New Orleans (Lakefront) Naval Air Station bands

The first Navy band at the Lakefront Air Station, which was located near Elysian Fields and the Lake Ponchartrain lakefront on property that is now the University of New Orleans, was formed from 23 New Orleans recruits who enlisted on August 9, 1942 at the Customs House. They departed later that day for the Great Lakes Training Station. “Many of the men are well known by local Negro night club patrons,” the Louisiana Weekly reported, “and the greater part of them are veteran musicians of long standing.” The Weekly added that “another Navy band would be formed within the next few days,” to be stationed at Algiers Naval Station across the Mississippi River.The original recruits were Fred Darnes, Robert Johnson, William Matthews, Joseph Brown, Manuel Crusto, Theodore Purnell, Wendell Eugene, William Drake, Carey LeVigne, Willie Humphrey, James Ursin, Jr., Ernest Bridges, Earl Joseph, Louis Barbarin, Raymond Glapion, Eddie Pierson, Clyde Kerr, McNeil Breaux, Sr., Froebel Brigham, Leo Dejan, Oliver Dixon, Thomas Johnson, and Michael Lavigne. It remains unclear how recruits such as Bridges, Brigham, Dixon, Drake and Johnson, who were not from New Orleans, wound up enlisting with the locals.

Among 39 Louisianians who enlisted later in August were five musicians: Charles L. Harrison; Vernon J. Hunter; Henry E. Forrest; John L. Kincey; and Milton Kelly. Where they served–or even if they served as musicians–is not known.

The band stayed at Lakefront for over a year before it was broken up. Members were then sent back to Great Lakes for re-assignment, an experience that mirrors that of other black Navy bandsmen who were promised duty for the duration at one station only to be shipped elsewhere. Personnel in what might be termed the second Lakefront Navy band is unknown; they were replaced in 1945 by a third band that included Lou Donaldson and his Greensboro, N.C. buddy Carl Foster, among others.

Wendell Eugene, who was playing with Papa Celestin’s band at the time, remembers recruiters coming to his house to discuss his enlisting. “They were trying to recruit musicians for different cities and states,” he told Barry Martyn in a 1999 interview. “So they contacted some of the old guys like Willie Humphrey–they were all of age. I had played with all of them and they liked my playing. Going in with a musician’s rating, I didn’t think they’d send me out on a ship or have me washing dishes, so I volunteered.”

At the Customs House, Eugene and the others took a battery of tests, including a sight reading exam. “They put two or three sheets of music out there and I played them,” he said. “One of the tests was hard–16th notes, syncopation, all that, just me by myself on the trombone. They told me I passed but you had to weigh 125 pounds to get in.” Because he was light and needed to gain “7 or 8 pounds,” he was told to “eat some bananas and come back, and I did and I weighed just that,” so he was accepted.

Eugene remembers the music tests as having been given about a week before formal enlisting, at which point, after passing a physical exam, “We left here and they put us on a train about 7 o’clock at night and we went to Chicago. Homer [his brother] brought me to the station. He gave me a bottle of gin, and on the trip, Clyde Kerr wanted a little sip, and then someone else wanted a little sip. We all sipped on that.”

Like most other Navy bands, work for the Lakefront band was primarily a day job. They played for the raising of colors and in the morning worked on marches. After lunch, if they didn’t have a job somewhere, they practiced, and at 5 p.m. they were done for the day.

The lack of accommodations at Lakefront for African Americans provided Eugene and his mates with a bonus: “They paid me to go home at night,” he said. “They didn’t want blacks staying on the base, so they paid us off, a 23-piece band, to all go home. We were glad of it because money was kind of slow. We got $100 a month extra to live at home. Subsistence, they called it, plus our salary, and I was living with my mother.”

“Every morning we had to report at 7 a.m.,” Eugene said. “They used to pick me up at a bus stop about seven blocks from my house. They picked up the whole band. I was the last one they picked up. I was the closest to the bass, me and Bill Drake, who lived a street over. We’d walk to the bus stop together, but when Homer went into the service, I got his car, so I’d pick up Bill Drake.”

