On the Wagon
by Mike Guy
Recently trumpeter and educator, Zach Lange, sat down with Seacoast Jazz Notes to discuss the history of jazz and New Orleans during the years of Buddy Bolden, Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong (roughly 1890 to 1930). At one point it was discussed that the phrase “on the wagon” came from New Orleans back in the day. “On the wagon” refers to a person that has decided to stop drinking alcohol.
As Zach explained, before recorded music, if you wanted to play or hear jazz, you went to today’s equivalent of a bar, casino, brothel or some combination of the three. The neighborhood speakeasy with a card game in back and a red light in the window was the place to hear it.
Musicians were often paid some or their entire wage with food and liquor. As you can imagine, that led to very unhealthy behavior.
In addition to the nighttime gigs, New Orleans musicians had access to jobs playing in promotional bands. The bands would cruise around town playing for the public during the day to literally drum up business for the evening’s festivities. This marketing effort was executed, you guessed it, on a wagon.