Texarkana-born trumpeter Lammar Wright Sr. helped create Kansas City Jazz

Con Chapman (Submitted photo)
Con Chapman (Submitted photo)

TEXARKANA -- Every resident knows -- or should know -- Texarkana's distinction as the birthplace of Scott Joplin, the man who more than any other transformed ragtime, the music of Midwestern saloons and bordellos, into a stately style recognized the world over as "classical" music in every sense.

There are, after all, a park named after him on West Street, a much-larger-than-life mural portraying him at Main and West Third streets and a self-guided driving tour tracking his life that goes by the Orr School he attended as a youngster.

But Texarkana is also the birthplace of a trumpeter who played an important role in the transformation of ragtime into jazz, and who went on to a long career with some of the biggest names in the business, including Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway.

Lammar Wright Sr. was born on the Texas side in 1912 and, like Joplin before him, moved to Missouri. His family settled in Kansas City, where he attended Lincoln High School, whose music department produced a number of early jazz figures, including bassist Walter Page.

Wright would be hired by Bennie Moten, leader of an early jazz band whose members went on to form the core of Count Basie's orchestra. Wright can be heard on Moten's records "Elephant's Wobble" and "Crawdad Blues," among others.

Through the Moten band's records, Wright's playing came to the attention of Andy Preer, leader of the house orchestra at the Cotton Club in New York, where Duke Ellington would later make his name. Preer's band -- known as The Missourians -- would be taken over by Cab Calloway, the first African American to have a million-selling single record and a nationally syndicated radio show.

Wright would remain Calloway's lead trumpeter for 15 years and later would play with other big bands. He retired from the rigors of the road to become a studio musician in the 1950s and '60s.

Wright was one of two Texas trumpeters who would play significant roles in the development of what has come to be known as Kansas City Jazz, the other being Oran "Hot Lips" Page, born in Dallas in 1908.

Like Wright, Page moved to Kansas City, where the corrupt municipal government of Mayor Tom Pendergast allowed bars to go underground as "speakeasies" during Prohibition.

Musicians gravitated to Kansas City because nightlife continued to thrive there when the flow of liquor in other cities was cut off.

Jukeboxes weren't in widespread use until the mid-to-late 1930s, and so the song that historically complements wine and women had to be provided by live musicians. The style thus became known as Kansas City Jazz, even though many of the musicians who created it were from the Southwest or elsewhere in the Midwest.

The men who made Kansas City Jazz often began their careers when they were "still in short pants," in Page's words, a reference to the knickers that young boys once wore.

Knickers were trousers whose length could be adjusted with buckles, reducing the need to buy new pants for a boy as he grew. The transition to long pants was considered a rite of passage. Thus, the line in Johnny Mercer's "Blues in the Night": "My momma done tol' me -- when I was in knee pants."

Lammar Wright had two sons, Lammar Jr. and Elmon, both of whom became trumpeters like their dad. Lammar Jr. joined Lionel Hampton's band at the age of 16, a young age but no earlier than his father, who started with Bennie Moten at the same age.

Wright may not have invented it, but he was an early and frequent participant in what came to be known as a "chase" chorus, in which two musicians who play the same instrument challenge each other with alternating four-bar solos.

Wright's opponent in the Moten band was Ed Lewis, and it was said by a rival Kansas City bandleader Jasper "Jap" Allen that Wright "gave Lewis as much as he could handle" in these mock battles. Later, Count Basie would use the concept for battles between tenor saxophonists Herschel Evans and Lester Young.

Evans, born in Denton, Texas, was the original "Texas tenor," with a warm tone and vibrato modeled on the sound of Coleman Hawkins. Young's style was light and smooth, and so the two contrasted with each other.

What started out as friendly competition would sometimes escalate, as Basie band members and Billie Holiday, a great admirer of Young, would egg the two men on.

Evans died at 30. Lester Young went on to spawn a legion of imitators including Stan Getz, whose bossa nova records in the '60s breathed new life into jazz.

There are other musicians from the Lone Star State who, like Lammar Wright, have been largely forgotten or obscured by the coming of rock 'n' roll, such as trombonists Jack Teagarden of Vernon, Texas, and Dan Minor of Dallas.

If Scott Joplin can be revived by a Hollywood movie, "The Sting," a half-century after his death, perhaps some of these Texas jazz journeymen can get a second look.

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Con Chapman has written about jazz since the mid-1970s, and his work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, Barron's and Reason, among other publications.

He is the author of "Rabbit's Blues: The Life and Music of Jonny Hodges" (Oxford University Press, 2019), which won the 2019 Book of the Year award from the Hot Club de France and a 2020 Certificate of Merit for Best Historical Research from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections.

His latest book is "Kansas City Jazz: A Little Evil Will Do You Good."

  photo  The cover of Con Chapman's "Kansas City Jazz: A Little Evil Will Do You Good" (Equinox Publishing), which in part tells the story of Texarkanian trumpeter Lammar Wright Sr. (Submitted photo)
 
 

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