It’s been three years since my father, Mort Zakarin, passed away at the age of 89. Mort was a jazz musician in the 1940s, playing saxophone and clarinet – in high school, in the U.S. armed forces, as a conservatory student, and finally, as a touring musician and arranger.
Mort later wrote a number of memoirs on his experiences, which I am proud to share with you.
In this memoir, Mort tells about his experience as a white jazz musician – touring the American south together with an African-American big-band in 1949 – maneuvering through segregated hotels and clubs, surviving run-ins with hostile law enforcement officials, and running a KKK gauntlet. – Yosi
It was June 1949. I had just returned to New York from a road trip with the Bobby Sherwood Orchestra. We had traveled across the country in eighteen weeks of mostly one-nighters. I was home – the Big Apple.
Back in my apartment around three that afternoon, I phoned a few friends, and found out that there would be a jam session around midnight up in Harlem. The action would continue until about four in the morning. So I called my girlfriend to meet me for dinner later that evening and sacked out for a couple of hours.
We dined at ten. Judy was pretty and petite, with raven black hair. She was an actress who did a lot of voice-over work. After dinner we stopped at Charlie’s Tavern, a musician’s hangout, to find out who was in town, and what was happening. Then we took a cab uptown.
When we arrived at Jimmie’s Joint in Harlem, the place was packed, yet a path opened up for us as we walked in. The head waiter greeted us and said, “Hey man, I see you got your ax. Would you like to sit in?”
“You bet. That’s why I’m here.”
“Cool, follow me. I have a table for you in the main room.” After we were seated, he asked, “What can I get you to drink?”
“A couple of beers will do just fine.”
The waiter returned and placed two beers on the table. “When those cats are done, I’ll holler, okay?”
“Sounds good to me,” I replied.
Judy looked at me and said, “I can’t believe what I just saw.”
“What’s that, honey?”
“You walk in with your clarinet under your arm and it’s like the parting of the Red Sea. They made an aisle for us where there was no room to make one.”
“Well, this horn could be my passport to heaven, who knows.”
“By the way, the guy said you have your ‘ax’ with you. I don’t understand. What ‘ax’”?
I laughed, “That’s hip talk. Any instrument is either your ax or your horn.”
The room was large. A five-foot wooden wall separated the bar from the dining area, and a raised bandstand sat on the opposite corner. A pianist, bassist, drummer, trumpet player and a tenor sax man were jamming. The crowd was primarily black with a sprinkling of whites.
Pointing to the bandstand, Judy asked, “Zak, these guys playing, are they any good?”
“Well, the rhythm section works – I imagine that this is their steady gig. The trumpet player is the better of the two, but they’re just sitting in.”
“Explain two things to me.”
“You’ve been on the road for eighteen weeks, playing almost every night. Now, as soon as you get home, the first thing you do is come up here to play. Why?”
“Judy, when I’m with the band, we play charts. We play those same arrangements over and over again, and we play them the same way, over and over again. Sometimes there’s a place to take a solo, to do a little improvising, but that’s it. Here, tonight, I’ll be playing me. I’m as free as a bird. I can soar as high and as far as my talents will take me. See the difference?”
“I think I do. Now tell me, do you know any of those guys up on the stand?”
“You’ll be playing with the guys in the rhythm section – the piano, bass and drummer, right?”
“You’re going to get up there and play without music, with three guys you’ve never seen before. How do you do that?”
“We speak the same language.”
“You mean English? Zak, please.”
“No Judy, we all speak music.”
“Come on, Zak, how do you do it?”
I took her hand and said, “Well, we pick a tune, then decide what key and tempo we’ll play it in. After that it just flows. And, if the night is right, someone will do something, you know, maybe play a phrase – that phrase will light a spark, and that spark will open the door and we’ll all be free.”
Suddenly someone grabbed me on the shoulder. “Zak,” he said, “You old son of a bitch, how the fuck are you?”
It was Swannee Johnson. I stood up and we hugged. I hadn’t seen him since we were both stationed at the Army Air Corps base in Pratt, Kansas back in 1945. He and I were built alike. We both had high cheek bones and broad noses, but Swannee was about four shades darker.
I had been drafted into the Air Corps in May of 1943, one month before my high school graduation. After basic training, I was asked to audition for the band. When I entered the rehearsal room, there he was – Captain Glenn Miller. I had always idolized him. I had seen him was when I was sixteen. He was playing at the New York Paramount and I cut class to be there. He was up on the stage and I was sitting in the first row.
Boy, was I nervous. Glenn Miller auditioning me! I was so excited, to this day I can’t remember anything, except that I was told to pack my duffel bag and report to the band squadron.
During the next two years, I was shipped into and out of three different camps, finally ending up with the band in Kansas. That’s where I met Swannee. He was a member of Squadron C. During World War II, the army was segregated and Squadron C stood for “colored” squadron.
Swannee was a fine musician, but the base band in Kansas, like all base bands, was all white. Since I spent a lot of time jamming and drinking beer with the guys in the Squadron C rec room, I was made an honorary member. Swannee and I had become good friends.
While Swannee was stacking his trumpet case alongside my clarinet, I ordered a round of beers. Then, after I introduced him to Judy, he said, “Okay man, bring me up to scratch. What’s been happening since you got out?”
I smiled and said, “Swannee, I tell you – it’s been truly amazing. I was home about a week when I heard they were having an open jam session at Kelly’s Stables on 52nd Street on Sunday afternoon. I hadn’t even bought civvies yet, so I headed up to the city in my suntans. Since I was still in uniform, they let me sit in right away. Joe Venuti, you know, the jazz violinist, was there, heard me, and offered me a three week gig on the road playing with his Dixieland Band. I jumped at it. I ended up working with him for three months.”
“When I got back in town, I enrolled at the Music Conservatory and majored in composition and conducting. In between, I took jobs on the road for a week or two at a time, then returned to school. I finished the three-year course in two years. I’ve worked the road ever since. As a matter of fact, I just got back from eighteen weeks with the Bobby Sherwood Band.”
Swannee laughed, slapped his thigh and said, “Don’t tell me, you wrote the chart for Talk of the Town, right?”
“Damn, I knew it was you,” he said, “I recognized your style. But you’re better man, real cool.”
“Thanks, Swannee. Now what about you?”
Judy sat looking at us, then said, “You two guys are like two brothers that haven’t seen each other for a very long time, and it’s wonderful to see.”
Just then, we were invited to sit in. The trumpet and sax men were stepping out.
Swannee and I thought alike musically and everyone picked up on it. We swung for over an hour. The crowd kept yelling for more. They wouldn’t let us off the bandstand. It was great working with this fine trumpet man again.
After we returned to our table, Swannee asked if I would write some arrangements for a band he was putting together. I agreed and we quickly settled on a fee. He wanted ten ballads, two easy bounce tunes, and one real up-tempo zinger, and he wanted them in two weeks. They were leaving in six weeks and he wanted to make sure the band was ready.
Every couple of days, Swannee came by and picked up the arrangements I had finished. The band consisted of three trumpets, four saxes and three rhythm instruments (piano, bass and drums). I had a ball writing the stuff. I wanted to give the band a different sound – a unique style – so I suggested that Swannee buy flugelhorns for himself and the two other trumpet men. At that time, flugelhorns were rarely used, except in marching bands. The fingering is the same as a trumpet’s and they’re both B-flat instruments, but the flugelhorn sounds almost like a trombone. I was excited about the musical effects that I was creating. This band was going to be like no other band, black or white. I had a winner and I was riding it home.
When I finished doing all the arrangements, I went uptown to hear the group rehearse. The band sounded good, real good. But something was missing. Swannee knew it, and I knew it.
After rehearsal, we went out for dinner. Swannee finished his coffee, lit a thin cigar, leaned back, smiled and that’s when he sprung it on me. “Zak,” he said, “There’s something missing, and I don’t know how to fix it. Also Bobby can’t cut it. What we need is a good lead sax man and someone to handle rehearsals. How about you?”
I thought he was joking, but he was dead serious. When he told me the itinerary, I was certain he was crazy. Six months of gigs, working south from New Jersey through to Georgia, then over to Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, up through Pennsylvania, then finally back home.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said, “We’ll all get lynched.”
“Listen, Zak, Goodman’s got Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton in his band.”
“That’s different, a couple of black guys with a white band. People can handle that. And remember, you’re not Benny Goodman. The South isn’t ready for a white guy with an ‘all-colored’ band. There’s going to be trouble. I don’t need that and neither do you. Hell, man, did you read the article in the New York Times about that colored guy in Georgia? The KKK just walked in, took his black ass right out of jail and strung him up!”
