Patriotic Jazzmen

I am continually amazed by the number of legendary jazz musicians who have served our country, in uniform, carrying instruments in lieu of weapons. Music has the power to break barriers, be they barriers of geography, ideology, religion, or other discriminations.

Prior to 1920 (when more than one thousand warrant officer positions were authorized and their jobs expanded to include clerical, administrative, and band leading activities), military musicians were either enlisted men or commissioned officers — and none were black. Expanding the role warrant officers allowed the military to recruit superior musicians who were not otherwise qualified for officer status.

Racial integration has historically been a piece-meal operation, in or out of the military. It was through music that President Roosevelt found one way to elevate the status of black men in the Navy. Before World War II, blacks in the Navy were mess men or stewards, boot blacks or stokers. Through the Great Lakes Experience (1942-1945), the US Navy recruited 5,000 black musicians and trained them as bandsmen at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois. This act added dimension to the great history of the Navy Band Great Lakes, which was founded in 1917 by Lieutenant Commander John Philip Sousa.

My husband, John Levy, a jazz bassist living in Chicago, might have been one of the Great Lakes recruits, but he was not. In December of 1941, he was on the road again with the Cabin Boys, this time headed for Warren, Ohio. He was en route one Sunday, listening to the car radio, when he heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. “Everybody in those days was feeling patriotic, and I was no exception,” he remembers. “There were role models in my family. My Uncle Johnny, Mama’s oldest brother, had fought in the Spanish-American War. Then years later, Uncle Sherman was one of the 300,000 blacks who fought in WWI.” John wanted to join the Army Signal Corps, so when he got back to Chicago, he took lessons and scored high, 98.2 on the test. A few months later he was called for an appointment, but when he got there they refused to accept him, despite his high score. “We don’t take niggers in the Signal Corps,” they told him.

That experience left a scar and killed his desire to enlist, but it did not hamper his feelings of patriotism, nor did it stop him from supporting the war effort or entertaining the troops. Several years ago, while writing his biography, I discovered a letter from the United States Treasury Department thanking him for his “efforts in furthering the sale of War Bonds and Stamps,” probably a thank you for his participation in the War Bond Jam Session in the Mayfair Room of Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel. The letter was dated April 1944, and was addressed to him in care of the Garrick Stagebar where he had a steady gig playing bass with the Stuff Smith Trio. One day the trio went to the Navy base to entertain. “The Great Lakes Navy Band with Willie Smith, Ernie Royal and Clark Terry also played that day,” John reminisces. “That band had great musicians, guys we didn’t get to hear often around town.”

In a 1978 interview posted on the Jazz Institute of Chicago’s web site, trumpeter Clark Terry told Charles Walton, “When we finished our boot camp we received our ratings, which was displayed by having a lyre sown on our sleeve. To see a Black man in a United States Navy with a lyre on his sleeve instead of a C, which meant cook, was quite an oddity.”

Many of those musicians went on to have stellar musical careers after their military service. A few years ago, The Great Lakes Naval Training Center celebrated the 60th anniversary of “The Great Lakes Experience of World War II,” and paid tribute to the Navy’s first black musicians. Clark Terry was there, along with composer/bandleader Gerald Wilson. Both men have earned more honors and awards than either can count. My husband and I saw both of them together at a January 2004 gathering of National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters. Gerald Wilson received a Jazz Master award in 1990 and Clark Terry got his in 1991.

My father’s musical experience vis a vis racial bias has been from the opposite end – he was “the white guy” in the celebrated Chico Hamilton Quintet back in 1955. And with the Sonny Rollins quintet he was “the white guy” featured on the legendary album titled The Bridge. People have asked him about his experiences and he refuses to see it as black and white. He views music as a way of bonding people together and crossing barriers, be they barriers of geography, ideology, religion, or other discriminations. He is also an NEA Jazz Master (2004), and in his acceptance speech he said, “The women and men who have received this award in the past have spread peace and love throughout the world, something that governments might emulate. I am pleased to be one of the peacemakers.”

If music is the language of humanity, then every musician, in or out of uniform, will be a peacemaker, musical instruments will be standard issue, and wars will be resolved diplomatically, in concert.