Black Music Teachers in the Era of Segregation

As we close out Black History Month, take a look at this striking video of the Jenkins Orphanage Band from 1928.

There’s no composer credit, but the piece they are playing would have begun as conventional brass band march, something between John Philip Sousa, Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin. The composition is attractive enough to begin with, but it is the African-based techniques that render the work irresistible: The horns imitate the human voice with a smear and growl; the drums thunder with groove and swing. Later on in the clip, very young dancers complete a heartwarming scenario.

The Jenkins Orphanage band played all over the country during its time as a haven for youth in the darkest era of Jim Crow. Several important musicians were graduates of the Jenkins institution, including Jabbo Smith, Cat Anderson, Rufus Jones, and Freddie Green, the guitarist crucial to the sound of the Count Basie big band for 50 years. A wonderful overview of Daniel Jenkins and his legacy is essential reading.

Sadly, we don’t seem to know the names of the performers in the video. Just as sadly, perhaps more so, we don’t know the names of the teacher or teachers who helped get this young crew into shape before recording. (The Orphanage webpage says that Jenkins, “Hired two local musicians to teach them to read music,” but then the trail grows cold.)

A list of important black teachers during segregation would give a kind of secret history of American music. Many names are forgotten, but not all of them. Louis Armstrong made a point of honoring Peter Davis, his first bandleader at the Colored Waif’s Boys Home in New Orleans. Dr. Robert S. Mikell has a lovely essay, “The Legacy of Louis Armstrong’s Music Teacher Peter Davis.”


(Armstrong is indicated with an arrow)

Captain Walter Dyett is another slightly more familiar name. An extraordinarily large number of young black students from under Dyett’s baton at DuSable High in Chicago went on to have notable careers, including mainstream artists like Redd Foxx and Bo Diddley, plus dozens of jazz greats like Nat King Cole, Dorothy Donegan, Milt Hinton, Eddie Harris, John Gilmore, Wilbur Ware, Dinah Washington, Gene Ammons, Joseph Jarman, Fred Hopkins, Von Freeman, Clifford Jordan, Johnny Hartman, Richard Davis, Julian Priester, Leroy Jenkins, and so many others. Richard Wang authored the valuable overview, “Captain Walter Henri Dyett (1901-1969).”

One of Dyett’s classes included the trio of Johnny Griffin, Eugene Wright, and Fred Below. Between the three of them they made quite an impact on 20th Century music. Griffin would be a major jazz saxophonist, featured with Thelonious Monk, and eventually a kind of “artist-in-residence” in various European cities; Wright would be the bassist and black member of the classic Dave Brubeck quartet (Brubeck cancelled gigs when promoters in the South wouldn’t accept an integrated band); Below played drums on many hit records of Chicago blues, including the iconic single “My Babe” by Little Walter.

What did Captain Dyett teach his charges? In the main, it would have been the European musical tradition of formal notation, including light classics and concert band repertoire, plus a certain amount of musical theatre for the more advanced students, in Dyett’s case a repertory group called the Hi-Jinks.

Ralph Ellison gave a clear picture of the curriculum from another famous educator, Zelia N. Breaux, who worked with Ellison, blues singer Jimmy Rushing, and groundbreaking guitarist Charlie Christian in Oklahoma City. Ellison: “The kids were taught music from the early grades, including sight-reading. There was a music appreciation course with phonographs and recordings taught city-wide in the black schools, and rare for most schools even today, we were taught four years of harmony and two years of musical form. There was a marching and concert band, which I entered at the age of eight, two glee clubs, an orchestra and chorus, and each year Mrs. Breaux produced and directed an operetta.”

Not all segregated schools had the money for instruments. The “Father of the Blues,” W.C. Handy, was taught solfege by Professor Y. A. Wallace at the Florence District School for Negroes in Alabama.

Handy remembered, “There was no piano or organ in our school, just as there were few instruments in the homes of the pupils. We were required to hold our books in our left hand and beat time with our right. Professor Wallace sounded his A pitch pipe or tuning fork, and we understood the tone to be la. If C happened to be the starting key, we made the step and a half in our minds and then sang out the key note in concert. We would then sound the notes for our respective parts, perhaps do for the basses, mi for the altos, and sol and do for the sopranos and tenors, depending of course on the first note of the sopranos. Before attempting to sing the words of any song, we were required to work out our parts by singing over and over the proper sol-fa syllables. In this way we learned to sing in all keys, measures and movements. We learned all the songs in Gospel Hymns, one to six. Each year we brought new instruction books and advanced to a point where we could sing excerpts from the works of Wagner, Bizet, Verdi and other masters — all without instrumental accompaniment.”

It may surprise some to hear that soulful blues musicians like W.C. Handy or Bo Diddley dealt with formal European principles at school, but acquiring old-world academic tools was frequently a step along the way to being a professional American musician. Ray Charles used Braille notation when learning easy Bach and Mozart, the Beethoven Moonlight sonata, and Chopin nocturnes from Mrs. Lawrence at the segregated Florida School for the Deaf and Blind.

