Our interview strategy for the Hamilton Jazz Archive was without an explicit agenda. We hoped to provide a comfortable venue for musicians to share recollections and opinions formed from a life in music. It became clear early on that certain topics appeared frequently. These themes included life on the road, learning to play jazz on the bandstand, improvisation, swing, and the role of race in jazz. It is this last topic on which I would now like to shine a spotlight.
I like to think that race does not matter in jazz, or at least that we have outgrown the time when it did, and that the world of jazz is now as democratic as the music, by definition, has always been. I also would like to believe that race does not matter in politics, sports, obtaining an education or in any aspect of American life. Or, in the sunny optimism of singer Jon Hendricks, “So when somebody asks me about race, I say what time does it start?” For Mr. Hendricks, the word “race” indicates someone or something moving quickly around an oval-shaped track. As we will see later in a more complete quote, Jon Hendricks refuses to recognize a racial problem exists. While I have the utmost respect for Mr. Hendricks’ outlook, eloquence and humor, I fear that it is not reality and probably never will be.
Nevertheless I am heartened by the message voiced repeatedly by many artists interviewed for the Archive. Their stories inform of us of the racial inequities that accompanied bands in their cross country tours, the ludicrous situations with venues, restaurants and hotels, and the social mores of the time that were enforced by peacekeepers and bean counters. But the stories also put forth a unified message that once musicians make it to the stage and studio, talent and personality trump age, gender and race.
Jazz musicians and band leaders were not immune to whatever racial inequalities and restrictions were in place. These impositions varied from one decade to the next and from one region of the country to another. Making a living as an entertainer could be an adventure in more ways than one. Interviewees shared some of their stories about incidents that happened before one note was played.
The most beloved couple in jazz have to have been Milt and Mona Hinton. Milt “The Judge” Hinton played bass on thousands of recordings, circled the globe with Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway, and blessed us with photographs of his fellow musicians that only an insider could have taken. Mona and Milt opened their door and hearts to countless musicians and could invariably be found at the center of a circle of friends and admirers. Mona Hinton accompanied Milt in tours with the Cab Calloway band in the 1930’s and spoke of those travels in this interview conducted in March 1995:
MH: Well, unfortunately, due to the climate of our society, the blacks and the whites were segregated. And it made it very difficult, especially when we were traveling in the south. Because frequently we would run into Glenn Miller’s band or Tommy Dorsey’s band, or some of the well known white bands. They were staying in nice hotels. And unfortunately the black musician would have to stay on the other side of the tracks, usually in someone’s home, or in a hotel that was not very good. And as I say unfortunately, frequently the owners of the hotels, they would take advantage I mean of the black musicians. They knew that we could not stay in places, and we’d run into places with rats and with the roaches and with the bed bugs and whatnot. So under those circumstances it was not good. Frequently we would go in towns and I would have to go out in the black community and try to help find rooms for the musicians in Calloway’s band, and sometimes it was very, very — the places where we had to eat were just intolerable. And as I say, we made it.
Both Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington often solved this problem by hiring their own Pullman cars enabling the bands to travel, sleep and eat on their own terms. When confronted with such slights, Duke was known to say, “no one is going to make me change my pretty ways.”
Sometimes just arriving at the gig could present an obstacle. Trumpeter Joe Wilder was a member of the Lucky Millinder Orchestra in 1947. Like Milt Hinton, Joe Wilder emotes a sense of dignity and class with a wry sense of humor that served him well throughout his career. I asked Joe about touring the south with Lucky’s group in this interview from October 1998:
JW: We were in South Carolina [with] Lucky Millinder. Lucky was a very nice fellow. He was not a musician, but he had a lot of natural talent for selecting the right kinds of tunes and tempos and things of that nature. But we had — I think six of the members of the band were white. And we arrived early in South Carolina at this hall where we were going to play, and suddenly up drove the sheriff with his deputy in the police car, and he says “who’s in charge here?” And so Lucky said “I am.” He said “well I’m just here to tell you there’s not going to be any mixed bands playing down here in Charleston.” And Lucky looked at this guy, and Lucky — you know the reason I think they called him Lucky, he would take a chance on anything — he looked this guy dead in the eye and said “this is not a mixed band.” And some of the guys were blonde with blue eyes you know, there was no way in the world anybody would have mistaken any of these guys for being blacks you know. And so he went to each guy. I think if he had said “are you black?” he might have gotten a different answer. But he went to each of these guys and asked, he said “are you colored?” And each of the guys, going along with what Lucky had said, would say yes. And so he would shake his head. And finally the last of the guys he asked was Porky Cohen, who was our first trombone player. And he had a slight lisp. And when he asked him, now Porky is responding more emphatically than the other guys, and he said “why thertainly” with this lisp. And at this point we had all been starting to chew on our tongues and everything, trying not to break up because it was so ludicrous. And you could see the ground tremble, we were trying not to let the sheriff see it. But anyway he turned to the deputy and he said “well I guess if they all say they’re colored, there ain’t nothing we can do about it, is there, Jeff?” And so he said “no sheriff.” And they got in the car and drove off. And we played that dance that night. It was very funny. And it might, as I mentioned to you, it might have been the first time that an integrated band played there. It’s very possible that that was the first time.
