I began attending Los Angeles
City College in September 1958. Although it was tuition-free and existed primarily for those who couldn’t afford
or didn’t qualify for a university, the caliber of the faculty and students in the music department would have been
high even at a conservatory. Among my classmates were David Breidenthal and Michele Bloch, who became principal players
in the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Don Prell, then the bassist with the Bud Shank Quartet, eventually a member of the San Francisco
Symphony; Horace Tapscott, Les McCann and Jimmy Woods, who all became prominent members of the jazz scene; Harold Budd, an
innovative composer who was a jazz drummer in those days; Dick “Slyde” Hyde, a successful studio trombonist; David
Angel, whose comprehensive musical knowledge astonishes me to this day; Ron Gorow, a brilliant orchestrator and trumpet player;
Ronny Starr, a fantastic tenor saxophone player; Don Peake, a successful studio guitarist and film composer; and many others
of similar ability. The faculty included Leonard Stein, who had been Arnold Schoenberg’s teaching assistant at
UCLA in the 1940s and who worked with Schoenberg in preparing Structural Functions of Harmony; Hugo Strelitzer, who had been
an assistant to Richard Strauss and had worked at the Berlin Opera until he was found guilty of Conducting While Jewish; Eric
Zeisl, a composer who had had the same trouble as Strelitzer; Anita Priest, an organist and specialist in early music who
never lost her enthusiasm for new music; and Bob McDonald, who in the 1940s had established a college credit course, perhaps
the first, for jazz band. Unfortunately, Bob left just as I was getting there although I was able to study with him
later. There were other fine teachers as well (Endicott Hanson, a counterpoint teacher and Elizabeth Mayer, who taught
sight-singing and dictation were excellent) and really only two, a singing teacher named Ralph Peterson, and McDonald’s
replacement, Robert Wilkinson, that were not up to the level of the others. Years after the fact, Peterson was still
trying to justify his refusal to allow George London, later a star at the Metropolitan Opera, to join the school chorus.
Eventually, Wilkinson moved into the administration and McDonald returned to straighten things out.
Many of my
classmates had returned from military service and were living on the small stipend the G.I. Bill provided. Some had
already worked professionally. My problem was that as an inexperienced and somewhat less talented student, it was hard
to get into the ensembles. I didn’t qualify for any of the four clarinet positions in the school orchestra. There
were two jazz bands, the second of which had two saxophone sections and in my second semester I was allowed to play second
alto saxophone in the second section of the second band. I did a lot of sitting and listening and only a little playing.
During the summer there was only one band and, after a few people dropped out, only six saxophones, so my opportunities increased.
Two of the six, Allen Fischer and Jimmy Woods, shared the baritone chair. Jimmy sat quietly until it was
his turn and then practically turned the room inside out with a solo that was absolutely fantastic--on a baritone saxophone
he had checked out of the school’s band room. Later Jimmy would make recordings with Elvin Jones, Harold Land,
Chico Hamilton and Andrew Hill. When asked how he had learned to play like that he answered, “I was in the Air
Force Band.” We probably should all have enlisted.
Allen Fischer was a funny sort of guy who never
quite seemed to be in the same conversation as the person he was talking to. But one day during a break he told me that
a band based in Oklahoma was looking for a tenor saxophone player. I thought about my situation at school and how the
opportunity to play more might accelerate my progress and asked him how I could get in touch with the bandleader. He
told me to write to him care of the “Cinerama” Ballroom, which turned out to be the Cimarron Ballroom, in Tulsa.
I sent the letter off the next day.
Then nothing. Through the rest of August and on into the new semester,
I didn’t hear back. Days got shorter and the bus ride home seemed to get longer and gloomier and still nothing.
I thought about how the letter hadn’t really said that much because in fact I hadn’t done that much: lessons with
a couple of reputable teachers, gigs with a few passable local bands, but nothing like real professional experience.
Then, on Thursday, January 28, 1960, Ronnie Bartley called. He offered me the “jazz tenor” chair (in fact
the only tenor chair) at $75 a week. He said he would pay half the plane fare and that I would have to be there the
following Tuesday. My father got on the phone and explained that he didn’t want his son around men who drank and
Bartley assured him that he didn’t allow drinking on the band, the first of many alternative-reality pronouncements
(aka “lies”) by the leader of one of the last three territory bands in existence. (The others were lead
by Chuck Cabot, who was the brother of Johnny Richards, the famous arranger, and Ernie Fields, whose hit record the previous
year had elevated him out of the territory band category after nearly 30 years of trying.) I went to school the next
day to drop out. Dropping out only involved filing some papers, but I went to Leonard Stein’s harmony class to
tell him in person. I had been one of the few who managed to get along with Leonard and I dreaded telling him I was
leaving. “I’ll be gone for a semester, maybe a year,” I said, although I had actually decided that
this was going to be my career--first Bartley, eventually Duke or Basie. “Why just a semester,” he said,
“why not forever?” Next, I went downtown to Lockie Music to buy a tenor saxophone.
II. Ronnie Bartley.
the journal I kept:
Tuesday, February 2, 1960. I boarded an airplane for the first
time in my life and walked to Tulsa, back and forth between my seat and the restroom. Walked? Wobbled is probably
more like it. Bartley and his wife, Susan, met me at the airport. He was kind of hunched over and had a stiff
leg. He appeared to be considerably older than his wife, who was tall and unusually blond and spoke with some kind of
fake accent--as if she were trying to sound cultured. We rode in their battered VW to Bishop’s Restaurant.
“It’s where the businessmen eat,” Bartley said. He recommended the Fiesta Burger and then told the
waitress, “put mine and Susan’s on one check.” After dinner, he told me about a couple of hotels and
suggested that I could also sleep on the bus. The American Hotel was a dollar a night, the Eagle a dollar twenty-five.
I chose the bus, which was parked at a truck stop a few blocks from the restaurant.
The bus was old and
cold and dirty. It had two rows of passenger seats and two triple bunks on each side and a compartment in the rear that
the Bartleys used on the road. The blanket I had brought was no match for the cold. It was all pretty demoralizing.
I finally managed to fall asleep, but was awakened by the sound of someone pounding on the door and yelling for me to let
him in. I climbed down from my bunk. The floor was like ice. In the garish light from the truckstop sign
I could see a guy in a green suit hopping from one foot to the other and swinging his arms. He swore at me and demanded
that I let him in. I was still pretty groggy and asked him what time it was. He screamed, “What difference
does that make...it’s 3:30.” Again he told me to open the door.
I asked him who he was and he
said that he was the new trumpet player and again demanded to be let onto the bus. Bartley hadn’t said anything
about a new trumpet player. In fact he gave me the combination to a lock that secured the front door and told me to
lock it from the inside and not to let anyone in. But the guy looked pretty harmless and it was cold outside; I opened
His name was Art Athey; he was 23 but looked a lot older, and he had been on the road since he
was 17. For the past several months he had been working at a club in Galveston. He was from New Kensington, PA,
near Pittsburgh. He asked how old I was and where I was from and if this was my first road gig. When I said yes
to the road gig question he said, “That’s what I figured.”
I woke up to the sight of Artie (he
said to call him that) sitting with his legs dangling over the front of the bunk, wearing a pair of boxer shorts. He
was holding a hypodermic needle. He asked if he could use my belt. I didn’t know what to say. I sat
there staring at him. My father had forgot to ask if there were any heroin addicts on the band. He waited a while
and then laughed and told me that he was diabetic.
We walked three blocks through ice and slush and found
the Denver Cafe and went inside. Artie didn’t even look at the menu. “I’ll take the ham and eggs,”
he told the waitress, “eggs over easy, white toast and coffeeda drink. Is it toast or fried bread; I don’t
want fried bread.” He turned to me and said, “A lot of these places give you fried bread, call it
toast.” The waitress assured him they had a toaster.
He asked me if I had met Bartley. Evidently
there was a territory band grapevine because he told me about Susan’s “audition.” Susan, who was eighteen
at the time (four years earlier), met Bartley after the band had played a dance in the small town in Montana where she lived.
She went to visit him that night and the next morning was the new band vocalist.
He repeated what Bartley
had told me about the itinerary, that the band was going to New York to play at the Roseland Ballroom. He said that
the Roseland gig paid $125 a week. I asked him if Bartley had to pay more than the salary we had agreed on. Artie
said, “He won’t want to but the New York local will make him.” He asked my salary and I hesitated.
He told me he was making $75 a week and I told him I was too.
Rehearsal was at one o’clock
at the Cimarron. The Marquee said “Tonight: The Tulsa Over Twenty-Nine Dance Club--Ronnie Bartley Orchestra.
Artie introduced himself to Bartley, who pointed to the band room and told us each to get a chair and a music stand.
I carried the chair and stand back to the stage and Bartley told me to sit to the right of the alto player, a big guy with
blond hair and red cheeks. He said his name was Lee Naasz and then spelled it for me, pausing between the last two letters.
I was introduced to the others, Don Hooker, drums, Richard Stevens, piano, and Harold Boyce, trumpet. The baritone player,
Willy Coleman was sick, Bartley told us, and would not be at the rehearsal.
began with an arrangement of “Hawaiian War Chant” which had a vocal about fat warriors. I mumbled my part.
Bartley waved to us to stop and looked at me.
“Now this isn’t the kind of band where you just play
your horn,” he said. “I want to hear you sing.” He counted it off again and I joined in.
We rehearsed a few more tunes and ran down the show, which we would play on the road but not at the Cimarron. After
the rehearsal, Bartley told me to meet him in the band room, where he handed me a red jacket and a red bow tie.
have to charge you something for the uniform,” he said, “so we’re even for the plane fare. The gig’s
at nine tonight--be here a little early. And don’t mention our financial arrangements to the other guys.”
If I’m not careful I’m going to owe him money at the end of the week.
and I had dinner at Bishop’s, the restaurant the Bartleys had taken me to last night. We sat at the counter in
the front room and when the waitress smiled and said, “Hi, I’m Darlene,” Artie said, “Hi, I’m
Artie” and made a grab for her hand, sending a metal napkin holder clattering to the tile floor. By the end of
dinner he had completed the entire cycle: acquaintance, friendship, love and rejection. When she turned down his request
for a date, he swore to her that he would never eat there again.
The gig went well. The band is pretty good,
except for Susan, who sings out of tune and whose bass playing seems guided more by random chance than by any considerations
having to do with tempo, meter, chord changes or key. The charts are pretty simple and a lot of them are old fashioned.
A few of the more modern ones sound as if they were written for a larger group. There are occasional jazz solos for
Lee, Harold or me. Rick Cox, a high school music teacher, filled in for Willy.
At 1:45 AM, forty-five minutes after the gig had ended, Bartley drove the bus a few blocks from the ballroom and double-parked
in front of a hotel. He and Harold went inside and came out a few minutes later dragging a little old man. He
was singing and laughing. They put him into the bunk below Artie’s. Susan said “Hello, Willy”
and he grinned and waved at her and passed out. Harold went back into the hotel and came out with a suitcase.
He took the wheel and Ronnie and Susan went to the compartment at the rear of the bus.
By 10:30 the next morning,
somewhere between Tulsa and Roswell New Mexico, everyone was awake. Richard spanned the narrow aisle, braced himself
between two seats and pedaled his feet in the air. Then he went into the wheel well (right below a sign, left over from
the long ago days when the bus worked for Continental Trailways, that said “Passengers Must Remain Behind The White
Line”) and stood on the second step, where he remained motionless for the next several hours. Willy’s eyes
were closed and his head rolled from side to side and bounced against the metal rail above the back of his seat. Susan
put a pillow behind his head. He tried to thank her; his lips moved but no sound came out. Don Hooker lay on his
bunk and stared at the ceiling.
Bartley replace Harold behind the wheel. Susan stood in the aisle and Artie
sprang from his seat, bowed, and offered it to her, lowering his eyes and smiling a Mona Lisa smile. Susan thanked him,
excused herself, and went to the compartment in the rear.
Lee has his own way of pronouncing words, like “saze”
for “says” and “fleegle horn” for “flugel horn”.
5. Roswell, New Mexico. Roy’s Rancho has a hitching rail, latticed swinging doors and bartenders
in cowboy hats.
The first set was dance music but some hipper charts than the other night in Tulsa.
At the end of the set, Hooker played a drum roll and cymbal crash and Bartley announced that we would be back with “our
all new show, Winter Varieties of 1960.”
The show began with a salute to the big bands. We (all nine
of us) played “Let’s Dance” (Benny Goodman), “Boo Hoo” (Guy Lombardo), “Getting Sentimental
Over You” (Tommy Dorsey), “Moonlight Serenade” (Glenn Miller), “Contrasts” (Jimmy Dorsey) and
“Bubbles In The Wine (Lawrence Welk) with Richard playing the accordion. Bartley told some jokes and then said,
Let’s hear it for Miss Personality, Susan Gray,” and Susan entered. She had changed from a gold sequined
dress to a leotard under a wrap-around skirt. Pretty makeshift, even for a vestigial territory band at a cowboy bar
She sang “Bye-Bye Blackbird” and then took off the skirt and did a dance, the same
step over and over, hopping back and forth across the front of the bandstand. She left and Bartley urged the audience
to “bring her back for an encore.” She barely made it to the microphone before what little applause there
was died and sang “Put The Blame On Mame.” Next was “Jumpin’ At The Woodside” in which
each of us played a solo while Bartley announced our names and home towns. (He said I was from Hollywood; I guess Culver
City just didn’t have the right ring to it.) The show ended with “When The Saints Go Marchin’ In.”
Bartley played a solo operating the slide with his foot and lost two measures. Lee told me it happened every night.
After the show, I went to the bar with Lee and Artie. I gave Lee a quarter and he bought me a beer. Artie
was worried. “Bartley keeps looking at me,” he said. “I think he’s going to fire me.”
Lee tried to reassure him. “Don’t worry,” he said. “There’s not that many
cats that’ll work for this kind of bread.”
Richard, an excellent pianist, says he is not really a pianist
at all; his real instrument is the clarinet and he is the new Artie Shaw. He has one clarinet solo in the book, his
own (bad) arrangement of “Begin The Beguine.” Tonight, he surrounded the melody with a lot of squeaks and
squawks. Lee said it went better than usual. Richard is a religious fanatic. He has curly blond hair, unusually
short arms and an unpleasant aroma.
We spent the night on the bus, at a truckstop a few miles from the gig.
