We Were Professionals
This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 8 No. 3, "Growing Up Southern." Find more from that issue here.
Alferdteen Harrison, a Mississippian who attended Piney Woods School from 1953 to 1957, is director of the Institute for the Study of the History, Life and Culture of Black People at Jackson State University. She is completing an oral history research project entitled “Piney Woods Community Relations.” This interview is similar to many that will be represented in a forthcoming publication entitled “A Folk Community School with Oral Reminiscences.”
For many children, music is one of the extra-curricular activities that come with going to school. For some black students across the South, music also provided a way to raise money for their own schools when the segregated school system failed to provide an education. In one famous example, the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, founded in 1871, raised SI00,000 in their first three years of existence. Jubilee Hall, built with the proceeds from early tours in 1876, was the first permanent building in the South for the education of blacks. In Mississippi, just outside of Jackson, the Piney Woods School survived because of the money brought in by a whole range of student activities, but most notably from its female jazz bands, the Sweethearts of Rhythm and the Rays of Rhythm.
The Piney Woods School was founded in 1909 to provide a high school education and training for jobs to black students from the rural counties surrounding Jackson. Under the leadership of Laurence C. Jones, the school’s founder, Piney Woods emerged as a positive community force in the lives of the black and white people of Mississippi.
The need for private schools for black children was clear. When Mississippi segregated its schools by state law in 1890, little pretense was made of providing equal education to the races. In 1910, the year after Piney Woods was founded, only 64 percent of black children attended school, compared to 84 percent of white children. The illiteracy rate for blacks was seven times that for whites, reflecting the fact that about five times as much was spent to educate each white child as was spent to educate each black child. By 1929, 39 counties still had no high school for black children and in 1939 the spending ratio had worsened to 10 to one. One Mississippi county in 1939 spent $42.97 on the education of each white child, $1 on the education of each black child.*
The Rays of Rhythm began in the mid-1930s as a group to train replacements for the Sweethearts of Rhythm. The female groups were organized by Dr. Jones after a male dance band had experienced great success. By the time Lou Holloway joined the Rays in the early 1940s, it had taken over from the Sweethearts of Rhythm the role of representing the school. The Sweethearts had left school earlier, as Holloway relates, to strike off on their own, professionally. The Rays, like the Sweethearts, became famous from Alabama to Texas, bringing high-quality big-band jazz to Southern night clubs and earning as much as $400 a night for the Piney Woods School.
I remember in the fall, we would pick cotton. They would encourage us to get the cotton picked. My father would say, “If you pick this cotton and you make good, you get this cotton out” — he’d always promise to take us up to Piney Woods School for their commencement in the spring.
And I would always come back and the rest of the week or months I would just daydream about getting back up there. And I remember that summer when post cards were one cent. I got a postcard and sent it to the president, Dr. Jones, and said that I wanted to come to Piney Woods School and said that I wanted to play in the band.
My first job was in the dining hall. First washing dishes, that’s usually what you do. Then you begin to get your work assignments. How did I get out of there? Oh, I kept on bugging Leona [Tate, Dr. Jones’ secretary], she was my play mother by that time and she knew my mother. I wanted to play an instrument. I guess maybe after Christmas I start playing instruments, you know, taking up music. I started saxophone, I learned my scales.
I remember we’d come upstairs from eating dinner and all girls, especially new girls were practicing after dinner. Cause they would eat early and we would hear them practicing upstairs while we were eating downstairs. Just swinging away, you know. When you come up you would stand at the screens there and watch and look.
So, I started taking music. When I started, instead of practicing the exercises, I started hearing songs and I’d just pick them out on my horn, then begin to play. I will never forget the number, this thing called, “At Last My Love.” (Sings it.) And I was just playing that on the alto sax and the guy came in, cause it was time for my music lessons. And he started with the music lessons and about two weeks later he wrote something very simple for me that was a jazz kind of thing.
There were three groups, Sweethearts of Rhythm, Rays of Rhythm and the Flashers. When I got there the Sweethearts had already gone off professionally. They ran away from the school. You have a understudy to them called the Rays of Rhythm. So when the Sweethearts ran away and went professional, then the Rays of Rhythm had to pick up their itinerary, you see, take on the dates that they had for the school, when they left. Then under the Rays of Rhythm there was an understudy group called the Flashers of Rhythm.
The Sweethearts had been booked. Well, you had all those dates to be filled and they’re gone. So, the Rays of Rhythm, they’ll practice at home while the Sweethearts are out. They practice every evening. Because if a girl gets sick on the road, that plays saxophone, you take a girl out of the Rays and take her out there to replace that girl. The understudy group had to always practice, and they practiced the same book, that’s what they called it, all the same music. So all those dates that had been booked when the Sweethearts cut away from the school couldn’t be filled, so the Rays of Rhythm were sent out to fill those dates. And they became the traveling group for Piney Woods.