Despite the best efforts of law enforcement and promoters, the music had a way of overriding the rules, both written and understood. Vocalist Ruth Brown made her mark in jazz, blues and R&B. As a band leader, she experienced her share of troubles on the road. Arriving at the gig did not mean those situations had ended for the night. In March 1995, Ruth related what a typical gig could be like:
RB: Well most times we worked warehouses and barns, and nine times out of ten that didn’t have what you call the “second balcony.” If we were lucky to play a county hall or an auditorium sometimes, they had a balcony, and in that balcony was called the spectators. These were the whites who bought tickets to come in to hear the music but were not allowed to come on the dance floor. Sometimes it was vice versa. The whites would be down and the blacks would be up in the balcony and not allowed to come down. But in places such as barns, warehouses, where there was just one level, they would separate the races with a rope, and I say, a clothesline was what it was, an oversized clothesline. And most times someone had taken a huge cardboard and written “Colored” which was the definition of our ethnic group at that particular time, and on the other side the card would say “white.” And the white spectators were allowed to dance on that side of the rope, and the black on this side. But what they did not anticipate was that the music generated such a joy, people got to dancing, the ropes would fall down, I seen it happen many times. And people would continue to dance, and just wander in to each other’s space. Nobody would say a thing for a moment, and then it would occur to some official that, uh oh, the rope is down and they’re dancing in the same space, and we can’t have that. And then somebody would run up on the stage and say “stop the music” you know and they’d just stop the music and go back and put the rope in place, and you had to go back on your given side.
Ruth and her band were once pulled over for going five miles over the speed limit. Suspicious because of the high priced car they were in, the troopers made the band prove they were musicians by getting their instruments out and playing on the side of the road.
The race card could be dealt both ways as drummer Louis Bellson learned. He was the only white player in Duke Ellington’s Orchestra in the early 1950’s and was once asked to become “non-white” so the band could keep him on stage. His quiet manner only gave more weight to the wisdom of his words when I met with him in April of 1996:
LB: In 1951 they had the Big Show of 1951, which consisted of Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and Duke Ellington’s band. They were the three big stars. Now besides that they had Peg Leg Bates, Timmy Rodgers, Stump and Stumpy, Patterson and Jackson, all these wonderful acts — tap dancing acts. It took us a week to rehearse that show, playing with Nat King Cole and Sarah, Duke, and all these acts. So after we finished rehearsing for a week, Duke finally discovered that hey, we’re getting ready to go down to the deep south you know? And in those days, you had segregated audiences. The whites couldn’t play with the blacks at that time you see. In those days it was “colored,” you didn’t use the word “blacks” see? So now the big problem is, Duke called me in the dressing room and says “what are we going to do? I can’t find a drummer to take your place, because it would be a week’s rehearsal and the guys that can do it, they’re all busy.” So Duke says “you mind being a Haitian?” I said “no, okay, that’s all right” you know. So we got through it okay. It was a little tense, because the situation was still down there, and the audience, because they told Jack Costanzo with Nat King Cole he couldn’t appear because of the racial thing you know. But some spots it was a little rough you know. But we got through it. I think through Ellington’s peaceful ways and the wonderful attitude that the band had kind of rubbed off on everybody. But still it existed.
MR: Well it’s nice that the music had a part in helping that situation to move along a little faster I guess.
LB: Well we played a gig in Mississippi and there the townspeople were wonderful, they came to the rescue, where we couldn’t stay in certain hotels and so forth. I mean these people came from wealthy families too. They had Strayhorn and Duke and Clark Terry stay in one house, and Carney and Russell Procope and myself in another house, and all on down the line. Beautiful homes and they fed us. So along with the bad there’s some good too. And these were situations that we got over, we dealt with it. Sometimes it’s almost like a slap in the face but you realize what the situation is and you go straight ahead because you’ve got something to do that’s valued and I think when you do that you realize that none of those things should bother the musicality of something. It’s the fact that whoever’s playing that music doesn’t make a difference, let’s play it and show where the peace and love is.
Trumpeter Red Rodney pulled off a similar ruse when he became an “Albino Red” for his southern tour with the Charlie Parker Quintet.
