By: Dave Oliphant

Type: Overview Entry

Published: November 1, 1995

Updated: November 11, 2020


As Ross Russell observes in his classic Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest (1971), "the state of Texas, the largest and most populous in the Kansas City-Southwest area, [has] predictably yielded the greatest number of musicians and bands." Throughout the history of jazz, Texans have contributed to the important movements in this native American music, beginning with blues, ragtime, and boogie-woogie in the early years of the twentieth century and continuing with hot jazz in the 1920s, swing in the 1930s, bebop in the 1940s, cool, hard bop, and funk-soul in the 1960s, and free jazz from the late 1950s into the 1980s.

Not only have Texans participated at crucial moments in the development of jazz, either as composers, arrangers, or sidemen, but a number of Texas musicians have figured as outstanding soloists and as leaders of vital, innovative groups of their own. Although Texas was the home to a large number of territory bands, most of the significant performances by Texans were recorded outside the state, principally in Chicago, New York, Kansas City, and Los Angeles. Yet wherever Texans have traveled, they have always taken with them something of their own musical heritage.

Historian Gunther Schuller remarks that the Texas blues tradition is "probably much older than the New Orleans idiom that is generally thought to be the primary fountainhead of jazz." The transition between the early forms of Black and White folk music and the blues is represented in Texas by the recordings from 1927 to 1929 of Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas, a "songster" who accompanied his versions of "rag" ditties, "coon" songs, minstrel or vaudeville tunes, and various square dances on both guitar and a reed instrument known as the quills. Thomas's "Texas Easy Street Blues" has been ranked "with the finest blues ever recorded"; his "Cottonfield Blues" employs the minor thirds and sevenths common to the form; his "Bull Doze Blues" is an instance of the Texas tradition of prison blues; and his "Railroadin' Some" draws on his own experience of riding the rods throughout Texas and the Midwest. All three of these sources-farm labor, prison life, and railroading-also inspired much of the blues of the two most famous male blues singers active in Texas in the 1920s, Blind Lemon Jefferson, the "King of the Country Blues," and Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, the "King of the Twelve-String Guitar," whose "enormous reservoir of music...with its powerful elements of the work song, the ring-shout, and the field-holler" furnished, as Marshall Stearns has observed, an "original mixture" to which "jazz and near-jazz returned again and again" and without which "jazz could never have developed." Jefferson's masterful sound and vocal phrasing-the latter consisting of long, unconventional lines-were matched by his instrumental work, as on his "Long Lonesome Blues," in which he performs so many inventive riffs on guitar that he "comes close to setting a blues record." Although recorded late in his career, Jefferson's songs contain the kinds of "carefully knit blues breaks" that were the basis of the greatest jazz. They inspired bluesmen in his own day and have influenced bluesmen ever since.

More closely associated with the practice of jazz was the work of a group of Texas female blues singers who recorded with a number of the early jazz giants, including King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. Three women singers from Houston-Beulah T. (Sippie) Wallace, Victoria R. Spivey, and Hociel Thomas-were among the earliest successes in the field of urban blues, and Maggie Jones of Hillsboro also made a group of important recordings with major jazz musicians. All four of these figures, "in using some of the finest jazz musicians of the day as their accompanists,...made possible some of the earliest recorded jazz breaks by [such] great artists" as Armstrong, Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds, Henry "Red" Allen, and J. C. Higginbotham. Sippie Wallace recorded with Armstrong in November 1924 and Maggie Jones with the trumpeter in December 1924, and on both occasions Armstrong was able to "stretch out" and develop many of the breaks that marked his revolutionary jazz style. Also performing with Wallace on a February 1925 recording with King Oliver was Sippie's brother Hersal Thomas (a Houston native as well), who as a teenager had already mastered a forward-looking form of blues piano, complete with tremolos and the kinds of rips associated with Armstrong's trumpet style and with the full-handed chords of Jelly Roll Morton's piano. As a team, Sippie and Hersal represented an outstanding example of urban blues, and together with Oliver and Armstrong the two Texans produced some of the classic blues recordings of the 1920s.

