AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
I have been tied up with music for about as long as I can remember. By the time I was four I was picking out little tunes my mother played on the reed organ in the living-room. We lived in a big, timber-framed building: what we called a shotgun house, because if you fired through the front door the shot passed through all the rooms and out into the back yard, likely ending up in the privy.
Quite a few musicians came to our house. And my ma took me to hear many more, hoping to encourage in me a love of music. But she wouldn't consent to my having music lessons, for she feared I might end up as she had done -- unable to play except from paper. Soon I was playing piano around the district, though I was so small I had to sit on someone's lap to reach the keyboard.
There were two children, me and my older sister Mamie. My father I had never seen. A year or two later, the family moved to a neighbourhood in Pittsburgh which brought me my first experience of inter-racial feeling. This entire section was `white' for five or six blocks, and for a while somebody was throwing bricks through our windows. There was nothing to do but stick it out in silence. Pretty soon the people there were tolerating us.
Then my mother married a man called Fletcher Burley. As a stepfather he was the greatest; and he loved the blues. Fletcher taught me the first blues I ever knew by singing them over and over to me.
Now it happened he was known as a professional gambler, and he sometimes took me with him at nights -- to bring him luck, he said. We had moved again, to Hamilton Boulevard in East Liberty (a suburb of Pittsburgh about six miles from the main drag), and I went with him into a variety of smoke-filled gaming rooms, most of which had an upright against one wall. The game was generally `skin' -- the Georgia skin game -- and the players would all be men, for women weren't allowed in these places. I was kind of smuggled in, and before the cards began I used to play a few things on the piano. Often I received as much as 20 dollars in tips, which my stepfather had started rolling by dropping a dollar in his hat. This `pound' had to be returned to him as soon as we got outside. Still, it was a fair deal.
We also visited Saturday hops and parties given at someone's house to raise money for rent and other bills. These functions were known as house-rent parties or chitterlin' struts. The windows were kept shut and the atmosphere was stagnant, but I was always fascinated by the boogie pianists and shuffling couples dancing on a spot. Sometimes they'd hire me at a dollar an hour for three hours. I would bring out all the blues and boogies Fletcher had taught me. Should I attempt a popular song or light classic, my step-father would ask why didn't I play some music.
I had now been attending Lincoln School for a couple of years, learning music and playing college teas and such. Outside, I had earned a local reputation as `the gigging piano gal from East Liberty'. I was playing quite a bit of jazz now, and beginning to give it my own interpretation. Of course, my playing was influenced by favourite pianists: principally by Jack Howard, Earl Hines and Jelly Roll Morton. Of all the musicians I met in my childhood, one who stands out: Jack Howard, who played boogie-woogie so forcefully that he used to break up all the pianos. For those days, he was one of the grooviest, but never made the name he deserved. Jelly Roll I dug from records, and his composition, The Pearls, was then my number one solo. Many years later I recorded it for Decca at the instigation of John Hammond.
Offers for me to play dances, society parties, even churches, were now coming in regularly. For most dates I was paid the sum of one dollar per hour, and they always tipped me at the end of the night.
And there was usually something worth hearing in town those days, even if Pittsburgh was not one of the jazz centres. One Saturday night I went to a theatre on Frankstown Avenue where all the Negro shows were booked. But I hardly noticed any part of the show, for my attention was focussed on the lady pianist who worked there. She sat cross-legged at the piano, a cigarette in her mouth, writing music with her right hand while accompanying the show with her swinging left! Impressed, I told myself: `Mary, you'll do that one day.' (And I did, travelling with Andy Kirk's band in the Thirties on one-nighters.)
The lady turned out to be Lovie Austin, who was working with the pit band and making all the orchestrations. It so happened that she was behind time, and hurriedly arranging a number for one of the acts further down the bill.
Another week, the fabulous Ma Rainey came into a little theatre on Wiley Avenue. Some of the older kids and I slipped down-town to hear the woman who had made blues history. Ma was loaded with real diamonds -- in her ears, around her neck, in a tiara on her head. Both hands were full of rocks, too; her hair was wild and she had gold teeth. What a sight! To me, as a kid, the whole thing looked and sounded weird. When the engagement ended, and Ma had quit the scene, rumour had it that the jewellery was bought hot and that Ma was picked up and made to disgorge -- losing all the loot she had paid for the stuff.
