Rhythm Vet Walter Carlson


Walter Carlson, trumpet

Walter Carlson and his brother, John, are among the very few who served in the Navy without having ever gone to basic training. Walter was already a licensed pilot; they were both hoping to be accepted for training at Tuskegee Institute as US Army Air Force pilots. He explained: “I had finished college before we left and when they [B-1] came back from Norfolk, there were two openings in the group. My brother and I had been flying in the Civil Pilot Training Program in Chicago. We came back and filled up those two openings in Chapel Hill because we would rather stay in North Carolina than to go for the uncertainties of the Air Force at that time. So that’s how we got in. They had these two openings, one for trombone, and one for horn, and I took the horn and my brother took the trombone.” He joined in Raleigh and was “playing that night for a dance at the Officers Club [in Chapel Hill]. We never did take basics. It seemed great to us, to be able to stay together as brothers and to avoid the draft–that was an unusual situation.”

He added ruefully: “We were lucky, too. Of the first two classes at Tuskegee, most of them were killed.”

 The Carlson brothers grew up in Laurinburg. Their father had been a minister in New Orleans who “could play and sing,” Walter recalled, as could his mother, a schoolteacher. “Everybody in my family started out in music, but my brother and I went the farthest.” He heard stories growing up of his father sitting in with King Oliver some and of playing at a house party with Duke Ellington once.

As a young man, he also heard good bands from traveling shows and recalled several who made impressions on him: “James Steens, Guitar Slim, yeah, Sherman Riggsbee, they played the traveling shows around here. I saw Silas Green in ’34 or ’35–they were on a bus then, at an agriculture fair. They gave parades and wore green, red and orange uniforms.” He played with “Mr. Hall”–likely Laurinburg Institute’s band director / baseball coach known locally as Prof Hall–“on the carnie circuit while in school” but gave it up, he said, “because I could make more money as a chauffeur and cook.”

His September 1938 trip to begin his freshman year at A&T is documented in the Chicago Defender’s “Laurinburg” news column: “Mrs. E.S. Carlson motored to Greesnboro Thursday with Miss Lucille Douglass and Walter Carlson” and 3 others, all to begin college A&T. “I came to A&T,” he said, “simply because it was not the only Black college that had a band, but it was the one that had the best band, as far as local say so was concerned.” With the Aggie band, he played “for most of the ag and political activities throughout the state that were related to the school.” Often these were staged at a local Black school, and the band’s performances also served as a recruitment tool for the college. When he became band director after the war, the practice continued. “I drew quite a few students from these high school bands,” he said. “We used the band as a recruiting basis for the college.”

 As a senior prior to the war, Carlson did student teaching under James Parsons at Dudley High School, and when he returned to Greensboro after the war, he was named band director at Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia. But soon after, Bernard Mason was hired away from A&T to join Warner Lawson at Howard University, and Carlson took over his alma mater’s band, using his buddies from B-1 as the nucleus of the college’s marching and concert bands as well as the newly formed dance band, the Rhythm Vets. His fellow Vet Raymond Pettiford took over band duties at Palmer.

 Directing band and teaching music wasn’t his original plan for after the war: “I thought John and I would go to New Jersey and open an airport with this guy who had the money. John was a licensed mechanic, I was a licensed pilot. But then it worked out here.”

L to R: Charles Woods, Thomas Gavin, Walter Carlson, Melvin Thomas in Hawai’i. Courtesy of James B. Parsons.

Instead, “We all came back to North Carolina,” he said, “and those who hadn’t finished school fortunately came back to A&T at the time that I got the job as band director. So we were still together again.  I formed the Vets so I could keep the guys around and to get myself off the ground as band director; I used them as a nucleus to keep the Rhythm Vets going and kept them going for 26 years.”

Post-war benefits included more than G-I bill tuition: suddenly there were lots of musical instruments available and it seemed all the schools needed band directors, so as they “started getting out and teaching, they sent people here. It was a cycle thing, and I was was always really proud of the group that got it started.”

Carlson’s fluidity as a musician served him well, also, in the post-war years, as he blended the new bop style with the traditional big band jazz more familiar to those who’d not been to Chicago: “Bebop, it was kinda weird down here [after the war] because it was new and it was innovative. But it caught on and it stayed around here, bebop stayed a long time around here. And it was nice, too.”

His own favorites on trumpet demonstrate the range of his stylistic preferences: “Dizzy, I liked Dizzy, and Tap Jordan was a trumpet player I really liked–Clifford Brown, too, and I always did like Harry James and Ray Anthony. [On Navy radio broadcasts] I was always featured on one of the Harry James solos, and that was always nice.”

Carlson was intrigued with how he and his fellows had so thoroughly forgotten “Pitch a Boogie Woogie,” its process and the product of their work. He seemed amused at how it could have been so thoroughly forgotten–no one, he believed, had talked about it since soon after it was done–but, once remembered, could then have become such an event in their lives back then, even as they hadn’t realize it. Questions about their process during the film’s restoration prompted the Vets to talk about their memories of it and, he said, “It became something that was inherently important to us at the time. We didn’t know anything about Herman [Forbes] being in the movie, and when we saw that, and we knew him, we were sort of ecstatic. We had done something like this with people right around in our neighborhood and didn’t even know it! We knew nothing about Herman Forbes being in it, and there being a plot, and how the music fit into the night club scene, so we were kind of surprised, and pleased too, just do know that everything we did fit. We were surprised also how we could recognize some of the individuals”–Lou Donaldson’s distinctive alto sax, for example, and “Otto playing trumpet solo in the background, recognizing his style.”

