Oscar William Holden: Seattle's Patriarch of Jazz Through the Eyes of a Granddaughter

  • By Linda Holden Givens
  • Posted 6/02/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11074

Oscar William Holden (1886-1969) arrived in Seattle in 1925 and quickly became a central figure in the city's jazz scene, which flourished in the many clubs and nightspots that lined Jackson Street from around 5th to 12th Avenue, just southeast of downtown Seattle, between the 1920s and the 1960s. A singer, clarinet player, and for many years Seattle's leading jazz pianist, Holden became known as the "Patriarch of Seattle Jazz." This account of his life, by his granddaughter Linda Holden Givens, is based on her personal memories of her grandfather and her research on his life and times.

Leaving the South

Oscar William Holden was born on April 11, 1886, in Nashville, Tennessee, to John Wesley (1852-1918) and Ann West (1854 - ?) Holden, the fourth child of five children. Oscar's son Dave Holden (my father) told us his father did not like the South and he did not want to raise any children he would have later in life in that part of the county.

Most Negroes around Nashville were still living in rural areas then. After 1890, a large number of Negroes began migrating from Nashville to other cities due to economics, politics, racial oppression, lynchings, and Jim Crow laws, to name just a few. Many headed north to cities like Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago.

Oscar Holden discovered his musical skills at a young age and determined those skills could get him out of his situation in Nashville. Even as a child and young man, his self-esteem and confidence was high. Working menial jobs, and always fighting for his dignity, he would find himself constantly frustrated. In his mind, there had to be something better than where he was living.

Holden's sister Sallie Holden Estelle had married and was living in Chicago with her family. He decided it was time to leave the South. His distaste for the South was growing ever stronger. Sometime between 1904 and 1907, when Oscar was between 18 and 21, he and his brother David left on a train for Chicago. It would be the place he would master his singing, clarinet, and piano skills by playing with other musicians and soaking up in the music of the time in combination with his classical background.

Not knowing what his family's living conditions were, it is safe to assume he may not have attended school, in keeping with the economics and demographics of Negroes at the time. I would imagine that for Negro children in Nashville opportunities to harness natural musical talents and general education were scarce. Some children would be embraced by people who took an interest and spent time to train them or sent them to a city or state where their musical skills and education could be nurtured. It is not known what type of school(s) Oscar may have attended or his family's situation, but I suspect he was encouraged by his family in his desire to succeed, explaining why he chose to leave his family and friends for a much better life.

Chicago Years (1904-1917) 

During these years Chicago's South Side, known as "the Stroll" (Chicago Defender), attracted many talented jazz musicians. Negroes who came from other cities to Chicago could make a good living as musicians. And some brought with them blues, gospel, spirituals, and ragtime. Negro men were also facing World War I between 1917 and 1919. The Great Migration of Negro southerners to the North; the military instituting the draft; systematic injustice; and additional social, economic, and political challenges were all occurring at the same time.

During Holden's years in Chicago, he played in venues such as Mott's Pekin Saloon/Theater located at 2700 South State Street, the Elmwood Café, the Plaza Café, funerals and weddings, and in a military band for troops before they boarded ships at the Port of Embarkation, to name a few, capturing the attention and respect of musicians throughout Chicago.

As he became increasingly well-known, Holden traveled and played music across the United States and internationally to Canada while living in Chicago. During his travels to New Orleans, playing on riverboats up and down the Mississippi, he met a very young Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), the famous trumpet player, bandleader, and singer. Armstrong and Holden become fast friends, each admiring the other's musical talents. Throughout the years, Armstrong would visit Holden while in Seattle and would attend many of the jam sessions that were hosted at the Holden home.

Vancouver Years (1918-1924) 

Jazz in Vancouver, British Columbia, during its early years was played mainly by Americans. In 1914 the Original Creole Orchestra from New Orleans became the first jazz band known to play in Canada. The band, which included the famous cornet player Freddie Keppard, played in Canada until 1918.

Why Holden made the decision to move from Chicago to Vancouver in 1917 or 1918 I am not clear about. His niece Grace Estelle (1913-2004) says in a letter dated October 2002 that she "was 4 years old when he left Chicago in 1917," and adds that "he went to Seattle first, then to Vancouver, Canada, to work in the music field."