Even before the blues recordings by country and urban singers from Texas, another important ingredient in the jazz mix was furnished by Scott Joplin of Texarkana. From Joplin's ragtime-most notably his famous "Maple Leaf Rag" of 1899-jazz inherited the formal structure and the syncopated rhythms that lent the later music its special infectious appeal. Combined with the freer phrasing of the blues, with its spontaneous riffs and breaks, ragtime provided jazz with a patterned but driving design that made possible both form and freedom. Through Joplin's influence on Jelly Roll Morton, whose performances of Scott's Original Rags and "Maple Leaf Rag" are especially revealing, the ragtime composer has been credited in part with Morton's "invention" of jazz as early as 1902.

Another Texas rag composer, Euday L. Bowman of Fort Worth, contributed a classic tune that served jazz musicians in the making of some of their seminal recordings. According to jazz critic Martin Williams, Louis Armstrong's 1927 recording of Bowman's "Twelfth Street Rag" was a precursor to the trumpeter's "beautifully free phrasing on [his] 1928 recordings with Earl Hines, West End Blues and Muggles." Williams remarks, "We are prepared for the later passionate melodies that swing freely without rhythmic reminders and for the double-time episodes that unfold with poise. We are prepared for a fuller revelation of Armstrong's genius." Likewise, the Count Basie recording of Bowman's rag from 1939 has elicited praise for the solos performed by tenorist Lester Young, which have been called "perhaps the very zenith of Lester's greatness....one can sense instantly the detachment of the aphorist and the presence of an original spirit." Still other outstanding performances of Bowman's rag include those by Bennie Moten from 1927, Duke Ellington from 1931, Fats Waller from 1935, Andy Kirk from 1940 (with Mary Lou Williams as arranger and pianist), and Sidney Bechet and his New Orleans Feetwarmers from 1941 (with Everett Barksdale playing a Charlie Christian-inspired form of bop guitar). These recordings taken together trace the history of jazz from hot and swing to bebop and include both combos and big bands, as well as the distinctive styles of Ellington and Basie and the humorous touch of Fats Waller.

Boogie-woogie or barrelhouse-style piano, something of a hybrid form of blues and ragtime, also originated, according to some authorities, in Texas, in particular in the lumber camps and along the railroad lines of East Texas. The earliest recording to use the boogie-woogie "intermittent walking bass" was George W. Thomas's "The Rocks," recorded in February 1923. This composition by the older brother of Sippie Wallace and Hersal Thomas is also considered the first recording to employ the boogie-woogie structure, which is that of a twelve-bar blues. In general, boogie-woogie is highly percussive and is marked by a repeated left-hand bass played usually with eight beats to the bar; while "moving to the three blues-chord positions (C, F and G in the key of C)," the right hand improvises over the continuous bass figure "in fascinating and varied polyrhythmic, polymetric patterns."

Boogie-woogie further developed in the 1930s in Chicago at the hands of such figures as Meade "Lux" Lewis and Albert Ammons. However, it found its first major practitioner in Hersal Thomas, who influenced those later pianists by recording his own composition entitled "Suitcase Blues" in February 1925. In addition, Hersal and his brother George jointly composed "The Fives," which consists of a number of characteristic boogie-woogie bass patterns: stride ("in which a broken octave is interposed between the on- and off-beats in the left-hand part"), walking bass ("broken or spread octaves repeated through the blues progression" that "provide[s] the ground for countless improvisations"), and stepping octave chords. Both Lewis and Ammons asserted that "The Fives" "was instrumental in shaping ‘modern boogie-woogie’." The influence of "The Fives," as well as "The Rocks," was such that every boogie-woogie player during the 1930s was judged by his performance of these pieces by the Thomases: "In those days if a pianist didn't know the Fives and the Rocks he'd better not sit down at the piano at all."

Territorial bands in Texas first promoted the careers of many of the early jazz musicians who later moved to Chicago, New York, and Kansas City. Among these were Eddie Durham of San Marcos; Budd and Keg Johnson, Oran "Hot Lips" Page, and Dan Minor of Dallas; Henry (Buster) Smith of Alsdorf; Herschel Evans of Denton; Carl Tatti Smith of Marshall; Joe Keyes of Houston; W. L. (Jack) Teagarden of Vernon; and Tyree Glenn of Corsicana. None of the bands in Texas, however, achieved a national reputation, with the possible exception of the Alphonso Trent Orchestra in Dallas, which was composed almost exclusively of sidemen from other states. Only late in the 1930s did a Texan like Charlie Christian perform with the Trent band, but at that time Christian was playing bass rather than the electric guitar on which he subsequently made jazz history.

