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Harry “Sweets” Edison: Musical Travels & Travails

Archival interview from Bob Watt with the late great trumpeter

Opening day at the 1982 Kool Festival in New York City at the mayor's residence, Gracie Mansion. L to R: Lionel Hampton, Bill Pemberton, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Harry "Sweets" Edison and Freddie Hubbard.

Bob Watt, writer and French horn player with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, interviewed the legendary “Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison at his home in Los Angeles in July 1997.

Bob Watt [looking at photos on living room wall]: From which universities are you receiving degrees in these photos?

Harry “Sweets” Edison: That one is from Harvard…got another one from Yale…that’s the last picture of Billie Holiday.

Is that Dizzy?

Yeah, Dizzy and me …

Is that you and Frank [Sinatra] on stage there?

Yeah…yea, that’s when he retired.

I see you’re wearing an afro.

Yeah…yeah, that was in line then, [in style,hip] couldn’t get no action [attention from women] then without an afro.

So, what were your early beginnings like?

Well, I was born in Kentucky, my mother and father separated when I was six months old. After that my mother moved to Columbus, Ohio…so that’s home to me, Columbus, Ohio. I went back to Kentucky when I was five…on the farm and my uncle, who wasn’t really a musician…cause’ he never had any lessons or formal training but, he just liked music and he could read a little bit, ya know, so he taught me whatever he knew.

The same with me, I never took any formal lessons from a teacher who would show me the finer points of playing. Which I wish I had the opportunity to do because, bad habits are hard to break. There’s a right and wrong way but…I just got the results that I wanted and I just kept on playing the way that I wanted to play.

So, around my mother’s house, she used to listen to the blues all the time: Bessie Smith, Mami Smith and ah… Leadbetter [Leadbelly]. Louie Armstrong made a lot of records with Bessie Smith, he and Earl Hines at one time. So after I heard Louie Armstrong play I had no doubts that I wanted to try to be a trumpet player. I’m still trying…but there was only one Louie Armstrong. He was just about every trumpet player’s idol in my era.

So Louie Armstrong was also self-taught?

Oh yeah! He was an orphan. He played with the Jenkins’ Orphanage band in New Orleans, yeah.. [Jenkins’ Orphanage had a small band that went around the country playing to earn money.]

Did Louie Armstrong get formal training later in life?

No, no, never, but he had everything to work with and he could read music…he was a very good reader.

Where did he learn to read music?

Well, just like me, he learned how to read in high school and after listening to Louie, I wanted to learn how to play the trumpet like he did. I went to school in Ohio where I joined the school band. But, it didn’t thrill me at all. I wanted to play jazz. I wanted to take a solo.

So, you didn’t like the music in the school band?

No, no, John Philip Sousa and all that stuff? No…

Was this how you learned to read music though?

Oh yea, but then I liked sports so I played in the band so I could see the basketball and football games. I even went out for football at one time. I got hit real hard once and I took my ass right back to the band.

I played with a band around Columbus, Ohio. The leader was Earl Hood, he had a band and the first saxophone player was living next door to my mom and he heard me practicing one day and asked me if I wanted to join Earl Hood’s band? So, first thing my mother asked was, “Is he going to make any money?” My mother was always looking out for me. She was a mother and a father to me and supported me all her life until I left home.

So when I did leave home it was with a band called Morrison’s Grenadeers out of Columbus, Ohio. I later went to Cleveland, Ohio on a job and my mother came and got me, because, I got hungry. The job ran out so I wrote my mother to send me some money to eat on. She ended up coming to Cleveland to take me back home.

So another band came through Columbus, which was a good job and we went to Cleveland. It was called Jeter Pillars. They [James Jeter and Hayes Pillars] were members of the great Alphonso Trent band out of Arkansas. He had a fantastic band one of the territorial bands. Of course in those days there was nothing but big bands. Most bands had 12 to 14 players.

When you say territorial bands what do you mean exactly?

Territorial bands were named that because of the travel they did. They traveled everywhere, the South, Southwest, everywhere. But they never went up North because then they would run into bands like: McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, the bigger bands.

