I’ve been reading Such Melodious Racket: The Lost History of Jazz in Canada, 1914-1949 by Mark Miller (Mercury Press, 1997). It’s a fascinating book, opening with the 1914 introduction of jazz to Canada and ending with Oscar Peterson’s breakout performance at Carnegie Hall.
According to Miller, the first jazz band to take the new music out of the American South was the Original Creole Orchestra, one of the “five other great acts” mentioned in the above notice. The band had its first Canadian gig in Winnipeg before it finally reached Vancouver in November 1914 during a tour of the Pantages circuit. This is what the Sun had to say about them (probably provided by Pantages promoters):
More music will be the contribution of the famous New Orleans Creole troupe of instrumentalists and singers. These brilliant colored performers introduce the beau-beautiful old time melodies of the South in slavery days. They constitute a splendid orchestra and glee club and have few equals in the interpretation of such selections as ‘Old Black Joe,’ ‘Old Kentucky Home’ and similar ballads. This added attraction is one of the most notable that has ever toured the Pantages circuit.
Clearly the band was marketed to conform to the racialized expectations of Pantages audiences rather than to reflect a cutting-edge new style of music.
The band played Western Canada again in 1916, but this time the Creole Orchestra’s offerings were promoted as “wild and untamed music.” Reviews cited by Miller follow the lead of Pantages publicists and typically note the band’s “weird” instrumentation. Apparently a Victoria Daily Colonist review was the only one to offer any indication that this strange music was something new and exciting:
To begin with, the musicians have a combination possibly without precedent in the musical world. Nobody but six negro eccentric players could shatter so many rules of a well-integrated band and make it so enticing to an audience. The cornet, clarinet, violin, guitar, trombone and double bass are played by individuals with seemingly absolute indifference to what the other man was doing but they always managed to arrive at appointed places in full accord.
Although jazz had a slow start in Vancouver, by the end of WWI a variety of jazzy venues fuelled what Miller calls “the halcyon days for black entertainment in the Terminal City”(66). Among them were the Lodge Cafe on Seymour, the Winter Garden at Robson and Granville, the Regent on Hastings, Club Sundown across from the Regent, and the Monte Carlo at Main and Hastings, which Chief Constable McRae described in 1920 as “one of the dumps we want to get rid of” (quoted in Miller, 72). Apparently more than jazz was offered at some of these clubs.
The most historically significant jazzman to make Vancouver a base in this period was Jelly Roll Morton, the self-styled “originator of jazz.” Morton was as much a pool hustler, gambler, and (probably) pimp as he was a musician when he arrived to take a spot in the house band at the Patricia Cafe on Hastings at Dunlevy. The clientele was a little rough around the edges, consisting mainly of hard-drinking Swedish loggers, according to another legend in the annals of jazz history, Ada “Bricktop” Smith, who suffered a broken leg during a brawl at the Patricia in 1919.
Morton’s stint at the Patricia didn’t last long. “I had good men,” he told an interviewer in the 1930s, “but somehow that cabaret didn’t do so good. Folks [in Vancouver] didn’t understand American-style cabarets” (quoted in Miller, 69). Morton’s assessment notwithstanding, the Patricia seems to have flourished even after he left, according to a note in the Chicago Defender dated 31 July 1920: “Word comes from Vancouver, B. C. that Bill Bowman’s Patricia Cafe is the talk of the town.” Jelly Roll returned to the city for an extended engagement at the Regent in 1920.