When Lucky Millinder toured the South with an integrated Big Band

Black Harlem bandleader Lucky Millinder turned Jim Crow on its head when he added 7 white musicians to his Big Band and toured the South in the 1940's.

Big Band leader Lucky Millinder.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA, August 12, 2017 – Last month we considered the painfully slow process in which integrated jazz bands were accepted in public performance, and later presented on screen. There were, of course, occasional exceptions.

For example, while integrated bands were a rarity on film until the 1950s, producers and presumably audiences were somewhat more open minded when a major star was supported by a black jazz ensemble.

Cab Calloway with Eartha Kitt and Cary Grant

In the 1930s, for example, Cab Calloway accompanied Al Jolson on screen, and Duke Ellington played behind Mae West.

Perhaps the earliest of such occurrences comes from a Herman Fowler “Voice of Hollywood” short from 1930 in which the West Coast band of Ray West supports the singing and dancing of Theresa Harris.

But this month’s story goes way beyond these feeble attempts to integrate musical film. It tells of a groundbreaking effort led by one of the most popular black bandleaders in Harlem, Lucky Millinder.

Lucky Millinder was one of the most charismatic of bandleaders, and he parlayed the ability to communicate with audiences into a career that lasted two and a half decades. Millinder was not an instrumentalist himself, although he took an occasional vocal on record or film soundtrack.

Duke Ellington

In 1934 Millinder began fronting the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, a roll that he filled until the spring of 1938. The band was managed by Irving Mills, and was used by Mills to fill engagements when his other popular outfits, the Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway bands, for example, were unavailable.

Cab Calloway

After leaving the Mills organization Millinder took over the Bill Doggett orchestra, and while the band went unrecorded, we have film evidence of its existence: In the late fall or early winter of 1939 Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra appeared in the Nu-Atlas short (released by RKO) titled “Readin’ ‘Ritin’ and Rhythm”.

The band’s performance of “Ride Red Ride” is the highlight of this ten minute short subject.

Throughout the early part of the 1940s Millinder led one of the finest, and most underrated, big bands in the nation.

Not only did the band feature some truly outstanding soloists — Dizzy Gillespie, Stafford “Pazuza” Simon, Tab Smith, Buster Bailey, Bill Doggett and Clyde Hart, among others — but it also had, in Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one of the strongest vocalists in all of jazz.

Dizzy Gillespie, 1948. (Photo by Herman Leonard)

And then, in 1946, a stunning turn of events: Lucky Millinder brought seven white musicians into his black jazz band! This was an audacious move.

Certainly, there was a wealth of talented and available black musicians in New York City, especially those who were section players and would not be expected to solo. In other words, bringing white sidemen into the band was a matter of choice, not necessity.

In 1947, the integrated nature of the band was noted by an unidentified writer for the Pittsburgh Courier, who notes,

“In recognition of his successful experiment whereby a group of mixed musicians played together the South, a citation was given to Lucky Millinder by the student board of A. and T. College….”

“Early last year, the colorful Millinder…added the first non-Negro member to his organization, in an extensive rebuilding move….He felt the time had come to do away with the Jim Crow attitude of Negroes as well as whites.’”

“Before his rebuilding program was over, he had literally put together an ‘all nations” crew’ with an Italian, an Armenian, an Irishman, a Jew, an East Indian, along with a number of Negroes. Not only have the men worked together without friction, but the band has played and traveled all over the south without incident.”

The Lucky Millinder Orchestra

To say that the band traveled to the Deep South without incident is perhaps a bit hyperbolic. White trombone player Porky Cohen spoke about his time with the band, and the difficulty traveling through the South with an integrated orchestra. Strangely enough, he has relatively little to say about Millinder.

“In 1948 I got a call from Lucky Millinder’s manager. Lucky was going to integrate the other way. [He had, of course, done this two years earlier.] Lucky said the band would be working the Savoy for twelve weeks, but first we were going down south for two weeks.”

Cohen recalls the white bus driver who was “appalled and horrified” at being asked to transport the mixed band on the tour. Segregated restaurants and bathrooms, sub standard rooming conditions, the difficulty of getting from rooming houses in one part of town to the gig in another, the fearful presence of the Ku Klux Klan, all were part of this experience.

