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Allen, Henry “Red” (07 January 1908–17 April 1967), trumpeter, was born Henry James Allen, Jr., in Algiers, Louisiana, the son of Henry James Allen, Sr., a trumpeter and leader of a brass band, and Juretta (maiden name unknown). Allen received instruction from his father and his two uncles, who were also trumpeters. Rehearsals were held at home, giving Allen the opportunity to hear New Orleans greats like ...

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Allen, Steve (26 December 1921–30 October 2000), comedian, author, songwriter, was born Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen in New York City, the son of vaudeville comedians Carroll William Allen and Isabelle Donohue, who performed under the stage names Billy Allen and Belle Montrose. Literally born into show business, Allen toured the vaudeville circuit with his parents from infancy until his father died suddenly when Allen was only eighteen months old. Because his mother chose to continue her career, she left her young son in the care of her eccentric family in Chicago. In his first autobiography, ...

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Anderson, Cat (12 September 1916–29 April 1981), jazz trumpeter, was born William Alonzo Anderson, Jr., in Greenville, South Carolina. Nothing is known of his parents, who died when he was four. Anderson grew up in Jenkins’ Orphanage in Charleston, where as a boy he received the nickname “Cat” after scratching and tearing in a fight with a bully. He played in the orphanage’s renowned bands, beginning on trombone and playing other brass and percussion instruments before taking up trumpet. From 1929 onward he participated in orphanage band tours, and in Florida in 1933 he formed the cooperative Carolina Cotton Pickers with fellow orphanage musicians. Returning to Charleston in 1934, they continued playing as the Carolina Cotton Pickers and then resumed touring....

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Arlen, Harold (15 February 1905–23 April 1986), songwriter, was born Hyman Arluck in Buffalo, New York, the son of Samuel Arluck, a cantor. His mother’s name is not known. Arlen began his singing career performing in his father’s synagogue’s choir. His musical performing career began at age fifteen when, as a ragtime pianist, he formed the local Snappy Trio, which performed at small clubs and parties and on scenic cruises of Lake Erie. The trio grew into the Yankee Six and then into the larger Buffalodians. With this enlarged band Arlen traveled in the mid-1920s to New York, where he soon found work as a singer-pianist on radio and record. He also wrote a few arrangements for the popular ...

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Armstrong, Louis (04 August 1901–06 July 1971), jazz trumpeter and singer, , known universally as “Satchmo” and later as “Pops,” was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the illegitimate son of William Armstrong, a boiler stoker in a turpentine plant, and Mary Est “Mayann” Albert, a laundress. Abandoned by his father shortly after birth, Armstrong was raised by his paternal grandmother, Josephine, until he was returned to his mother’s care at age five. Mother and son moved from Jane Alley, in a violence-torn slum, to an only slightly better area, Franklyn and Perdido streets, where nearby cheap cabarets gave the boy his first introduction to the new kind of music, jazz, that was developing in New Orleans. Although Armstrong claims to have heard the early jazz cornetist ...

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Atkins, Chet (20 June 1924–30 June 2001), guitarist, was born Chester Burton Atkins, the son of James Atkins, a musician, and Ida Sharp Atkins, at his maternal grandfather's farm near Luttrell, Tennessee. The family was poor, and James Atkins, who had formal music training, cobbled together a living as a gospel singer, piano tuner, and music teacher. When Chester—he did not receive the nickname Chet until adulthood—was in grade school, his parents divorced; each remarried, and his father moved to Georgia. Chester remained in Luttrell with his mother, stepfather, and numerous siblings....

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Autry, Gene (29 September 1908–02 October 1998), country singer, actor, and baseball team owner, was born Orvon Gene Autry in Tioga, Texas, the son of Delbert Autry, a livestock dealer and tenant farmer, and Elnora Ozmont Autry. He later recalled that his family was poor but “never Tobacco Road poor. My father earned good money, when he felt like it, which was some of the time” (Autry, p. 4). They moved frequently during his childhood, to small farms and hamlets in northern Texas and southern Oklahoma, eventually settling outside Ravia, Oklahoma. His grandfather, a Baptist minister, taught him to sing when he was five years old so he could join the church choir; his musically talented mother taught him how to play a mail-order guitar. As a teenager he sang ballads for tips at cafes, and around 1923 he toured for three months with the Fields Brothers Marvelous Medicine Show. During these years he was reportedly fired from a job as a ranch hand because his singing distracted the other hands from their labor....

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Bailey, Buster (19 July 1902–12 April 1967), jazz clarinetist and saxophonist, was born William C. Bailey in Memphis, Tennessee. Nothing is known of his parents. He attended the Clay Street School in Memphis, where he began studying clarinet at age thirteen. In 1917 he turned professional after joining the touring band of famed blues composer ...

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Barber, Samuel (09 March 1910–23 January 1981), composer, was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the son of Samuel LeRoy Barber, a physician, and Marguerite McLeod, an amateur pianist and sister of the noted opera singer Louise Homer. At age six, he first took lessons on the cello but quickly gave it up for piano study. In 1917 he wrote his first music composition, ...

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Barnet, Charlie (26 October 1913–04 September 1991), jazz and popular bandleader and saxophonist, was born Charles Daly Barnet in New York City, the son of Willard Barnet and Charline Daly. Both parents played piano. Barnet evidently inherited his father’s ear for music, but his parents divorced when he was two years old, and Willard Barnet never saw his son again. Barnet and his mother lived with her parents. His grandfather Charles Frederick Daly was executive vice president of the New York Central Railroad, and Barnet lived comfortably in New York hotels and apartments, and a summer home....

