Roving thoughts and provocations

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How My Father Came to Meet Duke Ellington

Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images
Duke Ellington and his band at the Oriental Theatre, Chicago, 1934

When I was in high school I decided that I wanted to be a radio announcer. I found out that if you went to Radio City there were studio tours and you could even watch some of the programs in process. I took the tour a couple of times and then decided that it might be possible simply to walk past the people at the entrance looking as if I knew where I was going and wander around the studios unescorted. Indeed this is what I did. I spent hours in the observation booths above the studios watching programs being put together. I loved the sound effects men. A rain storm was the shaking of a sheet of metal and gun shots were slapping of one board against another. I was also fascinated by the fact that radio actors looked nothing like the characters they were portraying. This was the 1940s and television was still a rarity. For a while I spent nearly every Saturday in Radio City.

One Saturday I wandered into a large studio, where several African-American musicians were sitting around with their instruments close by. One of them had a pocket chess set and was trying out some moves. I knew something about chess and asked if he would like to play. He was a scholarly looking man with horned rimmed glasses and introduced himself as Al Sears. I had never heard of him, but he was one of the great saxophone players of his day. He was not, however, a very good chess player and I gave him a few pointers while some of the other musicians came by for a look.

This went on for awhile when an elegant looking man came on stage and sat down at the piano. He played a few riffs and the most astonishing thing took place. The other band members took up their instruments and began playing as they walked onstage. I had learned to play trumpet and knew about marching bands, but this was not a marching band. They were playing in intricate harmony by ear. I had never heard such a thing. The man at the piano was, of course, Duke Ellington, whose picture I had seen, and what they were playing was Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

Sears played the tenor saxophone and, I later learned, had replaced the great Ben Webster in the orchestra. Sears had been born in Macomb, Illinois in 1910. I don’t think that he’d had much of a formal education. As a teenager he played with Fats Waller in Harlem and then at age 18 he replaced Johnny Hodges on the alto saxophone in Chick Webb’s band. There was some irony in this because at the time I met Sears, Johnny Hodges was the alto saxophonist in the Ellington orchestra and many people, myself included, fell that he was the greatest alto saxophonist who ever lived.

Al Sears

Sears played in various orchestras in the 1930s when he was discovered by John Hammond. The great-grandson of William Henry Vanderbilt, Hammond was a wealthy New York socialite who had developed both a passion for discovering talent and for civil rights. He persuaded his brother-in-law, Benny Goodman, to integrate his orchestra to include such people as Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. He had some musical training but it was in 1927 when he heard Bessie Smith sing that he decided that his mission was to get black artists recorded. He developed a relationship with Columbia records, which at his suggestion signed such people as Count Basie before the war and Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen after. He was one of the nicest men imaginable.

Hammond took over as a sort of unofficial manager for Sears, arranging for him to lead a USO band during World War II. Its success brought him to the attention of Duke Ellington. He joined the band in 1944 and continued for several years. He also wrote music. One of his more successful songs was a jive tune called Castle Rock. I asked him what the title meant. Since he was a bookish man I expected some erudite answer. “Jerry,” he said to me, “a rock is a f—k and a Castle Rock is a great big f—k.”

I spent all the Saturday afternoons for the rest of that year listening to the orchestra in that studio. I got to know some of the musicians a little. I was of course interested in the trumpet players. There was Harold Baker who had a marvelous tone, Ray Nance who also played the violin and William Alonzo “Cat” Anderson. Anderson lost his parents at the age of four and was sent to live in the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston where he learned the trumpet. That is also where he got the nickname “Cat,” it is said, because of his fighting style. He had a career with various bands until he joined Duke Ellington in 1944. Ellington used the special talents of his musicians as if they were colors in a painter’s palette. In Anderson’s case it was an unusual ability to play in a very high register. In some of the recordings of driving jazz you can hear Cat’s trumpet over the whole brass section.

Cat and I became good friends, and one day he told me that he wanted to start his own band but did not have the money. I had an idea. Nat “King” Cole was performing at one of the Broadway theaters. I said that I would go and talk to him about it. Of course I had never met Cole but I had a lot more audacity than I have now. I went to the theater and actually spoke to Cole in his dressing room. I just walked in. He must have wondered what a white high school kid was doing there but he heard me out and then said no.

The one person who was around the orchestra a great deal whom I never really got to talk to was Billy Strayhorn. A diminutive man in his early thirties, he looked like a teenager. Ellington called him Swee’ Pea. He had had a difficult childhood and was largely raised by his grandparents. It was his grandmother who introduced him to music. He wanted to be a classical composer but at the time this was not a career open to blacks so he turned to jazz. When he was a teenager he wrote one of his best known songs, “Lush Life.”

In December of 1938 he met Duke Ellington after a concert and explained how he would have arranged one of the numbers. Ellington was impressed and they began a close collaboration that lasted until Strayhorn’s death in 1967. The Ellington sound from those days bears the influence of Strayhorn. He sometimes played the piano; there is a record of him and Ellington playing together and you can’t tell where one stops and the other begins. Despite the fact that Strayhorn was openly gay Lena Horne seriously wanted to marry him.

After I went off to Harvard in the fall of 1947, I saw Sears on at least two other occasions. The first was actually at my parents’ home in Rochester, New York. I learned that the Duke Ellington orchestra was going to play in nearby Batavia at a time when I would be home for vacation. I asked my parents if Sears could stay with us the night before the concert. My father, a Rochester rabbi, had been very active in civil rights and he readily agreed. I think that Sears was very pleased. Black musicians on the road, unless they could stay in private homes, had pretty shabby accommodations.

The next day Sears, my father, and I drove to Batavia. When we got there Sears asked my father if he would like to meet Duke Ellington. My father said yes and the two of us sat in the Berry Patch restaurant while Sears went and got Ellington, who joined us. I think that he knew my father’s profession. The first thing Ellington asked him was, if he was stranded on a desert island what would be the two things he would like to have. Before my father could say anything, Ellington said that he would take the Bible and Lena Horne.

The other time that I remember vividly was the following year at Harvard. The orchestra was playing in Boston and I invited Sears for Sunday lunch in Eliot House where I was then living. Sunday lunch was always a little special, a little more formal. Students brought dates or their parents. I brought Sears. It just didn’t occur to me that he would be the only black face in that entire room. All I knew was that this wonderful musician was my friend. But I could tell that he was very uncomfortable. Some people looked at us. I am sure that no one knew who he was. When we parted I somehow felt that I would not see him again. He left the orchestra that year. Johnny Hodges had a band and Sears joined it. He played a part in the emerging rock and roll scene and later founded a music publishing company. He died in 1990.

Now, all these years later, when I listen to Duke Ellington records from that period I find it difficult to believe that I knew these people. They seem part of another life.

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