The Houston Oral History Project is a repository for the stories, accounts, and memories of those who have chosen to share their experiences. The viewpoints expressed in the Houston Oral History Project do not necessarily represent the viewpoints of the City of Houston, the Houston Public Library or any of its officers, agents, employees, or volunteers. The City of Houston and the Houston Public Library make no warranty as to the accuracy or completeness of any information contained in the interviews and expressly disclaim any liability therefore.
The Houston Oral History Project provides unedited versions of all interviews. Some parents may find material objectionable for minors. Parents are encouraged to interact with their children as they use the Houston Oral History Project Web site to complete research and homework activities.
The Houston Public Library retains the literary and publishing rights of its oral histories. No part of the interviews or transcripts may be published without the written permission of the Houston Oral History Project.
Requests for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to:
The Houston Oral History Project.
Houston Public Library
Houston, Texas 77002
The Houston Oral History Project reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to decline to post any account received herein and specifically disclaims any liability for the failure to post an account or for errors or omissions that may occur in posting accounts to the Virtual Archive.
For more information email the Houston Oral History Project at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Interview with Milton Larkin
Louis J. Marchiafava and Charles Stephenson
January 5, 1988
LJM: Today’s date is January 5, 1988. I am Dr. Louis Marchiafava interviewing Mr. Milton Larkin for the Texas Jazz Archive. Also in the interview, Mr. Charles Stephenson who also will be asking some questions along the way.
Mr. Larkin, I would like to begin the interview by getting some information about your background. Where were you born and what year were you born?
ML: I WAS BORN October 10, 1910 in Navasota, Texas. My dad died when I was two, and my mother brought me to Houston when I was six.
LJM: What brought her to Houston?
ML: Well, she had a couple of sisters that here, and she just moved from Navasota to Houston because I had three sisters and I was the baby. And it was better for her, like getting work. My mother came along in an era when she was doing housework or the laundry or the cooking. She was a very good cook. My mother died when I was thirteen. But I give her credit for really giving me a good start in life because at nine or ten I was out cutting grass and doing different chores to bring [in] very little money. But she called me a little man, and it really did make me feel like I was worthwhile then and like it was a play that I wanted to dedicate to my mother and my sister and my dad. I have [been] able to find somebody to get the money for, but I think it will be worthwhile for some kids because my first year here I went to school.
LJM: What school did you go to?
ML: B. C. L. I was the band, and I was teaching the kids and . . . and they say, “Well, I am too tired,” or “I’m too busy, and I just let them know that they have to work hard, like when I was telling the story of when my mother passed away when I was thirteen there wasn’t any home. And they say, “How did you make it, Mr. Larkin?” Well, I made it. I don’t know how myself, not really, looking back, but I started music early. I saw so many magazines where the musicians would look so sharp with their clothes. And this and that, and this is what really made me want to . . . . Noble Sissel was a society band in New York City, and I found this magazine somewhere – I don’t know – that really started me off.
LJM: Let me go back and get just a little bit more information on your childhood here in Houston. What school did you go to?
ML: I went to Gregory, and then from Gregory to old Booker T. Washington. There was but one high school. Later there came Deckett and Wheatley. There was but three of us when I graduated.
LJM: When you were at Gregory, did you have any exposure to music there?
ML: Not at Gregory.
LJM: Were you aware of any interest in music?
ML: Well, like I said, the magazines that I saw when I was ten or eleven years old.
LJM: Oh, at that early age.
ML: My dad played violin, and my sister sang. One who did very well in show business was May Larkin, later in Detroit. My sister went to Detroit when my mother passed, and I was left with my older sister. When I was seventeen I came up to New York City, and I was here by myself until I got married. I got married in 1930.
LJM: You mentioned that your father played the violin.
LJM: Was he a professional musician?
ML: I don’t know too much about it. I knew he played, that is about all.
LJM: Do you know what kind of work he did?
ML: He worked at some kind of cotton place. You know, like . . . .
LJM: Cotton gin?
ML: Yes, you know. He worked like at a station where they were shipping stuff away and things like that.
LJM: So, probably, he played the violin only for his own pleasure.
ML: I think he played parties and different things like that.
LJM: But you did have musician in your family.
ML: Oh, yes! Yes.
LJM: When you went to high school, did you know how to play any instrument at all?
ML: Yes. I started playing the trumpet when I was sixteen when I picked up on what they used to call a pea-shooter. It was a trumpet for forty-nine dollars. I had put ten dollars down on it. My sister was very disgusted with me because musicians at that time wasn’t too well thought of, too. Well, you know - - they thought they were drinkers and all like that. She didn’t want me to play it. I put ten dollars [down] . . . and that was a lot of money in those days. But later she was very happy. But in the beginning she didn’t want me to be a musician.
