Paramount Theater marquee announcing Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington’s concert at Austin’s Paramount Theater, 1933 The Cactus: Yearbook of the University of Texas (Austin: Texas Student Publications, 1934).

National Bands

In addition to its rich array of local and regional bands, Austin saw a noteworthy number of national big bands and star bandleaders during these decades. The universities, especially UT, were the main draw, since they had the infrastructure to arrange these concerts and could guarantee large crowds. Thus, despite being in a relatively small city, Austinites heard and danced to the bands of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Jimmie Lunceford, and Tommy Dorsey during the Depression years.

TextMichael Schmidt
PublishedNovember 12, 2018
UpdatedJuly 14, 2019

During the 1930s and 1940s, a remarkable number of “name“ national bands played for UT, Samuel Huston, and Tillotson students. This was notable, since Austin was a small city on the edge of the arid and rural Texas Hill country, far from the metropolitan music industry centers in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast. Achieving success as a pop orchestra typically meant being away from such out-of-the-way locations. Despite being in a fairly remote place, young music fans at UT got to see, listen, and dance to some of the most well-known and acclaimed dance orchestras in the country at the time. The presence of the university was undoubtably a major reason why the top orchestras in the country came to Austin. But their concerts also show the increasing reach of the national music industry at the time: these bandleaders were not just stars where they lived and played, but to young Americans flung across the wide expanse of the continent.

At the time, all of these bands were at the pinnacle of pop music. Some of these performers are now remembered as essential to the history of jazz and American music: for example, Louis Armstrong , Duke Ellington , Benny Goodman , Jimmie Lunceford , Earl Hines , and the Dorsey Brothers. They played in Austin when they were transforming popular music. Other groups were equally significant at the time, but history and critics have been less kind to them. Many have receded into obscurity and/or been dismissed as inauthentic or musically bland, like Guy Lombardo , Vincent Lopez , and Kay Kyser .

Most of these concerts happened as “All University Dances” in the Union or Gregory Gym on UT campus, since typically only a large institution like the university could marshall the money, people, and space to bring major bands to town. But this was not always the case. After the mid-1930s, fraternities, sororities, and clubs also managed to get ”name“ groups to play at venues around campus, like the Texas Federated Women’s Club and the Austin Country Club (now Hancock Golf Course). The Royal Auditorium and Cotton Club on 11th street also brought major bands to East Austin, although we only have records of (probably) a fraction of the performances.

A Selected List of National Bands that Played for UT-Related Events, 1930-1946

How Star Orchestra Concerts Happened: Radio and Booking Agencies

We should remember that it wasn’t a given that UT students would care about big bands from out-of-state and be willing to pay more to see them perform. The consistent presence of star orchestras was a phenomenon of the 1930s; just a handful of dances by non-native groups happened during the whole of the decade before. Three things created the conditions for why national band All University Dances happened: radio, booking agencies, and touring.

Orchestras like Benny Goodman’s or Jimmie Lunceford’s became “name” bands through the radio. The Depression caused a virtual collapse of the record industry and, during the 1930s, most Americans got their pop music through radio and film. The dominance of radio in the 1930s and the appearance of national bands in Austin were interconnected. Radio’s ability to focus so much attention on a handful of ensembles made possible the existence of “name” bands and celebrity bandleaders. Without radio, UT students would likely have never heard of nor gone to see Ellington, Lunceford, Dorsey, and Lombardo.

The “name” band concerts at UT were also dependent on the presence of large corporate booking agencies, which became increasingly prominent in the first half of the 1930s. The booking agencies exerted incredible power over bands—often taking large chunks of their incomes—by controlling access to radio broadcasts, the best concert venues, and recording/film contracts. They also managed promotion, advertising, and booked tours. The tours that brought Tommy Dorsey and Xavier Cugat to Austin happened because of the existence of these expansive corporations. In fact, most of the bands that played at UT came from the largest and most powerful agency, the Music Corporation of America, which had a student representative (Jimmy Phillips) to the Dance Committee in the Texas Union.