The next morning, I woke up at 9:30. Hooker was gone. He’s real quiet and stays pretty
much to himself. The others were still asleep. The front of the bus was littered with empty bottles and wrappers
from packages of cheese and crackers.
I ate breakfast at the truckstop cafe and when I returned to the bus only
Artie, Richard and Willy remained. Richard looked sick. Artie walked to the far end of the lot and back again,
pausing to peer into the cafe before reentering the bus. He looked impatient. “Are you coming or not,”
he asked Richard.
“You’ll feel better if you eat something,” he
Richard wasn’t so sure.
“The food absorbs the alcohol,” Artie told him.
“It kinda diminishes the effect. The more you eat the sooner the hangover goes away.”
looked skeptical. He got up and stood unsteadily for a moment then hurtled to the restroom inside the truckstop office.
Artie and I walked toward the building and waited until he came out. His head was soaked with water and there was a
semblance of his normal goofy expression. “Shall we go?” he asked and tried to link arms with Artie.
Artie asked me if I had had breakfast. I told him I had.
“Where at?” he wanted to know.
I pointed to the truckstop cafe.
“Yeah, it’s ok.”
“C’mon,” he said to Richard, and they walked toward town.
Back on the bus, Willy rummaged
in the bunk beneath his and came up with a nearly empty vodka bottle. “Man’s best friend,” he said.
He swallowed most of what was left and held the bottle out to me. I declined.
“I suppose you don’t
drink,” he said. I told him it was a little too early for me.
“Well, it ain’t too early
for me,” he said and winked. He finished the bottle and tacked his way to the cafe.
A car pulled up
and Ronnie and Susan got out. “Where’s Richard?” Ronnie asked.
I told him he had left a
few minutes earlier.
“Yeah, but where did he go?” Bartley sounded impatient or maybe a
little worried. I told him I didn’t know, but that he had headed off toward town. He asked if he was alone.
I told him that Artie had gone with him. He looked relieved.
“Every time he’s by himself he gets
lost. I told Artie to keep an eye on him but I couldn’t tell if he took me seriously.”
car returned and took the Bartleys to dinner. The rest of us ate at the truckstop, Willy, Artie and Richard at one booth,
Lee, Harold and I at another. Don Hooker sat at the counter and declined invitations from both camps.
the gig, midway through the first set, Willy quit playing and began fiddling with a stuck key on his baritone. It was
actually a relief when he dropped out. When he thought he had it fixed, he tried it, oblivious to the rest of us, and
wound up honking a couple of notes during Lee’s solo on “Blue Skies”.
Last night, no one paid
attention to the jokes. Tonight, we weren’t so lucky. One heckler was funnier than Bartley.
February 8. Payday. My $75 comes to $69.64 after taxes.
Back in Tulsa, Artie
and I decided to get hotel rooms. We chose the American Hotel, against Willy’s advice, because the rooms were
only a dollar a night, a quarter less than the Eagle. Willy says the rooms at th’ murican are so small ya caint
hardly turn round nur have viz-ters.
The entrance to the hotel was between a shoe repair shop and a taxidermist.
At the top of an unlit staircase there was a tiny lobby with a worn couch, a tall lamp and an old TV set, everything covered
in dust. Behind a counter, next to some mailboxes was a sign that said CHECKOUT TIME IS NOON--PAYMENT MUST BE MADE IN
ADVANCE. Below the sign was a card table. A man sat at the table with his back to us. He had a teaspoon
in one hand and a banana in the other. In front of him were jars of peanut butter and jelly. He balanced a spoonful
of jelly on the end of the banana, studied it, and took a bite. Then he ate a spoonful of peanut butter. He repeated
the sequence until the banana was gone before turning to acknowledge us. He was short and dumpy, with a receding hairline,
tiny, spaced teeth and a phony smile, the Art Athey of some future time.
Artie turned white and his head began
to tremble. He clutched the lapels of his jacket with quaking hands.
The clerk asked us how long we were
going to be staying there. I told him two nights.
“One,” said Artie. His voice rasped,
like an empty faucet.
“A buck a night in advance,” said the clerk. “Checkout time
is noon.” He gave each of us a skeleton key attached to a plastic plaque and told us there were a shower and toilet
at the end of each of the two parallel hallways.
My room was number seventeen. The bed had a metal frame
and made noise every time I moved. The dresser was chipped and scarred and a gooseneck lamp was bolted to it.
A string hung from a light in the ceiling. There was a washbasin beneath a broken mirror. The only window looked
across a gravel roof to the other wing of the hotel. Wooden blocks nailed to the frame kept the window from opening
more than a few inches and it was covered by a paper shade that wouldn’t retract.
9. Exploring Tulsa. There’s a Walgreens nearby which is better than the Denver, although a little
more expensive, and a place a block from the ballroom where hamburgers are a nickel. The place is tiny--a counter with
four stools--and the burgers minuscule. Everything else is regular size and price. The menu is painted on the
wall and says “ME&U”.
Downtown, I found a record store. It has one jazz bin with a skimpy
selection. I took a Sonny Stitt album into a listening booth but I barely made it through the first side; I guess the
clerk can spot a non-buyer, because he kept staring at me until I couldn’t stand it any more and split.
February 11. 2:00 AM. On the road to Cheyenne. A few miles from the ballroom the transmission
started acting up and we had to turn back. We made it back to the truckstop in second gear. Bartley left a note
for the garage man and we waited in the bus while Artie drove Hooker to pick up his car. They returned shortly and Bartley
made the assignments. He, Susan and Richard would ride with Hooker in his Chrysler, the rest of us in Artie’s
It began to snow and just as we crossed into Colorado the heater stopped working.
The temperature inside the car quickly fell below freezing. Harold scraped ice from the windshield and lit matches and
held them close to Artie’s feet. I sat in the back between Willy and Lee. Willy’s face was a mosaic
of tiny red and blue lines and he trembled violently.
We rode like that for hours, Harold scraping and lighting,
the wiper blades scraping and groaning, Willy groaning, no one talking, listening to the snow and the engine until Artie bellowed
and kicked the brake pedal with such force that the car spun around and slid to a stop in front of a gas station on the other
side of the road. Harold grabbed Artie’s arm and screamed, “man what are you doing, you could have gotten
Artie jerked free. “I know this place,” he squealed, and ran into the office.
We followed him and heard his voice coming from behind a door with a sign on it that said, “KEEP OUT”. After
a moment he emerged holding a paper bag and ordered us back into his car. His voice had a new authority. He drove
about a quarter mile, parked by the side of the road, and pulled a pint of bourbon from the bag. “Two bucks each
or you don’t get any,” he said. He drank from the bottle and handed it to Harold.
an eye on Willy,” said Harold, as he passed the bottle back to us.
The whiskey went quickly. We asked
Artie why he had not bought more.
“You kiddin’, man? He didn’t want to sell me this, but
I know that place, I been through here before.”
February 12. Cheyenne Wyoming.
The gig was at a country club where they let us use the locker room to shower and shave and change and they gave us sandwiches
During the break after the show, George Duncan introduced himself. Duncan is a bass player who
sometimes works as a bartender. He heard Bartley announce that I was from Hollywood and wondered if I knew his old Air
Force buddy, Horace Tapscott. “Taps” and I had played gigs when we were going to LACC. We talked about
him for a while and I told Duncan (he said to tell Horace I had met “Uncle Duncan”) about our trip. He said
he was about to junk his ‘53 Plymouth and offered us the heater. He invited us for breakfast the next morning.
Duncan and his wife live in a trailer park. She made breakfast and he played his bass for us and insisted that
Susan try it out.
Naturally, once we had a working heater the weather got nicer. Artie took a different
route home, through Nebraska and Kansas and for part of the time we were even able to open the window a bit.
The showers at the American Hotel are a lost cause. Water dribbles out at about the same rate whether they are
on or off and there is a scum on the floor that never quite gets washed away. When we get back from Lawrence, Kansas,
I’ll try the Eagle Hotel, extra quarter and all.
I went to the YMCA and asked the guy if I could pay him
and take a shower. He said I could swim for the same price. I told him I didn’t have a suit and he looked
funny at me and said they don’t wear suits. I paid him and had the big pool all to myself.
I have been
practicing at the ballroom over the objections of the manager, Mr. Allen, who works within earshot. One day I heard
him complaining to Leon McAuliffe, the owner. Leon laughed and said he wished the boys in his band would do some practicing.
Whenever he sees me, Leon says “howdy”. Everyone around here says howdy, except Mr. Allen. People
on the street, people I’ve never seen before, people dressed up like cowboys all say howdy.
Nights when we’re
not working there is usually someone from the band at the Denver Cafe. We stay until late and drink a lot of coffee.
Every once in a while they charge us for another cup. Tonight I ordered the hamburger combo and told the waitress I
didn’t want beets on my salad.
“We don’t have beets,” she said, “but I can
give it to you without carrots.”
I called Max Waits, who plays in the Tulsa Philharmonic,
about taking flute lessons. He sounds like a nice guy; he knows bus routes and numbers and he only charges $3 for a
half hour lesson.
He wears a three-piece suit and shiny shoes and he says to call him Max. He’s friendly
and he plays great. His studio at Tulsa University is more like someone’s den than a classroom. After the
lesson I went downstairs to the practice rooms and heard some good players.
We played at a military
base near Lawrence. Up till now Lee and Artie have been buying beer for me, but Lee said I could get if for myself here.
I didn’t believe him but they sold it to me without a second glance.
We slept on the bus. Artie and
I went to breakfast at the Jayhawk Cafe. The place was crowded with students and very noisy. Artie felt out of
place, the green suit and all, and wanted to go somewhere else. I told him to go ahead but he decided he would rather
stay there and complain. I hoped someone would start a conversation but we might as well have been invisible.
2:00 PM. Harold was driving. The Bartleys were in their room. Hooker was lying on top of his bunk looking
at the ceiling. Richard was in the wheel well studying the white lines on the highway. Lee, Artie, Willy and I
were in the passenger seats, Artie working on an arrangement, Lee dozing.
A billboard said “CH—CH--What’s
“UR” said Willy.
“Amen,” said Richard.
PM. A lodge hall in Salina, Kansas. Lots of drunks. One of them got angry when Bartley said I was from Hollywood
and demanded to see my i.d. I confessed that I was from Culver City Where Hollywood Movies Are Made. Close enough,
I guess; he bought Lee and me drinks and told us his brother in law plays trumpet with Guy Lombardo. After he had staggered
off, Lee said, “twenty eight.” I asked him what he was talking about.
twenty-eighth guy who’s told me his brother in law plays trumpet with Lombardo. Must be a huge band.”
Wichita can’t be more than a hundred miles from Salina, yet it took nearly four hours over the
icy roads to get to the outskirts only to have the bus break down. We couldn’t use the heater since the engine
didn’t work, so we wrapped ourselves in blankets and sat in the passenger seats except for Willy, who stayed in his
bunk and drank the last of his vodka, and the Bartleys, who went to their room. When it got light some of us went looking
for a place to eat but before we could find anything it began to snow and we had to run back to the bus.
AM the weather had eased up enough so we were able to walk to town and find a restaurant. Bartley made some calls and
before long a truck came and towed us to a garage. They wouldn’t work on Sunday, so we were stuck there at least
a day. Bartley got a key to a side door so we could come and go but everything around the garage was closed and it was
too cold to go far.
Everyone seemed to be taking the confinement in stride. Artie worked on a chart (his
writing and copying were better than his playing), the others just sat around. Willy tried to push the “Coffee--Black”
button on a vending machine, but his hand was too unsteady. He asked for help, but Bartley grabbed his hand--like catching
a hummingbird--and with Willy’s bony index finger pushed the chicken soup button instead.
of suggestion,” Bartley said.
Downtown Wichita may not be half as exciting as everyone thinks but it sure
beats starving to death in a freezing garage. Lee, Artie and I went to a restaurant where Artie asked the waitress to
quit her job and run away with him.
Richard made quite a hit with the mechanics. They laughed at everything
he said and at his splayfooted, arm-swinging walk. They saw him as part Charlie Chaplin, part Huntz Hall. He loved
the attention. He voiced one inanity after another and walked back and forth to the unending glee of the men.
Finally Bartley, fearing the bus would never get fixed, ordered him to his seat. That lasted about five minutes.
Willy asked Bartley for a draw. Bartley asked why he needed the money. Willy said he was hungry.
Bartley took him to dinner and paid for it with his (Willy’s) own money. Willy ate unhappily after signing for
The bus was in bad enough shape that Wednesday’s gig was in jeopardy. Bartley looked worried.
He called Leon, who was sympathetic and said his band would fill in if necessary.
We got back in
plenty of time for the gig. Susan got sick during the second set and Bartley drove her to their hotel. We played
the last two sets without a bass.
We were miserable without you. It was almost as bad as when you’re here.
in the Band
February 26. Susan was still not able to work so Bartley hired Joan Hooker,
Don’s wife, for the gig in Ponca City. Joan is a dancer who quit working full time to get married. She still
works occasionally, if the situation is right. She’s really nice and unaffected, considering how good-looking
she is. She and Don live in an apartment just south of downtown. They took their own car to Ponca City.
All of us wished we could ride with them, but no one asked and they didn’t offer.
Artie went wild
when he met Joan. Oblivious to Don’s scowl, he wouldn’t leave her alone. At first she pretended not
to notice but when that was no longer possible she told him to get lost. Seething, Artie lost all concentration and
played a lot of wrong notes and rhythms. Bartley got angry and kept us on the stand for nearly and hour and a half,
twice the normal set and when he did let us off it was only because the crowd needed a break.
Artie has mastered
the road. Everything he owns, except his trumpet, is in one small suitcase. He almost never wears anything but
the same greenish wool suit, sometimes with a white shirt and tie, but it always looks pressed. How does he do that?
He can give himself his insulin shot on the bumpy bus and not draw blood. He writes good arrangements and copies them
while the bus is limping along and it looks like a printing press did the work. He’s not a bad guy, but it can
be difficult to be around him when there is a female present.
The show was a disaster and instead of the short
intermission that usually follows it, Bartley went right into a dance set, called up the longest charts in the book and kept
us on the stand another hour and a half.
No one has mentioned New York lately. Is this band really going
to New York?
Ronnie Bartley Band salaries:
$100: Richard Stevens, Don Hooker
$85: Lee Naasz, Harold Boyce
$75: Art Athey, me.
