This is a chapter in “Ghost Notes: Pioneering Spirits of Texas Music by Michael Corcoran
Trumpet players blew so hard to produce the slightest spit of sound that they almost passed out. Drummers snapped their sticks with all the rhythmic sense of a pair of tennis shoes in the dryer. The honks of confusion rang out in the music room on the first day of band practice.
It was 1950 and Austin native Alvin Patterson, a 27-year-old recent graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, sat in his office at Douglass High School in El Paso and wondered what he’d gotten himself into. The school had never had a band before. His thoughts turned to his mentor, B.L. Joyce, the larger-than-life band director at L.C. Anderson High School in East Austin from 1933- 1955.
Patterson wondered how the man he called “Prof” would handle the situation. He took a deep breath, thrust open the door of his office and stood firmly before his musical beginners, but the dissonance barely dispersed.
THWACK! Patterson brought his baton down hard and the room froze. “Rule number one,” Patterson intoned. “When I step up to the podium I want to be able to hear a pin drop.”
Patterson sat in his home office/Anderson High museum in East Austin and smiled at the memory. “I always thought Mr. Joyce was maybe a little too strict until I had to control a room full of kids with noisemakers in their hands,” said the 81-year-old recent retiree. “You’ve gotta demand discipline and respect or there’s gonna be chaos.”
The Anderson High School Yellow Jacket Band, whose lofty alumni include bop trumpet great Kenny Dorham and former Motown arranger and band leader Gil Askey, had only two directors in its 38-year history. Patterson took over in 1955, when Joyce was forced to resign because of a new statewide regulation that required high school band directors to have music degrees. That Joyce, who got his college degree in tailoring from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, didn’t step down voluntarily made for a rough return for Patterson.
“If there was anybody you could call a legend in East Austin during that time, it was B.L. Joyce,” said Joseph Reid, who played clarinet in Joyce’s last and Patterson’s first bands. Imagine replacing Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama or taking over “The Tonight Show” from Johnny Carson. But Patterson, a 1940 Anderson grad, didn’t shy from the challenge and was eventually able to carve his own imposing legacy at Anderson until 1971, when Austin’s historically black high school was closed and its students bused to predominantly white schools.
Long before Janis Joplin sang at Threadgill’s and Willie Nelson got the heads and ‘necks together at the Armadillo, Austin’s reputation as a music town was forged by the Anderson High School band. Resplendent in uniforms as bright as a September sunrise, the Yellow Jacket Band would trek to the annual Prairie View Interscholastic League competitions and usually come back with a trophy. Under Joyce’s directorship, the Jacket band won the state championship seven times from 1940-1953.
“If we got second place it was a big disappointment,” said Ernie Mae Miller, a tenor sax player with the
band from 1940-43, who went on to a lengthy career as a singer/pianist. “We just sounded better than the other bands. When they called our name as the winner, we were like, ‘Of course!’ ”
For most of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, the East Side was invisible to most of Austin’s West Siders. The predominantly black neighborhood on the other side of the freeway might as well have been a town far away. But when the Yellow Jacket Band marched down Congress Avenue to the State Capitol in 1959 for Gov. John Connally’s inauguration, East Austin’s presence was full and pronounced.
A tailor who made custom suits out of his house at 1706 E. 14th St. and taught the trade at Samuel Huston College, Benjamin Leo Joyce was also a musician who played tuba in the Army band during World War I. With a desire to give black students the same kind of musical training given in the white schools, Joyce started canvassing East Austin in late 1932 looking for kids who wanted to play. He also solicited neglected instruments.
Joyce made the uniforms that first year; no beginning band ever looked so snappy. The players were expected to carry themselves in a manner consistent with their sartorial splendor. “Mr. Joyce didn’t put up with an ounce of foolishness,” said Ernie Mae, whose grandfather Laurine Cecil Anderson was the school’s namesake. “You couldn’t play no jazz either.”
Joyce bent his strict “no jazz” rule only one time that Patterson could remember. “We were playing football against Wheatley (the archrival from San Antonio) and they were beatin’ us,” he recalled. “But even worse, their band was showing us up, playing all these hot big band swing numbers. So Mr. Joyce called me over and said, ‘What was that swing thing you were playing the other day when you thought I was out of listening range?’ I said that was ‘Tuxedo Junction’ and he said, ‘OK, let’s hear it.’” As Dorham played the Erskine Hawkins part perfectly, even Joyce had a smile on his face. The Anderson football team also rallied to win the game.
Kenny Dorham and the Poetry of Jazz
Though Dorham went on to iconic status, replacing Miles Davis in the Charlie Parker Quintet in 1948 and co-founding the influential Jazz Messengers in 1954, he often deferred to the older players in back yard jam sessions, especially Hermie Edwards, recognized as the baddest horn player in East Austin at the time. “Kenny was quiet, deep,” Patterson recalled. “Very thoughtful and perceptive.”
Austin is, historically, a country and blues burg, a rock-without-borders haven, a place that embraces songwriters who can make poetry from their past. But you don’t hear much about Austin’s legacy as a jazz town. But a pair of Austinites- trumpeter Dorham and bassist Gene Ramey- played on many of the late-’40’s/early-’50s Thelonious Monk sessions one critic called “among the most significant and original in modern jazz.” To go from the all-black L.C. Anderson High School in East Austin to 52nd Street in Manhattan and play with the best is a trek that only talent can guide. But Dorham and Ramey,
who both picked up a lot of session work by knowing how to best shade the outline of the spotlight, are not widely known except to jazz aficionados. Dorham was in the shadow of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, but he’d settle for the “thinking man’s trumpet player” tag.
After high school, Dorham attended Wiley College in Marshall, where he majored in chemistry. But after only a year, Dorham was drafted into the Army. He was discharged in 1943.
Dorham’s first gig was in California with the Russell Jacquet Orchestra, according to Dave Oliphant’s Texan Jazz (University of Texas Press). Dorham got his big break in 1945 when he replaced Fats Navarro in Billy Eckstine’s orchestra, the first bop big band, from whose ranks flowed the likes of Parker, Davis, Gillespie, Dexter Gordon and Sarah Vaughan.
On Christmas Eve 1948, Miles Davis couldn’t make a gig with the Charlie Parker Quintet, so he recommended Dorham as a replacement. The gig lasted two years, including a sensational stint in 1949 in Paris, at that city’s first international jazz festival.
Although Dorham played with Parker on the sax great’s final public performance in 1955, he spent most of the early ’50s freelancing for Monk, Bud Powell, Sonny Stitt and others.
Replaced by Donald Byrd, Dorham left Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers after only a year to form his own group, recording such lauded albums as Afro Cuban in 1955, Jazz Contrasts in ’57, and his most highly regarded LP, 1963’s Una Mas, which began his association with young sax player Joe Henderson and featured a young Tony Williams on drums. Because he wasn’t flashy like Diz or stylish as Miles, Dorham’s profile kept low, but fellow players marveled at the lyricism of Dorham’s articulations. With such tenderness and vulnerability in his dark tones, Dorham has been called the most poetic of trumpet players.
Dorham died in 1972 at age 48 of kidney failure. But Patterson was able to hang with him one more time, when Dorham returned home, with fellow native Austinite Teddy Wilson and an all-star cast, including John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Dave Brubeck, to play the 1966 Longhorn Jazz Fest at the old Disch Field (next to City Coliseum).
Motown’s glue, Gil Askey
Gilbert Askey may have been the second-greatest trumpet player to come out of the Yellow Jackets Band, but he was the only one to garner an Oscar nomination- for his Lady Sings the Blues score. But he never forgot his first bandleader B.L. Joyce, who came from an era when educators were bigger heroes in East Austin than footballers or singers.
“I left Austin for good at age 17 in 1942,” Askey said during his annual visit home in 2010. “But Austin has never left me.
Over coffee at Denny’s, Askey put off questions about his glitzy musical résumé and instead told long stories of growing up dirt poor in East Austin. He made imaginary street maps with the side of his hand — “Hackberry, Juniper, Willow…” he’d recite.
Askey helped discover the Jackson 5 and was musical director on tours by the Four Tops, the
Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Supremes. He wrote with Curtis Mayfield and penned Linda
Clifford’s disco hit “Runaway Love,” yet he wanted to talk more about musicians he played with on the Anderson High Yellow Jackets marching band, including Dorham, who was a year older.
Askey does not go easily from memories of Rip Ross to Diana Ross. It’s as if he’s written a book about his life in his head and when asked about it, he doesn’t want to be rushed through the early chapters. “I’m gettin’ to that,” he’d say whenever a question about his career was posed, “but first I’m going to tell you the stuff people need to know about.”
Askey’s mother was Ada DeBlanc Simond, the noted African American historian and author who penned the “Looking Back” column in the American-Statesman for several years. Askey’s father Aubrey left when Askey was 2 and, with his mother already having three kids by age 26, he was raised by his grandparents Gilbert and Mathilde DeBlanc, Creoles from Louisiana, who spoke French in the house.
Askey’s cousin was R&B singer Damita Jo, who had minor hits with answer songs “I’ll Save the Last Dance for You” (1960) and “I’ll Be There,” to the tune of “Stand By Me” the next year.
