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November 16, 1989
November 22, 1989
Louis J. Marchiafava and Charles Stephenson
LJM: Today is November 16, 1989. This is Louis Marchiafava interviewing Mr. Campbell A. Tolbert for the Texas jazz Archive Project, and we are in his business shop. I want to thank you very much for participating in the program, and we are very honored to have your name included with the other artists we’ve interviewed. I would like to begin the interview by obtaining basic background information. Where were you born and what year were you born?
CAT: I was born in Calhoun Falls, South Carolina. My father was a minister, a Presbyterian minister. And moving around, we finally ended up in __?__, North Carolina, a very small farming town. There I finished grade school, and then we had to move out to another city to go to high school. So, we moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. And there I was in boarding school for eight years through high school and college. Johnson C. Smith University is a very well known school now. That’s where I started playing with the university band and with the popular outfits around the city.
LJM: Let me go back and get more information about your family. Was your father involved in music?
CAT: He played the mandolin. My mother played the organ. She played for church services and things like that. So there was a sort of musical background there. Well, I had three brothers, and each one of them played something. But the others chose to go out in different directions. In fact, [during] my college career I was trained to go to medical school. But I was playing right along. I went to medical school, and I didn’t like it. So I left there and went on to New York. When I got in New York City, I had to find something to do, so I went around and rehearsed. That’s what you have to do to get to be known. And finally I got a job, and I found out after I got the job I had to know more about the music. So, I hadn’t done really any formal [study]. Most of it I just picked up, you know, in working with the band. So I went over to Columbia University and took my credentials over there from North Carolina, and they said, “Okay, but since you don’t have any music [on your transcript], you’ll have to go the choral route. We’ll have to give you a master’s degree because you already have a Bachelor of Science. But instead of thirty hours, you will have to take about sixty or sixty-five hours in order to get the music on transcript. So I didn’t mind that because I wanted to start right from the beginning and go right through. So this is what we did.
In the meantime, since I wanted to catch up and go as fast as possible, Juilliard [School of Music] was about two blocks down the street from Columbia University. So I’d go down there and take extra hours in theory, sight singing, ear training, that type of thing. So there I stayed throughout my graduate college career, and by that time I’d gotten my first hit [that] I made at WPA. It was a song written back in there by Jesse Stone, and it was overnight we were a success at that. So then Decca Records signed me up and said, “Well, okay. Now you’ve got to write. We want all original tunes.” So, that’s when I really started writing, composing, and I was already arranging for my group. I had a six-piece orchestra. As we got popular, the Cotton Club, in the summertime it was closed, so during the winter months they would have Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Jimmy Lunceford and bands like that. But they wanted to cut down. But they thought they couldn’t find a group that could play the show. So an agent that I knew told me, “Look. I have a group that can play anybody’s show.” He had booked us on. So we made an audition for the Cotton Club, and we are the smallest band that ever played at the Cotton Club. We played the shorthand dance music. Stayed there about two years. Once you get in with that mob, they like you! You can just go around to practically all the big clubs in New York City. So then we became a part of that group, recording, playing from one of their clubs to the other until Petrillo stopped everybody from recording. And at that point, we weren’t gaining any popularity because the life of any orchestra is to keep on making hits. So, since we can’t record, we couldn’t do anything with them.
So, that was the beginning of all these little groups around. Guys with one string, they called it the tipper or something like that. It was a one-string deal. It looked to me like a small guitar. And they’d pick this thing and then sing. So, four pieces or four voices with a couple of guys behind them, they started building that thing, which meant the fall of big orchestras. So, although we worked, and we were doing well, then all the boys started to come back from the Army services, and they were musicians. They probably passed through there during the time they were in the service. So, they made up their mind they wanted to make New York and join the big time. So the clubs started hiring them because they were good musicians, but they probably would work for less. So they started telling us, “You can’t make that big money anymore now. You’ve got to take what you can get.” So I refused to do that. I had gotten my degree. So I said, “Well, okay. I’ll just try to teach now for a while.” And in the meantime at my hometown back in Charlotte, North Carolina, they wanted me to come down and take over a high school band. So I said, “Well, I’m going to try it for a year.” The money was nothing. But just to get away and then I’d come back in the summertime and find out how things were. Okay, I went down to North Carolina and was quite successful that first year. We had a terrific band. So they said, “Okay. Well you can work during the summer, and you can improve your band, and you’ll be tops next winter.” I said, “Okay.” Polio broke out so we had to close the school.
LJM: What broke out?
CAT: Polio. All the kids, they were afraid for them to get together because that was raging at the time. So I went on back to New York and stayed the balance of the summer. And I saw things weren’t any better. So I went back to North Carolina, and I was there for about two weeks in September, and I got a call from one of the boys that used to play for me to come here to Houston, Texas, to join the faculty of Texas Southern. At that time it was Texas State. That was from 1948 to 1949: the last of 1948 to the beginning of 1949. In October of 1948. So I just took the train and came on down here. So I worked without any intent to stay here though. I’m going back and forth each summer to see what was going on. If it was any better, I was going to stay if it had improved any. But it wasn’t improving.
So I just came on back here, and, well, okay. Our boys, the black musicians weren’t making any more than five or six dollars working matinees and nights. So a couple of them said, “Come on and play with us.” And I said, “Well, how much is the money?” Well, when they started telling me about this money and all these hours. “I can’t do that.” I said, “The thing we need to do is get a union together and set standards.” Well, they were almost afraid to do that. The reason is [the owners] around here wouldn’t hire them at all. So I said, “This is the only way out. All we need is about twelve members to sign your name.” We had to have twelve members just to begin with. That’s what they had to have. So I wrote Petrillo anyway, and he said, “Okay. We’ll be there in 1950. We are meeting at the Rice Hotel, and you come down and meet the board and we’ll listen to you and see what you have to say. If you can handle it, okay.” So when they came here in 1950 I went down to Rice Hotel and met with them, and Petrillo said to me, “What makes you think you can run a local?” I said, “Well, I don’t know, but I have a lot of experience in the Union, and I belong to [Local] 802.” He said, “802? In New York?” I said, “Yes, that’s right.” He said, “Well, okay.” Someone had said, “No, don’t give it to him.” I think it was the Secretary of the white local. “Don’t give it to him. He wouldn’t know what to do with it.” And what was he doing there? He had been collecting ten percent off of all the traveling musicians. You’re supposed to sent it in to the Federation, and he’ll send you a portion of it back for collection. He was just keeping all of it.
LJM: Who was this?
CAT: Stokes. That’s his last name. I forget his first name. But he was the Secretary of a white local, Local 65. All right, so when this question was directed toward Stokes from Petrillo, he said, “Who said this man couldn’t run a local? He belong to one of the strongest locals in the United States.” So he said, “Okay. You’ll hear from me.” And within a week we had all the necessary things we needed and a charter. So we started from there. And I was President of that local from its inception, June of 1950 to 1965 when everybody had to integrate. So then we became part of Local 65. And I was serving on the Board then, and finally I came off the Board and went back as Vice President. And I was there until I retired about two years ago. It was taking up too much of my time. And you didn’t get a salary.
LJM: No salary at all?
CAT: The salaried people in the local would be the president and secretary and, of course, the secretary’s secretary and the walking delegates, assistant delegates, that type of thing.
