San Antonio Swing Reborn: Carver Center 2007 Rehearsal Notes, by Jim Cullum Jr

In previous Jazz Me News issues we’ve reported on our upcoming concert at San Antonio’s Carver Cultural Center. On February 24, 2007, five extra horn players will join forces with the seven-piece jazz band to form a classic 1930s' band. The concert will be recorded for broadcast on the Riverwalk Jazz public radio series.

Don Albert, 1935. Photo courtesy The Institute of Texan Cultures.

The concert will focus on the vibrant jazz legacy of black “territory” bands based in San Antonio during the 1930s. The band arrangements for the concert are based on a collection of surviving recordings by two of the best of these bands—Don Albert and His Swing Orchestra and Boots and His Buddies.

We have begun rehearsing the arrangements, or “charts,” which are being recreated by former JCJB pianist John Sheridan, widely regarded as one of the premier arrangers in the jazz world today. To my knowledge no other group has ever attempted to resurrect the music of these San Antonio bands.

Our jazz band specializes in historically correct musical practices and uses period instruments where applicable, especially in the rhythm section. So, when we add the extra horns, what you will hear at the concert will be a big band style close to the authentic sound of swing as it was played in the 1930s.

What a thrill it is to bring back to life music that hasn’t been heard in San Antonio for more than 60 years! The style at times recalls the best-known bands of the day—Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunceford. But there is also much in there that is unique and worth preserving.

L. D. Harris. Photo courtesy Frank Driggs Collection.

My close friend Neill Walsdorf, himself a reed player, sat in on our first rehearsal. Neill remembered one of the tunes, "The Vamp," from his youthful days when he played in a band led by San Antonio trumpet man L.D. Harris, who was a soloist on the Boots And His Buddies recordings. L.D. in his later years, when Neill and I were growing up in San Antonio, was the Band Director at Wheatley High School.

When they were not on one of their numberless road trips throughout the Southwest and beyond, the “territory” bands found steady employment in the smoke-filled atmosphere of many San Antonio East Side “black and tan” clubs. There was the Eastwood Country Club, the Avalon Grill, Shadowland, Dreamland, the black-owned Tucker's and the Ebony Room. Dances were also held at the Colored Library Auditorium, which is now the renovated Carver Cultural Center. Don Albert's band included a number of players who later became well known, including Louis Cottrell, Alvin Alcorn, Herb Hall, etc. This band toured extensively, but often they were featured at Shadowland. They were broadcast on WOAI, a 50,000 watt clear-channel radio station which was heard clearly across the western U.S. and into Mexico.


Newspaper ad courtesy Frank Driggs Collection.

A few years after his band broke up in 1940 Don Albert opened a racially integrated night club in San Antonio, The Keyhole Club, in 1942. The club, which featured the latest in big band jazz, dance music, blues and a floor show, was successful for a number of years. Saxophonist Zoot Sims, right after his stint with Benny Goodman, was a member of the house band. In 1947, an advertisement noted that an upcoming jam session would include “performers from all the city’s leading nightspots, white and colored.” The Keyhole closed in 1948, but Don opened another successful version in 1950.

But a segregationist Commissioner of Fire and Police, George M. Roper, was elected in 1951. He immediately began to order police raids on The Keyhole and tried to shut it down down through legal maneuvering. Albert and his lawyer Van Henry Archer, Sr. successfully challenged these actions in court, and the club stayed open. Don Albert 's court victory paved the way for other black night club owners to resist harassment and closing by segregationist city officials. He operated the club until 1964.
During the early 1960s, Albert made a very good recording with my father (the late clarinetist Jim Cullum, Sr.), trombonist Chuck Reilly, and a group of sidemen. Thus began my relationship with Albert. We were friends until the end of his life. Often, he would call me to play 2nd cornet on local gigs.

L to R: Don Albert, Louis Armstrong, Jim Cullum, Sr. Courtesy Jim Cullum, Jr.

In 1968, at the time of the World's Fair in San Antonio, Don Albert brought in a group of New Orleanians including his old pals, Alvin Alcorn, Louis Cottrell and the great drummer Freddie Kohlman. A "Battle of the Bands" was scheduled for four nights at the new and glittering Theater for the Performing Arts between Albert's and our group, The Jim Cullum Jazz Band. Needless to say we had a great time.

Shortly before this battle Louis had been scheduled to appear at the HemisFair. Naturally we all went down to visit. Dad was a natural PR man and came up with the boxing gloves idea to promote the "Battle of the Bands. " At first, Louis reacted saying, "No fighting! I don't want no part of no violence!" But Dad and Don Albert quickly convinced him that it was only for a publicity photo, all in good fun and this picture was taken.