Joyce had recruited a 10-year-old Askey in 1935 to start playing trumpet at Kealing Middle School, whose band he also ran. “I was shooting marbles, and this kid said, ‘You should try out for the band,’ and I said, ‘the band’s for sissies. I want to play football,’ ” Askey recalled. Joyce overheard that exchange and within days Askey’s grandmother was in Joyce’s office. “He sold her an old beat-up Martin trumpet for, like, $10, and the next thing you know I’m taking lessons from Mr. Joyce.”
Like most of the neighborhood kids, Askey was intimidated by Joyce, who would carry a small billy club at band practice and rap kids across the back if they were goofing off. “I came to realize he had another side to him,” said Askey. “He really cared about us.”
What set Askey apart from all the other horn players of East Austin was a gift for arrangement and composition that he didn’t know he had until after getting out of the Army Air Corps in 1944 and enrolling first at the Boston Conservatory of Music and then the prestigious Harnett National Music Studios in Manhattan.
As an almost required rite of passage for Texas jazz musicians, Askey played for the Houston-based Milton Larkin Orchestra for a year between those two music schools. “You could say that was the time when the trumpet took over my life,” he said.
Askey started writing charts for full bands, eventually leading to his big break, a three-year stint as arranger/trumpet player with the popular Buddy Johnson band (“Since I Fell for You”). When rock ‘n’ roll exploded, Askey toured in the house band on package shows, backing Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Platters, the Clovers, Jackie Wilson, Lloyd Price and many more. “Bill Haley and the Comets were the only act on those tours that had their own band,” Askey said.
Askey received his first call from Motown on New Year’s Day 1965 with an offer to produce and arrange six tracks on Billy Eckstine’s “Prime of My Life.” He ended up doing the entire album.
To broaden the Supremes’ appeal in 1967, Motown mastermind Berry Gordy tapped Askey to produce The Supremes Do Rodgers & Hart. He also appointed him the group’s musical director on live shows, including the 1970 “Farewell” performance in Las Vegas that was Ross’ last show before going solo. Gordy called Askey “the glue that kept it all together.”
That the Jackson 5’s first album was billed Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5 has a connection to Askey. His stepfather, Luther Simond, was an assistant principal at Norton Elementary in Gary, Ind., where some of the Jacksons had attended. Their Jackson 5 routine had instantly become a sensation in Gary and nearby Chicago, so Simond called his stepson in Detroit and said, “You need to come down here and check these guys out.” Askey passed on the tip to Ross, who was having an affair with Gordy at the time.
During his Austin visits, Askey stayed with Simond, whom he called “my dad,” at the house on Hamilton Avenue where his mother once cooked chitlins for the Supremes and the Manhattans on an off day on tour. “One of the girls said, ‘This is good; what is this?,’ ” Askey said, with a laugh. “I didn’t have the heart to tell them that they were eating hog guts.”
While touring Australia in 1973, Askey and a few other band members were caught in the rain and couldn’t find a cab. A woman pulled up and gave them a ride to the hotel. Seven years later, Askey married the good Samaritan, named Hellen, and relocated to Australia, where he passed away in 2014 at age 89.
In ’82, Askey flew to Los Angeles for what looked to be a month of work, helping to put together the spectacular “Motown 25” program, which featured a Supremes reunion, plus Michael Jackson’s sensational moonwalk to “Billie Jean.” Askey’s main role was arranging and conducting a soul throwdown between the Four Tops and the Temptations. Askey’s month in the States turned into more than a year when a tour was thrown together after “M25.”
His wife wasn’t happy about that, especially having to raise an infant alone, so Askey retired from touring in 1985. He’s well-known in Australia through his work with programs that encourage young people to learn instruments. The former altar boy at Holy Cross Catholic Church in East Austin went to mass every Sunday.
He regretted that he was unable to get off work as music director of the movie Fame to attend B.L. Joyce’s funeral in 1980. But he sent a poem, an “Ode to B.L. Joyce,” which he wrote about the tailor who became one of Austin’s most influential teachers.
“I could’ve been Gil Askey the carpenter… Or Gil Askey the doctor. But I became Gil Askey the musician,” said the poem, which was read at the funeral. It ends with a pair of lines that have guided Askey throughout the years: “B.L. Joyce lives in the things which I do, for without him there’d be no me,” it read. “Therefore, I’m an extension of him.”
It was a single note, a G, that Mr. Joyce showed Askey at that first lesson, then sent him home to play only that note until he could play it perfectly. From the smallest details, big things one day come.
B.L. Joyce painting by Tim Kerr