Did the black bands ever stay in hotels?

Aw, man no! A hotel? We didn’t know what a hotel was. There was no hotel you could stay in. In fact, the reason black bands had to travel so much was because there was no place for them to play except dance halls. There was no place on a permanent basis for the black bands to play. The hotels were all occupied by the big white bands: Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman…all the big white bands, they had all the jobs. They had all the staff band jobs on radio. That’s another reason why most black musicians became such innovators…originators, soloists, because after you learned how to play the scales, the only thing you could look forward to was going on the road with some band. You couldn’t study your instrument and expect to join a symphony orchestra or join a radio staff band. That was a no, no. So, black musicians had to play solos to make a living. The first thing you had to do was go into a night club, there was no music, you just played for the singers and then you would play what you wanted to play, you see.

There were some great trumpet players in those days that were capable of playing in symphony orchestras. Like, ah, this one trumpet player, who played with the Basie Band… his name was Wendell Culley. He was the most brilliant student that Schlossburg had from Boston. Wendell was from Boston and his ambition was to play in the Boston Symphony. He was capable but he couldn’t get an audition. There was a trumpet player with the Fletcher Henderson band named Russell Smith. He was the most brilliant student that, Vincent Bach, the trumpet maker had. He could do anything on the horn that Dell Stieger, or any of those trumpet players who wrote books could do, they were what you called the elite of the black trumpet players.”

So they could read anything?

…Read anything…you know but, they couldn’t get a job in any white band so, they ended up on the road with Fletcher Henderson and Noble Sissle, you know? So what was the need of studying your horn to the point that you were just so articulate on it, that you…that nothing was too hard for you to play. Those guys could just ‘read around the corner’ and they were certainly capable of being soloists with symphony orchestras, but they couldn’t get even close to an audition. So they ended up just like me… I never had a lesson, but I was with Basie all my life. So, there was no other place but these bands for black musicians to play even though they knew their instruments like these two trumpet players.

And that was the late Thirties?

The late Thirties, yeah…all through the Thirties …you had to really want to be a musician to play your horn in those days because the only thing you could live for was to be on the bus everyday with the big bands.

You didn’t travel by public transportation?

Oh no, we had a bus…an old bus. Basie rented a bus, but it was like the yellow school buses with the motor in front, not like the Greyhounds of today. These were old-time buses–our knees and legs were sore half the time because the seats were so close together, you know. The isles were so narrow. Jimmy Rushing had to walk down the isle sideways the isles were so small. Jimmy was fat, you know, Mr. Five by Five, we called him.

You did very long bus trips didn’t you?

Oh man! We’d do like 250 one-nighters a year…260…270 one-nighters a year. The only relief we had when we came off the road was to play in the Savoy for maybe two weeks or if we were playing Theaters we’d go in the Apollo for a week, on 125th street in Harlem. From there to Philadelphia, then to Baltimore, at the Royal Theater, next to Washington D.C. at the Howard theater and from Washington, your next stop was Virginia and then all through the Blue Ridge mountains.
Who drove the bus, did you have a driver?

Oh yea, we had a driver. Basie rented a bus from a company called Charlie Lerf, which was in New Jersey. They furnished a driver.

A white driver?

A white driver, yeah…well, there were no black bus drivers in those days. So we drove all through the South, Mississippi, Texas, we’d stay gone for about nine months. Coming back to New York, we’d play the Regal Theater and then Chicago for a week. Then we’d start playing one-nighters in Indiana, Ohio, and then back to New York. Then we were off for 3 or 4 days, enough to sleep in your own bed for a few nights, and soon you’d get a call, and you were back on the road again.

In those days we were only making $9.00 a night. I think Basie was making $15.00, but in those days, that was good money you know. I was only paying $8.50 per week for a furnished apartment in New York. Most of the time we stayed in the Woodside, you know the song, “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.” The rooms there were $1.50 a day…I think Basie was paying $5.00 a week for a suite. Yea, the Woodside 147th and 7th Avenue, a black owned hotel.

