The Natchez Fire- Part 3 “The Museum”


Now that we have addressed the fire as well as the band and band leader who perished in the Natchez Blaze on April 23, 1940, I would like to introduce you to a couple who have worked diligently to preserve the names and history behind the fire. Their names are Monroe and Betty Sago who are the owners and operators of the Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum in Natchez.

While making our way to the gulf to spend some time with our family, my wife and I decided to visit the city of Natchez of which we knew nothing about. We enjoyed two days in this beautiful southern city and learned about the city’s history and people through a visit to the Natchez Welcome Center and a pleasant horse drawn tour through its well preserved streets.

While visiting with a guide at their Welcome Center, I noticed some information about the fire and asked one of the guides for more information and was advised to visit the Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum which was located on the very site of the fire more than 70 years ago. Finding the Museum on Catherine Street was easy and as my wife and I drove into the parking lot in front of the museum, we were warmly met by the museums owner Monroe Sago and invited into the building.

It was immediately obvious to us that Mr. Sago was not only an informed guide through our tour of the building, but was also a very passionate spokesperson for the event. As we were led through the building, Mr. Sago explained the many items on display which he has collected through the years. Included in this collection are original and copies of actual newspapers telling of the horrible fire and shared first hand interviews with people who were able to escape the fire that night. Not only were individuals pictured but the tour included information on a local high school band which was there that night with their director. All perished in the very site on which we stood.

I found the items on display to be well preserved and reverently displayed and the personal and informative description given by our guide to be very helpful. Just being on the same site of the fire made a lasting impression on both my wife and I as we viewed pictures and listened to Mr. Sogo relate the history of that evening.

If you are even near Natchez in your travels, I would strongly recommend visiting the Museum and taking the tour with the Sagos. A small donation is expected and when comparing the cost of viewing a current film, or spending money for a modest dinner to the time you will spend learning about the people, the building and the life style in Natchez at that time, you will be much more compensated for your money.

Monroe and me

The Natchez Fire- Part 2 “The Remarkable Walter Barnes”

Walter Barnes

Walter Barnes was an important figure in history for several reasons.

• Mr. Barnes was a popular columnist, writing for the Chicago Defender, the national black news of the day.

• Walter Barnes & His Royal Creolians became the first black band to broadcast in Chicago, over WHFC.

• Barnes’s writings became the guide for traveling black bands in the South, opening a new frontier to the black band business.

• Barnes’s greatness as an entertainer stemmed from his ability to exploit his audience’s desires. He became Duke Ellington to the smaller dance halls of the South.

• Trapped in a seething furnace, Walter Barnes gave the world an example of courage seldom equaled.

Barnes was born in Vicksburg on July 8, 1905, one of fifteen children. Barnes’s big family joined The Great Migration in 1922 to the North, and Walter completed his education in Chicago, hitting the books and his horn charts. He picked up the clarinet and saxophone, studying at the Chicago Musical College and in private sessions with Franz Schoepp, a classical clarinet tutor who instructed Benny Goodman and Buster Bailey.

Walter turned pro in 1926 and joined Jelly Roll Morton’s band. By the latter part of the decade, he’d graduated to bandleader and determined that his success relied on the patronage of white hustlers and began to front the house band at Al Capone’s Cotton Club in Cicero, Illinois.
Capone called Barnes by his family nickname, “Brother,” and tore down barriers for Barnes. Capone sent Barnes to a Chicago radio station to arrange a broadcast from The Cotton Club. The station manager replied, “We don’t air colored.” Capone accompanied Brother on the follow-up. Capone countered, “You do now.”

As Barnes and his band wound down their latest long tour, word reached them that a gig had been added, April 23, 1940 at The Rhythm Club in Natchez. 11:30 that night, the orchestra stopped. Barnes saw flames dance up the wall and split across the ceiling. To the seven hundred dancers, he called, “You can all get out if you remain calm.” Barnes almost certainly did not know that the sponsors of the dance had shuttered every window and barricaded all but one door. Nor did he know that the Spanish moss, strung fancifully through the rafters and down the support posts, had been sprayed with kerosene-based insect repellant. Nevertheless, from his spot on the bandstand, it must have been obvious that he could not escape The Rhythm Club alive. Barnes stood firm on the stage, and called for his band to begin “Marie.”

