Notes 60.1 (2003) 140-141
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Jazz on the Road: Don Albert's Musical Life. By Christopher Wilkinson. Berkeley: University of California Press; Chicago: Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College, 2001. [xvi, 290 p. ISBN 0-520-22983-5. $50 (hbk.); ISBN 0-520-22983-5 $19.95 (pbk.).]
Don Albert (1908-1980) was an African American trumpet player, bandleader, and businessman who spent most of his life in San Antonio, outside the main currents of jazz development. Born Albert Anité Dominique, he grew up in a Creole family in New Orleans's Seventh Ward. The second cousin of clarinetist Barney Bigard (who later earned fame with Duke Ellington) and the nephew of trumpeter Natty Dominique, Albert enjoyed close contact with prominent jazz figures in New Orleans. As a young man he moved to Texas, where he played for Troy Floyd's band ("the second-best black band in Texas after [Alphonso] Trent's" [p. 40]) in the late 1920s. In the thirties he led his own swing band, making a determined but ultimately fruitless attempt to succeed at the national level. After his band collapsed in 1940, he spent the rest of his life working for the government on Texas military bases during the day and pursuing a part-time career as nightclub owner and entertainment booker at night.
Jazz on the Road represents the first scholarly study of any length to focus on Albert. Building on two or three feature articles in the trade press and a few brief discussions of Albert's music in studies of "territory" bands, Christopher Wilkinson has assembled the facts of Albert's life and career through interviews, newspaper articles, advertisements, census records, and other primary documents. Since neither previous critics nor Wilkinson himself claim for Albert any special musical contribution, Albert's interest lies chiefly in his role as a mid-level participant and observer during the heady early years of jazz. Given these circumstances, one might expect Jazz on the Road to present a social history of the period as seen through the eyes and experiences of Albert. Instead, Wilkinson essentially treats Albert as the subject of a traditional biography, emphasizing the psychological impact of his parents (pp. 9-10), turning points in his life (see, for example, the lengthy discussion of Albert's move from New Orleans to Dallas, pp. 23-30), the worth of his recorded legacy, and even his actions during the forty-year period after his retirement from full-time performing. Wilkinson's portrait of Albert, though vivid, should prove helpful to jazz historians mostly by implication—that is, by suggesting larger historical patterns that may in turn be applied to more consequential musical figures.
Wilkinson's engaging account of Albert's musical career in the 1930s marks the high point of the book. Particularly fascinating is the story of Albert's quest for name band status during the Swing Era. Drawing upon reports from black newspapers throughout the southwest, midwest, and eastern states, Wilkinson relates the ups and downs of Albert's career with liveliness and detail. In 1929 Albert organized his own band, which he began billing, four years later, as "America's Greatest Swing Band." In the thirties the band made eleven performance tours, each of which Wilkinson chronicles with scrupulous precision (even including maps indicating routes and destinations for five of the tours). In 1936 the band recorded for the first and only time, completing four discs for Vocalion. By this time Albert had won regional fame and appeared headed toward national recognition. Unfortunately, he made several poor decisions. He foolishly stood up two large dance audiences in Akron, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to play a revue he had double-booked in northern New York state. As a sanction for breaking his dance contracts, the American Federation of Musicians prohibited Albert for several [End Page 140] months from performing in any city with a musician's local, crucially breaking his momentum. Around the same time, Albert shortsightedly rejected offers from top entertainment managers Joe Glaser and Moe Gale to coordinate his business affairs through...