But I tell you, I wouldn’t trade those days for anything, because Basie had such a band…you looked forward to just being together and playing. We didn’t even get tired on those 271 one-nighters. Sometimes you had to sleep all day in the bus, change on the bus and then go right on the bandstand. The white bus driver had to go to the market and get us sandwiches, because as black men, we couldn’t go into the grocery stores or restaurants.

You couldn’t go into the grocery stores either?

No! We had to go around the back of the grocery store if we wanted something. We lived through that kind of thing daily.

So when we did stay in hotels, they were more like rooming houses. Black people who owned these rooming houses were set up for the black big bands, because they came through on a regular basis. Some people set up their houses for the bands. They would provide three meals a day for a $1 per day, you know…or ‘pitch til’ you win,’ where they would lay all the food out on a table and you could eat all you wanted. Most of the black people in the South, who owned those homes and rooming houses were mostly doctors and lawyers, you know.

So, when we hit a town like Houston or Fort Worth, there was a black hotel called the “Jim” hotel. Atlanta, Memphis, Winston Salem, Nashville, some of the larger southern cities did have black hotels.

So you never played or traveled in the north?

Well…no, in the North there were not many places for black musicians to play. But, in the South they were devoted to jazz…they were jazz lovers. They loved to dance, you know.

We used to play dances in those tobacco warehouses in the Carolinas and you’d be so sick when you finished because they had the tobacco hanging overhead curing and drying out. We played all through the South. All the black bands had to travel like that to make a living. Except, bands like Ellington, Cab Callaway Chick Webb…Chick stayed in the Savoy most of the time in New York City. Duke was in the Cotton Club all the time. Then there was the “T.O.B.A. CIRCUIT” which meant, “Tough on Black Asses,” when we traveled into extremely racist areas. So, I tell you, you really had to want to play your horn to be a black musician in those days.

When I first went to New York I joined Lucky Millinder’s band because I came from St. Louis where I was playing with a band there called Jeter Pillars. We were playing in a place in St. Louis called the Plantation…and it really was like a plantation, you had to go in the back door, if you got anything to eat you had to eat in the kitchen.

So, if you had to eat in the kitchen, how many of the members could eat in the kitchen at one time…how many players were in the band?

I think we had: 2 trumpets, 1 trombone, 3 saxophones, and a rhythm section. Let’s see…Jo Jones was in the band, old man Jo Jones, Walter Page, myself and after Bennie Moten died, Basie took the band over and he sent for Jo Jones and Walter Page because they had originally played with Benny. After they left Jimmy Blanton joined the band, the bass player who went with Duke Ellington. Then we got Sidney Catlet with the band. And ah…after he left Kenny Clarke came and joined.

Then Lucky Millinder sent Harold Baker to join his band, not knowing that Harold Baker had already left St. Louis and joined Don Redman’s band. So the tenor player, Harold Arnold, had his ticket and Harold Baker’s ticket. He told me, “You’d better come on and take this ticket and go to New York.” I said, “Well the man didn’t send me a ticket that’s for Harold Baker.” He said, “What the hell, he ain’t gonna know the difference no way” I said, “Yes he will! He knows my name is Harry Edison not Harold Baker.” I was going with a girl there at the time in St. Louis. She was one of the chorus girls and she had already gone to New York to dance in the Cotton Club. She was a showgirl too. So, he said, “Well your old lady’s (girlfriend) gone you better come on.” So I said give me the ticket.

So I went to New York and joined Lucky Millinders band. I was with Lucky for 2 years until he fired me for Dizzy…and then Dizzy went with Teddy Hill, because Teddy Hill was going to Europe, so Lucky hired me back. After that a trumpet player with the Basie band got sick. He was only about eighteen or nineteen years. He used to waste [outplay] Dizzy, Charlie Shavers and myself every morning. Man, he could really play. Every morning we’d go looking for him, his name was Bobby Moore. Til’ I got tired of that and stopped taking my horn. Shit, I just listened. That was in 1938.

So there was a lot of that type of competition in those days?