Of our local characters, one of the most famed was Lois Deppe, the popular baritone singer who had been around since 1918 or earlier. His band was the talk of Pennsylvania, and at that time included the great Earl Hines -- a local boy from nearby Carnegie -- and Vance Dixon on saxophone and clarinet. Wherever Deppe's band appeared, the kids from all around were sure to go -- and when Vance started to slap-tongue on that saxophone they really went wild. Numbers I remember the band doing were Milenberg Joys, Isabelle and Congaine. The last two were recorded by Deppe in the early Twenties. Isabelle I made as a solo for Columbia around 1935; I once asked Hines about it, thinking he might be the composer, but he did not remember it.
I must have been ten or eleven when I was taken to the Saturday afternoon dances at the Arcadia Ballroom where Deppe was playing. These dances ran from noon until 4 p.m., and shortly before break-up time the biggest fight would invariably commence. Half the kids in Pittsburgh could be seen running from the hall, grabbing the backs of street-cars to get away.
We had groups of kids from the different districts -- East Liberty, Soho, the downtown district, and so on -- who were considered very tough. If an East Liberty kid was caught in Soho, or downtown, he would either be assaulted or chased back to his own district.
I was at high school when my first big chance came along. Hits And Bits, a travelling TOBA show, had just hit town, and the pianist had failed to show up. `Buzzin'' Harris, the owner, was frantic for a replacement. `There's a girl in East Liberty could play your show,' he was told. He drove over to investigate, found me playing hopscotch with some kids, and thought a gag had been pulled on him. Reluctantly he agreed to hear me, and I must have proved something, because he started humming the show tunes for me. Within a few hours I had them off, was about ready to play the shows. That night I opened, and during the week Harris was over to the house to talk my mother into letting me leave home.
It was just before the summer vacation, and after a little argument my mother agreed. But she was backstage next day with the public notary, signing papers for me to go with the show for two months. My salary was to be 30 dollars a week, and mother fixed for a friend to go along with me. So I left Pittsburgh with Hits And Bits and travelled west to Detroit, Chicago, Cincinnati and St Louis. In the Windy City I again ran into Hines, who introduced me to Louis Armstrong. Both were working at the Vendome Theatre with Erskine Tate's orchestra. In fact, so far as the audience was concerned, they were the orchestra. Specialities were played from the pit, and I saw Louis stand up, wipe his mouth in preparation for a solo, and break up the place before he'd blown a note. That's how it was with Satchmo in Chicago then. After the show the boys took me over to the Sunset cabaret -- owned by the now famous booking agent, Joe Glaser -- to hear King Oliver. I was impressed no end by Oliver's kicking combo, and by his own expressive, tale-telling cornet.
I also looked up Lovie Austin -- by now making a name in Chicago -- at the Monogram, another house on the TOBA circuit. The initials stand for Theatre Owners' Booking Association -- or, to us who had to work it, `Tough on Black Artists'.
Next stop, St Louis: and there I met Charlie Creath, the river-boat king, who was known all over the Middle West for his crazy growl trumpet playing. Besides being a top jazz performer, Charlie was a most handsome cat.
In St Louis, our show picked up a young blues singer named Irene Scruggs (now in Paris with her daughter, dancer Baby Leazar Scruggs). Irene had not long settled in St Louis, and was starting out to become one of St Louis's finest singers.
Then on to Cleveland, where I met John Williams, later to become my husband. He was working at the theatre where we appeared, leading a five-piece combo known as John Williams and his Syncopators. John played alto, soprano and baritone saxes, also clarinet. Acknowledged to be one of the finest baritone players, he was much in demand. We named him `Bearcat', on account of him being wild on the big saxophone, and it was this nickname which led in later years to the Kirk instrumental number, Bearcat Shuffle.
The Syncopators were strong in all departments. A man called Martin, a friend and schoolmate of Coleman Hawkins from St Joseph, Missouri, played tenor. Shirley Clay, from St Louis, was already blowing good trumpet (we used to call him `Hoggy'). The drummer, Edward Temple, was a showman, but also a solid, subtle rhythm player. Then they had a banjoist whose name has got away from me. They didn't carry a brass bass. John Williams blew a slap-tongue two beats on baritone, when he wasn't taking a solo, like a bass horn would play. It eliminated the need for a tuba.
I played in the pit with this band, doubling on stage in the second half with a speciality that was slightly sensational. Spreading a sheet over the keys, I did a version of Milenberg Joys mostly with my elbows, winding up by taking a break while spinning around on the piano stool. I perpetrated this novelty until an older musician came to me one day and said he had detected something nice in my playing. He explained how ridiculous the clowning was, and there and then I decided to settle down and play seriously.