The Dust, Sweat, and Danger of Touring

Getting to Austin was often a grueling task. Most of this period was before the national highway system and many roads were rough and slow-going. During the war, rationing of gasoline and rubber made touring even more difficult, if not impossible (much to the chagrin of UT students, both the 1943 and 1944 Spring semesters had no “name” bands). Large national bands often did dozens of consecutive one-nighters: playing a dance, packing up, travelling to another town, and performing the next night somewhere else. On these tours, groups would criss-cross the nation in the months surrounding their performance at UT.

Count Basie’s Tour, January 1941 - April 1941

Gene Sedric, tenor saxophonist and clarinetist, played with Fletcher Henderson and Fats Waller during the 1930s.

Gene Sedric playing saxophone

Gene Sedric, 1946

William P. Gottlieb. Portrait of Gene Sedric, The Place, New York, N.Y., ca. July. United States, 1946. Monographic. Photograph.

“One-nighters were very rough. Many times there were halls with no windows and inside there were thousands of people shouting and fighting. And it was very rough when you had to go ver mountains to make another town and you’d skid on ice. Man, there were some long hauls between states.

Many times we’d get into town, check into a hotel, and we’d actually hear them planning how they were going to start fights and shootings where we were going to play that night. There were some of those towns that had special prices just for the bands that came through, that were touring. When they knew we were coming, the prices would be higher by twice as much.”1

If the band or musician was African American, the already difficult life on the road could also be dangerous and full of humiliating reminders of America’s inequality. Black musicians who travelled from large urban centers in the North to one-night stands in the Jim Crow South crossed into worlds that had new and unfamiliar social rules of white supremacy. Consequentially, they could face brutal racist violence for doing what seemed like basic, everyday things, like speaking to a white friend or eating at a white-owned restaurant.

The bassist Milt Hinton was one of the frankest reporters of the intimidation and indignities that black musicians had to face on tour. Here he describes touring through the South with Cab Calloway.

Ad clipping

Ad for a 1934 Cab Calloway Performance at the Paramount Theater.

Daily Texan (October 2, 1934)

“I remember the dances at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. There were some northern people there on vacation and some northern musicians whom we used to know when we played at the Cotton Club. Both the people who used to know us from the Cotton Club … would talk to us between sets. But the southern people would resent it. Sometimes it would be so bad at intermission we couldn’t get off the stand for a drink of water unless we had a police escort … and you know they would poke at us through the police!

I’m telling you, some of those people came and paid their money just to heckle Negro bands, like some people who tease an animal, and we had no recourse. Did you know that in Miami, Florida, where we used to play after nine o’clock at night, Negroes had to be off the streets unless they had a note saying something like ‘This boy works for me?’”2

The saxophonist Charlie Rouse, who grew up on the edge of the South in Washington D.C., recalled a violent experience he had on a Southern tour with Dizzy Gillespie in 1945 (a year before the band visited UT).

Portrait of Charlie Rouse

Charlie Rouse, saxophone (left), 1946 - 1948

William P. Gottlieb, Portrait of Charlie Rouse, Tadd Dameron, Fats Navarro, and Ernie Henry, New York, N.Y., Between 1946 and 1948. United States, 1946. Monographic. Photograph.

“We hadn’t been to the South at the time, and at the time the South was very bad. And I think it was in Memphis, Tennessee … we had to get out of town early in the morning. There was a [white] bass player from Arkansas named Buddy Jones. I met Buddy in Washington. We were friends there. So he was in the Navy and he was in Memphis, and when we got there with the band we played a one-nighter … he met us in the daytime, and we’re walking up and down Beale Street together, and everybody is looking at us weird … when he got to the dance [that night] the police came and beat him and clubbed him out of the dance. They called the MPs and they came and, oh man, they messed him up and they told us we had to get out of town before sundown … we left, but they put him in, put him in the brig. And he told me later that he stayed in the brig for about two or three months.”3

Evidence about how national bands experienced these gigs in Austin, how they perceived Texas, or what happened before and after while travelling through the South is scarce. Although relatively rare, some of these musicians did mention these tours in interviews and autobiographies. Below are some scattered memories and impressions surrounding these concerts at UT in the 1930s and 1940s:

Duke Ellington
Gregory Gym
October 12, 1933

Portrait of Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington, 1938 - 1948

William P. Gottlieb, Portrait of Duke Ellington, Washington, D.C., Between 1938 and 1948. United States, 1938. , Monographic. Photograph.

