(originally published in the February/March 2021 installment of the Jazz Institute of Chicago’s JazzGram)
This holiday season, much ado was made about the sweat that snaked down actress Viola Davis’ neck. It was the sort that smeared her pancake makeup and kohl eyeliner. Viola’s earthy portrayal of the saucy titular character in the recent film adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (replete with a period-correct horsehair wig) caught a lot of flack on social media for being unglamourous. However, the controversial sweat was simply a slice of stylistic realism, considering the film takes place in Chicago during the summer of 1927, long before central air conditioning was widespread. Decked in pancake makeup, sweat and glorious beads, this portrayal (while lacking the perfect Instagram-filtered veneer some might have craved), reflected the autonomy and the freedom to adorn that Ma and Black women like her clung to every time they got the chance.
The film led me to imagine that on that summer day in a recording studio nearby, as Ma was belting out her latest blues, perhaps fellow Paramount Records artist Lovie Austin sat at a piano, head arranging a song. In fact, Ma Rainey’s first Chicago recordings at Paramount were accompanied by Lovie Austin and her Blues Serenaders.
Lovie, like Ma, relished in crafting her presentation. Unlike Ma, she mainly worked in the background, supporting Blues vocalists like Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter and Ida Cox, while leaving an outsized impression on those who dared to glance beyond the spotlight.
In the liner notes for the 1977 compilation Jazz Women: A Feminist Perspective, the powerhouse pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams described her first encounter with Lovie, which occurred when Williams was a child:
“I remember seeing this great woman sitting in the pit and conducting five or six men, her legs crossed, a cigarette in her mouth, playing the show with her left hand and writing music with her right. Wow! I never forgot this episode…My entire concept was based on the few times I was around Lovie Austin.”
Lovie Austin was born Cora Calhoun in Chattanooga, Tennessee on September 19, 1887. After studying music theory at Roger Williams University and Knoxville College, she played the Vaudeville circuit before making her way to Chicago. During the 1920s, she served as a house musician at Paramount Records and accompanied primarily blues vocalists. She also composed a number of cuts including “Charleston Mad” and, perhaps most notably, “Down Hearted Blues”, a song she co-wrote with now-legendary blues singer Alberta Hunter in 1922.
Lawd, he mistreated me and drove me from his door,
Yes he mistreated me and drove me from his door.
Ah, but the good book says, you got to reap just what you sow
Later made famous by Bessie Smith, Lovie’s ability to transcribe and obtain a copyright for the song (without relying on the less-than honorable record men around them), allowed Lovie and Alberta to reap the fruits of their labor: Bessie’s recording sold three quarters of a million copies in 6 months.
By the end of the 1920s, sightings of Lovie Austin, dressed to the nines and tooling around the South Side in a leopard skin-upholstered Stutz Bearcat roadster became the stuff of folklore and the embodiment of the New Negro as expressed by Alain Locke in 1925:
“With this renewed self-respect and self-dependence, the life of the Negro community is bound to enter
a new dynamic phase, the buoyancy from within compensating for whatever pressure there may be of
conditions from without. The migrant masses, shifting from countryside to city, hurdle several generations of experience at a leap…”
Lovie’s jaunty roadster was in stark contrast with pianist Sammy Price’s recollection of the South of that time, captured in the 1989 documentary Wild Women Don’t Have The Blues:
“I remember vividly…in 1927… we were passing through Jackson, Mississippi. And the Blacks always rode in a special car, which they called Jim Crow car. The whites started throwing rocks and bricks and anything that they could get their hands on when the train passed, when it slowed down in the city. And that was quite a hectic affair.” But in the North, he noted that “There was more freedom. When you went to Chicago, you had the Dreamland, you had the Club DeLisa. In New York City you had Smalls Paradise where you could actually go in there and buy a drink and drink it and didn’t have to bow your head… in order to get out of the place.”
According to Daphne Duval Harrison’s Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s, by 1932 record sales had dropped dramatically, plunging to 6 million records sold, compared with 106 million just five years earlier. The blues recording craze subsequently died down, and Paramount Records shuttered in 1935. Lovie went on to serve as musical director of the Monogram Theater on South State Street.
In a 1950 profile of Lovie published in DownBeat, she lamented that after the death of Paramount’s owner her royalty checks stopped coming, and by 1954, a piece in Hue Magazine titled “What Happened To Lovie Austin?” revealed that after twenty years at the Monogram, she was working as a pianist at a dance studio in Chicago. A photo that ran with the piece showed Lovie, in spectacles and gray upswept hair, working with small children.
Before leaving this earth in 1972, Lovie Austin recorded one final album with Alberta Hunter, 1961’s Chicago: The Living Legends. Even though the majority of her career was spent in the shadows, her swagger, talent and her gutsy percussive playing style left their mark on this world. And during those heady days slinking in that Stutz Bearcat, she was as formidable as the heroine of “Down Hearted Blues”:
Got the world in a jug, stopper right here in my hand,
Got the world in a jug, stopper right here in my hand,
And if you want it, sweet papa, you got to come under my