[JPL] Memories of Duke, and Al Sears
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'
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>.
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
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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