“On our return [from Europe], we played the Chicago Theatre during the World’s Fair of 1933-34 … and then went down to Dallas. Now I had always resisted propositions to tour the South, but Irving Mills [Ellington’s manager] came up with an attractive offer to play the Interstate Circuit of theaters and picture houses all through Texas. I still had my British accent, and it showed to the Texans, but they were very nice about it, and did not let on whether they thought it natural gas or put on. It didn’t last long, anyway, for the Texas way of speaking came upon me through natural absorption. I had had experience of traveling before but the Texas thing was bigger, broader, and a little more flamboyant. So in a few days I was together with the people, and down, as we say, and sounding like a Texan.

We played four shows a day, and dances after the theatre several times a week. The people had obviously been waiting for us. We made a lot of friends down there, and the climate and environment were conducive to the kind of musical dreaming I most enjoy. After that, we made yearly tours in the southern part of the country …. In order to avoid problems, we used to charter two Pullman sleeping cars and a seventy-foot baggage car, Everywhere we went in the South, we lived in them.”4

“We then went to Texas. We stayed there a long time, doing theaters and about six dances a week … west, then back to Chicago then back east and in between times we got to Washington”5

Juan Tizol
Trombonist in the Duke Ellington Orchestra
Gregory Gym
October 12, 1933

Portrait of Juan Tizol

Juan Tizol, 1946-1948

William P. Gottlieb, Portrait of Willie Smith and Juan Tizol, New York, N.Y., Between 1946 and 1948. United States, 1946. , Monographic. Photograph.

“In Dallas, Texas, we were getting ready to play, and there was a lot of people there, and people started looking at me [since he was light skinned], especially this fellow on the right of the bandstand … He said: ‘You don’t mind giving me an autograph?’ and I said, ‘You don’t want no autograph, you want to ask a question about me.’ He said, ‘What are you doing playing with these n**?’ I said, ‘Let me tell you something; you see that man over there on piano, he got more respect than a lot of white people put together, you know? He got more recognition, you couldn’t come to a dance dressed in overalls.’”

“In some place in Henderson, Texas - that was a tough town. We were playing a dance for a lot of them cowboys and so on, and one of the ladies in there came by and tried to sit down in the same seat as Duke Ellington, you know? Oh, he was scared to death cause there was people in the front there too and this fellow that was dancing with her was out there in front of the band stand … so by the end of the dance, somebody had picked up Tricky’s trombone, they picked it up and took it with them. We was getting ready to go on the bus and it was right behind - I mean, Tricky’s trombone! So they said, ‘You know, I’m gonna take this trombone with me and I don’t care if you tell the police … Duke said, ‘Well, if that’s the way you feel about it - there’s the trombone’ … that killed him when he said that, he said, ‘No, it’s all right. I don’t want the trombone, all I wanted to see was how you was gonna act about it.’ That’s about the worst one we had.”6

Benny Goodman
Gregory Gym
November 2, 1935

Portrait of Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman, ca. July 1946

William P. Gottlieb. Portrait of Benny Goodman, 400 Restaurant, New York, N.Y., ca. July. United States, 1946. Monographic. Photograph.

“A request [came] from the M.C.A. [Music Corporation of America] office on the coast … in connection with a dance place that was just being opened near Los Angeles, to be called the Palomar Ballroom. They wanted to set us there for a month or so beginning around the middle of August [1935]. I didn’t like the idea of travelling all the way out there for an engagement like that, spending a couple of weeks coming and going.

I had decided to take a chance on the trip to the coast, and Willard got us some bookings along the way that would keep us busy until we hit the Palomar. The decision to take the trip meant more changes in the band, because a couple of the boys preferred to stay in New York and do other jobs.

We started on something less than perfect by playing a week at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh. … Some of the musicians around town came in and liked the band, but there wasn’t much response from the general public. … It wasn’t enough for an audience that didn’t know just what to make of us.

