Although not the most famous jazz trumpeter from New Orleans, Ernest Coycault spread his influence far and wide. His blasting brass sound was important in California as well as in his hometown, and he also had a huge influence on the development of the Australian jazz scene. And while down under, he became part of a scandal that is enjoyable to retell at every opportunity. The story begins quite a distance from any kangaroos, in Violet, LA. As a young professional horn player, Coycault used the name of Ernest Johnson. Psychologically, this may have helped in the challenge of replacing the New Orleans jazz hero Bunk Johnson in the legendary Superior Band, which the trumpeter with the newly Anglicized name did around 1910 after coming up with the Peerless Orchestra. He also thus became, if only temporarily, a member of the Johnson clan, extolled by novelists from Zane Grey to William Burroughs.
The Johnsons traveled and migrated, spreading themselves far and wide. The new gig provided just such opportunities -- he headed off on an important tour of San Francisco's "Barbary Coast" nightclub scene in 1914 as a member of the Black & Tan Orchestra, one of the first bands in this style to play anywhere in California. He quickly began a serious association with the pianist and bandleader Sonny Clay, moving to Los Angeles to join his band. This finally led to recording opportunities in 1923, yet many would consider Coycault well along in his career by then, at 37 years old. He was the senior member of the troupe that was somehow given the awful name of Sonny Clay & the Colored Idea for a tour of Australia five years later. This entourage included not only the Clay band but a gospel group, vocal quartet, tap dancer, and singer Ivie Anderson, among others. Like a good Johnson, Coycault tried to set a good example for the rest. In the end this would not matter.
The Clay groups had evolved from a fascinating ragtime-influenced ensemble music to something more instantly recognizable as New Orleans jazz. Vocalion sides released under the name of Sonny Clay's Plantation Orchestra and Sonny Clay & His Orchestra did well, and the bandleader could count on a regular gig at the popular Los Angeles club from whence the former group derived its name, rather than as a reference to slavery days. Coycault enjoyed the benefits of collaboration with a bandleader whose creative efforts were supported by such a steady engagement. It was a chance to refine both material and personnel, with the senior brass man a key part of every lineup. As a new year rolled around in 1928, Clay and the boys were ready for summer -- in Australia.
This continent's strict custom controls and prissy, suspicious agents have regularly resulted in legal problems for touring musicians in all genres. With Clay's own band going under the name of the California Poppies, it might be assumed that a drug bust would be written in stone, or stoned. Actually, the group got in trouble, and was eventually deported, simply for associating with someone else accused of charges that were eventually dropped. The incident deserves a lurid film treatment along the lines of Macon County Line; the racism and hypocrisy flows like moonshine from a jug. It was a personal embarrassment for the musicians involved, but the result on the Australian touring scene was much more disastrous. Following the Sonny Clay debacle, there was not another visit by the complete band of a black American jazz musician until 26 years later, when Louis Armstrong's All Stars finally toured Australia.
The effect such a ban would have on a national music scene goes well beyond individual disappointment over not being able to catch so-and-so live. When Coycault and his associates played in Australia, it was a sound and approach to jazz that no audiences had heard there before other than on scrounged records. It was an incredible contrast to the stilted music being played by local jazzmen. Taking into account the magnified impact of the live gig experience, it might even be suggested that Coycault had more influence than Louis Armstrong on Australian players even with the tour truncated by the vice beef. Problems began with the country's musician's union when the band was booked for dancehall dates, a violation of the original work permit terms. Problems continued when bandmembers began receiving what was considered too much attention from a sector of the population best described as "local girls." The situation came to the attention of authorities not because there was lovemaking on-stage, but because Coycault, Clay, Anderson, and everyone else in the troupe had been placed under surveillance from the day of their arrival!
The climax of the affair was a police raid on the troupe conducted in Melbourne. Not a soul from the Clay outfit was involved in the vice, underage sex, and drug charges that resulted, most of which were rescinded due to a complete lack of evidence. In fact, the only actual charges that were accepted were vagrancy against some of the young girls partying. Considerable chatter has circulated concerning the certainty that Coycault and crew were set up, clocked from the starting click by Australian authorities on a vendetta best described as Jim Crow with a wombat. The trumpeter continued working with Clay's band until 1931. Tracks cut for Brunswick by the bandleader's expanded Dixie Serenaders once again show a change in musical styles, with ensemble parts scored rather than delivered ad hoc. Coycault's last recordings were with the Kansas City Five.