After touring with a number of White groups in Texas (among them R. J. Marin's Southern Trumpeters and Doc Ross and His Jazz Bandits), Jack Teagarden headed for New York, where in 1927 the trombonist immediately revolutionized the solo jazz conception of his instrument. After spending five years with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in the mid-1930s, Teagarden formed his own band,which featured trombonist and fellow Texan Ernesto Caceres, a reedman from Rockport. Teagarden's trumpeter brother Charlie was also a fine Swing-Era trumpeter. Both Teagarden and Tyree Glenn became members of the Louis Armstrong All-Stars, the former with the first group in the 1940s and the latter with the final group in the late 1960s. Glenn, following a stint in the early years with Eddie and Sugar Lou's band in Temple (based in Austin at another date when Lips Page was a member), traveled first to Los Angeles and then to the East Coast, where he performed with various groups before joining the Cab Calloway Orchestra in New York and later in 1946 the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Most of the Texas musicians of the first generation of jazzmen ended up in Kansas City. The first to record there was Lammar Wright of Texarkana, who probably arrived as a teenager. On Bennie Moten's first recordings of 1923, Wright is considered the most outstanding musician of the Moten band, which cut two sides entitled "Elephant's Wobble" and "Crawdad Blues," with Wright delivering on the former an Oliver-inspired cornet solo in the same year that the King himself first recorded his music. Before joining the Moten band, guitarist-trombonist-composer-arranger Eddie Durham, trumpeter Lips Page, who was later billed as the "Trumpet King of the West," and altoist Buster Smith, who later became an important influence on saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, were members of the Blue Devils, an Oklahoma commonwealth unit that so threatened the Moten band that the leader "raided" the Blue Devils and hired away Durham first and later Page. Smith too threw in with Moten, but not until after the Kansas City band recorded in 1932 for RCA Victor what is considered one of the all-time classic recordings of early big band jazz.

After Moten's sudden death in 1935, the band was reorganized by Count Basie and Buster Smith, and the trumpet section was composed of Lips Page, Joe Keyes from Johnson's Joymakers in Houston, and Carl Tatti Smith, who came by way of the Terrence Holder band, and Gene Coy's Happy Black Aces from Amarillo. Dan Minor, who also had been with the Blue Devils and the Moten band, played trombone with the Basie Orchestra. The Johnson brothers, Budd and Keg, also worked with the Happy Black Aces in the late 1920s before joining Jesse Stone in 1929 and heading for Kansas City, where the brothers joined the George E. Lee band, which at the time rivaled Bennie Moten's. In 1930 Keg left for Chicago, where he played trombone with the Ralph Cooper band at the Regal Theatre and with the Clarence Moore band at the Grand Terrace Ballroom, along with pianist Teddy Wilson of Austin (later a star member of Benny Goodman's trio). After Budd arrived in Chicago in 1932, the brothers played in a combo with Wilson, and by 1933 all three were members of the Louis Armstrong Orchestra. Both Budd on tenor saxophone and Keg on trombone take impressive solos on a recording with Armstrong of "Mahogany Hall Stomp." Later Keg became a sideman with the Cab Calloway Orchestra, along with fellow Texans Tyree Glenn, who doubled on trombone and vibraphone, and Lammar Wright. Meanwhile, brother Budd performed several roles with the Earl Hines band at the Grand Terrace Ballroom, serving as manager, composer-arranger, section leader, and soloist in the new "cool" style more closely identified with the work of tenorist Lester Young. Budd also figured prominently in the rise of bebop when, early in 1944, he organized the first bop record date with Coleman Hawkins and Dizzy Gillespie.