LJM: What made you pick the trumpet?
ML: I like the sound. My sister, she had my Daddy’s violin, which I have now. But she played the violin, and she took up – like classical dancing. She had a bar in the house and whatnot, and she practiced, and I don’t know where she got that from. That was her idea. And she was a very good singer. I talked with a lot of people around Detroit and Cleveland and also New york that knew of her.
LJM: You mentioned, of course earlier that you were interested in a magazine that you picked up that involved musicians. What real-life experiences did you have in your young years to music? In other words, did you attend church where you were introduced to music, or did you visit clubs? Exactly how did you get influenced?
ML: Well, there wasn’t too many clubs. Kids didn’t get around then like they do now, and I saw doctor shows. You see, they had doctor shows. That really started off show business. This fellow would be selling medicine, and he would come out with maybe a shake dancer and one horn player and give you a little bit of a show. And then he’d sell whatever it was. The medicine they had was supposed to be good for everything. But that’s where the first start in show business . . . .
LJM: I think I know what a shake dancer is, but could you elaborate a little bit?
ML: Well, at that time, they did a lot of bumps. The made the crowd yell and whatnot, but [they were told], “You will see more when you get it.” That is what they call the “barker.” That barker would be outside and tell everybody. The band might play one number, and they would go all over the cities in the state doing this type of thing, and which I really do think it was the beginning of show business clientele.
LJM: So, when you were in high school, did you begin studying music formally?
ML: Yes. I’m a self-taught musician because there wasn’t too many . . . . McDavid, Percy McDavid, who taught later at Wheatley [High School], he started Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb and most all the saxes here. His brother was a trumpet player, and that’s who I studied under. It had to be a favor to me. Whenever he saw me he might help about different points.
Wheatley had the first band. My school principal didn’t like music. He said it was going to hell! We had one lady that backed us. We did have a combo at Yates [High School]. Wheatley started the first band, and then Jack Yates [High School], and later, a fellow here now, Mr. Huckaby. I helped him with the first band because I had graduated. He’s an undertaker now. His kid’s a lawyer [who] finished at T. S. U. We’ve known each other . . . . At that time, Miller didn’t want a band at all.
CS: That’s not unusual.
LJM: In high school were there any other young people at that time whom you played with or studied with who became famous?
ML: Anderson Lacey. His daughter is here now.
LJM: Anderson Lacey?
ML: Anderson Lacey. He’s a violinist. You see, at that time in the theater we had violinists or pianists or somebody playing the role of music along with the movie, and Anderson and this fellow called Jones who was later over the whole school district. Abner Jones. He was my classmate. And also a fellow named George Gilbert. He was with the first band that I ever joined, which was Giles Mitchell’s Band. I was the prop boy and the musician and everything! At that time you wanted to play so bad you didn’t care.
LJM: Now you had your trumpet.
LJM: What opportunities did you have outside of school to play?
ML: When I first started playing where wasn’t many kids playing, and I had to start playing with older fellows like Frank Gibbs. He was a trombonist out of Dallas. And they had the tuba. The tuba was like the bass violin. You also had the banjo. Guitar [took the place of] the banjo, and the bass viol took the tuba’s place at the beginning. Just like Professor Hayes that was over Wiley, he brother played tuba with me. We used to play, like at that beginning, like at a lot of these bus stops on weekends. That was the life of the band: to play at bus stops. Later when I started the big band with Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet and quite a few of the younger guys who made it into show business like Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, we all started then at the El Dorado Ballroom when we were playing in the City then.
LJM: But you were out of high school by then?
ML: I was out of high school, yes, when I picked up the band.
LJM: When did you graduate from high school?
ML: In 1931.
LJM: Before that date – I just want to go back and clarify – were you playing in any sort of clubs while you were in high school?
ML: Yes. I played quite a few - - I don’t know what you would call [them] - - They were bus stops, bars, or whatever. In 1930 I had to front the Wheatley Band. The Director didn’t tell me he was going to put me in front of the band that [at a] contest at the Majestic Theater. Cab Calloway’s Band was there, and quite a few . . . . T-Bone Walker was there, also. You know, he was just trying to win a prize. He did win first prize, and we won second prize. I saw Doc Cheatham here at the Blue Room about a month ago, and he was with Cab’s band at that time. He let me use his mutes. I hadn’t those many mutes! That was my first experience fronting a band. I was so surprised when he told me to get out on the stage and front the band for this affair. Illinois Jacquet’s brother played drums. He [Jacquet] had one brother who played drums and one who played alto and tenor [saxophone]. He had a gig that night, and Illinois played drums. Illinois could play drums and sax, too.
