Almost Yesterday: The New Sound of Riverboat Jazz

Jan 22, 2019

It seems like Almost Yesterday that a new musical sound came up the Mississippi from the south.  It moved north with the orchestras of the river excursion boats.  Thus, Cape Girardeau was among the first communities in the nation to receive this new music.

Almost all large cities on the inland waterways had excursion boats that remained in the community from Memorial Day in May to Labor Day in September.  During the day the boats would take special excursions or picnic tours, followed by night time moonlight dances.  There were other excursion boats that moved up and down the great rivers, stopping at various communities to do one-day or one-night events.

There were also packet boats that made regular stops at specific locations.  These vessels hauled freight, livestock and passengers.

Almost all of these steamers had musical groups that entertained passengers during meals and provided music for evening dances.  In 1921 two young men from Cape Girardeau, Jess Stacy and Raymond F. “Peg” Meyer, joined The Harvey Berry Band out of Davenport, Iowa, and spent the entire season on The Majestic, one of the largest of the excursion boats, performing in virtually every river town.

On occasion, they visited with and heard others perform, including twenty-year old Louis Armstrong playing with Fate Marable’s great orchestra.

Here, in the summers of 1921 and 1922, according to “Peg” Meyer, Riverboat Jazz was born, a variation that transformed the early Dixieland style into the smooth flowing sound of the 1930s and 40s, known as “Swing.”