So during that time . . . . Now when I came here in 1950, it must have been around . . . . I don’t know what year Arnett [Cobb] came down here. I had seen him once. I had seen him once in New York. Because after he made that Flyin’ Home that was so popular [when] he was with Lionel Hampton. So, a bunch of student that knew I was going to school there at Columbia said, “Let’s go hear that Flyin’ Home with Arnett Cobb.” So that’s all we talked about. We knew Lionel Hampton’s band. We knew what he could do, but Arnett was the hot musician in that band. He was one of the leading featured musicians in the band. So we went down there to see him. That’s the first time I had seen him. And I didn’t see him anymore until he came home then. And that’s when I met him the last time . . . . He was kind of sick. We took him to the hospital and saw him through that. He came out. He was a man with nine lives. In New York he was down, and they thought he wasn’t coming through. His picture was in the paper. And I had seen that. Anyway, during my recording years, I think I recorded from them for about seven or eight years. In that time I did about forty tunes. And out of the forty tunes were two winning pictures: the Andrews Sisters did my Ride On, and Net “King” Cole did my Hit the Jive, Jack. I’m trying to name the popular ones. Ride On went in Always a Bridesmaid was the picture. The Andrews Sisters did that. And Nat “King” Cole did Breakfast in Harlem that was the featured tune in there. The one that Duke Ellington used, Fat and Forty, that was the only blues I ever wrote. All Hibbler did it with Johnny Hodges’ small group. Fat and Forty, Lordy, You Are My Meat. That was the name of the thing. I didn’t want nothing to do with it, so I asked Louie Jordan. We were good friends, and both of us were recording for Decca. So I said, “Louie, look. I have a blues here, and you see I don’t want to sing with the group here, soloing.” So, I said, “Why don’t you do this for me? You do one of my tunes, my blues, and then you give me one of yours, and I’ll do it on my next session,” So that’s what we did. And Louis Jordan made that. Well, Al Hibbler, Duke Ellington’s vocalist, the blind boy, heard it and he like it and used to use it. Now after a good many years, I guess he figured, “Well, it belongs to me.” And he was telling people he wrote it! Anyway, wile Duke was in France, he went over there, he and . . . what’s the boys name that wrote with him? [He] did most of Duke’s arranging, Anyway, it will come back. Al Hibbler decided that was going to be his tune. And he told me, “Look. Let me do a blues record with the session.” So we said, “Okay.” So Johnny Hodges and the five-piece set played and then he sang Fat and Forty. And so then he told them “Whose tune is it? Is this mine? I wrote it.” So they said, “Are you sure?” “Yes.” “Okay.” So they made it. Well they let Duke know what they were doing. But anything . . . . If you write something in Duke’s band up, you wrote something in Duke’s band, he’d put his name on it, too. So when it comes to who composed Fat and Forty, it was Hibbler and Ellington.
Then when I heard it, well, it came and blasted every place. They opened up an outlet there in Washington, D. C., and they were pressing these records and sending them out. And they couldn’t get enough of the fast enough. And it happened that I was in Washington to play at Club 500. I had a gig four weeks there, and usually when I went to a town I’d just get my records and go out to the radio stations and they’d talk to me and play some records. So I went by the record shop and asked the girl to let me use some of my tunes. She said, “Look, have you hard the latest rage?” I said, “No.” She said, “Listen to this.” So she started playing it. I said, “Who sings it?” She said, “Al Hibbler.” I said, “well, it sounds like Johnnie Hodges’ group.” So she played it all the way through, and by the time it got through, I said, “Wait a minute! This is my tune!” So I asked her to play it again. And she played it again. And I said, “That’s my tune!” She said, “No, it says Al Hibbler and Duke Ellington.” I said, “No, do you know who is pressing this?” She said, “It’s right down here on T Street by the theater.” I went right down there, and I said, “You’ve got Fat and Forty?” “Oh, yes.” There was one fellow in there. He was busy. He was running and packing and getting ready to ship and do everything. So he said, “Have you heard it?” I said, “Yes, I just heard it a few minutes ago.” He said, “Oh, man, that’s going to be something else. Look. It’s number one already. And we can’t press records fast enough.” I said, “Well, are you handling the business?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, I’ll tell you what you’d better do. I’ll tell you what not to do. Don’t start spitting up any royalties until you hear from me because that’s not Al Hibbler’s tune.” So he said, “What?” I said, “No. That’s my tune.” He said, “What’s your name?” So I told him. He said, “I saw you in the paper. Are you going to be there at Club 500?” I said, “That’s right.” He said, “Well, look. I’ll tell you what you ought to do. You need to call New York and talk with Mercer.” Well, Mercer [Ellington] and I were in school together then at Julliard.
Mercer is Duke’s son. He’s the one that has the band now. He had one boy. Mercer went to Juilliard at the same time I did. He was studying, but he could never play very well. However he got a band together and went out of Broadway, and it didn’t go over, so Duke said, “Look. You don’t play anymore. You come and work in the office.” So ever since then, he’s been working in the office. During the later part of Duke’s performances he used to come to the Shamrock Hotel. He would play fourth trumpet and just looked after little things. He’d just run here and be sure the library was straight and things like that. So, this is what he was doing up until Duke died. When Duke died, they got this show together and turned out a good band. He really turned out a good band. But, anyway, I talked with Mercer, and Mercer said, “Do you know one thing? I knew that wasn’t his tune. Look. Dad will be here in the next week, and he’s opening at the Paramount Theater. I’ll tell him you’ll be there on Wednesday between shows, and I’ll set up the thing for you.” So I went down, but I took Louie Jordan’s record, and I was telling Duke . . . . Well, he wasn’t very much impressed. “Well, anybody can walk in here and just tell me anything.” I said, “Well, do you want to listen to this record?” So he says, “Well, what is it?” I said, It was made by Louie Jordan and my name is on the record.” So I said, “Look. Since you helped write it, you were the co-author, you and Al Hibbler, what was Al Hibbler saying in the release of the song?” He said, “What was he saying in the release?” I said, “That’s right!” He mumbled something through there, you didn’t even get the words well [that] he thought he heard on that record. It sounded like something about “hopping . . . puppy dog tails or something. It was something ridiculous, and it didn’t have anything to do with the song. So he said,. . . You know, I asked him that: ‘what were the lyrics’, and he just brushed me off and never did tell me.” I said, “No, because he didn’t know!” I said, “Now do you want me to tell you what the lyrics are? I’ll write them out and you can look at them.”
In the first place, he wouldn’t know to take the same route I took in writing these lyrics. I had ridiculed the woman first: “Fat and forty, she’s my meat.” And then I go down in the middle part, and I wanted to ease up a little bit on her, so I said, “In the days of old when knights were bold, they were pious and __?_ I’m told. But can’t you see that wouldn’t be me. I’d have to talk about your yams and your big, fat gams” and back into it, you see? Now, Duke said, “Yes. It’s your tune.” So, he said, “What are we going to do about it?” I said, “I want all the money that you’ve made so far, and from then on, we can talk about it. Because you didn’t sign no contract. In fact, you are giving me a bad time, firs thing. Then you did it without my permission!” He said, “Well, let me get some of the money back.” I told him, “I didn’t tell you to spend anything on it.” So he said, “Well, why not let me handle it? Let me publish it.” I said, “Okay, if we can get a contract together, we can do that. It has to be standard, number one.” So, okay. This is what we did. But he tricked around there in some way and tried to say that I signed it over to him, gave him all the money that he was giving me for royalties. I beat that rap! I got about $5,000 royalty.
LJM: Five thousand dollars. Were you satisfied with that?
CAT: Who can see the books, you know. It’s been like that . . . . Well, I used to hang around with the older musicians: James P. Johnson and all those guys. Any they would tell me, “Hey, kid. Look here. Do this and do that and don’t do this, no, because this is where we got.” Well, I learned some of the tricks, but there are so many trucks. Right now, all my tunes are being played in Europe, and I’m not getting a dime! I get letters from Europe. I received one from France about two years ago, and this guy said, “Look. We were wondering where you were and what you are doing, and we play your records all the time.” They read a little write-up. It was in some international magazine. And then he found out where I was and wrote to me. He said, “Look. What are you doing now? When are you coming this way? What have you made new. We have all your records. All the guys that played with you and all that type thing. And then we have some records that were made that your name is not on them, but your band did it because we can tell by the style.” And it was true. “And I ran right out to the music store, and I found two or three that I didn’t have, so I bought them.” He didn’t tell me what they were. But, anyway, I knew then it was still being played.
Then I got a call from Canada about two months ago, and this lady wants to use Hit that Jive, Jack which she wants to use Slim and Sam’s record. She said the record is just like new. And that’s what they wanted to use, but they had to get permission from me. And I said, “Well, okay. What kind of deal are we talking about?” “Well, this is going to be a documentary.” I said, “I don’t care what it is, I’ve got to have some money.” So, she said, “We knew we had to give you something.” And I said, “Well, what are we talking about?” She said, “Oh, well, we’re prepared to give you a hundred dollars.” I said, “Lady, I’ll give you a hundred dollars not to call me anymore!” She called me several times since then, but I just said, “No. Forget it!”
Then came this last video. Now, I’ve got to track that down. I wrote to the company, but I haven’t heard from them. It might be somebody on the new Fox Agency. I believe the do it from the United States, and you give them a percentage of what they’ll get and they’ll follow it up. But I haven’t had a chance to write them, and I haven’t had time. And, then, there’s one in Europe. I have his name, too. I think he’s in England. And he’ll make a search through the European cities. So this is what I need to do because I’m losing too much money.
LJM: You gave me an outline here. There are lots of questions I’d like to ask you now to fill in some of those details. Let me go back and start, not exactly from the beginning, but close to it. How did your parents introduce you to music?