Oh man…yes! You couldn’t get sick. If you got sick somebody would take your place and that was your job, see also, because everybody in New York could play… and in those days everybody had a distinct sound. Everybody had a sound that they could be recognized by. All the singers had a distinct sound and everybody played different. They used to say they’d rather be the world’s worse originator than the world’s greatest imitator. So for example, you had Coleman Hawkins, if he was playing on a record there was no mistake that it was Coleman Hawkins. Lester Young playing a tenor solo on a record was always identifiable. If you heard trumpet- Louie Armstrong, on a record, nobody sounded like Louie Armstrong. Nobody sounded like Red Allen, nobody sounded like Roy Eldridge, nobody sounded like Dizzy. Nobody sounded alike, there were so many great trumpet players in those days. Trombone players had a different sound, Benny Moten, Dicky Wells and the drummers, you could always tell them apart. Philly Joe Jones you could always indentify because he originated a lot of the things that most drummers still do today. No body sounded like Ben Webster, no body sounded like Art Tatum. No body to this day has ever sounded like Art Tatum. People are still trying to get what Art was doing way back in the thirties.

Bands also sounded different, Duke had a real special sound and style in his band and Basie had distinct style in his band. Chick Web had a special style and sound in his band. Everybody wanted to be different. No body wanted to even dress the same. But, now days if you hear one, you hear ’em all.

All the trumpet players either wanna play like Dizzy or Miles. All the tenor players either wanna play like Coltrane or Sonny Rollins…and all the alto players try to sound like Charlie Parker.

Not a bad idea.

Yea, but there wasn’t but one Charlie Parker. The way he thought about what he wanted to play, you could do the same thing. Even if it was bad… it was yours.

Where did Louie Get the name “Pops”?

Well, they used to call him Satchmo before they called him Pops. He was such a nice guy and a great friend of mine. He used to come and hear me play. He’d sit out there in the audience and he’d say to me, “You played your ass off. The only thing I don’t like is the mute. Take the mute out, let’em hear you.” He’d say.

Louie didn’t play much with a mute?

No, not with the big mute [Harmon mute]. He had a little special straight mute he used every now and then, but he didn’t really like using mutes, he wanted to be heard.

Could you talk about New York City in those days?

Oh yeah! New York City is still the Mecca of show business. Like the song says: “If you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere.” It’s true.

Why did they call New York the Big Apple?

Well, every city was called an apple when you were on the road going from city to city but, New York was “The Big Apple.” But New York had so many names in the past, so who knows where the term big apple came from.

New York was the kind of place that would make you wanna go back home if you were not working or not having any success. It was just that kind of place. I recall when we used to get a meal for 15 or 20 cents in New York. Room rent was a $1.00-$1.50 a week. We used to check into these places early in the morning after playing all night and we’d sleep all day while the landlord was there and when he lift in the evening we’d sneak out without paying.

When I first went to New York I lost so much sleep staying-up all night that I fell-out on 7th Avenue one night and had to go the hospital.


Yeah, just exhausted. Staying up all night for three, four days in a row. Just worried that I would miss something. For example, when everybody got off work for the evening we’d all go to Monroe’s Uptown House…a place where they jammed all-night…and there was Dicky Wells…so many joints you could go and jam after 4:00 a.m. They had a place for just trumpet players, a joint for saxophone players, tenors, alto, they had a joint for everybody, you know.

Could a trumpet player go to a flute joint to jam, could you cross over?

Yea, if you could handle it, but usually they only jammed against each other. So, if you were a trumpet player in a flute joint you had to just leave.

I remember one of those uptown houses where Charlie Parker used to go and jam, 4:00 a.m. every morning, Ben Webster, Don Byas, Hot Lips Page, trumpet player…I can’t remember all the guys that were around New York in those days. But New York was such a competitive city and if you didn’t play well while you were on the bandstand, the owner would come up and tell you to get off the stage.

Is it true that some musicians got beat-up for not playing well enough?

Oh yea, they’d take your saxophone and tear it apart and tell you to come back when you learned how to play.

These were people from the audience?