During the Swing Era of the 1930s, Eddie Durham contributed significantly to the bands of Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, and Glenn Miller, primarily as a composer-arranger but also with Lunceford and Basie as a trombonist and guitarist. It was Durham who first recorded on an amplified guitar, for a 1935 recording with Lunceford. Soon thereafter Durham reportedly introduced Charlie Christian of Dallas to the electric guitar. Christian, with his long-lined single-string solos, went on to establish this new instrument as a vehicle for jazz with the Benny Goodman Orchestra (trumpeter Harry James of Beaumont having starred earlier with Goodman's band) and with Goodman's Sextet, as well as with after-hours groups devoted to the incipient bebop movement. Christian has been called the greatest jazz guitarist of all time. Another Texas guitarist, Oscar Moore of Austin, was a vital member of the Nat King Cole Trio during the 1940s and is considered one of the first important modern combo guitarists. Though not so important as a soloist on guitar, Durham recorded on this instrument as well as trombone for a historic recording with Lester Young in 1938, for which Durham served both as leader and arranger. Even before this, Carl Tatti Smith also performed with Lester Young on a 1936 session that marked the tenorist's recording debut, which included a rendition of "Oh, Lady Be Good" that influenced countless jazz musicians during the following decades. Yet another Texan to record with Young was Herschel Evans, who, after early work in the late 1920s with the Troy Floyd band of San Antonio, was featured in tandem with Lester as a tenor soloist in the Count Basie band.

A later contingent of Texans to form part of the Basie organization included Buddy Tate of Sherman, Gene Ramey of Austin, Gus Johnson of Tyler, Henry Coker of Dallas, and Illinois Jacquet of Houston. Tate, who had been with Herschel Evans in Troy Floyd's San Antonio band (as well as with Eddie and Sugar Lou's Austin band and Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy from Kansas City), took over the other tenor chair in the Basie band when Evans died in 1939. Jacquet, another Texas tenorist, got his start with the Milt Larkin outfit from Houston (considered probably the last of the great Texas bands), which included two other notable members, Arnett Cobb on tenor and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson on alto. Jacquet starred with the Lionel Hampton orchestra in 1942, when he took one of the most famous solos of the war years on "Flying Home," then joined Basie in 1945. Bassist Gene Ramey and drummer Gus Johnson were at first members of another Kansas City band, that of Jay McShann, which featured at the time the early work of the great saxophonist Charlie Parker. After serving as timekeepers for Parker's revolutionary alto flights, Johnson joined Basie in 1948, and Ramey was with the Count briefly in 1953. Trombonist Henry Coker had been with Buddy Tate in the Nat Towles band in 1937 before moving to Hawaii. On returning to the States, Coker formed part of the Illinois Jacquet band in 1949 and then joined up with Basie in 1952.

During the 1940s and 1950s, a number of Texas jazzmen participated in various developments in jazz that were associated with or grew out of the bebop movement. The first recording of Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight" dates from a 1944 session with the Cootie Williams Orchestra, in which Houston altoist and blues singer Cleanhead Vinson is present. Also participating in the 1944 Williams session was trumpeter Harold "Money" Johnson of Tyler, who recorded with Duke Ellington between 1968 and 1972. In 1947, Gene Ramey was a member of Monk's first trio to record the pianist-composer's own music for Blue Note Records, which between 1947 and 1952 produced what is considered Monk's "most powerful and lasting body of work" and "among the most significant and original in modern jazz." Also present for this Blue Note series was trumpeter Kenny Dorham of Fairfield, who performed in 1952 with Monk's sextet. Dorham had joined Charlie Parker as the replacement for Miles Davis in Bird's quintet from 1948 to 1952. Both Ramey and Dorham also took part in the first hardbop recordings, made in 1953 by what later became Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, of which Dorham was a founding member. In addition, during the early to mid-1950s Ramey recorded not only in the last recording sessions of Lester Young's combo but participated in a 1950 Miles Davis recording date known as "the birth of the cool."

Other Texans active during the postwar period include Jimmy Giuffre, Gene Roland, and Harry Babasin of Dallas and Herb Ellis of Farmersville. These students from North Texas State University in Denton became members of several outstanding jazz groups, including the orchestras of Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, various ensembles formed in Los Angeles at such clubs as the Lighthouse and the Trade Winds, and such combos as those of Shorty Rogers and Oscar Peterson. Giuffre led a number of his own groups, notably his Trio, which included Jim Hall on guitar. Giuffre was a composer and multi-instrumentalist (clarinet, tenor, baritone) who also made his mark as an early exponent of so-called "third stream" music, a fusion of jazz and classical traditions. Meanwhile, two other Dallas jazzmen, Red Garland and Cedar Walton, were important members of two highly popular jazz ensembles: Garland as pianist for the original Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-1950s and Walton as pianist for the Jazz Messengers of the 1960s.

