A Jazz Fan Recalls Great Music and Racial Injustice in the 1950s

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

About seventy years ago when I was a young teen and a precocious collector of jazz, my mom made it clear she was unhappy with her youngest son. The conversation ran like this: “Jazz has a bad name. You fool around with it and you’ll wind up like Gene Krupa.” (Gene had his day in court ten years earlier, in 1943.) My dad came to my rescue by reminding her that “no one should be tar-brushed without good reason.” I continued collecting.

Upon graduation from high school, I indicated I intended to move to New Orleans. That worried her, too. She had heard bawdy tales about New Orleans. However, In June of ’53, my parents drove me as far as Louisville and I caught a train from there to the “bawdy” city. A year and a half later, after I became a member of the Army’s Third Infantry Division Band, I heard no complaints from home.

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For some, jazz has had a bad name from its earliest years. The word “jazz” had a strong sexual innuendo attached to it. Early in the last century, New Orleans’ Storyville, had its many “houses of ill repute” entertaining both the townspeople and most of the sailors from the New Orleans Navy Yard. Besides the “ladies of the night,” most houses also offered jazz pianists, who usually featured ragtime.

Some people pointed accusingly at the many steam boats with their jazz bands. Check the Chicago newspapers of the early part of the last century and you’ll discover when dixieland jazz made its appearance in Chicago, the paper reported on people protesting the arrival of a jazz band. When the boats kept bringing entertainers from New Orleans, the tar brush became “hot,” but so did the music of folks like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong.

Since there are over two dozen different kinds of jazz today, it’s almost impossible to pin a “naughty” label on all of them. For jazz lovers today, it’s almost a moot issue. Furthermore, the USA, perhaps most of the world, has become a wee bit more licentious, especially with some of their habits, their language, their clothing, etc. Jazz seems very comfortable in this environment. High school auditoriums are full of parents for a good high school jazz band.

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Over a three-day period, close to 26,000 people come to downtown Elkhart for its jazz festival. Chicago has well over 50,000 jazz lovers who find their way to Grant park around Labor Day. Jazz is very popular in both Asia and Europe, big time. Excellent jazz music and its fine musicians have made jazz what it is today: a first rate art that reaches out to everyone.

Unfortunately, many musicians, especially from the last century, faced many problems, especially racial problems. During the late ’30s and early ’40s, Milt Hinton’s wife Mona and other wives of the band members would go to the next venue/city and find accommodations, including food, for the band and the women. Mona said it wasn’t just the southern states that practiced segregation; for example, most theaters all over the country still required blacks to sit in the balcony for performances.

The same problem existed concerning eating establishments. Ellington used two train cars to travel which helped ease most of the traveling problems. (Also, to digress, the trains usually would stop near a field where Duke could get his guys out for a ball game.) When trumpeter Red Rodney traveled with Charlie Parker, he was billed as “Red, the mulatto” when they played before black audiences, especially in the South. Those were some tough years for the musicians, but they loved what they were doing and they made a go of it.

While in the Third Infantry Band at Ft. Benning, one of my scarier moments occurred when Marv Jenkins, Dinah Washington’s reed man for many years, and I decided to take a bus from Benning into Columbus, Georgia, where there was a key club. That was in 1956 when blacks were still under seige. It was the only club we knew of that would allow Marv, sax in hand, to get in the door. Harry Truman had desegregated the military almost ten years earlier.

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However, the civilians were a bit slow getting around to it. When we boarded the bus at Ft. Benning, we hadn’t heard about the huge racial problem that had flared up in the city. Apparently, a well-dressed black man walked into a store in downtown Columbus with the intention to give the owner a petition. When he reached into his coat to pull out the letter, the owner shot and killed him. The next morning the white man was found dead. Marv and I had chosen a bad night to come to town.

Marv Jenkins
Marv Jenkins was an accomplished pianist and organist as well as being a flutist and tenor saxophonist. He had to sit in a different section of the auditorium when he and the author were at Ft. Benning together in the 1950s. (photo courtesy www.freshsoundrecords.com)

As our bus passed by a large city park, we both saw hundreds of men in white sheets and holding torches. We decided to stay on the bus and go back to the base. Thank God, that kind of terror has somewhat dissipated; regrettably, it has not quite disappeared.

That same year, 1956, four of us decided to travel north to Atlanta for an Ellington band concert. Not only were the black musicians stressed, the audiences took a few hits too. Marv was with us as usual. When we arrived in Atlanta and purchased our tickets, there was no problem. Then, we walked into the auditorium and saw down the middle of the seating was a long, heavy rope. When we entered, Marv was told to sit on the left side and his three white friends were seated on the right side of the rope.

It had been a long drive and we simply wanted to see and hear a great jazz band. Marv and I sat next to one another with Marv on the left side of the rope and the three of us on the right side. Duke never said a word about the seating. Marv remarked as we left that he was pleased that there was no balcony in the building. Duke, perhaps, felt the same way.

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When I think about jazz and New Orleans, my first love for jazz related to the music provided by the black New Orleans bands. Their jazz was built from several sources: ragtime, church music, marches, field songs…to name a few. When I first came to New Orleans in ’53, my first choice was Papa Celestin’s trad band, the only all-black band I can recall, other than the funeral bands. The other bands on Bourbon Street were white. Now, over a half century later, for the most part, jazz is no longer either black or while…It’s “just jazz.”

I titled this piece “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” to reflect the history of jazz. The “Bad” and the “Ugly” might still be floating around out there; however, jazz today wears many “coats.” When folks tell me they don’t care for jazz or just plain dislike it, I ask, “What kind of jazz do you dislike?” When I see jazz being advertised simply using the word “jazz,” I usually give them a call and ask them what kind of jazz. Jazz has come a long way from those Storyville days. Its diversity contributes to its staying power. Enjoy your jazz, folks!


The reader can find Marvin Jenkins in many Dinah Washington videos on YouTube. 

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