“This is different, Zak. Think about it,” he said. “I really need you. Listen, the money’s good, and you can continue to write arrangements for us as we travel.”
I told him I’d think about it. I wasn’t too keen on the whole idea, but Swannee was persistent. He called every day, offering me more money, reminding me that we were old army buddies, good friends, etc, etc.
I finally gave in, but after I said yes I was sorry I had. When I arrived for my first rehearsal, I hoped the guys would accept me. But that never happened. They hated my guts. They weren’t too happy about a white guy cutting out one of their people. Also, since I had written the charts, I had them change the way they phrased certain passages and the way they attacked some notes. That made it even worse. With every change that I made, there was an argument, and it wasn’t just one or two of the guys. They all fought me.
The entire group kept pretty much to themselves, even during coffee breaks. I was the outsider. Yet, in spite of their attitude, the band started to really sparkle, but I can tell you I hated going to rehearsals. It got to the point where I was about to tell Swannee that I wanted out.
Three weeks before we were to leave, Swannee told me everyone was invited to a party in Mount Vernon. He said I could bring a date or come alone, since there would be plenty of single chicks. I looked at him questioningly. Yes, I was invited and he assured me all the guys wanted me there.
I decided to go alone. If there was a problem, I didn’t want anyone I’d bring to feel uncomfortable. When I got there, the party that had been swinging… just stopped. As I turned to leave, Swannee grabbed my arm, handed me a beer and introduced me to everyone. Slowly, the crowd started to relax, and one-by-one, the guys came around. By midnight, it seemed that the color of my skin no longer mattered. Little by little, all the fences came down. By the time the shindig ended at about four in the morning, we were hugging and laughing. They told me how much they enjoyed playing my arrangements. The icing on the cake – the supreme compliment – came when Jasper, our drummer, said, “Man, you know, you swing pretty good for a white cat.” That cracked everyone up.
The next day at rehearsal, the atmosphere had completely changed. We laughed and talked during breaks, and they even stopped fighting me when I made suggestions.
The big day finally came. We all piled into our traveling bus. Eleven “colored” men (two drivers, nine musicians), plus one white Jew from Brooklyn. What a combination. The bus was first-class and brand new. It was going to be our home for the next six months. Although normally we didn’t sleep there, we did on a few long hops. Mostly, we stayed at “colored” hotels and boarding houses.
The first few gigs went smoothly. Of course, we were still up north and only played “colored” clubs and dance halls. I saw an occasional white face in a sea of black. At the beginning of each evening there would be a few surprised stares, but that was it.
I had begun to relax and enjoy myself. We were clicking on all cylinders. The people loved the band. The word spread and the crowds grew at each stop.
The guys were cool about following the rules that Swannee had laid out: No drinking until after midnight, no pot until then either, although we had only one pot-head in the group. Everyone was dressed and ready to play on time, every night.
Once we reached the segregated south things started to change. I remember the first time we stopped for lunch on the road.
“Hey, wake up! Come on, you guys, wake up and listen.” Swannee stood at the front of the bus near the driver.
“Wake up, come on, are you all with me? — I want to see the whites of your eyes.”
He looked around — “Good — Guys, we’re now in the beautiful segregated south. Jimmy, our driver, tells me there’s a diner down the road just about a half hour from here. It’s ‘whites only’, but they’ll sell us food to take out. It’s going to be mostly sandwiches – burgers, dogs, that kind of stuff, so give me a list of what you want to eat and drink.”
“That means we eat on the bus, and that’s the way it’s going to be from now on. It also means we can’t be sloppy. That is, unless you guys want to live in a pig sty.”
“Hey, Swannee, if we can’t get in the diner, how’re we gonna get the food?” asked James Thomas, the baritone sax man. James had never been further south than Staten Island.
“Well, one of us is going to take the orders and go to the back of the diner. That’s where the kitchen is, as well as all the garbage pails. You wait. You pay, and you bring the food back here. Got it? Okay, now which nigger is gonna get the food?” Jason, the pianist, stood, smiled, and pointed at me. “How about Zak, the white Jew nigger? Hell, he can go in the front door.”