The piano had done well enough by me, but I wasn't going to be hung up with it without trying some other instruments. And at Westinghouse junior high school the opportunity existed for every pupil to study a variety of instruments. I was back at school after my eight weeks' tour with Hits And Bits, having said goodbye to comedian Buzzin' Harris and his wife Arletta, and parted from the show in Pittsburgh.
At Westinghouse we had some of the best music teachers in the world (I guess). Under their guidance, I tried out most of the instruments -- last but not least being the violin. Right after the first fiddle lesson I played Sheik Of Araby on one string. My teacher advised me to forget it and stick to piano; which I did.
In later years, both Billy Strayhorn and Erroll Garner attended that same school and class, receiving tuition from the master I was with. One day I pinch-hit for a tuning fork the teacher had lost, and it was discovered I possessed perfect pitch. Rumour of this oddity spread throughout the school, and pupils would drop pots, pans and other loud objects, asking: `What note, Mary?'
At this point in my career a very fine jazz orchestra came to Pittsburgh: McKinney's Cotton Pickers, with Prince Robinson on saxophone and Todd Rhodes at the piano. Todd became a friend and adviser to me, used to take me out jamming, and on one date let me sit in with the band. Some nights we jammed all the way from East Liberty down to Wylie Avenue, then a notorious section of town which was held in dread by so-called decent people. We always wound up in the Subway on Wylie, a hole in the ground to which the cream of the crop came to enjoy the finest in the way of entertainment. For me it was a paradise. Visiting musicians made straight for the place to listen to artists like beautiful Louise Mann, and Baby Hines, Earl's first wife.
Until this time I had paid little attention to singers, but the feeling in Baby's singing made the strongest impression upon me. Baby is still working, I believe, for I saw her in Jersey City in 1952: but she never received the recognition she merits. Those days, when she began a number like You're An Old Smoothie, the customers showered tips on her in appreciation -- and I've seen 50- and 100-dollar bills among them. Her torch songs brought real tears to their eyes -- as you can guess, for that kind of dough!
At this same spot I heard a lot of Prince Robinson, and have never forgotten his excellent tenor. He was one of the outstanding jazz players of the generation. Prince would refuse to jam with inadequate musicians, waiting until he could round up some other out-of-the-ordinary players to make the session inspirational or at least worthwhile.
One way and another I was having a ball -- playing gigs, jamming and listening to fine musicians. Then came a crisis at home. My stepfather fell sick, and it meant I had to support the family. Finishing up at high school, I went back to Buzzin' Harris'. John Williams still had the band, which by now included trumpet player Doc Cheatham. Doc came from a long line of medicos, was studying himself when he decided to follow the call of music. He was a very accomplished musician.
For a time the tour went well, taking us to different theatres on the TOBA and Gus Sun circuits. Suddenly we found ourselves stranded in Cincinnati -- 350 miles from home and short of gold. Just as we were feeling dragged, Fate stepped in -- in the shape of a telegram inviting us to join the celebrated dance team of Seymour and Jeanette to play the Keith-Orpheum theatres. It was practically the rags to riches routine. We were on our way to one of the top theatre circuits direct from TOBA, one of the toughest. At that time, Keith's were booking only one other Negro act besides Seymour and Jeanette (I think it was Bojangles), and we felt justified in saying `at last!'
Right away John sent to Kansas City for banjoist Joe Williams. On trumpet there was a guy called Max. Doc Cheatham's uncle, a St Louis dentist had reclaimed him for a while. On trombone we had the fabulous Sylvester Briscoe, who could and did play more horn with his foot in the slide than most cats can with their hands.
Seymour and Jeanette had previously worked with pit bands. But Seymour was now a sick man who could no longer dance flat out. He was famed for a wild strut, which he performed with a cane, and it was said that the dance had stretched his heart to the size of a saucer, which seemed likely to anyone who had seen him strutting. He needed a supporting attraction, and it was our job to accompany and provide a couple of speciality numbers.
When Seymour saw me seated at the piano at that first rehearsal, he shouted: `What's that kid doing here? Call your piano player and let's get started.'
`She is it,' replied John, smiling.
`We cannot have a child in this act,' Jeanette put in. `Especially a female child. We'll have to put pants on her, or something.'
