When I was a kid, eight years old, I was a singer, and I used to go to the clubs, private clubs in New Orleans. My dad would take me, and I’d sing with the full orchestras they had. But I got enthused with the trumpet whenever I watched an old trumpet player named Nelson Jean playing. And I started learning under him and I couldn’t get any sense out of him, so I quit.
LISTEN — Don Albert talks about: Growing up in New Orleans’ Creole 7th Ward; 1930s cross-country bus tours with Don Albert and his Ten Pals and Defending his nightspot, the Keyhole Club, from segregationists. Credit courtesy of the Institute of Texan Culture.
I finally went to Mr. Milford Peron who was a finished musician, one of the ole’ professors. I learned from him and learned the basic parts of the cornet with him. There was Lorenzo Tio, the ole’ man, Papa Tio. Then there was his son Lorenzo Jr. The old man was a genius from Mexico. He was a finished clarinetist who played in all the symphonies. He was an artist on top of it. And he taught most of us kids around there like Barney Bigard, my cousin.
In those days, the kids who wanted to learn music learned from their friends. It was a family affair from the beginning. All a kid had to do was say he wanted to learn something and one of the friends was going to teach him. Those fellas like Jelly Roll Morton were just a little bit in front of me. I don’t quite remember them vividly, but they were there. After I learned to play the horn, then I played in New Orleans on the riverboats and on the boats that ride Lake Pontchartrain. Most of that was Sunday gigs. The President, and the Capitol, those were the big steamers from St. Louis that spent the winter in New Orleans.
I came to San Antonio in 1927 to play trumpet in Troy Floyd’s band. We played at Shadowland and also at another nightclub out on Fredericksburg Road.
I stayed with Troy for a couple of years, then a friend wanted me to start my own band. And he financed me with about $1,500. In those days, that was gobs of money! I started out with nine musicians out of New Orleans. In those days, people who were good enough in New Orleans left. They might go to Kansas City and mostly Chicago. Wasn’t such a thing as going to California. It was too, too far.
We went straight to Dallas for the State Fair. That was the first gig I had and from there I came back to San Antonio to play at the Chicken Plantation. That was in 1929.
My father-in-law to be didn’t believe that I was going when I left New Orleans. He said, “Oh, no, you just like these other ole’ Creole boys. You’re gonna stay. You’re not gonna leave.” I say, “Well, you just watch. I got my ticket already.”
Well, I left with a little band out of three pieces I organized in New Orleans, an alto player and a banjo player and myself. We were goin’ to join another little group that was already organized in Dallas and left on the train with a band out of Waco, Texas. Herschel Evans was playing alto sax in those days. I had to play, blowin’ my horn all night on the train. The guys couldn’t understand how I could get such a pretty sound out of my trumpet. I had to play for ‘em and play for ‘em. And finally when we got to Dallas, Herschel left and I went up and got this little job up there, on Main and Elm Street, upstairs in the worst part of the city. I stayed up there for six months until Troy Floyd picked me up.
Raul Estes had the place. We worked with Raul Estes for about six or seven months and closed down. He went to work at Shadowland as a gambler, the head gambler. So, he was in the know and he was in with Mr. Barnett and the rest of the guys that owned Shadowland and that way he got me in. And we stayed there, first time for 18 months. That was during Prohibition and gambling was illegal but it was wide open at Shadowland. I started off with ten pieces all together, in my band. There was Don Albert and His Ten Pals. Louis Cotrell was in that and Herb Hall was. We brought Herb here. I picked him up from New Orleans. He was out of a little town of Reserve, Louisiana. The whole family, were musicians. But I only used him out of his family. He played the alto and the baritone. See, we had the Duke Ellington sound. And we copied the baritone like (Harry) Carney played with Duke. You hear my album and you hear the sound.
We stayed around here and we stayed at Shadowland. There wasn’t any other outlet. We had gotten to the peak where we could get so far as the music was concerned, so I wanted to venture and I wanted to travel on the road so the first time I left I got as far as Kansas City. And they called me to come back. They couldn’t get a band to fill my place at Shadowland. So, that happened on three different occasions. The last time I just said, “Well, this is it. I’m gonna leave this town. I’m not coming back.” And that’s when I went to New York. But most of the time it was a road band. We played all over the United States.
New York was great. I was right at the top of the ladder. Most of it was concentrated in the big ballrooms like the Roseland Ballroom and the Pollard Theatre and the Savoy Ballroom.
