Royal Garden Blues
Clarence and Spencer Williams
Most tales of the earliest years of jazz take us to Storyville, the legendary red-light district of New Orleans. In this teeming world of loose women and free-flowing booze, the relaxation of inhibitions, along with a diversity of other social activities which might not be suitable for discussion before a family audience at a large summer venue, produced some of the most invigorating and joyous music ever heard. It was in 1917, when prostitution was finally made illegal, that many of the region's leading musicians made the move to Chicago, where jazz music found fresh audiences.
The Royal Gardens, a large dance hall on Chicago's South Side, was home to the Original Creole Band in 1918. A year later, two New Orleans transplants, Clarence Williams (1893-1965) and Spencer Williams (1889-1965), - not related despite their common surname - collaborated on words and music for "Royal Garden Blues," which was recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1921. Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman were among the many later jazzmen who also recorded it.
In his liner notes for a 1959 Duke Ellington-Johnny Hodges LP which included the song, Leonard Feather declared that "Royal Garden Blues" "may well have been one of the first jazz compositions to make use of riffs." He went on to remark "... how little the original melody has dated in four decades." There's no reason to argue that point, even after another four decades.
- Dennis Bade is the Philharmonic's Associate Director of Publications.