Austin, Lovie 1887–1972
Lovie Austin 1887–1972
Blues pianist, composer, band leader
Pioneering jazz woman Lovie Austin was a classically trained pianist who became an important figure in Chicago’s vibrant Jazz Age as a composer, arranger, and band leader. She wrote many of the classic songs of the early blues era, recorded by major singers like Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, and Ida Cox. Touring and recording with her group, the Blues Serenaders, and working for twenty years as music director of Chicago’s Monogram Theater, Austin broke ground as a female musician and leader, and was cited by musician and composer Mary Lou Williams as a key influence.
Austin was born Cora Calhoun on September 19, 1887, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She attended Roger Williams College, one of four founded in Nashville after the Civil War for freed slaves, and, when it closed, completed her studies at the all-black Knoxville College. With her formal musical education, unusual for black women of her generation, Austin could have chosen a respectable career as a music teacher. But, like her contemporary Lil Hardin Armstrong, also a classically trained pianist, Austin opted for the more lucrative—if disreputable—world of live entertainment, playing piano and performing in variety acts on the thriving black vaudeville circuit.
Professional female pianists were not an unknown quantity at the time, particularly as playing the piano was considered a desirable skill for women, both black and white. In the early part of the century, many female musicians made a living performing in family bands in circuses, carnivals, and tent shows, the chief venues for black performers prior to World War I. But in the prosperous years following the war, the popularity of theater-based vaudeville soared and a number of black vaudeville houses were built in major cities, launching the careers of numerous black female entertainers. Austin, like many other black artists, toured smaller venues around the country on the Theatre Owners’ Booking Association (TOBA) circuit.
TOBA had a reputation for underpaying and overworking black artists: its nickname was Tough On Black Asses. But its theaters were the only places in the South where both white and “colored” audiences were permitted to attend. Many black performers who received top billing at prestigious vaudeville houses in the North performed in TOBA houses for a fraction of their usual fee. After a brief marriage to a Detroit movie house operator, Austin found work on the TOBA circuit, which numbered almost 70 theaters, performing with her second husband under the stage name Austin and Delaney.
Austin’s talents as an arranger as well as a performer soon emerged. She led her own band, the Blues Serenaders, and she directed her own shows, including Sunflower Girls and Lovie Austin’s Revue, which enjoyed a long run at New York’s storied Club Alabam. Mary Lou Williams was still a school girl when she was inspired by the sight of Austin at a Pittsburgh theater. “One Saturday night I went to a theater on Frankstown Avenue where all the Negro shows were booked,” she recalled, in an interview reprinted in Robert Gottlieb’s
At a Glance…
Born Cora Calhoun on September 19, 1887, in Chattanooga, TN; died on July 10, 1972, in Chicago, IL; married twice, Education: Roger Williams College, Nashville, TN, 1900s; Knoxville College, BA, 1900s.
Career: Blues singer, songwriter, and pianist, 1920s-1972; TOBA circuit performer, 1920s; Blues Serenaders, band leader and songwriter, 1920s-1960s; musical show director, 1920s; Monogram Theater, Chicago, music director, 1920s-1940s; Paramount records, music scout, producer, and arranger, 1920s; jimmy Payne’s Dancing School, pianist, 1950s.
book Reading Jazz. “But I hardly noticed any part of the show, for my attention was focused on the lady pianist who worked there. She sat cross-legged at the piano, a cigarette in her mouth, writing music with her right hand while accompanying the show with her swinging left. … The lady turned out to be Lovie Austin, who was working with the pit band and making the orchestrations.”
Tiring of the relentless touring and poor conditions on the TOBA circuit, Austin had settled in Chicago by the early 1920s, a magnet for entertainers and musicians. Over 65,000 blacks moved from the Deep South to Chicago between 1910 and 1920, changing the face—and tastes—of the city. By the time New Orleans’ Storyville district was closed in 1917, driving many musicians north in search of work, Chicago was already famous for its musical vitality and innovation, as well as the bustling night life of the South Side ghetto. The South Side’s clubs, cabarets, theaters, and gambling dens attracted big audiences, both black and white, eager to hear celebrated New Orleans jazz musicians like Joe ‘King’ Oliver and Louis Armstrong.
Although the Chicago music scene was highly competitive, Austin—along with Lil Hardin Armstrong and Earl “Fatha” Hines—became one of the South Side’s most prominent pianists. At a time when women musicians—rather than singers or dancers—-were the exception rather than the rule, Austin became known as an accomplished leader of pit band orchestras. Professional, hard-working and confident, Austin was appointed to the post of musical director at the Monogram Theater on South State Street, home to many of the great clubs of the early jazz era. She was to hold this position for more than 20 years.
