Camp Smalls Ship’s Company A Band

Great Lakes bases, Chicago

Camp Smalls Ship’s Company A Band

One of three African-American regimental bands (about 45 instruments) that served the Navy during World War II, it was based at Camp Robert Smalls, led by Leonard L. Bowden, and generally considered to be the best at Great Lakes. Trumpeter Clark Terry, who had been playing in Dewey Jackson’s St. Louis band prior to enlisting, served in this band until his discharge in June 1945.

By May 1943, its lineup also included these musicians: 
   • “Wee Willie” Smith, 34, on sax, who had played with Jimmie Lunceford and Charlie Spivak’s bands
   • 5 who had been playing with the Jeter-Pillars Band in St. Louis: Charles Pillars, 34, sax, formerly of North Little Rock, Ark; Roy Torrain, 28, trombone, from St. Louis (the Defender spells his name ‘Torian’; Samuel Floyd uses ‘Torrain’); Jimmy Cannady, 27, guitar, St.Louis; Sykes Smith, 27, trumpet, Gary, Indiana; Merrill Tarrant, 32, trumpet, St. Louis
   • 4 from George Hudson’s band in St. Louis: Clifford Batchman, 32, alto sax, and his brother, Edwin, 22, trumpet; Elbert Claybrook, 30, tenor sax, and Julius Wright, 28, piano
   • Alonzo Walton, 30, tenor sax, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who had his own band in Detroit prior to enlisting
   • Joseph Epps, 22, alto sax, from Shreveport, Louisiana, and playing with the Carolina Cotton Pickers prior to enlisting
   • Frank Jacquet, trombone, from San Antonio, Texas, and playing Don Albert’s band prior to enlisting
   • Arthur Reese, trombone, formerly with King Perry’s Band in Chicago
   • Arnold Boling, New York, formerly drummer with Fats Waller and also the Chick Webb Band
   • Jasper “Jap” Allen, from Evanston, Illinois, and formerly with the Artie Starks Band
   • David Kimprell, from East St. Louis and formerly with the Collegians in Rochester.

Another of its players was Mitchell “Booty” Wood, formerly trombonist with Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington among others. He told Samuel Floyd in a 1976 group interview:

Leonard L. Bowden – photo courtesy of Michael Bayes, US Navy archivist, and the U.S. Navy

Now as to how this band got the caliber of musicians that it did, I’m not on the inside and I don’t really know, but this is my opinion: When you came to the Great Lakes, the Fox [Bowden], a fellow named Hathcock, and Clark Terry–at that time, he was a rated musician and Roy Torrain was a rated musician–they held court on you in their own private sessions and decided which ones would stay at the Lakes and which ones would be shipped out in other bands. [laughter] That is just my opinion. If I’m wrong, tell me, but that is the way I think it was done.

Floyd conducted his interview with Wood and other former Navy musicians in Carbondale, Illinois; his question about “Chief Oaks” kicked off an exchange that addresses how good Ship’s Company A Band was:

Sam Floyd: What was Chief Oaks’ role in the Great Lakes Experience?

Major Holley (formerly bassist with Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, Oscar Peterson, Woody Herman, Coleman Hawkins, among others): The Great White Father! [laughter]

Clark Terry: He was Chief Bandmaster in charge of the Great Lakes Ship’s Company Band, [the one] that Bowden served.

Booty Wood: One of the things I used to get the biggest kick out of was when they had these bands–top name bands would come to the Great Lakes–and before they would agree to come, they would stipulate that this band not play, not be on the program. That was one of the things they would stipulate, “This band, that A Band, can’t play if we’re going to appear on your show.” There was only one band I know from up there that didn’t care; that was that Timpani Five combo of Louis Jordan. He could care less.

Leonard Bowden: George brought his band so he could see the boys.

Booty Wood: Even Lunceford. He didn’t want that A Band to play.

Clark Terry: Cab Calloway wouldn’t do it.

 Leonard Bowden: Basie wouldn’t come.

• • • 

Floyd, Samuel A. “An Oral History: The Great Lakes Experience.” The Black Experience in Music 11.1: (Spring 1983): 41-61.

“Willie Smith of Lunceford Crew Is among others Starred Here.” Chicago Defender 15 May 1943: 19.

Alex Albright
June 2021