By this time, the boys were falling out. John told the dancers not to worry but just to listen. We ran through one or two of our showiest things and we were in.
The band went over well: so well, in fact, that Seymour kept changing our spot. We thought at any moment we might lose the job because of the way the public was going for our Tiger Rag. This featured Briscoe's crazy act of playing trombone with both hands behind his back, the instrument somehow wedged between his mouth and the floor. This may sound impossible, but it is the truth. I never knew how he did it, and never saw anyone who could imitate him.
Tiger Rag was the last number, and needed to be. The applause even stopped the movie that followed us, often a Rin Tin Tin picture. After our show, the house would be blacked, then the dog appeared on the screen. Some nights they had to cut the picture for us to take another encore, and the guys would say: `Don't look like Rin Tin Tin will bark tonight.'
Seymour's death cut short this engagement, and the group was disbanded while Jeanette looked for another partner. By this time drummer Temple had gone and been replaced by a good but heavy footed Kaycee man named Abie Price. Trombonist Briscoe had also split.
My travels had not taken me to New York until now, when we played the 81st Theatre on Broadway and a few weekend gigs. To someone who lived for music, this was it. Jeanette did a stint at the old Lincoln Theatre, off Lennox Avenue, and not being able to afford five pieces, she just took me in with her. I played the entire show in the pit, then went on stage to accompany her act. That week was the most exciting of my life thus far. I was working with some of the boys from Duke Ellington's Washingtonians -- Sonny Greer, Bubber Miley and Tricky Sam Nanton among them, and never had I heard such music before. The two growlers, Bubber and Tricky were the nicest to me. Though they invariably took their jugs into the pit with them, they never got too juiced to play or to respect me. Coming downstairs for the show, I sometimes overheard Bubber warning the guys: `Be careful now, the kid's coming down.'
I stayed in New York, eyes and ears open to all the attractions Harlem had to offer. Like most other pianists I revered the amazing Fats Waller, who had lately made a splash wailing on organ at the Lincoln. When he quit New York, his admirers wouldn't let anyone follow him on organ, and those frantic kids were likely to throw most anything if you tried. Naturally it was a great day for me when some musicians took me across to Connie's Inn on 7th Avenue to meet Fats, working on a new show. The way Waller worked was anything but slavery. The OAO (one and only) sat overflowing the piano stool, a jug of whisky within easy reach. Leonard Harper, the producer, said: `Have you anything written for this number, Fats?' And Fats would reply: `Yeah, go on ahead with the dance, men.' Then he composed his number while the girls were dancing. He must have composed the whole show, with lyrics, while I was sitting there -- ears working overtime. Meanwhile, he bubbled over with so many stories and funny remarks that those girls could hardly hoof it for laughing. The girls, 35- to 40-dollar-a-week chorus beauties, were loaded with enough ice around their shapely ankles to sink a battleship, for these were generous days in New York.
After the rehearsal, one of the boys -- knowing my memory -- bet Fats I could repeat all the tunes he had just written: a bet Waller snapped up at paying odds. Falling apart with nerves at having to play before this big name, I was prodded to the piano, but managed to concentrate and play nearly everything I had heard Fats play. He was knocked out, picking me up and throwing me in the air and roaring like a crazy man.
Not long afterwards, Harper asked me how I'd like to work at Connie's Inn. I would, and I began playing intermission piano while the band was over at the Lafayette Theatre, just up the Avenue near the Tree of Hope, where musicians used to exchange stories and await work. In these later months, I ran into many great artists: luscious Florence Mills, Bill Robinson, Adelaide Hall, comedian Johnny Huggins and Nina Mae McKinney (then about sixteen), who wished me to accompany her.
I was glad of the chance to meet Clarence Williams and Jelly Roll Morton. I had admired Williams's compositions for some time, and I found him a kindly man who seemed to like me, and who was reassuring about the things I played him. I have never seen Clarence again, though he lives in New York to this day.
Mr Jelly Lord was a more frightening proposition. He was considered a big deal then, and he had me scared. When the guys dragged me into his office downtown we were surprised to see him playing duets with an ofay piccolo player. At a convenient break, they introduced me and told Jelly they would like for him to hear me. Indicating that I should park my hips on the stool, Jelly gave over the piano and I got started on my favourite Morton piece, The Pearls. Almost immediately I was stopped and reprimanded, told the right way to phrase it. I played it the way Jelly told me, and when I had it to his satisfaction, I slipped in one of my own tunes. This made no difference. I was soon stopped and told: `Now that passage should be phrased like this.'