Working at the Monogram meant an escape from the relentless traveling of the TOBA circuit, but Austin’s life was hardly glamorous. There were several shows a day, and the theater itself was one of the more shabby, bare-bones establishments on the State Street strip. Ethel Waters, who performed there during World War I, said it was so close to the above ground subway that performers had to pause every time a train went by. In her memoir, His Eye is on the Sparrow, Waters declared that of “all the rinky-dink dumps I played, nothing was worse than the Monogram … you dressed away downstairs with the stoker. The ceiling down there was so low I had to bend over to get my stage clothes on. Then you came up to the stage on a ladder that looked like those on the old-time slave ships.” Despite its conditions, the Monogram hosted many of the era’s great black performers, as well as large and enthusiastic black audiences. “Nothin’ but lowly people went to the Monogram,” said Paramount record producer Mayo Williams, cited in William Howland Kenney’s book Chicago Jazz. Williams scouted talent and monitored black popular taste at the Monogram during Austin’s tenure, and claimed to have discovered Ma Rainey when she performed there in 1923.
Singers like Waters, Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, and Alberta Hunter were the stars of black vaudeville and cabaret. Their performances and recordings helped popularize the blues, a powerful, raw and emotional style of music translated from its roots in Africa into the slave laments of the lower Mississippi Delta. Mamie Smith recorded the first vocal blues record, “Crazy Blues,” in 1920; it sold more than a million copies in six months. The public appetite for the blues seemed insatiable, and a number of record labels, like Paramount, began releasing “race records” featuring black performers and marketed to black audiences around the country. Austin and her formal musical skills were in high demand. Mayo Williams hired her to scout talent for recording sessions, learn their songs by ear, teach singers and musicians proper pitch and arrangements in the recording studio, and transcribe original numbers into European notation for sheet music.
In addition to her accomplishments as a musical director, Austin had developed a strong and rhythmic percussive playing style, ideal for raunchy, rocking blues numbers. Linda Dahl, in her book Stormy Weather, declared that Austin’s “style of piano playing belied the stereotype of the ‘feminine touch.’” Austin found herself in demand as a recording artist in her own right, leading her group, the Blues Serenaders. Together they recorded 16 sides for Paramount between 1924 and 1926. From the 1920s into the late 1940s, Austin recorded with many of the great blues singers, including Chippie Hill, Ida Cox, Edmonia Henderson, Alberta Hunter, and Ma Rainey, and worked with a number of the period’s most respected sidemen, including Kid Ory, Johnny Dodds, Jimmy Bryant, and Tommy Ladnier.
Austin also composed dozens of classic blues songs, co-writing several hits such as “Down-Hearted Blues,” and “Chirping the Blues” with Alberta Hunter, “Bo Weevil Blues” with Ma Rainey, and “Bama Bound Blues” with Ida Cox. Bessie Smith’s 1923 Columbia recording of “Down-Hearted Blues” sold 780,000 copies in six months, launching her as a major star, and she went on to record many of Austin’s other songs, including “Bleeding Hearted Blues” and “Any Woman’s Blues.”
Many singers of the era received little or no money for their lyrics and original songs. Hunter, one of the biggest names in blues and the featured soloist at the prestigious Dreamland Café for nearly five years, remained grateful to Austin all her life for obtaining copyright protection—and therefore ongoing royalty income—for Hunter’s contribution to “Down-Hearted Blues.” Linda Dahl quoted Hunter as urging people not to “ever forget Lovie Austin. She wrote and played a mess of blues. Lovie wrote ‘Graveyard Blues’ for Bessie Smith and made hundreds of those early records. And it was Lovie who helped me copyright my blues.”
Austin herself was not so lucky. According to Dahl, she enjoyed few ongoing financial benefits from reissued recordings and compositions. In the 1930s Austin and her style of music were out of step with the times, although she continued to tour with the Blues Serenaders, work at the Monogram and perform on recordings. Swing replaced blues as the popular craze, and new jazz stars emerged as the public appetite for classic blues faded. The market for sheet music, records and stage shows declined sharply as the Depression intensified and many black women singers found themselves out of work—even the great Bessie Smith was dropped by Columbia in 1931.
The colorful Austin—seen in her heyday driving around Chicago’s South Side in a Stutz Bearcat with leopard skin upholstery—worked in a war plant during World War II, and subsequently became a pianist at Jimmy Payne’s Dancing School. In 1961 jazz critic Chris Albertson brought Hunter and Austin back into the studio to record Alberta Hunter with Lovie Austin and her Blues Serenaders, in which the two performed “Down Hearted Blues” together for the first time since 1922. This would be Austin’s last recording. She did continue to perform throughout the 1960s, finally retiring in the early 1970s.
