Bijou Theater

On Feb. 25, the Knoxville History Project hosted a webinar on Jazzbilly and its origins in Knoxville. This webinar is part of a series of historical Zoom chats that the Knoxville History Project hosts highlighting specific historical topics in Knoxville.

With over 70 participants attending the event, many tuned into to learn about the hybrid music genre known as “Jazzbilly.” A combination of jazz and hillbilly music, this string-focused form of music dates back to roughly a century ago.

Joining the discussion was Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound archivist Eric Dawson. When it came to defining exactly what Hillbilly music was, “Hillbilly was a marketing term, and Jazzbilly didn’t exist as a term before the 90s,” Dawson said.

According to Dawson, Hillbilly music arose from a mix of different genres like bluegrass, country and “old-time” music. Dawson says that old-time music was a result of migrant families who came to United States and brought with them their music from their home country.

How Jazzbilly came to be was, according to Dawson, a “cross-pollination” of different music genres with Jazz. As more African-Americans began to migrate to the northern states, their music crossed paths with other genres as well to produce Jazzbilly.

As Dawson points out, certain historical figures like automobile producer saw Jazz as a “cultural threat” and tried to counteract it. Ford used his funding to start square dancing events and educational classes to discourage Jazz’s musical success.

Joining Dawson was Jack Neely, the executive director of the Knoxville History Project. Back in 2000, Neely had actually interviewed one of the notable figures in Jazzbilly history, Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong whenever he had returned to Knoxville.

Archived footage of the interview was presented during the webinar, and Neely reminisced on the discussion he had with Howard Armstrong.

“In the old city, people came together and hung out,” Neely said. “They would bring their instruments and share their music with each other. Armstrong were some of those who hung out there.”

The Armstrong interview footage wasn’t the only film shared there as well, as Dawson shared footage from the TAMIS vaults of various Jazzbilly artists and performances. This included musical groups like the Tennessee Ramblers, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, and the Dixieland Swingers.

Much of the footage was over half a century old, with one archived clip from 1929 showcased the first known recording of the WKNOX’s Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round. Another recoding included a 1981 appearance of Stéphane Grappelli, a renowned French-Italian violinist, when he played the Bijou.

The Knoxville History Project was able to use a lively discussion between two experts and archival footage to help share more of Knoxville’s history and taking the time to highlight the history of a lesser-known form of music, Jazzbilly.

Moving forward, the Knoxville History Project will continue to host webinars on Knoxville’s history and its cultural connection to its people. For those who are interested in checking out more of their events, you can visit their website.

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