Monday, February 18, 2019

Abita Springs Music History

In the mid-1980's, Dr. Karl Koenig explored Abita Springs in his book detailing the history of jazz around the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. His research found many references to musicians and bands who had either frequented Abita or were from the town.

Dr. Koenig began his review of Abita Springs music history by giving a bit of general history of the community:

Abita Springs

The Choctaw Indians gave the name to this little village by natural springs. The Choctaw name 'Ibetab okla chit'o' means 'large settlement by the fountain.' Abita Springs was officially founded as a health resort around 1853. The town was incorporated in 1912.

"Unlike Mandeville, Madisonville, and Covington, Abita Springs didn't have access to the lake front, river front or the steamers on the lake. Those travelers that came to the Springs prior to 1887 came by horse and buggy. On July 2, 1887, the first train arrived in Abita Springs. A track had been laid from the pier in Mandeville to the Springs, bringing excursionists to Abita directly from New Orleans. 

"No longer would it take five and a half hours to make the trip. The decline of Abita as a health resort was hastened with a cure for yellow fever being found during the Spanish American War (the last outbreak of yellow fever was in 1905); the other reason being that the hydropathy itself was in decline in favor of more conventional medicine.

In the July 2, 1887 St. Tammany Farmer Newspaper, an article tells of the first train arrival in Abita:

"Arrival of first train to Abita Springs .... and the echo was lost in the lively strains of the brass band in the first car; 'Goodbye My Honey, I'm Gone,' which was probably intended as a significant greeting from the iron horse to the astonished ox teams standing around. The large pavilion, not completed, dancers disappointed - ready for 4th of July excursionists." (July 2, 1887)

"Dances were held at the pavilion and the editor of the newspaper made a trip to observe the activity. He wrote a very interesting account of what he saw and heard. Was the band he heard a style of music from which jazz evolved? Were the three musicians as bad as he reports? Were these musicians of the type that did not read music but learned on their own, without the benefit of a music teacher?"

The article went as follows: "Editor's trip to Abita Springs -- We paid a short visit to the pavilion where a number of young people were dancing - or trying to. We say trying to from observation; by their movements we could tell that some of them were good dancers - but the music? The band - imported from the city, consisted of a piccolo, guitar and bass viol. Shades of Paganini and Mozart. Was the music ever distracted with such a battery of discord and in harmonious sounds? Were the votaries of terpsichore ever exposed to such hardships as to time and intonation? We say no, not even by a discordant hand-organ." (July 26, 1887)

Active Town Full of Friendly People

Dr. Koenig continued his report by saying "the town of Abita Springs, from earliest accounts, was a very active town and its citizens, possessing great energy and pride, always tried to establish their town as one of the most hospitable and friendly towns. In 1887 the citizens of the town were aware of the potential Abita possessed and began working toward attracting excursionists and to "get in on the business boom." The town builds a new large dancing pavilion (June 18, 1887) and "dances are in abundance at the Long Branch (A hotel that was established in 1880 and burnt down in 1993), Frapperts, Conrads Hall, Crescent Colomos and Pelloat's House." (August 27, 1887)

Visitors flocked into Abita in the summer of 1892 according to the newspaper
s of that time, as the different hotels in Abita Springs "are rapidly filling up - Bossier House, Labats, Long Branch, Morans, Martins and Summers." The Summers House still exists, and is located on Live Oak Street. 

In 1893 there was not a town band and the Colomos Hotel hired the Covington Brass Band for a birthday party. The first mention of the Abita String Band was on July 14, 1894, in the following article from the Farmer: "Reception, July 6, at Mr. W. Gunther - serenade by Abita String Band."

Dr. Koenig then noted that in 1914, another article about the band explained that "the local band from Abita Springs playing dances, entertainments, etc. is first called the Abita String Band, then Martin's orchestra, and finally just the Abita Band.

A newly organized band will give serenades to outstanding citizens and newspaper editors so the band can receive publicity, and the Farmer editor reported on June 1, 1895, that the Abita String Band serenaded. "Abita Spring Band complimented us with a charming serenade Thursday night." The band also travelled to Covington on occasion and "discoursed sweet music in Covington last Monday

In late 1895, the Abita band played for a party and dance at Mrs. L. Clark's House. On January 2, 1897, the paper noted that the "Abita String Band treated their friends in Covington to a charming serenade Christmas Eve." On May 22, 1899, the band appeared again, this time at the Abita Dance Pavilion.