At the end of the 1950s and during the first years of the 1960s, three prominent members of the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop ere also Texans: tenorist Booker Ervin of Denison, altoist John Handy of Dallas, and trumpeter Richard Williams of Galveston. A fourth Texan to perform at times with the Mingus group was Leo Wright of Wichita Falls, who also worked with the Dizzy Gillespie big band. Handy later organized his own successful group, which at one time included Houston violinist Michael White. Two other Dallas products, tenorists James Clay and David "Fathead" Newman, were also active during this period, Clay on the West Coast with Red Mitchell's first recording group and Newman as a featured soloist with the Ray Charles big band. Both Clay and Leo Wright were students of tenorist John Hardee of Dallas, who in the 1940s had recorded in New York for Blue Note.

At the end of the 1950s, jazz underwent its greatest revolution since the beginnings of the bebop movement some twenty years before. In 1958 Ornette Coleman of Fort Worth initiated what he labeled-through two of his albums from 1959 and 1960-the "Change of the Century" and "Free Jazz." As multi-instrumentalist (alto and tenor saxophones, trumpet, and violin), composer, and band leader, Coleman moved jazz away from a dependence on chord changes and based the music instead on what he called "harmolodics," a freer harmonic structure founded on a musician's melodic conception. Coleman was aided and abetted by a number of Texans who formed at one time or another members of his various groups. Many of his protégés were also natives of Fort Worth, where they attended I. W. Terrell High School, as did Ornette. Among these were tenorist Dewey Redman and drummers Charles Moffett and Ronald Shannon Jackson. (An earlier generation of Fort Worth musicians had included drummer Ray McKinley and tenorist Tex Beneke, both of the Glenn Miller orchestra. Beneke was featured by Miller as a tenor soloist and a singer, while McKinley took over as codirector at Miller's death in 1944.) Other followers of Coleman from Fort Worth who did not belong to his groups were altoist Prince Lasha and clarinetist John Carter, both of whom formed their own ensembles in California after Ornette had made his first recordings there before moving on to New York in 1959. Another Fort Worther influenced by Coleman was reedman Julius Hemphill, who became a founding member of the Black Artists' Group in St. Louis and in 1976 of the World Saxophone Quartet. Still another member of a Coleman group was trumpeter Bobby Bradford of Dallas, who later joined with John Carter in the early 1970s to form the New Art Jazz Ensemble.

John Carter of Fort Worth brought the clarinet back to jazz as a viable instrument, after it had lost out to the saxophone following its heyday in the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s in the hands of such musicians as Barney Bigard and Benny Goodman. Performing with Bobby Bradford, with Houston pianist Horace Tapscott, and as solo artist on an album entitled A Suite of Early American Folk Pieces, Carter recorded his own version of free jazz by means of his stratospheric, multiphonic clarinet. His most significant contribution, however, came in the 1980s with the five-album, five-suite recording of his Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music, a tracing of Afro-American history through jazz compositions mostly played by an octet featuring Carter on clarinet and Bobby Bradford on either cornet or trumpet. Carter's work brings full circle the Texas contribution to jazz history, especially in his fourth suite, entitled Fields. This penultimate section of Roots and Folklore includes a spoken narrative by Carter's great-uncle John, who talks of his life as a field hand in North Central Texas while Carter and his group weave modern jazz in and around the uncle's words. John, as well as Carter's grandfather, had been a member of marching and dance bands and remembered Carter's great-great-grandfather as a virtuoso country fiddler at dances, suppers, wakes, funerals, and the traditional celebrations following the graveside obsequies of an earlier day. From the African diaspora to slavery, emancipation, segregation, and integration, Carter recounts the sad but inspirational story of jazz to which so many Texans have made a profound and lasting contribution. In the early twenty-first century numerous long-running jazz festivals throughout the state honored the jazz legacy of Texans and showcased new musical pioneers.

Dave Oliphant, "Eddie Durham and the Texas Contribution to Jazz History," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 96 (April 1993). Dave Oliphant, Jazz Mavericks of the Lone Star State (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007). Dave Oliphant, Texan Jazz (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996). Sally Placksin, American Women in Jazz: 1900 to the Present (New York: Wideview, 1982). Ross Russell, Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971). Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). Marshall W. Stearns, The Story of Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956). Martin Williams, The Jazz Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).


  • Music
  • Peoples
  • African Americans

Time Periods:

  • Texas in the 1920s
  • Great Depression

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Dave Oliphant, “Jazz,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 23, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/jazz.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

November 1, 1995
November 11, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: