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Earl Bass Granstaff – Grand Rapids’ Vaudeville and Jazz Pioneer:

Grand Rapids’ Vaudeville and Jazz Pioneer: Earl Bass Granstaff

By Kim Rush

 

Background Information:  Origins of the Terms Jass and Jazz

New Orleans performers performed ragtime and blues, as well as other forms of music well before 1916. These players are commonly assumed to be among the very earliest of ‘jazz’ musicians.

However, these same early New Orleans musicians maintained that previous to 1916, the term ‘jazz’ was never actually applied to their music. “The term ‘jazz’ was not known (before 1916) in New Orleans but was merely the name that northerners and Californians gave to the music that was called ragtime in New Orleans. “ (1)

Some of the better known New Orleans musicians from this era were Papa Jack Laine, Buddy Bolden, Kid Ory, Bill Johnson, Joe Oliver and his protégé, Louis Armstrong, although there were many others who were involved.

Coincidentally, the slang term, jass, which at times was used to refer to ‘jazz’ music, also carried sexual connotations.

It has been discovered that baseball writer E.T. Scoop Gleeson of the San Francisco Bulletin used the term ‘jazz’ as early as 1913 to describe the spirit, pep, and enthusiasm displayed by baseball fans and athletes.  (2)  It has therefore been suggested that this same meaning was eventually applied to describe jazz music because it was often “peppy, ‘hot’ and fresh.” (3)

Although debates concerning the origins of jazz (or ‘jass’) are potentially endless, it is undisputable that by 1920 many musicians and music lovers had embraced the music which at that time carried the perpetually ambiguous name tag of jazz.  ‘Jazz’ recordings had definitely become very popular by 1920.

 

The First ‘Jazz’ Recording

The first jazz records “must have sounded ‘new’ or novel to listeners at that time, complete with wild breaks, three way melody lines and crashing drums.  Early publicity for jazz bands accentuated this ‘strangeness,’ utilizing jokes and cartoons. Many of the early jazz bands were photographed in wild convoluted poses.”  (4)

 

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This is the sheet music for Livery Stable Blues, displaying this period’s typically comical artwork. The source for this image is: http://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/scriptorium/sheetmusic/n/n08/n0879/

 

On February 26, 1917 the first recognized jazz recording was made in New York City by the Original Dixieland Jass Band.  Released in May on the Victor label, “Livery Stable Blues” sold well. Reportedly, within six months of its release, over one million copies had been purchased.

It has been proposed that this record “fused the New Orleans sound with the term ‘jazz’ to create a commercial product which could be widely distributed. This is sometimes considered to be the spark that ignited the jazz fad that seized the world in the years during and after World War I.” (5)

Click this link to hear Livery Stable Blues:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WojNaU4-kI

Perry Bradford

Perry Bradford worked with minstrel shows and theatrical companies, as early as 1906. As a performing singer and pianist he became exposed to most forms of American black music. He was not only a dancer, musician and songwriter, but also a talent agent. Bradford also owned his own music publishing company in New York City.

He wrote in his career auto-biography that “someone told the Victor Company there were some white musicians (working) in Chicago from New Orleans who could play New Orleans Jazz style. It was those boys who made the Livery Stable Blues and became ‘Pioneers.’ “    Perry was visibly frustrated by what he considered to be white “theft” and exploitation of indigenous black music, and worked ardently to obtain proper recognition for more ‘authentic’ black blues and jazz musicians. (6)

In the early 1920s, Bradford assisted singers Mamie Smith, Edith Wilson and Mary Stafford to become recorded. “Until Mamie Smith recorded Perry Bradford’s Crazy Blues in 1920, the record companies simply didn’t know that they could make money selling black- oriented music marketed specifically for black audiences. When these ‘race’ records began to be distributed it was about the same time that record companies were also starting to issue other recordings dedicated to the various ethnic groups immigrating to the United States.” (7)

It is obvious that racial prejudice played a role for preventing black musicians from thriving financially in the recording business. However, it is erroneous to contend that because of this bigotry, no African American musicians, preachers and comedians were allowed to record for the commercial market previous to 1920. The Standard Quartette, George Johnson and Louis Vasnier were among the earliest of the black recording artists.  Bert Williams and George Walker’s recordings, issued from 1901-1909, were very popular.  Other significant recordings were made by the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet, Fisk Jubilee Singers, Arthur Collins and Wilbur Sweatman, all previous to 1920. (8)

 

Early Jazz Musicians in Grand Rapids in 1920: Herman Curtis and Earl Granstaff

On January 3, 1920, trombonist Earl Granstaff posted the following entertainment ad in the Grand Rapids Press:

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During that same winter, jazz violinist Herman Curtis’ Colored Music Makers were providing entertainment at The Chinese Temple, located at 212-214 Pearl Street in Grand Rapids.  The Chinese Temple was under public scrutiny as early as January of 1921, as police arrested and imposed heavy fines on young dancers for “improper and indecent” dancing. (Grand Rapids Press, 1.24.1921, “Police Declare War on Improper Dances.”)

 

Curtis

This is an early Herman Curtis band entertainment ad from January 13, 1920 (Grand Rapids Press)

 

During 1920, Herman Curtis and Earl Granstaff were housed in the same neighborhood in Grand Rapids, as they focused on their musical careers. They certainly qualify as early pioneers of Grand Rapids jazz music, and may be the first jazz musicians to have lived in Grand Rapids.

Earl Bass Granstaff was born on July 23, 1894, in Grand Rapids. Herman Elmer Curtis was born a couple of years later in Mt. Vernon, Indiana on April 25, 1896. Curtis had completed his musical training on violin at South Bend Conservatory of Music and had relocated to Grand Rapids by 1918.

Herman then remained in Grand Rapids and led numerous local orchestras and bands, including the Dusky Devastators of the Depression, NBC (Nobody But Curtis), as well as the Chocolate Vagabonds. He often played the upright bass in addition to the violin, steadily performing around western Michigan until just before his death in 1962. I intend to focus more specifically on the intriguing life and musical career of Herman Curtis in a future article.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there are not only numerous resources available concerning Earl Granstaff’s career as a musician, but also contextual information which relates to the general history of black entertainment during his lifetime. With abundant help from various resources, I have assembled the following timeline and account of Granstaff’s extraordinary life. It is based upon records found in jazz history books, magazines, websites, as well as newspaper and scholarly articles, discographies, census reports and other public records. I freely admit that this article owes a profound debt to the research of music historians such as Horst Bergmeier and Rainer Lotz, Peter Lefferts, Rachel Gillett, Clifford Watkins and Konrad Nowakowski, and numerous other quality historians.

 

1913

In June of 1913, while Earl Granstaff was still in his late teenage years, he was already performing with the P.G. (Perry George) Lowery Band and Minstrels. He served as a trombonist and eventually as the assistant stage manager for this orchestra, which was employed at that time by the (Ben) Wallace and (Carl) Hagenbeck Circus. (9)  Lowery’s band also supplied music for the Ringling Brothers circus in the 1920s, but this was after Granstaff had left him.

1914

The Indianapolis Freeman originated in 1888, and was circulated nationally. Fortunately, some of Granstaff’s earliest career information can be located within its pages.

For example, an article from the Freeman, dated 6.27.1914, reveals that cornet player Leslie Davis, also a member of Lowery’s band, had formed a duet with Granstaff, and that they were incorporating comedy into their vaudeville “novelty act.”

Freeman newspaper columns continue to trace the duet’s career pathway, as by 9.1.1914 they were performing in Iowa, and had moved on to Wichita, Kansas by 10.3.14. An article published just two weeks later, on 10.17.1914, reports that the circus had recently departed Kansas. This article also contains the prediction that a number of Lowery’s performers, including Davis and Granstaff, would likely be working with the vaudeville theater circuits during the winter months. This forecast came true, at least for Granstaff and Davis.

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A brief depiction of the Davis and Granstaff act that was performed in Kansas, from the 10.17.1914 Freeman newspaper. This article also reflects that at that time there were vaudeville theatres (“houses”) which catered only to black (“colored”) audiences.

 

11.7.1914 Freeman advertisement for Granstaff and Davis:

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Untitled 1This is another ad with similar appearance from the Freeman newspaper, posted only one week later, dated 11.14.14

 

Freeman continued to outline the duet’s course by announcing that they would be performing at Lincoln Theatre, on 11.23.1914, in Cincinnati.

 

This 12.5.1914 Freeman article reflects on the excitement of an earlier engagement at 81 Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia:

 

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81 Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia

Source of this photo is:  http://ajcphotovault.tumblr.com/post/42231001755/a-cool-corner-baileys-81-theatre-charles

During December, Granstaff and Davis also played in Indianapolis at the New Crown Garden Theater.

The review located below, from 12.5.1914, enthusiastically portrays their innovative act:

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A week later, on 12.12.1914, a party for Wallace-Hagenbeck circus employees was held in Indianapolis. The column which describes this celebration also mentions that Granstaff and Davis were working at the Vaudette Theater in Detroit and were scheduled to move to the Ruby Theater in Louisville, Kentucky during the following week.

 

1915

 

By 1915, it appears that Granstaff and Davis had left their circus job and were gradually employed by numerous vaudeville circuit booking agents, including United Booking Offices. It was operated by east coast vaudeville circuit theater owners B.F. Keith and E.F. Albee. They supplied the talent for their venues with their own booking agency.