Yea, oh yea, people from the audience! Remember, that audience was used to hearing the greatest players in the jazz world so, you didn’t dare insult that stage.

I was living on 131st and 7th Avenue and Art Tatum was playing just a block away in a place called the Birdcage. Man, you couldn’t get in or out of that place it was so crowded. Don Redman’s band was playing across the street on 130th street in a place called Connie’s Inn.

All the jazz was uptown in those days; there was nothing downtown. Small’s Paradise was a place up on 138th St. where Billie Holiday used to sing every night, the Rendez-vous, where Louie Jordan used to play every night, the Savoy was on Lennox Avenue. Ethel Waters had a place where she sang all the time, ah, down on 118th St. was Minton’s Playhouse. Ethel Waters owned Minton’s Playhouse.

So white audiences came to these places too?

Oh yea, oh yea, they all came uptown. The bands at the white hotels would be finished at 1:00 a.m. Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller at the Pennsylvania Hotel, would be finished early and they all came uptown and for a while. They’d bring their horns too, but they soon stopped doing that, because they would really get a lesson on how to play jazz uptown. Harlem was a learning ground, a learning field. And like I said, there was nothing downtown but the Cotton Club and black people couldn’t go there.

Did this anger you that black people couldn’t go to places like the Cotton Club?

No, we were happy, shit, everything was uptown. We were happy because we were playing what we wanted. We were giving vent to our feelings. We played what ever we wanted to play. Those white bands always had music in front of them. Basie’s band had no music when I joined. They were not good readers anyway…even Count Basie wasn’t a great reader. So, everything was “Head arrangements” [by ear] there was no music: “One O’clock Jump,” “Swinging the Blues,” there was no music. In fact, I got a little disturbed about this and I quit. I told Basie I was quitting. He said, “Well, I don’t know why, you’re playing well.” I said, “I want to learn how to read. I want to better my condition. One of these days I’m going to have to read. I just wanted to be a better trumpet player, learn to read well, play in a studio, you know? Or make a record date if I got called.” I told Basie that his band had been playing the same music since the Bennie Moten days, back in the early thirties. So, I stayed there for another twenty years off and on. I remember a trumpet player named Louie Metcalf. They called him the king because he used to wear a crown on his head. One of those velvet crowns with gold threads and gold trim.

Was he a good player?

Oh he could play! Oh man, he could do it! But I think a guy named Jabo Smith, who was also a hell of a trumpet player used to give ‘Pops (Louis Armstrong) a hard time. When he came to town he used to blow that crown off the King’s head. So, Louie Metcalf and Jabbo Smith. Oh! Man, what trumpet players, Rex Smith… there were just so many great players in those days.

Were all of the jazz recordings with these particular players done in Harlem?

No, they were done downtown. The record companies were all downtown. Decca, Columbia, and others.

Did these companies have a problem recording black bands?

No, because they were selling all the records. Record dates in those days paid $14.00 for a 3 hour minimum, by the way.

Was that $14.00 fee paid to black musicians only or was this paid to everyone?

Oh no, that was union scale. That was Local 802 union scale. And Local 802 was always a mixed union.

Never segregated?

No, no, because there were so many black musicians. Like all of Duke’s band, all of Cab’s band, Chick Webb’s’ band, Benny Carter’s band ah… Benny Carter, now there was a musician who was the absolute epitome of the profession. He was absolutely the best…and such a great guy. Every time I played with him it was like a lesson. He was a perfectionist and a great friend.

They waited so long to give a black musician like Benny Carter the recognition he should have had 50 years before. Benny had to go to Europe like most of the great jazz musicians had to do. He was music director of the BBC Jazz department in London. Then he went to Amsterdam in Holland and became the music director of the radio band there. Of course the Europeans were avid jazz fans even before Americans. They were so art-oriented you know. So a lot of jazz musicians just left America forever. New York was also very prejudiced at that time. There were a lot of places you couldn’t go if you were black in the downtown area.