Jelly Roll had a mouthful of diamond and spoke with a stammer when he got excited. He was what we call a `big mouth', and the sound of his voice had me shaking in my boots. Any minute I was expecting to get up off the floor because I had played his Pearls wrong. That's how they trained you in those days (half those chorus girls had black eyes!), and Morton had the reputation of being a demanding taskmaster. Musicians -- they really have it easy now!
My first real experience of the South came about the year 1927. In my earlier tours I had not crossed the Mason-Dixon line; now, domestic business rather than music took me there. John Williams and I decided to get married, and it meant going to Memphis, Tennessee, to meet his parents. Apparently they had saved for John to go to college and study law, and they didn't approve of his musical career. I could understand their disappointment, because I saw that education meant everything to the Southern Negro then. A teacher, lawyer or doctor was regarded almost as some kind of a god down there, while musicians were more often looked on as undesirables.
We were married very quietly, and decided to spend some time in Memphis. John set about forming a band of local musicians of whom there were a good number, though not many who could read music well. Now John was a smooth talker and a shrewd character. He soon manoeuvred the new combo into clubs and hotels that ordinarily never employed a coloured outfit, and dug up a job at the Pink Rose Ballroom, where we made quite a name. One thing I have to say for John: he knew how to talk up salaries. Memphis musicians were getting a dollar and a half or 2 dollars a night when we went there. John kept working on it, and by the time we left they were making 5 and 7 bucks, and I was making 10.
Through the neighbourhood grapevine we heard one day that a young man was in town looking for work as a teacher. We heard he was shabbily dressed, and that the 'fay' board of education were going to interview him to determine if he was capable. In no time they found out. In fact, he knew more than they did, was answering so fast he had them baffled. The scholastic young man was Jimmy Lunceford, later to take America by storm with a very hard-hitting orchestra, but then an unknown saxophone player out of Denver, Colorado. He became a close friend of John's, and they spent hours playing checkers together. Usually John won the games, but Lunceford used to say he'd get a band and beat John with that. He was forever kidding about building up a combo that would make ours look sick. Finally he started out to do it -- not an easy job because we probably had the pick of the men in Memphis then, yet they were not top class. Still, Jimmy went ahead, and we had to admire the way he taught the young musicians in his school.
Drummer James Crawford was one from the school; perhaps bassist Moses Allen was there, and others whose names I have since forgotten. To begin with, Jimmy had a small group like ours, even to the girl pianist -- talented Bobby Jones. Then, unable to get the band sounding right, Jimmy went off to Nashville and returned bragging with pianist Eddie Wilcox and saxophone player Willie Smith. By the time we left Memphis he must have had twelve pieces.
Our leaving was caused by a telegram from Terrence Holder, a bandleader in Oklahoma City, offering good money for John to go out and join him there. John went first, leaving me in charge for the rest of the dates we had contracted. This made me a bandleader at the age of seventeen. I had no alto player, so had to ask Jimmy Lunceford to play the remainder of the dates with us, which he consented to do.
Though we didn't meet too often while I was on the road with Kirk, I remained friendly with Lunceford. Later, when I lived in New York, he once came to my house at four in the morning, asking if I wanted to fly to Pittsburgh with him. I said: `What are we going to fly in?' and Jimmy said: `Didn't you know I had a pilot's licence and my own plane?' I hadn't known, but refused to go anyway, saying: `It's too foggy there.' Pittsburgh with its hundreds of steel mills makes its own fog. Not for nothing is it called the Smoky City.
To get back to Memphis, though: I worked off the outstanding engagements, then set out to join John in Oklahoma City, 700 hard miles away. He had left our Chevrolet for me to make the journey in, and with John's mother and a friend I hit the highway. The Chev wasn't much of a `short' to look at. It looked like a red bath-tub in fact, but ran like one of those streamlined trains on the Pennsylvania Railroad, and was the craziest for wear and tear. Unfortunately, we had miles of dirt and turtle-back roads to travel, and these excuses for highways were studded with sharp stones. To top all, it was August and hot as a young girl's doojie. Every 40 or 50 miles we stopped to change tyres or clean out the carburettor. As my passengers were strictly non-drivers and non-fixers, I was in sole command. We got along somehow, and after what seemed like weeks of blow-outs and fuel trouble we fell into Oklahoma City. Considering it was surrounded by every description of oil, well, the place was a beauty spot. But the smell of gas . . . wow!