“The United Booking Office grew out of a Keith-controlled syndicate, the Association of Vaudeville Managers of the United States, at the turn of the 20th century.” By 1907, “other well known theaters joined” the Keith booking agency. That same year, the Keith group extended westward through an arrangement with Western Vaudeville Managers Association. They also joined forces with Percy Williams, of New York. The United circuit, in alliance with the Western Vaudeville Managers Association, created a combined circuit totaling 200 theatres nationwide.  (7)

Attempting to identify exactly which of the numerous booking agencies secured work for Granstaff and Davis’s duet is a murky endeavor, partially because there were so many theatres, theatre circuits and booking agencies.  Between 1890 and 1920 vaudeville entertainment was so popular in American theatres that many businessmen became attracted to this industry. Many theatres were built during these years, specifically for the purpose of profiting from this craze, including B.F. Keith’s Empress Theatre, erected in Grand Rapids around 1913.

Due to the ongoing efforts of a variety of businessmen, both white and black, African American entertainers, including   Granstaff and Davis, eventually gained acceptance within the vaudeville business.

Inaccurate and confusing information has been written concerning The Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A).  It appears that it was a booking agency created in 1907 by two brothers, Fred and Anselmo  Barrasso, of Memphis, Tennessee. The Barrasso brothers were white entrepreneurs who foresaw the business potential of offering black vaudeville entertainment for black audiences.

Sherman Dudley, himself a black vaudeville entertainer, developed  yet another vaudeville theatre circuit business around 1912. By the end of 1914, Dudley’s circuit included twenty-three theaters, all owned or managed by black businessmen.  Eventually he merged with United and the Southern Consolidated Circuit.  Granstaff and Davis appeared at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. , The Boston Theatre in Roanoke, Virginia, The Ruby Theatre in Louisville Kentucky, The Lincoln Theatre in Cincinnati, Ohio, The New Crown Theatre in Indianapolis, and the Lafayette Theatre in New York City, which were all part of Dudley’s circuit.

On January 2, 1915, Granstaff and Davis served as the closing act for a stage presentation that was described as the “hit of the bill” at the Star Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Two days later they put on another show at the Howard Theatre in Washington D.C., and on February 6th they brought their act to Boston Theatre in Roanoke, Virginia.  Later that year, they also appeared at the Lincoln Theatre in Cincinnati, Ohio, on November 23.

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The Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.

 

1916

 

From January 15-18, 1916, Granstaff and Davis performed at the Orpheum Theatre in New York City.  

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At the beginning of the following month, they moved their act to the Lincoln Theatre, also located in New York City, in Harlem, at 58 West 135th Street.

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The Lincoln Theatre

The following memorandum, doubling as an advertisement, was published in the 2.26.1916 Freeman newspaper. It appears to be generated by Granstaff and Davis:  

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In mid-March, the duet brought their act back to the Lincoln Theater in New York City.

Two months later, on 5.25.1916, they played at Davis Gibson’s New Standard Theatre in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

 

 

1917

In early January of 1917, they worked at the Academy Theatre in Buffalo, New York.  A columnist for the Buffalo Courier described them as “Ethiopian fun makers.”

On May 12th, Granstaff and Davis’ names were located among a list of several performers found in an ad posted in The Billboard. They were offering “best wishes to the National Vaudeville Artists, Inc.,” a theater performer’s union formed by Edward Albee in 1916. Granstaff and Davis were visibly displaying their loyalty to their employer, the United Booking Office. During 1914, B.F. Keith had died and Albee took over the company.

Around 1900, a group of actors and performers called the “White Rats” had formed an alternative booking organization which opposed the restrictive monopoly applied by Keith and Albee’s United Booking Office.  But the White Rats were never effective in terms of competing with UBO. Women and blacks were not allowed to be members of the White Rats. “Some black vaudevillians charged that not only did the White Rats exclude them from membership but that the leaders of the organization, when negotiating with theatre manager representatives, demanded that black acts not be booked in white or mainstream vaudeville. The White Rats did not wish to lose jobs to colored acts.” (11)

Albee’s National Vaudeville Artists union, formed in 1916, demonstrated  his desire to ultimately  discredit and ruin the “White Rats.”  Albee threatened to blacklist performers who worked for the White Rats and required vaudeville performers to acknowledge UBO as the only authorized booking office.

World War I and the draft

According to Granstaff’s registration for military service, dated June 5, 1917, he was residing in Grand Rapids at that time. This document reports that he was married and living with his wife (though her name is undisclosed) and his grandmother, Artemisia Moore.  He was employed by the “United Booking Offices” as a “musician and actor in vaudeville, travelling out west.”  Despite the looming prospect of being drafted, Granstaff and his partner, Davis, continued to tour. On July 19th Granstaff and Davis were entertaining at Great Falls, Montana, at the Palace Theatre.

During 1917, The Billboard provided information about Granstaff and Davis performances.