Cat: They didn’t. What happened was I used to listen to my mother play the organ. She didn’t let us. We were small, and she didn’t let us play the organ because it was one of those pump organs. And the first thing, we couldn’t reach. . . . . We were so small, you couldn’t sit on the stool and pump it. So what I eventually did was get up and pump it with my hand and get up and play till all the air gets out. So, anyway, she didn’t let us because she was afraid we’d break the straps. She went to town one day. I’m a twin. I had a twin brother. So I told him to watch out for her, I’m going to play the organ. So he said, “Okay.” So I got in there and pumped it up and started playing. The only thing I knew were hymns. I’d hear my mother and father sing and things we did in church. So when she came home, after a while she came back and he was supposed to let me know, but he forgot. He was up under the house playing and doing something else, and he forget all about it. Well, I was playing a hymn, both the leads and fill-in parts and the bass. So, I was playing this hymn with __?__, and she came up to the house, and she could hear it out in the street. So she came on in the yard and eased the screen door, (it was in the summer time), walked in, just tipped in, to see who is playing her organ, and there I was, playing. I was playing a hymn with all the parts and everything. So then since there wasn’t anybody else, when I slid down off the stool to pump, I thought I saw somebody and looked around and there she was! Boy, I thought I was going to get a whipping. So she said, “Who taught you to play like that?” I said, “Nobody. I just played it.” So she said, “All right, let me hear you play the end. Wait a minute!” So she sat at the organ and pumped it and put me on her lap and I played. And so I played the hymns again. So she said, “Okay. I’m going to give you music lessons.” So she started giving me organ lessons, and I started learning the keyboard there, but, you see, I wanted to go on and play these other things, and she wanted me to get the fundamentals. So, we didn’t get along very well long, but I’d go in there and practice, and she’d come in and say, “Well, do such-and-such a thing.” But it wasn’t a daily chore. If I felt like it, Okay. And then most of the time I didn’t feel like it. Unless she was going to go do something else and leave me alone and let me play by ear. See? Other than that, I was out on the front porch playing on the windowsill and imagining that I was playing in a big auditorium with everybody around, listening and applauding! Oh, it was a dream all the way through there. So when we finished grade school and we were going to be sent to the college there, where they had the high school and college, I told her, “I’m not going to school unless I can take music.” So she said, “Okay.” So she had to get someone to teach me. So there was a Frenchman on the faculty. This guy was the most talented person I’ve ever known. The first thing, he was an artist. If you sat down, he’d put on his smock and his tam and get out there with the easel and painted the whole campus: all the buildings on it. Painted the president’s picture; everything. And then he played the piano. He was a concert flutist. He played all the instruments, but the piano and the flute were outstanding. So, anyway, this is who I studied under. And then eventually he persuaded the president to go along with him on starting a band, but he needed $1,400 to buy the instruments, the instruments he wanted. Well, that was sort of a band at that time. That was a lot of money. So anyway, they got the money, and he started the band. I went to take my piano lesson one day, and he said, “Look. We’re going to start a band. Would you like to join the band?” I said, “Yes. What would I do?” He said, “What instrument would you like to play,” I said, “Well, I don’t know.” So he said, “Well, how would you like to play a clarinet?” And I was small, and he said he’d get a small clarinet. I said, “Well, what does that look like?” He said, “We’ve got a catalog.” And he showed it to me. So then I said, “Okay.” So he bought me this little B-flat clarinet. And I started practicing on that and the piano. Now with the clarinet, playing single notes, that was all right. I didn’t have to worry about it, but I could hear chord changes, but I didn’t know what they were. But every evening, I’d be up there practicing. So I started getting pretty good playing tunes what I wanted to play. Every evening I had all the boys come up into my room, and I’d give them a concert. I got to be popular on the campus, and, after a while, in the city. And I started making seven dollars for playing a house party. Well, they didn’t have any orchestras at the time; just a piano player usually. Several piano players in the city would get a job. They would play Friday or Saturday night, whatever. They’d call up the guys and come play with them. Three pieces, like that. Four pieces. So I made so much money until I was sixteen, I bought me a car. But my brother had to sign for it. I was too young to sign for it.
LJM: What year was this?
CAT: This must have been . . . . I finished college in 1931. It must have been around 1929 or 1930. So then I just kept on playing. And then a fourteen-piece orchestra was performing there in the city. And they got me to play saxophone in there.
LJM: What was the name of the orchestra?
CAT: Jimmy Gunn and His Dixie Serenaders. We traveled all around. We went to New York; Massachusetts. And I played on through college with that. And after that, I stayed there for about a year and a half. That’s when I left and went on to New York to stay.
LJM: What year did you go to New York?
LJM: Where were you before you went to New York?
CAT: North Carolina.
LJM: Okay. So you were there the whole time?
CAT: And I went around by the medical school, but that was between the time I graduated and went into New York.
LJM: What medical school did you attend?
CAT: Meharry Medical School. It’s in Nashville, Tennessee. A very famous school. A good many fine doctors finished there, and my brother finished dentistry. But I was going in for medicine.
LJM: How long were you there?
CAT: No longer than they took me down . . . . When I got on the campus, he had told me my kid brother is coming here next year. The year he graduated. He said he’s coming next year to study medicine so you ought to take care of him. “Okay. We’ll see when he gets on campus.” So they were waiting for me to come. All right, I walked in, they saw me with my horn case and my bag with stuff in there and then said, “Hey, are you Tolbert’s brother?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Well, I thought so. Look. Put your things down here, and we’ll show you around.” So they took me down to one of the dormitories. Classroom building, that’s what it was, and they took me in and we walked in a room and they pulled back a canvas, and he said, “Now, we’re working on his heart.” And they had him all blocked out. I sat there, and they showed me where they were working on one. He had half a cranium. So, after they showed me about three or four bodies and turned around to go visit another body, I cut out the next door. Went right back to that building where my stuff was and ran down to the bus station and took the bus. When I ended up, that’s when I went to New York.
LJM: Did you have any prospects when you went to New York?
CAT: No. My brother was there, but he was running on the Pennsylvania trying to make money enough to open an office: open up his office in dentistry. And he was living with a customer of ours. Now, they didn’t know I was coming. Nobody knew I was coming. I had the address. When I got off the train, I rode the bus the Washington and from Washington, I took the train into New York. So when I got off the train at Pennsylvania Station, I asked a red cap how to get to this address. He said, “I’ll tell you what. You take the tunnel to Eighth Avenue subway; go down there; put your money in the turnstile and get the uptown sign. Get off at 145th Street, but get on the front of the train because 150th Street will be at the end of the tunnel there. Come up there, and you’ll be in the vicinity of where you want to go. Right on St. Nicholas Avenue.” But it was easy, I found. I went on up there and knocked on the door and my cousin came to the door, and I told her who I was. She said, “Oh.” She had never seen me before. A lot of my relatives, we’ve never met before that time. I met about four or five relatives in New York that I didn’t even know was there. My brother had found them.
So, this is where I stayed. She said, “Well, he’s out now. He won’t e in for another couple of days. He’s running to Chicago and back. You just go in and make yourself at home, and there’s his room Do you want something to eat?” So I just practiced and went out that same day I went down to the Rhythm Club. I knew about the Rhythm Club. I started meeting musicians.
The only way I really got going . . . . Nobody was saying anything to me, and I didn’t know who to say anything to because I was a stranger. But there was a boy sitting in there and asked another guy to lend him a quarter. So the guy said, “Oh, man. I’m not going to let you have anything! That’s the way it is with you guys. I used to feed that guy. Now he’s so big-time he won’t even let me have a quarter, and I’m hungry.” I said, “Are you hungry?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, how much is a meal?” He said, “Well, we can go down to Father Devine’s Place and get one for thirty-five cents. A whole thing! I mean a couple of kinds of meat, vegetable, break, cornbread, biscuits, or both, and dessert, and all those things for just thirty-five cent. All you have to do when you walk in is say, “Peace. It’s really wonderful.” And that was the password. If you said that, they’d feed you until you fall out.” So, anyway, I gave him thirty-five center, and he went and got something to eat. And when he came back, he said, “Look, man. Do you know anybody?” I said, “No.” He said, “What do you play?” So I told him. He said, “Well, I’m going to get you a job. You’ve got a union card?” I said, “Yes, but not this union.” He said, “You got any money?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “I’m going to take you down to the local tomorrow and get a transfer so that you can work. You can work gigs for six months and then you can get your own and get something stead. But I can get you some gigs. I can’t get any for myself.” So, I come to find out he was with Paul Whiteman’s Band. Back then, he was called the “King of Jazz” and he used to walk . . . . he was little. He wasn’t even five feet. And he used to walk behind Paul Whiteman while the band play Me and My Shadow. And he also was a drummer. So they’d feature him where they would beat the drums. He’s run all around the drums and never miss a beat. All the way around, and the other boys said, “When he was a top liner, he didn’t even speak to us.” So they were getting him back. This was the whole thing, see?