We kept working our way out, playing a one-nighter in Columbus, Ohio … then to Toledo and on to Lakeside, Michigan. … To break up the trip, Willard had booked us for four weeks into Elitch’s Gardens in Denver … we weren’t doing any business—maybe fifteen, twenty couples on a week night and a hundred people on a week-end, but we were just dying.

That was the frame of mind I was in when we hit California … we didn’t know how we stood in regard to a place like the Palomar … there was a nice crowd in the place when we came onto the stand. … We took things kind of easy with the opening sets, playing some of the sweeter tunes and sticking to the softer arrangements … the crowd as a whole didn’t seem very responsive.

This went on for about an hour, till I decided the whole thing had gotten to a point where it was make or break. If we had to flop, at least I’d do it in my own way. For all I knew this might be our last night together, and we might as well have a good time of it while we had the chance. I called out for some of our big Fletcher [Henderson Swing] arrangements for the next set … to our complete amazement, half of the crowd stopped dancing and came surging around the stand. … That was the moment that decided things for me. After travelling three thousand miles, we finally found people who were up on what we were trying to do, prepared to take our music the way we wanted to play it. That first big roar from the crowd was one of the sweetest sounds I ever heard in my life—and from that time on the night kept getting bigger and bigger.

But if you think it was clear sailing from then on, you don’t know the music business. We had a success, and it was swell, but that was only one little part of the country, and elsewhere we weren’t much better known than we had been before. Our name wasn’t big enough for profitable one-nighters. … We played a few more dates up and down the coast. … After this, we pulled out of California, heading over into Texas, where we were booked to play dances in Amarillo and Dallas. Both of them turned out pretty well, what with the build-up we had on the basis of the Palomar job, but it wasn’t until we hit Dallas that we knew what our next move would be … we hopped a train for Chicago, set to open [at the Congress Hotel] on November 6, 1935.”7

Duke Ellington
Texas Union
November 26, 1936

Portrait of Duke Ellington Orchestra members

Duke Ellington Orchestra, between 1938 and 1948

William P. Gottlieb, Portrait of Duke Ellington, Junior Raglin, Tricky Sam Nanton?, Juan Tizol, Barney Bigard, Ben Webster, Otto Toby Hardwicke, Harry Carney, Rex William Stewart, and Sonny Greer, Howard Theater?, Washington, D.C., Between 1938 and 1948. United States, 1938. Monographic. Photograph.

“In 1936 we played two weeks at the Texas Centennial, a wonderful exposition with exhibits representative of the accomplishments of all the people of Texas. I was particularly impressed by the Negro building, and its real credits and acknowledgements. I was honored with a Certificate of Accomplishment, and I was very proud of it, because it was not awarded on a segregated basis. Texas, they said, was Western, not Southern.”8

Count Basie
Gregory Gym
March 21, 1941

Portrait of Count Basie

Count Basie, around 1941

William P. Gottlieb Portrait of Count Basie, Ray Bauduc, Herschel Evans, and Bob Haggart, Howard Theater, Washington, D.C. United States, 1941. Monographic. Photograph.

“Somebody put out a very weird tale that Lester [Young] had to leave the band because he was absent from the record date on Friday the thirteenth [November 1940] … the truth of the matter was that he wanted to go out on his own and see what he could do with a little group for a while. And I really think another thing was Herschel’s death [saxophonist Herschel Evans]. He had really wanted to leave right after that happened, and the longer he stayed right on in that same situation, the harder it was for him to get over it…

By the beginning of December the band wasn’t really doing too well financially. We were still working, but there were a lot of miles between gigs, so we were not really making any money. The problem, as I saw it there, was the way we were being handled by MCA [Music Corporation of America] … by the end of January Don Byas came in. Naturally there was no way that anybody could ever really replace Lester in that band because there was nobody else in the world like him. He was an original, such a stylist. So I might as well just forget about that. But Don was a real great cat on tenor too, and he fell right into things and made a place for himself without copying Prez…

We went all the way down into Florida and spent the first week in February doing one-nighters in Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, Winter Haven, West Palm Beach, Miami, and Fort Lauderdale; and during the rest of the month we came back up through Georgia, South Carolina, and West Virginia, and went all the way up to Boston.