Screams drowned out the lilting music as fire engulfed The Rhythm Club. The people stampeded, plugging the only exit. They smashed the boarded windows with furniture, and men threw their dates out to the street. The orchestra never finished “Marie.” The roof collapsed onto the stage as they played. Walter Barnes and nine of his musicians were among the 209 victims of The Natchez Rhythm Club fire. In a real sense, he died for his fans, hoping that his music could calm the frenzied crowd, and allow a few more of them to flee.


Documented Recordings

Birmingham Bertha– From the Motion Picture “On With The Show”7/25/’29 (Brunswick 4480)

Birmingham Bertha– 7/25/29 (Brunswick A-8535)

Buffalo Rhythm– 2/27/28

How Long, How Long Blues– 12/14/28

If You Are Thinking Of Me- 7/25/29

It’s Tight Like That- 12/24/28

My Kinda Love– 12/14/28

One Way To Paradise– 11/14/28

Third Rail– 2/27/28


*Band Members Listed as Survivors

Regular Band members+ Band members in the fire#

+May Alex- Vocals #Juanita Avery- Vocalist

+Walter Barnes- Leader, Tenor Sax #Walter Barnes- Leader, Clarinet, sax

+Ed Burke- Trombone #Calvin Roberts- Trombone

+William Bradley- Trombone #John Henderson- Sax

+Irby Gage- Clarinet #John Reed- Sax

+Plunky Hall- Banjo #Harry Walker- Guitar

+Paul Johnson- Piano #Clarence Porter- Piano

+George Thigpen- Trumpet #Paul Stott- Trumpet

+Lawrence Thomas- Trumpet

+Louis Thompson- Tuba #Arthur Edwards- Bass *

+Wilson Underwood- Clarinet #Jesse Washington- Sax

+Lucas Wilson- Tenor Sax #James Coles- Sax

+Billy Winston- Drums, Vocal #Oscar Brown- Drums *

This discrepancy of who was actually performing that night may be because, as some of you may know, the recording members of the band may have avoided the road trip and the band who actually played that night were pickup musicians hired for the tour.

Most of the information posted here was taken the book THE CHITLIN’ CIRCUIT written by Preston Lauterbach.

Preston Lauterbach lives with his wife and children in Memphis, Tennessee. His adventures are readily accessible at

The Natchez Fire- Part 1


Man has been subjected to many devastating conditions such as the crash of the Hindenburg, the sinking of the Titanic, the earth quake in Haiti and even more currently, school shootings. Each reserved time in the headlines and each was viewed as a tragic happening but some disasters go unnoticed by the general public for various reasons. The world knows within minutes of a bomb exploding at the end of the Boston Marathon and all of the horrifying details are shown over and over as the news reports keep the story alive for weeks or until another gruesome event takes over the headlines again. Such is the disaster which took 209 people and severely injured many others in Natchez, Mississippi on April 23, 1940.

The Natchez Fire.

The following is an account taken from a interesting document written by Mr. Vincent Joos. To fully understand not only the fire but also the conditions the Black community endured in Natchez at the time of the fire, I strongly suggest that you read his complete document for Mr. Joos has captured not only the history of this gruesome tragedy but he has also documented the emotions of the people who were there and the feelings of those who were impacted by that evening. My condensed information below was taken from dozens of different sources in order to quickly get you up-to-speed on the basic information but I encourage you to read Mr. Joos complete documentation of the fire as well as visiting the actual site of the fire and listening to the heart filled explanation of that evening given by the curator of the museum erected on the original site at #5 St. Catherine St. in Natchez, Mississippi.

The Rhythm Club fire aka The Natchez Dance Hall Holocaust was a fire in Natchez, Mississippi, United States on the night of April 23, 1940 that killed 209 people and severely injured many others. Hundreds of people became trapped inside the one-story steel-clad wooden building. The victims were mostly African Americans.