Work for the Lakefront band included performing for bond rallies and parades and playing for dances and parties. Whereas it appears to have been standard for the 23-piece Navy bands to have a marching and concert band as well as a dance band of about 12 pieces (one news report says the Lakefront’s dance band was a 15-piece), the two in New Orleans also had Dixieland jazz bands. According to Eugene, the Lakefront Dixieland jazz band played primarily at the officers club. In addition to Wendell Eugene on trombone, it included Manuel Crusto on trumpet, Louis Barbarin on drums, McNeal Breaux on bass, Willie Humphrey on clarinet, and Raymond Glapion on guitar.

With the dance band, Eugene remembered, “we played for a black dance about once a month and we played for some dances at the base across the river. Sometimes we’d play a football game, a baseball game. We played in the auditorium for enlisted men.” The band also escorted dishonorably discharged sailors off the base. Eugene recalls this happening four or five times, though only once to someone he knew–not a bandsman but another fellow accused of stealing. “We played them off the base,” he said. “Louis Barbarin would play the snare drum, and we marched along with him, marched them out to the gate. All he played was cadence, and we marched along. They’d give ’em a suit of clothes and $15 and push ’em out.” Although it was frowned upon by the Navy, some fellows also played gigs at night. Eugene played Wednesday and Sunday nights at the S&J on St. Bernard. “It was a white people’s bar,” he said. We’d get $5 a piece plus tips.” He also performed once at the Gypsy Tea Room, in uniform. “Somebody reported us. They called us to captain’s mess and said we heard you boys played outside last night. We said we didn’t know we couldn’t do that. They said you can’t do that.” So subsequent gigs, primarily at the S&J, were done in civilian clothes.

One disadvantage to playing in the Navy’s official dance and Dixieland bands was that everyone else went home each night at 5 p.m. “We didn’t get any extra money [for playing evening dances],” Eugene said. “James Ursin, he got to go home every night.”

For Eugene, the Navy was a valuable musical experience because of the discipline it taught, and for its emphasis on reading music. “Willie Humphrey was a good reader, Manuel Crusto, he was a good reader but he didn’t have the lips to play the high notes. Alton [Fournier] was a pretty good reader, too.” The secret to learning to play high notes, he said, was to “keep on going, holding your notes. That’s what they had us do in the Navy, practice holding notes. That’s the best way to learn. My best practice was in the Navy.” Every year they were together, Eugene recalled, because he was the youngest in the band, he posed as the New Year during one opposite Willie Humphrey as the Old Year.

New Orleans saxophonist Theodore Purnell said that the Navy band he played in with Clyde Kerr at the Lakefront air station was the best band he ever played with. Wendell Eugene agreed with McNeal Breaux’s recollection that Kerr and Michael Lavinge were its principal arrangers. “Clyde wrote advanced harmony,” Breaux told jazz historian Barry Martyn in a 2005 interview. “But Chief would scratch it out if it went past the 7th.”

Breaux and Chief Bandmaster Walter Knight had major conflicts: “He’d say ‘why the hell can’t you play what you see?’ I don’t know how he got to be bandmaster.”

Knight, like all bandmasters during the war, was white. “He said I had a bad attitude,” Breaux recalled. “I said, ‘Naw, if I did, I’d be knocking on your head.’

“He said ‘With your attitude, you’ll never make stripes.’ I said, ‘You can’t fire me and I ain’t going to quit.'”

It took a new chief being named to the base for Breaux to get his second stripe, which was worth another $100 per month.

Wendell Eugene recalls a similar conflict: “In the marching band, we rehearsed every morning. Chief Knight, he was over the band, and he wasn’t nice to me at all. At certain times, some guy would mess up. The second trombone, he was a beginner, and the other one would miss occasionally, too, not play a part right. Every time somebody made a mistake, Chief’d jump on me. He’d look at me, tell me how it’s supposed to go. This went on for months–it was always me. The second trombone and the other one, he’d never tell them anything. So, I went in to see him one day to see what I was doing wrong. We had guys couldn’t play, I don’t know how they passed the music tests. So the chief said ‘I’m going to tell you: I don’t like you. As long as you’re under me, you’re not going to get a rating’ [promotion to Musc2c]. He gave the 2nd trombone player the rating. Never did get one till I got a new chief.”

Lakefront Air Station Band, about 1943 photo courtesy of Hogan Jazz Archives, Tulane University and Hans Lychau, who donated it to Hogan on June 30, 1976.

 Identifications of band members, still a work in progress, have been made by Barry Martyn

Far left: Chief Walter Knight.
In rows from left to right and front to back
First row: McNeil Breaux, Raymond Glapion, Leo Dejan, E.E. Bridges, unidentified.
Second row: Bill Drake (from Oklahoma), Clyde Kerr, Sr., unidentified, unidentified, unidentified.
Third row, front to back: Eddie Pierson, Frog Brigham or Fred Dawns, Manuel Crusto, Carey Lavinge (?), Theodore Purnell.
Fourth row, front to back: Wendell Eugene, James Ursin, Frog Brigham or Fred Dawns, Louis Barbarin, Willie J. Humphrey. Drum major: Oliver Dixon.

The swing band formed out the larger Lakefront band was called “Shipmates of Rhythm,” and a smaller dance band was called the Salty Seven. Clyde Kerr was the Shipmates of Rhythm’s first director; he enlisted on August 9, 1942 along with several members of his locally popular orchestra.

Kerr continued to publish songs while serving in the Navy and also composed music for the Shipmates of Rhythm, whose assistant director was Leo Dejan, Mus1c. Both the Shipmates of Rhythm and the Salty Seven made recordings for the Navy.

One of the Shipmates of Rhythm’s regular jobs was performing on the base’s weekly radio program, “Skyway to Victory,” which was broadcast on WWL on Friday evenings at 9:30. Some performances on what the Bayou Tale Spinner called “one of the nation’s top-ranking service shows” were behind featured singers, but the band was so good that on some occasions it was the sole feature, performing original Kerr compositions such as “Victory Bounce.”

The Weekly notes that in order “to give music that hot or sweet rhythmic effect so necessary to dance music, most of the numbers played by the band have been arranged by members of the group.” Other popular tunes performed by the band were Carey Lavigne’s compositions “Sailor Boy”, “Lovers of Liberty,” and “Boot Camp Jive”; “Clyde’s Jive,” composed by Kerr; and “I’ve Found the One Who Loves Me,” composed by Ernest Bridges.

The Louisiana Weekly, published in New Orleans, recognized the band’s first anniversary at the Lakefront station in August 1943 with a photo and front page article that listed the band’s personnel. Bandsmen included who were not among the first recruits included Fred Darnes, Eli Johnson, and James Brown. Those listed in the original band but not as part of the band in August 1943 were William Matthews, Joseph Brown, James Ursin, Jr., Oliver Dixon, and Thomas Johnson.

Dooky Chase explains what it was like to play a Battle of the Bands against Clyde Kerr’s Navy band.

Dooky Chase recalls his band playing a battle of the bands against Kerr’s Navy swing band in the Gypsy Tea Room. Chase, who was 15 when he organized his first band, said his band benefited greatly by so many local players having joined the Navy, leaving fewer bands to fill gigs about town. After the war, he hired several former Navy musicians to play with him.







• • •

Wendell Eugene with his father

In November 1944, the base magazine, Bayou Tale Spinner, ran this photo of Wendell Eugene and his father, Homer Eugene, Sr., who was a porter in the base instructors school, and notes that three other Eugene boys are in the military: Sgt. Homer Eugene, Jr., with the Marines at Camp Lejeune (his posting was most likely at the nearby Montford Point, which was the first Marine base for African-Americans); Sgt. Adrien E. Eugene, who was in France; and S/Sgt. Lehman C. Eugene, who was at Camp Stewart, Georgia.