$65: Willy Coleman
Sue Crouch aka Susan Gray
March 3. Willy staggered in ten minutes late, wearing a wrinkled
pair of black cotton pants. He said he lost his tux pants. Later, he discovered he was wearing them underneath the cotton
After the gig, on the bus to Laredo, Bartley was unusually jovial. “Welcome to the annual Ronnie
Bartley Band Picnic,” he said and began to open packages of white bread and baloney and a jar of mayonnaise. It
could be worse, I guess; it could be raisin bread, baloney and mayonnaise.
The gig in Laredo is on Saturday
but Bartley wanted to get there Friday so we could take advantage of the cultural opportunities available in Nuevo Laredo,
just across the border.
March 5. Artie and Richard spent the evening
in Nuevo Laredo and came back with stories about their new girlfriends. Artie’s is named Letecia. They will
be married as soon as she returns from a visit to her mother in Matamoros. Richard’s fiancée is named Rosie
and she laughs at everything he says.
Returning to the US they were stopped by border guards in a routine check.
Artie was waved through, but when Richard gave his birthplace as “Sahnf-Ceesco” (when in Rome, etc., and everyone
around there seemed to have an accent), he was taken to an interrogation room, stripped, searched and questioned. Artie,
who at first considered leaving him there, finally convinced him to drop the accent and he was released.
Lee and Harold had a mission. They had developed a sudden need for Benzedrine and with Mexico so close...
after noon the two of them and I (an unwitting co-conspirator) crossed the bridge to Nuevo Laredo. In order to throw
the feds off the track we ate at a taco stand and browsed in some shops. Then we went into a drug store where they bought
a can of talcum powder and a hundred bennies. We walked a couple of blocks to a hotel and into a restroom off the lobby.
While Lee leaned against the door, Harold pried the can apart at a seam and poured some of the powder onto a paper towel.
He put the pills into the can and replaced the powder and the top of the can, not perfectly, but well enough. He said
his charm and his ability to remain calm under fire would get us safely across the border.
At the border, the guard
waved us through without looking up.
Artie and Richard went shopping for presents for their fiancées.
Artie couldn’t find anything suitable but Richard bought Rosie a red dress, a little too large, perhaps, but a steal
at only $8. Besides, the saleswoman said, in English better than his, it could easily be taken in a little.
Back at the border, Richard was again detained, searched and questioned. (I wonder what’s so suspicious
about a blond guy speaking Pidgin English and carrying a large red dress?) Artie lost all patience and began to scream
at Richard until the guards threatened to arrest him if he didn’t leave.
“They got him again,”
he shouted as he raced past us on his way to find Bartley.
After the gig, a friend of Harold’s, an Air Force
lieutenant, drove us across the border to a nightclub where a fantastic magician was working. After his act the little
house band played the exit music, a Sonny Rollins tune called Doxy. The trumpet player took a solo then put his horn
on top of the piano and walked off toward the bar. The tenor player began to play. Artie went to the front of
the bandstand and stood there listening. When the tenor player finished, Artie picked up the trumpet and began to play,
clipped two and three note phrases that bore little relationship to the simple chord changes. The trumpet player ran
in from the bar and stood looking angry and a little afraid. After a few choruses, Artie put the trumpet back on the
piano and jumped triumphantly from the stage. The band quit immediately and began to pack up.
an unusual style,” I said to Artie.
He stood with his fists on his hips and stared at me. “I
play like Miles Davis,” he snarled.
Near the border Harold tried to coach Richard in how to outwit the treacherous
Why not tell them you’re from Oakland?” he asked.
“Because I’m not.”
“Where are you from?”
“Well, why don’t
you say San Francisco?”
“Because they won’t understand me.”
they’ll know you’re a gringo; they’ll have to let you through.
Richard remembered the cold concrete
detention room, the order to strip, the demeaning search for drugs, the questions, the wait until Bartley could be found to
gain his release. And it was late and he was tired.
At the guard station, Artie, still fuming, went first,
followed by Lee, Harold, Harold’s friend and me. Then it was Richard’s turn.
The guard grinned and waved him through.
I went to the ballroom to practice but Leon’s band was setting up to rehearse. They have a new drummer, Van Proudfoot,
and I talked to him for a few minutes. Van is from Omaha and this is his first steady gig. If it doesn’t
work out, he says, he’ll go to Arizona and be a salesman. That night, I went to Walgreens for dinner and he was
there. I talked to him for a while but he’s not real interesting.
I passed the Denver on the way back
to the Eagle and saw Richard and Harold at the counter. I went inside. An old woman, one of the regulars, was
there drinking coffee. Sometimes she glides back and forth between the counter and the tables, clapping her hands and
reciting rhymes in a language all her own. Sometimes she would brace herself between two seats and pedal her feet in
the air, the way Richard does.
Richard was concerned about the Benzedrine. Harold pointed out that we were
in a public place and asked to defer the discussion. Richard persisted. “It’s against the law,”
“Those pills are medicine,” said Harold, “and truck drivers use them all the time.”
“We’re not truck drivers,” said Richard.
“No, we’re not,” said Harold,
“but I drive the bus and I wouldn’t want to crash and get everybody killed.”
11. We left at 3:00 for the hundred-mile trip to Coffeyville. The bus ran smoothly and we got there in
plenty of time for a leisurely dinner. The restaurant was a cousin of the Denver Cafe. I had the chicken fried
steak, a dollar-ten. The dollar was for atmosphere.
Susan had on a new dress, silver. I prefer it to
the gold one.
March 12. A lodge hall in Pittsburg, Kansas, on the fifth anniversary
of the death of Charlie Parker. I was alone in the restroom and started to write “Bird Lives” on the mirror
with soap but I heard the outer door open and had to stop. I wonder if anyone else in the place even knew who Bird was?
Except us, of course. Well, some of us anyway.
March 18. On the way out of town
we ran into an honest-to-god traffic jam, the first since I had left LA. Richard had the solution and it’s so
simple I wonder why no one ever thought of it before. “I think the cars in front should go faster,” he said.
March 19. Memphis. The electric sign on the bank said 29º.
Separate but Equal: The white waiting room at the Greyhound Station is inside. Black folks get to do their waiting
outside in the cold, fresh air.
Bartley hasn’t said anything about New York lately and no
one has asked. We should be hearing soon, shouldn’t we? After all, we’ll be gone for a month,
which will take more preparation than one of our weekend trips.
Letter from home: The Dobkins know a family in
Tulsa named Pollack. I’ll call them when we get back from New Mexico next week. Maybe they’ll invite
me for Passover.
March 25. Near Roswell at a place called Tyler’s Inn.
The Tylers are the people who took the Bartleys out the last time we were here. We’re Mr. Tyler’s favorite
band and Susan is his favorite singer and bass player. He stares at her, hovers around her and compliments her singing
and playing and her looks. His wife just sort of grins.
Susan likes them too and their restaurant, particularly
their salad dressing; she talked about it all the way here. I tried it. It’s awful. It tastes as if
they use lemon juice instead of vinegar.
“They use lemon juice instead of vinegar,” said Susan.
She couldn’t be happier. I could; the creep charged us full price for dinner.
The gig was actually
fun for a change. The crowd loved us almost as much as Tyler did, and they were so noisy we couldn’t hear Susan
or Willy. Bartley called up more than the usual number of jazz charts and everyone really dug in, but nothing could
erase the memory of that miserable meal at a king’s ransom $3.25.
March 26. Clovis.
All the way here Susan rhapsodized about the Tylers, their restaurant, their lemon juice.
Some pot-bellied drunk
with a string tie and cowboy boots loved the band. He especially loved Susan, whom he called “little lady.”
He wrote Bartley a check and said he wanted us back the first weekend in May. That’s right after we get back from
New York, isn’t it?
No it isn’t. Bartley stood in the front of the bus and said, “Fellas,
there’s been a change in plans. Roseland has been postponed until October, November at the latest. Naturally,
I held off booking anything for April, so for the next few weeks we’re going to have to suspend regular salary arrangements.
I’ll pay you twenty bucks a gig and I won’t hold you to two weeks notice if you want to leave.
No New York. No jazz clubs, no $125 a week.
March 30. I called the Pollacks.
A nice woman answered and invited me for Passover a week from Monday.
This was to have been our last night at the
Over Twenty-Nine Dance Club but Leon extended us a week because of our difficulties. The place is always full and everyone
has a good time and nobody listens so I guess it doesn’t really matter who’s playing.
Harold has left.
He’s getting married in June and starting a teaching gig in September, so he would have gone soon anyway. Tonight,
Bartley replaced him with a local cat, Bunny Haines, a big, funny guy (he says he buys his clothes at the Tulsa Tent and Awning
Company) with a beautiful sound. After tonight, we’ll have to get by with just Artie until things pick up.
Bartley booked gigs this weekend in Cocoa Beach and Jacksonville, Florida. After that, he will only say some
things are “pending”. Willy will leave after Jacksonville.
1:00 AM. Off to Cocoa Beach, Florida. Bartley hired an off-duty Trailways driver for the first part of the trip.
The guy showed up in full uniform.
Everyone else had gone to bed. I stayed up to do some writing and heard
the door to the Bartley’s room open. I hid my notebook and picked up a copy of Life Magazine. Susan came
to the front of the bus and sat next to me. She took the magazine and turned to an article on Marilyn Monroe.
“She converted to the Jewish faith,” she said, “just like Elizabeth Taylor. I wonder if
it would help my career. I mean, they’re both so successful."
She began to ask questions.
I faked the answers, thinking that when she heard the words “study” and “Hebrew” she would lose interest.
After all, I had. Every once in a while I caught the driver looking at us in the rear view mirror. He’s
weird but I guess that figures--dope does strange things to people and everyone knows that all bus drivers are dope fiends.
After breakfast, Richard took his customary spot in the wheel well. The driver slammed on the brakes, glowered
at him, and pointed to the sign over the windshield, a sign left over from the bus’s long ago Trailways days, which
said, “Passengers Must Remain Behind The White Line.” Richard pointed to another sign, which said “No
Smoking.” (Later, he told us he was pointing to the “No”.) The driver folded his arms and refused
to move. Bartley came out to see why we had stopped. He reminded Richard that if we didn’t get to the gig
we wouldn’t get paid. Richard said, “OK, boss,” and went to a seat.
That afternoon, we
parked in front of a roadside restaurant. The driver muttered “lunch” and waited until we we’re all
seated before taking his place away from the rest of us.
Evening. Heavy rain. Richard looked disconsolately
at the wheel well and thought, no doubt, about how nature abhors a vacuum. I dozed off and only awoke when Bartley put
his hand on my shoulder and said “dinner”. My watch had stopped at 6:30. It was still pouring.
We made a run for the little cafe where, again, the driver sat by himself at the counter. Richard, his spirits at least
partially restored, started to mount the stool next to him, and then, feigning great fear, turned and skipped to the booth
where the Bartleys sat.
Southern Comfort: I asked the counter man if I could use the restroom.
“What do you do when you need one?”
“Filling station,” he said,
and pointed up the road.
April 1. All Fool’s Day. I told Willy his shoes
were untied. They were.
Montgomery, Alabama. Just after sunrise we stopped at a big, modern service
station. The driver pounded on Bartley’s door and went outside to wait. Bartley met him in front of the
bus and handed him some bills. He counted them, turned, and walked away without a word.
Separate but Equal
II: The restroom doors were open. Someone had just finished cleaning and the rooms were spotless, from the alabaster
toilet and sink to the metal fixtures gleaming in the dawn’s early light. Not just one or two of them either,
but all three: white men, white women and “colored”.
Bartley resumed driving. We were due in
Cocoa Beach at 9:00 and crossing into the Eastern Time zone would cost us an hour. It was going to be close. We
went long distances without a break and when we did finally stop it was at a roadside stand and we were hustled back into
the bus, where we ate while rolling (or bouncing) along. Bartley’s evident grimness affected everyone but Richard,
who stood in the wheel well and watched the miles slowly come and go.
We arrived a few minutes after 9:00.
The Paradise Motel was a collection of buildings adorned with plastic palm trees and illuminated by red and green floodlights.
A canopy covered the walk that lead from the parking lot to the front entrance and a sign said “Tonight Only--Ronnie
Bartley Band--Dance and Show.”
A man met the bus at the entrance to the parking lot and directed Bartley
to a spot along the unlit side of the building. Susan was the first one off the bus.
“You would be
mister...,” she said.
“I’m the manager,” said the man, “and the contract specified
“Well, better late than never,” said Bartley.
said Susan, “the band is really worth waiting for. Ronnie’s orchestrations are ...”
UP,” screamed the manager.
We managed to set up and start by 9:30. The crowd was fashionably dressed
and mostly young, so Bartley called up some of the hipper charts, charts that had been written for twelve pieces (the instrumentation
when the band started in the early 50s) and sounded strange enough when we played them with nine. Now we were down to
Trouble. The first trumpet parts were too much for Artie. He took some notes down an octave,
left others out altogether and cracked a lot of the ones that were left.
More trouble. Richard pestered Bartley
into moving “Beguine” into the first set and the performance was the most remarkable yet: the melody was replaced
almost entirely by the squeaks and squawks that usually only embellished it. The reaction of the crowd ranged from incredulous
to contemptuous to hostile and although we had been playing for barely half an hour, Bartley decided to call a break.
We would come back in fifteen minutes, wow ‘em with the show and all would be forgiven.
Ordinarily, the Bartleys
spent their breaks mingling with the crowd, but tonight they disappeared backstage. Willy headed for the bus.
The rest of us made for a cocktail lounge in another part of the building. Artie sat by himself. Lee, Richard,
Hooker and I sat at the bar. Imagine, Don Hooker hanging out! I guess even he can only take so much.
The show had a new name--Spring Varieties of 1960--but the old jokes that went over at army bases and VFW posts didn’t
work here, so Bartley left ‘em wanting more and went right to the big band salute.
1. Let’s Dance.
Lee squeaked on the clarinet solo at the end. Willy tried to play but stranger sounds than usual came from the baritone.
2. Getting Sentimental Over You. Bartley clammed the high note in the second bar, sending a woman at a front
row table into a fit of laughter. It wasn’t that funny. Willy didn’t play. He seemed to be looking
for something in his pockets.
3. Contrasts. Lee’s solo ok. He’s a good alto player,
if I haven’t mentioned it before. Willy extended his search to beneath his chair.