Austin, unfortunately, would not have a long retirement, for she passed away in Chicago on July 10, 1972. In later life, Hunter—cited by critic Melanie Sattler on the Snake (Women of the Blues) website—remembered Austin as “a wonderful woman. She was kindhearted. She tried to help everybody she could.” Mary Lou Williams, who became one of the most influential female jazz musicians and composers of the twentieth century, never forgot her debt to Austin. “She was a fabulous woman and a fabulous musician too,” Williams was quoted as saying in the liner notes for a Stash Records retrospective, reproduced on the Red Hot Jazz website. “I don’t believe there’s a woman around now who could compete with her. She was a greater talent than many of the men.”
(With Alberta Hunter) “Down Hearted Blues,” 1922.
(With Alberta Hunter) “Chirping the Blues,” 1923.
(With Ida Cox) “Any Woman’s Blues,” 1923.
(With Ida Cox) “Bama Bound Blues,” 1923.
(With Ida Cox) “Bleeding Hearted Blues,” 1923.
(With Edmonia Henderson and Blues Serenaders) “Brown Skin Man,” Paramount, 1923.
(With Ma Rainey and Blues Serenaders) “Bo-Weevil Blues,” Paramount, 1923.
(With Ida Cox and Blues Serenaders) “Blues Ain’t Nothin’ Else But!,” Paramount, 1924.
(With Ida Cox and Blues Serenaders) “Cherry Pickin’ Blues,” Paramount, 1924.
(With Ethel Waters and Blues Serenaders) “Craving Blues,” Paramount, 1924.
(With Ma Rainey and Blues Serenaders) “Ya-Da-Do,” Paramount, 1924.
(With Blues Serenaders) “Steppin’ on the Blues,” Paramount, rec. 1924.
(With Blues Serenaders) “Charleston Mad,” Paramount, 1925.
(With Blues Serenaders) “Chicago Mess Around,” Paramount, 1926.
(With Blues Serenaders) “Jackass Blues,” Paramount, 1926.
(With Blues Serenaders) “Merrie Maker’s Twine,” Paramount, 1926.
(With Chippie Hill and Blues Serenaders) “Charleston Blues,” Riverside, 1946.
(With Alberta Hunter and Blues Serenaders) Alberta Hunter with Lovie Austin and her Blues Serenaders, Prestige, 1962.
The Chronological Lovie Austin 1924-1926, Melodie Jazz Classic, 1998.
Dahl, Linda, Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women, Limelight Editions, 1995, pp. 25-28, 106.
Gottlieb, Robert, ed. Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage and Criticism from 1919 to Now, Pantheon Books, 1996, pp. 88.
Harrison, Daphne Duval, Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s, Rutgers University Press, 1988, pp. 204, 208, 216, 233.
Kenney, William Howland, Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, 1904-1930, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 11-12, 48, 126.
Waters, Ethel, with Charles Samuels, His Eye is on the Sparrow, Da Capo Press, 1992, pp. 77, 173.
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“Austin, Lovie,” MusicWeb, www.musicweb.uk.net/encyclopaedia/a/A150.HTM (February 28, 2003).
“Austin, Lovie,” Snake (Women of the Blues), www.island.net/~blues/atod.htm (February 28, 2003).
“History of Blues,” Blues World, www.geocities.com/bluesworld2000/history36.html (February 28, 2003).
“History of Jazz Timeline,” All About Jazz, www.allaboutjazz.com/jazzl923.htm (February 28, 2003).
“Ida Cox,” Hot Burrito, http://hotburrito.20m.com/blues/idacox.html (February 28, 2003).
Knoxville College, www.knoxvillecollege.edu/ (February 28, 2003).
“Lovie Austin,” A Composer’s and Lyricist Database, http.//nfo.net/.CAL/ta4.html (February 28, 2003).
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“Lovie Austin,” Dixieland and Jazz Overview, http.//nfo.net/.WWW/JOB.html (February 28, 2003).
“Lovie Austin,” The Hot Jazz Site, www.edsite2.fsnet.co.uk/lovieaustin.htm (February 28, 2003).
“Lovie Austin,” The Iceberg, www.theiceberg.com/artist/23765/lovie_austin/ (February 28, 2003).
“Lovie Austin,” Red Hot Jazz, www.redhotjazz.com/austin.html (February 28, 2003).
“Lovie Austin,” Student Resource Center, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/SRCCE/ (February 28, 2003).
“Lovie Austin: The Chronological Lovie Austin: 1924-1926,” Women Swing Sisters, www.slipcue.com/music/jazz/swinggals_01.html (February 28, 2003).
“Ma Rainey,” Hot Burrito, http://hotburrito.20m.com/blues/marainey.html (February 28, 2003).
Riverside Discography, www.tgs.gr.jp/jazz/rvl901-dis/c/#35 (February 28, 2003).
“Roger Williams University,” Tennessee State University, www.tnstate.edu/library/digital/roger.htm (February 28, 2003).
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—Paula J.K. Morris
"Austin, Lovie 1887–1972." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/austin-lovie-1887-1972
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