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Julie Gardner: the accordionist behind Charlie Parker

April 25, 2012

“All Hail the Queen of the Squeezebox.”

[Sep 6, 1941 – Chicago Defender]

Oh how I wish to get a better copy of this photo of Julie Gardner performing solo doing accordion jive versions of popular songs, from the April 22, 1939 Chicago Defender .  

[Here’s what I’ve been able to find so far, please help if you have more information.  Pardon me if this post is a bit rough, I’m polishing it for my book, but she can’t wait to “go public.”]

[In 2020 I added a bit more information about Gardner here.]

Hailing from Boston, Massachusetts [Correction, she was born in Augusta, Georgia. I think I got Boston from an Oct 25, 1941 Chicago Defender mention of a gig she played there.], Julie Gardner (b. 1925) travelled further in her career than any other known African American accordionist until zydeco went global.  Not only did she tour to remote parts of the world, but she made time to play state-side in Earl Hines’ band when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were working out the advances of be-bop.

Prior to her brush with modern jazz though, Gardner performed as a singer and accordionist with Sabby Lewis’ band from Boston in the late late 30’s, and is said to have played or sang with Louis Jordan and Charlie Barnet.  [ The Later Swing Era, 1942-1955, Lawrence McClellan. (pg 207-208)]  Billboard Magazine described her vocal gig in New York in 1942 [ Billboard, Mar 7, 1942] as, “a buxom lass with plenty of vim and a fair enough delivery.”  By April the next year she had added accordion and was singing in Earl Hines’ big band with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

Gardner left Hines to perform with Willie Bryant, and in December ’43 had already returned from her first trip abroad performing for the US military.  She was part of the massive USO (United Services Organization) war-time entertainment project which for the first time included “negro talent” organized throughout the world by Harlem Renaissance theatre producer Dick Campbell.[ Dec 22, 1945 – Chicago Defender, ]

Gardner’s group visited military outfits in the Caribbean as part of the earliest black entertainment troupe sent abroad.  A cohort hoped, “Our appearances before those men, almost all of whom were white, brought back to them an awareness of the Negro back home whose problems they may have thought were left behind…”[ Jan 15, 1944 – Chicago Defender,]

At one point in their ten nation tour of the Caribbean, they played an engagement for an unmarked unnamed supply ship on the open sea, flown in, did show, flown out.  What missions the sailor audiences on those secret ships may have been headed for remained a mystery after their departure.

Bryant has taken his show on some unscheduled missions, one of which was somewhere at sea, and no member of the troupe knows to this day where they were.  While playing one of their first stops after leaving the States, they received a call from a ship at sea and were bundled into a plane and started on their journey. In a few hours they settled down next to a large ship on which all identification marks had been carefully covered.  They went aboard, were entertained like visiting royalty, put on their show and flew back to the base from which they started.  Nov 13, 1943 – Chicago Defender

By July, Gardner was again in the first small group of [five] black USO entertainers to play in the South Pacific, “to the delight of soldiers.” Her accordion a practical instrument for a small mobile group to carry and play for audiences from “50-5,000”[Dec 25, 1943 – Chicago Defender] on outdoor stages or small tent shows.

[ got some repeated stuff here, needs polish, sorry.]

Travelling to the South Pacific in 1944, she was once again in the first group of Black USO performers in the region, “to the delight of the soldiers.”[ Jul, 1, 1944 – Chicago Defender,  ]  Servicemen called the buxom Gardner their “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” after her rhythm and blues version of Al Dexter’s well-armed country-accordion hit.[ Nov 13, 1943 – Chicago Defender, ]

Performing for audiences from “50-5,000” [Dec 25, 1943 – Chicago Defender] in outdoor stages or improvised tent shows, the accordion had obvious benefits for portability, but also had to deal with the heat of a tropical region.

Vincent Tubbs was one of very few African American war correspondents in World War II.  (Prior to the War his reporting had focused on lynchings in the US.)  He saw Gardner perform in New Caledonia, in the Southwest Pacific Ocean, opening a USO Show in May 1944.

Girl Thrills New Caledonia G.I.’s, Vincent Tubbs. 

Reporting World War II.: American journalism, 1944-1946   (pg 46-49)

[This story first appeared in the Baltimore Afro-American, May 6, 1944.]

One soldier squealed “Ooo-oo-oo-eee.  Send me!”  And everybody roared with delight.

The hot midday sun beamed down mercilessly on the backs of the audience.  In the middle of the saxophone solo a soldier sitting on the ground rolled over on his stomach and beat the ground.  “Lawd, just wait ’till I get home,” he told the soil.

Julie Gardner crept unobtrusively across the stage with her accordion.

She was the first female of the troupe the boys saw.  They did not greet her appearance with applause.  A strong hum swept the audience as she crossed the stage, but the men were dubious, for Julie is more than pleasingly plump; she’s heavy.

But when she grabbed her squeeze box and began to sing, “that locked it up.”  She was the star of the show.

Julie worked hard on her first number and the sun worked hard on her.  She perspired profusely; but for all her effort and discomfort she was richly repaid by the soldier’s howls and applause when she concluded.  While they shrieked and nodded to each other their approval, she began again:

the soldiers howled and applauded so loudly she dared not step more than two feet away from the microphone until she sang [a few more songs?] “Kow Kow Boogie,” and “Don’t Cry, Baby,” for them.

Reluctantly, then, the audience allowed the show to continue.

