Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Gerald Wilson - Then and Now: Part 1

© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"The story of West Coast big bands from the 1950s, especially those featuring black leaders, was largely one of neglect. …
Despite the excellence of his earlier ensembles, [Gerald] Wilson’s recording career was, except for a few brief interludes, deferred until the 1960s.” – Ted Gioia

The “Then and Now” subtitle for this JazzProfiles feature about the soon to be 91-year old Gerald Wilson is correct, even though the more accustomed phrase is “Now and Then.” Explanation to follow.

Thanks to the very same high school trumpet playing friend who dragged me all over Hollywood and the Sunset Strip [The Summit, The Sundown Club and The Seville] in the late 1950’s to hear what has since become know as the Terry Gibbs Dream Band, I also got to hear the 1960’s version of the Gerald Wilson Orchestra that recorded for Pacific Jazz during that period.

Only this time we were students in college and the venues had changed to Shelly’s Manne Hole, The Memory Lane Supper Club, a Local 47 Musicians Union Picnic for members and their families [we were both card carrying members of that AFL-CIO affiliate] and Marty’s on the Hill on Slausen Avenue in Los Angeles.

In those days, my buddy worked at the Benge Trumpet Factory on Victory Blvd. in Burbank, CA and many of the Hollywood studio and West Coast Jazz players had a preference for Elden Benge’s exquisitely crafted trumpets.
As a result, my friend got to meet the likes of Al Porcino, Ray Triscari, John Audino, Stu Williamson and Frank Huggins, all of whom became his heroes and all of whom played Benge trumpets at one time or another as members of Terry Gibbs’ big band; hence the reason for of weekly “pilgrimages” to hear them perform.

In the 1960s, the group of Benge playing trumpeters was broadened to include Jimmy Zito and Jules Chaikin and they along with Al Porcino and Ray Triscari formed Gerald Wilson’s trumpet section [usually with either Freddie Hill and/or Carmel Jones in the Jazz solo chair] of Gerald’s Orchestra; hence the reason for the musical equivalent of a “new place of worship.”
There were no Jazz classes in those days; no university Jazz curriculums; no band camps; no instructional videos; no Master classes: if you wanted to learn how to play Jazz at the highest level, you practiced every day, listen to records and then went to the clubs and the concerts to observe and listen to how the pros did it.

Before I heard him perform with Buddy Collette’s quintet at Jazz City in 1958-59, I had no idea who Gerald Wilson was. After listening to him play for the first time, I thought he was a Jazz trumpet player with a modest tone who meshed nicely with Buddy’s alto sax and flute. Buddy’s quintet at that time also included Al Viola on guitar, Wilfred Middlebrooks on bass and Earl Palmer on drums.
That was my first “Then” experience with Mr. Wilson. It was soon to be followed by my first “Now” occurrence as he seemed to come-out-of-nowhere to lead a roaring big band that issued 8 LPs on the Pacific Jazz label in the 8 years from 1961-1969!

How could it happen that a musician with the unpretentious abilities I had heard Mr. Wilson display as a trumpet player with Buddy Collette transform himself into the principal arranger and composer of one of the most striking sounding big band that I have ever heard – then or now!?

And this “Then and Now” cycle has been a part of my travels with Mr. Wilson’s music ever since as I’ve worked my way backward and forward with the music that he has made, and continues to make, over his long and distinguished career.

It boggles the mind to think that it has been 70 years since Mr. Wilson joined the Jimmie Lunceford band in 1939 as a trumpet soloist and an arranger. Having been born in Shelby, Mississippi on September 4, 1918, Mr. Wilson was only 21 years old at the time that he took on these awesome responsibilities with one of the top big bands in the country.
As Mr. Wilson recalls: “When I got a chance to join them, I was thrilled to death. The Jimmie Lunceford band was at the top of the heap at the time and they could outdraw everyone. They had such creative arrangements by Edwin Wilcox, Sy Oliver and Eddie Durham, and their musicians were very good. I made my first arrangements for them, “Yard Dog Mazurka” and “Hi Spook.”Aside from the unbridled confidence of youth, the reason for this self-assurance was that Mr. Wilson knew from an early that he was going to be a musician. As a result of this awareness, while living in Detroit, he studied harmony and orchestration at Cass Tech in addition to working on his trumpet chops. So when the call came to become a member of the Lunceford band, he was ready, much to the amazement of all concerned.

In his own, non-ostentatious way, Mr. Wilson has never ceased to amaze ever since.
The reason for my unawareness of Mr. Wilson’s substantial, earlier career in Jazz until I “discovered” him in the late 1950s and 1960s on the Los Angeles Jazz scene could be chalked up to my overall youthful naiveté coupled with my relative newness to Jazz.