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Basie, Count (21 August 1904–26 April 1984), jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader, was born William Basie in Red Bank, New Jersey, the son of African-American parents Harvey Lee Basie, an estate groundskeeper, and Lillian Ann Chiles, a laundress. Basie was first exposed to music through his mother’s piano playing. He took piano lessons, played the drums, and acted in school skits. An indifferent student, he left school after junior high and began performing. He organized bands with friends and played various jobs in Red Bank, among them working as a movie theater pianist. In his late teens he pursued work in nearby Asbury Park, but he met with little success. Then, in the early 1920s, he moved to Harlem, where he learned from the leading pianists of the New York “stride” style, ...

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Bechet, Sidney (14 May 1897–14 May 1959), jazz soprano saxophonist and clarinetist, was born Sidney Joseph Bechet in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of Omar (or Omer) Bechet, a shoemaker and amateur flutist, and Josephine Michel. An incorrigible truant, after age eight he stopped attending school and started teaching himself clarinet. What basic education he later received came from private tutoring by a cousin. He received some clarinet training from ...

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Beneke, Tex (12 February 1914–30 May 2000), saxophonist, was born Gordon Lee Beneke in Fort Worth, Texas. By the age of nine he showed a talent for the saxophone, experimenting with both soprano and alto sax before settling on tenor. During the early and mid-1930s he began his professional career by playing in regional bands, first in Texas and then Oklahoma. In 1935 he joined the bandleader Ben Young's orchestra and toured with the group throughout the Midwest in one-nighters before arriving in Detroit in 1937. A fellow ...

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Berlin, Irving (11 May 1888–22 September 1989), songwriter and music publisher of the Tin Pan Alley era, was born Israel Baline in Tumen, in western Siberia, the son of Moses Baline, a cantor, and Leah Lipkin. Berlin was the youngest of eight children, six of whom emigrated with their parents to the United States in 1893 following a pogrom. After settling his family in a tenement on New York City’s Lower East Side, Berlin’s father could find only part-time employment as a kosher poultry inspector and manual laborer. The children were obliged to contribute to the family income. When not attending the local public school or receiving religious instruction at a ...

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Berliner, Emile (20 May 1851–03 August 1929), inventor, was born Emil Berliner in the city of Hannover in the kingdom of Hannover (later a Prussian province), the son of Samuel Berliner, a merchant, and Sarah Fridman. His formal education ended in 1865 with four years at Samsonschule boarding school in Wolfenüttel, where he excelled in penmanship and drawing and evinced an early passion for classical music, a love that remained with him throughout his life. After graduation, his parents being hard pressed to provide for their large family, Berliner took employment in a print shop and then as clerk in a dry goods store. There, watching the handling of bolts of colored fabric, he took an interest in the weaving process and designed a weaving machine—the earliest evidence of his genius for invention....

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Bernstein, Leonard (25 August 1918–14 October 1990), conductor and composer, was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the son of Samuel Bernstein, a supplier of barber and beauty products, and Jenny Resnick. He began to pursue musical activities with abandon at about the age of ten and as a teen performed in classical and popular venues, including staged operettas with friends, as a jazz pianist at parties, as piano soloist with the Boston Public School Orchestra, and by playing light classics on the radio for thirteen weeks in 1934. Bernstein’s consuming interest in music was not encouraged by his father, but he never seriously considered another career. In 1939 he received a B.A. cum laude in music from Harvard University, where his teachers included Heinrich Gebhard, ...

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Best, Denzil (27 April 1917–25 May 1965), jazz drummer and composer, was born Denzil de Costa Best in New York City, the son of immigrant parents from Barbados; his mother was Josephine Best (his father’s name is unknown). Best married Arline Riley (date unknown), with whom he had two daughters. Best began studying piano when he was six years old but later learned trumpet, which he played professionally in the mid-1930s with drummer Chris Columbus (Joe Morris). By the end of the decade he became associated with several seminal bop musicians playing at Minton’s nightclub in New York, including ...

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Bigard, Barney (03 March 1906–27 June 1980), jazz musician, was born Albany Leon Bigard in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of Alexander Louis Bigard and Emanuella Marquez. Little is known of his family except that it produced musicians: his older brother Alex was a drummer, his uncle Emile was a violinist who played with musicians like ...

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Bispham, David Scull (05 January 1857–02 October 1921), opera singer and recitalist, was the son of William D. Bispham and Jane Lippincott Scull, of Philadelphia. His father was a prosperous wool merchant who strayed from Quaker observance to such a point that his mother was disowned by her pious family for marrying “out of meeting.” Still, the Bisphams considered themselves Quakers, and like many nineteenth-century Quakers, the family held the arts to be a laudable component of life, but not a centerpiece. They certainly did not see music as a suitable profession for a son. Bispham had only rudimentary exposure to music and appeared headed for a career in the family’s wool business when he enrolled at Haverford College. At Haverford, however, he immersed himself in student theater and music, and his resonant voice and thespian talents flourished. He married Catherine Stricker Russell in 1885; they had three children. Later, in 1908, they separated....

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Blesh, Rudi (21 January 1899–25 August 1985), writer, record producer, and broadcaster, was born Rudolph Pickett Blesh in Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory, the son of Abraham Lincoln Blesh, a doctor, and Theodora Bell Pickett, a piano teacher. In 1910 a family visit to Vienna stimulated Blesh’s interest in the arts, and consequently, he learned to play the piano, the violin, and the cello. Although his musical activities were restricted to the classical repertory at home, Blesh was impressed by the ragtime pianists who performed in Guthrie....