Another version of Tubbs’ story is quoted in:

Fighting in the Jim Crow Army: Black Men and Women Remember World War II, Maggie M. Morehouse  (pg 155)

“The hot midday sun beamed down mercilessly on the backs of the audience… [when] Julie Gardner crept unobtrusively across the stage with her accordion.  They did not greet her appearance with applause…the men were dubious for Julie is more than pleasingly plump; she’s heavy.  But when she grabbed her squeeze box and began to sing ‘Hit that Jive, Jack,’ she locked it up.  She is that star of the show.  To the boys she’s a whole constellation.  They had to join in, and whole[sic] hillside jumped.”

When the War ended in August of 1945, Gardner continued to travel with the USO until November when she returned from playing for service men and women in Alaska yet to return home.[Nov 17, 1945 – Chicago Defender]  [(first mention of women in the audiences.)]  Though there are enough mentions of her work with the USO to trace her travels during the war, and though it seems likely she might have appeared on civilian or armed-forces’ radio, no recordings have come to light.  After playing for audiences half way around the world, we lose track of her.

Almost thirty years later, on November of 1973, “Accordionist and vocalist Julie Gardner” was acknowledged at the “Women’s All-Star Jam Session,” put on at the New York Jazz Museum.  Gardner played with other pioneers from the big-band era including Norma Carson and Carline Ray of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, and drummer Dottie Dodgion who played with Bennie Goodman.  [ New York Magazine Nov 5, 1973 ]The show achieved, “the largest attendance to date,”[Jazz exposé: the New York Jazz Museum…., By Howard E. Fischer] for the museum, and served as a reminder of crowds these woman played for decades earlier when their performances meant so much to a country at war.

Photos of Hines group from 1943 repeatedly include comments about Diz and Parker’s challenge to the expectations of swing band-leaders and audiences.  It’s never mentioned that Julie Gardner is right behind Parker playing through three challenges: as a woman, as a woman playing jazz, and as a woman playing jazz accordion.  Every jazz fan knows about Charlie Parker from the many, many books, documentaries, and films about him.  It may be time to look right behind him to check out his band-mate Gardner’s challenge to the expectations of what it meant to play jazz.

Earl Hines at the Apollo in 1943.  with Gillespie (cut off on left), Parker (right), Julie Gardner sitting in on accordion.

 Jazz, a history of America’s Music,  Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns  (pg 309)  

(That woman in the front row has a weird chicken-head mickey-mouse hat.  Don’t tell her grand-kids I said that.)

I’m digging up versions of the songs Julie Gardner played on her WWII tours.  The way she’s described as bringing over her audiences of young GI’s she might have been in the same jivin’ R&B vein as these versions:

Hit That Jive Jack (The Tramp Band. Joe Carroll voc. 1943?):

Don’t Cry Baby (Etta James):

Cow Cow Boogie (Anna Mea Morse):

Pistol Packin’ Mama (The Hurricanes in 1955):

My god, she must have been awesome.  If she’d recorded, it would be like Clifton Chenier’s Chess recordings of Chicago blues accordion, ten or fifteen years earlier.

And what song is this, or was she ad-libbing?  It’s quoted in the Tubbs article. [I figured out this is Nat King Cole’s “Are You Fer It?”]

“Are you fer it?

Are you fer it?

Are you fer it, Sergeant?

Well, join this song – and groove with me.”

Pistol Packin’ could have hit stateside if she hadn’t been so far from home, and if the recording ban (which made Al Dexter’s independant-lable version a hit) hadn’t been in effect, she might have recorded in her trips home.

Since Gardner spent so much time overseas and much of her known career took place during the Musicians’ Recording Strike of 1942-44, we have as yet turned up no recordings.  Hopefully USO radio recordings may be a possibility.  It’s unknown if she recorded or performed after her return from the war.  One of the 1970’s women’s jazz musician reunion concerts may have been recorded, we can hope.

Thanks to Mark Miller for help finding clippings!

Again, please if you know more, please contact me.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2012 8:14 pm

    Thank you so much for this Bruce!!! A real eye-opener!!

  2. February 9, 2017 11:06 pm

    This is great! Have you found any more information since writing the article?

    • February 11, 2017 9:14 pm

      Unfortunately no. I hope that somehow it might reach family or someone in the jazz community from the 1970’s, but no word yet. The dream of course is that some recordings will turn up, but her career shows how different times were. Where today most shows are documented in one way or another by fans or artists, back then whole careers could go by without a second of sound preserved.

      I’m writing about her and several other jazz and R&B woman accordionists from the 1940’s in my book-in-progress. I get frustrated because I want to track down families and try to document more. Best I can do is get the book out there and hope it might motivate others. I’m sure there’s money to support an army of graduate students studying obscure accordion-historical figures….

      I would love to hear from anyone who finds out more!

  3. November 11, 2020 3:36 pm

    I added a few more parts of Julie Gardner’s story in a new post:

  4. Travis Hollaway permalink
    April 27, 2021 11:35 am

    According to the book Black Women in American by Atoinette Handy, 1998
    Juliette (Julie) Gardner was born in Augusta, Georgia


  1. Download Accordion Noir Radio, learn jazz history and how to rent your accordion out for beer-money with Steve Normandine from Montréal, May 22, 2014 | Accordion Uprising
  2. Julie Gardner, 1944: “Are you fer it, Sergeant?” | Accordion Uprising
  3. Accordion Noir radio playlist 2020-11-11: Armistice Day, Julie Gardner, and How do We Go On | Accordion Uprising

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