And yet, I wasn’t the only Jazz fan who thought that after Mr. Wilson left the Lunceford band in 1942 that he toiled in relative obscurity until his Jazz career was re-launched thanks largely to the records of his 1960s big band that Richard Bock at Pacific Jazz put out.
In looking back to the “then” portion of Mr. Wilson’s musical journey from when he left Lunceford to the re-formation of the 1960s version of his orchestra, Mr. Wilson was hard at work on the vibrant Los Angeles Jazz scene. He also led a band in San Francisco during this period as well as touring with and writing for a number of famous Jazz performers including Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Billie Holiday.Thankfully this hitherto obscure period in Mr. Wilson’s career is richly detailed in an Oral History Project under the supervision of Steve Iosardi and UCLA. The project has been published under the title of Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998] and the book is authored collectively by the project’s principal interviewees, including Mr. Wilson.The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought that reading Mr. Wilson’s description of what it was like to be a part of the Jazz World in Los Angeles during and after the 2nd World War would provide a unique look at a time in the history of Jazz that would never come again.It also provides a captivating look at the vibrant musical world that Mr. Wilson created for himself and how what blossomed in his music in the 1960s when I first really became aware of it is really a natural extension of his continued growth and development that has made him one of the Giants of Jazz.

Part 2 of the piece will begin with a retrospective of Mr. Wilson’s career by the imminent Jazz writer – Doug Ramsey – and then follow with an in-depth look at the more significant recordings in his discography.

© Copyright protected; all rights reserved.Gerald Wilson
“Trumpeter, composer, arranger, and educator, Gerald Wilson has been at the top of his profession since joining the Jimmie Lunceford band in 1939 at the age of twenty. He has performed with and written for most of the top bands, including Count Basie and Duke Ellington, as well as Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, and Billie Holiday. The Gerald Wilson Orchestra has been a mainstay for decades and is still performing and recording.

Gerald's talent for composing and arranging has taken him beyond the jazz field. He has written and scored for films and TV shows. His compositions have also been performed by the Los Angeles, Israel, and New York Philharmonics.

A long-time educator, Gerald has been a faculty member at several southern California universities. He is currently on the faculty at UCLA, where he teaches a course on the history of jazz. He has also been a musician in residence at colleges and universities throughout the country. Of the many awards that have come his way, one of the more recent is a National Endowment for the Arts American Jazz Masters Fellowship.

Gerald was born in Shelby, Mississippi, on September 4, 1918. His mother, Lillian Wilson, was a schoolteacher at the Shelby Grammar School a position she held for some forty years.”

“My mother was educated and she graduated from Jackson College, which is now Jackson State University. She was also a musician. She played piano. She taught some of the early classes in music in Shelby. And then she also played in the church. So I got my beginning in music with my mother, who started all of us. The Wilson kids, my brother [Shelby James Wilson] and sister [Mildred Wilson] - we all got a start in music very young. So being around music all my life, it was easy for me to pick up on it and begin to like it.

My sister was a fine classical pianist. I had already heard her play compositions by Mendelssohn, Paderewski, Rachmaninoff, Mozart, Beethoven. In my early days I knew of these composers, besides being interested in the music of the day, which was jazz coming out of New Orleans. When I was a child around five or six, I was already hearing Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver and Papa Celestin. Before I left Shelby I already knew of Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines and Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford. I was already listening to jazz before I left Mississippi.

I left Mississippi at the end of the eighth grade because there was no other place to go there. So I went to Memphis. I attended Manassas High School, where Jimmie Lunceford had once been a teacher. I started trumpet lessons there with Mr. Love, who was one of the pioneer music teachers of Memphis. But I had started playing trumpet before I left Shelby, only because it was a shiny instrument, I guess. I really should have stayed on the piano. It is the master instrument to my mind, because it has everything there.

Then my mother arranged for me to study in Detroit-had friends there from Shelby. When I started attending school in Detroit in 1934, mostly all of the schools were integrated. And besides, they had such a great music department where I attended, Cass Technical High School, which is one of the greatest music schools in the world even to this day. So I enrolled there, and I stayed in Detroit for five years, where I studied.
I played in the area with different orchestras and different musicians. I learned so much playing with members of McKinney's Cotton Pickers, members of bands that had been led by Don Redman and Benny Carter. And many of the fine bands they had in Detroit: Stutz Sanderson's band, Gloster Current, Harold Green, Bob Perkins-these were all bands that were very musical. It was a place to really learn about music.

Gerald remained in Detroit for five years, until 1939, when a wire arrived from Jimmie Lunceford, the leader of perhaps the most popular black band in the country. Sy Oliver - Lunceford's long-time arranger, composer, and trumpeter - had left to join Tommy Dorsey, and Gerald was asked to take his place.

Jimmie Lunceford had been to our school, Cass Tech, to hear our jazz band, and he had met me there. However, I had people in the band that knew me because I used to hang around the band every time they would come to Detroit, which would be two or three times a year. Sy would sit me up on the bandstand beside him at the Graystone, just let me sit there. I knew Eddie Tomkins and Paul Webster and Willie Smith and Joe Thomas, Earl Carruthers, Dan Grissom.