The dance hall, which was once a church and converted blacksmith shop, was located in a one-story framed building at 1 St. Catherine Street, blocks from the city’s business district. At the time, this was the second most deadly building fire in the history of the nation. It is now ranked as the fourth deadliest assembly and club fire in U.S. history.

The 11:30 p.m. inferno began as members of the local Moneywasters Social Club were enjoying the song “Clarinet Lullaby”, performed by Walter Barnes and His Royal Creolians orchestra from Chicago. Starting near the main entrance door, the fire quickly engulfed the structure due to Spanish moss that had been draped over interior’s rafters as a decoration. In order to ensure there were no bugs in the decorative moss, it had been sprayed with petroleum-based Flit insecticide. Due to the dry conditions, flammable methane gas was generated from the moss and resulted in the destruction of the building within an hour.

As windows had been boarded up to prevent outsiders from viewing or listening to the music, the crowd was trapped. More than 300 people struggled to get out after the blaze began. A handful of people were able to get out the front door or through the ticket booth, while the remainder tried to press their way to the back door which was padlocked and boarded shut.

Blinding smoke made movement difficult. Many people died from smoke inhalation or by being crushed by the crowd trying to escape. Bandleader Barnes and nine members of his band were among the victims. One of the group’s two survivors, drummer Walter Brown, vowed never to play again; the other survivor was bassist Arthur Edward. Barnes was well regarded as a strong contemporary of both Duke Ellington and Woody Herman.


People believed the fire to be accidental, started by the careless discarding of a match. The day after the blaze five African Americans were arrested after reports they had drunkenly threatened in an argument to burn the building down. Charges against them were later dropped.

The three local funeral homes had too many bodies to handle. Many of the victims were eventually buried in mass graves. In the aftermath of the fire, citizens of Natchez raised more than $5,000 to help the local Red Cross. The city passed new fire laws to prevent the overcrowding of buildings.

The disaster was memorialized in songs such as “Mississippi Fire Blues” and “Natchez Mississippi Blues” by the Lewis Bronzeville Five; “The Natchez Fire” by Gene Gilmore; “We The Cats Shall Hep You” by Cab Calloway; “For You” by Slim Gaillard; “You’re A Heavenly Thing” by Cleo Brown; “The Death Of Walter Barnes” by Leonard Caston; “The Natchez Burnin” by Howlin’ Wolf; “That Night” by Stompy Jones; and “Natchez Fire” by John Lee Hooker.[3]

The documentary film The Rhythm Club Fire was completed in December 2012 according to the official website for the film.

Part 2 of this series will focus on the band and it’s leader who are now considered heroes for their actions during this tragic accident.

It Could Only Happen In Branson

ostrich_653_600x450Many times we in Branson repeat this time worn phrase, “It could only happen in Branson”. It could be stated while waiting for the traffic light to change when suddenly you see a pink Cadillac drive past with Elvis at the wheel. You could be walking down one of the isles in a grocery store and bump carts with one of the Oak Ridge Boys. Or the time I ran into the members of the Comets shopping in Wal-Mart. It happens more often than one would realize. But what happened today may be the best “It only happens in Branson” story of all times.

I recently injured my left leg while trying to protect our 4 lb. Yorkshire Terrier from being lured away by a hungry mother fox. With great heroism I bolted to her rescue only to fall head over heels down a steep embankment in my back yard. After regaining my composure and dignity, I found my glasses far into the woods down the hill. Because of this injury, I found myself today in the hospital making an appointment to have an MRI on the injured leg.

While waiting for my turn to schedule my appointment, a young girl entered the waiting room on crutches, in obvious pain and suffering. She slowly made her way to the receptionists window and timidly announced her name to the woman behind the window. When asked of her injury, the young girl stated that her ORSTRICH had run into another OSTRITCH and she injured her leg. “It could only have happen in Branson”.

At once everyone in the waiting room understood the situation for the only known ostriches in Branson are the ones ridden in the Dolly Parton Dixie Stampede Show and this young lady was one of the riders. I asked her if this type of accidents happen often and she replied yes, those ostriches are strange animals.

