[JPL] Memories of Duke, and Al Sears

Tom Reney tr at wfcr.org
Sun Aug 8 05:52:44 EDT 2010

>From the New York Review of Books website


    How My Father Came to Meet Duke Ellington

      Jeremy Bernstein </contributors/jeremy-bernstein/>

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 
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rm0qnvnRlMg>. 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 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ggcQk67Mco>."

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 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZA_JxaA1ddA>.

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 
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqA83c6GuLk>. 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 
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_55RJopDEIc>. 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 <http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/billystrayhorn/>. 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.

/August 2, 2010 1:45 p.m./

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