John was anxious to show me off musically, for he was proud of my ability. Though out of my mind from the journey, I went without sleep to make rehearsal the next morning. Holder's boys rehearsed two days a week, beginning 11 a.m.; and I was in the hall by nine. I don't know what Holder's band made of me, but I thought them the handsomest bunch of intellectuals I had seen so far. They looked like collegians, all had beautiful brown complexions and wore sharp beige suits to match. Going out, they sported yellow raincoats with the instrument each man played illustrated on the back. Most came from good families, and their manners were perfect. I could hardly wait to hear the music. As I suspected, it was out of the ordinary. They had a novel arrangement of Casey Jones featuring Claude Williams, who was strong on both guitar and violin. Tenorman Lawrence `Slim' Freeman supplied the show stuff by playing bass clarinet while Iying on his back. For the rest, they played jazz numbers and the better commercial things. They were all reading like mad, and I had to admit it was a good and different orchestra: smooth showmanship (minus the `Tom-ing') coupled with musical ability. No wonder Holder had held this one job for more than two years. And at high money for a no-name band.
As I shall explain, this was to be the basis of the Andy Kirk combo. Kirk was a tuba player with the band, and he also played alto and baritone saxes. Bill Dirvin doubled guitar and piano, and Harry `BigJim' Lawson was on trumpet. Holder conducted and didn't play an instrument. I guess he was the most musically ignorant one in the band, but a fast talker and a sportsman who took chances. He liked to gamble, and I was told he had more than once lost the payroll in this way. There was talk about bad management, and one day the boys got together and arranged a change. They put Andy Kirk in charge of the band, incorporated it, and renamed it Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy. I reckon the year would be 1928.
We moved to Tulsa, and I went to live over an undertaker's. Apart from natural deaths, there was a killing every other day, with weekends the best for business. I was not working, and to break the monotony I'd got permission to drive for the undertaker. In those days they had to go after work, racing to the scene as soon as a killing was reported. Whoever got there first took the body.
Apart from this, I had no way of passing the time. I couldn't see myself getting ahead in music, and the life was getting me down fast. Then a letter from home said my stepfather had passed away, and this broke me up. Inveigling the fare out of my husband, I made for Pittsburgh -- not sorry to escape from the oil fumes of Oklahoma.
While I was at home the Kirk band began to shape up nicely. An offer came for them to go into the Pla-mor Ballroom in Kansas City, Missouri. The Clouds of Joy accepted, were held over several times, and took the first stride towards the nation-wide success they won in the mid-Thirties.
I found Kansas City to be a heavenly city -- music everywhere in the Negro section of town, and fifty or more cabarets rocking on 12th and 18th Streets. Kirk's band was drawing them into the handsome Pla-mor Ballroom when my husband, John Williams, had me return to him in Kaycee. This was my first visit to Missouri's jazz metropolis, a city that was to have a big influence on my career.
With two sisters, Lucille and Louise, who knew every speak-easy in town, I began to make the rounds from `Hell's Kitchen' on 5th Avenue to a club on 18th where I met Sam Price. Sammy was playing an unusual type of blues piano which I thought could hardly be improved on. I had the luck to hear him again when we were both in New York during 1934.
One night, we ran into a place where Ben Pollack had a combo which included Jack Teagarden and, I think, Benny Goodman. The girls introduced me to the Texas trombonist, and right away we felt like friends. After work, he and a couple of the musicians asked us to go out, and we visited most of the speaks downtown. One I remember particularly, because it was decorated to resemble the inside of a penitentiary, with bars on the windows and waiters in striped uniforms like down- South convicts. In these weird surroundings, I played for the boys and Jack got up and sang some blues. I thought he was more than wonderful. While they stayed in Kaycee, Jack and some of Pollack's men came round every night, and I was very happy to see them.
Now at this time, which was still Prohibition, Kansas City was under Tom Pendergast's control. Most of the night spots were run by politicians and hoodlums, and the town was wide open for drinking, gambling and pretty much every form of vice. Naturally, work was plentiful for musicians, though some of the employers were tough people. For instance, when Kirk moved from Pla-mor, the orchestra went to work for a nationally feared gangster. He was real bad: people used to run when you just mentioned his name. At that time, Andy was playing tuba, and the band was conducted by our singer, Billy Massey. Billy was a man not easily scared, and one day at the new job he ran off his mouth to the boss. The hood concluded he was crazy (which was not far wrong), and told all the band to pack and leave -- but fast. The rest of the guys were too nice, he said, for him to think about killing Billy.