Artie’s solo ok. The mute seemed to help. Willy told Bartley he had lost his teeth.
Moonlight Serenade. It ain’t easy to sound like five reeds with a clarinet, a tenor sax and a guy looking for
6. Bubbles In The Wine. At the mention of Lawrence Welk, the woman in front stood up and
shouted, “Oh, go home. GO HOME.” Richard forgot to play the solo at the end of the arrangement and
just stood there, staring straight ahead, accordion held silently against his chest.
Bartley introduced “Miss
Personality” and Susan walked to the microphone, smiling radiantly. She made it through the vocal chorus on “Bye-Bye
Blackbird” but the silly dance and the makeshift costume were more than the Woman In Front could stand and she led a
parade out of the room. The manager offered free drinks to the survivors and then told us we were fired.
PM. Richard asked if we were going to get paid. Bartley got angry and decided we would leave immediately for Jacksonville.
He never did answer Richard’s question.
Willy found his teeth. They were in his bunk in a paper bag
along with an empty bottle.
April 2. Jacksonville. I went into a coffee shop
where a small glass of orange juice cost thirty-five cents. They must fly the stuff in from California.
loved us at the naval base. Susan, in her silver dress, with a swarm of sailors fanned out behind her, looked like a
comet with a blue and white tail.
Tonight was Willy’s last night with the band. At the cymbal crash
that starts the show, he toppled out of his chair. Something to remember him by.
Back to Tulsa. 3:00 AM. Heavy rain, thunder and lightning, incredible in their intensity. Bartley was really
too tired to drive but pacing is out of the question with this bus; the closer to Tulsa we break down, the better.
The roof over my bunk began to leak. I moved to a seat in front and watched Bartley, grim and dispirited, dragging
the bus against the wind and the rain and the times.
Afternoon. We have stopped infrequently and only at
Bartley’s discretion. Richard, unable to persuade him of the need for a service station, a tree, the roadside,
anything, retreated to his bunk and urinated in its privacy. Lee opened a window but the relentlessness of the rain
made him have to close it before it had any effect on the stench.
6:30 PM. In the middle of nowhere, Bartley,
exhausted, stopped at the side of the road and went to the rear without a word to anyone. He returned after about an
hour and began to drive again.
April 4. Signs showed us getting close to Hattiesburg,
Louisiana. We passed a chain gang, about a dozen black men in striped uniforms working at the
side of the road.
We stopped to eat in a little town with wooden sidewalks. The people were about
as friendly as any we’ve met lately--not very. Of course, we were a pretty scruffy lot, except for Susan.
It helps to have her around--men tend to like her and men are what’s what down here.
Richard and Artie
skipped the restaurant and went to a little store and bought stuff for sandwiches. I took my wet bedclothes to a laundromat
nearby and left them to dry while we ate.
Night. More rain, thunder and lightening. Progress is slow.
April 5. Tulsa is a shambles. Bricks had been torn from buildings, trees ripped
from the ground. The streets were littered, some to impassibility. A headline said that a tornado had done $500
million in damage. Is that possible? Half a billion? I didn’t think the whole town was worth that
With the “new salary arrangements” I’ll have to live on the bus for a while.
April 9. No gigs this weekend but we go to Laredo and Lubbock next week and Bartley rented a club here
in town for the weekend after that. My finances are holding up.
I went to a movie tonight. A man sat
right behind me--weird, considering how few people were in the theater. I developed a sudden need for some popcorn and
a drink and when I went back and changed to a different row the guy moved right behind me again. I moved once more and
this time he stayed put.
Leon was working at the Cimarron and I thought about going in through the back and hanging
out for a while but decided against it. Word is that he wishes I were in his band and the way things are he might make
an offer and I might take it. No, thank you. I wonder how Van is doing?
I called the Pollacks to make sure the thing for tomorrow was still on. Mr. Pollack gave me directions and sounded a
little surprised at where I would be coming from. He said it was about a thirty-minute walk. What, they’re
not sending a car?
I spent Passover Eve at the Denver Cafe, with a pork chop (I didn’t think of it until
later) and a little paper cup of applesauce. I should have gone to Walgreens; there the applesauce comes on a lettuce
I had the place pretty much to myself. Two men sat at the counter and a couple with a little kid were
just leaving when Richard came in, wearing new blue slacks and a brown sport jacket Bartley had given him when we went off
salary. The sleeves reached his fingertips. He seemed disappointed that none of the others were there to
admire his new look. He strolled to my table and sat down across from me.
“Hi,” he said.
I said hello and asked him how he was.
I asked what was new.
a lot of things.”
“Yeah. I got some new clothes.”
“No kidding? What did you get?”
“Well, some slacks and a coat. Pretty spiffy, huh?”
He stood and modeled the coat.
“That’s new? Seems like I’ve seen it before.”
“It used to be Ron’s. He gave it to me. Nice, huh?
Artie and Lee came in. They had eaten sandwiches on the bus and had come to the Denver for coffee, companionship,
and, in Lee’s case, dessert. They noticed Richard’s new threads immediately and both commented.
“Brown and blue,” said Lee. “That’s an unusual combination.”
wrong with brown and blue?” asked Richard.
“Nothing,” said Lee, “only you hardly ever see
it, that’s all.”
“I like brown and blue,” said Richard.
“You should have
the sleeves shortened,” said Artie.
“Then my shirt would show. Besides I like it this way.”
“Why don’t you get shorter shirts? asked Artie.
“I like it this way,” insisted
April 11. There was some sort of meeting going on at the ballroom.
A woman was waltzing around and talking about crepe paper or something. I spent the day swimming at the Y and reading
on the bus until it was time to go to dinner.
The Pollack’s house is two stories with a big front
yard and two huge trees. Nathan Pollack answered the front door. He introduced me to his sister, Ros, Mr. and
Mrs. Pollack and some other relatives. Dinner included reading the traditional Pesach texts and everyone pitched in
to help me with my pronunciation. The people were nice, the food was great and I had a lot of fun.
was time to leave, Nathan asked me if I would like to go out with him and some friends on Wednesday. He offered me a
ride home but I declined. It’s embarrassing to call a broken down bus at a dirty truckstop near railroad tracks
April 13. The Cimarron Ballroom. 10:30 AM. The Elite
Ladies Club was in the midst of preparations for its annual Debutant Ball. The crepe paper lady from Monday was shouting
directions at fifty or so kids who were doing their best to ignore her and everyone’s little sister and brother had
come along to play.
I saw Van Proudfoot who was sitting and watching the proceedings and went over to say hello.
“Leon fired me,” he said. “He says I throw the guys off.”
a drag. What are you going to do?”
“Go to Arizona and get a job selling. I’ll still
A rubber ball rolled toward him. He picked it up and tossed it to a little boy, who stood
nearby with his arms outstretched. A game of catch began. Soon the boy got tired of the game and ran off to his
next adventure. Van surveyed the frenzied preparations.
“These are good n------,” he said.
That night, I hung out with Nathan and his friends. We went roller skating and all the way there
I kept trying to remember if that’s one of those things that you never forget how to do, like riding a bicycle.
Afterward, we went out for hamburgers then Nathan dropped me off at the ballroom.
Ball was still in progress and James Moody’s band was playing. If I had known that, I would have saved myself
from some bruises but at least I heard the last set. At 1:00 AM, Eddie Jefferson, Moody’s road manager, who was
sitting next to Clarence Johnston, the drummer, hissed “Moody” then again, louder. Moody turned around and
Jefferson pointed to his watch. They quit in the middle of the tune and began quickly to pack up. Years later
Clarence Johnston told me about that day.
Separate but Equal III: The band had arrived in Tulsa that afternoon
in two station wagons, one of them hauling a trailer with the instruments and equipment. A man, looking for a pay phone,
was driving behind the car with the trailer and didn’t see them stop for a red light. He plowed into the trailer,
sending it into the rear of the station wagon. Jimmy Boyd and Pat Patrick were injured and an ambulance was called,
but when it arrived the driver looked at the victims and said, “Oh, you want the colored
ambulance.” A policeman was there but wouldn’t intervene and the ambulance left. The proper ambulance
was summoned and took the injured to the hospital.
April 15. Laredo Texas. We
worked at the NCO club. Woody’s band was at the officer’s club and we caught part of a set. Lee knows
Don Lanphere, who knew Bird. I got to meet him but there wasn’t time to talk. Meeting Lanphere made this
gig even more of a drag.
Bob Rodriguez, who is stationed here, filled in on baritone. He went to LACC a couple
of years ago and we know some of the same guys.
April 16. Lubbock Texas. Artie
and I went to a movie. We saw “The Big Operator” starring little Mickey Rooney and little Mel Tormé.
It was shot in little Culver City. I started to point out some landmarks but Artie got testy and left before the end
of the picture.
Richard has begun to personalize the jacket. It has a grease spot on the left elbow and a
button is missing from one sleeve.
We played the gig with only two saxes. It really sounded awful.
April 19. Everyone but Hooker has moved to the bus. Even the Bartleys had to give up their
hotel room; it was too much at $2.50 a day.
The bus really stinks. A lot of the problem has to do with Richard.
Bartley suggested that Lee, Artie and I invite him to a laundry party. “No, thanks,” said Richard, “I’ll
wait till my stuff is dirty.”
We took his bedding anyway, and washed it. Lee got the money back from
Bartley, about the only time anyone ever saw him part with a buck (seventy cents, actually) willingly.
I felt a
cold coming on and decided to fight it with wine. After all, fruit has vitamins and alcohol kills germs. I gave
Lee the money and he bought me a bottle of Tokay. I drank some, felt about the same, and drank some more. I finished
the bottle and began suddenly to feel very bad. The bus was out of the question; I went to the American and rented a
room. The guy looked even more like Artie than when I was sober. I got to the room just in time to miss the sink
and hit the wall, the floor and my pants with my dinner.
April 20. I didn’t want
to pay for another day at the hotel, so I went to the bus and lay there with the stench and the noise and gradually the pain
began to seep away. By evening I was able to get up and wobble to the truckstop cafe for a hamburger and a glass of
Seven Up. The next day I was as good as new, except for my pants.
April 22. Bartley
rented the Blue Moon Cafe, hired a bartender, tacked up a few signs, bought a radio spot and lost his shirt. Three couples
showed up. We played two sets but no one else showed up so we quit for the night. He offered the people their
money back but they must have felt sorry for us because they wouldn’t take it. He told us to check with him tomorrow;
he had rented the place for two nights but was going to see if he could get a refund for the second night.
Cox played baritone. If we work tomorrow we’ll use only two saxes.
The gig is off but we got the whole twenty from last night. Bartley gave each of us two of the oldest, dirtiest ten-dollar
bills I have ever seen.
Coat Watch: There is a new grease spot and another button is missing.
April 26. The check from the cowboy in Clovis bounced. Just some drunk trying to look like a big
man, until he sobered up the next day. Bartley called and left a message but we don’t really expect to hear back.
April 27. Good news. They called from Clovis and said the bounced check was a mistake
and that a replacement was on the way. The gig is still on for a week from Saturday. Twenty bucks.
Update: Richard tried to remove the grease spots. It looked as if he used steel wool. Lee has been pushing for
leather elbow patches but Richard thinks they will make the jacket look cheap.
Lee is one of those lucky guys who can always find the silver lining no matter how dark the cloud. The headline says
that Caryl Chessman’s appeals having all failed, he will be executed next week. Lee couldn’t be happier.
Funny how a little thing like that can cheer a guy up.
April 30. Bartley was in the
office when I got to the ballroom to practice.
“Good news,” he said. “The gig in
Clovis is confirmed and we go back on salary the week after next.” He began to recite the itinerary and I counted
five gigs that week. Of course we’re going back on salary--between Artie, Lee and me he saves sixty-five bucks.
Good news? Maybe we could celebrate by going to Bishop’s, like the night I got here, he could order for us and
we could have separate checks.
There’s not much left of the coat. The lining is in tatters, most of
the buttons are gone and it smells like oil. Richard wears it constantly and Bartley tries not to look.
May 2. I awoke before the others and left as quickly as I could. Downtown it was business as usual.
Business as usual. I went to the ballroom to practice but a tenor player was rehearsing with a rhythm section.
I listened for a while but they showed no signs of stopping so I put my stuff in the band room and went outside.
Lee was standing across Fourth Street, holding newspaper so I could see the “Chessman Dies” headline.
“They fried the bastard,” he shouted above the noise of the city.
At the ballroom the same guys were at it again, this time with two more saxophones and a trombone. The music stands
said “Ernie Fields and His Orchestra”.
I went to the balcony to wait them out. When they finished,
Fields, the trombone player, sat at a table, poured vodka and orange juice into paper cups and lined them up in front of him.
He took a stack of envelopes out of an attaché case. One at a time, the musicians took a cup and an envelope
and signed a sheet of paper. When the last of them had been paid, I went downstairs.
“Yeah?” He looked up and smiled.
“I play with Ronnie Bartley’s band.”
He asked what instrument I play and what kind of music I like and gave me one of the paper cups.
May 6. On the road to Clovis. A car raced toward us on the right shoulder, veered into our path,
fishtailed and slammed into the front of the bus. The car limped off before anyone could get its license number.
Had Richard not seen it and managed to scramble from the wheel well in time he probably would have been killed.
bus lay there like a beached whale. The front axle was bent, the wheel was crumpled beneath it and the tire was beyond
repair. Bartley hitched a ride to a telephone and arranged for an airport limousine to take us to Clovis and for the
bus to be jury-rigged so we could get back to Tulsa.
May 9. We leave Wednesday for
Rome, Georgia, but two of the gigs fell through, so Bartley extended the pro-rata deal.
Artie, Lee, Richard and
Don got a job in a little private club down town. They’ll work tonight and tomorrow and get $5 each per night.
“Private club” sounds elegant, doesn’t it? I saw the place; it’s a dump. Oklahoma doesn’t
have bars, so there are “private clubs”, where mixers are sold, and “members” bring their own bottles
or store them at the club. Some of the clubs are real dives, like the one where my band mates were working.
Richard’s conscience began to bother him. “Boss,” he said to Bartley, “I been thinking.
It’s not right for me to keep your jacket. I’d like you to have it back.” He handed the remains
to Bartley, who dropped it in revulsion.
I went to the ballroom to thank Mr. Allen and his
secretary. Mr. Allen never looked happier.