That’s the reason Irving Mills’ name is on a lot of tunes that Duke Ellington wrote, like “Sophisticated Lady” and “Mood Indigo,” because at that time a black man couldn’t have a publishing license, so Duke had to give Irving Mills [a white man] 50% of the proceeds to get his songs published. So a song written by Duke Ellington would read on the music: Composed by Duke Ellington and Irving Mills. So, in a way you could say that the whole world would have been deprived of Duke Ellington’s music if it were not for Irving Mills… until later years, when things changed. Of course Duke later got his own publishing company “Tempo Publishing.” So tunes like “Take the A-train” for example were published by Duke’s own publishing company Tempo. Ellington had one of the highest ratings in ASCAP.

He’s up there with Irving Berlin and Gershwin. But look at the money those guys were making before Duke Ellington could publish his own music. And then on top of that they said that his music was Jungle Music…that his chords were too close together.

But Duke’s music was brilliant!

Yea, but they said that his chords were too close together. And now there were chords that I couldn’t tell you what they were.

So it was the same with Louie Armstrong. I remember when he first came to my hometown. He played at the Palace theatre downtown Columbus. The trumpet players in the pit band said that it was impossible for a human being to do what Louie Armstrong was doing on the trumpet. They claimed that because of the range of the trumpet (from low-C to high-C) Louie Armstrong must have had a trick horn because Louie could play five to six notes above high-C with ease. There was a trick that some trumpet players used in those days. They put chewing gum in the mouthpiece and then pierce the gum with a toothpick making a tiny hole. This would allow the player to play extremely high notes almost a whistling sound.

So, they claimed Louie was using this trick to make his high notes.

But he just played a standard trumpet?

Yea, he just had a plain B-flat trumpet. But the rumor got so carried away that when Louie played in the Palace Theatre the pit players wanted to see his horn. So, he let them see it. They played and tested it and they found it to be a regular trumpet. So on the Palace stage that day Louie said he was going to hit 200 high C’s in a row and they said, it was not humanly possible. So Louie started playing high C’s shufflin’ across the stage as he played. Aw man, he was a thrill to watch. He hit over 200 high C’s and ended on a high-F and blew that sucker out loud and full.

So, there was always suspicion when a black musician was extraordinary in those days. There was always talk of some trick or cheating. But Pops [Armstrong] used to play hard everyday. He would travel on the road alone and go into the pool hall, where you found most black musicians in those days. Sometimes the band he picked up would be sad or terrible but Pops would make everybody sound good.

But Pops did everything on trumpet that was possible. I was talking to Dizzy once about that… and shit, I’ve known Dizzy since 1940, that’s 57 years, before he died, you know. So Dizzy said “Well, Sweets if you’re going to play a decent solo on the trumpet you gotta play something that Pops has played.” And he was right. I don’t care if it’s Miles or anybody, you gotta play something that Louie Armstrong has played. He’s played everything on that horn that can be played. Like Coleman Hawkins, the first tenor player to start running the chord changes [improvising on scale degree chords]. Because before that everybody was improvising and swinging on the melody like Louis Armstrong.

But, now Coleman Hawkins started making a chord on every note of the scale. You know Coleman Hawkins was originally a cello player. He was a great cello player… and a great piano player. Still… there was Louie Armstrong who just changed the world of trumpet playing. He just blew away all the big time trumpet players of those days. Like Bix Beiderbecke.

Who was the trumpet player that Clifford Brown admired so much?

Oh, Fats Navarro?

Yes, Fats Navarro!

Oh yea, Fats was a great trumpet player.

What ever happened to him?

He overdosed on drugs. Yeah, most of those young guys that came up in that Bebop era overdosed on something.

I’ve always heard that he was great beyond belief, was that true?

Oh man, Fats was a great first trumpet player…a great lead player, oh yea he had a great big fat sound on the trumpet. They called him “Fat girl.” He was a big fat guy also. But you know he just dwindled down because of that dope, he went from 200 pounds down to about 80 pounds. That era with that dope really destroyed a lot of potentially great saxophone players. Everybody thought that if Charlie Parker could play while he was high on drugs they could get high and play like him. Those young players copied everything Charlie Parker did. If he played a melody wrong they would all play it wrong. Yea, Charlie Parker was something fresh for New York.