I heard that Count Basie later worked for the same dracula, and also had a slight misunderstanding. As a result, Basie had to work two weeks without pay.
So for the Clouds of Joy it was more one-nighters. After a few, short trips, we headed east to New York to open in the Roseland Ballroom, that spot made famous by Fletcher Henderson. Kirk was on his way up. By now, I had graduated to composer, arranger and first-class chauffeur for the organisation. I was not playing in the band but was doing their recordings for Brunswick, and sometimes sitting in to try things I had written.
In Kansas City, Kirk had liked my ideas, though I could not set them down on paper. He would sit up as long as 12 hours at a stretch, taking down my ideas for arrangements, and I got so sick of the method that I began putting them down myself. I hadn't studied theory, but asked Kirk about chords and the voicing register. In about 15 minutes I had memorised what I wanted. That's how I started writing. My first attempt, Messa Stomp, was beyond the range of half the instruments. But the boys gave me a chance and each time I did better, until I found myself doing five and six arrangements per week. Later on, I learned more theory from people like the great Don Redman, Edgar Sampson, Milton Orent and Will Bradley.
The Clouds of Joy had a long run at the Roseland, playing opposite a bunch named the Vagabonds, then opposite the Casa Loma Band (later led by Glen Gray). From the Roseland, they moved to the celebrated Savoy Ballroom, where they faced Chick Webb's orchestra. The Savoy was a place of tremendous enthusiasm, a home of fantastic dancing. And Webb was acknowledged king of the Savoy. Any visiting band could depend on catching hell from little Chick, for he was a crazy drummer and shrewd to boot. The way I made it out, Chick would wait until the opposition had blown its hottest numbers and then -- during a so-so set -- would unexpectedly bring his band fresh to the stand and wham into a fine arrangement, like Benny Carter's Liza, that was hard to beat. Few visiting bands could stand up to this.
Kirk must have played a couple of months at the Savoy, during which time I often sat in, playing either Mary's Plea or Froggy Bottom, and doing quite well with the kids who liked a good beat for their dancing. From there, we toured Pennsylvania and the Eastern States, and after what seemed like a year of one-nighters, returned to Kansas City.
Kaycee was really jumping now -- so many great bands having sprung up there or moved in from over the river. I should explain that Kansas City, Missouri, wasn't too prejudiced for a Mid-western town. It was a ballin' town, and it attracted musicians from all over the South and South-west, and especially from Kansas.
Kansas City, Kansas, was right across the viaduct, just about 5 or 6 miles distant. But on the Kansas side they were much snootier. A lot of their musicians were from good families who frowned on jazz, so the musicians and kids would come across to Kaycee to blast. In Kaycee, nothing mattered.
I've known musicians so enthused about playing that they would walk all the way from the Kansas side to attend a jam session. Even bass players, caught without street-car fare, would hump their bass on their back and come running. That was how music stood in Kansas City in those years around 1930.
At the head of the bands was Bennie Moten's, led by pianist Bennie, and featuring his brother, Buster, on accordion. Then there was George E. Lee, whose sister, Julia, played piano in George's band and took care of the vocals.
From Oklahoma came Walter Page, with a terrific combo named the Blue Devils. Page, known as `Big One', was one of the very first to use the string bass as well as tuba, and he also doubled on bass saxophone. For a while he had Bill Basie on piano. Count had come to Kansas City with the Gonzele White touring show, and dropped out of it to join Page. Later, Basie returned to the roadshow, again leaving it in Kaycee to go into Moten's band on second piano.
Singing with Moten then was the lovable Jimmy Rushing, `Mr Five by Five'. Unlike the run of blues shouters, Jimmy could read music, and he could be heard ten blocks away without a microphone (they used megaphones then, anyway). Jimmy was big brother to me, and some of the other band wives. I remember him playing piano and singing wonderful ballads to us; other times he would keep us laughing with his risqué stories, getting a kick out of seeing us blush.
Yes, Kaycee was a place to be enjoyed, even if you were without funds. People would make you a loan without you asking for it, would look at you and tell if you were hungry and put things right. There was the best food to be had: the finest barbecue, crawdads and other seafood. There were the races, and swimming, and the beautiful Swope Park and zoo to amuse you. There were jam sessions all the time, and big dances such as the union dance given every year by our local. As many as ten or twelve bands participated in this event, and you were sure to hear at least eight original styles there, as well as one or two outfits trying to imitate Duke.