I received a wire asking me if I would like to join the Jimmie Lunceford band. I said yes. I just went down the next morning, picked up my ticket, some money, on the train, and I went to New York. Then, from that time on, I was on top because they were on top. They were not a struggling band. They were on the very top. June Of 1939. They were at the height of their fame. But the Lunceford band went higher after Snooky Young and I joined the band. He came six months after I did. We stayed there almost three years.
We made the film Blues in the Night here in Los Angeles for Warner Brothers in 1941. We played the Casa Mañana in 1940, the Paramount downtown, the Shrine Auditorium, where they had so many people they had to stop the dance. We were the biggest draw in the United States at that time, the Jimmie Lunceford band.

I was twenty-one years old. But you must remember, we were coming up at a different time. I was coming up out of Cass Tech. I could already read music, I could already write music. I was already into the modern things going around at that time in jazz because I was an aficionado besides. I had already met Dizzy Gillespie in 1938. 1 already knew Lester Young and Count Basie. So this gives you an idea of what we had to draw on as young musicians. You're right there with people that are doing it, and they're doing the very best.

The Jimmie Lunceford band, besides being an outstanding musical organization, had everything else. They had made it to the top. They knew what the top was supposed to be. Our costumes would take half of this room we're sitting in here to hold them. If we did seven shows, we changed seven times, from top to bottom. So you can see what kind of an organization the Jimmie Lunceford band was. But they were strictly on their music. They were a tough band to reckon with. You had to be really tough to get past us. [laughter] Yes. We would really tell you the real deal. You can go and listen to our records now. That proves it. Go and listen to their records today, and you will see how far ahead they were at any time during that period. The first number that they recorded of mine, "Yard Dog Mazurka," is just as vibrant today as it was then, and just as modern. You can see how far ahead I was.

My harmonic techniques at that time were very far ahead. When I left Detroit from Cass Tech, they were barely into four-part harmony. I'm still the only person that's very deep into eight-part harmony. I'm an orchestrator and an arranger and composer. That's my business. Of course, I'm one of the innovators of that. Much of my stuff you have to use if you're in modern music. If you're in orchestral music, you must use some of my inventions. Colleges don't even know what we're talking about here. They have an idea of what we're talking about, but they don't really know. I know all of the people that teach at colleges. We know what they do. They're not out here, they're not competing in the world. We know how much they know.

My band today is far ahead. I don't have just a band. I have an orchestra, really. A band is a commercial business. I'm not in it for the commercial business. I'm a musician. The music is what is important to me. That is my central drive. That is really what it's all about with me. I know that I have one of the greatest bands in the world. I don't know anybody in jazz today that would want to come up against me in writing. If he does, he's a strong man, and he's got a tough row to hoe. [laughter] And I don't know any you can find out there who will tell you that he wants to go up against me. And if you do, tell him to come on. [laughter] But that's not for an egotistical purpose. That is what I have done. I have studied all my life. I'm still studying.
Seduced by Sunshine
In February Of 1940 1 came to Los Angeles with the Jimmie Lunceford band. We had just finished playing a week at the Regal in Chicago, and we boarded the train there. By the way, it was like eighteen degrees above when we left. We had a Pullman and everything. Big-time band. I'll never forget that day in February. As I looked out the window of my bunk in the sleeper, I see this beautiful sunshine. We were somewhere like San Bernardino. And I said, "Well, this is going to be the place for me." [laughter] And when I got to Los Angeles and I saw how pretty it was, I said, "This will be my home." I was very impressed with Los Angeles. I made up my mind that day that I was going to live in Los Angeles.

I got off the train there at Union Station. They had a parade for us. This is how big we were. They had a parade from the station to the Dunbar Hotel, where we were going. to stay. Snooky Young and I, we didn't follow along with the parade. We were just milling around at the station and looking around. The parade was moving on, and there was this white guy who came up to us and said, "Are you guys with the Jimmie Lunceford band?" We said, "Yeah. We play with the Lunceford band." He introduced himself. "My name is Carlos Gastel." He managed Stan Kenton, he managed Benny Carter, he managed Nat King Cole. Later. Right then, he was just booking some little dances, so he had been the booker for us at a dance at the Glendale Civic Auditorium. So he was just looking for some guys in the Lunceford band to talk to. He had missed Jimmie, but he offered to drive us to the hotel, which he did. He drove us up Central Avenue to the Dunbar Hotel, where we registered. That was my first day in Los Angeles.

Central Avenue. I didn't think about it as anything so special other than the fact that it's where I can stay. It's the only place I can sleep. [laughter] Having been everywhere in the United States, I had seen all the black streets. Central Avenue is like Saint Antoine in Detroit or like South Park in Chicago or like 125th Street in New York or like Central in Cleveland. So at that time I didn't realize what it would mean to me later. Los Angeles would become my home, and Central Avenue would become an integral part of me.

