Oscar chicken Henry
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* June 8, 1888 New Orleans, La


My name is Oscar Joseph Henry, and I was born June 8, 1888 in New Orleans at 4729 Coliseum Street. My nickname, 'Chicken' or 'Chick' came from the W.P.A. days. I knew more about chickens than any of the other men working in the field as a labourer and at one time I could name all the parts of a chicken. I was first called 'Chicken Man'. And when I went into the musicians union, they called me 'Chick'. I am more known by that name than by my real name.

In my family, only my younger brother and I played music. Our first instrument was the piano and we began studying with Mrs Louise Elder. I was ten or eleven when I took up piano. We knew all our scales before we were twelve years old. My brother did not like the music and didn't continue his studies. Freddie Keppard was a playmate of mine when we were young, but I never did play in a band with him. With my family, we attended St James Church on Roman, between Iberville and Bienville and there was always music in church.
Since piano was not much used then in orchestras, they favoured violins more, I gave up playing piano and I became a plasterer. I took up learning the trade when I was fifteen or sixteen years old. And I became a plasterer when I was twenty-one years old. I liked plastering. I was a plasterer's apprentice under Johnny St Cyr. I alternated plastering and playing music depending on finances.

In 'Bourbon Street Black' by Jack V. Buerkle and Danny Barker, Chicken gave the following details : 'My mother bought a piano. There was a lady that taught piano at the Old French Opera and she was the one that taught me all my scales and chords and arpegios. I was around eight or nine years old. Before I was twelve I could play all the chords on the piano. But I didn't like sitting down on the piano stool for the simple reason the girls liked their dancing and I didn't get to dance with the girls while I was sitting on that stool, so I just quit playing. Later a band was coming down the street and I told a friend of mine as we was standing on the side listening to the band go by, I say 'Emma, I'm gonna learn how to play one of them instruments.' She say, 'Oh, you can't do that', I say, 'Oh, yes I will, you'll see me and I'll be playing' and two and a half year after I told her that I was in a band playing.'

The Family Album mentions that Chicken Henry worked as bordello 'professor' playing piano at Hattie Rogers' sporting house in 1906. He gave up playing piano after his hand was severely burned in an accident.

The bands I heard when I was young were those of Al G. Fields Minstrels, Primrose and Dockstader, Primrose and West, Barnum and Bailey Circus and Dandy Dixie Minstrels. All the minstrel shows played at the Crescent Theatre, (actually the Crescent and Tulane Theatre) which was at Baronne Street. The men in the Al G. Fields band were all white. Those in Pat Chappell's Rabbit Foot were all coloured. In Old Kentucky show was a white show, but they had a coloured pickaninny band that was very good.
Once I carried the flag for Al G. Fields show, to be sure to get a pass.
Every instrument in the band would take a solo. Some of the musicians doubled in the show. Manzie Campbell, a drummer, was a comedian on the stage. In the Al G. Fields show, both Doc Healy and Doc Quigley played trombone, but they were also comedians on the stage. A lot of the band musicians also sang in the chorus on stage. The Six Brothers, a stage act from the Orpheum Circuit, featured saxophones then. The Six Brothers played at the Palace Theatre, which was then the Greenwall, which was behind Maison Blanche on Iberville and Dauphine. The Lyric was on the next corner.
One year Al Jolson came to New Orleans with Fields' band and Jolson had such a good time in New Orleans that his stay with the show was terminated.
Shows never stayed more than a week in New Orleans. The town has never been able to support any show for over a week. The minstrel bands played a parade every day before the matinee. They also played a concert outside the theatre. The minstrel parade bands swung like the New Orleans bands. They sounded as good as the Onward. But they had more men. The parades stayed in the business district and they had some performers in them.

In 'Bourbon Street Black', Chicken gave the following story : 'But those bands we heard and second lined to, was minstrel bands. Like Primrose and West, Primrose and Dockstader. The Dirtz Dixie Minstrels - R.G. Fields, Lew Dockstader. When I was a kid, I heard and saw every band that come to the city of New Orleans. And I watched the trombone players, the baritone players and the brass players. They were the instruments I was interested in. I watched the trombone players - how they'd stand - how they'd play - how they would breathe. I watched everything a professional man did. I used to go to the Orpheum Theatre which was on St Charles and watch the men in the orchestra pits rehearsing Sophie Tucker. I was in the Orpheum Theatre when Sophie Tucker sang 'Some Of These Days'. I studied under a man that really knew music. There was one time in my life I could take the 'William Tell Overture' and just look at the key it was written in and go from the introduction down. And, when it changed key, I'd just look at the key and keep on playing.'

I also heard and followed the parades by the bands led by Old Man Robichaux, Freddy Keppard, Manuel Perez and Bab Frank. And also the Onward. Manuel Perez was supposed to be the king at that time. When you said Manuel Perez, you said everything.

I began liking trombone through hearing Doc Quigley, Billy Fields and others, who played with the minstrel shows. I took up trombone when I was in Detroit in 1918 or 1919. Actually, I always wanted to play trombone, but I didn't had an opportunity until then. When the husband of my first wife died, he left a trombone. Someone stole it, but I recovered it. My wife gave the trombone to me. So I started studying with Charles Clay, who was playing with the 'In Old Kentucky' show. Clay played trombone, baritone, bass, in fact everything.

Trombone players in New Orleans I liked were George Fihlé, Vic Gaspard, Batiste Delisle, who was from uptown, but who was very good, Zue Robertson and another guy who went to Chicago, Roy Palmer. Then, trombone players didn't play solo work much. The trombonists played more a vamp behind the bass. New Orleans is the only place with a second line. I wonder why there are no second lines in other cities. Music in New Orleans is better and swings more than the music played in other cities.

I began playing trombone well when I was thirty-one years old. The first parade I played with a band was in 1920 for the opening of the first Studebaker automobile plant in South Bend. The band was the only one in South Bend and had twenty-five pieces. I came to South Bend, Indiana after leaving Detroit.
Next I went to Chicago where I played with such bands as the Knights Templars and the Elks. I went to Atlantic City, New Jersey, with a band and we remained there for six weeks.
Upon my return, I went to Hot Springs, Arkansas with a bunch out there.

The first time I played in the same band with Johnny St Cyr was at the Autocrat Club in New Orleans in a pick-up-band. The first time I played on the same program with Johnny St Cyr was in Chicago in 1926. I was in the Elks Band which opened the program and St Cyr was with Louis Armstrong's band.

I left New Orleans in the early part of 1913 going from place to place, Chattanooga, Cincinnati, Birmingham, etc, working as a plasterer. I was in Dayton, Ohio at the time of the Dayton flood in the Spring of 1913. After leaving Dayton for Chicago, I started playing music.

'One of my friends played when I began playing. It was old man Peter Davis. He taught Louis Armstrong how to play. This was in the Jones home. Davis and I were friends. We played together and played by ear. I began playing with a group when I was thirty-one years old. It was after the first World War. One time in Chicago, I played on the same floor of a building as Louis Armstrong. This was in 1923. The first time I played for money, though, was in Sound Bend, Indiana. I was playing for a man by the name of Henry Gordon. He had a band. I used to play there for money and from there I came to Chicago. I used to see a drum in the window of a barbershop. I went in, asked the fella, 'You have a band here?' and he said 'Yes'. I told him, 'I can play a little bit, I'm a student on the trombone and I'd like to sit in with you'. He told me then to come and I came around there Tuesday night and he put the music up there and we played it and he invited me back and we commenced to get some jobs. So, because of the trades was down there wasn't enough to make a living, so I began playing music.' (Bourbon Street Black).

I have played all kinds of music jobs, from dance work to pit bands. I learned so I could play any kind of job. I have played several times in dance bands with Paul Beaulieu. I have played a concert with Alphonse Picou.

Sam Charters gave the following details on the symphonic orchestra, The Crescent City Orchestra, conducted by Paul Beaulieu : they gave a concert at Xavier University in December 1932. There were 20 musicians in the orchestra : George Carrière, Ferdinand Fortinet and George King, violins, Etienne Nicholas and Peter Marine, violas, L. Duvegnon, cello, Tom Gaspard, bass, Beatrice Stewart Davis, piano, George Kifer, C-clarinet, Alphonse Picou and Willie Kerr, clarinet, Henry Pritchard and George Humphrey, saxophones, Joseph Bloom and George Collins, flutes, Clyde Kerr and Jospeh Ursin, trumpets, and Oscar Henry, trombone.

I returned to New Orleans on March 11, 1930. Since I didn't find work here, I left again. When I returned to the city, I got on the E.R.A.. Then I got into the F.E.R.A. and finally in the W.P.A. The WPA began with eighteen men. Some of them were Adolphe Alexander, Frank Crump, Frankie Duson, Wilfred Ledet and Joe Mitchell. Duson and I were the first two trombonists in the band. Sonny Henry joined when the band had been organised for three months. The band grew until there were 167 men in it. Old Man Martinez who was sent to break up the band, found so many readers that he decided to develop it. He got rid of the non-readers and proceeded to make it into a group which could play anything, from 'William Tell' with the music to ragtime, without music. Martinez was more a music supervisor and Louis Dumaine was the director. Martinez was a professional piano player.
During the first Music Week in New Orleans, the WPA band marched on Canal Street, playing many difficult marches. At that time, there were fifty-seven musicians in the band. When the band folded, I returned to my trade.
Some of those in the band were Louis Dumaine, Lionel Ferbos, George McCullum, trumpets, Big Head Eddie Johnson, Little Eddie Johnson, Israel Gorman, Willie Humphrey, Joe Mitchell, Sidney Cates who played banjo, Sidney Montague, Cie Frazier, Ernest Trepagnier, Joe Howard, William Brown, Sonny Henry, Harrison Barnes, Louis Nelson, Gilbert Young and Ricard Alexis.i1

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Last updated: 22-10-2008