The Swing of the Quad-Cities: A Brief Homage to the Local Jazz Tradition
Original Author: Christopher Ebalo, ENG346 FL12

It’s difficult to imagine anything more Americana than baseball. Widely accepted as our national pastime, the game of baseball is deeply rooted in communities across our country. This holds true in the Quad-Cities, as baseball has been woven into the sports fabric of the area since the 1930s (Pahigian, 355). One of the unique aspects of minor-league baseball is the homage several teams pay to their local heritage via the naming of their sports teams. This allows the community to feel a tangible connection to the teams they fill stadiums to cheer for on steamy summer nights.

Most of the team names have a direct correlation to their surrounding communities, such as the Williamsport Crosscutters, which is a reference to the local lumber business. Others, like the Vermont Lake Monsters, deal more with local folklore. Named after the alleged lake monster residing in Lake Champlain, the Vermont-based minor-league team of the Oakland Athletics boasts Champ – the monster himself – as the team’s mascot (Vermont Lake Monsters Replaces Vermont Expos). Some names are a bit more esoteric and have less obvious ties to their community. The Albuquerque Isotopes, for example, owe their team name to an episode of The Simpsons. While searching for a new name, Ken Young (president of Albuquerque Baseball Inc.) admitted that an episode of the popular cartoon served as the inspiration for the team name (Team President Throws Isotopes Name into Play, Pitta). In the case of the Quad-Cities, a name change following the 2003 season would interject the team with a touch of local culture and flavor, as the popular River Bandits name was retired in favor of the Swing of the Quad-Cities.

The Swing of the Quad-Cities was proposed as a team name in an effort to pay homage to the community’s rich jazz tradition. The new team name made sense to the organization since the community had always celebrated its long-standing jazz tradition. Jazz legend Leon Bismark “Bix” Beiderbecke was a local legend, having been born in Davenport on March 10, 1903. Nicknamed “Bix” at an early age, Beiderbecke demonstrated his musical prowess at the age of five. His older sister, Mary Louise “Sis” Beiderbecke, had taken an interest in piano during her childhood. While Sis struggled to learn music, Bix was a natural (Lion, 4).Although some may not have realized just how natural music came to Bix, close childhood friend Leon “Skis” Wernentin (1902-1989) fondly recalled his childhood excursions with Bix to watch silent movies, “As soon as the show [silent nickel movie] was over, he’d [Bix] hurry back to his grandma’s to play on her piano what he’d just heard…We always marveled at how he could remember all that music from having heard it…it was kind of uncanny” (Bix: The Davenport Album, 203).

During Bix’s playing days, several musicians came from across the country to play on river boats traveling along the Mississippi River. One such fleet of riverboats famous for providing musical entertainment was the Streckfus Line, captained by Rock Island-native Joe Streckfus. While Captain Joe was reputed for having an ear for talent, he notoriously dismissed Louis Armstrong from one of his ensembles for being “too damned bashful” and Bix Beiderbecke because of his inability to read music (267, 269). While Captain Joe was initially critical of Armstrong, his talent eventually won out and he became a fixture on the Streckfus Line. Captain “Heavy” Elder, who began working on the Streckfus Line in 1922, recalled how Captain Joe was critical of all the musicians who played his boats, often attending rehearsals and to ensure proper tempo – which required 70 beats a minute for fox trots and 90 beats for one-steps – was achieved (274). These rehearsals, although heavily scrutinized, produced some of the most memorable music ensembles along the Mississippi throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

Some racial barriers were broken down via the collaboration of musicians from New Orleans, St. Louis, and the Tri-Cities (which included Davenport in Iowa, Rock Island and Moline in Illinois). As Captain Elder pointed out, “It was Captain Joe who gave so many musicians their start…Dixieland music was born in New Orleans, of course, but it was the Streckfus steamboats that carried the happy sounds up from the bayou country to make devotees in the North. Many of the bands featured black musicians” (274). This concept closely parallels what was transpiring throughout minor-league baseball during this time period. In Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor-League Baseball in the American South, Bruce Adelson discusses how African American minor-leaguers changed the dynamic of baseball from multiple perspectives. Although baseball had already made its way to the Quad-Cities area by 1951, Adelson notes that this year was significant in that the South began to integrate African American players into their minor-league baseball circuits (35). He points out, “Some teams were clearly more interested in the African American ballplayer for his novelty, his entertainment value, and his ability to attract fans to the ballpark than in his baseball skills” (35).