Yeah, the Bebop Era was another era. The Swing Era had gone. It diminished because people stopped dancing to the big band music. Then the small bands started to come in playing in little nightclubs like John Kirby’s band. He had the first of the small bands that really made a name for themselves. Then people started sitting and listening instead of dancing. So that just wasted the big bands.”

So did any big bands survive?

Oh sure, only a few bands survived like Duke Ellington, who kept his band going off of his ASCAP earnings he was making so much money from his music. But all the other bands fell by the wayside, because the bus bills were getting higher and higher. They stopped riding the Charlie Lerf buses and started riding Greyhound buses with air conditioning, which were more expensive.

I remember when Duke Ellington was paying $500 to $600 dollars a week to his band, when we were making only $9 dollars a night. But Duke was a special case. His ASCAP ratings were so high the he could afford to have a band and also nobody could play Duke’s music except a big band. So, all the bands broke-up as the cost of living increased and all the bands, even Basie’s band broke up in 1950. He had to settle for a small band of only seven players. Benny Goodman and a lot of the white bands folded because the hotels didn’t make enough money to pay them. People stopped dancing so the demand for the music of the big bands died out. There was only one hotel with dancing in New York and that was the Rainbow Room.

Was the Big Band Era a truly beautiful time, a beautiful scene?

Oh, it was a beautiful scene to be involved with! Oh man, everybody was playing and every time you went to a joint in New York you’d get a music lesson.

They had a hell of a French horn player in New York, oh man, I forget his name.

Julius Watkins?

Yea, Julius Watkins, yea he could play. I knew him well.

He could change timbres and sound like a trumpet or woodwind.

Yea ! You know he never got mentioned. He’d take a gig like a trumpet player, because he actually had that kind of trumpet technique on the French horn, it was amazing.

Didn’t he play on Broadway?

Yea, but much later. In those days there were no blacks playing on Broadway. Like during the days of Ethel Merman and people like that, blacks couldn’t get a job on Broadway, No, no way.

How about George White Scandals?

No, no blacks were in that at all…George White Scandals and Ziegfield Follies? No blacks were in that, except the comedian Bert Williams and he was real light-skinned, but he blacked his face. He was funny though. He popularized the saying “If you don’t help me, don’t help that Bear” he invented that kind of stuff. And Phil Harris made a record of this stuff.

Being in Basie’s Band gave you a good amount of musical status in those days?

Oh, well yea, being with Basie did give you a lot of status. If I hadn’t been with Basie’s band I would have been just another trumpet player running around the streets of New York. And…it gave me a little bit of a reputation, for example, if I joined Dukes band you had to read a little bit and it was a difficult book. You had to be in Dukes band a long time before you would catch on. And there were guys there that wouldn’t tell you what to do either. They would just tell you ” Learn it like I did, can’t you read?” But, after a while you caught on…and Duke never fired anybody. So, you just stayed in his band until you caught-on. He was the best bandleader, ever. He knew who he wanted in his band and that’s who he hired. And you really had to mess-up bad to get fired from Dukes band. We had a few guys in the band who used to drink that southern Corn Liquor-White Lightning, they called it. That’s how it was in Basie’s band.

Most musicians in those days smoked reefer and drank whiskey. That was as far as most players went. So, if you smoked reefer, you could buy 2 joints for a quarter in New York in those days. So most guys did that. And the joints were fat in those days. There was a guy named Mezz Mezzro, a clarinet player who sold the stuff and made nice fat joints. And the police never bothered you for smoking a joint. You could smoke right in front of a policeman with no problem. There was no problem until cocaine and heroin came around. You could get busted for that. Once you got busted in New York for drugs you could never work in a nightclub again. That’s why Billie Holiday never worked in a night club in New York after she got busted. She couldn’t get her cabaret license.

Oh, so one time when the Basie Band was down south old Walter Page would find him a bottle of that “White Lightning” somewhere and Basie would say, “Give me some of that” ya know? Basie was right along with us drinking that corn liquor.

