The Navy band assigned to the St. Mary’s College Preflight School at Moraga, California, was a 32-piece regimental band, one of four regimental bands assigned to preflight schools newly established in 1942 in each U.S. region. St. Mary’s in the west and the band sent to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the east were the only two that housed African-American bands, despite the Navy’s intention, at Eleanor Roosevelt’s urging, to place all-Black bands at each of the schools. The bands attached to preflight schools at the University of Georgia and the University of Iowa were all White.
According to Marshal Royal, one of the most noted jazzmen to play in a Navy band, “We had the best musicians there were around in those days. This was because most younger musicians in the United States were draft age, including a lot of the finest musicians in the country.”
Marshal and his brother, Ernie, were playing with Lionel Hampton’s band in October 1942 when, along with a few others, they enlisted in the Navy in San Francisco. The Royal brothers, Jack Kelson (also sometimes known as Kelso), Buddy Collette, and Andy Anderson (“a good tenor sax player,” Royal recalled) had been living in Los Angeles, but most of the enlistees were from the San Francisco area: Vernon Alley, who had also been playing with the Lionel Hampton band; Jerome Richardson, “a good reed man” who was but 19-years-old; Wilbert Baranco, “a first rate pianist and arranger who also did vocals”; a “young Earl Watkins, an excellent drummer” who would play with Fatha Hines for most of the 1950s; Curtis Lowe; and Quedellus Martin.
Kelson (as Kelso) played alto sax on several Lou Rawls recordings. Marshal Royal played alto sax with the Les Hite orchestra for eight years prior to the war and in the Count Basie orchestra for twenty years after it. Collette made several recordings under his own name and was a leading jazz performer, arranger, and soundtrack musician in Los Angeles for many years after the war. The 1946 recording “Groovin’ High in L.A.” featured an impressive roster of former Navy bandsmen in the Wilbert Baranco Orchestra, including Collette, Jack Kelson, Baranco, Earl Watkins and the near-Navy bassist Charles Mingus. Mingus’s 1962 Blue Note recording, “The Complete Town Hall Concert,” also includes several ex-Navy men: Ernie Royal, Clark Terry, Buddy Collette, and Jerome Richardson.
Vernon Alley, “the most distinguished jazz musicians in the history of San Francisco,” joined the Lionel Hampton band in New York in 1940 and played with Count Basie for two years prior to returning to San Francisco and joining the Navy. Born in Winnemucca, Nevada in 1915, he grew up in San Francisco, where he went to junior high school with Joe DiMaggio and was such a track and football star in high school that he was inducted into the San Francisco Prep Hall of Fame in 1993. After high school, he played in clubs in the Filmore district with Wes Peoples and the legendary Saunders King. After World War II, he settled in San Francisco where his Vernon Alley Trio was a jazz fixture for many years. He died in 2004, before the biography Earl Watkins: The Life of a Jazz Drummer was published.
Baranco was the son of Beverly V. Baranco of Oakland, who with his wife gave Wilbert Baranco a birthday party in April 1945 at which 25 guests attended; his brother, Ornald, was director of church music at First AME of Oakland before joining the Army. He and Jerome Richardson were playing with a local band that Alley enjoyed watching perform
Earl Watkins was born in San Francisco in 1920. One of his first teachers was a former player in a U.S, Army cavalry from World War I, a Mr. Thompson, who was also his barber, and who had saved sheet music and instruments from his service that he was glad to share with local youngsters in after-school sessions. He graduated from Galileo High School in 1938 and soon after won a jitterbug contest at the Dreamland. With his part of the $150 prize money, he bought his first drum set and told his biographer, “I have not danced since.”
Watkins was soon working dates with Saunders King’s big band. He began work with the Navy at its Oakland supply base in September 1941, all the while living at home and working local gigs, including a most memorable one at the Elks Club in Oakland with Billie Holiday and musicians from Jimmy Lunceford’s band: “That was a very, very pleasant experience,” he told Alex Walsh.
He and the nucleus of the St. Mary’s band enlisted together, on October 6, 1942, at the San Francisco Federal Building, and from there they went directly to the Southern Pacific pier in Oakland to catch a train–they had their own railroad car for the trip–for their training at Great Lakes. It stopped briefly at Broadway Street in San Francisco, where the new recruits got to say their good-byes.
Watkins said that all the bandsmen lived in their own apartments, for which they got an additional $103 a month in expense money. Watkins lived in Berkeley and carpooled to work with others in the band. He told Walsh: Once at St. Mary’s, as support for the Navy’s Preflight School, the band lived the life that helped make the Navy such an exceptional musical incubator. Watkins explained: “That’s all we did–rehearse all day, and then we’d play. We’d play for bond shows. We’d play for regimental reviews. In the morning we’d play the colors to raise the flag, and at noon we’d play a concert for the cadets–every Sunday we would play a dance.” Their workday began with the 8 a.m. raising of colors, but after a day of rehearsals and drills or performances, they were free for the evenings, many of which were spent playing at Bay Area clubs.
The two dance bands cut from the larger band, officially designated Number 1 and Number 2, took on their own names. The Marshal Royal-led Number 1 band became the Bombardiers. Theey included Alley on bass, who would become “the most distinguished jazz musician in San Francisco history,” according to Jazz Forum; C.E. Anderson on saxophone and clarinet; Watkins on drums; Baranco on piano; H. Grimes on trumpet; Kelson on saxophone and clarinet; Ernie Royal on trumpet; and Marshal Royal on clarinet. Marshal Royal names Buddy Collette as being in this band but Collette adamantly refutes that and writes that despite how much he liked Royal, he wouldn’t play with him in a band because of how Royal preferred to take the best solos himself. Theodore Purnell, of New Orleans, who played saxophone and clarinet at St. Mary’s, said that Grimes was band leader, which may suggest another band, one that didn’t also include Marshal Royal. But he especially remembered Grimes, who arranged “Sweet and Lovely” for them. “All them guys could write,” Purnell said. “And all four trumpet players could play high.”
Earl Watkins recalled how good they were and explained how they had such current arrangements: “We were the number one rated band for popularity because the personnel was so good. Anytime a big band would come through, Marshal and Vernon [Alley] would go over to see them as they knew everybody. They would be doing a week at the Golden Gate Theatre, so Marshal would get their scores and bring the scores to the barracks and each of us would copy our own parts. We had Milton Buckner arrangements. We had “Don’t Fence Me In.” We had arrangements from Count Basie, “Dark Eyes” and “Happy Go Lucky.” The drum solos, we had those from Count Basie. I had the feature on those. Jimmy Dorsey came through–he had a hit record, “Holiday for Strings,” we had the score from that. We would get the scores and this added to our band book.” Gerald Wilson, the principal arranger for the Great Lakes bands, also provided some charts. Marshal said his was “an excellent, professional sounding band” and that it was “very very successful, worth listening to, and well received. No regular commercial band of the time could stand the competition of coming near us when we were appearing.”
Number 2, which became the Topflighters, was led by alto sax player Buddy Collette, who had been playing with Les Hite’s band in 1941 before enlisting. His memoir records a trip that he, Bill Douglass, and Charlie Mingus made from Los Angeles to San Francisco in October 1942, after hearing that a Navy officer was recruiting musicians from the union there to serve in an all-black band being recruited for duty at St. Mary’s. Both Mingus and Douglass changed their minds, however. Douglass was later drafted by the Army; Mingus got re-classified 4-F.
According to Collette, he formed the second dance band after he refused to join Marshal Royal’s band on baritone sax, and along with most of the remaining fellows in the marching band realized that the dance band service was much easier than general musicians duty. Also in his band were Orlando Stallings on saxophone; James Ellison, Myers Franchot Alexander and Henry Godfrey on trumpet; George Lewis on first trombone; Ralph Thomas on bass tuba; and a few fellows he recalls only by nickname: “the Indian” on bass; “the Spider” and “the Crow” on tenor saxophones.
Both dance bands played gigs at the Stage Door Canteen, the USO in San Francisco that featured 24-hour service and entertainment, as featured acts and as back-ups to the stars that were performing there, usually unannounced, when they were in the San Francisco area.
Willie Humphrey, a New Orleans Dixieland jazz legend, joined the marching band late. Collette recalls that Marshal Royal didn’t realize who he was and wasn’t that interested in Dixieland, so Collette was able to get him into the Topflighters and subsequently arranged songs to highlight Humphrey’s talent. It seems likely that Humphrey would have been transferred to St. Mary’s at the same time as Clyde Kerr was transferred to Treasure Island, when the New Orleans Lakefront band was broken up and dispersed.
Collette and others from St. Mary’s also played at clubs around San Francisco, especially in Oakland and at Redwood City, south of San Francisco, while in the Navy. “When you’re in uniform, you’re not supposed to be working outside,” he writes, “so we would get in civilian clothes–it was such a good job.”
Unlike U.S. Navy B-1, who was promised service at UNC for the war’s duration but wound up in Hawaii, the St. Mary’s College band was never transferred. Royal believed they were kept close to St. Mary’s for performances for fear that if their reputation got around too much, an admiral would request them for his own band and have them shipped to the South Pacific–a curious fear given that many in the B-1 band stationed at the University of North Carolina Preflight School believed that they were transferred to Hawaii at the request of Admiral William Halsey, to become, several said, “the Admiral’s band.” He said that his commander refused a request for them to perform in Hollywood for Bette Davis because of this fear–San Francisco’s Hollywood Canteen was informally called “Bette Davis’ club” because she appeared there so often, and with so many different stars and ensembles, most of the time unannounced and sparsely documented.
According to Marshal Royal, St. Mary’s, located about 26 miles from San Francisco, in Moraga, was also different from the UNC campus in that bandsmen were fed there, eating the same high quality food as the cadets. Collette and Watkins recalled being told that they had to find their own housing; they, Marshal Royal and others, already professional musicians and with families of their own, lived off campus. Marshal Royal had an apartment in San Francisco, with his wife and dog, Mike, and was pleased with his arrangements, especially the extra money he was allocated for travel expenses, room and board, and books of food stamps supplied by the Navy, which also allowed the bandsmen to purchase gas on base for only a few pennies a gallon.
According to Royal, the whole band played for the 8 a.m. daily flag raising and then went to their barracks for a coffee break before rehearsing for three hours. They then played for the cadets to march in formation at noon for thirty minutes as they went to lunch, and afterwards, they had their own lunch before rehearsing some more, until their day ended at 4 p.m.
The bands also played for bond rallies, regimental reviews, at football games, and in concerts for the cadets and the community. The swing bands played for smokers and dances at USOs and officers clubs.
Although the bandsmen were excellent musicians, Royal said they were terrible at marching: “When it came to marching, it was a farce! We were ridiculous. We looked like forty-five comedians out there trying to mach in formation.” He recalled one trombone player who marched with a fifth of liquor in his sock.
The St. Mary’s bands recorded for weekly radio broadcasts played throughout the 12th Naval district, and Watkins also recalled performed as a marching band throughout the Bay Area and during Navy football games. “Our musical director, MarshallRoyal, really whipped us into shape,” he said, and of the Bombadiers: “We became the hottest dance band around.”
Collette, Buddy, with Steven Isoardi. Jazz Generations: A Life in American Music and Society. London: Continuum, 2000.
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Gibson, D.G. “Berkeley, California.” Chicago Defender 5 May 1945: 9.
—. “West Coast Jottings.” Chicago Defender 19 Dec. 1942: 22.
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“Lionel Loses Three Key Men to the Navy.” Pittsburgh Courier 10 Oct. 1942: 21.
Purnell, Theodore. Interview by William Russell and Ralph Collins. New Orleans. 3 Feb. 1961.
Royal, Marshal, with Claire P. Gordon. Marshal Royal: Jazz Survivor. London: Cassell, 1996.
Selvin, Joel and Peter Fimrite. “Vernon Alley, 1915-2004.” San Francisco Chronicle. SFGate. 5 Oct. 2004. Web. 25 July 2014.
Walsh, Alex. “Earl Watkins–Mr.Lucky.” Local 6 Archives, Musicians Union Local 6, San Francisco, CA. Web. 9 Mar. 2011.