San Antonio Musician's Oral History — John Bragg by Sterlin Holmesly

I’ve been playing some kind of music all my life, ever since I can remember. Before me, my parents was musicians. My father and J.H.B., for which I was named, they played music together in the early 1900s. I was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1898. Before my father had a family, he used to travel with the minstrel show. There was a “doctor,” I forget his name, that sold medicine. He used to travel all over the United States, a medicine and minstrel show. That’s what my daddy used to follow. They would put on this show, singing and dancing and doing whatever was necessary, cracking jokes. And then when that little period was over the big selling the medicine deal would come on.

That was way before I was born. My father got a family, is why he quit. He started teaching his family how to play. The guy that taught me to play the banjo was Professor J.H. Haywood. I played the guitar when I was 8, 7 years old. Also piano. My oldest brother was a piano player. My auntie in my family was a piano player, ragtime piano player. That’s what they called them in them days.   I know Scott Joplin. Well, see, he came from Texarkana, Arkansas. I played in the early days of Texarkana, Arkansas with Borden Harris. We played at the opening of that hotel on the state line.

Joplin was raised there. He was gone, I think he was in the East then. I don’t know where he was but he had left there. But that’s his hometown. Everybody knew him personally. My brother next to me, his wife was a piano player and she played all of Joplin’s stuff. He was a terrific piano player. My daddy bought my oldest brother, who is 4 years older than me, a guitar, and was teaching him. He thought I was too young. I would get right down there and watch while he’s making those chords. And no sooner he gets through and putting the guitar up, well I’d grab it and start playing. And so that would start a fight. Well, he bought a guitar and then he learned us how to play it. Now there’s a system of playing a guitar like I see guys now, playing in the same band. And they play the same thing. But we used to tune ‘em in sequence like if I’m making one chord, you make another chord. We wouldn’t be making the same chord. Well, that first and second guitar are just like first and second trumpet. A tapidactity, you can make a chord but you make it in a different position. I don’t know nobody that knows that system yet. After they electrified the guitar, it taken on a different instrument all together. What I called it in my day, stick finger. Like a single note. No chords and no nothin. A guitar was known as a complement instrument. A complement to something else, a lead instrument, see.

After that I became a banjo player. I was about 18 years old.

Well, I never did play the guitar. The reason why I play the banjo, the guitar in them days, it wasn’t electrified and you couldn’t hear it. And seven of us and I’m playin’ a guitar and you had a trumpet or somethin’ else, you know, a gang. And you would hear it go flump, flump, flump, flump. No chords or nothing coming out.

With a brass band you could hear a banjo. It was quite a ways when I started playin’ a banjo. My namesake bought me a banjo. First banjo he ever bought me, he came to my hometown. He always told daddy, to always send us to him but we never did go. He taught in colleges. He would go all over the country, organize these Woodman Bands. He organized the Woodman Bands all around the country. From Marshall, and Fort Worth and Dallas and everywhere. He’d go and make the rounds teaching those bands. And he started teaching at Prairie View. He had to come to Fort Worth and start organizing, and he bought me this guitar. He first give me a guitar, double-string guitar, and you couldn’t hear it. But he told me, “Now this is gonna be the instrument someday, the banjo.” And taught me the chords and wrote my music for me.

Well, they had to invent the banjo, and it came out the tenor banjo. Little shorter neck and everything like that. And it’s tuned in fifths just like a violin or mandolin. There’s a standard tuning for a mandolin, standard tuning for a violin. Understand what I mean? Well now, they had to get something down to earth for a banjo so everybody could catch on, could write the right music to it. Well they tuned the banjo in fifths. And so when they done that the A string on the tenor banjo is so high, the A string itself, it was the first note above the staff. A above the staff. And when they started writing music, all the music’d be above the staff. Nobody could read that music. And after a while violin players used to double on the tenor banjo because they were more familiar with those high notes above the staff.

When he had to leave and then he wasn’t around, then I started studying and started my own figuring. I got the rudiments and I done my own. I didn’t wait for him to come back and do his thing. Now, when I began to play a banjo, he was learning me to get my part from a piano copy. You know, transpose it from piano copy. Well the tenor banjo which I play is no different than the piano. My chord, from chord to chord is just like a piano. I had to learn how to take it, had to learn like I’m looking at a piano score and I can tell what chords they playin’ in that bar and change it. Whenever a certain note comes in that bar it change that chord to a different chord. I learned to recognize them and so after I learned it, well I’ve got it. I don’t have to go over it. I learned to read music along about the time I start playing banjo, about 18.

I had to read for my part and I’d get somethin’ I hadn’t never played, I get on the floor there and figure it out, analyze it and then go until I learn it. So when I first started playing with the big bands, that’s where this thing started. The Sadie Smith Jazz Band is the band that was in Fort Worth I played with. Seven pieces there. He had enough musicians under his jurisdiction to make different units and send it to different places. This was about 1918. There were nothing but jazz bands. That’s the very beginning of the jazz. A lot of people think jazz was originated in Louisiana but it wasn’t.

Those days in time, didn’t need but one person to learn how to read, to read in the band, so they could play. The piano player was all that was necessary. The rest of ‘em would, you know, that’s where the jazz come in. I came here with Troy Floyd in ’27. I joined him several times in Fort Worth and Dallas. That’s where the band was originated. We played together. He became the manager of the band the second time around.

Troy Floyd had Scott Bogby, Charlie Dickson, M.J. Collins, Kellogh Jefferson, Allen Vann, John Humphrey. I was with him beginning to the ending when the band broke up in ’33. And that’s how come I’m here in San Antonio.

I stayed, what I call it, under the sun too long. I didn’t play jobs, go to Chicago. I know all the guys that did go up there and whenever, but I kept my foot on the ground. Stayed right around here. Played as much music as anybody that ever went anywhere. And finally the good jobs come, I wasn’t there to get none of ‘em. But we eventually made ‘em. That band traveled here and went everywhere. We introduced American jazz to the Latin Americans in 1930 at the Regis Hotel down in Mexico City. Troy’s band broke up. We got to Mexico City, ’30, come back, ’31 we went up the country. In ’31 and ’32 well we come back and played pillar to post. See things was going, it wasn’t coming. Band and all the big hotels and all the big jobs was going. You know, there wasn’t no where to play. The Plaza Hotel, the Gunter Hotel, Shadowland night club.

They built Shadowland in six weeks time and laid us off with pay. We go to Dallas and all around and make our little round like we make ‘em here. And played and come back, open up Shadowland. When we open up Shadowland, why it such a big success for the time. It wasn’t running the way it was running until one July come, they closed ‘em for the gambling. Liquor and games. These people owed $80,000. I’m estimating I don’t know. The syndicate spent so much money to try to get, you know, till they went broke. This is kinda hard to pay off. But they did open up again and we went back to work. And they closed ‘em again for a year and a day. And the next time, we didn't never go back to Shadowland. At time in ’33, by that time Don Albert had his own band. He pulled out from Troy and moved to Louisiana and did his band. I played with Don Albert. I’m the first guy that Don ever played with when he come to Texas. I worked for the guy that went to New Orleans and got him. He run the Tip Top in Dallas. And he had a bunch of musicians that drank pretty heavy and never did get to work on time. You know, one of them deals. And so he got mad and fired the whole band except myself and Winnie Johnson, who was a real good trombone player. He was head of the union there. And we was hustling for different local musicians, enough to fill out the job. There was a band from New Orleans going to El Paso, somewhere out there in West Texas. But they was layin’ over two, three days where they couldn’t accept a job ‘cause they was already under contract. But he give the name of these other young musicians, hadn’t never been out of New Orleans. And they went down in their car. Went down there and got Don Albert and two or three others, enough to make a five-piece band, and come back. And so me and Don Albert played together on that job until Troy come back from off his two-year trip. He left Dallas a long time there.

Well after we organized the second time, Troy came to San Antonio and he needed a trumpet and I introduced him to Don Albert.

Well, Don Albert was a hokum, I guess that’s what you might call it. And he was a good lead man. He played the Louisiana style. All the guys from Louisiana, the trumpet players had practically the same kinda hokum style of playing. I can’t hardly explain it. It’s a word that’s used in jazz, the way you improvise. I come back here when the band broke up. I come back here and I just had made myself comfortable living here and I started to playing. I go down to Billy Smith.

He’s the guy here at KMAC up there in the Plaza Hotel. We used to go up there and I organized what you call the Rhythm Trio. The very first of its kind to record or to make records. I, J.H. Bragg, had the Rhythm Trio and we played at Schultz’s Beer Garden where Frank Brothers is now on the plaza. Our program was called by so many different names—half an hour, I think a night or somethin’ like that. And when I made a deal with Billy Smith, we agreed to play 15 minutes at a certain time a day. It got the place that when we would be all out, you know, didn’t go to work till night, we just did a broadcast, we might be all parts of town. We had to jump and run and hire a taxi to get down there. We wasn’t getting nothing for it, for the playing or nothing.

And the guys got tired of that and so we quit going for broadcast. Well, after we been broadcasting it got so popular throughout the United States, because at that time you could get KMAC anywhere in the United States. They didn’t tell us about it. They showed us a stack of letters almost 4 foot high that come in from requests of different places to the Rhythm Trio. All the guys up there was listening wanting to know where in the hell that band was down in San Antonio called the Rhythm Trio. And so they told us one time, they thought they paid the telephone company $75 a night, what it was, to bring the setup in front of the band to broadcast live from Schultz’s Beer Garden. And that’s when the trio really made a hit and all them big shot guys that were recording said they was gonna come down and interview. And they did. They come down and made their self known and had a table set up right in front of the band, and sent a big table glass of whiskey about that high. You know, they gonna fill you up.

At that time we been used to playing anything in the world you ask, where you come and drop a quarter in there and ask for a number and we didn’t play it, we give you a quarter, but we could play anything. We played music as it was. Wasn’t but a small combination, but we been used to playin’ with a big band, and I guess you know how the music run from introduction, the quarter, the middle and then the first and second ending and go on back around. That’s the way we played it. In a small band, see. Makes a second ending and then go to another chorus. They’d ask us to play them hard numbers that some other band had made famous and that was like duck soup to us. You had a request and you’d get it.

The trio kinda faded out. I built a place called the Bird Nest on the Ground, and then I was gonna organize me a place and have my own band, a little trio, and then book in bands. But I never did get it straight like I wanted to. The freeway come and stopped me from building it. And first one thing and another. But it didn’t break my spirit too much. I just grin and bear it.

It was the 22nd day of December of 1942, I go to work at Fort Sam Houston. And that’s when the war was pretty bad. I knew I was just a little bit too old to be drafted. But there was me and some more musicians that always stayed together, we go together in Fort Sam Houston. They hired us because we was musicians, mostly. We worked in the warehouse but we formed what you might call a morale builder. We played at the cafeteria every day.

I stayed on at Fort Sam after the war. I was transferred to Brooks Field. I retired in 1968.

© Sterlin Holmesly

Sterlin Holmesly of San Antonio is a former newspaper editor, author, oral historian and jazz preservationist. He has done more than 70 oral histories, including those of 29 jazz musicians. The collection is housed at the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio and is available to the public.