European music follows obvious rules and is easy to teach, making for a good way to enforce discipline and get an unruly classroom on the same page. Captain Dyett was a stickler for accuracy. Dorothy Donegan remembered, “His ear was so sensitive he could hear a mosquito piss on a bale of cotton. Out of a hundred-piece band he could tell just who made the mistake. You’d know it because he would stare at you with his one good eye and make you feel like a snail. Music was a matter of life and death.”

In that era, within the black community, being a professional musician was more than an honorable profession. It was a way to make good. In Negro League Baseball, historian Neil Lanctot compares the money made by the sidemen of Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway (as much as $100 a week in the late 1930s) with the monthly take of baseball star Satchel Paige (not more than $500 a month in the same era). To play in one of those well-paying big bands, you needed to read European notation, and read it well.  Captain Dyett offered a Booster Band specifically for students who might be able to have a career as an instrumentalist in the Swing Era. Eddie Harris told Ted Panken of his DuSable years, “Woody Herman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton — I got a chance to hear all these guys. They’d come by because they just couldn’t believe the Booster Band was that hip.”

Rex Stewart recalled endless drilling from Isabelle Spiller of the Ragtime Spillers. “I was crammed daily with harmony and theory lessons along with trumpet and tenor sax, and even now I recoil at the thought of the marimba lessons.” That seems excessive. For Kenny Clarke, all it took was being handed a snare drum by Mr. Moore at the Coleman Industrial Home for Negro Boys.

Dexter Gordon and Chico Hamilton were just two of many that Samuel Browne taught at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles. Gordon also studied with area legend Lloyd Reese, one of the few black musicians employed by Warner Brothers studios. Reese knew Arnold Schoenberg personally and passed an interest in modernist and atonal composition on to Charles Mingus.

Russell Brown was one of the band directors at the segregated Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, where he taught David Baker, James Spaulding, Melvin Rhyne and others. Freddie Hubbard, Slide Hampton, Wes Montgomery, and J.J. Johnson also went to Crispus Attucks.

In Monika Herzig’s monograph David Baker: A Legacy in Music, scholar Lissa May quotes poet Mari Evans’s description of the environment at Crispus Attucks: “The neighborhood was sustaining. Children were protected and insulated by classrooms manned by Black teachers who cared passionately about their charges’ futures, who saw promise in them, loved them, chastised them promptly, and encouraged them to be more than even they envisioned. Those schools were places where Black children understood above all else they were loved, and being cared for with love.”

In some communities, white teachers could also be important, perhaps especially white piano teachers. Nina Simone is now celebrated as a civil rights icon, but she also loved practicing Bach under the guidance of Muriel Mazzanovich in Tryon, North Carolina. Simone later wrote, “When you play Bach’s music you have to understand that he’s a mathematician and all the notes you play add up to something — they make sense. They always add up to climaxes, like ocean waves getting bigger and bigger until after a while when so many waves have gathered you have a big storm.”

At the integrated Cass Technical High School in Detroit, the legendary band director Harry Begian and beloved orchestra conductor Michael Bistritzky presided over the early years of a bewildering array of future jazz greats, including Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Doug Watkins, Donald Byrd, Hugh Lawson, and Roland Hanna. Detroit also had key black teachers who were recognized as cultural leaders within the African American community. Two of the most important were pianists Gladys Wade Dillard and Josephine Love. Dillard taught Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Kirk Lightsey, and Alice (McLeod) Coltrane. Roland Hanna studied with Love.

Detroit jazz historian Mark Stryker explains: “Josephine Love emphasized the basics of classical technique and repertoire. Love was highly trained. She had earned a diploma in piano at Juilliard, along with a degree in English from Spelman College and a master’s degree in musicology from Radcliffe College, where she even took a few compositions lessons with Walter Piston. She had also toured a bit as an accompanist for Anne Wiggins Brown, the original Bess in the first production of Porgy and Bess. I got to know Love a bit when I first moved to Detroit. After I wrote once about Hanna, she sent me a letter in which she talked with such pride about her former student. She remembered him as gifted and a hard worker, disciplined about practicing and headstrong about becoming a great musician.”

Then and now, students argued with their parents about what to learn. Henry Lee Grant taught music at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., and his private students included Duke Ellington and Billy Taylor, who later had a large influence in American life as an advocate for jazz, including a steady slot on CBS’s Sunday Morning with host Charles Kuralt.

Taylor recalled, “There was pressure from my mother to stay with my Bach and study traditional piano. I wasn’t too thrilled about it, but I continued, until I met a neighbor of mine, Henry Grant, who was director of the high school band and a great music teacher. Almost all of the great jazz musicians who came out of Washington prior of ’55 worked with him. He’s one of the few people Duke Ellington actually studied with, and they were good friends….He’d hear me playing something by Ellington, say, ‘Prelude to a Kiss,’ and show me a piece by Debussy with the same kind of harmony…The classical practicing I did was because he made me want to learn these things — all the little Debussy and Chopin preludes. He’d show me my own voice leadings in a piece and blow my mind.”