Ernie Fields was rehearsing. He saw me and waved me over.
“Listen, I fired a couple of tenor players.” He paused. “...Well, go get your horn.”
I ran as fast as I could. No more Bartley, I thought, no more bus, no more changing the rules, on salary one
day, pro-rata the next, no more Susan’s bad singing and worse bass playing, no more Richard’s religious fanati...
The bus was gone. He must have taken it somewhere to finish the repairs. I ran into the truckstop office
and screamed, “Where’s the bus?
The guys who worked there looked at each other but neither of them
“The bus, Bartley’s bus, where is it?” I was pretty frantic by now.
“Don’t know,” one of them said.
“Welders,” said the other.
He gave me the address.
“How do I get there?”
It was nearby: east--back in the direction of the ballroom--a couple of blocks, then north--away--a couple more. I
ran. What if I couldn’t get into the bus? What if Bartley were there?
No one was there
but the welder, who paid no attention to me. I grabbed my tenor and began to run again. The case banged against
my legs and my throat began to hurt, but I was afraid to slow down, afraid that if I didn’t hurry the rehearsal might
end before I could get back. I ran into the ballroom with my heart pounding, unable to catch my breath. Fields
told me to rest for a minute. When I had had time to settle down and put my tenor together, he called up “In The
Mood” his hit, and “Workin’ Out”. We played each one once and my audition was over.
Fields took me aside and said, “there’s big gigs and little gigs. Big gig pays twenty-one cent, some of
the cats get less; little gigs pay what they pay and Jack Scott’s the arranger, he gets twenty-two. A week we
don’t work I pay you fifty cent, stay ‘round town, maybe rehearse. Next week’s Chicago, pays a bill
six-bits, and of course I want to get you in on that.
“I like to think I’m big enough to hire a man
‘cause he can play, not just colored, and besides, sometimes we can’t get somethin’ to eat out there on
the road and you can help with that.”
He warned me not to disclose our financial agreement (I wasn’t
sure I understood it myself) or ask any of the others about theirs. He gave me directions to his house and told me to
be there tomorrow evening at 6:30. He turned and left without asking my decision.
What decision? Rome,
Georgia for...I didn’t know how much, or Chicago for a bill six-bits. Bartley’s awful, shrinking band or
Ernie Fields and His World Famous Orchestra? The rolling coffin or the shiny bus I’d seen outside with Ernie’s
name on it?
How would I tell Bartley? I’d just tell him. He said we could leave without
notice and we’re still on pro-rata.
The bus was back at the truckstop, empty. I stowed my tenor and
went to Walgreens for dinner and to a movie. I got back at 11:30 and a few minutes later the Bartleys returned.
Susan walked past me without a word, looking glum. I told Bartley I wanted to talk to him.
you want to leave?” he asked.
“Why did you wait till now to tell
“Because I just found out.”
“Found out what?”
Ernie Fields will pay me $175 a week.” (OK, not every week, but I didn’t have to tell him that.)
He turned away and forced a laugh. “All right, if that’s the kind of people you want to work with, get
all your stuff off the bus, tonight, now.”
I went to where the others were working. I would borrow
Artie’s car, take my stuff to the Eagle (what’s a buck twenty-five to a guy who makes a bill six-bits) and return
The band was on a break, standing together at the bar, and I told them about my new gig and how Bartley
had ordered me off the bus. Maybe I should have left out the part about the $175--when I asked Artie if I could use
his car, he refused.
I started to leave. Lee grabbed my arm.
“You’re going to work
Everything is cool. In a couple of days I’ll be in Chicago making $175 with a famous
band while they’re in Rome, Georgia, or somewhere, trying to get what they can out of Bartley.
III. Ernie Fields.
May 11. 1) Laundry.
2) Library. 3) Flute Lesson. 4) Get stuff to Ernie’s (cab?).
One of my shirts was missing. In its place
was one with a twenty-one inch neck. I told the woman it wasn’t mine but she pointed to the collar and said, “Sure
it’s yours. Don’t you see your name?”
I asked her how it got there.
put it there so it won’t get mixed up.”
I convinced her to look for mine and she found it after
about fifteen minutes. “Y’all come back,” she said.
I had to take everything with me when
I went to my lesson or pay for another day at the hotel. Lugging my huge suitcase and my instruments with my sheets
and blanket around my neck, I didn’t get one howdy the whole way. The walk from the bus stop to Max’s studio,
usually only a few minutes, took half an hour, and when I got there I found a note on the door saying my lesson had been cancelled.
I left a note telling him about the gig and that I would call him when I was resettled. I turned around and headed to
the bus, but before it got there Ernie drove up. I asked him how he happened to be there, but he just laughed.
Maybe he had gone to Bartley’s bus and someone had told him about my standing Wednesday lesson. He wouldn’t
say. He took me to his house and left me in his living room until dinner.
Dinner was at a round table with
Ernie, Mrs. Fields and their daughter, Carmen. Mrs. Fields is a schoolteacher. She is quiet and formal, the opposite
of Ernie. Carmen is eight or nine, tall and quiet like her mother. Throughout dinner, Mrs. Fields had a disapproving
look, perhaps wondering why responsible parents would let their teenage son leave home to travel with a band. She asked
a few get-acquainted questions and didn’t seem entirely satisfied by the answers.
After dinner, Carmen ran
upstairs. She had not said a word. Ernie pushed his chair away from the table, undid his belt, leaned back and
closed his eyes. I went into the back yard.
At 6:30 the bus pulled into the driveway. The driver
shut off the engine and a few of the passengers got out.
Harry Lewis was the tenor player I had seen rehearsing
with the rhythm section. He’s tall and slender and has a gold tooth and wears a bandanna over his hair.
He said, “how you doin”, and offered a handshake before continuing past me to where Mrs. Fields stood, behind
the screen door. Carmen was standing next to her.
“Bernice,” said Harry to Mrs. Fields.
“Hello Harry,” she said. I thought I saw the same look of disapproval, although probably not for the same
reason. Harry appeared to be in his mid thirties.
“Carmen, how you doin?” said Harry. Carmen
hid her face in her mother’s side.
Clifford Watson was a smaller version of Harry. “I’m
Cliff,” he said. He pronounced it “Cuh-liff”.
Luther West and his girlfriend, Madeline,
walked toward the house. West had been the only one other than Ernie to speak to me at my audition. Mrs. Fields
stepped out onto the porch. She greeted West warmly and hugged Madeline. They talked for a few moments and Ann
Walls joined their group. Mrs. Fields asked Ann about her grandmother.
Ernie and I put our things next to
the bus for the driver to load. The bus only had seats, no bunks. It was neat and clean and the engine sounded
powerful. Ernie assigned me to my seat, third from the rear on the right.
Under way. People dozed or
talked or looked out at the countryside. West tuned a portable radio to a St. Louis Cardinals game. At 10:30 we
stopped at a little roadside market and everyone got out except me, Madeline and West, who sat in the seat in front of mine,
and Lafayette Waters, who sat in the last row. Waters wears an Ascot tie. He’s taller and thinner than Harry
and very quiet.
The others returned with crackers and cheese and tins of sardines and bottles of beer and soft
drinks. The food was passed around and Louise, Ann’s friend, held a box of crackers out to me. She looked
back at Waters, whose eyes were closed and passed the box forward again.
May 12. The
bus wound through St. Louis to a large outdoor market a few blocks from the Mississippi River. West invited me to go
with Madeline and him to a Jewish delicatessen.
“Best lox and bagels this side of New York,” he said.
West, about my father’s age, grew up in Tulsa. He and his friend Earl Bostic shared their first saxophone,
taking turns practicing. This is his second stay with Ernie’s band; he quit the first time because of low salaries
and living conditions on the road. In the interim, he worked at the Tulsa post office, where he became the first African
American to rise to the position of supervisor. Madeline is just along for the ride.
We returned to the bus.
Everyone was there except Wyatt Griffin and Roosevelt Scott, who raced up at the last second carrying cardboard boxes of food.
West and Madeline included me in their conversation. Louise offered me some potato chips but I had just finished
eating. Ann tried to start a card game. She cruised the aisle shuffling the cards and enlisted Harry and Wyatt.
She asked if I wanted to play.
“You don’t eat, you don’t
gamble; what do you do?”
“I play the saxophone.”
She laughed scornfully and pointed
to the mannequin in the rear.
“That’s Lafayette Waters,” she said. “He plays the
That night someone tuned the radio to a Chicago station. A Brubeck record was playing and West
asked me if I liked Paul Desmond.
“Bird and Sonny Criss are my favorites,” I said, and he smiled and
May 13, Friday. The Sutherland Hotel. My room had two single beds.
I wondered who rents a hotel room with two single beds? Maybe it’s the Christian businessmen who leave the bibles.
The shower was GREAT: hot, cold, in between, on, off, fast, slow, the works. A magazine on the nightstand
had an ad for “The Al Benson Review-Rhythm and Blues Star Parade-Eleven Record Stars-Thirty Great Entertainers.”
Our band had top billing. The others acts were Barrett Strong, Billy Bland, Irma Thomas, Frankie Lymon, Major Lance,
Shirley and Lee, Robert and Johnny, Redd Foxx, Bill Black’s Combo and our Ann Walls.
I went out for breakfast.
Radios up and down the street were playing jazz. I didn’t miss a beat all the way from the hotel to the restaurant
and back again or in the hotel barber shop. (My barber in Culver City was a Spade Cooley fan. He fired his employee,
Dino, when he returned from lunch one day and caught him listening to the Modern Jazz Quartet on the shop’s radio.
“Can’t be no barber listenin’ to whorehouse music,” he said. I found Dino a couple of months
later at a shop farther up Sepulveda.)
The Regal Theater. Carpenters were still working on the bandstand
when we arrived. Because we had to back up the other acts, four local musicians had been hired to augment our band:
Bugs MacDonald, alto sax; John Avant, trombone; and Paul Serrano and a man the others called “Kolax” on trumpets.
Kolax? As in King Kolax? It couldn’t be; he’d be at least a hundred and this cat didn’t look
more than about sixty.
At 2:50, almost an hour after the rehearsal was to have begun, Ernie told Roosevelt to “touch
A” and called up Frankie Lymon’s first chart, “Danny Boy”.
lef han’” Ernie said and stomped his foot four times, but between his baton technique, which consisted of waving
his trombone around, and the fact that a couple of the guys in our band couldn’t sight-read, we fell apart almost at
once. Poor Frankie waited patiently through fifteen minutes of starts and stops before Al Benson took Ernie aside and
pointed out that he was, after all, a star and shouldn’t have to conduct for other acts. Ernie agreed and Paul
Serrano was asked to take over. There were still problems but things improved and we made it through Frankie’s
act, the toughest on the show.
Major Lance had no written arrangements and his instructions changed every time
we tried to run down his tune. Benson fired him.
Billy Bland didn’t respond when he was called and
someone was sent to look for him. Clifford Watson spoke fast and Benson, down to his last ten record stars, gave him
a spot on the show. Clifford snapped his fingers in tempo and said, “Shuffle in G” but before he could count
it off Benson said, “What do you mean "shuffle in G"? You got charts or not?
they know my music,” Clifford wailed, “they play it all the time.”
“No charts, no show,”
Billy Bland had been located in the alley behind the theater, where he had gone to supervise as his
chauffer wiped the drizzle from his rented limousine. Billy is enormous--two-fifty at least--but not as big as Fronzelle
Littlefield, our tenor player, who was given the solo in Billy’s hit, “Let The Little Girl Dance”.
A union rep showed up and Benson called a five-minute break. The trumpet player was King Kolax, right out of jazz
history--I called him Bebop’s Buddy Bolden and he laughed--who had given gigs to Bird and Coltrane early in their careers.
He kept up a steady line of chatter throughout the rehearsal, at one point saying to no one or everyone, “Look at that
cat trying to pass hisself off as a kid with all that grey hair.” That cat was me—grey since I was sixteen.
He said he’d show me around town and take me to Budland (Chicago’s answer to Birdland, named in honor of Bud Powell)
to sit in one night.
Bill Black’s Combo provided the last surprise of the afternoon--they were white.
Benson could pretend not to notice me, but five guys? The show’s organizers met with Black’s manager and
we could hear words like “riot” and “no way, baby”, but Black’s manager pointed out that they
had a contract and would have to be paid whether or not they worked, so it was decided they would go on as scheduled.
Benson was starting to look worried.
Opening Night. Things got off to a flying start, a blues
in G (no chart!) by a local blues singer, Harold Burrage, who had been hired to open in place of Major Lance. Things
continued relatively smoothly through Robert and Johnny, Barrett Strong, Shirley and Lee and Irma Thomas.
began with Ernie’s raucous trombone solo on “Volare”. Ann Walls, a fine blues singer, was next and
then “In The Mood”, our hit. Since I hadn’t had time to learn the choreography they did it without
me, with Harry, West and Fronzelle out front. The sight of Fronzelle dancing brought a wave of laughter from the full
house, which broke up completely when West turned the wrong way and Fronzelle had to try to dodge him. Al Benson was
not amused. From now on, he decreed, the saxophones would play “In The Mood” without the choreography.
Frankie Lymon’s first chart, an up-tempo medley, went well enough, but “Danny Boy” was another story.
Ragged transitions, missed key changes and meter changes, West fumbling with pages, Fronzelle hopelessly lost; somehow we
made it to the end and a standing ovation for Frankie. Maybe they were just glad it was over. But no! The
ovation continued, so long and loud that we had to encore “Danny Boy”.
Billy Bland, standing in the
wings, complained loudly. “He’s singing jazz,” he cried. “How am I supposed to follow
that?” He made jazz sound like a dirty word.
The crowd was still buzzing halfway through “Let
The Little Girl Dance” when Fronzelle went out front to play his solo.
Poor Fronzelle. Perhaps
the echo in the cavernous theater confused him. Maybe the distance from the rhythm section made it hard to hear the
chord changes. Whatever the reason, his eight bar solo stretched to sixteen then thirty-two then just kept going.
Neither he nor Billy could figure out how to get back to the vocal.
Billy began to dance, swinging his huge hips
from side to side, edging closer and closer to Fronzelle until he bumped him from in front of the microphone with one ferocious
thrust. Fronzelle was startled but kept playing and joined in the dance. They looked like two sumo wrestlers doing
the hula until Fronzelle got the idea, stopped playing and returned to his seat.