But just when I got my big break, I had gotten the band up to about sixteen or eighteen pieces, and the bookers wanted to cut my band once and set three of my men on the side, and go ahead and let me get to the top. But I had an idea that those guys started with me and I just wanted them to reap the benefits of what we were really going to get into this big time. So, I disagreed with puttin’ ‘em on the side. Well, that’s one of the big mistakes. When you go back and you wonder and you say, “Now, what the hell did I do this for?" And it would have been just as simple to let them sit in the background and go right ahead and play. We wouldn’t have missed them. The arrangements were good. One man could drop and somebody take his place. I couldn’t get the bookings and basically, I was holding out for big money for my band. Well, I say big money. In those days, 300 to 400 to 500 bucks a night, which today is nickel and dime, but in those days, it was big, big money! So we left New York in ’32 or ’33, I think it was. I don’t exactly remember the date. Then we come back south where I could book the band myself on one-nighters.
Yeah, Rocky Mountain, North Carolina. There used to be dances in the Carolinas they called it June-Germans, and they started late at night and go early in the morning. And my band was always picked out to play these big dances. And we were booked at Rocky Mountain, North Carolina, and we couldn’t find any accommodations. We had to stay in the bus or with some colored families that we’d known. So, we come on into the town and we went right to the hall and instead of trying to get places, we stayed in the hall to rest.
And I had a fellow who always was surveyin’ and researchin’, Fats Martin, the drummer, and they all were sittin’ out on the porch, some of ‘em in the bus. He come to me, and say, “Say, Ole Man”, he say, “Come here, and let me show you what I found.” He was always, always callin’ me the Ole Man. I was 20, 21 or 22 years old, but I was the boss, so they called me the Ole Man. So we go into this place and here where you hang your clothes, a clothes closet, the white robes are stacked up to the ceiling and the hoods, the cross, and the by-laws, rules and regulations of the Ku Klux Klan. I said, “Lad, come on out of there. What are you doin’ looking up all this junk like this? Let’s get out of here!” So, the band that I had was a band that didn’t never play a request. A set book, go from top to bottom. So, that night didn’t anybody get refused of any kind of a request! They come ask for some of the most ungodliest names you ever heard. We made music to that and played -- gave it the song, the music, the name, and everything else. If we didn’t know it for ‘em, we played it but we got out of town right quick! We left right away! That was the fastest the bus ever was packed.
Then there was the night we were on the road when we came into New York City and everybody was asleep and the bridge was up. We had left West Virginia, 700 and some miles and we come into New York to rehearse for a stage show with Ralph Cooper, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. And we were coming in to do this around ’34 or ’35, maybe. When we come into town, there was a place for buses to go, trucks to go and automobiles in different lanes. And at the top of the George Washington Bridge were two little clearance lights, red lights, that was for the airplanes. Well, we didn’t know this. We’s just country boys out of the South and this guy got to pumping on his brakes and the piano player was sleeping and got up. He said, “The bridge is up! The bridge is up!” And everybody in the band woke up then. See, they thought the bridge was up and the bus was gonna go over this bridge! So, the poor driver, he was scuffling to pump the brakes so that the bus would stop. Well, he finally got it stopped. We stopped on the very tip top of the George Washington Bridge. Well, we could see that we were lost. We weren’t going over the bridge but we just missed the bus route.The driver never drove anymore for three months! I kept the band until 1940. The war was coming on and things were getting tight. Musicians weren’t acting right. I had some dopies in the band. And things were scarce and far and few between. I decided, well, I got to try something else. I got to get us security for me and my family. I left the band here and I went to New Orleans. I didn’t stay there too long. I came here and I went to work in 1941 at Kelly Field and retired in 1974. I continued my playing. I had two nightclubs, Creole nightclubs. I opened one in November of 1944 out on Highway Street. I closed that one down in January or February of ’46. I opened this big one the Keyhole Club out on Poplar Street, Easter Saturday 1950. And I kept it until I sold it in 1964. I had wonderful success. I had the first fully integrated club in the United States!
We had trouble with the police. They didn’t go along with the integration. That was the whole crunch of it, but I won the case in the courts. Was a judge named Judge Sanders and this lawyer here, he’s still active. That’s Henry Archer. That’s his boy that’s on the city council. We won the case. They tried all kind of ways to close it just because of the integration. And they used every subterfuge that they could. Jazz, I’ve always described it as a happy feeling, and it’s something that makes you feel glad all over and you want to slap your hands and clap your hands, stomp your feet and you just want to have a good time, shake your body. The blues are jazz in a way, yes. It’s a basic part of our jazz. What they’re playing, they still use the form of different changes, the B flat change, the C change, and the G change, and that’s what it’s built around. And blues were built from that and then the tempo is the thing that changed around from the slow blues to the jump tempos. The blues came out of the souls of the slaves. That’s a known fact because they sung just how they felt. That’s about the only way they had to vent their feelings. You can either sing it happy, sing it sad or sing it bad, one or the other.
The best single jazz musician I ever heard? Well, there’s no comparison with Louis Armstrong. He is outstanding. The fellow’s dead, but the awards that were given to him, he deserved ‘em. Put a thousand trumpet players in a room and you could distinguish his notes from the others. Sidney Bechet was a great, great reed man, which he was, but it’s the difference all together in him and in Louis. Louis reached everybody from the kids on up. Bechet was just an ordinary good, great musician, not in the same vein as Louis Armstrong. I knew Louis. We were close, close friends. But now Duke Ellington is a man that reached everybody in the jazz field. He knew what to do with his men, he knew how to place them, he knew how to write for them, consequently, he made it something outstanding that no one else could imitate. Count Basie hasn’t contributed what Duke Ellington has. Ellington was a composer, writer and an artist.
This so called modern jazz, I didn’t think too much of it ‘cause it was a bit over my head. I couldn’t understand what they were doing. The average person didn’t, but they had to accept it. There was nothin’ else around. That was forced upon ‘em, just like rock n’ roll. People don’t like it. They hold their ears. They do everything! What else are they gonna listen to? They’re tryin’ to bring the big bands back, but it’s almost an impossibility. How does a jazz musician form his own style? It usually comes to you natural and by association with others. It just comes natural. I’m just a straight jazz trumpet player, strictly to the lead like the old musicians done it when I was a kid. Just beat around the lead just a little bit, don’t get too far away from it, mostly feel what you’re playing. You have to have control of your horn, your lips and your thoughts. See how good you can make it sound to the other person and at the same time make it pleasin’ to you as you playin’ it. That’s what we call working around, beatin’ around it. Yeah, that’s what we call it.
My best friend? Well, that covers a lot of territory. Well, Duke was one of my favorites. Earl Hines was for awhile. And, of ‘course, Jimmy Lunceford. Not too many people remember Jimmy, but he was a great, great friend of mine.Talking about my band members, talking about Herb Hall, Louis Cottrell, Fats Martin. Those were regular members of the original band and those were great musicians. Herb was in last week. He comes in two or three times a week, he and his wife. He’s goin’ to North Carolina on a gig next week. He’s 73 years old, he is. He says, “You lived!” And I guess I did. I really lived. Got no regrets. Traveling with the bands usually was real tough in the Southern states and that’s where we were concentrated on. I’ve seen lynches in Mississippi and Texas, right here in Columbus, Texas. Two boys, sixteen years old were lynched the day we came in to play the dance. We didn’t play. We had to leave town. And the same thing happened in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. We used to see these kids on the chain gang with the big balls chained to their legs in the hot sun all day, sun-up to sundown.
Being as light as I was, they all thought that I was white, and I got the better part of everything. The band would get hungry, I’d stop in some café in some little town, pool our money, go in there and get a bunch of sandwiches and bring it out and give it to ‘em. They’d eat in the bus, and sleep in the bus! Playing a dance in some small Southern town was always a 70-30 deal, and the band would get 70 percent and the owner would get 30 percent. Sometimes we’d split $200 or $300 for the band. That would go for the whole group. Bob Crosby and the Bobcats were up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. They were on the road and they stopped. We stopped with ‘em. We had sandwiches and we had other things in the bus. We shared with the Bobcats. We played against Glen Gray and the Casa Loma band. Gray had a real big one, real good band, and he was concentrated in the area of Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Glenn Falls, New York. We were up there in the wintertime. We’d turn around and get the hell outa there right quick! It was too cold for us! So we got a gig in Detroit, at the Plantation Nightclub. They sat us down for four months. Brother, that was the height of the winter. So we spent that in the nightclub in Detroit, Michigan. It must have been around ’35 or ’36.