LJM: What instrument did you play?
CAT: Saxophone and clarinet. I majored on the clarinet at the university. But I studied saxophone, too. Clarinet was the first instrument, wind instrument. And from there to saxophone. During the time I was playing clarinet, my twin brother was playing trumpet. So he would teach me what he’d learn on the trumpet and I’d teach what I learned. So I could play the trumpet, too. So my group, my sextet, the one that gave us a little fame, we all had to double. The only person that didn’t double was the drummer. The piano player played trumpet and saxophone. The bass player played trombone and bass, and the trumpet played French horn. The two saxophone players, they had to play trumpet. So we’d make our arrangements so that sometimes we had a brass section; sometimes we’d have a reed section ensemble chorus. I got kind of halfway famous. In fact, we used to battle bands like John Kirby and that was a top small group; Buster Bailey, John Kirby and Proco, the first saxophone player that was playing with Duke.
LJM: What was his name?
CAT: Proco (phonetic). But anyway, we knew all those guys. I came up with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. In fact when Thelonius Monk came up with this new music what was the Bop, he was working a club around 115th Street by himself. Monk didn’t play with anybody. He used to play by himself. And he had that hat on, and he’d put him some wine over there, and he’d sit there and play all night, and some of the weirdest stuff you ever heard in your life. He couldn’t read or anything like that, but he could really play! So Dizzy had been with Cab Calloway. And Charlie Parker was with Earl Hines. So dizzy was always doing something silly: twirling around in a chair and the people are looking at him. And Cab thought he had to spotlight up there, dancing and running up and down and shouting “Hi-dee, Hi-dee, Ho!” And finally he looked back there, and Dizzy was in the middle of something he was doing, and so he said, “Look, man. When I’m onstage, you don’t do that. You don’t interfere with my act. I’m going to tell you.” And Cab thought he was a good dukes man; he thought he could box. So, anyway, he hit a couple of guys.
LJM: Cab Calloway whupped him up? struck him?
CAT: Yes. He thought he was a touchy guy. So Diz is up there. So the music got so good until Dizzy couldn’t help it. He was going to do this on the next show there in the Apollo Theater. They played the last number, and the curtains closed, Dizzy came down off the bandstand, and so then Cab said, “I thought I told you not to interfere when I’m up on the stage anymore.” So he said, “Oh, man.” So cab swung at Dizzy, and Dizzy had one of these long switchblades where you hit the button and the blade jumps out. He swung it and missed Cab in this long, white suit he used to wear with the tails and he’s turning around and trying to dodge that knife. That knife was so sharp until when he hit across, he just cut the tails off.
LJM: You saw this?
CAT: Right there in the theater. Then Earl Hines came to town, and he needed a saxophone player. So he hire Charlie Parker and said, “Look, I don’t want you to play alto. I need you to play tenor.” He said, “I don’t care what you want me to play. Get me a tenor. So he got him a tenor. Now the first show, that band was romping. Boy! Everybody was right intact. The second show, no Charlie Parker. And everybody was looking for him. “Where did Charlie go? He’s not here.” And just before the third show, some guy was coming through the park, coming up to the theater driving and saw Charlie standing up looking up at the trees. So he said, “Look. Is Charlie Parker playing with his band? I just saw him down near Central Park.” “Where?” “He was in Central Park looking up at the trees.” They went up there, and he was just diddling with all the birds and stuff up there in the trees, high as he could be. So, he lost his job.
So, now, here’s Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie both out of jobs. Okay, so they came to the Rhythm Club . . . . We were all up there, and old Monk was sitting up there and said, “Hey, man. What are you doing?” “Oh, man, we quit that band. We’re just around here looking for some gigs.” So he said, “Well, if you’re not going to work tonight, come on down to the club, and I want to hear some new music.” So they said, “Okay.” So that night they went on down to hear this new music. So they said, “Now, what’s the new music?” So Monk said, “All right. Listen to this. Tell me what this is.” “That sounds like Whispering.” He said, “That’s what it is.” And he turned around and played a couple of other things but you could just hear the melody and the chord changes. You knew what the song was, but he was playing all around it. So Dizzy said, “Well, man, why don’t we write some of that and start a big band?” So they got together. Now I went to rehearsal a couple of times. I wasn’t going to stay with them because I had my own group, but anybody that came along had some where they’d help you read, and you’d just keep going, staying with the game. So Monk walked in late the first day. So Dizzy said, “Look, man. You didn’t want to be the manager. I’m the manager and the arranger. Now I told you we were going to rehearse at twelve o’clock, and here you come walking in about two o’clock and we’re through.” “Well, man, I’m not going to be late anymore. But I’ll be here tomorrow.” “What time tomorrow?” “Twelve o’clock.” “Okay.” The next day, no Monk. Around 1:30, Monk comes in. He had taken a piece of paper, tore off a piece of paper. Put a note on there. There were fifteen of us, so he had fifteen pieces of paper and fifteen notes on there. No lines or spaces. Nothing. We looked at him. He said, “Okay. Everybody ready?” And he gave a downbeat, and you played anything. Just any note you wanted to play, and the thing sounded like scrambled eggs. He went around and took it all up. He said, “Okay. Now I’m ready to rehearse.” This was his way to come in! So, finally, they just had to say, “Well, we’ll just have to get another piano player.” So they got another piano player.
LJM: What was his purpose in doing this? I’m sorry I missed it.
CAT: He was never on time. So what he did when they told him, “You can’t be late again,” his excuse was he was writing some arrangements so he came in with a piece of paper and put a note, just drew a note, no lines or spaces. And all he wanted was a couple of days out of there. I let him have thirty-five cents because he wanted to go down to the theater and look at some wild Frankenstein thing. He would sit there and see three or four shows during the day, and things like that. That’s some experience!
LJM: Tell me more about your group.
CAT: Well, I had a six-piece group, and occasionally we changed. But I had one guy very famous, Red Richards, the piano player. Drummond was a heck of a bass player. And I had three or four different drummers. Anyway, they all had to be disciplined. Other than that, they didn’t play in the group. They knew that if I said to do such a thing and get up in the middle of the night and we’re going to rehearse, this is what they’d do. So it was a bunch of fellows. Later, as the years passed on, they got to be famous; some of them got to be famous. But I didn’t pick for fame. I just wanted somebody that wanted to study; wanted to play; wanted to be on time. Because musicians in New York . . . . They are getting like that around here, or they are like that around here now, but then, you couldn’t depend on them. So you had to have someone dependable; be there all the time; want to rehearse; want to see the thing go. They did very well. We worked and go to be popular. The recordings, naturally, put us up on top. We were mentioned with all the small . . . . won all the contests and everything, the small groups, sextets and quintets, and that type of thing. We were in right along with that. We worked on Second Bandstand next to Chick Webb at The Savoy. Well, actually, after I started working, before I got my group I did a couple of runs with Fats Waller. Then Jessie Owens went to Europe and won the Olympics. They gave him a band. That’s what they did to everybody. If you wanted to make some money after you came back to the States, they’d put them out there in front of a band. And we showed him how to beat the time. And we traveled from New York on to Chicago; Indiana; back around through Kentucky; back around through Baltimore; Philadelphia; and Savoy Ballroom and then The Apollo. So I got a lot of experiences like that. And then, after that, I went in for my own group because I had to stay in one place in order to go to school. This is what made me start the group.
LJM: Well, what school were you going to at this time?
CAT: Columbia University.
LJM: And you were studying what?
LJM: What, specifically?
CAT: Theory; composition; instrument on the side, privately.
LJM: And you started there in what year?
CAT: From 1939 to 1941, I believe it was. And I played around there for a while.
LJM: Well, we’re getting near the end of this tape. What I’d like to do, since it’s getting somewhat late, I’d like to have another session with you. We haven’t even touched on some of the things we need to talk about, and I’d like to make the appointment earlier, and I’d like to continue next week.
LJM: Today is November 21, 1989. This is the second session of an interview with Mr. Tolbert. During our last session we discussed much of your early career, your educational background and some interesting experiences that you had in those early years. Today, I’d like to pick up on the last of your career years in New York. Off of tape, I believe, last time you mentioned that you reached a certain point in those years, the latter years of your career where you decided that you didn’t want to invest more time of your life into it, into trying to get up to the top. I’d like to begin there. Let’s talk about that. Where were you, say, a year or two years before you came back to Houston? What were you doing?