The Dunbar was a very fine hotel, coffee shop, bar, dining room. The rooms were impeccable. The Nelson's, who owned it and ran it, saw to it that you had to be right on top of everything. You couldn't come in there with a lot of loud behavior. So it was a place of class. I enjoyed staying there. And it was near everything. It was right in the center. A couple of doors down was the Alabam; a couple of doors from that was the Downbeat; across the street was the Last Word; over here on the other side was the Memo; the Five and Ten was there; down a few blocks, Dynamite Jackson's; the Lincoln Theatre was up a few blocks. All of these places - the Elks. This is all Central Avenue. This was our place to go.
The first job we played was the Civic Auditorium in Glendale. Our next date was at the Shrine Auditorium down on Jefferson. Packed and jammed. Couldn't get in, there were so many people. And then we played a return engagement there before we left. But then we played the Paramount Theatre downtown for a week. We even went to the Casa Mafiana out in Culver City, where we played for six weeks. That was located on Washington Boulevard right out near the Helms Bakery. It was the old Sebastian's Cotton Club and was a big place. It would hold about, oh, I'd say fifteen hundred or two thousand. Then we'd stay here while we'd play San Diego. And we may go to Bakersfield, Fresno-because we'd play everywhere.

During this first trip, I went into the Alabam. It was a beat-up club. I said, "Why would anybody want to come in here, anyway?" [laughter] And I went in. But I heard some fine musicians that night. I went in and I heard Marshal Royal, his brother Ernie Royal, Lloyd Reese. Reese was playing trumpet and alto sax. [laughter] He was playing both of them and was recognized as being one of the finest musicians around the country. They were all playing with Cee Pee Johnson's band.

They had little groups playing at different clubs. Lorenzo Flennoy and his trio. A lot of trios around. Lee Young, Lester's brother. They had their group. They were working with Billie Holiday at the Trouville, which was in Hollywood. The Memo Club-they'd have some kind of maybe a piano player, a trio, a duo, or something like that. That was across the street from the Dunbar, like catty-corner. Lovejoy had a place where they used to have jam sessions. Upstairs place on Vernon Avenue and Central. All the guys would go there to jam-Art Tatum, the heavies. Duke's band came in town while we were here one time. I saw Jimmy Blanton, and he was up there jamming.

There were bands around Los Angeles. There was George Brown's band, Phil Carreon, and other groups that were playing at different clubs around. Of course, Red Callender-he was very popular at that time. He was a fine bass player. He was playing with Lee Young's group, Lester Young had joined them, and they were playing with Billie Holiday out at the Trouville.

So it was a lot of musical things going on during that period. Benny Carter was in town with a band. Les Hite had a band. Lionel Hampton formed his band in '40. I think it was '40. We were all talking down in front of the Dunbar there with Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Ray Perry - this kid with Chick Carter's band. Dexter was very young. He was just joining Lionel's band.

We played our first engagement here in 1940. We came back again during the early part Of 1941. And this time, I believe we played the Orpheum Theatre. We made a movie for Warner Brothers, Blues in the Night. We were in that movie with Lloyd Nolan, Richard Whorf, Rosemary Lane, and Elia Kazan. We played the Casa Manana, because that's where Ray Heindorf, who was one of the music directors at Warner Brothers, used to come to see us every night.
I left the Lunceford band in April 1942. It was the time of World War II. I was 1-A, and I knew I was going to be called soon. I wanted to spend a little time kind of relaxed. I'd been with him a long time and needed a little time to kind of get ready for the service. And that's what I did. I came here.

But I didn't go for a while, so I went with Les Hite. I stayed with him for about six months. We played a long engagement at the Wilshire Bowl, which had become the Louisiana Club. The Wilshire Bowl was a fine nightclub that changed its name in the early forties to the Louisiana Club. It was on Wilshire near the Miracle Mile. But the Miracle Mile was nothing but open space in there. We played there for like two or three months. Every night. Big show. Big, big, big chorus line, big acts, big-time acts. All white acts, like the Rio Brothers and different kinds of singers. They had a black band, though; we were the black band. Mingus played with us there. And then Snooky was in the band. He joined Les Hite, too. He moved out to the coast, and he moved in.

Les Hite was always recognized as having a good band. He had good music. I did a lot of writing for him while I was in his band, and Gil Fuller did a lot of arrangements for him. He had been successful, and he knew how to front a band. And he was very popular. We toured, we played all up the coast here. Finally, he just gave it up. After all those years, he probably just really got tired of it.

And then we went with Benny Carter. Our whole trumpet section from that band, we just went into Benny's band one night. We were tough. In fact, those four trumpets-we also went out and played the music for the special dance that the black dancers did in This Is the Army with this huge orchestra, Warner Brothers orchestra. And the four trumpet players were black: it was Snooky Young, myself, a fellow named Jack Trainor, and another kid named Walter Williams. We were the only trumpets in the band. But we guaranteed that we could play anything. [laughter] We could play anything you had between the four of us. We handled it all. So we went into Benny's band one night. And from that night on, his band was lifted from here to here. Do you understand what I'm saying? From here to here. [laughter]

J. J. Johnson was in the band. They had Teddy Brannon and Bumps Myers. Oh, he had some good guys. He had Shorty Horton, J. J., "Big" Matthews, trombone. These were guys right out of New York. That was the trombone section. And he had Kurk Bradford. We had taken him from Les Hite's band.
We went on back up the coast with Benny. Then we were playing at Hermosa Beach, a place called Zucca's Terrace. It was right in front of the Lighthouse. Upstairs. Benny played out there a couple of weeks, I think. I was drafted, inducted, while I was there. I was inducted into the navy. It would have been probably June of 1943. June, maybe July. In fact, some of the guys in the band took me to the induction center down on Main Street. I thought I was going to be rejected, but they took me. [laughter]

Anyway, I was off to the navy, which was a fine experience, by the way. I was lucky. I got in the ship's company band at Great Lakes. It's just about, I'd say, thirty-five or forty miles from Chicago. We were very privileged people. We lived in Chicago. Come at eight in the morning and leave at four in the evening unless you were performing that night. And then whenever you finished, you could go. In fact, I never slept another night on the base after I got out of boot camp.