CS: That’s a surprise! I always think of him as a saxophonist.
ML: He played alto at first and then went on to tenor, but he was [playing] alto when he first started playing.
LJM: Who is this we are talking about?
CS: Illinois. His brother, Russell, was the drummer.
ML: Trumpet. Jules is the sax [player] and Lenton was the drummer.
CS: But Russell wasn’t the only one who became another professional [musician].
ML: Illinois . . . .
CS: Illinois and Russell became professional musicians?
ML: And his brother Jules.
CS: Oh, really?
ML: Oh, his brother Jules became a great altoist. He was the best out on the west coast. The whole family . . . . His daddy played tuba. I had forgotten [that] I played with him at these beer stands. They’d have us on a platform. Some of those fellows I played with just to learn Sweet Sue, Dinah, and Dyin’ Away. Those were the three numbers that we played. We’d go right from one to another. Right after this one we would go right back over [them].
LJM: Now when you were in high school and playing these performances, you were getting paid for that?
ML: Some. Some just to learn. And it wasn’t that much. You’d make fifty cents or a dollar and then the kitty. The kitty would be pretty nice [at] some places. And music! You had to love music. Just like the same way it is now. I think the kids need to be subsidized in order to go as far as then can in music because they are limited in raising a family and those types of things. And music. . . . I talked to a lot of guys, and a lot of guys quit when Rock ’n’ Roll came out, and most of them realize the loss. They were lost when I catch up with seeing them in Los Angeles. These fellows had stopped [that] played music. Some stuc it out, and they are happy.
LJM: During this early period, now we are talking about while you were still in high school and perhaps a couple of years afterwards, was there any influence that you would call significant that led you into a particular direction?
ML: Well, I was advised by Louis Armstrong.
LJM: Louis Armstrong?
ML: Yes. All trumpet players, year in and year out, would [look up to] Louis. Louis was a wonderful person, also. I ran into him later around New York, and he was the same Louis that I met here.
LJM: Did you stay in Houston after you graduated?
ML: I stayed here until about . . . . You see, we went on tours starting about 1937. I formed the band in 1936, and we went all over Georgia, Florida, Alabama and all around. When we came back here, there was no recording thing. We had the news. I guess the papers or whatever. That that’s one of the best stories made. I went to Capricorn. I think that was about 1940. Then I came back and went to a club call Ye Old College Inn in Kansas City. Somehow Joe Louis heard about the band, and he brought us to the Rhumboogie in Chicago. We were challenging the Cotton Club. I went in there for two weeks, and I stayed there nine months. We had a line there at least six of eight months. Of course, we didn’t know the band was as good as it was, really, but Basie and all the rest of the band, they was coming down and they’d hear Jimmie Lunceford. We battled Jimmie Lunceford, and we battled quite a few of the name bands here.
CS: Would you describe the battles?
ML: Well, one band would play and hour and the next band would play an hour, and then people would applaud what they thought. I battled Jimmie [Lunceford] right here at [Houston]. At that time we were more together than these bands are now. We had two or three sets of uniforms. We really had a great organization, but we were not able to record. Petrillo had stopped [recording] during my time right in the middle of when I was getting real popular, and then I had to go into the Army.
When I left Rhumboogie I picked up Ella Fitzgerald, The Four Kings, and we were on tour playing the Apollo Theater. I made one tour, and I was drafted, so this broke up the band.
LJM: You mentioned earlier when you went on tour for the first time from Houston it wasn’t clear to me whether it was your band or . . . .
ML: It was my band.
LJM: Who was in the band?
ML: I had L. F. Simon, Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, Lawrence Cato on bass, Don Mills with the drums, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Wild Bill Davis on the piano and Lawrence Cato was on bass. Cedric Haywood was my writer-arranger for the band, and also he played piano. I had two pianists. One would play half of it, and the other would play the other half. We had quite a few of the guys . . . .really, they’re some very good musicians. Singers: there was a boy named George Lane. He was a very good singer. We had four singers in the band. We carried four singers in the band, just like a quartet. I think . . . . like the Ink Spots did Paper Doll. We did numbers like that. We had a very good show.
LJM: We sort of accept at face value, or it doesn’t really register with us, when you say that “I had a band.” Well, you were a young man. How did you attract these people to your band? How did you organize it?
ML: Well, I think it was just like youths now. I started with Giles’ band, and older guys like that would put you through the mill. Like, there was one fellow, Nathan Osborne, was crazy about me, and he was one of the reasons I was with the band. It looked like about every other week they had a meeting on whether to let me go or not. So, then the other musicians, you know, they caught the devil with the guys. So, after a while the young boys just got together. Of course, I was older than them. I was eight years older than Arnett [Cobb] and Eddie [Vinson] and most of the guys. I can remember going on tour. When I came back I brought all of them home, first, before I even got home. There was no drinking. I don’t know why [or] how they respected me that much, but I didn’t have any trouble with the kids. But they were all young.
