History of jazz in Whatcom County revealed in new book

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 31, 2012 

After years of research and interviews, Milt Krieger has written a wonderfully titled book that just might be the first of its kind in the country.

"The Less Subdued Excitement" is the wonderful part of the name, while the subtitle, "A Century of Jazz in Bellingham and Whatcom County, Washington," describes the meat and potatoes inside.

Histories have been written about the nation's jazz hotspots - New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Kansas City and Los Angeles - and also about second-tier jazz cities, including Seattle, San Francisco and Portland, Ore.

But Krieger, a retired Western Washington University professor who has been an ardent jazz fan since he was a teenager growing up in Vancouver, B.C., had never seen a jazz history about a small town, until he wrote one.

"To my knowledge, this is the first book of its kind on a town the size of Bellingham," he said.

Krieger doesn't play an instrument himself. He gave up the piano at age 12, a decision that rebounds to the benefit of local readers.

"I don't play, so I write," he said. "The musicians aren't writing the books, so if they don't, who will?"

Early on, Krieger wondered if he could gather enough information for the book. But thanks to his 100 or so interviews, archival material at WWU about jazz on campus, and interviews taped by North Storms in the early 1990s, Krieger ended up with a 200-page work packed with details and about 150 photos and other images, including some in color.

"I was surprised how much I got," he said. "I feel as if I've covered a pretty substantial territory."

Now 74, Krieger taught medieval history at Cornell College in Iowa - within driving distance of Chicago's music scene - before he came to WWU in 1970 to teach liberal studies and, increasingly, African studies.

By the time he retired in 2003, Krieger was familiar with the local jazz scene. Through his research, he learned that jazz in the county reached back at least to the 1920s, with musicians playing swing and Dixieland in dance halls, Grange halls, hotels and other venues, including perhaps two dozen clubs in downtown Bellingham by the 1930s and '40s.

"Commercial and Railroad were full of them," he said.

For his book, Krieger defined jazz broadly to include early and traditional forms that people danced to, plus bebop and other modern forms that came to the fore after World War II. That expansive view of jazz reflects, in part, local musicians' easygoing approach to jazz debates that flared elsewhere, and also reflects the music's roots in the community.

Local jazz musicians have included school teachers, baseball players and other homegrown figures. Throw in the thousands of people who have danced and listened to the music through the decades - at venues both standing and now long gone - and it's clear that jazz constitutes an important slice of local history often overlooked by writers.

Bellingham's jazz scene has benefitted from the city's midway location between Seattle and Vancouver, the presence of a university, and a strong local musicians' union from the 1950s through the mid-'70s.

Yet Bellingham isn't unique in having a jazz history worth writing about. Other communities sit between large cities that attract jazz stars, or have universities that attract musical students and acts. What other communities may lack is someone willing to do the digging to reveal the vein of local jazz.

"Jazz is where you find it," Krieger said.


JAZZ TALKS

Milt Krieger will discuss and sign his book, "The Less Subdued Excitement: A Century of Jazz in Bellingham and Whatcom County, Washington," two times in the coming days:

• 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 10, at Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall for the monthly meeting of the Whatcom County Historical Society, which published the book.

• 7 p.m. Jan. 11 at Village Books in Fairhaven, with live jazz starting at 6:30 p.m.

The book, $24.95, is available at Village Books and through the Historical Society.

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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