In the 1930’s, when big band jazz was the popular music of the day, an important breakthrough occurred. Pianist Teddy Wilson often played intermission piano between sets of the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Because he was black, he left the stage when Goodman’s musicians entered. At the urging of jazz promoter Helen Dance and despite warnings from his management, Benny Goodman thwarted convention and hired Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton to perform with his band. With drummer Gene Krupa, this quartet become one of the most recorded small groups of the decade. Jackie Robinson’s entry into major league baseball nine years later drew more press, but Lionel Hampton and Jon Hendricks both touted Goodman’s integrated quartet in their interviews, conducted back to back on October 18, 1995:
LH: I was the first black musician to play in a white band. See and Teddy Wilson was playing with Benny, but he used to play when Benny used to take intermission, and no white musicians was on stage, then Teddy would play, by himself see? So I was the first one, legally, to break that tradition down. But you know the funny thing about it, there wasn’t no black and white playing together no place. Not in pictures, moving pictures, not in baseball, or football, no kind of sports. The Benny Goodman Quartet was the first mixed group and we were the first integrated group, the first black and white group.
MR: Was that ever a problem playing in certain parts of the country?
LH: No, no. Because we all played good music. And Benny presented us in a professional way. We were four in his organization, and it would be noticeable that we were soft. And the people liked that. Some of the ovations that he used to get, it was the sound.
MR: Jazz especially was so important in breaking some of the racial problems down.
JH: Absolutely. Benny Goodman is an American social hero. He is a hero in the development of American society. Outside of music, Benny Goodman is a social hero. Because his love for the music was so pure that he just did not understand why he couldn’t have Lionel Hampton in his band, and then Charlie Christian and then Teddy Wilson you know. He just didn’t understand that. And the bean counters and the accountants and the lawyers, they tried to explain to him, “Benny, you’ll lose your show, they will not renew you on the ‘Camel Caravan’ if you do this.” So they gave him all those very hard and fast business reasons. But he refused to understand it. He said “I like those guys.”
MR: They play the music I want, so they stay, right?
JH: So he did what people have to march now to achieve. And it’s because of the power of the music, a love of the music.
Eventually the integration achieved on stage found its way into the New York City recording studios in the person of Milt Hinton. At a record date, every studio musician had to prove they could get it right the first time, could handle any kind of music placed on the stand and be punctual and versatile. In the studio, ability is color blind. In his book Bass Line Milt relates how a chance meeting with Jackie Gleason helped make this happen for him:
MH: It was during my slow period that I ran into Jackie and his manager, Bullets Durgon, on a street corner downtown. He asked me the usual kind of questions, “Whatta ya doing? What’s going on?” Instead of giving him the standard show business answer I said, “Nothing.” Jackie turns to Bullet and said, “We’re doing a record date tomorrow, put Milt on it.” Bullets tried to explain about contractors but Jackie didn’t want to know. “I don’t give a damn about contractors. Call whoever is in charge and tell him I want Milt there tomorrow.” The next morning I showed up at Capitol. There must have been 50 musicians in the studio. I’d recorded before but never anything this size. Besides, I knew from the minute I walked in, I was the only black. After the first few takes, we took a break and a couple of the musicians came over and introduced themselves. By the time the date ended I felt much more comfortable. The contractor came over, complimented me, and asked if I’d do the next session to finish the album. I didn’t even wait to get the date and time — I just nodded yes.
After all the societal hang ups are acknowledged and stories are told, the question of ability finally arrives. The comments and anecdotes I listened to in these interviews on this subject seemed genuine and heartfelt. The experiences and influences that set these musicians on the jazz path ran the gamut from the church they attended as a child to what station the radio in the house was tuned into at night. To these artists, qualifying a jazz musician’s success by adding or subtracting points because of their race would be an insult. By championing the ultimate importance of the individual, these musicians bolster their own accomplishments and give us a reason to take faith in the power of the art form. Early in the project, I admit to feeling ill at ease bringing up the question of jazz and race. I soon understood that it was okay to talk about it and that there was nothing awkward about the subject that these men and women had not lived through and had long ago drawn their own conclusions.
Selecting the “best” quotes from the rich material in the archive collection is an exercise in futility but I have settled on one from a musician who’s career included being a bandmate and a leader and who shared the stage with both the first and the current generation of jazz musicians. Saxophonist Frank Foster visited Hamilton College as an artist-in-residence after stepping down as leader of the Count Basie Orchestra. He shared these thoughts with me in April of 1998:
FF: I don’t think every person born into this world is a jazz musician, and I don’t agree with — somebody’s got something out that says anybody, everybody can improvise. I don’t go with that.
MR: Oh that’s right, there’s a series, Anybody Can Improvise.