“Pitch,” he said, brought back familiar memories of the Rhythm Vets gigs, he said. “It was right in the atmosphere, in line with what was going on currently on the dance scene. I’m talking about social dancing that you would find at proms, fraternity and sorority dances. Mostly of that age group that was a bit more mature, those were the kind of jobs we were after. So the nightclub scenes that you found in the movie were just about where we were used to playing anyway. So it wasn’t too hard to kind of dub that atmosphere into what we were doing.”

The soundtrack, he said, was “sort of tinny, kind of archaic,” and he was among several Vets who did not believe their playing comprised the complete soundtrack.

“That premiere,” he said, when “Pitch” played East Carolina University in 1987 and the Rhythm Vets jammed afterwards, “that was keen, real nice. It was a lot of fun.” You can see his radiance in describing the Rhythm Vets reunion jam towards the end of “Boogie in Black and White.” Most of this recollection wound up being cut:  “When we got together and jammed, you could see how lively that was. We had a nice time with that. It got to be natural after we had gotten together a few minutes, the old feeling came back. We got into a groove, got into that groove, and it took you right back. Once you get into that groove and everybody’s fitting into it, what we used to do came back again, and you recognize everything for what it was worth, exactly how Woods was on the bass, exactly how Foster on the piano would give the little introductions, you knew exactly when to come in, it all came back after the first 10 minutes, and you felt right back at home again. Made you feel younger, ’cause, you know, there was a lot of age on that stage that night, a lot of years.”

• • •

Walter Carlson earned his Master’s in Music Education from the University of Michigan. In addition to his career teaching music at A&T and directing its bands and music program–he retired in 1993 after more than 43 years on faculty–he helped develop music programs at Livingstone College, Bennett College, and Tennessee State University. He also taught band and music at Palmer Memorial Institute and in Alamance and Randolph counties; he personally tutored more than 1600 students.  He “instilled dignity, pride and leadership in his students,” his family said.

He was born November 24, 1922 and died Nov. 23, 2001. He was recalled as being “passionate about piano, trumpet, flying, boating and reading but “the one he held most dear was his family–nieces, nephews, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, hundreds of NC A&T faculty members, thousands of A&T students, and about anyone else he met.”

“He was happy within himself, said Rev. C.L. Phelps of Gethsemane Baptist Church, where Carlson was pianist, 1995-2001 “He was happy with his family–he married Bessie Johnson, who died in 1973, soon after enlisting in the Navy; He was happy with what God allowed him to do. In this modern era, there was none like him.”

• • •

We filmed Carlson teaching one-on-one while making “Boogie in Black and White” and the bond between teacher and pupil was clearly more than just musical. Maybe it was how Carlson seemed always to be smiling, ready to engage in whatever came next, the joyful quality that made a nephew say of him at his funeral, “If you just met him in a grocery line, you became a part of his family.” So I could imagine he’d have a similarly intense interest in this young student whether he were being tutored or not, just because their paths had happened to cross. Except here, teaching, it wasn’t so mush a simple path-crossing as potentially a life-changing one. 

After those charged moments of instruction had rolled easily by, he continued to radiate the joy of his teaching-time as he talked, after the student the student had packed up his horn and gone.  “I always did like teaching,” he said. “I like to do things. In music especially my philosophy has always been, I like music and I like people, and I’m going to try to bring those two together. That’s what I like about teaching. When you bring them together in any musical respect, I’m doing what I want to do.”

I wondered how, in his varied musical careers, he had worked out the sometimes competing values of sacred and secular music. He patiently explained: 

I’ve always played and offered my services as a musician to the church. I never saw a conflict in any of it simply because the central theme is music. In the church, it’s a case of worship. In the band and in my teaching, it’s my income. As long as your personal habits did not contradict or conflict with any of the areas, I felt perfectly justified doing what I was doing because music was the central theme, and I was trained for music. And to be versatile is a virtue. I always tried to live the kind of life that made it consistent with what I was doing with the music, no matter which direction music was pointing.

 When I look back at the movie, it was just the music I supplied for a film, which could have been the same music I supplied for a dance, which could have been, not the same music, but the same techniques I would have supplied on Sunday mornings, on the organ at the 11:00 service. And I feel good about that.

He smiled again, and I felt good, too.

• • •


Foreman, Allison. “A&T salutes ex-band director.” News & Record. Greensboro, NC. 29 Nov 2001: B1-2.

Carlson, Walter. Telephone interview. 23 May 1985.

—. Telephone interview. 24 Sept. 1985.

—. Personal interview. Greensboro NC. 15 July 1987.

“N. Carolina, Laurinburg.” Chicago Defender. 24 Sept. 1938: 11.

–March 4, 2024