This teacher-student relationship seems ideal. Ellington himself gave Grant credit, but also noted when he moved on. Ellington wrote, “I was beginning to catch on around Washington, and I finally built up so much of a reputation that I had to study music seriously to protect it. Doc Perry had really taught me to read, and he showed me a lot of things on the piano. Then when I wanted to study some harmony, I went to Henry Grant. We moved along real quickly, until I was learning the difference between a G-flat and an F-sharp. The whole thing suddenly became very clear to me, just like that. I went on studying, of course, but I could also hear people whistling, and I got all the Negro music that way. You can’t learn that in any school. And there were things I wanted to do that were not in books, and I had to ask a lot of questions. I was always lucky enough to run into people who had the answers.”

Ellington’s comment is a stark reminder that there is plenty to learn outside of European notation before you are a finished American musician. In the Jenkins Orphanage clip above, it is the African elements of tonal color and swing rhythm that make the clip so exciting. (The Jenkins “Our History” webpage notes, “It was not what they played, but the way that they played it that secured the band’s place in musical history.”)

Certain other teachers were also notably hip and gave their charges some direction in blues and jazz the way Captain Dyett could. Percy McDavid at Wheatley High School in Houston brought Ellington to his school as early as 1935, and a list of his notable students includes many blues professionals and two of the greatest Texas Tenors, Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb. Nearby in Dallas was J.K. Miller, who trained Cedar Walton and David Newman. (Miller also gave Newman his nickname, “Fathead.”)

Within the segregated community, word got around fast. Not too many of these great music teachers are remembered today, but at the time, the cognoscenti kept their finger on the pulse. Cedar Walton told me an anecdote about arriving in New York City in the late 1950s, where he met Miles Davis thanks to Davis’s regular pianist, Red Garland.

Walton: “Miller would bring in charts arranged by Gil Fuller for the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra for us to try off-season, when it wasn’t football season. J.K. Miller had played in bands. In fact, he told me that he played in those bands – they used to call them territory bands – back in the 40’s or even the 30’s.

“When I first got here, I met Red Garland: I introduced myself to him because he was from Dallas. His father lived two blocks from me. So I said, ‘Hi, Red, I’m Cedar from Dallas. I know your father.’ And Red was an instant buddy. He was standing next to Miles Davis at the bar of the Cafe Bohemia. He said, ‘Oh man, Miles, this is my man – what’s your name – Cedar? – from Dallas.’ And Miles said, ‘You know J.K. Miller?’ Now that just floored me – that Miles Davis knew my band director. I almost fainted. I had to count to ten. So I said, ‘Wow, I must’ve come to the right city. They know my band director here.’”


(On a related topic: The Classical Music of Harold Mabern, Larry Willis, and Richard Wyands.)

Thanks to Mark Stryker and Hyland Harris for crucial help during my casual researches. I merely spent a couple of hours among the memoirs at Rutgers Jazz Institute and consulted with Mark and Hyland, but much more could and should be done. If further names of important teachers arise in the wake of this post, I will gladly add them.

Special thanks to Ted Panken, who has made a point of asking Chicago musicians about Captain Walter Dyett. Panken’s valuable interview series at Tomorrow is the Question sparked my interest in Dyett and other music teachers.

Updates, 3/9/20:

Ted Panken: “Nat Cole and Milt Hinton studied with Captain Dyett at Wendell Phillips H.S., whence Dyett moved to the newly opened DuSable. Also, interestingly, in 1931 Dyett replaced Major Clark Smith at Phillips — Major Smith had run the music program at Lincoln H.S. in Kansas City (which Charlie Parker attended) until 1922. As this piece indicates, Smith then moved to Sumner H.S. in St. Louis in 1931. That’s where I believe Lester Bowie’s father ran the music program for many years.”

The name James Reese Europe was mentioned by several people. Fair enough! I had been thinking of him more as a practitioner than a teacher, but there’s no doubt that Europe was a crucial mentor to many.

Matthew Guerrieri: “After Reese was killed, the Hellfighters Band was taken over by another of its members, a man named Gene Mikell (full name Eugene Francis or Francis Eugene, depending on the source). Mikell was a Jenkins Orphanage alumnus who did lead the band on occasion, including their performance at Taft’s inauguration in 1909. He’s sometimes cited as one of the two musicians Jenkins hired to start the band, although that may be apocryphal. But he was with the band from the beginning, and did teach at the Orphanage in later years. Peter Lefferts has pulled together all the Mikell info here. Edmund Jenkins, Daniel Jenkins’s son, also led the bands for a time, and had a very interesting career. Still doesn’t answer who led the band on the 1928 Movietone clip, alas.”

Vinnie Sperrazza suggested John T. “Fess” Whatley, who taught Sun Ra, Erskine Hawkins and many others at the Birmingham’s Industrial High School in Alabama.

Sun Ra said of his slightly later time in college at the segregated Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, “The composers I studied were Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, the whole gamut. I think I studied everything at that school except farming.”

In The World of Earl Hines by Stanley Dance, there’s a lovely riff about Ellington. According to Dance, Ellington would frequently quote the comment of a prospective sideman at an audition: “Yeah, I can read, but I don’t let it interfere with my blowing.”