Territory band

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Territory bands were dance bands that crisscrossed specific regions of the United States from the 1920s through the 1960s.[1] Beginning in the 1920s, the bands typically had 8 to 12 musicians. These bands typically played one-nighters, 6 or 7 nights a week at venues like VFW halls, Elks Lodges, Lions Clubs, hotel ballrooms, and the like. Francis Davis, jazz critic for The Village Voice, likened territory bands to "the Top 40 cover bands of their day, typically relying on stock arrangements of other ensembles' hits." He said, "many historians give much credit to territory bands for popularizing modern ballroom dancing that began during the World War I era with the influence of Vernon and Irene Castle."[2]

Territory bands helped disseminate popular music — which included swing, jazz, sweet dance music, or any combination thereof — bringing it to remote gin mills and dance halls that were otherwise ignored by national booking agents representing genuine recording stars like Ellington and Armstrong. Many developed original repertoires and signature sounds, none more storied than Walter Page's Blue Devils, the Oklahoma City-based outfit that Count Basie joined in 1926.[3]

Ethnicities of the bands[edit]

There were black bands and white bands, and bands of various immigrant ethnicities.[4] There were also all-female bands, such as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

Musician, composer, and scholar Gunther Schuller asserted in one of his books, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930–1945 (The History of Jazz, Vol. 2) that, "territory bands, by definition, were black. There were, of course, many white bands in the 'territories' but they tended to have the more lucrative and permanent jobs and therefore not required to travel as much as the black bands."[1] Another musician (former territory band musician and historian), Jack Behrens, expressed in a book that Schuller's depiction of divergent work conditions was narrow. "During my playing days in the 1940s and 50s in several white territory bands, we didn't have "lucrative and permanent jobs" unless you count day labor in a dairy bar or clerking at a military surplus store. Worse, there were times we didn't get paid at all and we had little recourse given the cost of legal advice."[5]

For most territory bands — whether black, white, integrated, male, female — the musicians were nearly always paid. Neither the booking agencies nor the musicians got rich, but regular salaries helped maintain pretty decent musicianship.[6]

Most musicians witnessed and experienced a wide variety of Jim Crow practices, from city to city and region to region. One common present-day misconception is that Jim Crow practices were more prevalent in the South. The practices were prevalent everywhere, especially in New York City[7] and the Midwest. The bands that were racially integrated commonly experienced problems, mostly from having to dodge different applications and degrees of Jim Crow among cities and regions. Many bands, especially The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, handled some of the absurdities with a degree of inward, sarcastic humor. When musicians grew wary or even felt vulnerable to injustices of Jim Crow, the band bus, for those who had one, served as a safe haven.

Chronicling Territory Bands[edit]

The published history of territory bands is thin. Most of what we know comes from fading memories and second-hand anecdotes. With a lack of discography and the passing of a generation, our knowledge is slipping.

While many territory bands were of high quality, they rarely recorded and were often unfairly considered minor league to the national touring bands. Moreover, they were confined to specific regions or states … even parts of a state.[5] Ambitious and hopeful young musicians saw territory bands as a training ground for, or rite of passage to, the major big bands. The alumni of territory band musicians who matriculated to fame within the industry reads like list of "who's who" in music.

Territory bands typically played more sweet music, though, some in the mid 50s, particularly those with talented musicians, managed to entertain dancers with a jazzier sound. But dancing audiences are what kept the bands employed. In the 1920s, territory bands commonly traveled by car (station wagon), followed by an equipment truck. Later, beginning in the mid 1930s, territory bands commonly traveled in sleeper trailers.

Well-Established Territories[edit]

The home 'territories' were loosely defined, but some classifications emerged. Generally, the areas were defined as Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, West Coast, Southwest and Northwest. In addition, some state-groupings became common. One such group was usually referred to as MINK — Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas. Another group was VSA — Virginia, South Carolina and Alabama.[8]

The Southwest proved especially fertile for territory bands. Texas, with its spread-out geography and relatively large population, offered the greatest opportunity with developed markets for dance music in Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Amarillo, and other cities. The homegrown audiences of Texas bands were so plentiful that the bands developed to a high degree in relative isolation from outside influences.[9] One such band was that of Alphonso Trent.

There was a military territory, too — NCO Clubs, Officers' Clubs. These clubs took bands to Greenland, Nova Scotia, Bermuda, Puerto Rico, as well as the US.