The next few years at the Springs find out-of-town bands playing at various functions including a July 20, 1901, grand entertainment and dance hosted by Fire Co. No. 2 "On July 27th is another dance with music by a New Orleans Band, music by Prof. H. Bruness of New Orleans." (July 6, 1901)

The Adams Band, a family band from New Orleans, plays a ball and entertainment in Abita, Dr. Koenig said, quoting the paper: "Abita Springs grand entertainment and ball. Mr. Fred W. Hover. The Adams Band furnished the latest music - opening the entertainment with an overture." (Sept. 28, 1901)

"The Ragans, a family living near Abita Springs with relatives in Ponchatoula, were a very musical family. The Ponchatoula branch of the family had an organized band and played for a party on Military Road on June 6, 1902. It was a surprise party at the home of Mrs. John Eberhardt. The band was accompanied by Mr. Amedee Guyol and others on the piano." 

 Eugene Morin, drummer of Abita Serenaders performing at Abita Springs, 1912-16,

Dr. Koenig said in his book that in 1892 was the first mention of Conrad's Hall when the Abita Springs Fireman have a grand entertainment and ball there (June 21, 1902). Another new hotel in town, called the Abita Springs Hotel, is opened that year, and a party travels from Covington for a dance there. Today there is only one cottage remaining, which is near Laurel and Groves Streets.

Another Farmer article states that The Ragan Brothers' Band (possibly from Ponchatoula) played a complementary ball on June 13, 1903, at the pavilion. Dr. Koenig also notes that in June of 1903 a Prof. Ricks brings a band to play for the yearly firemen's ball.

"What was life like in Abita around 1888? A visitor to Abita gave the following opinion: Breakfast at 9 ...then a ramble to the springs through the pine woods. Or if one was so inclined a quiet moment in the pavilion. At 3, Dinner, then rest and leisure or perhaps a game of croquet or music in the parlor. After supper, we have a regular pitch in for a jolly good time. . .with music and entertainments. The whole concluding with a merry country dance."

Excursion Entertainments

Dances continued in 1904 with the opening of Mutti's Hotel, according to Dr. Koenig. That hotel was located in the vicinity of Level and Warren Streets. There were frequent dances there. In another article, the paper states that Mandeville public schools have an excursion to Abita Springs and bring with them the Mandeville String Band. The band uses the bass viola player from Abita Springs.

A large excursion from the Parker/Blake Drug Co. of New Orleans chose Abita for an outing in June of 1905, and this is reported, including the name of the band that has accompanied them: "Parker/Blake Drug Co. outing at Abita Springs. After the ball game the waltzing contest was called at the pavilion. Excellent music being furnished by Sporor's City Park Band," Dr. Koenig explained.

The Abita Springs String band did play for a grand ball given at the UFBA Hall in Madisonville in December with music furnished by the Abita String Band. They next play for a ball at Pythian Hall, Dr. Koenig quotes the 1906 newspaper article by saying: "An enjoyable masquerade and fancy ball was given at Pythian Hall on Wednesday night, Feb. 21, by Mrs. Jenkins and Miss Rochenschub. There was a large attendance and all had a delightful time. The gay customers of the maskers presented an attractive scene and the dancing was continued until a late hour. The music was furnished by the Abita String Band." (March 5, 1906)

Original Dance Pavilion Collapses

"There was still a great deal of civic pride in the town of Abita and when the dancing pavilion (the original pavilion that was east of the present Sully pavilion) collapses, they unite to build another, Dr. Koenig's book stated. A new group is formed named the Abita Progressive Union to promote town pride and general welfare. An article of the time recounts: "The dancing pavilion at Abita Springs collapsed last Wednesday morning and is a total wreck. We understand that a handsome one will be erected to take its place." (July 17, 1906)

The Martin Orchestra

Dr. Koenig's book continues: "The name of Frank Martin begins to appear as the leader of an orchestra in Abita Springs. The orchestra first appears playing for the Abita Springs ladies' entertainment and dance on September 14th, 1908. Martin was the manager of one of the hotels in Abita and was a local resident. His name appears frequently in print and his groups play for many local functions. One such appearance was for the local 4th of July celebration."

Here is the news account of that event: "Abita Springs 4th of July. Martin's Abita Springs Orchestra - discoursed popular music." (July 11, 1908) The Martin Orchestra also plays for a dance for the Abita Social Club that met in the town hall that is today still being used. This was on July 18, 1908. Martin and Joseph Madden play for an informal dance at Bradley House on September 5th.

"After this entry we read the name of the Abita Springs Band but no longer find the Martin name mentioned," Dr. Koenig reported. "It is uncertain whether he moves away, or the band is no longer called by his name and becomes known as the Abita Springs Band.