“Founded in 1894 (as The Billboard,) the magazine originally got its name from billboard advertisements for live entertainments like carnivals and fairs. It started publishing musical charts in the 1930s, launched its signature “Hot 100” in 1958, and by the 1960s was exclusively covering music.”  (12)

According to The Billboard, the Granstaff-Davis duet was located at Portland, Oregon from August 16 through the 18th, in 1917.

From Portland they traveled to Sacramento, California, to perform at the Victory Theatre from August 22nd through the 25th.

 

1918

 

Granstaff was eventually drafted by April 6, 1918, based on a Chicago Defender newspaper article.     At that time was he was playing at the Princess Theatre in Youngstown, Illinois, with Davis.

Allegedly, he resided in France from August 1918 until June of 1919, while in the armed services. After the war he returned to the United States.

Initially, he served under James “Tim” Brymn in France, providing his musical talents for the seventy-piece 350th Field Artillery Band, also referred to as the “Black Devils” and “The Overseas Jazz Sensation.”  Brymn was a composer who had received musical training at the National Conservatory in New York, and was well connected with the New York City theatrical business.

Eventually Granstaff was transferred to the 807th Pioneer Infantry Band under Will Vodery, who was also linked with the New York City theatrical business. He created a skilled orchestra while serving as conductor for this military band, and with good reason:  ”Will Vodery had brought with him into the band as volunteer enlistees or located, amongst the regiment’s draftees, many East Coast professional musicians.” (13) 

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1920 Will Vodery passport photo

Vodery first moved to New York City by 1907, establishing himself as a composer, arranger, and show conductor. Eventually he became the ‘music supervisor’ for Ziegfeld Follies. During World War I, his Army band performed in France and Belgium. At the end of the war he returned to New York City.  In 1921 he orchestrated a musical production entitled Shuffle Along. He was also the leader of his own band, named Will Vodery’s Plantation Orchestra.  (14)

One might conclude that associations which Granstaff made while playing in Brymn’s and Vodery’s military bands created contacts which served to advance his future career, which includes the blues and jazz recordings Granstaff made in New York City in the early 1920s. Vodery was certainly impressed with Granstaff’s talent, and it is likely that he was the person who encouraged Earl to move to New York City between 1922 and 1923. From a letter written by Vodery, dated 11.22.18, he states that Granstaff and other key players in his (army) band are putting on a “knock-out” show.  (15)

 

1919

On March 9, while still leading his First Army Headquarters Post Band in France (including Sergeant Earl Granstaff,) Lieutenant Will Vodery shared that he was “convinced that the white American has softened somewhat on the race question.” Vodery asked, “can you imagine them taking a colored band from a colored outfit and putting it where the cream of the army is stationed?” They were regularly performing musical plays which included vocalists. These were presented to officers, including Lieutenant General Liggett. (16)

On April 12, 1919, The Chicago Defender reported that Sergeant Earl Granstaff was still stationed in France. Granstaff stated that he was keeping in touch by reading the Chicago Defender and Freeman newspapers every week.

Once he returned to the United States at the end of his tour of duty, various sources indicate that he resumed traveling and performing, again, without any hiatus.

1920

As mentioned earlier in this article, he placed an ad for his jazz band in the Grand Rapids Press during January of 1920.

Based on a January 9, 1920 census record, Granstaff was residing at 551 James S.E. in Grand Rapids with his grandmother at that time. It also indicates that Earl was employed as a tailor. Understandably, it does not mention his impending marriage to Ruth Johnson, which occurred on February 9, 1920. This wedding date is based on information obtained from a passport application which Ruth supplied  in 1923. At that time she was trying to secure a passport to visit Earl in England.

By June of 1920 Earl was performing at Royal Gardens Cabaret, located at 2 Catherine Street in New York City.

Two months later, a Chicago Defender article from August 28, 1920 states that “Earl and his wife are in Chicago and will make it their headquarters. Earl and Leslie Davis will enter show business as a team in the near future.”

Chicago Defender also reported, less than a month later, that on 9.25.20 “Earl Grandstaff, with his clever novelty single, is splitting the week between Charles City, Dixon and LaSalle, Illinois.”

An October 23, 1920 Chicago Defender article also provides information concerning “the Jazzbo dividing time between Temple Theatres in Grand Rapids and Grand Haven, Michigan.”

Sometime between autumn of 1920 and early winter of 1921, it appears that Will Vodery had persuaded Earl to travel to New York City, most likely to perform with his theater group, and to record with a few of Vodery’s and Perry Bradford’s musicians.

 

1921

 

According to Perry Bradford, Will Vodery had an office located at the Gaiety Theatre Building at 1547 Broadway in New York City in the early 1920s. At that time, Bradford was pushing to get Mamie Smith’s songs recorded with a label named Okeh. Perry had brought Smith’s ‘test’ recordings to Vodery and Bert Williams office for them to listen to, hoping that they could help him.