CS: How did Eddie Vinson get the nickname “Cleanhead”?
ML: Eddie was putting some kind of funny looking salve on his head on his hair, and it took all his hair off, and then we was laughting at him and going on and what not. He just kept it like that. But it was because he had a big bald spot, Then he shaved it off, and he just kept it like that. That’s how he became known and Mr. Cleanhead. He joined Cootie [Williams] in 1940. He left, I think, in 1940. He joined Cootie’s band, and that’s when he made their records. All the bands were after the guys I had. Lionel Hampton took Jacquet. When I was in Rhumboogie, Jacquet left Lionel and went with Cab [Calloway], and Arnett took his [Jacquet’s] place with Hamp. Most all of the bands [favored my men]. Like L. F. Simon. He was with Louis Jordan, and quite a few out of the Lunceford band . . . .
I had a boy . . . He’s around here now: Willie “Lott” Tompkins is a trombonist. Lunceford used him quite a while. It looked like my band was the starter. They’d come down and just pick them up. They would listen. When I called a rehearsal for eleven-thirty, they were there at eleven. It’s not like . . . . They was just interested in playing, and that makes good music.
CS: Did you have any trouble replacing them when they left?
ML: I had a little. Not too much. I think it’s the style that I was using mostly. There were two tenors, and we’d have two tenors battling. And that same . . . you could make it. We had some very good tenor men from this State, like King Curtis. He’s from here. Or Buddy Tate, Budd Johnson. A lot of people don’t know it, but they were with all the name bands, but they were right out of Texas.
LJM: What year was it that you were playing at The College Inn?
ML: That was 1941.
LJM: That was before you went into the Army, then?
ML: Yes. That was before I went to the Rhumboogie.
LJM: Was the original offer for only a few weeks?
ML: Yes, because they would not take you for over two weeks.
LJM: But you stayed there nine months!
ML: Well, that was . . . . They insisted. I did not realize that we were that good. We had a line for six months. There’s a write-up in a magazine about T-Bone’s style in one of the magazines that was sent to me. There was three pages about my band, and me and T-Bone meeting me. It made me feel funny because the guys that had gotten the word that T-Bone said . . . . and then I said. . . .
LJM: So it was the popularity of your playing that led to your being there nine months after that initial two weeks.
ML: Two weeks. That’s right. I came right out of there on tour. I played Louis Jordan at that time as an added attraction to my band. I was right behind Cab . . . Duke. I think I was a little ahead of Basie at that time. But going into the service and no records: all this was done without having any records. But it was traveling. We went everywhere. I don’t know if you remember The Four Keys. You know Ella Fitzgerald. Quartets, they were just beginning to start then: The Ink Spots; Mills Brothers and groups like that.
LJM: What kind of network of relationships did you establish with all these other band leaders and musicians? Was it one that served you well in the future? Or was it competitive?
ML: It wasn’t competitive. It was competitive, but it was beautifully . . . . I mean, if a musician came into the city here and was broke, why, we took up a collection that night. We did so many things like that. The fellows, they were for it. I just can’t sa that it was me because they didn’t resent anything helping another musician, and we were friendly with all the bands that came down. It was very gratifying, and I think, like, some of the guys would tell . . . . I remember Chu Berry [who] used to be with Cab [Calloway]. He was a tenor man. He was the only one who acted a little funny, like with Arnett and Jacquet and the guys [who] were telling how to make a high F and how to do certain things. It was competition, but it was nice. It was beautiful. There wasn’t anyone angry with each other. Cab’s band would follow us around. Jay McShann’s band would follow us around with Charlie [Barefield]. He left Jay McShann to be with us for three days.
CS: When you were playing here in Houston and Cab Calloway would come through, didn’t Dizzie Gillespie come play with your band?
ML: Dizzie sat in with the band at the Empire Room in 1940 before he started his band.
CS: Did he have that same check embouchure that he uses now?
ML: Louis had that where the neck swells up here, but you couldn’t tell anybody to start over. Diz has been a very good friend of mine for a long, long time.
LJM: Were the contracts at places like the College Inn, were they liberal or was there very little pay involved in it?