Pavilion Updates

The dance pavilion at Abita is a key landmark of the history of music performances in the area, and Dr. Koenig tracks its use through a number of newspaper reports. "The center of activity and the landmark of Abita are the springs and park where the town pavilion is located. The earliest pavilion seems to have been in place in 1887, the one spoken about earliest as not being completed in time for the 4th of July celebration.

"There is a new pavilion built and is ready for use on September 26th, 1908. The town council votes to hire a concert band to play at the pavilion and hopes to secure local talent with a competent musician from New Orleans as the leader. Another news item: "Abita Springs - New pavilion near Springs. Funds to be raised to maintain a concert band on two evenings each week, where the best local talent will be gotten together under a competent musician from New Orleans." (Sept. 26, 1908)

"An outstanding band brought in to perform in Abita Springs in 1909 is the legendary Reliance Band of Jack 'Papa' Laine. Jack Laine's place in history is firmly set. His career is legendary in the annuals of New Orleans music history. Laine sponsored and ran a number of brass bands, each one called the Reliance Band. He led one of them and put competent musicians in charge of others. He booked them as Jack Laine's Reliance Band. The particular Reliance Band that played in Abita was under the direction of Tony Giardina.

The newspaper notes "Grand entertainment and ball to be given by Abita Pleasure Club on Sat. July 24, for the benefit of the school fund. Music furnished by the famous New Orleans Reliance Orchestra, E. Garina - leader." (July 17, 1909)

There is a follow-up story the next week on the ball: "The Reliance Band also was engaged to play a benefit for the Abita Fire Department. Usually the band received a guarantee payment, the sponsors figuring that a name orchestra would draw people in and they would make money. It was also usual that if a band made a good impression and drew a large crowd, the advertisement for an upcoming dance would mention how well the band was appreciated by a past dance crowd.

"Thus is the case with the next entry: Ball at Abita Springs, Pleasure Club benefit - Abita Fire Co. Music will be furnished by the celebrated Reliance Orchestra of New Orleans. This band is a great favorite with the people and made quite a hit at the ball given by the club in July last." (August 25, 1909)

"The Reliance Band is again hired for a dance on August 28th. The next resort/excursion season of 1910 sees the Pleasure club again hiring the Reliance Band for a grand ball on June 25th: Grand ball June 25th, in Abita Springs. The Abita Pleasure Club will give a grand ball at the pavilion Sunday, June 25th. Music by Reliance Orchestra of New Orleans. (June 18, 1910)

"Again, on July 30th, the Reliance Band plays for a grand ball in Abita. The last entry for the Reliance Band in Abita Springs in on September 16, 1911, when they play for a school benefit: Dance at Abita Pavilion Saturday night, 16th, for benefit of Abita Public School. The Reliance Band of New Orleans has been engaged." (Sept. 9, 1911)

Continuing with local musical activities and celebrations, Dr. Koenig told of plans being made for a Fourth of July celebration in Abita Springs. "We read that there is a parade in the Springs and the Covington Brass Band is one of the musical participants for this activity: Abita Springs - 4th of July - About 2:00 o'clock the members of Fire Co. No. 2 headed by grand marshal J. P. Rausch and the Covington Military Band marched from their headquarters in the town hall to the pavilion...Ball in evening ended at 12:00." (July 10, 1909)"

At a New Year's Eve Party at the DePriest's home the entry lists some names that were associated with music in Abita: "New Year's Eve at DePriests' - Among those who added greatly to the enjoyment of the evening by music and song were: Theo. Zinser, A. Bagriel, Paul Cazelot, Joe Koffler, E. D. Abadie, Charlie Spitzer, Mead Fontaine, Amadee Guyol, Bud Badon, Edward Marrero, Will Connaughton, and Arthur De Labreton." (Jan. 9, 1910)

While the Reliance Band played engagements in Abita during 1910 and 1911, it was the Brown Band that was the busiest. Beginning on May 21, 1910, the Brown Band/Orchestra began playing engagements in Abita:

"Grand Ball by Abita Fire Co. No. 2 at Abita Pavilion, Saturday, May 21. Music by the Brown Orchestra." (May 7, 1910)

Here is an extended excerpt from Dr. Koenig's book: Tom Brown was the leader of the above band which would become the first New Orleans Jazz Band to play in Chicago in 1915. In 1910, Brown entered negotiations with the Abita town council about playing at the pavilion: "Abita council meeting - communication from Brown's Band was read, relative to playing music twice a week at the pavilion. Committee appointed to confer with Mr. Brown and go into a contract." (March 18, 1910)

The council and Brown reached an agreement and the band begins a long stay at the town's pavilion. Weekly ads appear in the newspaper. Brown's Band played each Wednesday and Saturday night at the pavilion along with a vaudeville show and concert.

