February 3, 2020- Today's BHM topic is: Bill Johnson
Most people associate jazz on the west coast with the well known Los Angeles scene of the
1950s. There was however jazz on the west coast in the very early years of the music’s
beginnings and it was brought here by a group of New Orleans transplants.
The story of jazz in California begins with bass player Bill Johnson. Johnson was working in
the New Orleans Storyville district between 1903 and 1905 at the infamous Tom Anderson's
saloon. He also worked with a variety of New Orleans ensembles including Frankie Dusen’s
Eagle Band and the Peerless Orchestra.
Around 1908 he formed a band and travelled to California to introduce New Orleans music to
the west coast. They played a one month engagement at The Red Feather tavern in Los
Angeles followed by Johnson returning to New Orleans. The cornet player he brought with
him to Los Angeles, Ernest Coycault, stayed on the coast and became a significant musician in
Back in New Orleans, Johnson formed his “Original Creole Orchestra”, a seven piece group
that toured the Southwest. In 1912 he re-formed the band in Los Angeles and set up
permanent residence. Over the next couple of years he fine tuned the personnel which
required importing some musicians from New Orleans.
Members of the Original Creole Orchestra included his brother Dink Johnson, clarinetist
George Baquet and most notably cornetist Freddie Keppard.
Keppard followed Buddy Bolden as the next great New Orleans cornet player and had been
enjoying much success with the Olympia Brass Band and Frankie Dusen’s Eagle Band.
Johnson convinced him to come to Los Angeles which was a major addition to the group.
Around 1914 the Orchestra auditioned for the Pantages vaudeville circuit and ended up touring
the country between 1914 and 1918.
Since there are no recordings it’s hard to know for sure what the group played on the vaudeville
circuit but it is likely that this was the group that introduced the New Orleans sound to a good
portion of the United States.
In 1915 they played an extended engagement at New York’s Winter Garden theater. Victor
records approached them with an offer to record. Freddie Keppard didn’t want to take the
chance of having other musicians “steal his stuff” so they turned Victor down.
If they had accepted Victor’s offer they would have made the first jazz recordings.
Unfortunately today the pioneering group is mostly unknown.