CAT: Before I came to Houston, I was in North Carolina one year. That’s my hometown. They finally got me to come down and handle a school band. And so, I just finally made up my mind that nothing was happening in New York too much, so I made up my mind to come on down and try it out for a year. It couldn’t hurt anything. If it didn’t work I could always go back, you know. So I came to Charlotte, North Carolina. I was a band director in two schools. That one year we developed a nice band, and, of course, the independent school district wanted me to work all summer to keep it going, improving the situation there. So that’s what we did. We started off, and they had an epidemic of corneal [phonetic] during the summer. So they had to close the school. So I went on back to New York, looking around, trying to see what was happening. And there weren’t any improvements as far as the working conditions were concerned.
LJM: What year was this, approximately?
CAT: Well, I can trace back and tell you. I came here in 1948-49. So this must have been around 1947.
LJM: What kind of gigs were you playing in New York? You said that you went back and you were doing various gigs.
CAT: Well, in New York, you have your musicians’ club. You go around and you know all the fellows, so one might come in and say, “Okay, I need a saxophone player tonight,” so you would book with him. In the meantime, our union, if you aren’t doing a lot of work with a steady job, you can go down and sign with the union, and they send combos out to hospitals and homes for the aged and different things like that. They have them lined up. So I said, “Well, okay.” Then I ended up with two or three jobs for that week and right along.
CAS: These would be financed by the Musicians’ Performance Trust Fund?
CAT: Yes. That’s the trust fund. So if you were a member of Local 802, which I was, well, you can move in and just get your gigs. You don’t have to worry too much, you know. So this is what we did. And the balance of a summer from the latter part of June on to September, it didn’t seem I could look through and see where it was coming down; the work wasn’t. And they didn’t want to pay you any more because they could buy it cheap! A good many boys had come back: musicians had come back from the services, armed services. And they decided they were going to stay in New York. So, really, there were so many musicians coming in until the Union couldn’t handle it. So they worked anywhere they wanted to work, and, of course, those guys were buying them up.
CAS: I have read that the New York Union had as many as fifty-thousand members.
CAT: That’s right! One of the largest in the United States. And right now to show their strength, they are actually in politics there in New York. They were fighting the mayor. They helped to get that mayor out of there. Yes, they are real political, and they are a strong local at that, too. They have a bunch of them. I still keep my membership there. If I go back, I can always get some work to do that through that trust fund. And then, we have any insurance policy that goes along with it, too. Not too much, just a thousand dollars. Even this one here in Houston pays more money in death benefits than that one in New York. This Union here pays two-thousand dollars.
CAS: What would be the advantage of the Union becoming political?
CAT: Well, a city like New York, is really run by gangsters, you know, and, of course, the mayor and everybody else have to work right along with these guys. And they run all the clubs, sell all the furs. Really, they have taken over show business. They decide what’s going to be the number-one song hit and what will not be. And, of course, they control all the radio stations and that type of thing. So if you exist, you’ve got to be political to really stand. See? So this is what it is now. Several clubs, for the past few years, big concerns that were hiring as many as one hundred musicians at one shot or maybe a big band of fifteen-sixteen pieces or different size band, well, those that were hiring this size band, a fuller band [of] fifteen-sixteen pieces, decided they didn’t want that anymore. They just wanted to have a keyboard in there; maybe a girl singer. They didn’t want no brass. Maybe one reed. And this is what they were going to do.
LJM: Now, this is back when you were there?
CAT: No, this is lately. They are fighting cases like that now. Well, politically they had the city fathers and the mayor all went along with them. So, then you had to fight the mayor plus the gangsters, you know. So this is one of the reasons why they have to be very political. And, of course, by having so many members, they had strength. So they won several cases, and they still have cases they’re working on. Yes, it’s pretty rough. You have to be in that politics that exists today.
LJM: How active were you then, back then in the 1940’s, in New York in the Union?
CAT: In the Union? Well, I was so busy trying to keep a band going until I didn’t have too much time for political things. They wanted me to run for an office in the Local, the Local then. But I knew what that was for. They knew I was against two or three things, and I had spoken out, and they said, “Well, we can give him a job and quiet him down.” So then I said, “No. I just prefer to do this. Well, I want you to do [is] just treat us right. If you don’t, you’re going to hear from me!” So, then, that’s the way that went. And that’s about exactly how I got into the Union. You can’t do two things. You can, too, but it weakens on one side or the other. It was hard enough during the record ban to come back after that Petrillo put on that record to stop. We didn’t record for quite a while. And, of course, by not having new hits coming out there, you’re diminishing strength, [and] you know, popularity.
LJM: You said you had a band going. You were trying to keep your band going. Tell me something about that band.
CAT: I was playing with several just after I went to New York. I was, naturally, just gigging around one, two and three nights a week, that type of thing. In fact, I had to do it like that because if you belonged to the Local and you go to New York you have to near fight for about six months before you can become a regular member. In that time you cannot work over one night in the same spot. Now, like three-night gigs, I couldn’t take that. So this goes on for six months until you pay your dues. You get a transfer card. At the end of six months you can then become a full member. Just pay the membership! So this is what I was doing in the meantime, playing from one to the other. And the group that I went in, that was I was playing with, are all good musicians. They could do a good job. In fact, I was doing most of the arranging and rehearsing the groups. The heads of the bands, because I had worked with two or three, and the same thing happened. We always had a job. And we can play here, and after two weeks the manager will raise the sock. From where? He gives you the amount of money that he’s probably going to get for each man on the job. He said, “No, man. It’s only two weeks, and you were going to give us three!” He did that two or three times, we went along with him. The last time, we got a new job, and it seems like we didn’t keep the job. For some reason, we didn’t keep those jobs. Well, I knew the reason. Either the boys in the band were sending a note over to some lady that her husband had just gone to the restroom or something, you know. Ridiculous things! So I said, “No future in this!” And I wanted to go to school, too. I was in New York about a couple of years before I went to register to go to school. And I saw it was necessary to go to school in the meantime because, having met fellows that were up on the top and then the breadline, I’m looking at that. And as time goes . . . . It’s a young man’s game, really, this music business here. Big eyes and you can’t see a thing. You just know tomorrow you’re just going to hit the jackpot, and you’re going over. That type of thing. And so I was trying to look beyond that. I saw the guys that can’t get a job begging, and that type of thing, and I had read about it and heard about it before I came to New York. And they were top people. So, I said, “No, I don’t want to be caught in there. So the best thing for me to do is to get back in school.” I had given up on that medical business. The best thing for me to do is study some music because I don’t know enough about it. So I went over to Columbia University and talked with them and they said, “Well, just transfer.” So I had my transcripts sent over. And they sent for me, and I got back with them, and they said, “Well, okay,” and they told me what I had to do. I could get a master’s degree in music, but I would have to start at the beginning. Unfortunately, it takes that full term. Thirty hours didn’t work anymore. It was supposed to have been that you could take thirty hours on top of being a Bachelor, and you get a Master’s. No, I had to take all the hours because I didn’t have anything on my transcript that said, “Music.” I had studied for pre-med.
