Dean of Jazz

In 1990, Mrs. Sam Wooding, Jr. made John Byrd the executor to her and her late husband's business estate for the purpose of publishing his autobiography and to further establish and promote his significant contribution to our cultural landscape.

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                                      “DEAN OF JAZZ”  

                                           The Life and Music Sam Wooding,Jr.

                                                    As dictated to Rae Harrison Wooding                                       

                                   Manuscripts and archival materials owned by John E. Byrd 

Book proposal

That the vibrant, brilliant and swinging music of the Sam Wooding, Jr., and his contribution to Western culture is not fully appreciated or widely known, creates an unavoidable vaccum in the critical appreciation of jazz history.  That his music is not familiar to fans of Duke Ellington or Fletcher Henderson, or the connoisseurs of early jazz recordings, has much to do with the fact that Wooding made his history 3000 miles away from home, and a little to do with the rise of Adolph Hitler in Germany.  Ken Burn’s recent documentary “JAZZ”, and its beautiful accompanying book does little to illuminate Wooding’s life and musical contribution. 

Born June 17, 1895, Sam David Wooding, Jr. grew up in Philadelphia in a proper African-American family whose goal was to participate in the uplifting of the race.  While his siblings were groomed to become doctor, lawyer, nurse, young Sam was encouraged in his early musical interests in the piano, as long as it remained respectful glorification of the Lord.  His mother found it unacceptable when he became interested in ragtime music, pronouncing it "low life pimp's and whore's music" not to be practiced in her household.  Instead, she arranged for Sam to study classical organ under a noted professor.  He was to carry on a clandestine affair with the "lowlier" music much of his school years, becoming a mainstay at local rent parties where he played his ragtime and blues piano. 

Sam's father worked as a butler for the illustrious Biddle family of Philadelphia, a moneyed and blue-blood bunch.  When the family spent their summers in the splendid Atlantic City resort, the Wooding family also went in tow.  There, Sam feasted, along with the wealthy audiences, on the great colored acts and shows of the day.  Young Sam was awed as he witnessed Bert Williams perform "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now", and was influenced forever on hearing Eubie Blake playing ragtime and show tunes beyond anything to date.  Since then, only "Anna Piana" figured as the most important mistress in his life.  At seven, Sam wrote his first composition which so impressed the Biddle family nurse, that she was instrumental in having it published. 

By 1917, Sam was working as a pianist in cabarets, first in Atlantic City, then Newark.  He had all but become the Prodigal Son, straying far from the values and aspirations of his parents.  The U.S. had just entered World War I.  The following year, Sam went to Europe as a member of Lieutenant Bill Vodery's 807th Pioneer Infantry Band.  This band had many fine musicians, including trumpeter Elmer Chambers and drummer George Howe, both of whom Sam was to later hire for his own band. 

A civilian again by 1920, Sam Wooding formed his first band which stayed together only briefly, but allowed him to gain experience in the psychology of shaping his men and his music.  His second band also consisted of a small cabaret show featuring dancing by the "Two Ethels" (Waters and Williams).  It caught the attention of Baron Wilkins, who engaged Sam to play for the fall session at his Harlem cabaret.  This stint brought Sam and his band to Baron's and to New York where it was all happening. 

After some hard knocks and lessons in making it in the toughest environment he'd known since the Army and wartime Europe, Sam finds his way into the world of music in New York's Harlem.  He sought and found "the sound" that would make him unique among the many innovative musicians that were flourishing to make the new American music.  The Sam Wooding Orchestra soon became the talk and rage of the Harlem gentry.  His blending of early jazz with European classical strains made his music stand out as uniquely cultured and learned among the many bands coming into vogue.  Sam's shows at the Lafayette Theatre packed them in, many of these shows featured the first "battle of the bands" which pitted Sam's band against Fletcher Henderson's among others.  Sam made his reputation as the most popular band at the Nest Club, later to become one of Harlem's jazz landmarks.  This reputation was soon to travel downtown.  An offer came from the famous Times Square Club Alabam. 

The band replaced Fletcher Henderson's at the Alabam.  By now, Sam and his men were so on top of their form that they came to the attention of famous Russian impresario, Dr. Leoni Leonidot, whose clients included Feodor Chaliapin and George Balanchine.  Having served as musical director for the touring company of "Plantation Days" and furthering his reputation beyond Harlem, Sam Wooding and his band were what Leonidot was looking for.   Leonidot had come to the U.S. to recruit a black show for Europe.  Sam's band and   "Plantation Days", the show and its performers it accompanied, were perfect. 