So, is you ever hear the phrase “Whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”, you can now respond, “but, This could only have happened in Branson”.

A Breathing Lesson With Don “Jake” Jacoby

jakeVoices from the past bring back wonderful recollections of people who have influenced our lives and for that reason I have posted this lecture given by one of my former trumpet teachers, Don Jacoby. The tone and mannerisms in this recording make it almost as if “Jake” were actually in the room. Only people who knew this very gifted player and teacher can really know what this recording can do to a person’s past memories.

For those who knew Mr. Jacoby, enjoy remembering those good times and for those who never had the pleasure of meeting him, enjoy his lesson on breathing.

Returning Home With Honor- The Branson Trumpet Ensemble

flagI wrote this number to recognize the people who give so much to our country and who do it in such an unselfish manner. I’m speaking of course of the members of our armed services.

This video was recorded at our local college and I hope you enjoy this small token of our gratitude to those who spend their lives making sure that we continue to live in the greatest country on earth.

Thank you from the Branson Trumpet Ensemble and the free people of the United States of America.

Returning Home With Honor- The Branson Trumpet Ensemble

Springs have sprung

more valve springsTo make sure your valves come back up after you press them down, manufacturers have furnished us with a set of springs which work very well for most of the time.

Sometimes we are faced with valves which seem to hang up every so often and it usually happens at the worst time. Hesitant valves can be a real headache as I remember when I was in fifth grade and performing cornet solos with the Moline Boys Choir, of which I was a member. I had two solos to alternately perform in our concerts. It was usually when we had to make a costume change from black and white cassock into red white and blue sport coats. More often than I would like to admit, my valve would often hang up on me during a fast passage in Let the bright Seraphim, or the end of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, my two specialty numbers. No matter how many times I cleaned those valves and re-oiled, I had the same outcome. If I knew then what I know now, I could have been a contender.

If the valve and its corresponding valve casing are in good shape, and after cleaning, they still cause you frustration you might look into stronger springs. Valve springs are available in various degrees of strength and by simple replacing your current springs with a set slightly stronger, you may be able to keep your sanity.

Valve spring source 1

Valve spring source 2

Valve spring source 3

Valve spring source 4

Each manufacturer seems to have their own ideas as to how long, wide, stiff, limp they think their springs should be and consequently you may be able to find an assortment of strengths as I did years ago in a small instrument repair shop. If the valve is the correct diameter, it should fit into your valve spring area. To remove and replace a set of springs, follow the following instructions-

• Carefully remove each valve and place them on a towel where they will not roll onto the floor.

• One by one, twist the area just below the valve stem and remove.

• Remove the old spring and replace it with your new spring.

• Replace the stem and continue with the other two valves in the same manner.

• Replace your three valves after oiling them into the correct valve casings.

• Move each valve up and down and if you hear any scratching noise, it will probably be a misalignment of the spring so you will need to go back in to make sure the valve spring has seated properly.

• When you have the valve out of its casing, it would be a good idea to put a small drop of oil on the spring before you replace the valve into its casing. The oil might solve the scratching sound.
If your new set of springs improve your valve action, it could be because the old springs had lost some of their springiness or the new springs have a better resistance than the old springs.

Another possible solution to your valve problem can sometimes be solved by removing your springs and evenly and GENTLY stretch the spring which will increase its resistance and give you more return power. This return power also means that you will have to depress your valves with more force so GENTLY stretch the springs, don’t demolish them.

Another customizing trick you should know is the addition of another set of springs along with your original set. I used this trick on one of my university students who did not move his valves as quickly as I required. During one of his lessons, we added an additional set of valve springs BELOW each valve thereby doubling the resistance when fingering. I had the student continue for that week with the double set of valves and the following week his finger strength as well as speed had increased substantially. This was not a permanent addition to his valves but the one week of struggling to pound down his valves did the trick and in his next lesson we went back to using only the original set of springs.

Changing valve springs with stiffer or even lighter springs may help you with your stuck valves and definitely will change the way your move them during your performances. Check with your local instrument repair shop to see if they have an assortment of spring that would fit in your valve casings and experiment.