My friend Willie Smith from the Lunceford band was there. Clark Terry was there. It was a band of fine musicians, so it was a great experience. It was good for me because it was another chance to just study and do music, because we did music all day. That was it. We played for things: graduation, we played for happy hours, we played for colors. Then we had our jazz band. And we broadcast every week, every Saturday night, over CBS, so it kept us busy. A lot of writing. We had some fine writers there: Dudley Brooks, who was from Los Angeles, a great writer. He
worked out at MGM, many of the studios. He was a fine pianist. He also did a lot of work with Elvis Presley.

So it really was a fine time at Great Lakes, because all I had to do was write and play. It gave me a great chance to study, experiment all of the experiments you wanted because we had like five trumpets in the band, five trombones, French horn, six reeds. That's the jazz band I'm talking about. Of course, our marching band was very large, and we did everything. They had handpicked all of the musicians.

But anyway, I only spent a year in the navy. I had a very bad sinus infection, so I had a medical discharge.

Then I came back to L.A. Oh, that was about July or August of 1944. When I got back, Central was getting into full swing. The Lincoln Theatre - they were starting to have stage shows every week. Before it was mostly movies. They had a pit band, they had acts, chorus girls, and they would change the shows every week. They had some great performers there like Pigmeat Markham, Bardu Ali. Bardu was the leader of the band, too. By the way, let me tell you some people that were playing in that band. Charles Brown, the great blues singer. He played piano. Yeah, he's a fine piano player. And Melba Liston was playing trombone in the band. She was very young. About sixteen or seventeen. Floyd Turnham, fine alto player that had been with Les Hite.
Bardu, he was a performer. He was like a straight man, and he would direct the band. He had been in New York, and he did the same thing in New York. He had a brother, also, who was in show business. He was a dancer. They used to call him the Beachcomber. And that was his deal. He was a showman.

The Alabam was now really looking good, had been remodeled. Curtis Mosby had it. Curtis was a nice man. He had been in the business. You know, he was a musician and had a band. And he had fixed the club up real nice. They were having regular shows in there. The Downbeat was coming on the scene. Across the street, the Last Word was happening then. In all, there were a lot of things going on now on Central Avenue and things were looking good. They were really looking good. You could tell that things were in good shape, because you could tell by how the clubs looked-real nice clubs, nice acts playing in the club, nice groups.

I played in the Downbeat with Lee Young during that period, Lee Young and one of the Woodman brothers. We called him Brother Woodman. He's the one that plays sax and the trumpet. And Joe Liggins was the piano player, and I was the trumpet player. In fact, we were the first people to do "The Honeydripper." Joe Liggins wanted us to do his number, "The Honeydripper," which later became a nationwide hit.

So Central was looking real good. The Dunbar was still nice. All the bands still came there. Duke and Count, Jimmie Lunceford. Joe Morris owned the Plantation. Oh, a beautiful club. Large place. They'd have shows, acts. I finished out an engagement with Billie Holiday with my band, which was a little later on. It was in '45. And Shepp's Playhouse was not on Central, but it was on First and Los Angeles, where the New Otani Hotel is. I played more than one engagement there.

From the Plantation to the Apollo

I organized my band in October of 1944. I was not really ready yet to form my band, but the opportunity came. Actually, I was going to join a band. I did a lot of work during that period with Phil Moore as trumpet player. I made many recordings with Phil on his own records. And he was also Lena Horne's musical accompanist and director, and I did all of her dates with Phil. He worked at MGM all the time. He did work for Nathaniel Schildkret. It's like ghostwriting. I've never seen his name on the screen. They did him really a bad deal. I kicked because they didn't put my name in Where the Boys Are and the other movies that I scored for. I kicked. That was even in the late fifties. But this guy was already writing music for MGM and other studios, too. Not only him - Calvin Jackson wrote many scores at MGM, many. I'm not speaking like one or two or three. I'm talking like ten or fifteen. Heavy, heavy scores, you know.

So I was very busy when I first got back from the navy. But, as I said, the opportunity came for me to get my band. From the time that I was ten years old, I knew that I was going to be a bandleader. I knew that. And I knew that I was going to be a bandleader that wrote music for my band to play, because I was already a great admirer of Duke Ellington. And listening to their records and listening to them on the radio, I knew that I was going to be a bandleader and I was going to be an orchestrator, an arranger, composer.

