Friday, September 20, 2013

Trumpeter Howard McGhee’s Endless Journey into the Worcester Night

By Chet Williamson

Trumpeter Howard McGhee was one of the first black jazz musicians accepted into an all-white big band, but he was denied admittance to hotels here in Worcester.

The year was 1942. He was touring with the Charlie Barnet Orchestra. The band was booked for a three-night stay at the Plymouth Theater on Main Street.  

It was at the height of the big band-era, a world war was on, and unfortunately, Jim Crow and its racist practices still prevailed throughout the country.

It should be noted that although Worcester has a proud history of civil rights advocacy that reaches back to the days of the Abolitionists, it also is a place that held KKK rallies well into the 20th Century.

Also, according to the 1940 U.S. Census, Worcester was a city with a population of 193,694 and less than 10 percent of its people were of color.

A note on McGhee: He was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1918 and raised in Detroit. Nicknamed “Maggie” before taking the Barnet gig, he worked with Lionel Hampton, Andy Kirk, and Count Basie. He later came to prominence, along with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker as one of the architects of a revolutionary new music called Bebop. Drug problems plagued the trumpeter’s life throughout his promising career. McGhee died in New York in 1987.

The incident in Worcester was documented in the book Jazz Notes: Interviews Across the Generations by Sanford Josephson, who set up his conversation by saying. “Being the only black member of an all-white band left its mark on McGhee. It opened his eyes to a world that was crueler than he ever could have imagined.”

The interview was conducted sometime in the 1980s. Josephson said that the episode had a profound effect on him, adding, “He tried to gloss over some of the anguish he experienced, but the hurt still managed to break through.”

The trumpeter himself recounts the tale: “One time we were up in Worcester, Massachusetts. Now, it ain’t prejudiced up there, you know,” he said, ‘reflecting a slight tinge of mockery’ – [Josephson's comment]. “I went to the hotel expecting to get a room like everybody else, but they said I had no reservation, and I couldn’t stay there.

“We were going to be there four days and I figure I have to have a place to sleep. Everybody else was checked into the hotel, so that was kind of a heavy blow, you know what I mean? It was a drag for me to have to walk all night looking for someplace to sleep.” 

In the 1942 edition of the Worcester Directory, 40 hotels are listed, many were concentrated in the downtown area within walking distance of the theater.   

At the time, Barnet was a popular bandleader who had played in the Worcester area for years. He made frequent stops at local ballrooms, theaters, and the Worcester Auditorium. Hits like “Skyliner,” kept him in good standing on the touring circuit for a number of years.  

Joesphson says, that the first thing McGhee did after being refused a room was to ask a cab driver if any colored people lived in town. McGhee continued, “He said, ‘Yeah, there’s one or two live around here somewhere.’

“He started scratching his head and all that kind of stuff. So I said, ‘You know where they are?’ And he said, ‘Well, we might find them.’ Finally, he got the right information and took me. That’s the only place I could find a place to sleep. What else could I do? I didn’t know anybody in Worcester. I don’t think they had but two colored families there.”

Regrettably, this was a common practice in a “separate but equal” society that tolerated segregation. Typically, black neighborhoods throughout America would find accommodations for traveling musicians, actors, and other entertainers. When there were no hotels, people of the community took in the weary travelers whether it was a Duke, a Count, or a Queen. 

Josephson said that McGhee didn’t get to sleep until late that night after the incident and was in no mood to parse words the next day. “When Charlie asked me what happened, I said, ‘Man, you don’t look out for me. I didn’t have any reservation here. I had to stay out all night trying to find a place to sleep.”

McGhee added that Barnet to his credit “got mad and fired his manager. Charlie was a nice guy as far as nice guys go.”

Josephson noted that the bandleader was actually ahead of his time when came to race relations. “In fact, he was one of the earliest white musicians to integrate his band with black performers. In addition to Holland and McGhee, he hired vocalist Lena Horne, trombonist Trummy Young, and bassist Oscar Pettiford – all in the early 1940s.”

Charlie Barnet

Peanuts Holland
“I had a ball with Charlie,” McGhee said, “even though some of the situations weren’t too nice. We didn’t have problems in some cities that were mixed. They had a colored guy in there before me -- Peanuts Holland (also a trumpeter), but when they hired me I was the only colored guy in the band. I really didn’t know too much about traveling with a white band. I knew it was a little different; I didn’t know it was that much different.”

Josephson commented that “the ‘difference’ manifests itself when the band checked into hotels. Usually the band’s manager would make special arrangements to accommodate McGhee, but sometimes the manager would sometimes forget that one of the band members was black.”

Chances are McGhee found refuge that night in Laurel/Clayton neighborhood, an Afro-American enclave with a longstanding tradition of being welcoming. It was also the home of notable black and white musicians, including Wendell and Ray Culley, John and Jaki Byard, Howard Jefferson, Barney Price, Reggie Walley, and many others. Before the construction of the 290 expressway ripped its heart out, it was the center of Worcester’s black community.
Plymouth lobby
It was also less than a mile from the Plymouth Theater where McGhee was performing. Whether he ever made it to this safe haven or not it’s anyone’s guess. In any case, the incident that happened here in Worcester unfortunately had a lasting effect on this American jazz artist. 

Here’s a clip of Howard with J.J. Johnson, Sonny Stitt, Walter Bishop, Jr., Tommy Potter, and Kenny Clarke playing Charlie Parker’s “Buzzy” --

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: Also see:  Thank you.


1 comment:

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