So, okay. It was all right. I didn’t have anything to do anyway. Just find me some gigs and keep going. But I knew I couldn’t stay in school, losing jobs. The only thing for me to do was just go get a group of my own and take from these jobs and condition all the fellows, and if he wants to work with he, he has to tow the line. See? If I call for him at twelve o’clock at night and say, “Look here, we want to rehearse,” you get up and come on and rehearse. I mean, we had that kind of any agreement. Otherwise, we weren’t going to make it. So the boys said, “Okay.” That’s what they wanted to do. So we rehearsed the band, and we went in the Black Cat in the Village or New York down near N. Y. U. So, one night a man came in. I didn’t know him, and I hadn’t seen him before. It was John Hamlin. Now, John Hamlin, well, maybe you know about him. Millionaire, and just loves music, and just travels. And he plays cello. And you couldn’t play enough to get in any group, but he had that money, so what he would do, he’d pay two or three guys on the string section in the Philharmonic Orchestra to rehearse with him so many days a week. And he just enjoyed playing with them, and they just gigged him because he was paying them a lot of money. So they would practice with him; do two little things, and okay, he’d tell them when to come back again. So he came in, sat over in the corner . . . . It was a supper club. Ordered his meal. We came on, played our first set. After we played the first couple of numbers, we asked the waitress there, “Whose band is it? Who is the manager up there?” She said, “The saxophone player.” “Which one?” You see, I had two saxophones. I was playing sax, and I had a tenor and a trumpet and, then, piano, bass and drum. So he said, “I’ll tell you what you do. Go up and give him this twenty-dollar bill and tell him to play Happy Birthday to John Hamlin.” Well, that didn’t mean nothing to me. I had never heard of him, and here we go. See? No talking. Nothing. So I didn’t even announce his name because I didn’t talk with that mike (microphone). And all of us were sitting down. We didn’t stand. We were sitting down. And after we finished, he told the waitresses, “Tell him here’s another ten-dollar bill. Tell him to announce my name. This is my birthday. Let the people know, and then play the thing . . . over the mike.” Boy, this was hard! And I didn’t talk on the mike. So the guys said, “Go ahead, man!” And they were pushing me. So I got up and said, “Happy Birthday to John Hamlin.” Everybody yelled, and here we go again. So he said, “Tell him to come here when he comes off.” So I went over they, and he said, “Have a seat, man. Now, what’s your name?” So I told him. “Yeah? Whose orchestra is it.” I said, “It belongs to all of us.” He said, “No, it doesn’t. One man is the leader of that group. Now, who is the leader of the group?” I said, “Well, off-hand, I’d have to say, ‘Yes, I’m the leader of the group.” “Well, where do you see the leading bands are booked?” I said, “Well, I go down to the Paramount sometime and look at Count Basie and then sometimes Duke Ellington. I’m just dodging this all the way around.” So he said, “No. That’s not what I mean. Is he sitting down or standing up?” “Some of them sitting down and some are standing up.” “No, he’s supposed to stand up, playing. Why don’t you give us the title of the song you’re going to play? Get us ready to listen to this thing.” He said, “Look! I’ll tell you what. I come in here two or three times a week. Every time I come in that door, you’d better be standing up in front of that mike and talking to the people and telling them what you are playing there.” He hung in there with me until I finally got used to it. I had to do it. So then I would sit down and we could see there . . . . from the outside of a building, you’d climb up some steps and then into a room and then come down, well, come into the building. And then down steps into the room, a funny made building. Anyway, I could look up there and see a person coming in. He wore this little short crew cut, and so you could see the top of his head, and he knew you couldn’t get by then [by] sitting down. So I’d be watching that and sitting down. That’s when I’d see that crew cut, I’d jump up and start talking. Well, he hung in there until I got to the place I could talk. Then he said, “Did you ever make any records?” I said, “No.” “Would you like to make some?” I said, “Sure.” “Okay, Wednesday night I’ll be here with somebody to listen to you.” So I’d hear so much stuff until it goes in one ear and out the other. “Okay, thanks very much.”
So, sure enough, Wednesday night he comes in here with Jack Capp, and he’s the President of Decca Records. They came and sit right on the side. We played. He said, “I like your group. Who’s doing the writing?” I said, “Well, I do.” “Okay. Would you like to record?” I said, “Oh, sure!” So he says, “Well, I’ll tell you what. Do you have some original tunes?” I said, “Original tunes?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Some things you wrote.” I said, “Oh, no.” He said, “And you you’re going to write something. Get me four tunes ready, and here’s my card. Call me up and tell me, and I’ll come down and listen to them, and then, if everything is fine, on the same style you were playing, beautiful! I’ll listen to them. If everything is all right, then we’ll just have a record session. We’ll set a record session.” So, boy, I said I’ve got to write some songs! What am I going to write them about? So, anyway, I managed to write three. I had to have four. I couldn’t get any ideas for that last tune, but I head some boys when we were gigging . . . . I head some boys play a thing call “W.P.A.” I said, “Oh, I like that. Whose number is that?” He said, “Jesse Stone.” I said, “I know Jesse.” He said, “Yes, he lives right down 160th Street. So I went down to Jesse’s house. I said, “Hi, Jesse.” Did you write that tune “W. P. A.?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, I like it, and I have three tunes already, and I have a record session, and I’ve go to have an extra one. What about making that?” He said, “Okay.” He sat down and gave me the lead sheets. So I went home, wrote it out. We rehearsed it. I called up Decca Records and told Capp, “Look. We’re ready.” So he said, “Okay.” He came down that night and listened to it, and he said, “That’s just what I want. Okay. So we record this weekend.” We went down and recorded.
Well, you don’t get paid just then to record. You’ve got a scale, per man, double for the leader, for a record session, and then, if I have some tunes, I might decide, okay. After salary of the band, I want three or four hundred dollars in advance on the thing, and you could get it, you know. They’re going to take it out of royalties. So this is what we did. We got the record session set up, made this record, and I got a phone call about a couple of weeks after they said, “Your record is coming out Friday.” I said, “Okay.” Man, Friday when that record came out, that “W. P.A.” started jumping. And it just swept! As you’d go down 7th Avenue and 125th Street, in any direction, and clubs would have the front door open in the daytime blasting that music out there. Everything was “W. P. A!” “W. P. A.”
Well, look here, we say ___?___. That was the beginning of my career as a small . . . . Now, I had the six pieces . . . . then they rushed us back in there. Well, when they rushed us back in there, I’d written some more tunes. Another boy and I, we were co-writers on Hit That Jive, Jack, Put It In Your Pocket, a novelty tune. “You got three more numbers to go with that?” That turned out to be a hit. Came back the next time, and I wrote a number, well, a bunch of them, but one was Right On. That turned out to be a hit. And then, you see, I could have gone to the top and made a lot of money, but here comes the record band and stopped me. But I was pretty well on the way. I could live off that for a while.
So we had thirty-two weeks in Loew’s Theater. And then we were working steady in the Village in this nightclub down there and, naturally, our money went up, and we were doing well. So I can go to school now and do anything I want to do. So I’m taking lessons [that] cost me sixty dollars per lesson. And if you’ve got a good instructor, you pay for it.
CAS: Who did you study with?
CAT: Lou Arfein [phonetic]. He was a graduate of Juilliard Institute of Music. So you could either study on the campus or Columbia University or go in the City, as long as he was a representative person. Well, I’d heard about a good many boys who had been studying with Lou. So this is what I want to do, so, hell, I may do it. I just told him what I had to do. I had to get ready for a concert in a certain length of time. And I was majoring on the clarinet, not the saxophone. But, you see, later on, I had to put the saxophone in, too, because they have the same embouchure, an easy instrument, and I was doing anything I wanted to do as far as forwarding was concerned. I just picked up everything.
So, that band moved on . . . . I finally. . . . They tried to draft all of us into the Army. This was a big problem. They allowed me to stay there and work until I finished Columbia University. And then I had to go into the service. But they took all of my men. And that was the nucleus of that first band, our style and everything, and I knew is was going to be hard now. So I put together another group, [a] sextet. The same size. And then I found out that the youngest one in the band . . . . the boys was around eighteen, played a beautiful trumpet. He was running around giving the other boys dope, shooting them in the arm. And I didn’t know that’s what I had. So I finally saw that. I just broke up the whole band. Just gave them two weeks’ notice. And from there I went to a quartet.
Now that was much better. It was an entertaining quartet, and we played on these bars, circular bars, move up in the center of the stage, and I made money on that. I could make more with a four-piece band than I could make with six. So that’s when we worked all the way up until just before I made up my mind to go back to North Carolina. And I was in North Carolina a year when a bass played with me when I had the sextet, was going to NYU. He had finished NYU in music. So then he got a job in Baltimore, I believe it was, as band director and from there, when they opened TSU over here, he got the job as first band director. Well, they needed a woodwind man. So, he said, “Oh, wait. Let me call somebody.” So he called 802, the local union in New York, and asked where I was. They gave him my phone number in North Carolina. He called me up and said, “Look. Come on down here. There’s a new school. You’re going to like it. We haven’t been together in a long time. It’s a good place. Come on!” He kept going. I said, “No, I can’t do that because I’ve only been back here one week. This is my second year in the beginning of the school year.” So they came to me and said, “Come on.” I said, “Well, let me check it out.” So I went down to the superintendent and said, “I have another position that pays more money, and so I want to take a leave from here.” So he said, “Well, we can’t pay any more money.” I said, “Well, sir, that’s what I know. That’s the reason I’m telling you I want to go.” He said, “I can’t tell you can’t go, but . . . .” I said, “Well, what’s the penalty?” He said, “You can’t teach any more in North Carolina for a year.” I said, “Well, if I’m leaving, I’m going to have a year’s contract at least.” So he said, “Well, I wish you wouldn’t. We gave you everything you asked for.” I said, “Yes, I appreciate that. Le me think about it.” This was on Friday. Well, I was thinking about it on the way here . . . . So, I came on down here and looked at the situation, and it was all right. So this is where I decided to try this out. I didn’t want to stay, though. So I teached anatomy once and then went back to New York in the summertime to see what’s happening. I talked to the boys around that I knew, and they were telling me, “Oh, not too good.” Dizzy was gigging. He was doing pretty good off of his recordings. And all the popular musicians, Charlie Parker, well, they had an old apartment down there where they’d eat beans in the daytime because he didn’t play with anybody. If you didn’t play that style of music, forget it. He wouldn’t even go on a gig with him.