So my opportunity came, and I didn't let it pass. Herb Jeffries wanted to have a band, so he asked me to form his band. And I did. And things were going so good for Herb, I guess, that at that time he really didn't have time to be fronting a band. So there I was with the band. So Leonard Reed, who was the producer at Shepp's Playhouse, booked us in there. So that's how I got started with the band.
It was very good, because we broadcast two or three times a week over the radio. Had a fine show there. They had chorus girls and acts. And they had a lounge there, too, which was downstairs. It was like a bar. And Eddie Heywood's band was there while we were there, the band that had such great success with "Begin the Beguine," which was a big hit record for him and his band. That was in 1945. And we also played the Orpheum Theatre that year together, Eddie Heywood and I. We played a lot of things, a lot of dances and club dates over at the Elks Auditorium, which is on Central Avenue.

Now, my band, we were all from California. We had some fine players. We had Melba Liston; Jimmy Bunn was on piano, a fine young artist; Henry Green, who later became the mainstay drummer with the Treniers. We had some fine trumpeters: Snooky Young came with my band; we had Jack Trainor, who had been with Hite's band and Benny Carter's band. So we really had a fine band.

Melba was a fine trombone player. She was such a good trombone player, she could play it all. She could play lead, she could play solos, too-usually play it better than the guys. She joined my band in 1944, so she was maybe about seventeen. She was with my band when it disbanded, and she was with all of my other bands at that time. Really a fine musician. Still a fine musician. She's one of the finest writers that I've ever heard. In fact, I recorded a couple of her arrangements in 1945. I had another girl in my band too. Her name was Vivian Fears. She was a fine pianist. I had picked her up in Chicago. She had been playing with Fletcher Henderson's band. She was from Saint Louis. Another fine pianist, played real great jazz.

I played at the Plantation, which was on Central but way out in Watts. It was a large place with a lot of tables and chairs and a dance floor. It attracted big crowds, all different kinds of people, but you must remember that the bulk of the people that came there were black. And all the big bands played there: Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins, Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine. Billie Holiday sang there - I played there with Billie Holiday. I finished out the engagement she had there when Billy Eckstine left. As I say, it was a very, very nice place, a very nice place. Joe Morris owned it.

And also I played with my big band at the Downbeat club. I was the first big band to ever play in the Downbeat. I think it was owned by Hal Stanley, whom I knew very well, and Elihu McGhee. Now, Hal Stanley was also at one time managing Kay Starr. Hal was managing Kay when I worked at the Casbah Supper Club as a trumpet player with Benny Carter.

The Downbeat was a small club. I'd say it would maybe seat 125 people. As you walk in, to your left there's this fine bar. You'd walk around, and you could stand at the end. Because I remember when I played there, Art Tatum used to come in every night and stand right over there to hear my band. He loved my band. He would come in every night. He wanted me to play some of my numbers that at that time were considered to be far ahead, because I was already using harmonies that no other bands were actually utilizing. I was deep into six at that time. Yeah, deep into six-part harmonies. Anyway - we're getting technical here now - but yeah, you'd see that bar and then the tables and chairs. And the bandstand was in the center of the building over on the right side, and there were tables all out from there.

We played all kinds of things and throughout the West over the next couple of years. We went to New York in 1946. We played the Apollo Theatre, and we were sensational there. I followed Duke Ellington at the Apollo, and Jimmie Lunceford followed me. So we were in top company. But we were very good. At that time we had recordings. I had about, oh, I'd say twenty or twenty-five sides by that time. I recorded my first recording date in 1945 on the Excelsior label. That's Otis Rene's label, the same label that Nat King Cole was on at the time. So my records were going very good. I had a couple of mild hits.

We left the Apollo, went to Pittsburgh, and then we went on into Chicago and we played there at the El Grotto for ten weeks. They built the whole show around my band. Marl Young, who's now on the board at the union [Local 47], he came in and subbed in my band for a few nights while we were in Chicago. This is before he came to L.A. I did six weeks at the Riviera in Saint Louis with Ella Fitzgerald. Joe Williams was my singer. And we packed this club - it would hold about twelve hundred people-every night for six weeks. And to really top it off, they had a special night there, I remember, where Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong battled my band. [laughter] And people were lined up around the corner.
Walking Away from It

While I was in Saint Louis, I realized that I had already hit the top. I was already on top now. It was getting to be that way. My time was getting so that I would hardly have any time. The band was very popular. I had these weeks already signed with Louis Jordan, and then Eddie "Rochester" Anderson wanted me to tour with him. So everything was happening. I realized that I had hit the top too soon. I was not even near where I wanted to be as a musician, and I knew this. And, of course, when I said this to people, they said, "Well, what's wrong with the guy?" They just don't understand what you're trying to say.

Anyway, I made up my mind during the engagement in Saint Louis. I realized that this was not it. This was not it. And, of course, many people thought I was making a very big mistake, especially my booking office. I made up my mind that I was going to disband and return to Los Angeles, and I did just that. I paid off my men, and we came back to L.A., and I disbanded.