ML: It was a little pay. What happens is some bands didn’t want you in their territory. Now, Harland Leonard’s band [was] in Kansas City. The [Union]delegate from New York City was there. I’ve always been a union man, but at that time I couldn’t join the local there. I had to join the next black local, which was New Orleans, and then I belonged to the Dallas [local]. Well, they didn’t want me to play the College Inn. The delegate was there, and that’s when I first told the Union, “I’m sorry.” We had to come all the way there. They had some kind of flaw in my transportation. I knew that was coming from Harland Leonard and a couple of more bands there. I had to pay a fine for it later in the Rhumboogie. They didn’t fine me but fifty dollars. But I couldn’t go to scale all the way, then bring them back home without anything. That’s when I just defied the rules even to the Delegate, but I told him, “If there is anything you have to fine me, then okay.” Later they did. I think the way I . . . . Everybody had a booking agent. Don Robey was the booker here for me, but he didn’t book this job, so I had a fictitious name on the contract, you know, to make it look big. So, that was what really got me the fine. I don’t remember the name he used, but when they checked the list. So, that is the reason I had to pay a fifty dollar fine. But we found out locally, the guys here . . . . I called Robey [about] a fictitious name and Robey bought the date. I got my money advanced to us and everything. You know, like in your home town, people just look. “They’re just local.” This is what we are fighting here. We have some great musicians here in the City, and people just say, “They’re local.” But, you know, just because a band comes from New York or Kansas City, that doesn’t mean that they are better than you are. And you play nearly like you do by sports: people think you are nothing. That helped us an awful lot. . . like. . . we had a theme song. We didn’t get any applause at all in the beginning. We didn’t know anything about applause until we played Texas University on our way to California. When we got to California, people would give us a standing ovation, and we were surprised. And when we came back here they gave us a standing ovation. But, before we left, we were just . . . .
LJM: Took you for granted?
LJM: What club did you usually play at here? The El Dorado?
ML: The El Dorado. The Harlem Grill first.
LJM: Where was that located?
ML: That was right where I-45 is downtown: I-45 and Heinz Street. That’s where the Harlem Grill was . . . . Like, the Pilgrim Temple was downtown where Antioch Church is now on Frederick [Street]. That was really downtown. It was so small.
LJM: So, you played at those three clubs. Did you have a regular contract with them?
ML: No contract. I was telling E. C. Holliday (he’s President of our Local) that Big Mama Thornton and Hound Dog. I was producer of that record. Robey was supposed to put my name on the album because I was down here on vacation. She was cutting . . . . She would sing all the time. When I left, Arnold Bright, thinking he was going to do it, but he never did. She knew it. There at the Miller Theater she told how I helped her. That was the first number that she recorded. Producing is . . . . You know, if you don’t produce something right, you can have the same material and it’s not put together right it means nothing. Some people are just fortunate to have that gift, and that why people . . . they’ll buy this record, or [say] “I want one by John Wayne.” Or anybody like that.
CS: It was Joe Louis who helped you get to the Rhumboogie?
ML: Joe was at the affair at ____?_______ I came out, and I was playing across the street at Small’s Paradise, he came in and spent the whole evening there. He was very . . . . When he went in the Army I think I was thirty-one and Joe was twenty-seven. Sugar Ray was, I think, about nineteen. They were very good friends there. They were together all the time. That’s the old Sugar Ray.
LJM: What do you think accounted for your popularity in Chicago? You were up against some pretty stiff competition.
ML: Well, I didn’t even know we would succeed like that. I didn’t have any idea what would happen. If we failed, I was thinking about back to Houston, but it was just the opposite. We had a . . . It was rough with us because we had never played big shows like this. This was competition to the Cotton Club. It took us a long time. We read okay, but we didn’t read fast, not this kind of music. But when we played something . . . like . . . I made them phrase! That’s what you hear about us. You can play a lot of things, but it’s the phrasing that gets to the people. I thought we had failed that night. You see, we had a spot in the show, and I saw that some of the acts wasn’t too pleased with us, the way we played their music. So, I said, “I guess in two weeks I’ll be ready to leave, you know.” So when we had our spot those people nearly went crazy, you know. The Swingin’ Band from Texas!! And I felt like I belonged there. You created it, just like if someone tells you , “Give me two bars of something or another in B-flat or F.” That’s the way we had to ad-lib shows there. We had no music. The guys tell you to play this and do that. There was a fellow named Tappy Willis. He was a heck of an arranger of show music. Show music! Like, it’s loud. Really. You play that different. You can’t get too loud for those tap dancers. There’s a certain thing . . . and, then, you have certain songs. You don’t do that now. That art is just about gone. My One and Only, Tommy Tune, he was the one who danced in that. Those guys! They could dance so soft and then do what they call “falling off a log.” You’d have to be very loud. The drummer had to be experienced enough to give them the crash cymbal, you know. We were fortunate to come out. . . . I think the way we played, the acts went on with us because acts used to cause the band to lose out if they didn’t play the music right.
