A 1921 photograph of the Houston based band. Robert Runyon, Photographer. [Robert Runyon Photograph Collection]
Jan. 4, 2016
by John Nova Lomax
Uncovering the mystery of The King & Carter Jazzing Orchestra. After years of trying to find out about the subject of the above photo clues emerge in an unlikely place.
Eight years ago, back when I was music editor of the Houston Press, I came across this picture of the King & Carter Jazzing Orchestra of Houston. It was some of the earliest proof of the existence of jazz in the Bayou City (or certainly the earliest photo of local practitioners I had seen), and just a dang cool picture all around. I was intrigued. What did that band sound like, with a bowed upright bass, a violin, trumpet, trombone, and drums? Who were those men under that amazing variety of boss period hats?
I Googled “King & Carter Jazzing Orchestra” and came up with nothing. I posted the photo on the Press music blog asking for more information, and I struck out again. Despite the fact that the picture itself was all over the Internet, apparently all details about the musicians had been lost to history.
All I knew was that one of them was likely named King, another was likely named Carter, that they were from Houston, that the photo was dated 1921, and that the snapshot had been taken (or belonged to) a man named Robert Runyon.
The photo would resurface during my Internet perusing every now and then, but any further digging left me empty handed. And though I still don’t know much more about the band, these phantoms of early Texas jazz did get a bit of a posthumous career boost from an unlikely and prominent source two years ago, one I just found about recently.
In “Spaghetti and Coffee,” episode two of the third season of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, a traveling jazz band by the name of King & Carter provides much of the backdrop to the episode’s plot, which revolves around African-American gangster (and Elgin, Texas native) Chalky White’s relationship with his young daughter Maybelle.
A saintly young medical student by the name of Samuel Crawford wants to marry Maybelle and wins Chalky’s permission. The trouble is, Maybelle—a hell-raising “flapper girl”—chafes at this more or less arranged marriage. She wants to write poetry about the dark side of life and finds the young man a dullard—someone not, as she puts it, as “interesting” as her father.
When Maybelle walks in on her brother, a classically trained pianist, playing Debussy, she demands to know if he is also keeping up with the times by playing jazz. “And you do that King & Carter number, don’t you?” she asks.
Her brother adopts the voice of the older generation: “Maybelle Anne, jazz is the devil’s music,” he says. “And no self-respecting Negro would go near it.” The two break into peals of laughter, mocking their elders. Spoilers follow, so I won’t go too much more into the plot, but much of it revolves around the role of jazz in delineating the generation gap in 1920s America, and for one brief, fictionalized moment, the King & Carter Jazzing Orchestra of Houston, Texas were posited as the apex of cool for bright, hip young African Americans on the East Coast.
That sent my fingers back to the keyboard for a fresh round of Googling and news archive searches, which revealed an extremely early use of the word “jazz” in Texas reportage. Lifting a piece from the Dallas Times-Herald in 1906, the Bryan Eagle reported: “We knew something was missing from the late primaries. Pat O’Keefe didn’t dance a jig over the results. Pat has gone the way of the vanquished in Dallas county [sic]. He was a spectacular figure and danced everywhere the bands were playing the jazz of political victory.” (The prominent Dallas Democrat was widely known for honoring his Irish ancestry with jig-dancing at political conventions, and went on doing so until 1932. It made national headlines when O’Keefe’s doctor told the 84-year-old to put away his dancing shoes.)
I also found King & Carter amid this alternately fascinating and hilarious collection of photos of early jazz bands, both obscure (if wonderfully named, as in the Scrap Iron Jazzerinos, the Eau Claire Normal Band, and the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band) and famous (Armstrong, Ellington, King Oliver). But new information on King & Carter continued to elude me until I came across the Bronsbil Estacion blog, a site dedicated to the lore of Brownsville.
Here is the entry: The King Carter and Jazzing Orchestra is an early jazz band from Houston that may have been in Brownsville when Robert Runyon took this photograph. Their jazz ensemble includes a trombone, trumpet, drums, violin and bass.
If Brownsville Herald archives were searched for January 1921 (this photo is dated as that) might confirm it but I don’t think those years are available. These players were coming up around the same time as Louie Armstrong but there isn’t much info on them online so far.
The post also links to an mp3 of “Shine on You Harvest Moon” purportedly by King & Carter. Sad to report, that attribution is incorrect. On YouTube, that version is revealed to have been recorded in 1927 for New York’s Brunswick label by Carter’s Orchestra, a nine-piece (likely all-white) group featuring the vocals of one Eddy Thomas.
Few, if any, commercial recordings were being made in Texas as early as 1921. If King & Carter ever went in a studio anywhere, it seems that the 78s, just like the identities of the musicians, are lost.
But why did Bronsbil Estaction tentatively place the band in Brownsville? Well, that’s where the photographer Robert Runyon, who chronicled all aspects of Valley and northeastern Mexican life (including the ravages of revolution), captured history with his camera from 1910 to 1926. (He would later serve a term as Brownsville’s mayor and write two books on South Texas botany; his heirs donated more than 8,000 of his pictures to UT’s Dolph Briscoe Center in 1986.)
It seems highly unlikely that Runyon would have traveled to Houston or anywhere else to snap this posed indoor photo when he had his own studio at his disposal there at the tip of Texas. It also seems fairly certain that King & Carter must have toured some—otherwise, why would they have needed to rep “Houston, Tex.” on their big bass drum?
But why would they go to Brownsville? First, jazz was the rock and roll or hip-hop of its day. It was not a niche music, so jazz bands were in demand everywhere people wanted to dance. It’s also possible that the photo was taken in Matamoros, or that the band posed on their way there. Free of Jim Crow, Juarez was long a city where white audiences could enjoy black music, and it could be that Matamoros was another of these havens where white men and women could see black bands without risking a police raid.
In any event, Brownsville was booming in 1921, well on its why to quadrupling the 1900 population. At the peak of the land rush, as many as 200 migrants a day disembarked at the train station, dreaming of owning orange orchards in the winterless Rio Grande Valley. And there was booze—lots of it. Thanks to smugglers, liquor flowed almost as freely in Prohibition Brownsville as it did across the river in Matamoros, where prostitution flourished in Boy’s Town.
In other words, Brownsville/Matamoros was a lot like Nucky Thompson’s Atlantic City, the place where the ghosts in the King & Carter Jazzing Orchestra would grab ahold of their second fifteen minutes of fame.