In 1920 Bradford eventually persuaded Fred Hager, “recording manager” at Okeh Recording Company, to take “a chance to record a Negro girl,” namely Mamie Smith, backed by black musicians. Bradford claimed that Hager released the record even though Hager was threatened with boycotts against his record label. (17)

Her recording of Perry’s composition, entitled Crazy Blues, proved to be a huge success, and this served to convince Okeh and other recording companies that there was a promising potential market for future ‘race’ recordings, marketed specifically for the black audience.

On September 17, 1921 Perry Bradford and Tim Brymn worked together to provide the music for a New York City stage presentation called “Put and Take.”  Billboard described the show as “Negro entertainment for white consumption.”

During that same month, Bradford parted ways with both Okeh and Mamie Smith. Perry even spent time in court battling with Mamie Smith and her boyfriend, Ocie Wilson.  Perry maintained that he owned the sole rights for use of the “Jazz Hounds” name which both Smith and Okeh were using freely, and attempted to stop them. Bradford also claimed that Smith’s recordings were not selling as well as they once were, so that she was no longer worth promoting.

At that time Bradford proceeded to introduce two new female vocalists to his latest recording associate, Columbia Records.

Because Columbia was eager to compete with the success of Okeh’s Mamie Smith recordings, and they acknowledged that there was great potential with recording black women blues singers, Bradford secured recording dates for both Mary Stafford and Edith Wilson.

Mary Stafford was performing at Barron William’s Cabaret in Harlem at that time. Bradford and his contacts from Columbia went to enjoy her exciting act. Stafford’s rendition of Crazy Blues and Royal Garden Blues were recorded at a studio near 59th and Broadway that same week. Perry Bradford figured that Mary Stafford could not miss with the “hot shot band of great stars” backing her up on this session, which included “Granstaff, who worked in vaudeville with George Davis. “ (Perry was most likely referring to Leslie Davis.)

This session probably occurred in January of 1921. Granstaff also provided his trombone playing skills for another Mary Stafford recording session, held on March 21st.

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Very few photos of Mary Stafford have survived, but this is one.

Likewise, Granstaff also recorded with singer Edith Wilson in January, April and June of the following year.  Her ‘Wicked Blues’ and ‘Birmingham Blues’ were recorded on June 20, 1922. (18)

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Edith Wilson 

Click on the links provided below to hear these songs:

Mary Stafford/ Royal Garden Blues :  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDvShtTyKEQ

Edith Wilson / Wicked Blues :    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stQpWfYpNog

 

1922

On February 14, 1922, Earl also contributed to the songs entitled Hallelujah Blues and Spanish Dreams, recorded by Johnny Dunn’s Original Jazz Hounds.

Here is a link to hear the recording of Hallelujah Blues from this session:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2gfxgy8bdc

A Billboard article from 6.17.1922 relates that Earl provided the fourth act as “The Trombo-edian” for a show held at the Lafayette Theatre in New York City, which had occurred on June 4th.  The reviewer indicated that “after two minutes on stage he owned the house, body and soul.”

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Lafayette Theatre in New York City, located at 132nd Street and 7th Avenue in Harlem. The marquee advertises “Colored Musical Revues.”  The marquee in this photo advertises “Colored Musical Revues.”

 

A week later, Earl was employed with the Nimrod Jones Orchestra.  They worked at a remodeled cabaret situated on the second floor above the former Douglas Theater. It was named The Happy Rone Club, located at 654 Lenox Avenue in New York City.  (19)

The Billboard also advertised that The Plantation Revue, starring Florence Mills, was appearing at the Lafayette Theater in New York City on July 8. Will Vodery was in charge of the orchestra, which included Granstaff and Johnny Dunn. Singer Edith Wilson was also a part of this same show.

By October 7, The Plantation Room Revue had been moved to the Winter Garden Building, also in New York City. This presentation included the same personnel listed above, including Earl Granstaff.

According to Perry Bradford, he was initially approached by theatrical producer Lew Leslie to book Mamie Smith and the Jazz Hounds for the spring opening of the Plantation Revue. Florence Mills had previously agreed to perform with this same revue. Perry convinced Leslie to use Edith Wilson and the Jazz Hounds, in addition.  At the first rehearsal, Johnny Dunn and Danny Wilson both sought to be the band leader, but Will Vodery was awarded the job. They called this group the Plantation Orchestra, with Earl Granstaff serving as their trombone player. (20)

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 This is an advertisement for the Perry Bradford Music Publishing Company, which provides two references to Bradford’s connection with the Plantation Review.  (21)

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The gentleman kneeling at the far left of this photo appears to be Earl Granstaff.  He is captured here with Edith Wilson and the Original Jazz Hounds. An ‘alternate’ photo of this same picture exists where Edith is cropped out of the picture. This second version was used to promote Johnny Dunn and his Original Jazz Hounds.

