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Bunk Johnson in England?
by Edward S. Walker
In his most excellent Who's Who Of Jazz, John Chilton, in the entry for Bunk Johnson says: By 1900 he had begun touring and visited Mexico with P G. Loral's Circus Band; he travelled extensively in the early 1900s with McCabe's Minstrels, Hagenback's and Wallace's Circus, visiting New York in 1903 and San Francisco in 1905. (Bunk also claimed to have worked in England about this time.)
In checking with John, he wrote:
Bunk is verily a mystery. I once heard a musician say that the reason he was nicknamed ‘Bunk' was because that was what he talked most of the time. I THINK he was 'busking' about his trip to England. I THINK it started with an interview that appeared in Art Hodes' ‘Jazz Record' magazine, therein Bunk said that he played for Queen Victoria
— who (as I recall) according to Bunk ‘almost burst her sides laughing'. WE ARE MUCH AMUSED? — very doubtful say I — certainly NOT in 1905!!
This intrigued me, and I decided to try and discover what published sources might reveal. To begin with, the possibility of Bunk coming to England with a circus band can be dismissed. The only American circus bands to visit England up to 1905 were:
Van Amburgh .............................1838
Howes and Cushing ....................... 1858
Barnum and Bailey (01 ympia)............. 1889
Buffalo Bill............................. 1887
Whilst Barnum and Bailey did a European tour in 1897 to 1902, the following dates are verified by circus historians.
Bunk was born on 27th December, 1879, so the first two dates above are too early, for Bamum and Bailey he would have been only 10 years old and for Buffalo Bill only 8!
In any event, to have played in circus bands would have had no relationship to the early development of ragtime and jazz. I quote from an article which appeared in The
White Tops Vol. 29 No. 4, July/August 1956, published by The Circus Fans Association of Rochelle, 111. U.S.A. by Sverre O. Breatha under the title The Old Circus Bands:
Circus bands do not play the same selections that other bands or orchestras play. Marches played by all circus bands in this (i.e. U.S.A.) country have been almost exclusively circus marches. They do not play Sousa, Prior, Conway or other eastern composers' music Circus bands play circus music just as orchestras play ballet music for the ballet.
It should be pointed out that when the shows had centre ring concerts preceding each matinee and night performance all of the great circus bands played all of the high grade music that was on the programmes of all the great concert bands in this country.
Mr. Breatha quotes as examples of circus music Circus Echoes composed by Hughes for acrobatic performances; Royal Decree by English for elephant performances, and Crimson Flush by Russell Alexander for street parades. Incidentally, and digressing, Russell Alexander was a well known composer of circus music and played baritone horn with Barnum and Bailey’s Circus in the late 1890s and early 1900s. It may be that he was the Alexander to whom Irving Berlin made illusary reference in Alexander's Ragtime Band.
But it will be seen from what has been quoted that there is no adequate relationship between circus music and ragtime. The real influence in the development and spread of the latter was its actual playing by American negro pianists, and the banjo and coon song records of white musicians of the early 1900s (although all was swamped in the commercial avalanche unleashed by Alexander's Ragtime Band ....which is not a ragtime tune anyway).
But to return to Bunk, all we are left
LOUIS ARMSTRONG IN SCANDINAVIA 1933
23
with is the remark of playing before Queen Victoria. This can have no relationship to the question of circus bands since Queen Victoria died on 22 January, 1901. Bunk, in a letter to Roy Carew (quoted in They All Played Ragtime by Blesh & Janis) stated that he was at school until 1894. John Chilton gives Bunk as with Adam Oliver’s Orchestra in 1894/5 and with Buddy Bolden and Bob Russell in 1895. So the outside dates for this possibility are 1896 to 1901.
I assume that the most reliable source of information on musical performances before Royalty would be the Court Circulars which are published in The Times, London. A spot check has been made through the indices, but these relate only to ‘concerts’. Of reference to musical performances attended by the Royal family — the information is usually limited to the fact that it was a musical performance given by a particular orchestra led by a stated conductor. I have not seen any reference to the individual musicians or the pieces that were played.
If therefore the Court Circulars do give only the musical event and not the artists, the search must be for the possibility of a musical event attended by Queen Victoria such that Bunk might have played. One would doubt even then the possibility of any definitive information, and to get this far would require an examination of the 1,480
Louis Armstrong in
by Björn Englund
The excellent Jones/Chilton book on Louis Armstrong gives much new information on his European tours of 1932 and 1933/34, but hardly anything is said about the time he spent in Scandinavia in 1933, although this trip left us with two very important musical documents: parts of one of his Stockholm concerts were recorded (being Louis’ first “live” recordings) and while in Copenhagen he appeared at length in a
Court Circulars in The Times between 1896 and the 22nd January, 1901.
To return to Who's Who Of Jazz, John Chilton adds; In between trips he (Bunk) returned regularly to New Orleans, he is said to have worked regularly on liners sailing to the Orient, Australia and Europe.
I would assume that this would be between 1906 and 1909, i.e. from the time he left the circus bands until the time he joined Frankie Dusen’s Band in New Orleans.
It may well be, therefore, that Bunk Johnson did visit England, and it may be that on those visits he earned money by playing with bands whilst on shore leave. So far as I am aware there is no documentary evidence which can be turned to, to establish the facts one way or the other. What I do suggest is that, even if this be so, it is a matter only of curiosity and is of no significance in the development of ragtime and jazz in England or its dissemination from America.
If anyone does want to check the Court Circulars, all copies of The Times are to be found in the British Museum Newspaper Library at Colindale. For my part I propose (as time permits) to examine the pages of The Era and The Encore to try and find out if Scott Joplin did play piano in English Music Halls somewhere between 1898 and 1907....I’ll keep you posted.
Scandinavia 1933
feature film, performing three tunes, one of which he did not record until eight years later. The fortieth anniversary of these events seems a most appropriate moment to share with readers what I have been able to discover of them, so....
Jack Hylton was Armstrong’s manager at this time, but the exact personnel that made this trip is not known. It must be stressed that the orchestra consisted neither of all