FF: Yeah. I don’t subscribe to that. But it’s an individual thing, it’s not a racial thing. We have such a melting pot here, we’re all into each other’s culture. Okay, I contend that jazz was born in America as a result of the black experience. Now nobody in the world could ever convince me that that isn’t true, okay? But now as I said before, we’ve got this melting pot where we’re all into each other’s culture. We can emulate one another, and we can relate to one another, and talent wasn’t just given to whites or blacks or Latinos or Asiatics or whatever. Every racial ethnic group has talent. And all God’s children got rhythm, some more than others. Look man, I know some black folks who can’t clap on two and four. One-two-three-four. ONE-two-THREE-four. I know some cats who can’t do this [claps]. On the other hand I know some white folks, every time will say [claps] and vice versa you know. So we’ve all got talented people and we’ve all got some no-talented people. Every ethnic and racial group has somebody blowing a horn that should put it down and forget it and be a plumber or a postman or something. But when I hear somebody who’s not black perform on an instrument and that person is good, they are good, regardless of what somebody else black might say — oh he can’t play, she can’t play, that’s it. Man, it hurt me years ago, one of my trumpet players, are you familiar with Lew Soloff? Well this guy just put Lew Soloff in the garbage can, “he can’t play, he never could.” And Lew Soloff is a monster. Lew Soloff can play anything, can play jazz, can play lead trumpet, he can play in a section, you know, he can just do anything that’s necessary for a jazz trumpeter to do. Big band, small group, whatever. So when one of us can do it, give us the credit. When one of them can do it, give them the credit. I don’t feel threatened by anybody. If you can play and you’re white, great, let’s play together. If you can’t play and you’re white —
MR: Go play with someone else.
FF: Yeah. If you can’t play and you’re black, get out of here.
Frank’s comments remind me of my own feelings about playing music when I had the good fortune to play a series of gigs in 1998 with Claude “Fiddler” Williams. If you had attended one of our performances you would have seen then 20-year-old blond bassist Genevieve Rose swinging next to “The Fiddler,” who toured with the Terrance Holder Band in Oklahoma in 1928. Claude and Genevieve were bookended by two middle aged white guys, Syracuse guitarist Mark Copani and yours truly. The dynamic quartet was the perfect blending of musical and cultural elements, and musically one of the most satisfying of my career. Or as Louis Armstrong summed it up, “There are good cats and bad cats of all hues.”
Earlier I alluded to the wit and wisdom of Jon Hendricks. He is an artist worth studying, either in the recordings of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross or with his own recent releases. In our second interview in January of 2000, he talked about his father (a member of the clergy), his hometown, and the big picture:
JH: My father had an aura and an authority about him that people immediately respected. When he died, by that time I had married an Irish girl. When he died I took my wife to the funeral. And when I drove into town the town was buzzing, because it was in Kentucky. And they stopped me a couple of times and says “whatchall doin’ here boy?” And they’re looking at my wife. And I says “I’m Jon Hendricks, I’m here for my father’s funeral, Reverend Hendricks.” And they said “oh Reverend Hendricks, okay.” And I went to the funeral. It was incredible. And at the funeral, half the town was there, and fully half of the people in the church were white people. That’s how respected my father was. And I remember sitting with him one night and there was a local white preacher who used to come over in the evenings and sit and talk to my father. They would be sitting in these rocking chairs on the porch. And one night the preacher says “Reverend I just wanted to discuss something with you.” And my father says “what was that?” He said “well I just can’t help it,” he said, “I just feel that my people are better than your people.” And the rocking kept on, and I’m waiting. And my father said “well Reverend,” he said “do you believe in God?” And so the white preacher said “well you know I do.” And my father said “well then what’s your problem?” And the rocking kept on. And not another word was spoken. And I said whooooh. He got right to the heart of the matter. Because that’s the key. We still talk about a problem. There is no problem. There is no racial problem if you acknowledge God. Because if you acknowledge God then you are looking at another child of God. So what are you talking about? If you’re going to separate from that other child of God because of this mythical term you have here, you are acting in an ungodly way. So when people ask me about race, I say “what time does it start?”
At jazz conventions and festivals we witness the current jazz melting pot. Thousands of musicians, educators, students, promoters, producers and publicists of every race, age and gender converge in the name of jazz. Many of them hope to grab a piece of the small pie that jazz — now officially recognized as an art form — occupies in the music market. It is an uphill battle, but as in any artistic endeavor, originality and skill will earn the spotlight.
Societal shifts often occur imperceptibly. Music frequently serves as a catalyst for social change. The sentiments expressed by these interviewees are now being evidenced in the political arena, where the ability to compete is now unencumbered by ethnicity or gender. Talent wins the race.