One hundred thirty years of Black Entertainment, Big Bands, and the Blues Jazz is not yet 100 years old (Jelly Roll Morton used to claim that he personally invented it in 1902; the claim was exaggerated but the year was about right), yet already a welath of history has accumulated around the music. Like most history, the chronicles of jazz deal mainly with the kings and the commanders, the heroes and the rebels–the likes of Morton and Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Lesser luminries of jazz and popular music have won due recognition, too. But very little attention has been paid to the foot soldiers, the almost anonymous rank-and-file players who filled out the bands as they swung through the years from ragtime to bebop and beyond.
Few jazz books mention the name of Clyde E. B. Bernhardt, for example, yet Bernhardt has played in big bands and small bans, in name bands and no-name bands, at society affairs and at rent parties, in clubs run by the mob in Prohibition days, at roller-skating rinks and in walkathons, in an airplane flying over New York City (in 1932, with Marion Hardy and his Alabamians) and in Harlem ballrooms, including one distinguished by its own resident basketball team. He toured with the legendary cornetist King Oliver and accompanied Ella Fitzgerald when she was 16 years old, he recorded “In the Mood” before Glenn Miler did, he worked alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. And at 80, as this book was published, he was still on the bandstand, false teeth adn trombone firmly in place, blowing lip trills and high Cs, hot music in a cool age.
Bernhardt was never a remarkable musician–evidently, not one of “the sharks,” as he calls them (“Never considered myself one, just a regular player that could read, fake some, play a good solo-take care of business”). His book, though, makes a remarkable contribution to the story of American music and entertainment.
He has an extraordinary memory and his recollections, clear adn precise, range from blues singer Ma Rainey’s tent show in 1917 and a band tour of Europe just before the Nazis took over, to a lunch at the White House followed by a performance for President Ronald Reagan at Ford’s Theatre in 1982. His descriptions go beyond the bandstand to tell of his North Carolina childhood (in a wooden bungalow ordered by mail from the Sears, Roebuck catalog) and of sweeping the street for a living in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
In today’s world of show-business glitterand instant stardom, his account of touring the dance-hall circuit on mud roads in ramshackle cars-with the patched suitcases and instruments roped to the roof, steam spouting from the radiator–sounds like life on another planet. So does his mention of the band’s having to eat behind a storeroom curtain so no white customers would see black men being served a meal. Bernhardt’s bitterness at racism, however, tends to focus on color prejudice between light- and dark-skinned blacks.
Here is a whole vanished era of show business–carnivals and minstrel shows, circus parades and vaudeville troupes, and entertainers like tap dancer Peg Leg Bates, who performed on a wooden stump, and the celebrated Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, who traveled in a chauffeur-driven Duesenberg and carried a gold-plated pistol. And King Oliver, who turned down a Cotton Club engagement that made Duke Ellington famous. (Oliver, forgotten, wound up as a pool-hall attendant in Savannah, Georgia.)
Bernhardt’s career, like jazz itself, spans much of the 20th century. “Somehow it all seems to fit in a kind of bigger picture,” he writes. “Perhaps a picture of America.” So it does.