There were many reasons that could have triggered his leaving Chicago. One was receiving threats from the mafia (many of the clubs on the South Side, in particular State Street, were owned by the Mob). My father Dave Holden mentioned in the Seattle Channel video A Tale of Two Dads that Oscar "was so good as a musician, the gangsters on the North Side said 'if you do not play for us, we will kill you,' and the gangsters on the South Side said 'if you do not play for us, we will kill you.'" Other potential reasons for leaving Chicago included race riots there; jazz changing from the style musicians developed from within themselves to a watered-down sound for the mainstream to fully accept; music opportunities elsewhere; or changing times for Negro jazz musicians and more in Chicago.

Oscar Holden's musical talent provided an advantage for him and Canada was a perfect escape at the time. It is not known if William "Bill" Bowman, Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941), and/or singer and dancer Ada "Bricktop" Smith (who all lived in Chicago during the same time my grandfather lived there) or someone else told Holden about the café that Bowman ran in Canada. In any event, he became a staple at Bowman's Patricia Cafe at 403 E Hastings Street, Vancouver, as a bandleader for an 8-10 piece jazz band/orchestra and the owner's business associate. The Chicago Defender reported in December 1919 that "one of the best bands on the coast is scoring a big hit in Vancouver," noting that bandmembers included "Oscar Holden bandleader, pianist and clarinet; Charles Davis, banjo; Albert Paddio, trombone; Frank Odel, saxophone; and Williams [sic] Hoy, drummer and xylophonist."

Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton arrived in Vancouver in 1919 to play at the Patricia Cafe. Morton, a pianist with a reputation as an arrogant gun-toting gambler who pimped women, insisted to anyone who would listen long enough that he had invented jazz. Various sources record Morton's claim that Bill Bowman, whom he had known back in Chicago, asked him to bring a band to his new place in Vancouver -- this band was to consist of Oscar Holden and other musicians such as Paddio (Dead Man Blues, 105).

"In an interview with Alan Lomax, Jelly Roll pays Holden a backhanded compliment, saying he 'was no hot man, but played plenty of straight clarinet'" ("The Lincoln Club"). I interpret that as a statement by a person who knows a good musician would be a threat to him. Holden was clearly the bandleader, not Morton. According to a history of early Canadian jazz, Morton was only at the Patricia Cafe a short period of time and was gone by 1921 (Melodious Racket, 71). A book on Morton notes that "Oscar Holden, the nominal leader according to reports in the Defender, must have had his hands full" (Dead Man Blues, 105).

Yes, I would say Holden had his hands full with an insecure but talented musician who never really could get it together. Morton called dark-skinned Negroes "dumber than two dead police dogs buried in somebody's backyard" (Crouch) and that comment alone will tell you what Oscar had to deal with.

One account of early Vancouver jazz identifies Oscar Holden as "the bandleader at the Patricia Cabaret, the hottest jazz venue in town at the time" and adds, "By all accounts, Holden was a very skilled and talented musician, but his role in Vancouver seems to have been unfairly overshadowed and diminished by Jelly Roll Morton" ("The Lincoln Club"). The more I read about Morton, the more I disliked him. 

Ada "Bricktop" Smith, a singer and dancer, came from Chicago to Vancouver with her friend Lillian Rose, an entertainer from New York, and other musicians at the request of William Bowman to perform at his new cabaret around 1920. She had known Bowman in Chicago. By 1922, Bricktop left Vancouver to return home to Chicago.

Seattle -- Slow Down, Family Time (1925-1969) 

After an engagement with his band/orchestra (which included Jelly Roll Morton) in Seattle in 1919 at the Entertainers Club, Holden fell in love with Seattle and decided this is where he wanted to live and raise a family. The Northwest represented freedom to him. Seattle was becoming a thriving town and was turning into music heaven in his eyes. He thought the mountains were magnificent, the lakes stunning, and the seasons distinctive.