So, anyway, I went back two summers, and then I said, “No. This don’t make sense.” The first summer I went back, and then I bought this place.
LJM: This place? The one we’re sitting in here?
CAT: this is my garage. But my house, I bought back then. So then I said, “No.” The only thing I could say . . . If I go back to New York, I can always sell this, and I stayed here free. Make some money off if it. Okay, so I bought the place. I went back to New York and looked at it again. So I said, “No, this doesn’t work.” So the only thing that was wrong here was musicians were working, but they weren’t making any money. So I told the musicians, “Look! I’ve got a bunch of this work we need to do. We need to have a union.” “Oh, no! We tried that and the guys took all the money and ran off.” I said, “What money? What kind of money are you talking about? You didn’t have any money if you didn’t have a union!” They said, “Well, we played a couple of dances, and he took all the money, and we haven’t heard about it since. We don’t want to get into something like that.” I said, “Well, you had the wrong one. You don’t need money to get in here. Maybe to buy the equipment to open up the thing here. What you need to do, you have to write the Federation and then show them where you qualify to have a local and then go ahead and get your papers. That’s that! Just operate!”
So I finally got ten guys. I had to have ten men: ten fellows to say, “Yeah, we want a local.” And so, then I wrote Petrillo. Petrillo wrote me back and said, “No, the first thing, he inquired of this local here. Well, they didn’t want us to have it, I think. We might have some of that.” So Petrillo wrote me back and said, “I’ll tell you what. Meet us. We’re going to meet in Houston.” This was in 1950. “We’re going to meet in Houston in June.” They gave us the date. “. . . And we’ll have our headquarters at the Rice Hotel.” And he told me the date and time to meet the Board. So I went down to meet the Board and he asked me, “What makes you think you can run a union?” I said, “Well, I know about the by-laws and things. I’m a union man.” He said, “What local do you belong to?” I said, “802.” He said, “802? That’s the greatest local in the world!” I said, “I know it.” So he said, “How long have you been in there?” So I said, “Well, I joined that local around 1935.” So he said, “Oh, who says this man can run a local?” So in the next few days he sent me books, everything to begin with. I think I had to pay less than a dollar a man for the ten men. Oh, it cost close to $100 to get all of our equipment: stamp and seal and all of that business. So I paid him the $100. Now, you see, when we start collecting dues, I want my $100 back. So, anyway, this is the way we did it. And we just grew overnight. Well, they claimed . . . . Our big trouble . . . . We have to play at all-black clubs because we can’t play in white [clubs]. . . . I said, “Oh, yes, you can.” The first thing is you have to qualify. Play the type of music that people want, not all the stuff that you want to do. You have to be on time. There’s no such thing as you can’t play anywhere in the city and they’ll accept you. “No, you don’t understand.” I said, “Well, okay. I’ll tell you what. Suppose I get a job just to let you see that it is possible.” Well, I didn’t have any idea where I was going to get a job or anything. I didn’t know anybody around here. I had played a couple of gigs at what was the Ebony Club down here on Dowling, and this was a big club in this section. So I took a group in there for a fraternity dance, and the manager heard the group and said, “Look, now. That’s the band that I want to have.” He liked us. So, anyway, there was a fellow that belonged to a milk union out in Wisconsin, he came to Houston and he had money. So he was going to open him a club over on Shepherd Drive. So He opened that club up, and he had a white group. But they weren’t rhythmic enough. He wanted a group that could play any of the old standard tunes and the tunes that had presence and then maybe some original stuff. So he asked the manager, “Do you have any __?__, this is what . . . . What I need is a group to do this and that.” And he said, “Well, I don’t know about that.” And he said, “These boys have their own music, and they play the way they want to play.” At least that’s what they were doing. So, he said, “Oh, look. Why don’t you get in touch with the President of the Union. He brought a group in here one time and it was great. They played all the stuff the people liked, and the floor stayed crowded, and they entertained.” So he said, “What’s the phone number?” So he gave him the phone number.
The next day he called me, and I said, “Well, I don’t have a group” because I wasn’t interested in playing, really. I said, “I don’t have a group.” He said, “What about the group you use.” I said, “That’s only some boys I use __?__. He said, “Well, why don’t you get them together?” I said, “Well, I don’t have too much time.” I tried to get out of it. He kept on talking and said, “Look, why don’t you put that group together and let me hear it?” I said, “I don’t make long-distance. Not unless you want to pay for it.” “I’ll tell you what we’ll do. What night is your band off?” I said, “Monday night. So pay us for a Monday night and then you’ll get to hear it all night. Make up your mind. Pay me, and if you don’t want it anymore, fine. If you do, we’re all satisfied.” Okay, that was perfect. So we went there the next Monday night, and he was there. After we played the first set, he said, “And how much money do you want?” We stayed there for two years. And from there . . . . No, we had a falling out. I had a girl singing, but she wanted to cater to the people . . . . You see, what I’m used to in a night club, you play and play requests and all, but you’ve got to work those people so you can make some money, too. So, just because he says he wants to hear I Got Rhythm . . . . Okay, I have several down the road. But he wants that right there and how. These people pay for this now. And so I’ve got to play that. And I told you I’ll play yours . . . . And then here he comes, “How much are they giving you?” Well, he gave me five dollars. So he said he’d give me ten. I said, “I’m glad. You show me.” “You push a hard bargain.” I said, “Okay, I’ll probably get in trouble, but I’m going to play your number.” So, anyway, I played it. But anyway, I got the money! So we worked it like that, and most nights we’d come out of there with two and three hundred dollars. So this is the way we worked.
But then, these boys in the union said, well, they thought that I should now give them the jobs and let them go ahead on and work it. I said, “No. That’s not the way it goes. You see, what you want to play might be different from what I’m doing. See? And it would be left to the manager. I can’t select something for him. You see, we don’t play the same kind of music, evidently.” So it just went on. But then I would recommend that someone would come by and they’d have a club, and they’d say, “Well, look here. Where can we get a band like this?” “Well, you won’d get a band like this, but you’ll get a band that can do similar things. Let them know what you want, and they’ll give it to you.” So, then we were able to book two and three different groups, and it started working out fine.
So I stayed as President of the Local from 1950 to 1965 when we integrated. And then I became an officer in 1965, and when I left there, I got busy working, and I decided to do some of this. Now that was about . . . .
LJM: You mean, open your own business?
CAT: This was about 1953. I had a double garage then. So I tore out one side. I’ve got a picture of it in there. I just had one small, little shop. I couldn’t do any repairing. I wanted to learn how to do that, but I wasn’t doing it at that time. So I said this is going to be a slow process, but that’s all right. I can play some gigs and keep going, and I’ve got a job. I know what I’m making, and that’s what I would like to have, but anyway, it’s a salary. So I can just carry this along and then one day it might pay off. But then I made up my mind, well, I’ve got to know more about these instruments themselves. I could play all of them because we had to do that at the university. But all the parts and things, you know, and how to go about it. I wrote Eastern Instrument Repair School in Newark, New Jersey. I told them to send me a catalogue. They sent me a catalogue. So what do I do? I registered there. I’d get out of school here on the fifteenth of May and take a plane to New Jersey, register in their school and stay there until September, along about the tenth or the fifteenth. I’d come on back and go to school and then work on what I learned all year. Well, I did that for three summers. In the meantime we had to do a little extra studying if we stayed on at the University. I’d just take three weeks. In the mornings I would go to a class at Columbia University and then when class was over I would get on the subway and go on to New Jersey and finish out the day in repair shop.
CAS: This is during the summertime?
