Striking a Chord with “The Overture,” 15 February 1925

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Homestead’s collection has seven issues from 1925 to 1929 of The Overture, the official journal of the Musicians Mutual Protective Association, Local 47 of the American Federation of Musicians, and this is the third post under the “Striking a Chord” banner relating to regional music history through 1930 to feature an edition—the others being from May and October 1925.

As noted on the local’s website, there was a short-lived Musical Protective Association in Los Angeles from 1888-1890, at the end of and just after the great Boom of the Eighties, when a surge in population, including of musicians, came to the Angel City. In the mid-90s, the Los Angeles Musical Association was formed and became a local of the National League of Musicians, which then morphed into the American Federation of Musicians to align with the broader labor movement’s powerful American Federation of Labor.

Local 47 was established in 1897 and the name changed to the Musicians Mutual Protective Association three years later. In succeeding years, it and the Federation worked to establish minimum fees for traveling orchestras, lobbied for copyright changes, pushed for better arrangements (?) for theater musicians, fought against national Prohibition because it would reduce employment opportunities for members, assisted in easing immigration rules for musicians traveling to and from Canada while supporting restrictions on immigrant players who would play for lower pay and declared opposition to child labor.

With a burgeoning greater Los Angeles not only having a rapidly growing population, including of professional musicians, but also a hugely increasing entertainment world supported by patrons who had more money and leisure time to spend in the theater, movie houses, concert houses, and more, The Overture, which was launched in the early 1920s, was, as it noted on its masthead, “The Musician’s Paper.”

It offered all kinds of news, from minutes of Local board meeting, happenings in venues, recent and upcoming events, a humor section from editor E.L. Smith, and more. Of particular interest in this issue is the continuing series, “History of the Band and Orchestra Business in Los Angeles,” by C.L. Bagley and “Paul Whiteman’s Opinion of American Music,” an article tied to the local appearance of the so-called “King of Jazz” whose incorporation of syncopation into his orchestra dance music was immensely popular, if hardly the jazz music being presented by masters like Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and many others.

While perusing board meeting minutes is generally about as dry as dust, it is worth noting the list of applications with the names, instruments and balances and monthly payments due from these members, along with transfers. More interesting are the board’s hearing of disputes and its conducting of proceedings concerning applications for performances, violations of union rules, and so on. So, for example, for the meeting of 20 January, F. Garramone sought permission to play KNX radio broadcasts to promote his orchestra and the Rosemary Theater, but then withdrew the request for reasons that went unexplained.

Nils Gilliam, a representative of a West Coast Theatres manager, asked that a Local member from elsewhere be allowed to take a master of ceremonies and guest conductor role at the California Theatre, specifically for a prologue for an act of the well-known Fanchon and Marco producers. Gilliam told the board he was not managing the orchestra at that venue, having that position at the Criterion, another West Coast theater. The board allowed the outside member to come out only for the Fanchon and Marco act and for three months, but not to be promoted as a conductor or orchestra leader or to otherwise be “infringing upon rights or duties” of anyone contracted for those roles.

Spencer Crane, who was expelled from the union, likely for taking a non-union gig, and imposed a $500 fine the prior summer “makes [a] pea for reduction of [the] fine to enable him to pay and re-affiliate.” The board agreed to cut the fine in half, including a new initiation fee of $50, and gave him ten days to accept the terms, while readmitting him to the union. Crane said he only had $60, which he offered to pay immediately and would provide another $40 in ten days, which the board accepted. Another infraction concerned J.C. Oaks, who was accused of playing with non-union musicians at the Chinese Gardens Café in Hollywood but who claimed that he was only a singer and entertainer.

For a special meeting three days later, there were references to denied loans; the placement of a member on a Relief List at $10 a week for a month; a two-month extension on payment of the initiation fee and dues for another member; a referral that two theaters were underpaying their organists; that Joseph Kozlowski, being a member for thirty years in good standing, was declared a life member exempt for all assessments and dues; that William Reher’s request to establish a People’s Orchestra “would likely be considered competitive,” though no decision was then made; and that a couple of members requested that any benefits accruing them on death be assigned to specific beneficiaries.

Also of note was that Jules Buffano told the board that he had a verbal arrangement with Ben Pollack of the Venice Ball Room to perform them and that Pollack said he’d prepare a contract, but “that Pollack now refuses to give [the] contract or employ him.” Buffano was told to see the Local secretary after the meeting. The Latino Dance Hall on North Main Street across from the historic Plaza and where a parking lot is was said to be where “non-union Hawaiian music [is] now playing” and a Local representative was “to notify proprietor that final action will be taken” when a meeting was arranged.

At the regular meeting of 27 January, it was reported that “C.D. Elinor is instructed and agrees to take up with Mr. Harry Arthur, the matter of his differences with the West Coast Theatres, Inc. as pertaining to a contract he (Elinor) holds with the Miller Amusement Company.” This involved another bandleader, Owen Sweeten, who said he was ready to work at Miller’s California Theatre, but that Elinor objected because of his existing contract. The board suggested that the parties meet and that “any compromise arrived at will be satisfactory.” Elinor was a Romanian-born composer, conductor and actor who conducted the score at the local premiere of the notorious D.W. Griffith film, The Birth of a Nation in 1915 and went on to work with arrangements for such films as Charles Chaplin’s classic The Gold Rush (1925) and the Fox Movietone soundtrack to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927).