Bill Black started by booming,
“Look out Basie, Bill Black’s in town.” Benson’s fears were unrealized: Bill Black’s Combo
was a huge hit with the all black, mostly young crowd, and when Bill introduced his musicians, the guitarist, a Fred MacMurray
look-alike named Hank Hankins, got more applause than anyone except Frankie Lymon. He responded by blowing kisses and
the girls in the audience went wild.
Redd Foxx closed the show and managed to work me into a couple of bits.
The finale turned into a jazz free-for-all where Kolax really stood out. That cat can really play--sound, feel, ideas,
May 14. King Kolax says he’s forty-three. He’s a very
interesting guy and I began at once to learn from him. He offered advice on a number of subjects, all of which had been
ignored in my education up to that point. In fact, I’m not sure it would have been legal for the schools even
to touch on some of the subjects. Except for a couple of words that seemed to find their way into every sentence, he
hardly swore at all.
After the first show, he invited me to dinner at a little barbeque place near the Regal.
He must know half the people on the south side and he performed introductions all along the way. He told me he had been
in trouble with the IRS dating back many years to when he had his own band, but he paid for dinner and wouldn’t even
let me leave a tip. No wonder he’s had trouble with the IRS. I asked him about Bird but he could tell me
nothing I hadn’t already read.
In the dressing room before the second show, a card game was going strong.
“You ever heard of chicks?” he asked the players.
After the third show, Wyatt and Roosevelt waited
for me at the stage door and walked with me back to the hotel.
At the hotel, Clifford introduced me to his new
friends, Marie and Carol. Marie said, “let’s see what’s happening. There might be a party or
A few floors up we saw a woman standing in an open doorway, holding a tray with a cardboard bucket
of ice. She was five feet tall, if that, and neatly dressed in a navy blue suit. She greeted us with such warmth
that for a moment I thought that she and Marie were acquainted.
“So, what are you kids up to tonight?”
“Just seeing what’s happening,” said Marie.
“You want a drink?
You look old enough to drink.”
“Sure,” said Marie, “that’d be fine.”
We followed her into the room. A huge man sat slumped in a chair. He was wearing an undershirt with slacks and
suspenders. The woman said his name was Wallace, hers Tina.
“But everyone calls me Teeny,” she
laughed. “Say hello to these nice kids, Wallace.”
a schoolteacher,” she said. “What do you kids do?”
“Musician,” I said.
“Odd jobs,” said Marie.
“Wallace is a professional man. Sometimes we come here for the
weekend, just to get away.” She lowered her voice. “Wallace is married,” she said.
“Hey, how about that drink,” said Tina. She poured Bourbon into four glasses
and added water and ice to three of them. She handed the fourth one to Wallace, who sat sullenly, taking huge slugs
of the whiskey and swishing it around in his mouth before swallowing.
Tina held the floor, chattering and laughing.
Finally Wallace had had enough. “I didn’t come here to baby-sit,” he said.
Tina said, “don’t you see...”
Apparently he didn’t. He unfolded from the chair and
began to cross the room.
“Well, will you look at what time it is,” said Marie, who grabbed my hand
and started for the door. “Thanks for the drink.” Wallace slammed the door behind us with such force
that it rattled light fixtures all up and down the hallway.
May 15. Ernie called
and told me to meet him in the lobby in half an hour, that we were going to breakfast.
Ernie, West and Madeline
were in the lobby talking to a Mr. Lever, who drove us to a house near the hotel, where we were introduced to Mrs. Lever and
an older Mr. and Mrs. Lever.
The house was old and neat and smelled nice, like my grandmother’s house in
another part of Chicago a long time before. An ornate upright piano stood against a wall. There were Persian rugs
worn thin, doilies on the arms and backs of the sofa and chairs and pictures everywhere: infants dressed in frilly clothes,
family portraits, wedding pictures, pictures of pretty girls all dressed up.
Breakfast was calves brains and scrambled
eggs. Between some rearranging and our hosts’ politeness I was able to get by with very little eating. After
breakfast Ernie and Mr. Lever the younger (early forties, I’d guess) went into another room while the rest of us sat
there trying to think of something to say. Soon Ernie rescued us and Mr. Lever drove us back to the hotel.
Between shows I mentioned Budland to Kolax. He said tomorrow night after the third show. I told him about Marie
and he was incredulous.
“You want to carry a chick to Budland? HE WANTS TO CARRY A CHICK TO BUDLAND!
He been knowin’ her two days and ain’t looked in her purse once.” Nevertheless, he continued as my
mentor. He even allowed me to buy him dinner.
Marie materialized after the third show. A bunch of kids
lined the alley between the stage door and the street and made a lot of noise as we passed. She said the girls were
jealous and the boys were angry. Jealous of what? The boys call me “that grey boy”. She said
“grey” means white.
May 16. Like a Kansas City jam session, the card game
never seems to end. Ann Walls is usually ahead. The guys in Bill Black’s Combo have their own game in their
own room and never mix with the rest of us.
I asked Kolax about Budland. He said he hadn’t forgotten
and maybe we’d go the next night.
May 17. Kolax called the card players “freaks”.
“Five days and ain’t had a chick in here yet,” he rasped. He considers Ann to be one of the guys.
I went to the Sutherland Lounge to hear Lou Donaldson and saw him sitting in a big chair just outside the entrance
to the lounge. I introduced myself and told him I played with Ernie Fields. He said he had a toothache and didn’t
know how he would make it through the gig, but a few minutes later he was back on the stand, playing as if nothing were wrong.
In person, he sure sounds a lot like Bird.
May 18. Clifford, whom I hadn’t seen
since Saturday, called to invite me to a party. He gave me the room number and said he’d see me there in a few
minutes. I went to the room and knocked on the door and Billy Bland, looking surprised, let me in and gave me a can
of beer. The room got quiet.
Billy began to rap, imitating a fast-talking dj doing a news broadcast.
“Flash,” he said, “they just hung another brother in Georgia.” I recalled another engagement
May 19. Our last night at the Regal. Kolax said the next time
I am in Chicago he’d take me to Budland to sit in. I looked for him after I finished packing up, to say goodbye,
but he had already left.
May 20. There was a crowd around the bus as we prepared to
leave for Muskegon, Michigan. Marie was there.
“Call me when you’re in town,” she said.
“I don’t have your number.”
She grinned. “OK, I’ll call you.”
Waters left last night, immediately after the last show. In my ten days with the band we didn’t exchange
two words. Probably not personal; he never spoke to anyone. Harry and Fronzelle leave after Sunday’s gig.
The replacements are John Cameron (for Fronzelle) and Billy Davenport (for Waters). How do you replace a Lafayette Waters
and a Fronzelle Littlefield with a Billy Davenport and a John Cameron? It doesn’t seem right.
stage name is Prince Septi (long “i’). Ernie fired him because he was getting too much attention.
“He’s getting bigger than the band,” he said, without a trace of irony. Fronzelle has read books by
Hindemith and Goetschius and listened to Bartok and Stravinsky. He tried to explain the twelve-tone system on the way
to Muskegon, but never got past the part about no key signature. If there is no key signature it must be C major, said
Jack Scott, and if it’s C major, how could it be so far-out, Ernie wondered.
Harry James’s band was
leaving when we got to the hotel and I saw Willie Smith walking down the hall.
6:30 PM. We rehearsed with
Marvin Gaye, a new young singer. As usual, Fronzelle had trouble reading the charts and West had trouble seeing them.
He tends to drink. The new guys are good, although Ernie occasionally had to remind Billy to play straight eighth notes
on the newer arrangements; he keeps lapsing into swing patterns.
May 21. I went to
look around the hotel. Wyatt was standing in the doorway to his room and invited me in. A portable phonograph
was playing a Lester Young album and the TV set was tuned to a ball game. Roosevelt was sitting on the bed, watching
Wyatt asked about my family. I showed him a picture taken last September on my sister’s fifteenth
birthday. She had a corsage pinned to her waist. My mother was holding her glasses and my father and I had crew
cuts. My father looked uncomfortable. Wyatt shook his head at the wonder of it all. “A proouud family,”
Roosevelt held out his hand and Wyatt gave him the picture. He studied it, furrowed his brow, nodded
his head slowly and said solemnly in his deepest voice, “proud”. They both laughed. “Aw, man…”
West and Madeline were staring into a little stream that cut across a corner of the
hotel grounds. “We’ve got to go in,” she said. “Luther is starting to get upset.”
“Water is a basic ingredient of whiskey,” she said. “It
bothers him to see it all go to waste like that.” West chuckled. Madeline is the only one that calls him
Luther. Everyone else calls him Spurgeon, his middle name, except Jack Scott, who calls him “Wess” and John
Cameron, who heard it wrong and calls him “Spurgess”.
On my way back in I passed Ernie, dressed in
a Hawaiian shirt, Bermuda shorts and bedroom slippers. A sight, unfortunately, I’ll probably never forget.
Fronzelle was in the dining room when I went for dinner and he invited me to sit with him. He ordered rabbit
stew. (The Toulouse-Lautrec cookbook has a recipe for rabbit that begins with instructions to go into the field and
catch a rabbit. I found it in 1971, when Dinah Shore published her cookbook and gave copies to those of us who worked
on her show. I gave the T-L one to her for Christmas. All things considered, it would have been better for Fronzelle--and
the rest of us, come to think of it--if he had had to catch his dinner. We’d probably all be vegetarians.)
May 22. Harry brought his bags to the gig and left as soon as it ended. “So
long, suckers,” he said.
Fronzelle made the rounds, shook hands and wished everyone well. He’s
going home to Fort Worth, Harry to D.C. Neither one has a gig lined up but both seem more relieved than worried.
May 23. I have observed similarities and differences between this band and Bartley’s.
1) Size. Both started out bigger. Bartley began with twelve pieces in 1950.
No telling how big Ernie’s band was when it started (I asked him but couldn’t figure out the answer from the words
that issued forth), but by the late 1940s it was fifteen musicians plus Ernie and a singer. Now, Ernie has seven plus
himself and Ann; Bartley's band is probably still shrinking.
2) Silent drummers. Hooker rationed his
words; Waters never spoke at all. Billy doesn’t say much, but that may change when he’s been around a little
3) Baritone players who drink. But West is a nice guy who can play and Willy was a creep.
4) Trombone playing leaders. Sort of.
1) Bartley’s band had two cliques,
not counting Hooker and the Bartleys. Lee and Harold were know-it-alls and Lee once used the “c” word when
referring to blacks. Willy drank too much, Richard was stupid and Artie was crazy. Ernie’s band has no cliques
although Ann hassles everyone. All the rest are cool, now that Harry has gone. (Harry used to tease Fronzelle
relentlessly.) They hang together, like Wyatt and Roosevelt, or alone, like Jack Scott, but everyone gets along.
2) Money. Bartley was real tricky sometimes doling out our salaries a few dollars at a time. So far, Ernie
has been straight, but a bandleader is a bandleader. We’ll see.
3) Musical ability. Richard and
Don Hooker were great. Lee and Harold were very good. Artie was almost passable, Willy less so and Susan was awful.
In Ernie’s band, everyone can play except Ernie.
4) In Bartley’s band we could eat or rent or
go anywhere we could afford (the key word), except in the South, where as outsiders we were unwelcome. Wherever Ernie’s
band goes, north or south, there is a line that divides each town. Sometimes Wyatt will sound a local cat about whether
the town is cool, but whatever the answer, we seldom attempt to cross the line.
I went to dinner with Wyatt and Roosevelt. Wyatt is from Kansas City where he led the house band at a club and
even worked with Bird a few times. He’s vague about why he left. He stammered something about being “all
tangled up” but the only specific had to do with writing off the same piano three times. He said the IRS finally
gave up on him because he was too much trouble. That doesn’t sound like the IRS to me.
like Red Garland, whose name was unfamiliar to him. I wonder if he’s ever heard of Miles Davis?
got my ideas from Errol Garner,” he said. He pronounces Errol “Earl” and ideas “idears”.
May 25. Before I even realized that I had no place to live, Ernie explained, in flawless
Ernie--eese, that I would be sharing an apartment with John and Billy, and to make things less confusing for me he would deduct
the rent from my salary. (What is my salary? And what is the rent? Were those big gigs or little gigs in
Muskegon and Kokomo?)
The Apartment. A living room, a bedroom with a double bed and a studio couch, a kitchen
and a tiny bathroom. The bathroom looks as if it were added to satisfy some ordinance. John and Billy share the
bedroom; John gets the bed, Billly the studio couch. I’ll sleep on a studio couch in the living room.
My Roommates. Billy, late twenties, idolizes Art Blakey. John’s favorite is Coltrane although he himself
plays in an older style. He’s in his middle forties. He practices long hours and starts early each day,
playing fragments from tunes, transposing them into all twelve keys and playing them in all registers.
charge of the household, organizing, making assignments, compiling shopping lists. He’ll do the cooking, Billy
and I the cleaning. Both are good guys. John sleeps only four hours a night.
Jack Scott lives below
us in a tiny apartment reclaimed from a corner of the garage. He’s tall, thin, old, bald, sour, dour and either
cryptic or voluble as the situation demands. He has worked in Louis Armstrong’s band and Senator Bilbo’s
kitchen. He began as a guitar player but when guitar styles changed and Jack’s didn’t Ernie switched him
to bass. He has been with Ernie off and on for years. He was in the band in 1943 when Teddy Edwards was the tenor
Ann, Wyatt and Roosevelt live in the Small Hotel. West lives in an apartment with Madeline.
May 26. Rehearsal at the Cimarron Ballroom. Ernie spent most of the time trying to get
Billy to play straight eighth notes. Every time he started to swing Ernie stopped us and said, “They don’t
play that way any more.” He didn’t say who “they” were.
We went over the choreography
to “In The Mood”. West muttered to John and me that we had better get used to it.
27. A fairground in Independence, Kansas. I was sitting with Ann and Ernie and a couple of fans, drifting,
when one of them, a girl about my age, said something about “cute knees”, and I thought about Ernie and his Bermuda
shorts and I started to laugh and Ernie grinned and Ann got up and stormed off. I played it back in my head and what
she really said was that Ernie was “one cute n-----”. I ran after Ann and found her backstage talking to
West. I tried to explain why I had laughed. She looked skeptical. West put his arm around my shoulder and
said, “it’s cool, baby”. Ann mumbled something and went back to the stand.