 

Earl Granstaff may have traveled back and forth from Grand Rapids to New York City occasionally after 1920, although I could not locate any documentation to support this assertion.

Nevertheless, according to information supplied from both Earl and his wife’s 1923 passport applications, sometime during this same year they held an apartment at 168 W. 141st St. in Harlem. The New York City 1925 city directory also links Earl’s name with this address. But it is more likely that only his wife Ruth was still living at this address in 1925, as Earl was almost certainly living overseas at this time. Based on numerous accounts, we can assume that Earl was very active touring Europe as a musician between 1924 and 1928.

At the risk of making this couple’s location even more ambiguous, Ruth was living at 521 James S.E. in Grand Rapids, and employed as a stock keeper, according to the 1924 Grand Rapids city directory.

Then she had moved to 35 Dunham S.E. and was working as an elevator operator at the Pantlind Hotel, based on the 1925 Grand Rapids city directory.

In addition, two Grand Rapids- related society columns which were located in the Chicago Defender newspaper indicate that Ruth attended parties and social events held in Grand Rapids near the dates of 3.29.1924 and 2.25.1928.

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Earl Granstaff’s 1923 passport photo

 

 

1923

One of Earl Granstaff’s early passport applications, which requested permission to travel to England from New York City, is dated April 24, 1923.  Sometime soon after, Granstaff  journeyed to England with “The Plantation Revue.”  The title of this production was altered to “From Dover Street to Dixie” for their European performances.  Earl served as a member of Will Vodery’s Plantation Orchestra, which accompanied this variety show and featured Florence Mills, who became a friend of Grandstaff’s.  The show closed on September 1, 1923.  Five days later, the orchestra and members of the cast left Southampton, England for New York City.

 

1924

During the spring of 1924, Granstaff returned to Europe and settled in Paris.  Around the middle of this year he was working there with a band called The International Five.  About this same time, Arthur Briggs temporarily left his band and went to Paris to join Granstaff with the International Five. At the Seymour Cabaret on Rue de Mogador, the band provided the music for a revue entitled Midnight Shuffle Along.

“The Chicago Defender of August 2, 1924, quoting the Paris edition of the Tribune, described the program as ‘the first appearance of a real all-Colored midnight show in Paris.’ ” (22)

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Theatre Mogador in Paris, as it looks today.

 

 

1925

Granstaff performed in Berlin, Germany with the Alex Hyde Orchestra during the months of June and July of1925. He also recorded in this same country with Alex Hyde & His New Yorker Jazz Band for various sessions held between April and July. (23)  Also, Granstaff probably worked with Eric Borchard’s Atlantic Jazz Band throughout the fall months.

“The La Revue Negre  company, including a band led by Claude Hopkins, Sidney Bechet and trombonist Earl Granstaff, sailed for France on September 15, 1925, aboard the S.S. Berengari.(24)

“Caroline Dudley Reagan, a white American socialite, and friend of Gertrude Stein and Picasso, who divided her time between Paris and New York, wanted to introduce black musical culture to Paris. She decided to create a revue similar to the popular Chocolate Dandies, Shuffle Along, and Runnin’ Wild for the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. She went to New York in 1925 and assembled a company that included (Josephine) Baker, bandleader Claude Hopkins, blues singer Maud de Forest, clarinetist Sidney Bechet, and artist Miguel Covarrubias, who designed the sets. The show, La Revue Nègre, opened in Paris to wild acclaim and was seen by many of the leading avant garde artists and intellectuals of the day – including Pablo Picasso, E.E. Cummings, and Ernest Hemingway.” (25)

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c. 1925 Paul Colin artwork which caricatures his girlfriend, Josephine Baker, who became the most famous celebrity of all the performers and musicians to have worked with La Revue Negre.

 

1926

Within the early months of 1926, Granstaff began playing at the Parisienne Grill in Budapest, Hungary. He then reunited with Arthur Briggs. “Briggs sent a note to Earl Granstaff in Budapest, inviting him to join his band at Vienna, Austria and also asked him to suggest a drummer who could replace Albert Refurt.  Granstaff accepted the offer and brought Hungarian drummer Jeno ‘Chappy’ Orlay Obendorfer with him.  Both had been members of the band led by Vilmos ‘Villi’ Pataky at the Parisienne Grill in Budapest early in 1926, where they also featured as a ‘Black & White’ dance act.”  (26)

On July 20, 1926 Granstaff performed with the Arthur Briggs Orchestra at Taxim Gardens in Constantinople.

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This photo was taken at Taxim Gardens in Constantinople where Earl performed with the Arthur Briggs Orchestra on July 20, 1926. Left to right are:  Alston Hughes, Chappy Orlay, Egide van Gils, Mario Scanavino, Arthur Briggs and Earl Granstaff   (27, 28)

 

Brigg’s “reorganized band (including Granstaff) left Vienna by train for Istanbul, Turkey on August 9, 1926. Their new engagement in Istanbul was at the Maxim, a nightclub owned by George Thomas, an African American.”  (29)  By September 11, 1926, Granstaff had returned to Paris.