The Ragan Band played a number of engagements in Abita: June 25, August 6, July 28, 1910, January 28th and Feb. 1, 1911.

The Mystic Club held a masquerade ball in Abita Springs on March 19, 1910, with music by the "Abita Band" that "received an encore when they played one piece." (March 19, 1910)

For the Abita Firemen's Day parade, three bands march: the Covington Band, the Abita Field Band, and the Brookhaven Military Band (May 14, 1910). This Abita Band may have been a "pick-up band" but there were enough musicians to get together a marching band for the parade. This mention of the Abita Field Band appears only once, thereby justifying the theory of a pick-up band."

Summer Season 1911

Dr. Koenig then told of the opening of the summer season 1911 in Abita and of the music and entertainment that was presented: "The opening concert and vaudeville on May 13, is a fore-runner of music and entertainment that will be at the pavilion in Abita during the summer. The music will be of the latest selections, furnished by Prof. Bentin, of New Orleans. Refreshments will be on sale. Every evening during the summer there will be free music and dancing for those who wish it." (May 13, 1911)

The Brown Band also played for other functions such as parties, house warmings, and balls: "House warming at Lamousin's. The Brown Orchestra was there and discoursed sweet music while the dancers enjoyed themselves." (March 18, 1911)

In 1912, the Brown Band still was engaged for functions in Abita. On February 3rd the band plays for a smoker at the Town Hall (part of this building is still standing - it was a two-story building with the school on top. The top floor has since been destroyed and it is now just a single story building.)On March 13, 1912, the band plays for a "grand fancy dress and masquerade ball at the town hall."

The Ragan Band receives employment at the Springs for dances on February 17, and February 24, 1912.

Baseball Park Dancing

In almost every baseball park Dr. Koenigh found that there was a dancing pavilion where dancing was held after the baseball game. "Abita Springs - Open ball park Sunday, 24th of May. To be dancing at the pavilion. Good band will furnish music." (May 23, 1912)

The band that furnished the music for the above baseball game was the Tardo Band of New Orleans. The town continues to provide music for the excursionists and local citizens as it announces a "free dance at Abita Springs, Sunday. The famous Christian Band of New Orleans will play their popular music." (Sept. 12, 1912)

Electric Lights Arrive

Near the end of September of 1914, electric lights make their first appearance in Abita Springs, Dr. Koenig reported in his history of jazz music. The coming of electric light was announced in the paper and a band and motion pictures were scheduled for the occasion:
"Electric lights in Abita Springs. The band - an excellent band from New Orleans will be in attendance from 2 at the pavilion and from 7-8 a motion picture and there will be dancing at the pavilion until midnight." (Sept. 26, 1914)

The motion picture theater was approximately where the small pavilion is now at the main intersection of Abita Springs. Though there is mention of an Abita Spring's Band in two entries-December 5th and December 12th in 1914, there are none for 1915 and 1916. These years are part of the pre World War I years.

It is not until August of 1916 when there is an entry about a dance at the pavilion "with music by a good New Orleans Band." During the war years in almost every small town the activities slow down and little is said about social events.

Airdome Theater

Dr. Koenig goes on to relate that on April 8, 1917, the opening of the Airdome Theater in Abita was celebrated with a big dance. It is interesting to mention that one finds, in most movie theaters of this era, the appearance of a dance floor.

The Airdome advertises the addition of a dance floor: "Opening of Airdome Theater - Abita Springs, April 8th - Big Dance. Picture show has been remodeled and enlarged and a fine dancing floor added." (April 7, 1917)

Social activity in Abita Springs is seldom mentioned in 1919. On July 5th we read of a big dance with a New Orleans Orchestra in Abita Springs. This orchestra was the Stephens Orchestra, another branch of Laine's Reliance Band.

The first entry using the word "jazz" to describe a band appears in the paper on July 24, 1920.

"Big dance at Palace Theater, Abita Springs. Music by a jazz band, July 25th, Sunday." (July 24, 1920)

Segregation was in existence during this era in American history and can be seen in two separate entries, as they state whether it is a white or colored band playing: "At Abita Springs Sunday night, Sept. 26th at 8 pm - an eight piece colored jazz band will furnish music." (Sept. 29, 1921)

"Dance - ad - At Abita Springs Sunday, June 26, music furnished by a seven piece white jazz band from New Orleans." (June 5, 1921)
"Abita Springs - a six piece colored jazz band from New Orleans will furnish music." (July 9, 1921)

The pavilion at Abita and the pavilion at Sulphur Springs in Covington were in competition and we find advertisements of the Abita Pavilion in the paper weekly: "Abita Springs - same classy jazz band. Dances every Saturday." (May 21, 1921)

The year 1922 was a very active year on the North Shore. In Abita Springs there are weekly dances advertised in the paper, such as "Big Dance at Abita Springs - jazz music and a good time awaiting all." (April 8, 1922).

