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West Virginia music is more than mountain fiddlers and ballad singers. The state has produced topnotch jazz musicians as well. Typically, they learned their music here but went on to build their professional careers on the national music scene.

Bandleader Don Redman (born Piedmont, Mineral County, 1900) was writing band arrangements while still in high school. After attending Storer College in Harpers Ferry, Redman went to New York to play saxophone with various outfits in the 1920s. Soon he was writing for Fletcher Henderson’s pioneer big band, where he met young Louis Armstrong, with whom he recorded. He joined McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in 1927 and made it an influential band. Redman’s compositions included ‘‘Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You?’’ and ‘‘Chant of the Weed.’’ He continued to lead groups and write for radio and television until his death in 1964.

Nearly as celebrated was Leon ‘‘Chu’’ Berry (born Wheeling, 1910). Noted for his strong tenor saxophone on up-tempo numbers, Berry worked with jazz greats Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, and Lionel Hampton before fronting a combo with ‘‘Hot Lips’’ Page in 1940. Touring with Cab Calloway in October 1941, Berry was killed in a car accident in Ohio.

Garland Wilson and Teddy Weatherford were acclaimed pianists. Wilson (born Martinsburg, 1909) was first recorded by producer John Hammond in the 1930s. Like some other Black musicians, Wilson became an expatriate and was living in Paris when he died in 1954. Weatherford (born Bluefield, 1903) made a flash in the 1920s and spent his last years in Asia.

Others who shone in the Swing Era included Tommy Benford, Hubert ‘‘Bumps’’ Myers, Billy Moore, Frankie Masters, and William ‘‘Keg’’ Purnell. Benford (born Charleston, 1905) was a drummer with Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, and Duke Ellington. Myers (born Clarksburg, 1912) was a saxophonist with Jimmie Lunceford, Carter, and Hampton. Moore (born Parkersburg, 1917) was a pianist-arranger for Charlie Barnet and Tommy Dorsey. Masters (born Pleasants County, 1904), led a popular dance band for years. Purnell (born Charleston, 1915) was a drummer with Carter and Eddie Heywood.

Many jazz groups of the early 20th century played ‘‘Them There Eyes,’’ ‘‘Sweet Georgia Brown,’’ and other tunes written by Maceo Pinkard (born Bluefield, 1897).

More recently, Ernest Farrow (born Huntington, 1928) played bass for Stan Getz and Yusef Lateef. Musa Kaleem (born Orlando Wright, Wheeling, 1921) played sax with James Moody and Erroll Garner. Ray Wetzel (born Parkersburg, 1924) was a promising trumpeter with Woody Herman and Stan Kenton when he died in a car accident in 1951. Butch Miles grew up in Charleston and went on to play drums with Count Basie, Mel Torme, and Dave Brubeck. Winston Walls, another Charleston native, made a reputation playing Hammond organ.

Singer Ann Baker (1915–99), who lived for many years in Charleston, replaced Sarah Vaughan with Billy Eckstine’s band in the 1940s and had a long solo career. Singers Iris Bell (born Charleston, 1934) and Jennie Smith (born 1938) of Fayette County toured with the likes of Lionel Hampton.

The last quarter century saw new faces in contemporary jazz. Bob Thompson, who has spent much of his life in Charleston, made more than a dozen albums and is known to many as the pianist on the Mountain Stage radio show produced by West Virginia Public Radio and distributed nationally by Public Radio International. One of his recordings, Brother’s Keeper, was with John Blake, a fine violinist who attended West Virginia University. Soprano Saxophonist Marion Meadows, originally from Beckley, made a national mark with his albums for RCA.

There are many amateur and college jazz groups in West Virginia. The Shenandoah Jazz Band of Shepherd University, a group of professors and friends, plays Dixieland and swing at local festivals. The Gary Marvel big band played swing style music throughout the Eastern Panhandle for a number of years in the 1980s and ’90s. New River Jazz is a group of volunteer musicians from Raleigh, Fayette, and Nicholas counties that plays swing music. The Manhattan Jazz Quartet, a Lewisburg group, plays regularly at The Greenbrier resort.

Any discussion of Mountain State jazz must mention Hugh McPherson, who grew up during the 1920s, led a regional swing band and, from the 1940s into the 1980s, was the state’s major, sometimes solitary, jazz disc jockey.

This Article was written by John Douglas

Last Revised on April 19, 2021

Cite This Article

Douglas, John "Jazz." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 19 April 2021. Web. 22 June 2024.


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