E.E. Bridges, who was also in the band, wrote a regular column for the Tale Spinner, “Coloredata,” that was targeted to the base’s black population. He reports that bandsmen James Ursin and Manuel Crusto were outstanding in a double-header win by the base’s black baseball team; Michael Lavinge is the top pool player and Robert C. Johnson the best ping-ponger; and Froebel A. Brigham, a 4-letter man in sports at Southern University and Arkansas State, was assistant coach to the basketball team.

Crusto told Al Kennedy that this band was broken up once it was realized they weren’t supposed to stay together. He also told Kennedy about an incident that he said got the “colored” signs removed from the base mess hall and himself nearly arrested.

After the band was broken up, Kerr and some of his band went back to Robert Smalls, where Kerr led the Ship’s Company Band A for a brief period before being transferred to Treasure Island, Calif. (along with Willie Humphrey) for the duration of the war. At Robert Smalls, members of his orchestra included Clark Terry and Marshall Royal. Royal was also a member of the band attached to the Navy’s pre-flight school at St. Mary’s College.

After New Orleans, Lavigne and Eugene were sent to Port Chicago, where they were stationed when the July 17, 1944 explosions sank one Liberty ship and killed over 200 African-American dockworkers; 208 blacks were subsequently court-martialed.

Hardly anything is known about the band that replaced the first one at Lakefront Naval Air Station. Its replacement, Navy Band 757, was the last band posted there.

• • •

New Orleans is prominent in Navy history as the site of the famous battle during the War of 1812 in which a small flotilla of American gunboats, aided by the pirate gun ships of Jean Lafite, assisted Gen. Andrew Jackson in defeating the British. That battle is significant, too, for African-Americans; before it, blacks were officially excluded from service in the U.S. military, but Jackson’s desperate need for manpower necessitated the creation of the Louisiana Free Men of Color. His address to those troops before the Battle of New Orleans is remarkable: “Through a mistaken policy you have heretofore been deprived of a participation in the glorious struggle for national rights in which our country is engaged. This no longer exists.” Jackson, however, was wrong; the “mistaken policy” was still in place and would remain in place until the Civil War, and variations of it would persist through World War II.

The Navy had a station in New Orleans from 1803 to 1818 but its first building activity was the construction of a dry dock commissioned in Algiers, across the river, in 1901. Until the Lakefront station was built, Algiers Naval Station was the only Navy operation in the city.

The New Orleans Naval Air Station at Lakefront was started on a 182-acre tract deeded by the city to the Navy on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, where it had been the site of an amusement park. It was first commissioned, on July 15, 1941, as a Naval Reserve Aviation Base and later became a primary flight training school as well as a teacher training institute charged with preparing flight instructors. In September 1945, it became the headquarters air station for Naval Air Bases Command, Eighth Naval District, which was transferred from Charleston, and also a Naval Personnel Separation Center. It was decommissioned in 1957 and its operations moved to Callender Field, across the Mississippi River in Belle Chasse. The University of New Orleans campus now occupies the land where the air station was located.

Muster list of musicians who played with the first Lakefront band:

Louis Barbarin, 1993

1993 photo of Louis Barbarin by John McCusker, Times-Picayune; courtesy of the Collections of the Louisiana State Museum. Gift of John McCusker and Times-Picayune

Louis Isidore Barbarin (Oct. 24, 1902 – May 12, 1997) drums.
Louis Barbarin, the son of Isidore John Barbarin, was born in New Orleans on October 24, 1902. He recalled hearing Louis Armstrong performing at the Waif’s School while Armstrong was still a child living there. He played in bands as a teenager and by 1923 was with the Imperial Seranaders. When the Serenaders’ leader, Albert Snaer, left, Sidney Devisnges came to New Orlenas from St. Louis and the band soon became his Southern Syncopators, which would remain one of New Orleans’ most popular dance bands through the 1940s. Barbarin started playing with Papa Celestin in 1937 and went back to Devigne’s band before joining the Navy. After the war, he went to New York with Danny Barker, then joined a USO show, rejoined Devigne’s band until 1950, then went back with Papa Celestin. He also played with the Onward Brass Band along with fellow Navy bandmate, from Algiers Station, Adolphe Alexander, Jr.Although his brother, the drummer Paul Barbarin, is remembered more today, Bob French considered Louis Barbarin “the king. . . the greatest drummer of all time.”

