San Antonio Musician's Oral History – Gene Ramey by Sterlin Holmesly

I was born in Austin, Texas, April 4, 1913, three blocks from the State Capitol, down on 13th Street.

Music seems to’ve been a family tradition. My family was singers. I understand my grandfather was a violin player. One of those hot violin players of the late 1800s and the early1900s. We was one of those entertaining violinists.

My mother used to always tell me that I got the habit of pattin’ my foot like that from my grandfather. That’s something that I tried my best to break, but I couldn’t. I had lots of instruments. I think I could pinpoint it most by saying that first was the tempo blocks. And then I had a trumpet, and a baritone horn. And I played drums in the Boy Scouts with the marching band.

I just picked it up. I taught myself till I got to the bass horn and then I had some music in school. I sang in a quartet in school. I had my basic teaching, but after I found out I couldn’t play anything else I I played the ukulele pretty good. And then I got ahold of the bass horn, a tuba, and that turned out to be my thing.

I switched to string bass after I got to Kansas City. I went there to college, to Western University in 1932. Actually August the 18th, 1932 I entered Western University. They had a band there and I got a partial scholarship. So I went there. Although I had been playing music in Austin for a couple of years.

I played with three different bands in Austin. My permanent job was with the Moonlight Serenaders. We had a social club and the cost of the band was so much that we got together and bought our own instruments. That’s where I worked with Herschel Evans, the tenor sax player who later wound up with Basie. At the time I think he was with Troy Floyd.

I met Herschel there. He was playing saxophone. I think it was tenor. Might have been C melody. That was a popular horn then. And very few musicians played the tenor sax. But I think Herschel was playing tenor. And then I played with George Carley.

We bought music at a place in Austin. Reed’s Music Store which is still there. You could buy a whole orchestration. I remember we got that thing, Duke Ellington’s “Ring Them Bells,” and we had lots of stocks of---some of them they had ‘em in off keys, they’d give you as a sample. We got lots of those. I remember we had that “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain” and “Should I?,” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” and, oh I can’t remember all of them. We improvised. We very rarely used the chart except for the first and last chorus. And that was the general idea of most of the bands from Texas, all that we encountered. That was about ’30, ’31 and early ’32. And then I went to Kansas City. They had a place called the Potato Ballroom. And on a holiday, every holiday they had a battle of bands. And they had Alfonso Trent, Bennie Moten, Walter Page and his Blue Devils, Georgie Lee’s band, Clarence Love’s band, Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy.

Most of the people stood there and watched those bands battle. ‘Cause they’d just take turns and each one’d play about three tunes. I can still remember Georgie Lee and Jimmy Rushing each singing in that big, big hall without a microphone. They had those megaphone things. And this is the thing that amazes me now is that you hear these guys can’t hear each other or can’t hear you, you know. And a much smaller room.

Well I didn’t just get out there, and play although I had been offered jobs. Somebody by the name of Sergio Rome had come to Austin and tried to get me to go. And several of those minstrel shows had tried. But I was set on saving enough money to go to college. I finished school in January of 1930 and I was shining shoes and playing music on the side and doing everything I could to make, save enough money to have something to go to college with.

It’s a funny thing. This was a black school that was co-sponsored by the state. And some kind of problem was involved there and the church pulled out. The church had all of the high degreed teachers. I mean teachers with the master’s and the doctor’s degrees. They broke off and the school automatically dropped down to a two-year college. And so I got my certificate. But I got there just in time to witness the downfall of it.

I got a two-year certificate. And I went there for electrical engineering ‘cause I couldn’t get that in the state of Texas, in those days Prairie View was the only school there and they didn’t teach anything like that. A friend of mine who was the drummer in the band, he went there first, and he was to graduate. After he graduated then I was—and I got one year in and then the school collapsed.

I transferred over into what they called—it was nothin’ but a printin’ course, but they called it journalism. So I took two years of that. While there in school I switched to the string bass. There’s another thing that happened. They had a great band there and they had lots of students. And when the school, broke off, the state had supplied the school with all sorts of instruments.

I remember there was 4 bass violins, and oh, I guess about 10 first, second violin cellos and everything, and saxophones and everything. They had a big band. So I happened to see that they were taking those bass violins and tying ‘em up to the ceiling in the storeroom. And I noticed that all of ‘em had cracks from that heat up there. I mentioned it to the man who took care of the thing. He said, “Well let me call Topeka, Kansas and see what they want to do about this,” he said, “ ‘Cause they’re just gonna fall to pieces up there.” And they sent word that you could have what you wanted.

So I took two of the bass violins I wanted to have at home and one for me to play on. The one I had at home—I was gonna try to find out how to fix it myself. I just tore it all to pieces. Both of ‘em were cracked but the other one, I took it to a music store in Kansas City called Jenkins Music. And they overhauled it and fixed it for me. I think it cost about $20 for the complete overhauling. In those days it was a lot of money especially for me.

My uncle was a roofer in Austin and so about that time I started doing a little painting around Kansas City and I established quite a little trade. I did about 16 or 17 houses inside and out. Had one fellow helping me. So I managed to get hold of some money to pay for it. I didn’t pay my tuition and that. The second year I didn’t have to pay anything anyway. But I had already met Walter Page and Lester Young and so when I started to playing with a little band in Kansas City, the Hot ‘n Tots. And the nine of them were high school seniors in Kansas City, Kansas. And my school was in Quindera, Kansas. So somebody told them about me and asked me to come and join ‘em. In the meantime, I’d been workin’ with two Kansas City, Kansas bands.

And so I said, “Well I got nothin’ to do I’ll go down if you wanna come pick me up.” So I started first to practicing with ‘em with the bass horn. And I got my bass fiddle and they had enough patience with me to learn how to practice and learn. Walter Page was really my teacher. What I did, you might say, to transpose, I got a bass violin book. And inside they had folded up a whole chart of the fingerboard. And all you had to do was take that and tape it on your fingerboard. And with that you could find out where all the positions were that you knew on your bass horn. So I had that down pretty good but I just didn’t know what to do, you know, playing bass violin. It was a whole new thing for me.

So I started with that, then I met Walter Page and he told me, said, “Well if you ever feel like coming over I’ll teach you.” And now this was in ’34 when I first met Walter Page. By the way, when they gave us those instruments, I took—that first saxophone that you saw with Lester Young playing sideways. That silver horn? Well that was one of the school’s horns. And I took that and I gave it to him. Lester Young is three years older than me, so he was about 22. You know Lester Young was an alto player before, that’s why he got that tone that he had. So in the winter of ’35 this band got a job at the place called Frankie’s and Johnnie’s in Kansas City, Missouri. So we make it across there every night with our instruments playin’ this nightclub. Well, first of all the club wasn’t that well advertised, and secondly, the band was strictly a rinky-dink band. We were just school kids. We would split a, note ‘cause the reed section didn’t hit together, you know. It was just a school band, and it was just practically amateurs. So that lasted about six weeks. In the meantime I had taken a job at Western University as assistant engineer. So I had the double-duty of trying to take care of my job at Western University and playing that music. And in ’34 I had gotten married too, you see. And after that Frankie and Johnnie’s thing went down then, a girl, a pianist in the band—they called her Countess Johnson—she took Mary Louise’s place with Andy Kirk. We decided to organize a little thing, had six pieces. And we got a job at a place called the Barley Due, which was two blocks down the street from the Reno.

And now this job was extremely hard for me. It was from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. and you couldn’t quit. Those jobs there, when you took a job there and you decided you wanted to quit, some mysterious voice in the distance would tell you, “You don’t quit here.” I got a dollar and a half a night. I also had the job at the Western University and that was 8 to 5. So you know what I did on the day shift. I slept all day. I had 3 hours in the afternoon and 3 in the morning. It sure isn’t much. Especially traveling all the way from Missouri to Kansas. And I lived over in Quindera, which is just on the outskirts going to Leavenworth.

By the way, that school, Western University, was that site where John Brown had rescued the slaves. And at the bottom of the hill on that campus was lots of brick cuts that still stand there. They’re in shambles but they still stand there where he’d go across the Missouri River there and bring the slaves across. And so a monument was built there. And that school originally was named Western University, and that was the first black school west of the Mississippi River. And it was like a landmark. In fact they still have those monuments as a kind of a tour section like that. But there’s no school now. I think it’s a senior citizens’ home or something there now.

Well I stayed at the Barley Duc about a year. I just had to get somebody to help me at the school job. The school job only paid me $40 a month anyway. And room and board, you know, I had a wife and a baby at that time. I didn’t have a wife when I first started workin’ over there but shortly after I married in ’34 and the baby came in ’35.

By this time Bennie Moten had died and Basie had taken over. You probably heard the story of that. When the band broke up, when Moten died the band broke into two sections. One of ‘em was run by Gus Moten, Bennie Moten’s nephew and a guy named Prince Stewart, or Dee Stewart. He was a trumpet player. Now they seemed like they had the inside shot on everything. They was heirs to all of the territory that Moten played. But the band was nothing. They got the job at the Reno and Basie went out on the road. And as far as I know they went on a tour and they got to Little Rock and they got stranded and different musicians and sympathetic friends fed ‘em and finally gave ‘em enough money to get back to Kansas City. They came back straggling.

I know that he got back and “Prez” (Lester Young) became my closest friend. We used to talk about that all the time. And that was the first time they ran across Buddy Tate. T. Holder’s the name of the band I was trying to remember a while ago. He was the first owner of the Andy Kirk band. And he still lives in Muskogee. And “Prez” said that the first time they ran into Buddy Tate was there. He might’ve been with some of those Oklahoma bands. But I do remember I played with him in Austin with Sandy Holmes’ orchestra.

And they managed to get back to Kansas City and this man, Saul—I can’t think of his last name—who owned the Reno Club, he was just completely dissatisfied with Gus Moten’s band. They weren’t drawing anybody. The band didn’t swing or nothin’, so he had Basie to get his nine pieces. And Walter Page had been the owner of the band called the Blue Devils. And he had a great alto player named Suster Smith. And they both had come over with Bennie Moten anyway. And Hot Lips Page. These was all Texas musicians too, well Page was from western Oklahoma.

And they had a swingin’ little band. And on top of that they played the type of music that didn’t knock everybody’s ears out. They took over the job at the Reno and immediately after that the radio station liked it so well that they came and asked if they could put a line in there. And so I was glad to have it. So every night at 12 o’clock they would come on. Now at that time the Pendergast scandal was full blown. And so we had Sunset Terrace was further out. It came on at 11 o’clock and had a guy named Ellins that sang in the band and played on that. So this same radio station made themselves something like a chain of nightclubs. Like NBC and CBS were doing. And they switched from this station and they’d come up to the Reno. And they had another thing at the Playmore Ballroom.

I would say the beginning of the Count Basie band taking form. Before that, naturally, they evidently were doing good but nobody knew ‘em. So their bookings fell off and everything. But I would say that the Reno was really the thing. And there was such a great understanding between the owner of the club and Basie. And he was just crazy about Basie Saul.

I always called him Basie. I tell you, we used to call him something else. Well, he always had holes in his pants. But everybody called him “Holey.” That gave me a chance to go up there in intermission and get a few free lessons from Walter Page.

Then in his intermission he’d come down and check to see what I was doing. That also made a strong relationship between the two of us. And there was—the lady piano player that I worked with—Lester Young fell in love with her. So he was down every evening at intermission. Or she was up there every intermission. So we hit together. We were like the baby brothers and sisters of Count Basie’s band.

Now that place finally was shut down and I guess that’s the only thing that caused us to leave. This club, the Barley Duc closed up. The Reno was a little bit more sophisticated. So they didn’t have all the things that these other clubs had. Like we had the nude girls. One place we played they had an act with a horse. So evidently they had something else going on then because one night after we left—it must’ve been in the morning; it wasn’t day after we left. But anyway there was a shoot-out between the owners of this club and the FBI. And there was supposed to’ve been drugs involved of some kind. And one FBI was killed and two of the owners of the club. That was the end of that. Then and there. So the Barley Duc was short-lived in that respect. But we had the most business, naturally, because all that kind of attraction.

We had another place we went to, the Wilby Chateau. This was out in the ritzy neighborhood, like the White Plaza out in the quiet neighborhood. It was more like residential. And we played out there. We had a radio broadcast at a place called the State Line Tavern. This was a club that straddled the state line. Now in Missouri, Truman had passed a law there during his regime that all clubs had to, close at one o’clock, which was a sudden shock to the people. Been stayin’ open till five. And so to counteract this, this man had this State Line Tavern and then in Kansas you could stay open till Doomsday. So they had a bar over here and a bar over here. When they closed in Missouri, they just walked to the other side of the room and kept on playing.

It was shortly after that I joined Jay McShann’s band. I’m gonna work with him this Friday in Chicago. In fact, we never severed our relationship although I stayed in New York and he went back to Kansas City. After we broke the band up and I came with Jay McShann then I managed to get all the rest of ‘em in the band. The reason the band broke up was Countess was called to take Mary Louise’s place with Andy Kirk. Countess is the one Lester Young was in love with. Her name was Martha Johnson. Then I stayed with McShann. Now there was a funny thing on that situation too. I joined this band on a two week stint to fill in for a guy who was gonna come in two weeks later. Now he didn’t want to come in until his favorite drummer was available. Now Gus Johnson had been workin’ in Lincoln, Nebraska. Gus came on with the band. And so we immediately just upset Kansas City. We were at a place where the very sophisticated rich lived in Kansas City on the Plaza. It’s somethin’ like a Hyde Park. And then the other union didn’t like the idea of us being out in that neighborhood so they tried to zone it off. We had a segregated union too. And so the thing went to James Petrillo and he broke the back of it right away. He said, “I’m here fightin’ this and here you are tryin’ to create it. So those guys’re gonna play any place they wanna play.”

So we were all an instant success there and they had the colleges. Right away we started playing the University of Missouri, University of Kansas. All the nearby colleges and everything. So we had lots of the college kids that followed us all over. Had a fan club, you know. And that same year, I was supposed to’ve been the first black to join Charley Barnett in October of 1938. They called me in and told me that Charley Barnett had been looking for me all day. So I rushed over to the union and come to find out he had contacted Jay McShann and Jay had taken me way out in the country. So I missed that job. But anyway we gained popularity. And that year Jay and I won the New Star Award.

By this time we had gotten Charlie Parker. We had trouble with him. I met him in ’35 before Jay McShann came into Kansas City. The band that I was with, the Hot ‘N Tots played a battle of bands against their high school band. And that’s when I first met him. And he was—what’s the word—adamant? He didn’t speak to you. He’d just sit over there and sulk. But I guess he was 13 or 14 or so. I was 21 or so, you know. Then in ’35 he was workin’ across the street from the Reno where we’d see each other every night at the jam sessions and he’d come down to our club, and we became very close friends. And we started to go out in the parks and find places to jam, he and I and a couple of the other musicians that was interested.

I think he was just getting hooked on something. Usually I had my car so I’d drive the guys. And usually I’d keep his horn and his jacket, ‘cause if we didn’t, it’d be in the pawnshop. I don’t want to say it was drugs, ‘cause I never in my life saw it, and we became very close. I never saw him shoot a line. But I do know this much, that he was an experimenter. We used to call him the pharmacist. He’d go to the drugstore and try to find anything that he could use to get him high.

Charlie Parker joined McShann in ’38. And we went to do this thing in Chicago in February of ’39 when we got the reward. And we were supposed to stay two weeks but they really liked us and so we stayed six weeks. And when we got back, Charlie Parker had gone. So we left the band there at the Martins on the Plaza in that exclusive club there. And we got back, Charlie Parker was gone.

When we got to Chicago, one night the guys called and said, “You know what?” Said, “Your alto player was in here.” He told McShann, “Your alto player was in here tonight.” Said, “He blew out everybody.” He was just going around looking for alto players and chop ‘em up. And so we just thought maybe he was in and gonna come and see us. Next thing we knew, he was in New York. So he was dissatisfied, I guess, because we won the award and he didn’t, so he left. Anyway, he went on to New York and we came back to Kansas City. They got another alto player before we got back.

Then McShann began to prepare to get a bigger band because the union laws. We had 7 pieces, and certain ballrooms you had to have maybe 12 or 14. So then McShann and his manager began to enlarge the band. And that was late ’39. And ’39 we were brought to Chicago. That was just before the big band came in, still 7 pieces. But we were supposed to do our first recording then. The man put us on the bus and brought us up there. And we hadn’t gotten permission from the union to go into that jurisdiction. So we got there and they put us in our rooms in this fabulous hotel down in the loop there. And about two hours later we went to the recording studio and as soon as we got there, the union broke in and said, “All right, just put those instruments back and I give you 12 hours to get out of town.” So they sent us back to Kansas City, and we got the big band, 12 pieces.

We had two male singers. We stole Al Hibler from this territory right here. We got him outta Boots and his band, Boots and His Buddies band. Right here in San Antonio. And then we had a great ballad singer name of Bill Nolan. And so we started playing the circuit then. We came down to Texas, down here and went back there. That’s how we happened to see Hibler when we came down here and McShann was attracted to him.

Didn’t sign him on, just took him. And Hibler said, “I want to go with him right now.” And Boots said, “All right.” He’s in New York, now. He’s actually livin’ just across the river in Jersey. And he’s got a nice house there. His wife—he and his wife broke up but he’s got that big house and he’s been takin’ care of it nicely. So we were on the tour, Texas tour, with the big band. ’40 was the first time. And then we did it on up until ’44 when the band broke up. We had a home base in Kansas City where we went back to a place called the Century Room in a hotel there.

I think of Charlie Parker as a guy who could’ve been talented, I wouldn’t say genius, but could’ve been talented in any field he tried. He was a nice, considerate guy and we had like a nice family as far as the band was concerned. He loved to jam and I loved to jam. I had a 14-piece band at Western University. And so the trumpet player who was really the first bebop trumpet player was in my band at Western University. Buddy Anderson, he’s the one that Miles Davis has always raved about. And so I brought him into Jay McShann’s band. So now we—in ’38 and like that, just the 3 of us used to go in and jam, the trumpet player and Charlie and myself. We were the only ones that took an interest in jammin’. The rest of ‘em was out chasin’ the chicks or somethin’ else. So we used to go and sometimes when we got off work and stay out to daylight, sometimes 9, 10 o’clock jamming.

Lester Young as a person, I’d say, was one of the nicest guys in the world. His favorite word was “no evil spirits.” And he was just like that. He married interracially, and when he was inducted into the Army and he was somewhere in Alabama, I think, or somewhere in Mississippi, Alabama. Anyway, he brought his wife down there. And right away they found a reason to put him in the brig. He liked to talk about how every night they’d come out there and have target practice on his head. They whipped “Prez” so badly that if you notice that when he came out of the army, his whole thing different and everything.

What was my absolute best experience as a musician? A guy named Eddy on drums and a piano player from Minneapolis. And we had a groove there one night. It was in the summertime and they had the front door open. And we looked up and all of the musicians from all of the clubs out there at the bar. Somebody had gone and told ‘em, said, “You should get that groovin’ that the guys are playin’.” And it was so exciting that after that I started to teaming with Sid Catlett until he went with Louie Armstrong. He decided that he’d rather work with me than the bass player that he had. But it was one of those things you can hit from time to time when you hit it and hold it. But we hit one and held it for the whole night.

In ’44 I had taken over Jay McShann’s band, on several occasions, many occasions. When he was sick or when he was out when he had all those battles with induction and everything. And so it was agreed that I would take over the band and keep it intact until he got back from the service. Now the bookin’ agent, and the manager and McShann had agreed that I was to take it over. But it was supposed to be the Jay McShann band under the direction of Gene Ramey, featuring Walter Brown. We played that last night in Kansas City-—it was in May ‘44—and at 12 the army MP’s came and took McShann off the stand. This was his last goodbye, you know. So we shook hands and it was agreed then that I’d take it over.

But as soon as he left the agent told me that they had decided to keep down complications, not to use Jay McShann’s name. It would be Walter Brown and his band under the direction of Gene Ramey. Well I immediately told them “No.” Now they had booked a lots of things ahead, you know. When I told ‘em, “No” the whole band said, “No, we’re not goin’ either.” So this broke the back of the band right then and there. I might have got myself in bad permanently with the agencies for that. I didn’t think of it. The only thing I realized, the way I felt, was that if they’re gonna do this, they might use me for trumpet player for three months and then kick me out.

So I just decided not to take it. So I went to work for Saul at the Reno. I stayed in Kansas City and went to work for Saul at the Reno for about five weeks. I was right at home in Kansas City but I wanted to get back to New York ‘cause I had my house there and everything. And I stayed with him five or six weeks at the Reno. And Louie Russel’s band came through. He asked me if I could leave right away and I said, “Yeah. I will leave now.” And so I went back to New York with Louie Russell. I stayed with him from about the middle of July until October. And then Hot Lips Page asked me why didn’t I come on down to 52nd Street with him. So I said, “OK.” I had to go and apply for a union card before they would let me work. They had a thing there where you had to be on six months probation before you could become a regular member.

I’ve recorded with McShann, Count Basie, and Louie Russell, Earl Hines. Individuals: Dizzy Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughan, Stan Getz, Thelonius Monk. George Shearing, and Lennie Tristano, Billy Taylor, Sir Charles Thompson, Buck Clayton, Jimmy Rushing and Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Buster Gary, Eartha Kitt. I went into the Chase Manhattan Bank, the loan department there. And the day that I took that job at Chase Manhattan I got a letter from Joe Morainian tellin’ me that Joe Glazer wanted to see me right away, wanted me to join the band in two days. I thought I’d go on and take it, I said, “No.” I said, “If I do I’ll be right back on that alcohol thing.” I was seeing myself becoming an alcoholic. I spoke to a friend of mine and he told me, he said, “Listen. The only way you’re gonna get away from alcohol is get away from the environment.” He said, “Well it’s gonna be hard but it’s your choice. Now if you wanna break it, that’s the way you’re gonna have to do it.”

I played from 1930 up until 1966. I continued to play but I played in country clubs, and I played mostly with the Dixieland musicians and the country club. But I only play like one or two nights a week. I think I played every country club in the New York area.

I think it saved my life to tell you the truth ‘cause I look at my friends who’ve gone on, all from alcoholism. “Course Prez had already died. But Red Allen, we were in that same boat together. Buster Bailey, Coleman Hawkins, Jimmy Webster, Don Byars. Everybody ended up with that liver thing. Coleman Hawkins kept a half-gallon of whiskey by his bedside everyday. I used to go get him and take him fishin’ to try to get him away from it. He’d say, “Well I got to bring my old lady with me.” I’d say, “Man, we’re goin’ fishin’.” He’d say, “I’m talkin’ about this ole lady.” I recorded with him. As I said, it’s gonna be hard for me to recollect.

© 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.