Putting together the best musicians he could rally to round out his band, Sam had to replace young Louis Armstrong with the legendary Tommy Ladnier when Louis couldn't get out of his prior commitment to join up with Fletcher Henderson's band.   On May 6, 1925, the show, which had been named "The Chocolate Kiddies" left for Europe, its cast of about forty included many sensational performers such as Margaret Sims, Adelaide Hall and specialty acts, along with "beauty" dancers that popped the eyes of Americans across the country.  Europe was in for a startling surprise. 

When he returned to the U.S., Sam lived in Harlem and taught music, singing and piano, a friend had been singing the praises of a teenage girl singer from the neighborhood.  Finally worn down by pleas to hear her, Sam allowed his pal to bring the young Rae Harrison around.  Under guarded arrangement by her mother, Rae came with another teenage friend to sing for the middle-aged man.  She couldn't care less for impressing Sam.  She had been in show business since she was very young, having performed with the likes of Bunny Briggs, The Nicholas Brothers and others at Small's Paradise and the theatres of Harlem.  She didn't care for Sam asking her to remove her chewing gum before she sang for him. 

Sam was more than impressed with Rae as a singer.  He knew this was the voice he was looking for.  But she would prove as formidable as Eliza Doolittle to Wooding’s Professor Higgins as far as her manners went.  She had exceptional talent, raw, untutored, but with an amazing range and sass.   Sam was determined to tutor and cultivate this girl, to make her over into the polished talent he would need in his planed return to Europe. 

Forging together a new band, enlisting musicians as he toured with his new singer, Rae, Sam Wooding returned to the scenes of his early triumphs.   They had not forgotten him in Europe.  By now, he was a legend of jazz.  The "Dean" had returned as part of 'The Dynamic Duo of Sam Wooding and the sensational Rae Harrison.'  They toured all of the old sites and performed in the new theatres and concert halls.  Sam and Rae recorded in many countries and soon became familiar as the "International Duo", as they were billed.  The Sam Wooding Orchestra, always an improvised one, was made up of European musicians who he instructed, and black expatriates.  They remade musical history in Spain, South America and Japan, among other countries.  Somewhere in between, the older man and young singer became husband and wife. 

Back in the U.S. between tours, Rae began typing the manuscripts of Sam's memoirs.  Friends and music critics urged him to write a proper autobiography, one that a professional writer could assist him in polishing.  Sam gave countless interviews, appeared on television (as he did throughout the world) and the Smithsonian Institute recorded an oral history of Sam as he recounted his life and career. Rae was amazed as she typed diligently from his notes and dictation, and journeyed again with her husband through his past, reading of all who had influenced his life, the legendary and those lost to history, the scandalous and the glorious. 

Toward the end of his life, Wooding received the respect of his peers and historians, as well as jazz enthusiasts alike.  He was honored by both Presidents Nixon and Carter, and received many awards.   While his contribution to jazz is acknowledged in the many anthologies and histories of the music, it exists mainly as footnotes that can only give an incomplete and one dimensional assessment of a life and career, let alone a true appreciation of the man and his music. 

It is indeed fortunate that Wooding recorded his own full account of his life.  He died before he could see to its being published in some form or another.  On reading the manuscript Mrs. Wooding typed up (in several volumes), it is clear that it is one of the most significant jazz autobiographies yet to be published. 

Since his death in 1985, the story of this pioneer expatriate is the subject of a biography based on the memoirs Wooding left to his widow, Rae Harrison. Started as an autobiography, but never going beyond his reminiscences, Sam's devoted wife kept records, tapes and photos toward the publication of her husband's important contribution to American music.  Along the way, after Sam’s death, she sought help in her efforts to keep Wooding's legacy alive.  As a writer and friend, I was chosen to edit and prepare Wooding’s memoir for publication as promised.   

With Wooding's death at ninety years old in 1985, it appeared too many that the last chapter of his life had come to a close.  The case is just the opposite for those who have been seeking information on Sam from his widow, Rae Harrison.  The Schomburg Research Center for Black Studies has recently collected letters and articles on Wooding which went into immediate requests. An archive of photos, contracts, recordings and documents  are available for publication as well. 

Now, DEAN OF JAZZ, based on Wooding’s memoirs, is being shaped into an autobiography.  An odyssey of a young musician's love and mastery of a new music, his pioneering in the early jazz clubs of New York, being the first to tour a jazz orchestra in Europe and record jazz overseas, and being the first black orchestra to give a jazz concert anywhere.  To read the Sam Wooding story is to realize a “missing link”, the gapping omission in our critical and historical appreciation of the development of jazz.



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