May 28. Between sets I was wandering around outside and a guy and girl who had been at the dance invited
me to hang out. We went on a ride called the Whip, as in whiplash, in which you sit in a little car that whirls around
and tries to make you sick. Afterward I had to sit down and the guy went to get me a cold drink. My head was still
spinning when it was time to go back inside. The choreography on “In The Mood” was a real challenge; luckily
we don’t have to do it on any of the rest of the book. I think it was a holdover from the Dick Clark Show, before
I joined the band.
May 29. I’m still woozy from that damn ride. It may
have done some permanent damage.
I turned nineteen at midnight on the bandstand. I told Ann and she
kissed me; she must have accepted my explanation for that business the other night. Things like that must happen all
the time and things a lot worse; it’s easier to understand her attitude than the apparent equanimity of the others.
Ann is hard and angry, like her voice, and no one escapes her caustic humor, not even Ernie. She can repeat
his garbled utterances instantly, verbatim. He usually joins in the laughter, amazed that anyone could twist his simple
sentences so grotesquely.
Ernie gave me Pete Fountain’s record of “Just A Closer Walk With Thee”
and told me to learn it. I think he gave it to me. Maybe the cost will be deducted from my salary. By the
way, what is my salary? Is this a big gig or a little gig?
May 30. “It’s
still my birthday,” I told Ann.
“So what?” she said.
Ernie called up “Just A
Closer Walk With Thee” and it would have gone all right except I couldn’t remember the tag and had to play a couple
of extra choruses before it came to me, sort of like what happened to Fronzelle and Billy Bland at the Regal. My other
featured spot is “Moonlight In Vermont” which Ernie calls “Moonlight Over Vermont”. I’ll
have more as time goes on and we have a chance to rehearse.
I found out what West meant when he said I’d
better get used to “In The Mood”. We play it at least three tines a night, including during Ernie’s
interminable closing rap, which West calls “The Benediction”. And, as if the choreography isn’t embarrassing
enough, West, who has always had too much to drink, sometimes forgets which way to turn, which means some quick sidestepping
by John or me.
May 31. We left Independence right after the gig to save on hotel rates.
I couldn’t sleep on the bus and by the time we got to Tulsa I had a stiff neck from trying. I went right to bed,
but John started to practice without even a this-won’t-bother-you-will-it? He played the third and fourth bars
of “Groovin’ High” in the high register and the low register and all twelve keys and even above high ”F”
for more than two hours without a break. I ought to turn him loose on the manager of the Cimarron--he’ probably
pay me to come back and practice. I just lay there memorizing the cracks in the ceiling, too tired to close my eyes.
Finally, he stopped to make breakfast. Billy, who had slept all the way home, went right to sleep in the room where
John was playing. We had to shake him awake to tell him breakfast was ready.
John describes his cooking as
“south-side Chicago cuisine”. What it is is hot. I had to drink a lot of water, the only thing we
had besides beer; John forgot Pepsi when he was shopping for staples. I walked down Peoria Avenue to the Dairy Queen
to get a barbecued beef sandwich in a cellophane wrapper with a label that said, “Made for Monday”. Last
Monday or next Monday?
In the evening, John borrowed Wyatt’s car and he and Billy and I went to the Eagle,
a private club on a hill just north of town. Very private. The three of us and the husband and wife who ran the
place were the only ones there. He cooks, she plays the organ. Her name is Nikki and she’s the sister of
Aaron Bell, who plays bass with Duke. They gave us drinks and we played till 3AM. He stayed mostly in the back
but came out once in a while to listen. I don’t know what he did back there all night; there sure wasn’t
anyone to cook for.
By the time we got home it was nearly four and I had no trouble sleeping.
June 1. 8:00 AM and there he was again, up ‘n’ atem, working on measures five through eight
of “Billie’s Bounce”. I lay there until eleven and went to the Dairy Queen. The label still
said Monday. Last Monday or the one before? I passed on the sandwich and went to the only other place around,
a little market across from Ernie’s house.
The girl behind the counter was fantastic. I tried
to think of something to say but a little old guy kept coming out of the back of the store, stocking shelves or straightening
displays or just fussing around so I bought a package of donuts and left.
June 2. We
went to the club again last night/this morning and again we got home at four, but John may be wearing down. He didn’t
start to play until nine o’clock. It doesn’t seem to bother anyone else; Billy can sleep through anything
and the Fields family must be up early to get Carmen and Mrs. Fields off to school. Jack Scott would be the logical
one to complain, although it must be audible all over the neighborhood, but neither he nor anyone else seems to mind.
I killed some time and went across the street. The old guy was there, this time with an older woman. He did
his puttering around thing and she kept an eye on me. I tried again that afternoon and the girl was there but so were
about a thousand kids. I waited them out and after they had left I asked her, in a panic of indecision, for a package
“Cancer sticks, you mean,” she said.
“They’re for my roommate.
We live over there.” I waved toward Ernie’s house.
“How come he sends you out to get them?”
“He doesn’t. It’s my turn to do the shopping. Besides, he’s in the middle of practicing...I’m
taking a break...we play with Ernie Fields...I play the saxophone...”
“Oh year? My brother plays
sax. Drives us all crazy. How long’s it take to learn how to play?
John, Billy and I walked to a little theater near the Small Hotel, where they show a lot of unusual movies
and the bill changes three times a week. We saw “A Night At The Apollo”. Basie was in it with the
septet he had ten years ago with Wardell Grey, Buddy DeFranco and Clark Terry. John knows Clark Terry. I got a
lot of attention when we passed a big, busy pool hall. I wonder if Buddy had to put up with that kind of crap when he
was with Basie?
June 3. L.R. Roberts, the bus driver, has vanished. He was supposed
to meet the bus where it was being serviced, but he never showed up. Someone recommended Clarence, who used to drive
for the Tulsa bus line, so Ernie called him. Clarence smiled a lot and charmed us all by learning everybody’s
name the first time. He had never driven a bus with a manual transmission before and we did a lot of coasting and drifting
from lane to lane while he wrestled with the gearshift.
We played at a faculty dinner-dance at Langston
University. It was not our crowd. They were mostly older and danced stiffly at arms length, even during the fast
r&b and rock 'n roll tunes. Someone must have figured out that a Negro audience should have a Negro band, but
Bartley might have gone over better with this bunch. Ernie leaned toward the older things in the book and we only played
“In The Mood” twice.
Clarence asked the way home.
get here?” asked Ernie.
Clarence said he didn’t remember.
“Suppose you try,”
“Jesus Christ,” Ann howled, “we’ll never get home.”
laughed. The rest of us laughed. Ernie gave directions and off we went, grinding out the ninety miles to Tulsa.
June 4. A run down little “road house” a couple of hours north of Tulsa.
The audience was all white and I got the customary stares. In three weeks with the band we have played for all black
audiences, all white audiences and mixed audiences. So far not one white person has spoken to me, although the black
audiences seem to take my presence in stride.
Roberts is still missing and presumed fired.
Clarence has made no progress, but for all the grinding noise he doesn’t seem to have broken anything.
who hasn’t been with us since the first trip, was along this time. Does this mean we get less money?
June 5. I wonder why God had to rest? John Cameron doesn’t. He was up as usual,
with the sun, Emelye and me--everyone but Billy--working on the bridge to “Confirmation”. And I thought
I was dedicated. One of these days I’ve got to get some sleep.
I went across to the market.
I’ve been eating Twinkies for breakfast; John’s stuff is just too hot for me.
I can’t get used to spicy pork chops for breakfast, but aside from his cooking and his practicing, John is turning out
to be a good friend.
We went to the Eagle for “Blue Monday” but I was pretty tired and
had to sit a lot of it out. Wyatt came along and played. Great guitar player.
Rehearsal and an audition for a tenor player that lives in Tulsa and contacted Ernie. Ernie says we’ll see how
he plays and check his eyesight (sight-reading ability in Ernie-eese) “and if the playing is O.K. we’ll overlook
The rehearsal was short and the audition shorter yet. The tenor player couldn’t read
or play. He was a raggedy cat (so? Kolax said Bird looked like a hobo the first time he saw him) with a missing
front tooth and a beat up old horn. Ernie, who is usually not too sensitive, was actually nice to the guy. “It
sounds real good,” he said, “but we don’t have a spot right now. I’ll keep you in mind if something
opens up. Thanks for coming down.”
The guy went berserk. He swore at Ernie and told him not to
bother calling, he wouldn’t work for him anyway. The he cornered West and me and told us we were being exploited.
He must have known something. Both of last week’s gigs were little gigs and paid $12 each. I asked Ernie
for the other $26.
“What other twenty-six?”
I reminded him that when he hired me he said
that in a week we didn’t work he’d pay me “fifty cents, stay around town, maybe rehearse”.
He smiled benevolently and reminded me that we did work last week.
For variety’s sake, I went to the Dairy Queen for breakfast. I didn’t look at the date on the sandwich.
Clifford was driving by with a friend and stopped to tell me a funny story. It seems the band was on its way
to a gig and had to stop for fuel. The station attendant asked where they were headed.
going to play the Dairy Queen ball,” he was told.
“Some of them play good ball,” said the attendant.
A moment or so later he looked up and saw “Ernie Fields” on the scroll above the windshield. “Where’s
that,” he asked.
“Pennsylvania,” said West.
We went to the movies and
saw a couple of awful flicks. Afterward, we went to the Eagle.
Between staying up late and getting up early,
I’m really tired, but I hate to miss anything and if you want to improve your playing you have to play and play and
listen and play some more.
June 10. We worked in a run down place with weeds climbing
the walls and a couple of boarded-up rear windows. Before we went in, Ernie explained that this was neither a big gig
nor a little gig, but yet a third kind, and that we would split the gate. He said that the band had been playing there
for a long time and he felt an obligation. He ended his monologue by requesting that no one ask what kind of gig it
was. “Puleeez, he said.” Ann asked anyway.
The place was as much of a dump inside as out.
The low ceiling amplified the sound to deafening levels and the large, all white crowd was louder than the band. They
loved us, although they looked more like the sort of crowd Leon McAuliffe might attract.
We had to stay a couple
of towns away, in Baker. The hotel there was the only one around that would rent to us.
11. 2:00 PM. We rehearsed at a lodge hall above a row of stores a block from the hotel. Rehearsals
are mostly a formality these days; Ernie pretends to be angry about something and we go over it a few times. Then he
calls up a chart we never play on the gig and we read it once and put it away. No one seems to mind; rehearsals are
short and easy and there isn’t much else to do. The band sounds good, except for West. Ernie talks about
what a great player he is, but all I hear is a lush trying not to get lost. Too bad, because he’s a good guy.
We walked downstairs and waited for Clarence to load the bus. There was a package store below the lodge hall
and Billy and I went inside. He took a bottle of soda from a cabinet, put it on the counter and put a quarter next to
“You know, we have a back door for you people,” said the clerk as he gave him his change.
On the bus, Billy told the others what had happened. “They let us stay in the best hotel in town,” he
said, over and over again.
Ann once saw a sign that said “N-----, read this and run and if you can’t
read, run anyway.” Jack Scott said he saw the same sign. Then he told us about working in the kitchen of
Senator Bilbo’s Mississippi estate. I asked him if he had ever considered poisoning the senator.
“No,” he said. I’m a man and a man doesn’t do that.” He talked for a while, softly,
as if to himself, looking straight ahead from his seat at the front right of the bus. No one else spoke. He concluded
by saying, “Spooks the greatest people on earth.”
“Spooks,” said West.
It began to rain and the closer to Buffalo we got the harder it rained. It was pouring harder than
ever when we arrived. No one wanted to be the first to leave the bus.
John stood in the aisle next to my
seat. “You know you’re going to get wet,” he said.
“Yeah, I know.”
Clear through to your skin. Drenched.
The second you step out of the bus.”
I started to laugh.
“You see that place,”
he said, pointing to a cafe across the street.
“How about I carry your horns
into the gig and you go over and get me some cigarettes. I could drown looking for the back door.”
June 12. We had no choice but to start for Tulsa right after the gig. I don’t know what
Clarence did while we were working, but it probably wasn’t sleep; he drove off the road on the way home--ran the bus
right into the side of a mountain. Everyone was asleep except Ann and me but the others awoke in plenty of time to panic.
If we had gone off the other side we would have fallen several hundred feet. When we got to Woodward I went out and
got us a whole lot of coffee, although by that time no one really needed it.
Q. What’s louder than John Cameron practicing? A. Ernie Fields talking long distance.
I went outside
at 9:00 AM. John had already been at it for an hour and I needed a rest. Ernie was talking to René Hall
in L.A. He knew there was a two-hour time difference but he forgot which way it went. René asked him to
call back later, but Ernie had paid for three minutes, and, by God, he was going to talk for three minutes.
I told Billy I was going to get a haircut at a nearby shop.
“Man, they can’t cut your
hair, that’s a colored barber shop.”
I went anyway. It sure got quiet when I went inside.
June 16. The rehearsal today focused on “Begin The Beguine”, René Hall’s
new chart. Ernie presented me with the soprano saxophone I would play on the tune, a King (anything but a King, I had
pleaded) that looked as if it had been used as a hammer. The whole horn leaked, a couple of keys stuck and the notes
starting from the A above the staff were a quartertone sharp. What a piece of junk! Ernie was beaming when he
handed it to me, in a case that left black flecks in my hands, and he never stopped smiling when I gave him my evaluation.
“Maybe it needs a complete overhaul,” he said.
“An overhaul won’t tune the octaves.”
“It was only thirty cents,” he said. “Conn would’ve cost forty-five.”
June 17. Halfway to Dallas, Clarence missed a turn, and by the time anyone noticed
we were several miles off course. We stopped while Ernie studied a map and a guy pulled up and gave us a shortcut back
to the main highway. Ernie thanked him and said he hoped he could return the favor some day. Sheepishly, the man
asked if he could have one of our records. Ann laughed. “He was going to get one whether he wanted it or
not,” she said.
Ernie took a copy of “In The Mood” from a box in the luggage rack, autographed
it, and gave it to the man. A few minutes later, John looked up and saw that the box was part way over the edge of the
rack; one good bump (with Clarence driving, an inevitability) and it was sure to fall, most likely on his head. He tried
to move it, but something was wedged behind it. He reached in and took out a crumpled magazine, dropped it onto his
seat and secured the box. Ann picked up the magazine. It was opened to a story about Emmett Till and there was
a picture of him.