So when I first joined Basie’ band Pres’ was my roommate. We paid like 25 cents each for a room, ya know down South. We were playing in Kansas somewhere and after a concert and Walter Page found some of that corn liquor and came in the room drunk, we were rooming in this lady’s house and the next morning when we were checking-out of the room and about to pay, Walter Page asked the woman who, rented us the room, “How much do I owe you for that potted ham that I ate last night?” The women answered, “I knew I was missing a couple cans of dog food.” He was so drunk he didn’t know the difference. He made sandwiches out of it, put mayonnaise on it and everything, he didn’t know the difference he was so drunk. He snored all night.

What really killed the uptown jazz scene?

Rock…rock n’roll. The Beatles came on the scene ya know…! Birdland closed in 1955 so things were changing fast, ya know. That was the biggest jazz joint in New York. And when the Beatles came to America, Jazz really took a dive. They had some good tunes, but I was not a Beatle fan. So, if it wasn’t jazz I wasn’t really interested.

But I’ll tell you an interesting story. When Basie was in England on a comeback tour with Joe Williams the tour promoter asked Basie to come to Liverpool with him to hear a group that he was booking, “Maybe you can help me do something with them.” So they got in the Limo, went to Liverpool and when Basie heard this group he said, “What the hell can I do with them?” It turned out to be the Beatles. That promoter was going to give Basie 50%.

Has the term “Jazz” become meaningless?

Jazz will never die, but the way they do things now is that they have jazz festivals and not one jazz musician will be present. They have musicians coming from all over the world to play jazz at these festivals and some of your greatest jazz players are right here in LA or in the United States. This is because the public has not been exposed to really good jazz for a very long time and they don’t know what’s good. Duke, the Basie band when it had Lester Young and all of those guys ya know? Johnny Hodges……That was music…that was the era of Jazz!

But, right now, I wouldn’t know who to say was a great jazz musician. Of the youngsters coming up I would say Wynton Marsalis, because he is a complete musician.

And I’ve told him about the black trumpet players in the 30’s like Wendell Cully, and Russell Smith who were capable of doing the same things you’re doing, but the time wasn’t right then. They didn’t allow black musicians to rehearse with the Symphony Bands (Symphony Orchestras). So, he’s doing more for jazz than any of the youngsters today. Because he never fails to mention Louie Armstrong or ah, Bunk Johnson, ah King Oliver, trumpet players like Charlie Shavers, he never fails to mention old-timers who kept it going, through hell and high water ya see?

Remember those old-timers did a lot of one-nighters and that’s what killed the good bands like Fletcher Henderson. The guys just got tired of travel. Some of the guys took jobs running elevators in New York. Some were doorman at theaters downtown. There was a band called McKinney’s Cotton-Pickers, man they could play. They had Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins and Don Redman in the reed section. Oh man, they had a hell of a band, ya know? And they all went there separate ways and gave up the band. Fletcher gave the band up and started writing for Benny Goodman. That’s when Benny Goodman started sounding good, shit. But they didn’t have the feeling that Fletcher’s band, but they played the music. Fletcher even started playing piano in Benny Goodman’s band, because he was making money. He started looking better, because he got off the road, ya know.

Was there a problem with a black man playing piano with an all-white band?

Well no, not at the time. But, when Benny Goodman had Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson playing with him he had a lot of problems in the South, but they survived. Benny Goodman could go into a hotel and play there for 6 months if he wanted to. In six months, Basie’s band would have done 160 one-nighters. Basie’s band did have one hotel job in New York, the Hotel Lincoln but then they tried to say they didn’t want us because we played too loud.

So, Basie said, this is our chance to change their opinion about the black bands. So we got those bucket mutes and Basie knew how to stomp-off a tempo. He was the greatest in the world at this. Everything would swing that he’d stomp-off. So, we got those bucket mutes…and Basie had a great sense of dynamics in his band and it was swingin.’ He was the greatest. He never said anything critical to you. If you made a bad note he’s look up at you and smile. But, I tell you, those New York days were something else. If I had it to do over again, I’d do it the same way.

Originally Published