We recorded our albums here in San Antonio, at the old Bluebonnet Hotel on the Vocalion label. As far as we knew, the sales were good, but we had no jurisdiction over the sales. We sold outright. If you wanted to make a nickel in those days, you needed it! You’d do anything to sell out. Like anything else, it’s just like we played in Chicago for Al Capone and Ralph Capone. Now, those guys paid us good money! All the gang wars were going on. I’ve seen ‘em come right into Detroit, Michigan with the shotguns right where we were playing. They were looking for somebody in the club. And the manager told us, “You just go ahead and play and don’t worry about nothin’. If they find who they looking for, they’ll take him out of here and they won’t do nothing in here.” That also happened here in San Antonio when they raided the Riverside Gardens down there on Houston Street. It was during the holiday season and they come and raided the place for gambling there. They had mixed drinks in those days and the Rangers, two of ‘em stand at the front door and they scattered the others throughout the nightclub. And they locked all the doors so nobody could get in and out. I never did stop playin’ one piece for twenty-five minutes, man, until they finished raiding the place! Customers, and the roulette wheels, the cards, the dice, you name it. They had all that packed up in the wagon, tearin’ it up! The same with Shadowland, they closed it down and locked all the instruments in there, the Rangers did. We had to get a citation from downtown to go out there and get our instruments out of there, otherwise, they’d be there yet! No, those guys were all the big time gamblers like Red Berry. They were all in cahoots. They raided ‘em and they paid their fine and would be back in business again the next night. And we were back playing the next night. In Chicago, you just played your music and that’s it. Your money was fine. Your money was always there. Always in cash.
It was beautiful! It’s just like Jack Teagarden and I, we played together in Indianapolis, Indiana in a snowstorm. We were two old Southern boys, and I had a gig in a nightclub, a colored nightclub up there, and they were workin’ at a theater, so Jack came on and he say, “Don” he say, “get your horn, man! Let’s go to play somethin’. It’s snowin’!” And man, I say, “I don’t see no snow!” He say, “Get the horn!” So, we got the damn trumpet and we go outside and man, snow is fallin’ down a mile a second, and damn fools out there playing their horns! Playing in the snow. He was a great guy! I played with him just once in awhile. We weren’t in the bands together. The guy pumped some trombone! In New Orleans, I played the horn in four different brass bands. Yeah, I played those long years ago, it wasn’t as bad as it is now. The lower element has taken it over. And it’s more of a mockery now than it was. In other words, they were trying to show you that there’s a lot of sadness there when a person dies, but still in all there’s happiness in the end. That’s what it’s trying to tell you. Ours was a musical family. My grandfather, my grandmother. My grandfather was a singer; my grandmother was a singer. And I had an uncle who played the violin, one played the trumpet and the cornet. In those days his name was Wilson and we had Uncle Natty Dominique, who was a trumpet player and another was a violin player.
Barney Bigard, the clarinetist, is my cousin and we grew up as kids together. We studied together. You name ‘em and you find he’s been there. He’s been in demand all over the world.
The Creoles were the finished musicians in New Orleans and they had a lot to do with teaching the blacks the techniques, the crafts and the two came together through intermingling. The Creoles were more fortunate because of their color and of their background, their roots, all of them played music, sung, danced or done something in the art world. And Negroes as a whole have always been able to capture somethin’ from somebody else, and it was no problem for them to get in with these Creoles and play with ‘em. Manuel Perez was a Creole, but he played with all the blacks and, what we call black, I despise the name black, but I have to go along with, it’s the modern term they use today. I would rather say a colored fella. You don’t know what to say! I’ve done so much for the Negro, that it would take months to record the things that I have accomplished and the things that I have been involved in and the things that I have done for the black race. ‘Course I’m in the background. I don’t push it because I’m not too interested in the referring to me as ‘The Black’ because actually, I am NOT black and I resent that, because years ago, I remember when I was young and I would call a fellow black, he was ready to fight! Today, that same fellow wants me to address him as a black, so where am I going? So I just stay in the background and the things I have done, they’re recorded. Someday they’ll come to light.
I won that Keyhole Club case. I had disturbed the State of Texas when I won that case in 1954. And when I won the case, it was the decision that the judge handed down. He said there’s no law in the State of Texas that prohibits the congregation of people regardless of race, creed or color. And then I was in no violation of any laws. Case dismissed. So consequently any place that wanted to accept the people as I accepted them, whites, blacks and all that, whoever wanted to enter the doors. It was acceptable then after the decision was made. That was a great thing. I’m not interested in the black race, the white race, and the blue race. I’m interested in the race of people. And I’ve gotten along.
© 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.