I realized that I’d also become the “gofer”. It was different in the evening, when we reached the “colored” sections of town – that’s where we found good ribs and chicken joints. It also seemed that Chinese restaurants never close, so I was able to carry out food after we finished playing.
There were no more barriers. I was one of the boys. We were ethnic musicians, not Jew, not Christian, not White or Colored. We were a team that lived and played in harmony.
We did have problems, especially in Alabama and Mississippi. In many of the towns where we played, the white sheriff would come by to check things out. They’d see me, get the owner of the club and make a bee line for Swannee. It would usually go something like this:
“We don’t allow mixed bands here.”
Swannee would look surprised, “Sheriff, suh, this ain’t no mixed band. We is all colored.”
The sheriff would then point at me. Swannee would laugh, “That boy? Sheriff suh, he be my brotha.” If I hadn’t been so scared, I would have burst out laughing.
One time a sheriff came when we were on a break. I was talking to this chick when this big mountain of a man came towards me with Swannee right behind him. I must have turned three shades whiter, but Swannee just wrapped his arm around my shoulder, “Suh, us two, why we got the same momma.”
The sheriff, with a sneer on his face, started hitting his open palm with his billy club. “Who the fuck are you shittin’, Nigga?”
“It’s the truth, Sheriff, suh. We got the same momma, we surely do.”
The Sheriff stuck his nose in Swannee’s face, and snarled, “Same father?”
Swannee smiled, “No suh, jes the same momma.”
The Sheriff, who was big, kept looking bigger and just stood there, staring first at Swannee, and then at me.
Swannee then said, “Excuse me, Sheriff, suh. We all have jes one more hour to play. Can we go, suh?”
The Sheriff stuck his finger in Swannee’s face and said, “I think you’re fuckin’ with me, Nigga, and if’n I find out that you are, y’all be in deep shit.”
He turned and left, followed by the manager of the dance hall.
The really funny part was that Swannee had a degree in English literature from New York University, but he could quickly switch dialects at any time.
After a while I got to thinking that most of those sheriffs were being paid off. I asked Swannee about it, but I never did get a straight answer.
Then it got worse. We had the tires on our bus slashed in Meridian, Mississippi. Obviously the work of the Ku Klux Klan.
We were chased out of Baton Rouge. We had five gigs scheduled in and around the city. All but one had been canceled because of pressure applied by the KKK. When we arrived, we were told that if we tried to play at the Capitol Dance Hall, which was, of course, in the “colored” section of town, some of us would not remain alive. We were led out of town by a well-meaning state trooper. But that didn’t help. We went through a gauntlet of stones, eggs and baseball bats hitting the bus as we raced out of town. At a truck stop down the road, we checked out the vehicle. It looked like it had been through a war. Besides the obvious damage, we found six bullet holes. Fortunately, we got through it with just minor cuts and bruises from broken glass and stones that crashed through.
There was one funny incident, that is, if you can call any kind of prejudice funny. It happened in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. We had arrived at the boarding house where we were to stay that night. At the entrance there was the usual sign “colored only”. We’d seen that before, but this time, when I started to register, the owner looked at me and said. “Suh, the sign it say ‘colored only’, and that means ‘colored only’. All the guys in the band were hysterical. Hell, I thought they’d bust a gut.
Swannee tried to offer the man more money, but it was no good. It went back and forth and no matter what Swannee suggested, the owner just kept shaking his head. Well, finally they called a cab that took me to a “whites only” hotel. The only good thing was that I now had a shower in my room. These things do get dumber and dumber. I’ll never understand it, not ever.
Then, suddenly, the six months on the road was over. The bus pulled into New York City. There were hugs all around, promises to get together and do another road trip. But we never did.
I was back in town about two weeks, relaxing and just enjoying New York, when I got a call from Bobby Sherwood’s manager. He heard that the tour was over and just like that, I was on the road again.
It is only these many years later that I realize what we had done. We were probably the first mixed “colored” band to invade the South. Ah, but those days are just memories now. Living, playing and traveling together, what a time we had. I can still picture Swannee laughing and saying – “Man, we is one.”
Following completion of this memoir, Mort wrote a full-length novel based on his experiences. Swinging Through the South – Just Color it Black and White is a quasi-autobiographical story of a mixed-race band’s adventures as they tour the segregated American south.
You can download the book from the web site http://mortzakarin.tripod.com.