Warren Bell, alto

McNeal Breaux, upright bass and bass horn, New Orleans
Breaux, who was born in New Orleans in 1916, played with the Henry Allen Brass Band, Isaiah Morgan’s orchestra in the early 1930s, the Moonlight Serenaders, the Dixie Syncopators and after the war with groups led by Papa Celetin and Paul Barbarin.

Froebel Astor “Frog” Brigham, trumpet, Magnolia, Ark.
After the war, Brigham settled in San Diego, where he led the Preservation Jazz Band for over 30 years. He played with a mouthpiece given him by Louis Armstrong. For over 20 years, he played regular Friday and Saturday night gigs at Pal Joey’s in the Allied Gardens and on Wednesday and Thursday nights at Patrick’s II in downtown San Diego. In the 1950s, he played late night gigs regularly at the Creole Palace with Harold Land also on trumpet; Billie Holiday, Count Baasie and Duke Ellington were among the performers who played there after their regular shows in San Diego. Brigham won two San Diego Music Awards and was honored in 1993 as “Grandaddy of San Diego Jazz” by the Catfish Club. He was once flown y Lady Bird Johnson to her ranch in Texas to perform.

He worked as a groundskeeper for San Diego Parks and Recreation from 1949-79.

E.E. Bridges
Ernest Bridges played piano in the dance band and bass drum in the marching band. He also wrote a column, “Coloredata,” for the base newspaper.

James Brown

Manuel Crusto, trumpet, New Orleans
Crusto, who also played clarinet and saxophone, was born in New Orleans on May 2, 1918. He played with Fats Pichon on the SS Capitol in the 1930s and ’40s and played often at Heritage Hall and Preservation Hall.

Fred Darnes or Dawns, trumpet, New Orleans

Leo Dejan, trumpet, assistant bandmaster, New Orleans
Born in New Orleans on May 4, 1911, Dejan led his own band by the age of 15, the Moonlight Serenaders. In the ’20s, he led the Black Diamond Orchestra.

Oliver Dixon, drum major, flute, Jackson, Miss.
Wendell Eugene recalled that Dixon was a good drum major but only held his flute in a playing position when they marched: “He never did play it.”

William Drake, trombone, Oklahoma

Wendell Eugene, trombone, New Orleans.
The youngest of five sons born to Homer Eugene and Apah Burbank Eugene on October 12, 1923, he is remembered by Dooky Chase as the best trombone players of his time. Eugene was in Chase’s dance band after World War II ended. “He was one of the best trombone players in the country,” Chase told Tad Jones and Jack Stewart in a 1999 interview. “He could play the high part when the other trombone player couldn’t play it.”

Eugene played with the Don Raymond and Kid Howard bands before joining Papa Celestin’s about 1940. “Celestin was working [a day job] with the WPA with my father digging ditches,” he said, “and he needed a trombone player.”

After Dooky Chase’s band broke up in 1946, Eugene played with Lucky Milllnder’s band, Celestin’s orchestra off and on for years, the Olympia Brass Band for about seven years, and others.

Alton Fournier [?], alto saxophone, clarinet, New Orleans

Raymond Glapion, guitar, French horn, New Orleans
Raymond Glapion was born in New Orleans about 1895. During World War I, he played with orchestras at the lakefront resorts, primarily with the Gaspards and Paul and Emile Barnes and was in Polo Barnes’s dance orchestra in 1932.

Robert H. Holland, tenor sax and clarinet, St. Louis
Holland was a replacement bandsman sent to New Olreans after his original band was broken up because of trouble they caused when they refused to clean a latrine. He who would later be assigned to B-1 Band in Hawaii.

Willie James Humphrey (Dec. 29, 1900 – June 7, 1994) clarinet, New Orleans
Willie Humphrey was the oldest of the Humphrey brothers, one of New Orleans’ many outstanding families of jazz. He played in the Excelsior Brass Band with Bill Matthews, and also the Eureka and Young Tuxedo Brass Bands.