“N-----,” Ann said, “read this and run. And if you can’t
read, run anyway.”
The gig was at a huge crowded club midway between Dallas and Fort Worth.
Just before the second set, Fronzelle came into the club wearing a tux, carrying his tenor and holding hands with a beautiful
girl. He was working down the road and stopped in to say hello. He greeted everyone but Ernie.
begun to feel a little feverish earlier in the day and by the end of the night I was really sick. The last thing I needed
was fifteen minutes of “In The Mood”, choreography and all. Make that the second-to-the-last thing.
The last thing was West turning the wrong way twice and getting my tenor and John’s with the bell of his baritone.
The damage was minimal, just a scratch, really, but added to the way I felt it was too much and I blew up at him.
“Man, all I been hearing about is how great West plays. When am I going to find out for myself?”
As soon as I said it I wished I hadn’t, but he just chuckled and the others reacted as if they hadn’t even heard
A man in the audience pointed at me and asked Wyatt, “What is he?”
he’s an ofay,” Wyatt told him.
The man shook his head. “Never heard of them. He sure
looks white, don’t he?”
Dallas. Big D. Modern, cosmopolitan growing
Dallas is definitely not cool. So not cool, in fact, that no hotel where the others could stay would risk renting to
me and I had to stay at Ann’s grandmother’s house. I had to sleep on the couch. Damn this second-class
June 18. Waco. Ann, who was a lot nicer around her grandmother,
is back to normal. She had a rare losing streak at poker and borrowed $2 from me. I asked when I could expect
to get it back, but she just said, “we’ll see”.
West spent three hours practicing. He stayed
sober during the entire gig and played better than I have ever heard him.
I was in Wyatt’s motel room, at the head of the stairs, when we heard a commotion outside. Two voices, yelling
and swearing, two sets of footsteps running, stopping and running again.
Suddenly a man and a woman were framed
in the window. Both of them were drunk. He swung at her, missed, and hit the wall instead. He let out a
yell. She stood with her hands on her hips, laughing and taunting him. He swung again and missed again but the
momentum sent him reeling into her and the two of them tumbled down the length of the staircase. We ran out, expecting
to see them lying on the ground, but they were up and walking away, stumbling, holding each other around the waist.
Ernie Fields And His World Famous Orchestra, that’s us. A big hit record, a couple of smaller
hits, the Dick Clark Show, the Regal theater, the country’s Number One R&B band and bookings in some pretty classy
joints, like the one the other night near Dallas. And then again...
Tonight it was Temple, Texas, just south
of Waco. (Wyatt has been calling it “Whacko” since this morning.) The sign over the entrance said
“Rec Center” but “wreck center” would have been more like it. It had broken windows and chairs,
a tiny stage and a piano that may never have been tuned. Roosevelt counted thirteen keys that didn’t work.
He tried to get around the missing notes and wound up sounding like Thelonious Monk.
Billy’s bass drum kept
slipping. He took a hammer he kept for such emergencies and drove a couple of nails into the rotting floor of the stage
to brace the drum. The guy in charge of the building screamed, “What are you doing to my stage,” and ordered
him to remove the nails. Billy pointed out that the “damage” was already done, so why not leave them in
until we were finished, but the guy said no. So Billy pulled the nails and spent the rest of the night trying to keep
from kicking the drum off the stage.
And through it all, like a breeze from the Gulf, West, sober as a judge, gave
a performance that far surpassed anything I could have imagined. Good sound, good time, good ideas and most important,
good choreography. He really can play. After the gig, he pulled my sleeve and said, “well?”
“Spurgeon, you sounded great.”
“See,” he said. Then he took a half-pint bottle
of Bourbon from his jacket pocket and swallowed an amazing amount of it in one huge gulp.
Ernie gave me five bucks and said he would owe me the other seven for last night. Then he disappeared. The bus
was loaded and ready to go, but no Ernie. A man got on and asked if any of us knew where he was. Ernie owed him
some money, he said, and he was in a hurry and wondered if he could get it from one of us. No one moved a muscle.
The man left and Ernie returned a few minutes later, enraged that none of us would trust him. He gave speech number
six (subject: loyalty) punctuated by Ann’s mocking and Clarence’s impatient, gear-grinding in mid-babble.
The plan: drive straight through, no stops.
The reason: the Big Fight, Patterson vs. Johanssen.
Patterson won easily, of course, and we heard it on the radio. Afterward, my roommates and I went outside.
It was still light and people were celebrating all up and down the block.
Jack Scott came out of his apartment
dressed in a new suit. He had not seen the fight, but like the rest of us had only heard it on the radio. Nevertheless,
he gave an eyewitness account, complete to the minutest detail, repeating the final flurry again and again, embellishing it
with each retelling, pantomiming the action down to the last feint and beyond. He even showed us how Patterson winked
at someone in his corner at a crucial point in the bout. It was better than television, almost. Jack could not
have been prouder if he had whipped Johanssen himself.
But not all of North Tulsa shared the joy.
Billy and I went to the Eagle. The place was full of celebrants, but poor Nikki was depressed. She had lost $100
betting on Johanssen! How could she bet against Patterson? Hey, business is business, and since no heavyweight
had ever won a rematch...
We played until 3:30.
Wyatt’s mother is in the hospital
and he’s going to Kansas City to visit her for a few days. His replacement will be Ricky, who plays in an Ernie Fields-style
band made up of white college kids. Ricky stopped by to pick up the guitar book, since we don’t have time to rehearse,
and Jack brought him up to our place. He’s very shy. He hardly said a word to anyone and left after a minute
June 22. Toward Indianapolis. Poor Ricky. The guy hasn’t said
a word to anyone the whole way. Everyone tried to be friendly, even Ann, but he just sat there silently.
June 23. The motel manager came out to the bus to register us. “It’s a hell of a note
when a man can’t find a place to stay,” he said. He looked at Ricky and me and said, “You must be
the manager and the bus driver.”
West has been at it again. He must think he made his point last week,
because tonight he was as drunk as ever. John and I are grateful for the two worry-free nights.
24. Indianapolis. Ernie set a new record with his closing rap. It began on schedule, about
five minutes before the end of the date, and was still going strong fifteen minutes later. He kept saying “all
good things must come to an end” but it began to look as if he was wrong about this one. The place was deserted
by the time he finally let us off the stand. Ann, who could have split when the tune started, stuck it out to the bitter
end. I guess she figured everyone’s mad enough at her as it is. She got Ernie’s attention and pointed
to her watch, but he just laughed.
Working, practicing, jamming, the little movie house, the Dairy
Queen, the search for a place to stay on the road; it has all become routine by now. I am still a curiosity as far as
white audiences are concerned, pretty much accepted as part of the landscape when we play for blacks. It has become
a ritual by now: after every gig in front of a white audience, while we wait for Clarence to load the stands, the others tell
me about the questions they are asked. Mostly, it’s “what is he.”
John and Billy are great
roommates, Wyatt and Roosevelt great friends. West keeps trying to kill himself, I guess, with the booze. Still,
he is so knowledgeable and interesting and such a nice guy that spending time with him is worth putting up with it.
Ann and Jack remain standoffish, each in a different way. Once in a while she shows a flash of compassion or humanity
or something almost like friendliness. He is just plain weird although not entirely without good qualities.
I have been feeling weak; maybe staying up late, getting up early and eating the way I’ve been (or
not) have begun to take their toll.
Billy got me some Campbell’s chicken soup for lunch. I told
him Campbell’s didn’t sound Jewish but he said it was the chicken part that counted and made me a bowl of the
stuff. It sure was strong. I asked him how much water he had used and he said, “Are you supposed to use
water?” I got up and found some old lettuce and a can of pineapple. The only other food in the house was
lard, some frozen pork chops and a bottle of hot sauce.
By evening I felt a little better and started to walk with
John and Billy to the movies. I got a block from the house and developed a sudden need for a bathroom, so I ran back
only to discover that I hadn’t taken my keys. I knocked on Jack Scott’s door and rang the Fields’s
bell but no one was home at either place so I started back after the others when John, on a hunch, raced into the driveway
waving his keys.
I stayed home and slept until they returned. I actually felt pretty good by then, so when
they started out for the Eagle I told them to wait while I got dressed so I could go along. They both objected.
I convinced them I was OK, but when I got there I began to feel sick again. Nikki let me use the couch in the office
and I lay there until it was time to leave.
There has been a lot of concern about the trip to Denver.
No one has forgotten that Clarence once tried to drive in his sleep. Denver is a mile high and that’s a long way
Wyatt and Roosevelt came by this afternoon and with John and Billy we cornered Ernie and asked him to
get someone else to drive. Ernie did his usual routine--he moved his lips as he followed our words, laughed and said,
I know one thing: if Ernie isn’t on the bus, neither am I. He’s crafty--no
doubt about it--and he probably has the bus insured for plenty. And like most bandleaders, he has no respect for human
I could tell who was driving from the sound of clashing gears even before the bus rounded
Jack Scott, usually the last one on the bus, was first this time and he was wearing another new suit.
That extra buck for being the arranger must really add up. Soon, everyone was aboard but Ernie, who was standing in
the driveway talking to two men. He shrugged and pointed to the bus and the three of them climbed on. He introduced
them as detectives from the Tulsa Police and one of them said they were investigating a burglary at a clothing store.
Two rows in front of me, Jack Scott slid down in his chair.
The detective said they had a suspect but wished to
speak, purely routine, of course, to a couple of people who might have some information. “Does anyone know a Clifford
Watson or a Jack Scott?” he asked. The top of Jack’s hat was all that was visible now. He must have
been uncomfortable, as tall as he was, folded into that little seat.
No one knew either of the two gentlemen.
The detectives, looking a little sheepish, thanked us and left.
The trip has been miserable.
My head won’t stop throbbing and my stomach is clenched like a fist. It’s amazing how long five minutes
can seem in a cold gas station restroom at 4:00 AM.
We got to Denver just after 1:00 AM. Some
poet must have named this dump; who else could have come up with anything as charming as “The Ex-Servicemen’s
Club?” The others checked in and were given their keys, but the desk clerk said my room hadn’t been made
up and he would let me know when it was ready. I sat on a wooden chair in the lobby. After half an hour, I inquired
again about the room and got an unsympathetic response. Sick, cold, tired and hungry, I was afraid to eat, afraid to
fall asleep with my things spread out around me. The noise from the street was deafening and the lights burned my eyes.
Finally, the clerk growled, “your room’s ready. You want it or not?” It was 3:30.
room was a bed and a dresser. They could have built it in the time it took to make it up. The window was closed
but it was almost as loud as it had been downstairs.
I’m sorry about the time I asked
Richard Stevens if you had xy chromosomes. Please see if you can do something about my head and my stomach, will you?
Morning. I didn’t bother to see if there was a restaurant in the
hotel. It would probably be called The Mess Hall and feature chipped beef, whatever that is, on toast. And the
service would be lousy, at least for me. I walked to a coffee shop and started with orange juice, a big mistake.
I ordered a waffle and milk but the waffle was cold by the time I got back from the restroom.
On the way back to
the hotel I bought a bottle of Pepto Bismol. That was John’s idea. So is practicing at 8:00 AM. There
seem to be nothing but bars and liquor stores around the hotel--no wonder it was so noisy last night.
tried to nap. No luck. I tried the Pepto Bismol. What a name! Sounds like dismal. Whatever it’s
supposed to do, it didn’t, so I went out and got another bottle.
Dinner was a tuna sandwich from the hotel
coffee shop (called “Coffee Shop”) but I couldn’t eat, so I wrapped it up for later. I tried more
Pepto Bismol but the stuff was running straight through me. I’d better rest, I thought, and use up all my strength
on the gig. That way I’d be so tired I’d have to sleep no matter how much noise there was.
hall was big, elegant and empty. Maybe two dozen kids in full party dress were scattered throughout the room.
I made it through the first set but wasn’t up to the rest of the night. Ernie told me to go back to the hotel
and someone called a cab. I wonder what he would have done if the place had been packed? He said he’d straighten
me out for the cab fare but not a word about the bread for the gig. Hell, I’m still waiting for the seven bucks
from the gig in Temple, Texas a while ago.
The next day, Ernie and a man named Dick came to take me to a doctor.
Dick is married to Mrs. Fields’s sister, Madestella. I told them I’d be OK but they insisted. I tried
to explain about John’s cooking and how you have to play all the time if you want to improve and why I had been getting
so little sleep, but they didn’t seem to be paying attention. Madestella was in the car. They both seemed
real nice, especially since they were wasting Sunday taking some guy they didn’t know to a doctor he didn’t need.
The doctor’s office was in St. Joseph’s hospital. They sent for a wheel chair, of all things.
I told them I didn’t need it, but when I tried to walk up the steps I got tired and had to sit down. They
put me in a room and gave me a gown to wear. They weighed me: 125 lbs! On the wall was a picture of Jesus looking concerned.
The doctor’s name was Phillip Vigoda. He supervised the hooking up of some tubes and told me I wasn’t
going to die. Later, a nurse gave me a pill that helped me fall asleep.
Doctor Vigoda thinks
I might have mononucleosis. He tried to feel my spleen but couldn’t, so he brought in some of the other doctors
“How goes it?” they ask each other. And people think musicians talk funny. One
of them was a roly-poly little guy with a Pepsi in one hand and a Baby Ruth in the other. It was quarter to ten and
he probably hadn’t eaten since breakfast. When it was his turn to see if my spleen was enlarged he put down the
Pepsi, held the candy bar in his teeth and buried his hand in my side. He thought he felt something but wasn’t
“What else could it be?” asked Dr. Vigoda.
A woman wheeled a book cart into my room.
I selected “South Sea Stories” by W. Somerset Maugham. I’d be bored to sleep and not need the pills.
PM. Wrong about Maugham--the stories are great--but who names a kid “Somerset?”
Dick and Madestella came to visit. Ernie called from Tulsa. He said, “when you get well, come on
back, there’ll always be a place for you in the band and all the guys wish you well except Billy disappeared and we
were worried only we found a note that says he’s in love and gone back to Chicago.”
days in the hospital. I really want to get out of here. Dr. Vigoda says he still fears for my spleen.
Dr. Vigoda says I can go home tomorrow. Home? LA, I guess. I’ve sure had enough of
the road, at least for a while. I’ll rest up a bit then who knows, maybe start my own group, maybe go to New York.
There’s no telling what might happen.
©David Sherr 1988