LJM: Some of the other bands that visited in Houston while you were playing here at the clubs said they had a rough time coming through here. What does that mean?
ML: They meant they rehearsed a little more to get themselves more together before they came down here because they had a lot of respect for us. Illinois [Jacquet] didn’t want anyone to upset us. He called my band the best band he ever played with. He had me come to Carnegie Hall. I was guest director for his band. Arnett [Cobb], Wild Bill Davis and Gus Johnson came from here. They used to come from here, too. They called it the “Texas Thing.”
Illinois was at my wedding barefoot! But his Dad was a very wonderful person.
LJM: I want to talk a bit about you after 1940: before your Army career. What was you audience like during this earlier period? This was times of segregation. You must have had some experiences in dealing with that in various places where you played.
ML: In some places. Like traveling through Florida or someplace like that, and some guys, the cops, would up and tell us “Now, we’re with you and explain to you and try to be with you.” But it wasn’t . . . like music . . . I don’t know what it does, but most of the people that attend things like that are there because they want to be. The only thing that I did have coming out of Shreveport, the car messed up. I stopped a car and asked he would let me ride into Shreveport. I think it was about eleven miles out. I thought the fellow was going to let me come in the car, but he told me to hand onto the running board. This car was one of those that had a running board. I hung on, and that guy took some bad curves. He swung around those curves, and when we got to where we was going I couldn’t take my hands off the top of the car. I held my head, and I just had to get myself together. I couldn’t talk. But he was trying to throw me off. He did it on purpose. That the only time I ran into anything like that. If I thought he was going to do something like that, I’d have walked. But most of the time right in the City here, like Ed Gerlach and all of the musicians, they would follow us around. Ed swears I’m the cause of him playing and everything because he had gone in the Army. But before he had gone in, he would come everywhere we played. He wrote me in New York and told me that even the black clubs, they bought his band. They were doing a lot of things. Since we’ve been here. . . . You see, I’ve known him since before he got married. You know, I think of music and athletes. They were the first ones to try to break that sort of thing. It still holds out.
LJM: What about here in your own hometown of Houston? Did the audiences vary any from what you had played for in Chicago and Kansas City?
ML: Not really. The ones that come out, they’re coming to see the band. One of the things that I felt coming from San Antonio: I think I had a flat, then, too. And I wanted to use the phone. The guy would let me. But that’s about the only thing that happened here. People are so nice, sometimes, that you don’t even think about it.
The only thing: I couldn’t join the Union; couldn’t join the Local. I think they started . . . . I left here about ’45 or ’46. And now they’re together. They came together, both Locals. You see, some places they had two Locals. Chicago had two. Maybe about fifteen years ago – twenty years ago, they don’t have but just one.
LJM: Not being a member of the Union during those early years, did that mean that you were getting less money than those that were unionized?
ML: You see, we have a scale, and some bands demand over-scale. They wouldn’t work for scale. Just like, it’s ridiculous when you see a band . . . .like if I’m doing a concert, and I would play for scale after I’ve been out here sixty years, and here’s my little grandson who would come and get the same money as the leader.
(Part of interview lost due to changing tapes)
ML: In every city you had your places you could [stay]: rooming houses or some other. Promoter, we called them. Control. Sometimes, some guys would play – say, may it was someplace in Louisiana and they had to come to Arkansas, and they might have a few weeks off. And they’d come on into Arkansas. And maybe the booker . . . . like, I got stranded in Paducah, Kentucky. I had Milton Larkin’s Band from Texas. They thought we were, you know, violent and all that. And the people, they didn’t show. I had to take that off my placard because it was . . . . But coming back in there, we drove. I don’t know why, but a few came out. But those that did come out, they heard the band, and, boy, they really . . . . So, I think I had to go to this rooming house, and I told the guy I was fixin’ to have to call a ____?____ or something. And he said, “Well, Milt. I tell you. Would you like to play a gambling club?” I said, “I don’t know. Where is it?” And he said, “Well, I’m going over there. The guys gamble – over in Illinois.” Sometimes they’d win eight or nine hundred dollars, and this one won this, and you’d go a hundred. Well, really, the kitty, it was very good. So we stayed there about eight weeks. And so, I don’t know, it was just the way things was going, but there wasn’t nothing guaranteed like they do now. Most of them, they put up fifty percent of the money; the way they are getting tighter and tighter, about three-fourths of the money. The booker or the manager, he [will] pick up the money before you hit town.
LJM: During your pre=Army days when you were playing in the clubs, both here and out-of-town, was there any discernable change in your music style in your playing?
