MAH-commissioned book details history of local music
When Frank Perry was just a kid, he had a music teacher by the name of Vera McKenna Clayton, who taught in Santa Cruz from the 1920s to the 1970s. Perry doesn’t remember too much about Clayton, except that “she looked like she was really old,” he says. It wasn’t until much later that Perry realized while researching a book and finding out more about his former teacher, that “she was only a few years older than I am now.”
Clayton is one of many subjects explored in Perry’s new book, “Notes From Santa Cruz: The County’s Music History,” which documents local music history with stories of local bands, composers, music venues, songs, instruments, music teachers, and more. Focusing on the period between the 1870s and the 1970s, the book includes numerous photos gathered from local museums and private collections, many of which have never been published.
“Every area has its own unique history, and Santa Cruz has had some unusual people and music activities,” says Perry, who cites the annual Musical Saw Festival and Seacliff State Park’s “Cement Ship” as examples. In the early 1930s, when it was known as “The Ship,” “there was a restaurant and dance hall, and it had a live band,” says Perry. “That certainly was unique, there was nothing else like that around.”
The idea for the book grew out of a temporary exhibition of the same name at the Museum of Art & History in 2009. “The museum was looking for an interesting topic on local history to do a special exhibit, and we decided that the history of music would be really interesting,” says Perry, who researched the topic by gathering photographs and information, “filling up two great big three-inch binders” with everything he could find.
After the exhibit concluded, “I guess several people at the museum were sad to see it go,” says Perry. “So a couple of members of the museum publications committee invited me to do a book based on the information that had been gathered for the exhibit.”
Some of the text in the book was taken directly from the exhibit, but there were also changes and additions thanks to suggestions from the community. “A few different people came forward and said ‘Oh, you really have to include such and such,’ and they were absolutely right, those were good things to include,” says Perry.
One such addition was jazz musician Lu Watters, who was born in Santa Cruz. “I wasn’t familiar with him, but he has a very interesting history, and so I was very pleased to be able to include him in the book,” says Perry, who also added information about the Santa Cruz Chamber Players.
According to Perry, the history of Santa Cruz County’s music scene generally followed the same trajectory as the rest of the country. “The kind of popular music gradually evolved through the years,” he says. “Around the first decade of the 20th century, the pop music of that era was ragtime, and then it shifted into jazz, and then rock and roll, and so on.”
In addition to being a subject in the book, Perry’s aforementioned music teacher would prove to be a significant primary source. “The museum has this big stack of scrapbooks that belonged to her,” says Perry. “So I looked through those to get information not only about her, but also about a lot of the other mid-20th century musical activities, because she chronicled it very thoroughly, and it was a wonderful resource to use.”
Written to educate and entertain, “Notes From Santa Cruz” has a lot to offer music lovers within Santa Cruz and beyond. “I hope that the book will inspire people to read more about the county’s music history, that people will not only enjoy what’s in the book, but use it as a springboard to investigate some of these people,” says Perry.
And ultimately, the history that the book shares holds value beyond telling some good stories. “A lot of these musicians from the past have stories that I think present-day musicians—especially students just starting out—will find very inspirational,” he says.
‘Notes From Santa Cruz: The County’s Music History’ is currently available for purchase at the Museum of Art & History, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz.