Lakefront Naval Air Station band

New Orleans' 1st Navy band

Bandsmen enlisted at the New Orleans Custom House, 423 Canal Street.

The first Navy band at the Lakefront Air Station, which was located near Elysian Fields and the Lake Pontchartrain 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 Custom 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 Lakefront 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, Dixon, Drake and Johnson, who were not from New Orleans, wound up enlisting with the locals. Brigham, from Arkansas, had been performing—like many of New Orleans’ best players of his generation—with Papa Celestin.
    Among 39 Louisianans 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 if they served as musicians is not currently 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 also 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.”
     Bandmaster Walter Knight came to New Orleans from the Navy’s School of Music to interview potential bandsmen for this duty at the Custom House, where 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. The New Orleans Item reported that they performed “during the impressive ceremony of raising colors each morning, pounding out the marching beat for the drills of the instructors under training and every Saturday night jiving out for the station dance.”  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 [his brother] 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.
     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.’ [U.S. Navy B-1 had an African-American leader, James B. Parsons, and the Navy twice tried unsuccessfully to put white bandmasters in charge of his band. but his highest rating was Mus1c.]
     “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.”

Identifications of band members in the photo above 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: Eddie Pierson, Frog Brigham or Fred Dawns, Manuel Crusto, Carey Lavinge (?), Theodore Purnell.
Fourth row: Wendell Eugene, James Ursin, Frog Brigham or Fred Dawns, Louis Barbarin, Willie J. Humphrey. Drum major: Oliver Dixon.

The swing band formed out of the larger Lakefront band was called Shipmates of Rhythm, and a smaller dance band was called the Salty Seven. Clyde Kerr, one of the original New Orleans musician enlistees, was the Shipmates of Rhythm’s first director.
     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 Item reported that the Shipmates of Rhythm also presented daily jam sessions in the hangar during lunch break for pilots and enlisted men who were working on the planes: “Many a flyer has been known to zip his plane through maneuvers snappily and smartly after hearing a hangar-rocking rendition of the “Two O’clock Jump.’”  The Shipmates also played swing concerts for those in sick bay and for happy hour programs and talent shows.
    The Weekly 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, at right, of Wendell Eugene and his father, Homer Eugene, Sr., who was a porter in the Algiers 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.
     Little 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 Lafitte, 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:

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 was the son of Isidore John Barbarin, who played cornet in the Arnold Brass Band with his uncle’s brother, Louis Arthenol on clarinet. Louis Barbarin 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 Serenaders. When the Serenaders’ leader, Albert Snaer, left, Sidney Desvignes came to New Orleans 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 Desvigne’s band before joining the Navy. After the war, he went to New York with Danny Barker, then joined a USO show, rejoined Desvigne’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 older 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 sax.

McNeal Breaux

McNeal Breaux (1916 – 2002), upright bass and bass horn, New Orleans.
Breaux, who was born in New Orleans, started out as a drummer but began playing professionally on tuba with the Henry Allen Brass Band and then string bass with Isaiah Morgan’s orchestra in the early 1930s. In the latter 1930s and 40s he worked with a combo led by Raymond and Plas Johnson, the Moonlight Serenaders, the Dixie Syncopators and after the war with groups led by Papa Celestin and Paul Barbarin.

 

 

Fro Brigham, 1970s, San Diego. From California Soul: Music of African-Americans in the West

 

Froebel Astor “Fro” Brigham, trumpet, Magnolia, Ark.
Brigham was working in a CCC camp when he read that the Navy was recruiting African—American musicians. “They made me a recruiting officer for the New Orleans-Baton Rouge area,” he recalled. “We had to learn Navy ways; thereafter we returned to New Orleans.” Prior to joining the Navy, he had played with Papa Celestin, and he had an interest in traditional music early on: “In the barracks some of us would sit around and talk about preserving 100 years of music. . . I named my band [in New Orleans] Preservation, attempting to preserve the good songs of yesteryear and the good ones of today.”
     Brigham, from Magnolia, Arkansas, married Pearl Inez Barnes of New Orleans at Trinity Methodist Church in New Orleans in December  1943.  Their wedding announcement notes that he was a student in physical education at Southern University prior to enlisting. 
     After the Lakefront Navy band was broken up and its members returned to Camp Smalls, Brigham had a choice of going to San Diego, Boston, or Norfolk: “Being a country boy, I didn’t know too much about California; however, I chose San Diego because the weather was cold in the other cities.”
    That was in 1945: “Once established in Point Loma, I began to come to town and get acquainted.” He earned his early reputation working for Troy Floyd at his Creole Palace in the Douglas Hotel and was recruited to form its house band. He regularly drove to Los Angeles to pick up performers such as Redd Foxx, Errol Garner, Jimmy Reed, and Big Joe Turner for performances that his band would accompany.
     He also called his band in San Diego the Preservation Jazz Band, which he led for over 30 years, playing with a mouthpiece given him by Louis Armstrong.  For over 20 years, he also 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. His late night gigs at the Creole Palace included Harold Land on sax; Billie Holiday, Count Basie 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 by Lady Bird Johnson to her ranch in Texas to perform.
     He worked as a groundskeeper for San Diego Parks and Recreation from 1949-79.

Earl Ernest Bridges, piano, bass drum.
Bridges was a graduate of Alabama State and the Newspaper Institute of America. He played piano in the dance band and bass drum in the marching band. He also wrote a column, “Coloredata,” for the base newspaper, the Bayou Tale Spinner, that debuted  in the April 22, 1944 issue and noted that the number of “colored enlisted has increased considerably”.

James W. Brown, saxophone.
Brown was a graduate of Jackson College.

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 at a 1982 jazz reunion. Courtesy of Tulane University Digital Archives.

Leo John Dejan, Jr., trumpet, assistant bandmaster, New Orleans.
Born in New Orleans on May 4, 1911, Dejan began playing violin at 7, at 14 had his own band, at at 15 was leading the Moonlight Serenaders. In the ’20s, he led the Black Diamond Orchestra.
     He began studying pharmacy at Xavier University but was persuaded by a college dean to change majors to music. He graduated from Xavier in 1933. 
     With the Navy band, he earned Mus1c rating, the highest given to African-American bandsmen during World War II. The Louisiana Weekly said that he was “largely responsible” for the development of the Lakefront band.

Oliver W. Dixon, drum major, flute, Jackson, Mississippi.
Dixon was a graduate of Alcorn College. 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 celebrated his 90th birthday on October 12, 2013, by performing at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe on Decatur Street.

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 Millinder’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, L, and Eddie Dawson. Photo by Ralston Crawford. Courtesy of Hogan Jazz Archives, Tulane University

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’ dance orchestra in 1932.

 

 

 

 


Robert H. Holland
, tenor sax and clarinet, Dayton, Ohio.
Holland played with the Wilberforce College Collegians prior to joining the Navy. He was a replacement bandsman sent to New Orleans, transferred in from the Olathe, Kansas Naval Air Station in July 1944; he would later be assigned to B-1 band in Hawaii.

Willie Humphrey & Thomas Jefferson at the Mardi Gras Lounge. Photo by Ralston Crawford. Courtesy of Hogan Jazz Archives, Tulane University.

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.
     E.E. Bridges nots in March 1945 that Humphrey, Mus2c, “has had charge of directing the military band during rehearsals and during noon concerts. He isolates himself in a corner before each concert where he hums the various parts over to himself.”

 

Thomas Jackson, saxophone, New Orleans.

Robert C. “Bobby” Johnson, piano, Rayne, Louisiana.
In May 1944, E.E. Bridges notes Johnson’s promotion to Mus2c and that he “plays nearly every instrument in the band, including piano.” In August 1944, Bridges reports that Johnson was singled out for having a “perfect shoe shine,” and in January 1945 he is cited as best ping pong player, inviting all opponents to try him out.

Eli Johnson

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 Daniel Elementary School for Colored. He soon outgrew his family band and after transferring to McDonough 35 for high school in 1927 became active in the flourishing jazz scene. His primary instructor was Osceola Blanchet, who taught chemistry at McDonough 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 Celestin, 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 Preparatory 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
Lavigne was also known as an excellent swimmer, according to E.E. Bridges.

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. E.E. Bridges wrote that he was a top pool player.

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

William Matthews, drums, New Orleans.
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. Courtesy of Historic New Orleans Collection.

 

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 the 1930s and 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. He played on the steamer President in 1939 with oscar Rouzan. 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 died there on November 25, 2974. He recalled studying clarinet for two years before his instructor allowed him to play a tune. He later took lessons from Adolphe Alexander, Sr. He was with David Jones at the Lavida Ballroom in 1925 and played on the Jones-Collins Astoria Hot Eight recording session in 1929 and with Sidney Desvignes on the riverboats in the 1930s.
      McNeal Breaux identified him as “Wiggles.”
      “Or Mr. Wiggles,” Harold Dejan said, adding that he got the nickname from Sidney Desvigne’s bass player because “he couldn’t sit still.”   
      He was the pianist Alton Purnell‘s brother.

Lawrence Story

James V. Ursin, Jr., French horn, New Orleans
Like Leo Dejan, Ursin was a graduate of Xavier College.

John T. Welch, trumpet and baritone, Birmingham.
Welch was trained at Camp Robert Smalls and then assigned to the San Diego Navy Field Band and later transferred to NAS New Orleans at Lakefront. He was discharged on April 16, 1946.

• • • 

Sources

Albright, Alex. The Forgotten First: B-1 and the Integration of the Modern Navy. Fountain, NC: R.A. Fountain, 2013.

Barbarin, Louis. Interview with Richard B. Allen, William Russell, Ralph Collins. New Orleans. 22 June 1960. New Orleans, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University.

—. Interview with William Russell, Richard B. Allen, and Bob Campbell. New Orleans. 27 Mar. 1957. New Orleans, Historic New Orleans Collection. 

Breaux, McNeal. Interview with Al Kennedy. New Orleans. 2 Mar. 1994. Collection of the interviewer.

Breaux, McNeal. Interview with Barry Martyn. New Orleans. 2005. New Orleans: Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University.

Bridges, E.E. “Coloredata.” Bayou Tale Spinner. New Orleans, n.d.: 9. Collection of Al Kennedy.

Bridges, E.E. “Coloredata.” Bayou Tale Spinner. New Orleans, 22 April 1944; 6 May 1944: 11; 20 May 1944: 9; 4 Aug. 1944: 14; 26 Aug. 1944: 14.

Chase, Dooky. Interview by Jack Stewart and Tad Jones. 29 Sept. 1999. New Orleans: Hogan Jazz Archives, Tulane University.

Chase, Dooky. Personal interview with author. New Orleans: 10 Oct. 2014.

Coletta, Paolo E. “New Orleans, LA., Naval Reserve Aviation Base, 1941-1943, Naval Air Station, 1943 -.” in United States Navy and Marine Bases, Domestic, Paolo E. Coletta, ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985: 333-336.

Goss. “Crescent City News.” Chicago Defender 8 Jan. 1944: 15.

Dance, Stanley. “Jazz Musicians in San Diego.” 10.1 (Spring 1899) Black Music Research Bulletin. Chicago: Columbia College: 10-11.

Dejan, Harold. Interview with William Russell. Feb. 3, 1961. New Orleans: Hogan Jazz Archives, Tulane University.

Determeyer, Eddy. “When Dooky Fooled Dizzy,” in Big Easy Big Bands: Dawn and Rise of the Jazz Orchestra. Groningen, Netherlands: Rhythm Business, 2012: 201-212.

Eugene, Wendell. Interview with Barry Martyn. 4 Nov. 1999. New Orleans: Hogan Jazz Archives, Tulane University.

“Hot Trumpeter Now Blowing for U.S. Navy Band.” Louisiana Weekly. 25 Sept. 1943: 6.

“John T. Welch.” in A Little Known Legacy: The Great Lakes Experience: A Salute to African-American Navy Bandsmen at the Great Lakes Naval Base 1942-45 [Chicago, IL] [Feb. 2003]: 24. Collection of Carl Foster. 

Kennedy, Al. Chord Changes on the Chalkboard: How Public School Teachers Shaped Jazz and the Music of New Orleans. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2002.

Martyn, Barry. Telephone interview with author. New Orleans: Oct. 12, 2014.

Meadows, Eddie S. “African Americans and “Lites Out Jazz” in San Diego: Marketing, Impact, and Criticism: 244 – 276. in California Soul: Music of African-Americans in the West, Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje and Eddie S. Meadows, eds. Berkeley: U of California P, 1998.

“Naval Air Station Lakefront, New Orleans, 1940s.” The Past Whispers. Old New Orleans. Web. 15 June 2014.

“Navy Band at Lake Pontchartrain Rated as One of the Best Musical Organizations in the Country.” Photo caption. Pittsburgh Courier Aug. 21, 1943: 12.

Newhart, Sally. The Original Tuxedo Jazz Band. Mt. Pleasant, SC: History Press, 2013.

“Oscar Rouzan Is Top Alto Sax. Man with Desvignes,” Louisiana Weekly 17 Mar. 1945: 6.

Purnell, Theodore. Interview with William Russell. Feb. 3, 1961. New Orleans: Hogan Jazz Archives, Tulane University.

Rose, Al and Edmond Souchon. New Orleans Jazz: A Family Album, 3rd ed. Baton Rouge: LSU P, 1984.

“Station Band Beats out Marches, Boogie-Woogie.” New Orleans Item 28 Sept. 1942: 31.

Stolp-Smith, Michael. “Port Chicago Mutiny (1944).” BlackPast.org. Web. 4 Mar. 2015.

“39 Louisianians Begin Training at Camp Robert Smalls.” Louisiana Weekly 29 Aug. 1942: 7.

“23 Musicians Inducted for Naval Band.” Louisiana Weekly 15 Aug. 1942: 6.

Woods, David L. “New Orleans, La., Naval Station, 1803-1818; Algiers Naval Station, 1901-1933, 1939-1947; Naval Station, 1947-1966; Naval Support Activity, 1966-1983.” in United States Navy and Marine Bases, Domestic, Paolo E. Coletta, ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985: 333-336.

Alex Albright
May 2021