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1927

Granstaff, as well as numerous other jazz musicians and performers, genuinely enjoyed the freedom they experienced while travelling throughout Europe. He once stated in a letter to Florence Mills that, since leaving New York in 1924, he had ‘seen a lot and lived a great life.’ (He) was negotiating good contracts, enjoying freedom from American prohibition laws, and choosing which cities to visit and how long to stay.  (30)

During the summer of 1927, foreign correspondent John A. Rogers, a writer for the New York Amsterdam News, produced three articles which describethe experiences of black Americans living in Marseilles, France as well as in Constantinople.

Rogers concluded that the “jazz era certainly created a vogue for the black musicians and performers in Europe,” which reinforces Granstaff’s positive statements about being appreciated there.

One of the musicians Rogers encountered while visiting Marseilles was Earl Granstaff.  During the course of their conversations, Earl told Rogers that he had secured a one year contract at a leading cabaret in Marseilles. He also claimed that he had visited most countries in Europe. Granstaff included that he had performed for the king and queen of Spain, the king of Roumania, the Prince of Wales, as well as Admiral Bristol and Woodrow Wilson in Constantinople.

“In Vienna he worked with an opera company where he was the only colored person.”  Rogers also mentioned that in Marseilles “Negroes ate in the best places,” and that inter-racial “tranquility” existed. He also declared that Earl “lives at one of the best hotels in the Canebiere district of Marseilles.”(31)

During 1927, Granstaff also performed with his own band called the 6 Manhattans in Vienna, Austria. (32)  

 

 

1928

While he was in Paris, Granstaff wrote a letter to Romeo Dougherty, the editor of the New Amsterdam News, who was located in New York City. The correspondence was dated January 25, 1928, but it was posted in the February 15 issue of the newspaper.  Grandstaff referred to himself as an “American refugee in Europe for four years.”  He told Dougherty where he had travelled. Granstaff’s itinerary included Budapest, “the Orient,” Constantinople, Turkey, and Marseilles. While in Merseilles he had resided, with his pets, in a villa facing the ocean.

He also pointed out that he had performed for the Paris Negro Revue Concert at Major Theatre and that he was currently in Vienna.

 

1929

The February 20, 1929 New York Amsterdam News briefly reported the premature death of Earl Granstaff with no sentiment, and referred to him as “Eddie Grandstaff.”  The following notice was located in the “Notes of London” column, compiled by Ivan H. Browning:

“Eddie Grandstaff, a well-known American musician, died recently in the south of France, after a somewhat lingering illness. Mr. Granstaff was a fine trombone player and came to Europe some years ago with the famous Will Marion Cook’s Syncopated Orchestra.”

Summary and Comments

What Earl Granstaff achieved during his short life is amazing. Though he lived at a time when access to quality education and job opportunities were generally scarce for black Americans, he was literate, as well as an accomplished and steadily employed musician.  He supported himself by performing from his late teenage years onward. By the age of 26, he was recording for major record labels with some of New York City’s best blues and jazz musicians. He travelled throughout Europe for four years before his death, evidently making a good living as a musician. I have located little concerning his earliest years or about what actually caused his death, but we do know that Earl Granstaff thrived during his adult years. At the least, now we know a slight bit more about him.

 

 

Footnotes:

1.  Please see the All that Jazz website article entitled Early Jazz History/ Jazz in Chicago for a much more informed discussion of this subject.  Here is the link to this article: http://atj.8k.com/atjh3.html

2.  Ben Zimmer,  “Jazz”: A Tale of Three Cities, online article dated 6.8.2009, located at https://www.vocabulary.com/articles/wordroutes/jazz-a-tale-of-three-cities/

3.  Ben Zimmer,  “Jazz”: A Tale of Three Cities, online article dated 6.8.2009, located at https://www.vocabulary.com/articles/wordroutes/jazz-a-tale-of-three-cities/

This explanation is also based on my conversations with Steve Smith concerning the origins, etymology and early jazz.  Steve lives in Grand Rapids and is a jazz record collector and local historian, specializing in early jazz history and jazz recordings.

4.  This information was also obtained from Steve Smith.

5.  Please see the All that Jazz website article entitled Early Jazz History/ Jazz in Chicago for a more informed discussion concerning this subject.  Here is the link to this article: http://atj.8k.com/atjh3.html

6.  Perry Bradford, Born with the Blues, p.47

7.  Steve Smith supplied this information. (See footnote #3 for more information about Steve Smith.)

8.  For an excellent account concerning early African-American musicians and their recordings, please read the book entitled “Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919,” by Tim Brooks and Richard Keith Spottswood.