We find the name of the legendary Buddy Petit playing for a dance in Abita Springs on April 30th: "There will be a big dance at Abita Springs, Sunday, April 30th. A jazz band from New Orleans. Be sure and come for a good time. Music will be furnished by Buddy Petit Jazz Orchestra from New Orleans." (April 29, 1922)

Picture of Buddy Petit Band
Photo from John Preble Collection

According to Dr. Koenig, Buddy Petit begins a busy summer in Abita in 1922, but it is the band from Bogalusa that receives much of the work in 1922. There is an organized brass band in Bogalusa as well as some smaller musical groups. The paper does not state which Bogalusa band it is in these early entries but does state that the Elks Band of Bogalusa plays several engagements in 1923. Mention of the "famous Bogalusa Jazz Band" in the July 1st paper might indicate the Claude Blanchard Band, which was also playing at the pavilion in Mandeville on other night of the week.

The brass band was reorganized as the Elks Band in late summer of 1922, so it must have been Blanchard's Jazz Hounds that play in Abita for a dance on February 11, July 2nd, and Sept. 16, 1922. Buddy Petit does play one other job in Abita on July 30th. The entry is an interesting one: "Big dance at Abita Springs July 30th. O boy oh joy! There will be another big dance at Abita Springs on July 30th. Music will be furnished by Buddy Petit's Jazz Hounds." (July 22, 1922)

This ad appears in the July 29th paper. Petit seldom called his band by any name except his own but agents have called it the "Black and Tan' Band and the "Eagle" Band. This is the first I have heard it called the "Jazz Hounds." I think that the paper just wanted to name it and thought that the name "Jazz Hounds" seemed current and apropos.

"The larger Elks Brass Band of Bogalusa plays in Abita Springs on July 22, 1923, and for dancing at the pavilion on July 29th. This pavilion is the Cotton Centennial Pavilion and is still standing today. This band, formally the town band of Bogalusa, when funds were unavailable from the town, was taken over by the Elks club and played for local dances in Bogalusa and at the different fairs and occasionally dances such as the ones mentioned," Dr. Koenig explained.

"In 1924 Morgan's Spa is opened with a "fine dancing platform" and the Abita mayor, who also runs the famous Lyric Theater in New Orleans, brings his orchestra and his celebrated Minstrels to entertain at his inauguration celebration (July 19, 1924). When the rail cars were scrapped after World War I, the station in Abita that was the terminal of the rail route from Mandeville, was also destroyed. In its place was erected Morgan's Spa, with a large pool for swimming and a dance pavilion, both of which still exists and is on the property now owned by the descendants of the late Senator Allen Ellender. The property is on the southwest corner of Abita where Highway 59 turns sharp right into Level Street."

In Abita Springs, 1925 belongs to Buddy Petit. He is advertised in the paper each week and plays each Sunday and Wednesday at the Abita Pavilion. From February 15th to July 26th, Petit and his band play in Abita. There are jazz bands advertised after July 26th that could also be Petits' but no names are given. The band plays for other functions that do not occur on the nights the band is playing at the pavilion. This is probably the time that Petit lived in a one-room shack in the woods in Mandeville. (See Don Albert's interview in the Tulane Jazz Archives, New Orleans.)

Dances continued in Abita with other bands being engaged. "The Dixie Sunrise Orchestra" of New Orleans. (July 24, 1926), and "The Melody Jazz Orchestra" (April 16, 1927). The Melody Jazz Band is playing in Abita every Sunday night during the summer of 1927. While dance continue in 1928, the only band mentioned is the "Arabian Knights Band" of New Orleans. The band plays for the 14th of July (Bastille Day) in Abita.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and Abita Springs is now home to the Abita Springs Opry, a nationally-known music event with its own television program featuring roots and bluegrass music, as well as the annual "Busker" festival, which spotlights street performers who sing and play musical instruments. 

See also:

Abita Springs Busker Festival Facebook Page

Next Busker Festival is March 24, 2019 

Piney Woods Opry

WWL-TV Video On Abita Opry

Dr. Karl Koenig, Jazz Historian