If I had been a racist of any kind when I got out into the big world, my experiences playing jazz would have set me straight. You see, in some jazz bands in Boston and Atlanta that I played in, I was the minority… and sometimes the worst player in the band! Doesn’t take long to level the racial playing field when the white boy is the one being tolerated for his mediocrity. I quickly grew to respect my black musician friends, and learned that musicians are a brotherhood that knows no racial differences.
I’ve told this story before, and here it comes again. My good friend, drummer Reid Jorgensen, introduced me to a black after-hours club in Boston called The Pioneer Club. It had the classic peep hole in the door, and if you weren’t recognized, you simply didn’t get in.
The bartender at the Pioneer was Jumper, a super-cool guy who was always on top of everything. Once we “cleared customs” and got inside, we nearly always had a drink at the bar downstairs with Jumper. He was a case, always up, always with a good story in his gravel voice… talked so fast I thought at first it was a different language. “Hey, Reido, what you got goin’ tonight, baby?” was a typical Jumper greeting. “Got your man Stevie with you, all right now. This gonna be trouble, I mean…” Jumper was also the first person I can remember to greet us with, “What’s shakin’, Baby Cakes?”
I loved the Pioneer Club, loved being accepted there. I even went down there a few times by myself, just to prove they’d let me in without Reid, which they did. After a drink with Jumper, we’d go upstairs where the music was happening. Occasionally there would be two or three guys playing, in which case we’d have another drink, wait awhile, maybe sit in with them. But usually a fine bass player, Billy Hill, would be up there, waiting for us. We’d fire up together and it would be heaven! Billy was a mailman by day, and a brilliant jazz bassist by night. He’d stay with us sometimes ’til 4 a.m., just playing and being in a groove. When the crowd upstairs enjoyed us, we played ’til 4, when they brought out the fried chicken and potato salad. We would sit down in this big, round table/booth in the corner of the room with our friends – everyone there was black, except Reid and me, and we’d talk music and life and how good the chicken was. Upon doing some research as to the history of the Pioneer Club, or “the Pi,” as we called it, I found this, written by Richard Vacca.
“The room upstairs seated perhaps 50, with a small stage and an upright piano, which Duke Ellington once played all night. Jazz was an integral part of the Pioneer, and there were some fine house pianists over the years, like Highland Diggs, George “Fingers” Pearson, and Mabel Simms. The jazz musicians and singers who were in town all stopped by to relax, and sometimes to play. Art Tatum took his turn at that piano, as did Nat Cole, Count Basie, and Miles Davis. A long list of musicians and singers graced that tiny stage.”
A favorite time of the night/morning was always when the cook, Berthed, came out of the kitchen to see how we were all doing. Berthed somehow chose me as one of her favorites. She would sit down by me, put her hand on my cheek and softly say, “Hey Baby, how you feelin’ tonight? I heard you from the kitchen, you sounding fine!” I would give her a big hug, and, for a little while it felt like being home.
In all the time I played with black performers I never heard a single person complain about the racial discrimination that was, and still is, everywhere around us. They were then, and still are, mostly shock-resistant to much white supremacy. I am not. I hate it. It runs so deeply in this country, it’ll probably take generations for us to finally subdue it, if we ever do.
Two of the first successful black jazz bands in the ’20’s and ’30’s were the Fletcher Henderson Band and the Jimmy Lunceford Band. So you know, Fletcher Henderson was a black man from Cuthbert, Georgia, who started his own band in 1924 and is primarily responsible for bridging the musical gap between Dixieland and Swing music. He ended up being Benny Goodman’s arranger.
Fletcher henderson Jimmy Lunceford
Jimmy Lunceford was also a black man, born on a farm in Mississippi. He also started a swing band, which began playing The Cotton Club in Harlem in ’34. The Cotton Club was famous as the only black club in Harlem that catered to an all-white audience. And here are several strange circumstances about Jimmy Lunceford. During his teenage years, he studied music in Denver with Wilberforce Whiteman, who was Paul Whiteman’s father. More on that in a moment. Lunceford’s band was very popular with the Cotton Club’s white regulars, and in 1924 Paul Whiteman saw the Lunceford’s and Henderson’s black orchestras as the coming music, and formed his own band, The Paul Whiteman Orchestra. He patterned it after the Fletcher Henderson band, but had nearly all white players, so they could easily play venues the black jazz bands couldn’t be booked into. Whiteman’s jazz orchestra quickly became popular and he was soon calling himself “The King Of Jazz,” largely because of a publicity stunt in 1923. To those who knew real jazz, Whiteman’s new moniker was laughable, as he watered down his “jazz sound” with pop tunes, waltzes and semi-classical tunes.
Several of his band members felt then, as I still feel, that Paul Whiteman stole the fame and ensuing fortune that could have been, perhaps should have been, Lunceford’s and Henderson’s. I don’t think it was discussed much, but there were some occasional, subtle reminders. Such as, one of Whiteman’s band members, I can’t remember who, decided to mess with Paul’s head, as it were. Whiteman used to wear a Panama hat before and after his band’s concerts. Before the concert he would hang his Panama in the cloak room, then pick it up when he was leaving. This particular band member found where Paul had bought the hat, and he bought 4 or 5 of the same hat… all in increasingly smaller sizes. Then, he began replacing the hat Paul hung up with the next smaller size. Paul would put his hat one, frown, take it off, looking puzzled, then put it back on and leave. Finally, on the fourth night of this, he stopped, with some of the guys standing around, took the hat off, and frowned, “Why does my hat feel so small?”
The guilty band member spoke up. “You’re getting mighty famous, Paul. Maybe your head’s getting too big…” to which all the band members broke up. Paul, still perplexed, looked inside the hat, saw its size, and finally realized he’d been had. To his credit, he was a good sport about it, but he never wore a Panama hat again.
In ’66, while I was still in school in Boston at Berklee, I attended an evening show featuring the Count Basie Band at a club on Massachusetts Avenue called Paul’s Mall, which was right next door to the Jazz Workshop, at which I almost lived from time to time. I saw Miles, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Joe Henderson, Chet Baker, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones… every one of them was inspiring for me, every one of them brought a different perspective of jazz music. God, I was so lucky!
But anyway, I had arrived at Paul’s Mall early, to insure a good seat for the great Basie Band. The place was nearly empty, save for two black guys in tuxedos,, sitting at the bar, having a drink and chatting quietly. Seeing there would be no problem getting a good seat, I sat at the bar, a few stools down from the men, as much to give them privacy as anything. I ordered a scotch, and one of the men turned to me. They both were dressed impeccably, and exuded class. “You here for the band?”
“You going to Berklee?” Again, yes. “You guys in the band?”
He nodded. “Grab one of those tables in the third row, that’s the best for hearing and seeing us.”
I thanked them, and they turned back to talking quietly. Later, when it was time to find my seat and settle up, the bar tender smiled and held his hand up. “Those guys paid for your drink.”
The big band era pretty much died in the ’50s, but jazz recordings of smaller groups flourished into the ’80s. Big cities still have jazz clubs, of course, because there are still fine jazz musicians all over the country who are willing to play for menial pay.
Yon Rico Scott, Ricky Keller and Oliver Wells
I met some great folk during my time playing jazz. Jimmy Helms, Billy Hill, Lennie Christie, Joe Benjamin, Brinton Banks, Sonny Emery, Jon Rico Scott, Oliver Wells… I am proud to have played jazz and worked with these fine black men, and cherish the memories of those great nights when there was no racial difference between us, only good music.