Lucky Millinder poster

Porky recalled the band well, and noted how much he enjoyed playing with it. “I wasn’t soloing much at that time. When I was with Charlie [Barnet], most of the solos went to Tommy [Pederson] or Herbie Harper.”

“The guys in the Millinder band were terrific, and we played some great music together. No tension within the band, just when we were on tour. And that came from the outside, not from Lucky or members of the band”

Leon Merian, a white member of the trumpet section, told me that he also felt that the integration worked well:

“The guys got along fine on the bandstand, although we didn’t necessarily hang out together when we weren’t playing. But in the band, everything was professional. Money Johnson was the featured trumpet soloist with the band, and I learned a lot listening to him. Swell fellow with fine chops, and a great jazz imagination.”

Joe Wilder was on this tour with the Millinder band, and he spoke with jazz scholar and biographer Ed Berger about the experience:

“When we toured the South we were playing mostly for black dances and we stayed in private homes, including the white musicians. Everyone is peeking out from behind the curtains making sure the sheriff or the Klan wasn’t sneaking up on us.”

Lucky Millinder

“One time we went with Lucky’s band, which had five white musicians at the time, to Charleston. We were there about five hours early and were waiting for the ballroom to open. Up comes the sheriff’s car with the sheriff and his deputy.”

“The sheriff gets out and says, “Who’s in charge here?’ Lucky said, “I am.” Well, I’m tellin’ you boy, there ain’t gonna be no mixed bands down here in Charleston, SC!” And Lucky says, “Well this isn’t a mixed band.”

“The sheriff looks around and says, “You mean to tell me those aren’t white musicians over there?” “No,” says Lucky. So now the sheriff walks up to each white musician and asks, “You colored?” And each guy said yes.

“He looked at the deputy in disbelief. He gets to Porky (Solomon) Cohen, our first trombone player, and says, “Now, you gonna tell me that you’re colored too?” And Porky, who had a pronounced lisp, answers emphatically, “Why, thertainly!”

“We were almost doubled over laughing. Finally, he turned to the deputy and said, “Well, if they all say they colored, ain’t nothin’ we can do about it,” and they got in the car and drove off!”

“Many years later I’d run into Porky in New York in the middle of the theater district and ask him, “Are you?” And he’d say, “Why, thertainly!”

Drummer Roy Harte, in conversation with his son Rex, painted a somewhat more somber picture of the tour to the South:

Lucky Millinder

“I remember Roy told me that he and another white guy would go get the food for everybody, the whole band, in certain towns. They drove through towns with people hanging in the trees, and he remembered being in that same town when Lester Young and his white wife were chased out of town on their wedding night.”

Regardless of the positive attitudes cited above, Millinder’s groundbreaking effort could not have been easy for any of the men involved.

As Leon Merian’s son James noted in a Boston Globe obituary (August 22, 2007), “He ended up sleeping in the bus a lot of the time. He wasn’t allowed to stay in the black hotels because he was white, and he wasn’t allowed in the white hotels because he was with a black band.”

As it turns out, the Millinder orchestra was invited to appear in a short subject produced by William D. Alexander of the Association Producers of Negro Motion Picture, a film intended for theaters catering to African American audiences.

Titled LUCKY MILLINDER AND HIS ORCHESTRA, the film includes three numbers, one of which, “Hello Bill,” shows off the jazz chops of the band.

Leon Merian remembered very little about this film, which is not surprising after the passage of so many years. He did recall, however, that they filmed the short in the early morning “work hours,” after a long night of playing, or perhaps after returning from a tour.

“We were dog tired,” said Leon. Indeed, if you watch carefully, the white trombone player, seated to the top left of the section, first yawns, then actually nods off, toward the end of the performance!

This film suggests a quiet and largely unrecognized turning point in the presentation of jazz and popular music on film. A very complete history of this film can be found at Jazz on Film:

While there is a great deal more to tell where integration on film is concerned, next month we will begin investigating the relationship between another form of integration, that of composition, style and performance.

In other words, what does the Western Swing band led by Shorty Warren have to do with the Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead? And can rap music really be traced back to 1906?

Mark Cantor is a film and music historian and the curator of Celluloid Improvisations Music Film Archive, one of the largest private collections of jazz, blues, and American popular music on 16mm film worldwide.

Read more at Jazz on Film

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