ML: I will do my same style because I realize that made the music different. Like I played New Year’s Eve at a ___?___ Hotel, and this kid, a nineteen-year-old girl, was there, a guy told me, “I wish you had played something from the ‘50’s or the ‘40’s there. My little niece, she hasn’t danced to anything.” So, when I saw him the next night, he told me his little niece, she was just enjoying the band. So, like I told him, “ This is what kids . . . . It’s more on a swing. It’s not a be-bop. I keep it melodic enough so you can hum or you can feel.”
CS: Do you use arrangers or do you arrange the music?
ML: I do what you call a header. I can’t write. I have in my head the arrangement that I want, and I give it to the writer. And I want it played and I want it wrote just like that. The phrasing of it like that.
CS: In other words, you tell them what you want and that person has to produce what you want.
ML: Well, it’s wrote down, but I get someone like Bill Davis to copy off what I want. Sometimes they go to the piano, and I tell them. “Do you want this?” “No, I want such-and-such.” I’ll play it on the horn, and then we write it down.
LJM: I want to clarify one point. We may correct the Encyclopedia of Jazz here. Leonard Feather’s Encyclopedia of Jazz states that you formed your band in Chicago, but that’s not correct.
ML: No. You’re right, there. He’s probably talking because that’s when I made my best break; my biggest break in Chicago.
CS: You went from there to New York?
ML: Yes, but I went from here directly. You see, I closed [at] Ye Olde College Inn in Kansas city. See, all these things was falling in together with the big bands. Those fellows, they went back, and they talked very well about my band. I don’t think I was home two weeks from Kansas City when I had to go back to the Rhumboogie. And that’s when we made our biggest break. From there I did the first show in Detroit at the Paradise Theater, and then I went into New York with All Fitzgerald and some group . . . The Four Kings. . . I can’t remember the name, but they were very popular. At that time you had to have a singing group because that was just the way the shows went. But Ella was wonderful to work with.
LJM: And this was before your Army days?
ML: Yes. Well, I went right . . . I think about eight months from that I was in the Army. I was in the Army with Sy Oliver. He was doing most of the arranging. And Buck Clayton. And quite a few of the guys out of New York. We played two years and two months at Camp Shanks Port of Embarkation.
LJM: What year did you go into the Army?
ML: In 1943.
LJM: You played in the Army Band.
ML: Army Band. I was in the Band, a combo and a religious quartet. We did shows at the USO there, and then we had to come to the pier and play guys on boats. And then we had to go to another placed called the “railhead,” which was the point of embarkation. No one knew about it. It was called Camp Shanks.
LJM: Where was that located?
ML: About twenty-five miles outside New York City. The boats were leaving New York, and sometimes the trains would come in there. It takes about ten bands to load them. The wanted music all the while [they were embarking]. I as in New York, and some days I would have to go to camp and some days I wouldn’t. But I wasn’t supposed to speak about anything. “Loose lips sink ships.” You couldn’t tell where we were playing. They wouldn’t tell us until about an hour before. They’d give you time, though, to get there.
LJM: Were you there the whole time you served in the Army?
LJM: Did you do civilian jobs?
ML: No. During that time the Army used us every day. We’d get up at four o’clock in the Army.
CS: And that’s where you started playing the trombone: the valve trombone?
ML: The valve trombone. Yes. That was the only instrument lewft when I got there. Dan mine and another trombone player, so I made third trombone. They had about ten trumpets, and I wanted to make that band, so I picked up this valve trombone.
LJM: How long did it take you to master it?
ML: Not too long. The sound is an octave from the trumpet, and [in] reading you are one note higher, so you have to transpose it: like, if you had a D, it would be E for the valve trombone. Sy [Oliver] used to tell me he didn’t understand how I did it, but you try to keep from going to another camp.
LJM: Did the Army years contribute in any way to your style or change your style? Did it have any impact on your career?
ML: Not musically, because we played mostly Sy Oliver’s music, and Sy had taken over some things from us like Four or Five Times. That was our introduction. Yes, Indeed was our introduction to Four or Five Times. [Another writer] just wrote a song about our introduction. He was a heck of a writer. Cedric Haywood was his name. Basie used him, and also Lionel and quite a few bands had him write. Sy’s [music] was most syncopation, like for the Lunceford Band. There wasn’t too much difference between ours.
CS: Didn’t he do arrangements for Kenton?
ML: Nnnno. I think it was Walter Fullis who did his arrangements. He was a heck of an arranger. Walter Fullis did a lot of arrangements for Charlie [Parker] and Diz [Dizzy Gillespie] and Kenton. Parker . . . he had ideas. . . nobody understood where Charlie was coming from, but he may have on a black shoe and a brown shoe.