Thomas Jackson, saxophone, New Orleans

Eli Johnson

Robert C. “Bobby” Johnson, piano, Rayne, La.

Earl Joseph, New Orleans

Clyde Kerr, Sr., trumpet, arranger, New Orleans
Born December 2, 1913 in Giddings, Texas, Kerr was the second child of Lilly Daisy Heck Kerr and Edward Joseph Kerr, who were both music educators. They would later add three more children to their family, and all would play musical instruments. Al Kennedy writes that Kerr’s father directed the Prairie View College Band and also high school bands in San Antonio and Dallas. His great-grandfather was a circus musician and his grandfather a musician and teacher. At Athens, Texas, Clyde Kerr’s parents were the entire faculty at the colored school; his dad organized a 30-piece community band there.

The family moved to New Orleans in 1919, where Clyde Kerr attended Danneel Elementary School for Colored. He soon outgrew his family band and after transferring to NcDonogh 35 for high school in 1927 became active in the flourishing jazz scene. His primary instructor was Osceola Blanchet, who taught chemistry at McDonogh and also performed with the Manuel Perez Jazz Band as well as the Osceola Five.

Kerr intended a pre-med major at Xavier College in New Orleans but soon began playing with bands led by Papa Celesin, Fats Pichon and others, including Sidney Desvigne’s Orchestra on the steamer President, and he also formed his own orchestra.

He graduated from Xavier in 1935 and was accepted at Meharry Medical College in Nashville. Instead of medical school, though, he enrolled at aver for a teacher-training program and married “the love of his life, Violet Carmen Baquet.”

He wasn’t long into his first teaching job, at Bunkie, La., before enlisting in the Navy. He was still leading the Clyde Kerr Orchestra, and McNeal Breaux remembered a Navy recruiter visiting one of the band’s performances to recruit them, assuring them that if they enlisted they would “complete their military service while playing music in New Orleans.”

After the war, Kerr continued to play in bands around New Orleans but he built his lasting legacy as a teacher, first at Booker T. Washigton High School and then Xavier Preparator High School, and Priestly Junior High School, where he retired in June 1976. Among his many successful students are Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, James Rivers, and Michael Pierce.

Walter Knight, chief, Passaic, NJ
Knight was the Lakefront Navy band’s white bandmaster.

Michael Lavigne, Shreveport, LA

Carey Lavigne, Shreveport, La., saxophone, clarinet
Carey Lavigne’s family moved to New Orleans when he was young. He was a senior at Xavier University working towards a pre-med degree when he enlisted.

1950 postcard of Bill Matthews courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz Club Collection of the Louisiana State Museum

William Matthews, drums, New Olreans.
Bill Matthews who born May 9, 1899 in Algiers, La, and died in New Orleans on June 3, 1964. He listed Port Arthur, Tex. as his home when he enlisted in the Navy. He began playing with the Excelsior Brass Band in 1917; toured with Jelly Roll Morton; and played with Sidney Desvigne’s Southern Syncopators on the steamship Island Queen. He also recorded with Papa Celestin.

Eddie Pierson, trombone, New Orleans
Eddie Pierson was born Aug. 1, 1904 in Algiers, La., and died in New Orleans on December 17, 1958. He played with Sidney Desvignes on riverboats in the1930s and played in a band with Louis Barbarin and Emanuel Sayles. He was also with the Sunny SOuth, A.J. Piron, and with the Barbarin and Young Tuxedo orchestras. From 1951, he played with Celestin’s orchestra and led that band after Celestin’s death in 1954.

Theodore Purnell, alto sax, New Orleans
Ted Purnell was born in New Orleans about 1903 and did there on November 25, 2974. He was with David Jones at the Lavida Ballroom in 1925 and played on the Jones-Collins Astoria Hot Eight recording session in 1929. He played with Sidney Desvignes on the riverboats in the 1930s.

Lawrence Story

James Ursin, Jr., French horn, New Orleans

New Orleans Navy veteran trombonist Wendell Eugene celebrated his 90th birthday on October 12, 2013, by performing at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe on Decatur Street in New Orleans.


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