On June 25, 1930, residents of Washington's Long Beach peninsula and scores of summer tourists witness an unusual public dance, advertised in the North Beach Tribune as a Battle of the Bands between the Las Senoritas, made up of nine women from the Seattle area, and the Ebony Serenaders, a touring band of Black musicians from New York. The format calls for the two bands to rotate, one playing a song, and then the other following suit, until the end of the evening, when audience applause determines the winner.
The Las Senoritas band was formed and led by Zona McConnell (1884-1977), a musician who arrived on the West Coast from the Midwest in 1912, lived in Portland for a time, and then settled in Seattle, where she joined the American Federation of Musicians Local No. 76 in 1918, worked initially as a violin soloist, performed on local radio, and began offering musical lessons to the public. Also proficient on the banjo and several other instruments, she recruited other female players, and around 1920 formed a quintet that was hired to back a big musical stage production called The Sweetest Girl.
Meanwhile, a number of female members of AFM Local No. 76 launched a side organization called the Girls Club. It was likely that McConnell connected with other musicians through the Girls Club, and by 1926 she was leading a new sextet: Zona McConnell’s Banjoettes. The band eventually made its way to Hollywood, where it attracted a professional manager who recast them as the Las Senoritas, "A Snappy Girls Jazz Orchestra" that grew to consist of nine members:
- Zona McConnell (leader, vocals, banjo, violin, sax)
- Frances Krauland (sax, clarinet)
- Alberta Bailey (accordion)
- Laurnetta Nelson (violin, sax, clarinet)
- Carmel Teed (piano, vocals, dance)
- Mae Powell (drums, vocals, dance)
- Lillian Walker (toe dancer)
- Patsy Patterson (dancer)
- Irene McKenzie (dancer)
In the summer of 1930, the North Beach Tribune newspaper on the Washington coast noted that Las Senoritas would be providing "the latest dance music accompanied by singing and dancing features in which the girls are both proficient and enthusiastic" when they appeared at the Long Beach Pavilion on June 25, 1930.
Bandleader and vocalist William J. "Doc" Goodlette and his road-hardened Ebony Serenaders came "direct from the smartest black and tan cabarets in the Harlem district of New York" (Eugene Guardian). Having driven across the country to play in San Francisco, Sacramento, Medford, Eugene, and Portland, the band was now "on their way to Alaska to spend the summer ... they are moving north with the spring weather 'to keep the tunes cooled off'" (Eugene Guardian).
The Ebony Serenaders, an active group since 1921, were noted in the Inside Facts Of Stage And Screen magazine for doing "song and dance specialties, and their dance music is hot rhythm." Portland’s Black-oriented newspaper, The Advocate, described them as "a famous colored orchestra ... [who] will come in their special constructed automobiles ... and will play for a red hot dance full of pep and vigor for a dance at the pavilion ... Being the only organization of this kind in America, they should thrill the dancers and entertain seekers to the utmost as this orchestra sings, plays, and dances like no other" (The Advocate).
Shortly before their appearance in Long Beach, the Ebony Serenaders had battled onstage against one of Portland’s venerable dance ensembles, Cole McElroy’s Spanish Ballroom Orchestra, during the city's annual Rose Festival. But now it was time to head up to the pavilion nestled in the tiny town of Long Beach – where attendees should prepare themselves for dancing because, "Those who wish to take the floor will find music which naturally throws the feet into cadence ... Those who prefer to see just a good show will have plenty of entertainment" (Eugene Guardian).
Long Beach Pavilion
The little community of Long Beach had long enjoyed its original dance pavilion, but it caught fire and burned in 1905. A popular vote approved the issuing of a $30,000 bond to build the area’s first official fire station the very next year. In time a new Long Beach Pavilion was constructed downtown, just off the Pacific Highway, and a tradition developed to throw an annual Tourist Ball there to open the summer season. To line up the entertainment, the hall’s management sought help from the talent booker at Portland’s Jantzen Beach Pavilion, which had a track record of booking the best touring white, or Black, dance bands of the day. One local jazz saxophonist, Klipsan Beach’s Elmer Ramsey, shared his recollections of the hall, which was situated directly behind Long Beach’s venerable Mary Lou’s Tavern (at 208 Pacific Highway): "You went up the steps right behind the tavern. The Pavilion was used as a roller-skating rink during the week and there was a dance every weekend during the summer" (Heimbigner).
Just days prior to the Battle of The Bands, the North Beach Tribune promoted the dance as being, "The First and Biggest Event of Its Kind Ever Held – Two Famous Bands All At One Time and One Price" ("New Dance Feature ..."). The newspaper strained to play up the distinct differences between the competing bands. "The ten colored entertainers of the Ebony Serenaders Band will vie with the nine pretty, peppy girls from Seattle ... The two great musical organizations will battle it out to the delight and amusement of the dancing crowd who will step one moment to the strains of the Sunny Southland and the next to the dashing jazz of the Sweethearts of Seattle" ("New Dance Feature ..."). Unfortunately, the result of the Battle of the Bands has been lost to time -- area newspapers didn't publish any follow-up stories. It seems likely, however, that with hot jazz heating up the dance floor, an exhilarating time was had by all.
The Ebony Serenaders went on to carve out a notable bit of Seattle music, and social, history. In February 1931, they landed an extended gig at the Rose Room in Seattle’s Hotel Butler (at 114 James Street), making them among the first, if not the first, Black musicians to break the town’s segregation barrier and get work in a prime downtown venue on turf that had always been controlled by the city’s white musicians union, AFM Local No. 76. Meanwhile, McConnell carried on, forming her next jazz band -- which was named, of all things, Zona McConnell and her Serenaders. Later, she settled on Camano Island and became one of the most prominent music instructors in Island and Snohomish counties.