Now, while they were still at Piney Woods practicing you still had the other group under them called the Flashers of Rhythm, that’s the beginning jazz group, you graduate from the Flashers to the Rays.
In May, every group, the ball teams, the quartets, the bands, everybody equipped out, provisioned out in those traveling buses going their different directions, you didn’t see them until September. Because they had to raise money to keep the school going.
About 1943, 1942 or 1943, there was a show, just one of those black shows, a road show called the Silas Green Road Show. Somehow Dr. Jones met the manager of Silas Green because one of them was a Mississippian originally, look like a white man, but he was from one of those river towns where you had a lot of white — very light-skinned blacks. And made a deal for the Rays of Rhythm to go with that show and to travel with that show. Dr. Jones split up that band, took some of them and sent them with the Silas Green Show. So, they are still getting the same money that they got just like those quartets, so much a day, a dollar a day, to buy hair oil and toothpaste and stuff like that. I think he paid them a little more, but the bulk of the money still came to the school. He had his own manager of his girls, see. To give them their money everyday and to keep the records and send the money back to the school from the Silas Green. I think they must have stayed out there about a year.
One thing [during the school year] they booked us so it was no hardship on us. We might go to Vicksburg one night, across the river to Tallulah, Louisiana, the next night, up the river to Lake Providence the next night, over in Monroe, Louisiana, the next night. And from Monroe you might go down to, you might come back to Vicksburg, play in Vicksburg Sunday night, down to Natchez, you know, over to McComb and then back home.
We were professional. We were playing dances. People were booking that band. Thanksgiving Eve and Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the Easter Weekend, we didn’t have to worry, one man booked us [every year], we always knew that. But we would go there and play for him and then we keep on up through Louisiana, up through Arkansas, back down through the Delta of Mississippi. But playing one night, we never did have to travel more than 50 miles.
Dances usually started at nine o’clock at night. We played four-hour dances. Now, musicians come to Jackson, they play a show, maybe an hour or 20 minutes and that’s it. You paying that big money. We played four hours with a 30-minute intermission. Which is the same thing that Duke Ellington, Count Basie and all the other bands were doing. One o’clock we are off.
When we would go in to play, we could set up our own bandstand, we all knew not only just getting the instruments out, we knew how to set up the mike. Now, the business manager and the driver would bring all the stuff and they would set up the heavy stuff. We didn’t have to lift the big things. But as far as adjusting that microphone, doing all that, we did it, plugging it in.
At intermission we came back to the bus, we did not socialize with the public because we were under age. See, when I was in the band the average age was 17. When I started I was 14. People could come up and ask for a number or request or something, but just to have a conversation, we could not have a conversation. Because we are there to entertain the people and not to socialize. We were to play for the dance and that’s it.
You’d go at intermission back at the bus and we had a refrigerator box. We’d eat out only at restaurants during the day. But after the dance we didn’t hardly ever eat at restaurants, unless we playing in Jackson. We would go to Mill and Oakley, Mr. Edward Lee use to own Mill and Oakley, or to Holmes Diner. And [the manager] sat all of us together and was going to see that, you know, nobody uses profanity because we were kids. And so we come out and we would have milk and a small sandwich or some cookies, you know, usually small sandwiches or some fruit, because we didn’t eat many sweets because we had to blow a horn and that would take your wind away you know.
After we finished we’d go back after 30 minutes and play another hour and then you through. You come back when you get your instrument together. We all stood up and we all went to that bus. We’d get on the bus, take off our uniforms, get ready for bed.
We had jazzie uniforms. Now we were wearing pants on the stage when other people were not wearing pants. We had black satin pants with a green stain sash with gold fringe on the end of it, and gold satin blouses with big puff sleeves. In the summer, we had some navy blue pants, with cotton blouses with navy blue stripes or pokie dots in it to blend with it and blue or red sash. Never dresses, always pants, because you’re sitting around that thing, you are sitting, those instruments on the stage, up high, you have pants on.
I’ve met people, you know, since I’ve been away from Piney Woods, “Oh, I remember you.” Say, oh, I remember going into the Rose Room in Vicksburg, it was a beautiful room, that was a fabulous place, something like Stevens’ Rose Room in Jackson but it’s bigger. You come in that door at the stairs and look on that stage, oh! Those 16 girls and all that pretty satin, and always all gold instruments, no silver instruments unless there is an emergency, all gold. People would come in, “Ah, those girls can play.” Cause it was novelty for girls to play that kind of music. And so then we would come up with a theme song and start (popping fingers) and just rock the place, you know.
