[Above: Frank Waldron with trumpet, Wang Doodle Orchestra, Seattle, circa 1915,With Saxophone, seattle, circa 1925, photos courtesy of the Black Heritage Society.]
Syncopated Classic: Rediscovering the Lost Compositions of Seattle Jazz Pioneer Frank D. Waldron celebrates and promotes the legacy of Frank D. Waldron, one of the most important yet unknown figures in early Seattle jazz. This exciting project will span two years and includes historical research, music notation, presentations, performances and recording of Waldron’s compositions by a vintage jazz ensemble, and the publication of Waldron’s definitive biography.
Back in 2014, while composing new music for his Prohibition-era dance band, The Rhythm Runners, Greg Ruby sought out the earliest compositions of Seattle jazz musicians. Discovering that there were very few recordings and little archived written music, he read about a book, Frank D. Waldron’s Syncopated Classic, in Paul de Barros’ Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle. Syncopated Classic appeared to be one of the only available sources of early Seattle jazz composition. Greg’s search for this book led him to the United States Library of Congress, the University of Washington music library, the Seattle Public Library Northwest Room and music collections as well as several rare book dealers. Not one of them had a copy of Syncopated Classic or knew where to locate it.
Excited by the idea that Waldron’s music would be heard again, de Barros enthusiastically lent Greg his photocopy of Syncopated Classic, which he copied 25 years ago during his research for Jackson Street After Hours—it is the only known existing version of the book. The owner of the original Syncopated Classic from which de Barros made his copy is now deceased, and the book’s whereabouts are unknown.
What Greg discovered in Syncopated Classic was an in-depth archive of a compositional master of 1920s jazz and popular music. It landed in a unique crossover period between Ragtime and Dixieland jazz but also contained other popular musical styles of the day: waltzes with three-part forms and clever key changes. Waldron’s book also included detailed accompaniment for piano and melody articulations for saxophone. This material was clearly written by a trained and technically astute musician.
Greg arranged three of these pieces for the Rhythm Runners and debuted them at Seattle’s Washington Hall in September 2014 (listen to tracks here!). The evening was an immense success and it was wholly agreed upon that the Waldron material was remarkable. Many audience members wanted to hear more of Waldron’s music and learn more about his life.
Frank D. Waldron, saxophonist, cornetist, composer, bandleader and teacher, is one of the most important figures in early Seattle jazz. Born in 1890, Waldron settled in Seattle following his service in World War I. In 1919, he established the Waldron School of Trumpet and Saxophone at 1242 Jackson Street, the epicenter of Seattle’s burgeoning jazz district. There he taught generations of Seattle’s young musicians including world famous jazz stars Quincy Jones and Buddy Catlett. Throughout the 1920s, Waldron fronted the Odean Jazz Orchestra at the Nanking Café in downtown Seattle at 1616 ½ 4th Avenue. At the time, downtown venues were typically off limits to non-whites. Waldron successfully crossed this color line—evidence that his high level of musicianship and business savvy commanded respect from both the black and white music communities.
As a composer, Waldron created a remarkable body of work. In 1924, he self-published a 32-page book for jazz saxophone students, Frank Waldron’s Syncopated Classic. Waldron used nine of his original compositions in this book as a vehicle to demonstrate the latest techniques. Like many early Seattle jazz pioneers, Waldron never recorded, as the technology was scarce during the peak of his career, and by the time it was readily accessible, this earlier era of music was no longer in fashion. Waldron died on June 22, 1955.
Waldron’s full story remains untold—Frank Waldron’s Syncopated Classic serves as a unique, rare and immediate connection to the roots of jazz in Seattle. This project will deepen and expand his story as well as publish and record all of his known compositions. Expanding on Waldron’s history and preserving his book, Frank D. Waldron’s Syncopated Classic, will ensure that this important document is accessible to current and future generations of professional musicians, music students and historians, and Waldron’s music and legacy remain an integral part of our rich musical history.
Read more about the Frank D. Waldron Project on 4Culture’s website.