Also covered in some detail was a dispute over musician Mark Murray’s claim for payment in lieu of a proper notice of separation for his work, with a record of witness testimony about why he was not rehired after the unnamed venue went through repairs. It was revealed that after the work was done, Murray returned but was late to performances, and he testified that, when he returned after the layoff, he “saw [a] man in his place, waited at [a] table” and sent word to the owner before the start of the performance that he was there. The board’s decision was to allow him compensation for the four days of layoff.

With respect to a death benefit regarding member Fritz Boeckh, it was recorded that the $1,000 was to distributed so that a $250 loan made by the Local be repaid, while the $255.44 undertaker bill was to be handled, so that the widow received the remainder of just under $500. Also of note was that the Price List Committee was told “to prepare [a] law stipulating that members appearing late on moving picture studio engagements may be docked one-half day’s pay.”

With respect to Bagley’s history, which relied heavily on Harris Newmark’s 1916 memoir, Sixty Years in Southern California, the fifth chapter covered the period from 1867-1869 and began with a quote about the condition of Los Angeles by journalist and writer Benjamin C. Truman, who wrote with considerable dramatic license, not to mention racism, of:

Crooked, ungraded, unpaved streets, land lean; adobe houses, with flat asphaltum [brea] roofs; with her and there an indolent native hugging himself inside a blanket or burying his head in the inside of a watermelon,—were the notable features of this quondam Mexican town.

In summer 1867, there was a brass band organized and this was adjudged to be “the first civilian organization of the kind in the town and it was apparently started among the students of St. Vincent’s College [now Loyola Marymount University].” The school was included boys at the grammar level through college-age scholars was then situated near today’s Pershing Square and it was added that “the leader of this band was Professor Maynard, a pianist, who is said to have played other instruments.” Also mentioned was Frank Yndart, also known as “Pancho” Coronel because that was his mother’s maiden name, she being a sister of the prominent Angelenos, Manuel and Antonio Franco Coronel.

Bagley added that “I remember this college building very well—it was in the hall on the second floor that I played my very first orchestra engagement in Los Angeles during 1892.” He added that, in August, “the Mexican colony held a great fiesta in commemoration of the close of the Mexican [-American] war” with a parade, fireworks, orations and music.

1868, he continued, was where “the real growth of the pueblo dates” as there was “an increased demand for houses” and “a general revival of trade.” A notable event was that the prominent figure Abel Stearns constructed the Arcadia Block, named for his wife, the former Arcadia Bandini. Bagley went on to note that,

In this building was Stearns’ Hall where innumerable dances, public meetings, theatrical entertainments and other functions were held in the succeeding years. The old building has long since been converted into a warehouse, but is still standing on the southwest corner of Arcadia and Los Angeles streets. The entrance to the Hall was on Arcadia Street towards the rear.

It was noted that there were a number of German musicians coming to the Angel City in the late Sixties, including the Bosshard brothers, Hermann, Jacob and John, with the former, a cornet and violin player, leading an orchestra and band for many years, while Jacob was a tuba and bass player and John played alto sax, guitar and piano. Hermann died just two years prior, well over a half-century after settling in Los Angeles. Also mentioned was Frederick Dohs, a barber at the United States Hotel, who was an altoist and violinist and worked with the Bosshards in the band and orchestra for at least thirty years—he died in summer 1924.

The year 1869 included the completion and opening of the Merced Theatre on the second of three floors in a building constructed by William Abbott next to the newly built Pico House Hotel, with the theater connected to the hostelry by an interior entrance. Bagley noted that the theater operated for under a decade, while adding that Sycamore Grove in the Arroyo Seco where Highland Park is today and Santa Monica Canyon, then a remote coastal retreat, were “much used as picnic grounds” as “dancing and other entertainments were constantly going on there.” At Stearns Hall, it was assumed that the Teutonia Society, organized by German residents, held its gatherings there.

The Drum Barracks military band was still in operation at the time and Bagley reported that it played for such occasions as the visit of former Secretary of State William H. Seward (whose “Seward’s Folly” included the 1867 purchase from Russia of Alaska for $7 million), with the reception at the Bella Union Hotel, the building of which still stood in 1925, and the completion of the first local railroad, the Los Angeles and San Pedro, with the ensemble, known as “General [George] Stoneman‘s Band,” playing at the opening day of 26 October, as was the Bosshard orchestra. Bagley had a photo of the Bosshard band standing by the train and added that a ball was given at the depot, situated at Alameda and Commercial streets, just south of today’s U.S. 101.