He moved to Seattle by 1925, but had to submit proof he was not a Canadian citizen. He contacted his sister Sallie Estelle and she had to notarize a form that attested that he was her younger brother and he was born in Nashville. Otherwise, the Holden Family would be Canadian Holdens! According to David Holden Sr., Claude Norris (1899-1989), who worked at Seattle University as a trainer, also assisted to validate Holden's legitimacy as a United States citizen.

Oscar Holden kept his Local 145 musicians-union membership from Vancouver until 1927, and did not join Seattle Local 493 of the American Federation of Musicians (the "Negro Musicians' Union" formed by performers excluded from the whites-only Local 76) until 1940. He had his choice of clubs and halls to perform in and continue his musical career. He formed a new band and began playing at these venues.

At the same time, Holden was getting older and wanted to marry and start a family. His eye was focused on a beautiful woman from Yakima to whom he had been introduced to by a mutual friend named Mr. Johnson (possibly pianist Palmer Johnson) in 1928. Her name was Leala Beatrice Carr (1906-1951). He fell fast and hard. She stood only 4-feet-11, had been married and divorced, and had one child, Anna Arlene Carr. Leala also played piano and this may have been a strong attraction for Oscar. She was the only woman who could neutralize and handle him according to their son James Holden. They married in Everett on December 24, 1929.

During the Great Depression years (1929-1939), the couple had four children: Oscale Grace Holden (April 20, 1930), Oscar William Groves Holden (September 10, 1931), Robert Leland Holden (January 10, 1936), and David L. Holden (May 21, 1937). Oscar and Leala had a strong desire to have a large family and I would say that was highest on Holden's to-do list.

Oscar Holden survived the Great Depression by playing at the many nightclubs and halls that flourished for years on Jackson Street, where he made a comfortable living for himself and his family. In a 1937 letter to his sister Sallie Estelle he wrote, "I'm the best family man in all this world. A real family man. Modern in every detail. Guess every man thinks the same thing but, I have really turned about face. No more women, but my wife. Can you imagine that, it's true."

As their family grew, both Oscar and Leala worked at Todd Shipyards and Oscar also played music at night. How they did it, I will never know. His wife gradually stopped working and became a homemaker to take care of the growing family. They established a comfortable home for their children and were ready to take the next step. In 1942, they purchased a home at 1409 E Fir Street in Seattle. This happened to be kitty-corner to Washington Hall (a well-known Seattle venue for jazz and many other musical and cultural performances, due in part to being open to all at a time when other venues were segregated).

The Holdens held monthly jam sessions with local musicians and others who came from all over the country. When the children were home, they would meet the musicians and sit and listen to the music, eating their mother's food at the table and engaging in reminiscing and conversations with everyone.

Church was important to the family and in particular to the family's mother. Oscar was not into church but he did not stop his wife from taking the children every Sunday come rain or shine. They attended the Pentecostal Church at 16th Avenue and E Fir Street. Leala would have food already cooked from the day before. When they got home from church they would have a feast. With four boys in particular, you had to make sure food was ready.

Three more children were born in the next decade: Rolen Holden (1940-1997), James Edward Holden (b. 1947) and Leala Beatrice (b. 1951). Unfortunately, their mother Leala passed away of heart failure pre-eclampsia after giving birth to her last child. The entire family would never be the same.

Oscar Holden adjusted to the hand he was dealt and continued to play music until the early 1960s. His health started failing and he suffered a stroke and passed away in 1969.

As a Granddaughter 

I was fortunate enough to have spent time with my grandfather from when I was born. My family had been living in Los Angeles for two years when my grandfather passed in 1969. A quiet man, he never discussed his past with us and I never asked questions at that young age.

My mother Sandra Browne made sure we had some kind of relationship with our grandfather. She said he would hug and kiss us every time we were all together. He was proud of his grandchildren. We loved him as grandchildren love their grandfather. My memories are vague but distinctive: He would call my mother to take us to Mount Rainier or local parks or to watch parachutes in Issaquah. My mother would cook and take food to him. If I knew what I know today, I would have spent more quality time with him.

Wouldn't you know it, my grandfather turns out to be a well-known and well respected musical genius of a man and many musicians call him the "Patriarch of Seattle Jazz," a legend, a leader, influential, and a premium pianist.


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