The musicians in the territory dance bands were primarily jazz musicians. Despite the overwhelming view that New Orleans was the cradle of jazz, the itinerant musicians were the ones who first disseminated it.

The dancing public could actually dance and they knew which bands swung and which simply just played well. Audiences responded with great enthusiasm to the black bands in the Midwest. The East Coast black bands were popular in the 1920s; but "Swing" came to that region in the form of Louis Armstrong joining the Fletcher Henderson band when he went to the Big Apple.

Territory bands were not all swing bands. The Midwest settlements of Europeans of various ethnicities brought their community dancing and revelry with them in the form of very popular polka bands (and also old time waltzes, leandlers, and schottisches).[10] They played at all the ballrooms, Elk Clubs, and the like as well. Here's a short exemplary list:

Fezz Fritsche & His Goose-town Band
The Six Fat Dutchmen
The Babe Wagner Band (Babe later played jazz trombone with the Krupa band)
Whoopie John — a very successful and famous polka band from Minneapolis

Pre 1920s[edit]

There were traveling bands well before the 1920s & 30s. One of many examples were musicians who did their booking from Redfield, South Dakota. Redfield was a railroad hub in the Northern Plains. All their booking was up and down the rail line.

1920s — the birth of swing and ballroom dancing[edit]

In 1924, according to Variety, there were more than 900 dance bands, representing steady work for 7,200 musicians. There were 68 Whiteman orchestras across the country, playing music from the Whiteman library, eleven in New York alone. In the mid-20s, bands typically had ten musicians: two altos, one tenor (who often doubled on other woodwinds and sometimes violin), two trumpets, trombone, banjo or guitar, piano, string bass or brass bass, and drums. Sometimes there were two trombones. If the band had only two saxophones, they would be alto and tenor.

1933 — the Great Depression[edit]

The Great Depression, which hit bottom in 1933, was hard on territory bands. The public strained to afford entertainment. It was not uncommon for bands to be stranded for lack of funds. Many broke up during this period.

1940s — decline of swing and territory bands[edit]

There are many theories on why swing music and territory bands declined. Here are a few:

  1. Unions restricted the fees of booking agents and managers.
  2. Unions required visiting bands to pay local musicians for displaced work (in small towns, unions were nonexistent; but in large cities, unions often looked askance upon territory bands).
  3. Popularity of small combos
  4. Commercial Radio (introduced in 1922), better-quality gramophone discs, and TV (giving greater access to entertainment in the home and access to different types of music). Changing technology (radio, TV, mobility, amplified music) shocked the music industry in a similar way that the internet has shocked the recording industry today.
  5. In the 1950s, most ballrooms in smaller towns of the Midwest closed because people could drive to the city for everything.
  6. Record companies discovered — during the AFM recording bans of 1942-43 and 1948 — that they could profit from record sales, churning out Hit Parade music with just singers, who were exempt from the recording bans. This marked a period when singers became more popular than bandleaders. The introduction and technological advancement of amplification and gramophone recording led to the development of crooning, an intimate vocal style perfected by singers such as Bing Crosby and, later, Frank Sinatra. The record companies gained control over what got recorded; therefore music that was slated for a new market of teenagers was born. This destroyed several booking agencies. MCA, who broke up as many bands as it booked, moved to Hollywood. Frederic Bros. (Chicago) had a fallout with several of its bands. The Vic Schroeder Agency (Omaha), was one of the more responsible bookers before World War II but, little is known after — same with the White Agency.[11]
  7. Amplification also led to the introduction of the electric guitar, which enabled few musicians to project adequately in large-room settings. Bear in mind that, in the 1920s, an unamplified orchestra had to be large enough and play loud enough to entertain a dance hall of 3,000. Prior to the recording bans, the industry was bent on capturing the intent of composers as interpreted by musicians. Before the ban, gramophone consumers were primarily interested in authenticity of symphonies and famous orchestras (dance bands). Vocals, with no microphones, were only an incidental part of an arrangement. Vocals — like Bing Crosby's with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in the studio — could not be replicated live, on stage. Rudy Vallée used a cheerleader's megaphone. Amplification and the record industry helped spur technical improvements, at the expense of performing musicians.

