San Antonio Musician's Oral History – Allen Vann by Sterlin Holmesly

I grew up in Taylor, Texas, Williamson County. There were several piano players around there at various places. I got to hear them and then I started to picking out numbers on the piano, melodies, doing it by ear. When I got to be 17 years old, I took a correspondence course in music, and then we moved to San Antonio in 1922 and I went over to St. Peter’s Clavier. And then I learned how to read music, the sisters taught me and I already had a pretty good idea from that course that I took by mail. And I went to school over there for two years and then I went to college in Knoxville, Tennessee. I studied music at Presbyterian College.

I could go off of the campus and make me four or five dollars two or three times a week. That was a lot of money in those days. Yeah, playing the piano solo, and with a band and sometimes with a trumpet, and I stayed there through my sophomore year and then started to playing regular, I was finishing my college. I lacked two years finishing my college and I started to playing around there in Tennessee, then I came back to San Antonio and started playing with various bands around here.

Millard McNeal had one. I played with Johnson and Jordan and then I went with Boots and His Buddies, Boots Douglas. He was McNeal’s drummer then when McNeal followed up he took over the band. And I stayed with him until 1934. In 1934 I went to Dallas and joined Lawson Brooks’ band. Lawson Brooks went to San Angelo; that’s when I went on to Wichita Falls, Abilene and all that part of the country.

We rode in cars, we had two cars. When we went to San Angelo the band broke up there. I can’t remember the name of the club, but that was in San Angelo, and we played around there in ’34 and ’35 and then we came back to San Antonio and played here in a club up on North Alamo, I can’t think of the name of that one either.

We had Mel G. Harris on trumpet, and Percy Bush, trumpet, then we had Baker Millard, a fine trumpet player, and Alvin Brooks, he was an alto sax, he doubled on the clarinet, of course Boots was playing the drums.

They made records right after I left. I left the band in ’33, last of ’33 and they made some records right after I left, a short time after I left. I was with Troy Floyd’s Band at first from ’27 until ’33.

Don Albert was playing the trumpet when I joined the Floyd band. I joined the band in 1927. They were at the Plaza Hotel, down at the Plaza, and we played the Plaza for about nine months and then we went to Shadowland and we played Shadowland I guess about a year and then we went to Mexico City. We played Mexico City about nine months and Monterrey about three months, we were away about a year. We played at one place there, the Regis Hotel, in Mexico City. We were in Avenida Juarez.

In Mexico City, we played in a theater. It was a theater right in where the hotel was. We’d go out of the theater and go into the ballroom since we were playing there. And we’d play on the stage.

We would go to bullfights in our uniforms. We’d get off the stage just about time for the bullfights to start and we’d go out to the bullfights and we’d get a standing ovation. In other words we’d have on our uniforms. We had on black patent leather shoes, white spats, gray checked trousers and a regular black tuxedo coat with a black tie.

And then when we left Mexico City, we came back to San Antonio and stayed about three months. We played at various clubs around here and then we went to let’s see, where our first stop was Waterloo, Iowa, in ’31.

Des Moines and then up into Wisconsin. We played in LaCrosse, Wisconsin and then they sent us up north to Milwaukee. Then they sent us up to northern Wisconsin, Chippeawa Falls, Eau Claire.

And we played up there a whole summer, the entire summer.

We had Don Albert, Winnie Long, they were trumpet players. And Biddie Long, trumpet player, just had three of ‘em. And then reeds we had three, two on the saxophone and two altos. One of the altos doubled though. I was on piano, Charlie Dixon was on bass. And he doubled on trumpet and there was John Humphrey on drums and Johnny Bragg on banjo. He was playing banjo, he wasn’t playing guitar, that was with Troy Floyd.

Later on we got Percy Johnson, a trombone player in Shreveport and he could write, he wrote arrangements for the band. I wrote several arrangements when we were working in Indiana, and there was Mel Winters. He wrote arrangements for us. We played in “Cattleman’s Blues,” “Road to Dreamland.” We recorded those.

You’ve heard of Herschel Evans haven’t you? Tenor saxophone player, one of the best in the world. He joined us yeah. He joined us in Wichita Falls, Texas. Scott Bagley, was a tenor player over there at Shadowland, very good parts at Shadowland, and then he just split, he quit and came back to San Antonio and he got married here and his wife didn’t want him to travel and then Herbert got Herschel in there. Herschel was a great musician.

I was a member of the rhythm section in the big bands, you know, but I took solos too. Now ah, I never took a long solo. For instance on a 32-measure song, well, maybe I would take eight measures.

Then after Troy’s band disbanded, I had my own band down here in ’36. Yeah, I had my own band and we played right across the street from the Texas Theater. Lightspot, they called it the Lightspot, we played down there a long time and I played up on Losoya Street, it’s Broadway now. Then in ’39 I went to Douglas, Arizona and played at the High Hat Club there. Went out there in ’39 and stayed there until 1940, then I came back to San Antonio and I played at the Lorelei Club here. That was on San Pedro Avenue. I played there for about two years, yeah about two years, and then I had my own band in Albuquerque.

Every band I had somebody gave to me. The man was a saxophonist who had the band and he took his examination and passed it for railway mail clerk so he went on the road as a railway mail clerk and I got the job. He turned the band over to me, so I took over the band and put it in my name. And I played there for about two years and since the Army started getting’ all of the fellas, I was the oldest one in there, I didn’t have to go to the Army and I came to San Antonio and got some players and we all went to Albuquerque and played there from 1947 until 1950 and I came back to San Antonio and played at Jackson Steak House, solo.

Then I went to Wichita, Kansas and played with Homer Osmond, then I came back to San Antonio and played various gigs. Just giggin’ around, and then I got with Harold Taylor, Harold “Jelly” Taylor, he was a trombonist, a big fellow and we played Sammy’s Cocktail Lounge on Fredericksburg Road. We played out there until they closed the club in ’63 and when they sold the club we started playing at the Moulin Rouge.

When we left there we went to a club up at Sunset up on North New Braunfels, it was the Sunset Ridge Club, I think and we played there for some time and then I went to Holiday Inn and we had a girl singer, Dora Holmes. She played the drums and did the vocals. I played the piano in the Holiday Inn Northwest that’s IH-10 and Vance Jackson Road. I played there from ’67 until 1974. In fact, it was the only job I ever had where I got a two weeks paid vacation. I saved quite a bit of money. I retired right there. Got sick and had an operation and I went back and worked two months and then had to have another one and after I got up from that one I didn’t play anymore. I do listen to quite a bit of jazz.

© Sterlin Holmesly

Sterlin Holmesly of San Antonio is a former newspaper editor, author, oral historian and jazz preservationist. He has done more than 70 oral histories, including those of 29 jazz musicians. The collection is housed at the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio and is available to the public.