Other musicians of note mentioned by the chronicler were Mendel Meyer, a well-known merchant, another merchant Louis Jazynsky, and the violinist brothers Bob and Dick Kern whose orchestra included Mexican-born violinist Angel Molino. Bagley returned to the Bosshards and Dohs, recalling that he played with them frequently after his arrival in Los Angeles in the early Nineties and noting that Hermann Bosshard often referred to he and his brothers as “Me, Shake and Shon.”

Summing up the era, Bagley wrote,

The 60’s saw the music business beginning to take shape. Most of our professional musicians at some time in their lives have played in a small town “Silver Cornet Band or orchestra and are familiar with the old time dances and the kind of theatricals shown in the “town hall tonight.” Even every large city has its amateur bands and orchestras. From these sources, however, by process of elimination comes practically all of our first-class professional talent. Everything has to have a beginning, and so in all towns—large or small—are to be found carpenters, school teachers, barbers and other tradespeople who take up music, earn money with it, and a percentage of them, if their ability measures up to requirements, eventually reach the professional status.

Reverting back to the Civil War period, the writer speculated that, at a Union rally in late May 1861, shortly after the conflict erupted and as a military band played the national anthem, in “a rough frontier town containing many criminal elements and in addition a good number who either openly or in secret opposed the government,” the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner “put courage into the minds of those who were charged with responsibility and had a most salutary effect upon the whole population.”

Whether this was really the case, given that Confederate sympathizers were very prominent in greater Los Angeles during that time, Bagley ended by asking his readers to join him in “paying homage of remembrance to these pioneer players who enlivened and made more joyous so many occasions in those troubled times.”

Finally, there is Scott Williamson of the Southern California Music Company and his “Paul Whiteman’s Opinion of American Music,” in which it was noted that the existence of great European music wasn’t satisfactory for Americans because “they want all that Europe has to offer and then some.” This seems to mean that classical music was fine, but that there was a desire for American pieces that were “as tuneful, as ingenious and as meritorious as that of any other day or any other nation.” This included Whiteman’s work.

Specifically cited was his famous February 1924 concert at New York City’s Aeolian Hall “which was designed and planned to show that American music . . . abounds in characteristic idioms and expressions and rhythmic patterns that need only to be taken seriously to give them rank with the best folk-music of the world.” It is especially interesting to note Williamson’s use of the term “folk music” in this regard.

The concert opened with a piece said to be “in imitation of the early jazz band” of the early Teens and was followed by a version in the Whiteman style. It was asserted that this “had been worked out to show just what advances have been made by American orchestras since the first jazz bands let loose, a decade or so back.” The symphonic expansion of instruments was deemed to be key to this vast improvement.

Williamson continued that “Americans—both white and black ones, red ones and brown ones, Nordics and Semites—are decidedly musical,” but were so in “an uncultured musical atmosphere” that was not only pervasive but “goes by no accepted standards of measure or meter.” Whereas the French were moved by their Marseillaise and the Germans the Die Wacht Am Rhine, it was the “jazzy, rag-time spirit or elan” that “will bring all nationalities to their feet!” The classical purists would disagree, but it was averred that “American music is the Esperanto of Music” because of its populist tendencies.

Claiming that it was “an indefinable something” that was at the heart of the matter, Williamson suggested that this “is what Paul Whiteman is on the trail of,” but his innovation, if true, was that he brought “proper orchestration and proper instrumentation” to bringing legitimacy to the “multi-colored and multi-hued arrangements of American tunes” including “novel and ingenious instrument effects and embellishments.”

Williamson added that “some of the finest vocalists, orchestra conductors and opera singers now in America sponsored Paul Whiteman’s first recital of American music, which, again, was presented “in a proper background of harmony and embellishment,” though, it should be stated once more, that no Black musicians, the inventors of jazz, were among this establishment of “great folk” supporting the “King of Jazz” and his vision of “proper” American music.

The concern “was of great educational and cultural value” because of reflected the excitement and impatience of young Americans, but also the “wonderful technic American boys acquire when they do set out to master an instrument.” The piece ended with a long tribute to Whiteman by the head of the Buescher Band Instruments Company, exclusive suppliers to the bandleader, who claimed that that America had “a musical ballot box—the phonograph.” With recordings as ballots, “by a very large plurality, you have been overwhelmingly elected King of American Musicians.” After welcoming the blending of “old master-works humanized and modernized” by newer American techniques and elements, Buescher concluded, “may your baton long wave” because “Self-Determination in music is as essential as Self-Determination in politics.”

There are some other interesting items, including the Los Angeles Theatre Organists’ Club’s “frolic” in Hollywood; a forthcoming series of Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra concert at the Coliseum; notes from various theaters and their musicians (including reference to the diminutive drummer Sherman Davidson, whose photo from the Museum’s holdings is included in the post on the 15 October 1925 edition of The Overture, at the Raymond); and a tribute to the 160th Infantry Band, which was playing Sunday concerts at Exposition Park.

We’ll look to feature the other remaining issues of the publication in future “Striking a Chord” posts, so be sure to keep an eye (and, figuratively, an ear) out for those.

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