Various territory bands and territory band leaders[edit]

(the band became famous when it replaced Calloway's at the Cotton Club in 1934)
J. J. Johnson played with this band in the early 1940s
J. J. Johnson and Fats Navarro played with this band in the early 1940s
Trumpeter, arranger and composer Herbie Phillips played with this group in 1954
Ray Brown and Tommy Turrentine played with this band
"Illinois" Jacquet's father and "Illinois" himself played with Milt Larkin

Oklahoma City

Many members, which included Count Basie, went on to the Count Basie Orchestra

Hot Springs, Arkansas

  • Original Yellowjackets

Saint Louis

  • Original Saint Louis Crackerjacks

Birmingham, Alabama

  • Carolina Cotton Pickers



  • Snooks and His Memphis Stompers


  • George Morrison

Kansas City


  • Ross De Luxe Syncopators


Got his start in with Hunter's Serenaders, then went big with Basie
Neal Hefti did a lot of writing for Towles's Big Band. T's band got much smaller after 1947, into the 50s
Calame composed Lawrence Welk's theme song "Bubbles in the Wine"
  • Al Hudson
Dirk Fischer, Clare Fischer's brother, wrote a lot for this band. Al was one of the original members of Lee Williams Orchestra
The Winburn band had a sleeper bus before it eventually fronted The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Winburn composed a couple of originals for Sweethearts


  • Grant Moore and his Black Devils


Booking agencies[edit]


  1. Skippy Anderson
  2. Paul Morehead (Morehead took over the agency when Vic died)
  3. Hank Winder
  4. Ralph Slade Orchestra (formed September 1934 in Savanna, IL)
  5. Lawrence Welk Orchestra




  1. Frankie Schenk and His Orchestra


  • McConkey Orchestra Service, Mack McConkey, president, Kansas City
Later known as McConkey Music Corporation
  1. Hal Wasson and His Band


  • Allsbrook-Pumphrey Agency, Richmond


  • Stecker Bros. Agency
  • Lloyd Hall Agency

Legendary bygone ballrooms[edit]


  • Cinderella Dance Palace (aka Cinderella Gardens), Little Rock








New York

  • Kenmore Hotel, 145 E 23rd Street, Albany


South Dakota



† Owned by Carl Fox until December 16, 1945, when he sold the Surf in Clear Lake, Iowa, The Prom in St. Paul, Minnesota, and The Terp in Austin, Minnesota, to William Karzas for $1.5 million. At the time, Karzas was owner-operator of the Aragon and Trinidad ballrooms in Chicago. Fox had operated his ballrooms for territory bands, almost exclusively.[13]

See also[edit]

External links and other sources[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b Gunther Schuller, Chapter 8: Territory Bands (pp. 770–805), The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930–1945 (The History of Jazz, Vol. 2), Oxford University Press (1989)
  2. ^ Francis Davis, Territorial Imperatives, Oct 3, 2006, The Village Voice
  3. ^ Francis Davis, Territorial Imperatives, Oct 3, 2006, The Village Voice
  4. ^ Greene, Victor (1992). Passion for Polka: Old-Time Ethnic Music in America. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 9780520075849.
  5. ^ a b Jack Behrens, Big Bands and Great Ballrooms: America Is Dancing … Again, AuthorHouse, (2006).
  6. ^ Comments of Stewart "Dirk" Fischer in an email to the editor of this article, October 24, 2007.
  7. ^ Fronc, Jennifer, The Horns of the Dilemma: Race Mixing and the Enforcement of Jim Crow in New York City, Journal of Urban History, Sage Publications Vol. 33, No. 1, 3–25 (2006)
  8. ^ Territory Bands Data Base
  9. ^ Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, The Swing Era, p. 159, Oxford University Press (1977).
  10. ^ Greene, Victor (1992). Passion for Polka: Old-Time Ethnic Music in America. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 9780520075849.
  11. ^ Observations of Stewart "Dirk" Fischer in an email to the editor of this article, October 24, 2007.
  12. ^ Lee Barron (pseudonym) (Elroy Vernon Lee; 1915–1993), Odyssey of the Mid-Nite Flyer: A History of Midwest Bands Published by Lee Barron, Omaha (1987)
  13. ^ Karzas Confirms 3-Ballroom Buy, Billboard Magazine, pg. 18, Dec. 21, 1946