LJM: What impact did the Army have on your career?
ML: I think it destroyed it. Really! At the time I was fortunate enough to come back and play locally, but I was among the big three when I went into the service. I was in demand from coast to coast. But I played all the towns, you know. When I left New York, the guys, they picked me up in Indianapolis. Down the line you didn’t have to go over one hundred and fifty or two hundred miles. Like some bands that wasn’t well-known, they jumped six or seven hundred miles. And it was [by] bus. It wasn’t like it is now. But not being able to record destroyed us.
LJM: Did you do any recording at all before you went into the Army?
ML: No. Petrillo had just stopped [it]. When I started getting popular Petrillo stopped recording. And really, - - - if there hadn’t been any recording you’d have music in so many places. He was half-way to a certain extent, but it would have been modern. You’d have live music. There’d be bands in the area - - all over - - before records got to where you could just put a record on. You had to go see it. But now - - I don’t know whether you have seen a lot of plays where canned music is in the theaters. And they dance by it, and do this by it. . . . Before that, they had to have the musicians play it. This is really what knocked a big (hole in it). We have so many young musicians now coming up, and there’s no place for them really. They’re good musicians. It’s not that they are not good, but there’s not enough work. The symphony and the opera are subsidizing these musicians. Things are terrible! Again, we don’t want to be playing just to be playing.
CS: I saw one of your pictures. I think you were using amplified guitar. What do you think about amplification?
ML: I like as long as you don’t have to play it that loud. It can be toned down. I hate to see any have it turned up so high, but the kids love it. But I like (gestures). But I’d rather see a person playing his instrument and using his tonation, because with an amplifier you can’t show too much tonation. It looks like some people . . . . I was at a place the other night, but people in the room, boy, they had it almost all the way up to the ceiling.
LJM: What did you do when you left the Army, following service?
ML: A bunch of our shows was played in Mobile and then town shows - - and then like five different offers in towns that lay ahead. And I was using young kids that was coming up. And I was using, not in any give year. . . . But I was using mostly were Willie Mae Vaughn. I took B. B. King out on his first road trip. Sonny Stitts. I took Sonny Rollins. I took him out. I’d front the band, but it would be Sonny Rollins or somebody else, but I had charge of what was going on. I did that for about . . . . I think B. B. was the last kid I took out. And I started in the Celebrity Club with Buddy Tate. Buddy had a room, and I had a room there. That’s when I got off the road. Then I started getting club dates. I was very popular in New York then. Mostly club dates, and I was managing a club. This fellow had two clubs, and I was managing one and playing at the other. I played until I came back [to Houston].
LJM: What were the names of the clubs you managed?
ML: The Celebrity Club; Linden Manor, and also a ballroom like the Famous Door. It was down by the Union.
LJM: So, when you came out of the Army, you stayed in New York?
ML: Oh, yeah! You had to look like you knew you had to come to New York to make it. It was nearly impossible for a band to play here because the way they told Louis [Armstrong] and all the rest of the bands. They had a little band here called Milt Thornton Band. Louis told them, “What do you mean, little band?” Louis was just like that. He said, “That band is better than mine!” I remember Louis at the Majestic [Theater]. They had sent him a band down here. I will never forget the phrase he said. He said, “Milt, I got to go call the office.” He said, “Joe, there ain’t nobody out there on that stage but me and God!” I never will forget that! I know just how he felt because when you stand out there alone with no backup, it’s . . . you know. But there was some fabulous bands come out of New York. They’d be picked up just like that. But the people here - - - if we would have said anything, well, they would have given us the devil. But this lot of sells (sales??) people, they come from Kansas City.
There are over a hundred musicians with name bands out of Texas. So, this is what we are trying to do with the kids here. We have some very good little young musicians. They’ll make a name if they can be fortunate enough to have somebody help support them.
LJM: Apparently your own experiences are having an influence upon what you are doing now; when you were struggling to be known.
ML: I’m happy about my experience. I didn’t think I’d get to forty-five. I don’t know why I felt like that, but I made seventy-seven already!
LJM: This might be a good spot to stop, but I do want to continue with you about your later years and your later career.
End of recorded interview.
Later personal conversation:
CS: Did Teddy Wilson ever play in your band?
ML: You mean Teddy Wilson from Austin, Texas? No, Teddy never played in my band.
CS: I read that he played in Milton Senior’s Band in Terre Haute, Indiana, and I thought it might be coincidence because I had never heard of Milton Senior’s Band.
ML: Oh, wait a minute. Teddy did have a gig in Terre Haute for one night, and he needed a band, so I lent him my band for one night. That’s probably what they were referring to.
(END OF INTERVIEW)