And then I started working with Phil Moore again, other people around town. I still had a lot of work to do musically. I started writing for a lot of people and studying, just studying and writing and playing just doing all kinds of stuff, and studying, as I said, studying very hard. I studied the classics, Stravinsky, Shostakovich,, Prokofiev, Khachaturian,, d'Indy, Bartok, Manuel de Falla, Villa-Lobos. I'm looking for everything. I'm looking for music to broaden my knowledge of music. I wasn't studying them to be classical. I was studying them to broaden my knowledge so that I could broaden my jazz. But as far as jazz writers, who was I going to study with? I was just about one of the best then and I knew it. Of course you're going to say, okay, there's a guy bragging. But I was doing it.

So I'm studying. I played with Benny Carter, with his small group. We played eight weeks out on Figueroa near Manchester at the Casbah with Kay Starr. Then we went into the Million Dollar [Theatre] with Nat King Cole. I played the Avedon Ballroom with Nat King Cole. That was downtown on Spring Street, right in back of the Orpheum Theatre. Fine ballroom. All the bands played there. And after that, I joined Count Basie in 1948, at the end Of 1948. But in between this time, I'm making recordings and playing all kinds of record dates, blues dates with people, artists, writing arrangements for different people, rhythm and blues, too. I was doing it all. So in 1948, about near the end of the year, Snooky Young had to leave to go back east, so I joined Count Basie.

Well, here was another opportunity. Here's Count Basie's band, and I was already writing. In fact, I made my first arrangement for Duke Ellington in 1947 that they recorded here on Columbia Records. So my first orchestrations for Duke Ellington [ "You've Got to Crawl Before You Walk" and "You're just an Old Antidisestablishmentarianismist" ] were in 1947, which came off very well. Billy Strayhorn and I were great friends. He's one of my-I would say, a mentor, because he is one of the few people that actually helped me. That was way back in the early forties. You know, showing me things, how to do some things. Anyway, that started an association with Duke for me. He actually wanted me to join his band. Duke asked me to join his band the minute I got back from disbanding my band, at the Dunbar Hotel. [laughter]
Anyway, Count Basie needed someone to fill in for Snooky until Snooky would come back. He was supposed to come back right away. But I ended up leaving town with the band. They were at the Lincoln at the time. I played the Lincoln Theatre with him, and I left with him. I stayed with Count until way up into-that was '48, '49. 1 returned to Los Angeles in '49. So I did a lot of writing for Count during that period. I wrote a whole show, a theater review, for him. I did some other stuff for him that we played on dances. And when we went to New York, we did some recordings for Victor. I did most of the writing for all of the dates.

The Amalgamation
So when I got back in '49, Central Avenue was still hopping. And the union, of course, that's when they were getting into the amalgamation. So Buddy Collette and Red Callender-you know, they were my friends, my dear friends. And I remember they asked me to go with them and get in on the amalgamation thing. I joined their group. And I remember we went out to Los Angeles City College that first night that I went with them. We went out getting white musicians to sign the petition.

Hey, you know, I was from Detroit. There's no segregated unions in Detroit. And besides, what we were going for, I'm really for. So there was no problem there. So I joined their group and then I left, went back with Basie and finished out the year, '49, with Basie. In fact, I was with Basie when he disbanded. Nineteen fifty. So I stayed in New York, and I worked with Illinois Jacquet, and then I joined Dizzy Gillespie's band. I was with Dizzy when he broke up to get his small group. So big bands were folding. I went out on a tour with Billie Holiday. And then, after that, I came back to Los Angeles -that was 1950 - and did some things around town here, played, and then I -decided to do a show. I wrote a show called the "California Frolics Revue." We presented it at the Riverside Rancho. We were rehearsing at the union, over at 767.
Anyway, while I was doing this rehearsing, I said to Buddy, "How are things going with the union?" He said, "Well, we're not doing too much right now." So I took it upon myself- I had a friend of mine, I ran into him, he was a lawyer. His name is Calvin Porter, still in business here. He was a friend of mine from Detroit when I was going to school. So I ran into him one night, we were just talking. And I said, "You know what? Calvin, I'm with a group of people. We're trying to get these unions amalgamated. We've been getting petitions signed and trying to get it going."

So he said, "Well, it sounds to me like there's something you're not doing. Obviously, the people who are in power at the union are running the union just as they want to, because there's nobody to stop them. First you've got to go in there and get this thing on the floor at the union. You slip in there on a day, on a general meeting, but you don't let them know you're coming. You go in. You will say, 'I move to make a motion that there will be a special meeting called for the specific purpose of discussing the amalgamation of Local 767 to Local 47."'

I immediately told Buddy what we had to do. We immediately got in touch with everybody that was concerned with the movement and people that we knew would be for the movement. But we didn't have too much to worry about, because my band was already big enough to outvote them-the band that we were rehearsing upstairs. So we went about it exactly like that. The next general meeting, they didn't know what was happening. All of a sudden, all of these people come walking in. We picked up people in automobiles.