We spent the last week in February hitting places like Orange, New Jersey; White Plains; Cleveland; and Buffalo. Then in March we headed out into the Midwest again, by way of Detroit, Milwaukee, Madison, Des Moines, Lincoln, and Omaha. Then we went down through Oklahoma to Texas and Louisiana and came back through Little Rock to St. Louis and spent the first week of April there before moving on to Chicago for the next record date.“9

Fayard Nichols
Dancer with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band
Tour in the South and Texas
1945

Portrait of Dizzy Gillespie band members

Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, 1946-1948

William P. Gottlieb, Portrait of Dizzy Gillespie, New York, N.Y., Between 1946 and 1948. United States, 1946. Monographic. Photograph.

“My agency at the time, the William Morris Agency, told us that they wanted us to go on a tour … ‘Fellas you’re very popular in the South. We’d like you to make a tour in all the southern states.’ And he said, ‘I think it’ll be a good idea if you take Dizzy [Gillespie] with you, with his orchestra. He has a new orchestra now, and I think he’s gonna be big…

We got it together with Diz, and we toured, I think all of the southern states, like Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, you name it, Texas. And it was very successful, very successful…

And Charlie Parker was with us too. Charlie was on alto sax, and the same way that Dizzy played on his trumpet, he could play on his sax. And it was beautiful.

At that particular time, down South, the music was strange to them. I remember all the different places that we played, the auditoriums that we played, the theaters; they didn’t understand it at the time because it was way ahead of its time. But we understood it; the musicians understood it, and so we were having a ball…

They were ready for him, but they couldn’t understand this bebop music. ’How can we dance to that? What’s going on … a-bla-blee-bu-bu-a-blee-bla … ! And that happened everywhere we went. They just didn’t understand it. Down South, they wanna hear the blues, get with it. And when you bring them something that’s outta their class, ‘Well … What is this?’ It was way over their heads. Now when the [floor] show came on, they loved that.”10

James Moody
Saxophonist with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band
Gregory Gym
December 14, 1946

Portrait of James Moody and Dizzy Gillespie

James Moody (tenor saxophone), with Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), 1947

William P. Gottlieb, Portrait of Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, and Howard Johnson, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Aug. United States, 1947. Monographic. Photograph.

“I remember we went on tour with Ella Fitzgerald. It was Dizzy and Ella, you know, and we toured all down South. It was funny to see the reaction of the people to the band. Down there it was a little different because the people weren’t quite aware of bebop, and they didn’t know how to dance to the music at that time. So they would stand and look up at the band as if we were nuts, you know. One time, down South, this guy was looking up and he said, ‘Where’s Ella Fitzgerald?’ He was mad because he didn’t see Ella Fitzgerald yet, you know. ‘Where’s Ella Fitzgerald?’ And we were playing. I think that night we kinda had to band together, to get out and leave there. It was one of those little towns down South somewhere. They didn’t know what was happening. But, man, when we were like out on the Coast, in Chicago, and Detroit. Oh, man; people, boy, they’d be wild. Lines would be all everywhere…

Another time, we went on a tour with Ella Fitzgerald and my whisky told me to dance. And I was dancing with a white girl down in Texas, somewhere, in 1947. Dizzy and Lorraine, both of them had to go out there and pull my butt outta there … ‘Come on, we have to leave town, quick!’”11

Notes

  1. Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff (eds.), Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya: The Story Of Jazz By The Men Who Made It (New York: Penguin Books, 1962), 316.
  2. Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya, 318-19.
  3. Ira Gitler, Swing to Bop (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 16.
  4. Duke Ellington, Music is My Mistress (New York: Da Capo, 1976), 85-86.
  5. Stuart Nicholson, Reminiscing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000), 160.
  6. Reminiscing in Tempo, 160-162, 165.
  7. Benny Goodman and Irving Kolodin, The Kingdom of Swing (New York, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1939), 185-204.
  8. Music is My Mistress, 87.
  9. Count Basie and Albert Murray, Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie (New York: Da Capo, 1995), 244-247.
  10. Dizzy Gillespie and Al Frazer, To Be, or not … to Bop (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2009), 228-229.
  11. To Be, or not … to Bop, 269-270.