Although African Americans were making their presence felt in both sports and music during this time period, there were differences between how they acclimated to baseball and the riverboat music scene.Captain Joe, for example, took a more vested interest in his African American musicians – his concern wasn’t their novelty or their ability to draw a crowd. In Louis Armstrong’s autobiography, Satchmo, Armstrong recalled “starting the season in Davenport, strolling along the city’s levees and polishing his virtuosity on his golden horn under Capt. Joe’s critical eye” (274). Armstrong wasn’t the only prominent African American musician performing on the riverboats throughout the twentieth century. One such performer was Fate Marable, who led several of his own all-African American bands. Ironically, Marable had ties to the Quad-Cities area aside from his days playing on the riverboats as they passed through the community. He played a Tangley Air Calliope, which was made by Norman Bakerin Muscatine, Iowa. Baker’s company produced these instruments from 1914 until 1931 (274).Louis Armstrong prospered playing under Marable’s watch, as did Charles Creath, Dewey Jackson, Jimmy Blanton, Duke Ellington, George “Pops” Foster, and James “Zutty” Singleton (276). Although highly sought after by other riverboats, Marable stayed loyal to Captain Joe and the Streckfus Line. Marable died of pneumonia in 1947, sixteen years after Bix Beiderbecke succumbed to the same fate. While in Italy in June of 1959, Louis Armstrong came down with a near-fatal bout with pneumonia. When asked by reporters on how he was recovering, Armstrong famously joked, “Bix tried to get me up there to play first horn” (581).

Since the Quad-Cities area has such a deeply rooted tradition of music, one cannot help but ponder why the Swing nickname never caught on with the local community. This is especially vexing given the success of the Bix Festival that takes place annually in Davenportonly a few blocks from Modern Woodman Park, the home stadium of the baseball team. While many disagree over what went wrong, baseball writer Matt Lindner (of The Outside Corner) proposed a few possible theories. Lindner contends, “The name itself never caught on locally, with many thinking it was just strange to have the team name in front of the location [as opposed to the Quad-Cities River Bandits, for example]…The primary logo, a baseball shooting out of a saxophone, didn't have the same cool cache that the River Bandits' baseball with a bandanna around it did.And the uniforms...well those were another story in and of themselves” (“Logo Month: Remembering the Swing of the Quad-Cities”).

While the Swing of the Quad-Cities was soon forgotten by the local community, the rich jazz tradition and stories of riverboat legends lives on, regardless of what name the local baseball team wishes to go by.

Works Cited
Adelson, Bruce. Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor-league Baseball in the
American South. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1999. Print.

Johnson, Rich J., Jim Arpy, and Gerri Bowers. Bix: The Davenport Album. Barnegat, NJ: Razor
Edge, 2009. Print.

Latta, Dennis. “Team President Throws Isotopes Name Into Play.” ABQJournal. Albuquerque
Journal: Albuquerque, New Mexico. Web. 5 September 2002.

Lindner, Matt. “Logo Month: Remembering the Swing of the Quad-Cities.” Bloguin. The
Outside Corner. 15 December 2011.

Pahigian, Josh. The Ultimate Minor League Baseball Road Trip: A Fan's Guide to AAA, AA, A,
and Independent League Stadiums. Guilford, CT: Lyons, 2007. Print.

“Vermont Lake Monsters Replaces Vermont Expos.” OurSportsCentral. n.p. Web. 15 November

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