As the meeting got started and things were moving, I held up my hand to make a motion. I stood up and made it to the president-Leo McCoy Davis was his name-and I made that motion. "I would like to make a motion that a special meeting will be called for the specific purpose of discussing the amalgamation of Local 767 to Local 47." 1 was talking with Bill Douglass recently, who recently was the treasurer here [at Local 47]. He says he seconded it, but I don't remember. I thought it was Percy McDavid. It could have been Bill.

Now, what did this do? This enabled the amalgamation people to be able to go in and then vote their people into the Local 767 leadership, where Bill Douglass, I believe, became the vice president. Now, the reason I'm getting into this is because this has all been forgotten. I don't remember seeing Marl there that day, and I don't remember seeing Benny Carter there that day. I didn't remember Benny into it at any time until later, because we all wanted Benny to be with us. We wanted Marl because of his ability and his legal background at the time. But that was the day that happened.

I fought for the amalgamation. When I sit here [at Local 47] tonight, I know that I am the one that made the motion for the first special meeting called for the amalgamation of Local 767 and Local 47. 1 know that I said those words because I found out what to do to give us another spur in that movement, although you never heard of it. That was an important battle in the battle.

And then, later, after that show that I did, I got a job with the Joe Adams Show on KTTV, and my band was working that. Buddy was in it, and Red Callender was my assistant on it. I was the music director for the show. We were on TV every week with the Joe Adams Show. And I played a benefit to raise money to support the amalgamation movement at the Humanist Hall on Union Avenue. And you couldn't get in the place that day.

Then I left. I went to San Francisco, so I don't remember how they went on from there. I went to San Francisco, where I stayed for a couple of years. I had a band up there before I came back in 1954.

Those were the years that the Avenue really declined. By the time I got back in 1954, things had moved. The Oasis was the big thing. It was on Western Avenue. When I got back the blacks had gotten over to Western Avenue and over in there, Exposition and Figueroa. And Central Avenue, I guess, just kept declining. The theaters were gone, the Lincoln and all of that stuff was kind of just going down, and it was not happening anymore. Everything had moved west.
"There's no place like Central Avenue."
Central Avenue was a place where my people lived. So the point is that Central Avenue was just like 125th Street in New York, that's where all the black people were. They couldn’t go any other place. Where were they going to go? They could work at a couple of places out here, but they couldn't go in the front door. So they were all there together, just like that. They had to stay here, they had to live here. Duke Ellington: you'd catch him right there at the Dunbar. Count Basie, right there. [laughter] We all had the same thing in New York. No different in New York.

Central has a lot to do with me. You must remember that I organized my first band here. It was here that I had a chance to determine which way I wanted to go, and I had inspiration here. As I say, Phil Moore was one of my biggest inspirations as a writer. And Calvin Jackson, who later moved here. I didn't mention it, but Calvin Jackson also wrote arrangements for Jimmie Lunceford when I was with Jimmie Lunceford's band. That's when he was just a freelance piano player and writer around New York. He later joined Harry James. Wrote a lot of stuff for Harry James. Then he went to MGM and did so much work over there for them. But all these people were here. And the other people were coming in and out all the time. Count's band was coming in and out. In fact, I rehearsed my first number with Count Basie here at the Aragon Ballroom when they were playing out there on the beach-Venice somewhere-another ballroom that blacks couldn't even go into.

Central is just as important as 125th Street in New York City, or South Park in Chicago, Cedar Street, I think, in Pittsburgh. They all have it. All of the cities have a street. It's the street where the black people live. And I think it's important to Los Angeles, no matter what color you are. And it was very important to the music, jazz, because it was a place where it lived. And everyone came there, all of the biggest. You don't come any bigger than Duke Ellington. You don't come any bigger than Jelly Roll Morton. He died here. He's right out there in the Calvary Cemetery on the Eastside here.
So jazz is very important in Los Angeles, and Central Avenue - There's no place like Central Avenue. Because I'd rather come here. When I got here that beautiful day, and there was this beautiful street with a beautiful hotel to stay in, the Dunbar, which I didn't have in New York City They didn't have a decent hotel for you to stay in there. But Los Angeles had the Dunbar Hotel and had that nice street, beautiful street. That's all I can say about it.

I would like to see a lot of my people into this [music] today. I'm not seeing that. In fact, I'm seeing less and less as I go about the United States lecturing on orchestration and composing and arranging. And I look up in a class of a hundred, and I only see one black, or I see no blacks. Two weeks ago, at the Grove School of Music, I lectured to the arranging class, and there was not one black there. That disturbs me. Where are we going to be, then? What are we going to do? Will there be one day that there will be no more?

But I'm talking about these things because I'm trying to explain to you what music, jazz, means to me and my people. Where are my people now? I'm a member of the board of governors of NARAS [National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences], the Grammy people, for the second time. I had two nominations. I have two first-place Down Beat [magazine] awards. I have many awards. But where are my young people that are coming up to carry on the thing for these people? We are a people here. As much as we can be swallowed up, we are still a people. Where are we going? What are we doing? These are the things I'm thinking about now.”

…. To Be Continued in Part 2