For private entertainment we had our hot corn club every Monday, at which the musicians and wives would drink and play bridge, `tonk' or `hearts'. At these meetings the boys drank corn whisky and home brew -- in fact, most anything with a high alcohol content -- and they got laughs out of giving me rough liquor so strong it would almost blow the top of one's head off.
One of the regulars was Herman Walder, brilliant tenor player with Moten and brother of saxophonist Woodie Walder. Herman asked me if I'd like a cool drink one night, and not knowing the taste of corn I gulped down a large glassful. The next thing I remember was people putting cold towels on my head. Being stubborn, I thought: if they can take it, so can I. So each Monday I tried to drink, with much the same result. They boys took to betting that I'd be high within ten minutes of entering -- and they always won.
It was in the winter of 1930-31 that the breaks began to happen. Andy Kirk's band had hit the road for another string of one-nighters, leaving me in Kansas City. Then came a wire, telling me to meet the band right away in Chicago. It said that Jack Kapp, the Brunswick record man, wanted to hear me play. This looked great. I knew they wouldn't send for me unless something was in the wind, so by next day I was on my way to St Louis, where I changed trains for Chicago. When I arrived I was cold and tired, but went direct to the studio and sat down and played.
I had been in the habit of making up my own things when asked to play. Out of this training, and the way I was feeling beat, came two originals titled Drag 'Em and Night Life -- the first a blues, the other a faster piece. These were the first solo records I ever made. So far as I can remember it, the session took place in 1930. I know the record was released early in '31 and I never received a recording fee nor any royalties from it, though the record sold quite well. I tried to get some loot, but was fluffed to Mayo Williams, then a kind of artists' manager and connected with some publishing house or other, who in turn fluffed me to the executives. Many years after, I threatened to sue, and stopped the sale of a record that had been reissued ever since 1931 and was even included in the Forties in an album of `barrelhouse piano'.
That record didn't make my fortune, but it made my name in a double sense. I had been born Mary Elfreda Winn, and had played as Mary Winn until I became Mary Williams. It was Jack Kapp laid the `Lou' on me. Perhaps he figured plain Mary wasn't enough for a recording artist, whereas Mary Lou was right on the beam. Anyway, Mary Lou went on the label, and Mary Lou it stayed. Until today, few people knew I wasn't born with that name.
Being still broke after the session, I moved in with Mary Kirk, Andy's wife. The Bear (as we call winter time) was in Chicago and it was very cold. Mary provided food and clothes and was the kindest to me. Once again I travelled with Kirk, and it was at the Pearl Theatre in Philadelphia that I joined the band full-time. Kirk had decided to use two pianos, and I was to play the second -- a small upright.
Over the two pianos Kirk had a shed-like enclosure built. On top of the shed stood the drums, now presided over by Ben Thigpen, whom we had picked up near Toledo, Ohio. It was tough going; I was used to a large piano, but our regular man, Jack, had the Steinway and I was doing my best with what seemed like a two-octaves `Tom Thumb'. And I could hear practically nothing but the thunder of drums overhead. This routine had lasted about a week when Jack failed to make the show one night. I graduated to the grand -- and solo honours -- and it seems my playing surprised everyone in the theatre, including Sam Stiefle, who owned the place. Jack later had hot words with Stiefle, ending in his taking two weeks' pay and a ticket home. I stayed on as the orchestra's pianist and arranger and must have gone around the world (or the equivalent distance) a thousand times a month on one-night dates.
These things happened in 1930, and Blanche Calloway, Cab's sister, was fronting the band at the Pearl. Blanche behaved like Cab on stage, and I heard that she was the originator of his style. Though Blanche was short on voice, she had personality to spare, and I got a kick from her versions of Let's Do It and I Need Lovin'. Stiefle secured Victor recording dates for Blanche and the band, and we cut those two songs with her, also Sugar Blues, Casey Jones and some original things. I always wondered what became of the cheque for these dates; none of it came my way, but I was getting used to that by now.
We played at the Pearl for many months with Blanche, meeting such top Negro performers as Ethel Waters, Bill Bailey and Butterbeans and Susie. Eddie Heywood, Sr, was accompanying the Butterbeans act, and he gave me plenty of constructive advice.