands?
MR. RAMEY: No, these were social clubs. We would hire little three or four pieces people to play for this thing for all us little teenage kids, for the dance. And then somebody struck up on the idea that we're paying too much money for -- we're paying all this money out to the musicians; let's get our own band.
So then we organized, we took money out of the -- what's its name -- and bought instruments for us. And you might have heard of Carl Downs (PHONETIC) who was the head of the Negro Fund for Colleges (ed. -United Negro College Fund), for college students?
MR. : Yeah.
MR. RAMEY: Well now, he was the leader of our group. We were all kids then, you know, but he later became that. And he was a trumpeter, and we made him president of our club. And then we had another trumpet player, clarinet player, and banjo, bass drum and piano. And so we'd play for the thing.
Because of Jim Crow segregation, African Americans were excluded from the vast majority of dance band concerts in Austin. Most orchestra from the 1920s through the 1940s performed for university students at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel , the Driskill Hotel , the Paramount Theatre , the Federated Women’s Clubs , and Gregory Gym , all of which banned African American dancers and listeners. In response, African American high school and college students turned to their own community and formed informal social clubs. These clubs—which adopted names like the Mystic Knights and the Entres Nous Social Club—would organize parties for other black youth at local venues, like the Paradise Inn , the Royal Auditorium (later the Cotton Club ). For these parties, they would hire a local dance band or, as Ramey’s group did, form one of their own.
This may have been how some of the local African American dance and jazz bands of the 1930s got their start. Karl Downs, who led Ramey’s Moonlight Serenaders between 1930 and 1933, took the group into the colleges around the time that Ramey left for Kansas City. Downs was a graduate of Sam Huston College (he became its president in 1943, in fact), but he formed bands associated with Tillotson College in 1933: Karl Downs’ Dragonians (the Dragons was the Tillotson mascot), Karl Downs’ Serenaders, and Karl Earle and his Tillotsonians.
MR. : Was Herschel playing tenor then, or --
MR. RAMEY: Herschel came in and played tenor very shortly, you know. And Buddy Tate says he came in and played with that band, too. I might not have been on that particular gig that night. But I do remember Herschel.
MR. : Well, they were not professional musicians?
MR. RAMEY: Well, in those days, let me tell you, it's like this. you might call them professionals. In those days there were lots of road shows. And it was -- although Herschel came from very near Austin, some little town that they say he didn't own when he died, somewhere like 28 miles from Austin. Now, he may not have been stranded, but there were many cases where musicians some carnival or road show -- would hire them and get them so far out and drop them. Get up and leave in the middle of the night, and leave them there. And you had lots of those.
Musicians from other parts of Texas, and possibly the South or Southwest, brought other regional or individual styles of playing into the Austin environment. Herschel Evans, who Ramey remembers playing in Austin in the early 1930s, was from Denton, Texas, but became famous as the tenor sax counter-voice to Lester Young in Count Basie’s classic orchestra. Evans was one of the major saxophone voices of late 1930s Swing and his hard-driving attack was a key part of the influential Basie sound. Likewise, Buddy Tate, who grew up in Houston and replaced Evans in the Basie band in 1939, was around in Central Texas during this period. Tate and Evans are typically placed as major representatives of the “Texas Tenors,” a unique saxophone sound that developed in Texas in the 1920s and 1930s. Its characteristic squeals and high screeches, a staple of big band music in the 1940s, eventually became the model for Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll saxophonists in the 1950s.