The Treasure Island Naval Station band was popular throughout the San Francisco area. The island on which they were stationed was built in 1936-37 in San Francisco Bay for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exhibition and was leased to the Navy in 1941. Clyde Kerr, who led the first New Orleans Lakefront Navy band, was transferred to Treasure Island in 1944 and served there until the war ended. The Treasure Island band, comprised of the only African Americans serving on the base, played for morning colors, and at bond rallies and ship launchings. The swing band, known as the Shipmates of Rhythm, provided music for the Naval Station’s weekly radio broadcast, “Skyway to Victory.” Kerr said that he worked with “just about all the best musicians in the country.” The Shipmates of Rhythm also played regularly at the Stage Door, a USO club that, after the war, became the Stage Door Theater.
Kerr managed to work double duty while stationed at Treasure Island, composing and arranging for stage and traveling shows that featured musicians such as Harry James, and his band also performed behind Humphrey Bogart, Betty Grable, and other Hollywood stars–Bette Davis was in charge of booking musical acts at the Stage Door.
Samuel Allen is also credited as leading a Treasure Island band prior to Kerr’s arrival.
The first Treasure Island band was promised that its enlistment would have them stationed there “for the duration” of the war; they made $66 a month and rehearsed in the Savoy every afternoon before deployment. Players in that band included Alphonso Fook, Henry Williams, Wilfred P. Jackson, Ike Perkins, William J. Fitzpatrick, Joseph R. Page, Edward W. Walker, Ray Saunders, James G. Buchanan, Bill Sylvester, Thomas Scates, Arthur L. O’Neil, Melvin L. Saunders, Earl Philips, and Lawrence Fulgham. George Dixon of Earl Hines’ band was supposed to join “soon,” in August 1942.
Jackson, Fitzpatrick, Page, Walker, Melvin Saunders, Buchanan, and O’Neil are the only ones still listed with the band in April 1944, when Allen is also named as its leader.
Robert Johnson, who would later become editor of Jet magazine, became the first black managing editor at the Treasure Island base newsletter, The Masthead, an appointment made after the newsletter published a racist joke that trouble on the base. [Thus far, I have not located copies of this publication.]
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Several of the bandsmen listed in the April 1944 program below had notable careers in music.
Leonard Fields joined the Treasure Island band in 1943 and was noted as “trumpet soloist.” He wrote the lyrics for the 1919 hit “When the Yanks Come Marching Home” and had played with Jelly Roll Morton’s band, where he was known to be paid “higher than the usual salary because of his all-around musicianship.” A native of Louisville, Kentucky, he grew up next to trumpeter George “Little Mitch” Mitchell, who took lessons from Fields’ father. Leonard Fields studied at Chicago Musical College and was noted for his prowess on both trumpet and saxophone. Ed “Boogie” Morton recalls Fields playing sax in clubs in Louisville. Bobby Booker, who played trumpet in a band in which Fields played alto, said of him: “I never saw anybody play like him, he was really fast and used to do double and triple tongue work on the saxophone.”
Alphonso Fook played trombone and recorded with the Jay McShann band after the war.
Martin V.B. “Van” Kelly, Jr. was born in Pittsburgh on February 23, 1921 and graduated from Allegheny High School. In 1942, he married Lettie B. Hyde, became a member of Ebenezer Baptist Church, and joined the Navy, training at Great Lakes prior to service with the Treasure Island Navy band. After the war, he became one of the first African Americans admitted to the Navy’s School of Music, where he studied conducting and advanced saxophone and clarinet. He returned to Chicago and played with trumpeter Eddie Mallory and then moved to New York where he performed with the Charlie Barnett Band at the Savoy Ballroom and the Apollo Theater. He traveled as part of Eddie Rochester’s troupe and then returned to Chicago, where he played in the Billy Eckstine Band with Miles Davis, Gene Ammons, Art Blakey, and Frank Wess, occasionally gigging with Cab Calloway. In 1952, he earned a B.S. in biology/ chemistry from Roosevelt University and became a medical lab director with the Veterans Administration. After retiring in 1992, he picked up his musical interests full-time, forming the Van Kelly Trio, which was the house band at the Como Inn for five years. He recorded with Floyd McDaniel and the Blues Swingers. After moving to Hilton Head Island in 2001, he performed with several Low Country bands, including the Stardust Orchestra and a Dixieland band that played monthly gigs at the Jazz Corner on Hilton Head, where he died on November 22, 2012.
Oliver Alcorn (right) (October 3, 1910 – 1981), played clarinet and tenor saxophone in the Treasure Island Navy band. Where he enlisted is not clear.
The musical career of his older brother, Alvin (born in 1912), who played and recorded with Don Albert, is better documented. Alvin and Oliver played and recorded with Papa Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra in New Orleans in the 1920s. Alvin later played with Sidney Desvigne on the steamer Capitol.
In Chicago after the war, Oliver recorded with Little Brother Montgomery in 1947 and St. Louis Jimmy in 1948.
The Alcorn Brothers were born to a musical family who lived in the 2800 block of Magnolia Street in New Orleans. In the 1920s, they played together in the Excelsior Brass Band, which Alvin called “a walking band” that seemed to play a jazz funeral a day. Prior to Excelsior, they played “advertising jobs” together, performing as they traveled about the city on a truck bed.
Alcorn, Alvin. Interview with Richard B. Allen, 30 Nov. 1960. Hogan Jazz Archives, Tulane U, New Orleans.
Booker, Bobby. Interview with editor and Frank Driggs, in Hot Jazz: From Harlem to Storyville, ed. by David Griffiths. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1998.
Kennedy, Al. Chord Changes on the Chalkboard. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2002.
“Leonard Fields.” Chicago Defender [Nat’l ed]. 6 Mar. 1943: 10.
“Martin V.B. “Van” Kelly, Jr.” Obituary. Legacy.com. 9 Dec. 2012. Web. 6 June 2013.
Morton, Ed “Boogie, “I’ve Got a Mind to Ramble.” Interview with Keith S. Clements. Louisville Music News, March 2005. Web. 9 June 2021.
“Navy Band Is about Set with Name Aces.” Chicago Defender 15 August 1942: 23.
“Oliver Alcorn.” ArtistInfo. Music.metason,net. n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2023.
White, Byron P. “Robert Edward Johnson, Jet Associate Publisher.” Chicago Tribune 28 Dec. 1995. Web. 17 July 2014.
Wicks, Steefenie. Telephone interview with Alex Albright. 13 Mar. 2014.
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14 March 2023