9.  James Arthur Briggs; by Horst P. J. Bergmeier, and Rainer E. Lotz,; Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 30, No. 1

10.  Andrew L. Erdman;  Blue Vaudeville: Sex, Morals and the Mass Marketing of Amusement, 1895-1915.

11.  Frank Cullen, Vaudeville, Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, Volume 1

12.  This excerpt is located within an 1.24.13 online article entitled, “Billboard Relaunches in Print, Web and Tablet.”   Please see:  http://www.spd.org/2013/01/billboard-redesign.php

13.  Peter M. Lefferts;  Black US Army Bands and Their Bandmasters in World War I , p.13

14.  Rick Benjamin,  “Black Manhatten,“  (liner notes) http://www.newworldrecords.org/linernotes/80611.pdf

15.  Tim Brooks, Richard Keith Spottswood, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919, p.358

16.  From The New York Age, March 8, 1919; “It Is The New Lieutenant Vodery”

17.  Perry Bradford, Born with the Blues

18.  The following website provides recording dates and information for these and many other early jazz recordings: http://www.keeponliving.at/year/1922.html

19.  “A Study in Black and White,” The Billboard; 6.24.22

20.   Perry Bradford, Born with the Blues,  p.7

21.   Perry Bradford, Born with the Blues

22.   James Arthur Briggs; by Bergmeier, Horst P. J.; Lotz, Rainer E. (Academic journal article from Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 30, No. 1)

23.   Please see the information about these recordings at:     http://jazzindex.ch/de/album.php?Album=42642&Begriff=Alex+Hyde+%26+His+New+Yorker+Jazz+Band+-+Vol.2+Jazz+%26+Hot+Dance+From+German

24.  That’s Got ‘Em!  The Life and Music of Wilbur C. Sweatman by Mark Berresford, p.148

25.  This information is located in the following website article: http://www.symphonyspace.org/event/7395-my-paris-and-la-revue-negre-opening-reception

26.   James Arthur Briggs; by Bergmeier, Horst P. J.; Lotz, Rainer E. /Academic journal article from Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 30, No. 1

27.   James Arthur Briggs; by Bergmeier, Horst P. J.; Lotz, Rainer E. /Academic journal article from Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 30, No. 1

28.  Source for picture of performance at Constantinople is the Project Muse website: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/black_music_research_journal/v030/30.1.bergmeier_fig09.html  (figure 9)

29.  James Arthur Briggs; by Bergmeier, Horst P. J.; Lotz, Rainer E. (Academic journal article from Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 30, No. 1)

30.  Rachel Gillett; Jazz and the Evolution of Black American Cosmopolitanism in Interwar Paris; Jazz Journal of World History, Volume 21, Number 3, September 2010, pp. 471-496

31.  “John Rogers Meets Homesick American Negroes in Marseilles,” New York Amsterdam News; June 29 and 30, 1927; p.13, col.3

32.  Howard Rye,  Southern Syncopated Orchestra: The Roster;   Black Music Research Journal, Volume 30, Number 1, Spring 2010, pp. 19-70

 

 

 

Additional Credits:

 

1.   Lynn Abbott, Doug Seroff,  Ragged But Right,  Black Travelling Shows Coon Songs and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz

2.   Watkins, Clifford Edward,  Showman: The Life and Music and Perry George Lowery ; University Press of Mississippi (publisher); Jackson, MS (place); published 2003

3.   Konrad Nowakowski; Southern Syncopated Orchestra ; Black Music Research JournalVol. 29, No. 2, (Fall, 2009), pp. 229-282; Published by University of Illinois

4.  Garvin Bushel,  Jazz from the Beginning  (discography)

5.   Edited by Craig Martin Gibbs,   Black Recording Artists, 1877-1926: An Annotated Discography

6.   Brian Rust, Jazz and Ragtime Records, (1897-1942)

7.   http://www.redhotjazz.com/dunn.html    (discographies)

8.   All music supplied by You Tube.com website, a great source for both popular and more obscure music.

9.    Anthelia Knight; Sherman Dudley, He Paved the way for T.OB.A.; The Black Perspective in Music, Volume 15, Number 2, Autumn 1987, pp.153-181

10.  Bernard L. Peterson, Jr.; The African American Theatre Directory: 1816 – 1960

11.  Eric Ledell Smith,  African American Theater Buildings

FS ~ 7/25/2013 – 8/15/2013

 

2 Responses to Earl Bass Granstaff – Grand Rapids’ Vaudeville and Jazz Pioneer:

  1. Marc Lindy says:

    Thank you for this most interesting, well researched and nicely presented article about Earl Granstaff. So much music played in such a short life-time.

  2. Dan Pliskow says:

    I loved the piece and you have such a love for the Gd. Rapids scene and it shines through.
    Thanks

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