CAT: Yes. So then I decided if I wanted to have that . . . . This garage don’t look like a store, so I tore it down. And then as time went on I said, “Well, now I’ve got to have a repair room.” So I put the top story on. And good houses, you’ve got your air condition and central heat. I had three studios across the corner, which I still have, but what happens there . . . . Now I don’t use it anymore, so I just use them to put instruments in and in my storeroom. So it didn’t pay me. I carried it out of my pocket practically until about 1972. That was the first time it sort of was taking care of itself. But since that time, it’s been beautiful, and I’ve got miniature grands and things like that, the ones from different schools. And I got on . . . . That business when they started talking about minority business, well, I was the only black music store, and I said, “Look. I’m going all the way with this.” I was the only minority. “So, look! You are not going to pass me up!” So that way I got some business out of Houston Independent School District, and they’ve been pretty nice with me. I knew the Supervisor of Music: Munson. I knew him well because I had some little students. I started them when they were in junior high school. A couple of them, by the time they got to senior high school . . . . One of them, in particular, was being recognized all over Houston. In fact the Symphony heard him and put him on that. They play for kids on Wednesdays at the time. So they heard him play, and they came by and said, “Look, is it possible for us to use him?” I said, “Well, why not?” They said, “Well, okay.” They had heard him play a concertina for clarinet and some other work we had. I think it was a Mozart Concerto for Clarinet. He was smooth. So they put him on the program. In the meantime his father and his mother, they split up. So she was from Philadelphia. She went back to Philadelphia and took him. And she put him in . . . . I told her, “Well, when you get there, put him in the university. Let them know he’s just finished high school. Let him go to college there.” And when they heard him there, they said . . . . No, what happened . . . . Gigliardi, I think that’s his name, was supposed to be his teacher on the campus. What’s the name of that school?
CAS: Curtis Institute?
CAL: Yes. Curtis. So he had an assignment to be there on Wednesday afternoon. Gigliardi had a student, so he said, “Go in the next room and warm up and then I’ll be ready for you next.” So he went in there, and he was moving up and down the clarinet with beautiful sound and technique. Someone said, “Who’s that?” So Gigliardi told his student, “Wait a minute. Let me see what’s going on out here.” He went next door and looked in, stood there for a minute and then walked in and said, “Who did you study with?” So he told him. He said, “Okay. I’ll be right back with you in a few minutes.” So he finished up with this boy and he brought him in and then he called . . . Now what’s this conductor’s name that used to do all those kids’ programs?
CAT: He called him up and said, “Look. I’ve got somebody you need to hear.” And he was raving about him so much, and Bernstein, naturally . . . “If he says it’s there, then it must be.” So he said, “You send him on Saturday morning. Let him be at Carnegie hall at such-and-such a time.” “Okay. I’ll see he’s there.” He sent him on over there, and Bernstein wasn’t there, but he has aides come in and they heard him play. He won one of those spots going from coast-to-coast, and he played with a trio. I think it was a harp and a clarinet and a flute, or something. And so he came and he called up and said, “Look here! I’m going to be on there on this program.” So everybody in Houston was listening that he knew.
So I had several students to go ahead, and my last year I taught over here at the University, I had several students [and] they’re in New York now and doing well. One boy played saxophone and flute, but he decided he wanted to really get on that flute because they had so many big shows and things, you have to be . . . . and there are a bunch of saxophone players. You can just find any. They’re a dime a dozen. And while he was good, there are so many of them that are great. So he started studying on that flute. So they call him “Mr. Flute” now around New York City.
LJM: What’s his name?
CAT: Doug Harris, and he’s really something!
LJM: How long did you teach at TSU?
CAT: From 1949 to 1976.
LJM: And what positions did you hold there?
CAT: Instructor of Woodwinds.
LJM: And at the same time you had your business going here?
LJM: Were you playing music actively here?
CAT: Well, not after around 1953, 1954. That’s when I stopped.
LJM: Okay. So after that you were in business for yourself, and you were at TSU?
LJM: What about the Union activities? Were you still involved in the Union?
CAT: I was involved in the Union until . . . up until around three years ago.
LJM: Do you know Mr. Carnagy?
CAT: Yes. He was the Business Manager at Local 65 at the time that I was there. When we integrated I became a member of the Board and that went along for a while. And then I was also a delegate to representing the Black Local. Those locals had to carry both numbers. Out number was Local 69, and theirs was Local 65. So now the label for [the] Union is now Local 65-699, Houston, Texas. So then we did this: we had to have a representative on the floor of the national convention. So I was always a delegate to go there. I’d run and win. So I’d go to the convention, in the meantime working on the Board here. But this latter part of the time, for four years, I was Vice-President of this Local here until I resigned about three years ago.
CAS: At one time when the two unions joined, there was considerable discrepancy between the standard rate that musicians received between the black Union Local 699 and Local 65. How was that resolved?
CAT: You mean there was a difference in salaries? When they first merged, they probably were getting more money per job tan we were. We had a different scale. So, therefore, we had to educate our public, which were all the black clubs and things. We had to let them know that they had to come up to the standards of the two locals because, although we were integrated, we still had to have the same by-laws, the same price list and that type of thing. Now, we did ask them to give us certain concessions because we didn’t have all of the facilities. We weren’t symphony people. That’s the best job in the City. They make more money than anybody. We had to depend on these small clubs. Now, a good many of the clubs, they were just existing, too. And I mean selling beer and stuff like that. They weren’t making enough money to pay these salaries, so then we’d have to get together and decide on a scale that both locals could make. Because white bands now, we were inviting them over in our section, see? And we were in pretty good shape, Local 65. The first thing I told them, “we are going to be proud of the owners. We are going to be good citizens and voting like everyone else is supposed to do.” So, then, right away, then we bought a place. Not that we could afford it, but we bought it anyway. A doctor had a big, two-story house. In there he had an electric bar with stools and everything. He had a big meeting room. And upstairs he had rooms so that, like if traveling musicians came through. And then a big lot on the side. In fact we were right on the corner. We bought this place from him for $29,000. We didn’t know how we were going to pay for it. We figured it out some kind of way. Get in there and then decide what’s going to happen. We had enough for a down payment. So then we put a fence around it, blocked it in. It was dirt road, so we wanted to pave the street. So we got together with the City, and we paid our half, and we got the street fixed. Then some of the members said, “Look. We want a big band. One boy could do a lot of arranging.” “Look here, you take the band and you write for him and then you all got a big place here to rehearse and have fun.” So this is what we did. They had a big band, and, boy, I wish you’d heard that band! That was something! A boy by the name of Buddy Hyde, he had just come here to work in some big business. I think he was a computer expert or something, but he was a musician who played a whole lot of saxophone. And he could write. So not only did he form the band, he taught Schillinger lessons there.
CAS: The Schillinger System?
CAT: Schillinger composition. That wasn’t happening around here, so then a lot of white musicians found out about it, and they wanted to come up there. “Well, come on, man!” So that’s where we saw this boy that you asked me about, this trombone player, Carnagy. Every time you opened the door, he was right there. And another white band came in and they said . . . . After they found out what we were doing, the said, “Well, look, man. We’ve got to join a Local but we’re going to join ours.” I said, “Well, now. I don’t have any kick, but you’d better go down to Local 65 and see what they say about it.” They said, “Well, they ain’t got nothing to say about it.” I said, “Okay.” So we took them in.
So, anyway, we had everything going, and we kept that until the merger. Now during the time when the merger came, they said, “Well, we’ve got to have . . .” Because they had a small house down on Polk Avenue ‘way back down there. It was a small bungalow, but they were opening [and] had offices in there. But we had this big place for plenty of parking space on the side and everything.
After the merger, they didn’t know exactly what to do with this place now but they wanted an office downtown and spacious enough. So we started looking around, and we found several places, but the one on Chenevert, this is the nearest one right in the center of everything. All right, they didn’t know what to do with this house that we had there. You know, we had to turn our treasury of to them plus the house we bought. And they needed money in the meantime to make a down payment. So I gave them $10,500 for the place which I still have. It’s just a property house now. This way, we were able to buy this place downtown, and that’s where they are now. And that’s where we are. We’re just at that place.
Now none of the musicians . . . . Oh, you get squawks from both side, white and black, but nobody is doing anything anyway except the Houston Symphony, and they have the City so wrapped up until . . .
LJM: The Symphony does?
CAT: Yes. They work fifty-two weeks a year, and they are recording. And they play extra engagements or at the parks on Music Performance Trust Fund money. The best jobs in town.
LJM: So they hurt the other bands? The Symphony has hurt the chances of . . .
CAT: No, they really haven’t because there aren’t too many doing the same type of work as they do. They are playing all the music compositions, great compositions, although there are musicians who have studied up to that point, either they don’t need them or the ones that are in there already are better than they are. So if it’s a symphony musician that’s out of work, they form small groups to do certain things. There are string groups that play for birthday parties, anniversaries and things like that. So they make better on those situations as they go along. Of course, when it comes to our musicians, they’re playing jazz mostly. Now the kids coming along now, they don’t know too much about jazz, and they don’t want to know too much. They do that rap. That’s good enough for them. The people that appreciate jazz, well, by now, they are at an age wherein I might want to hear it once a week. They enjoy it, but they don’t want to be going out places to listen. So the market is ___?__, that’s all for the type of music that they play.
LJM: I see we’re running out of tape, and this is probably a good place to end our interview for today. I want to thank you.