We slept on the bus, one bunk was here, another one right up by the window, another one right up by the window, another one up there. Three tiers, enough for two girls on each tier. Right down here in the lobby of the thing, over there was a pullout where the manager and the chaperone slept. Then there was another bed for the girls. So you could get them in there. Long trailer, instruments in the back, drums and things were in the back of the bus. Had our own toilet on board that had to be emptied. The driver would empty that at night as we moved. Then you had these wash basins, that you used to wash up with. And there was a place for all those to be stacked and towels and things like that. And then up there, the drawers, and each girl had a drawer to keep all your stuff in. You had to make up your beds before you left out, clean up the trailer. People use to come over to look, just take a tour.
Mr. Jones loved that jazz band. A lot of the folks wanted to get rid of the band, they didn’t agree with it. One thing about it, he would always defend us and he did have a preference. If you got in that band, we got by with murder. Because I guess he understood that number one we were kids, number two every time you go off you are seeing something exciting. You come back and you recap it. “Hey, remember that night, we were in such-a-such place and that person did this, or something.” So you start talking, because we could talk on the bus like that. We couldn’t talk out loud, but we got in the dormitory, just got a little loud and we’d start laughing. So Dr. Jones would come sometimes when we were out for two weeks or more. He’d always visit. Yeah. Sometimes, we didn’t know he was coming.
I guess one reason new loved Dr. Jones, his chastising was different from any of the rest of them. He didn’t shout ad scold. He just sat down and he reasoned and explained, “Now, you’re out here, you can’t do this, the reason why you don’t do this. . . .” So, we didn’t mind it when he came.
People used to complain, “You just buy those band girls all that.” But we brought money into the school. If we played a dance one night, we got 225 dollars a night. By the time you took care of gas, and bought our food, and paid us our allowance, you’ve got 150 dollars there, every day. That’s daily. I’m sure — unless we had to buy a tire or something like that or the bus broke down, you have to do something about that — every day we must have cleared 100 to 150 dollars. We’re out there three weeks. So each month we must have brought them 2,000, 3,000 dollars into that school. So that could pay salaries, right? That could do a lot of things.
And what we began to resent was that here the people who were knocking Dr. Jones, wanting to break up the band, didn’t like the band, didn’t like us. You were alright until you got in the band. “You going out there on that band, ain’t goin to be nothing but street women.” Because I guess at that time we wore makeup when we went out. When we were on the road, we could wear makeup, which was necessary because we were in show business. But when we came back we couldn’t use it. Had to be like the other students.
One thing that Dr. Jones said to me and a couple of other girls was — we were talking about the attitudes of the people — and he said, “Well you know, sometimes people can’t see so far, but you go on and do this because you’re doing this to get through school, so you can go out there and do something. The other girls are doing something else. So just remember you’re doing the same thing to go out there and be a good secretary if you’re taking typing or whatever you’re going to do.”
And I still say to people like when I get a job now (I’ve never worried about my job, cause I can get a job), I know how to do things. I can go back and play some blues right now, if necessary, if I had to eat.
I’m Not A Bench
By Gregory Kincy, grade 4
I told my girlfriend to meet me in the park.
She thought I was a bench.
She tried to move me over.
She sat on me like I would sit on another bench.
I yelled because she sat on me.
Then she said, “Oh, I thought you was a bench.”
I’m not even long enough to be a bench.
I don’t even have arms like a bench.
How could you think I was a bench?
“I wasn’t thinking about you,” she said,
“I was thinking about me.”
Is that all you do, just think about yourself?
Okay, if that’s the way you want it,
I won’t come back.
That’s the way it is sometimes.
By Barbara Hall, grade 7
I remember when me and my sister was fighting. It started about bluejeans. She try to put them on because my mother brought us some bluejeans just alike. Then the big fuss started. We started to passing licks. Then we tie up. My mother came in and said what is all the big fuss and fighting about and we told her. They was my bluejeans my mother told her. It made me stop buying clothes just like her no matter how pretty they was.
By Sheila Gunder, grade 6
When I first feel in love with this boy he was looking at me so hard and I kept looking at him. I said why are you looking at me so hard. He said he liked me. And a scare feeling came through me and I couldn’t hardly say anything but just stand and stare at him. And he ask me what is wrong, and I just open my mouth and said nothing is wrong with me. Then he took my hand and me and him walked down the road and talked.
/*-->*/ /*-->*/ Alferdteen Harrison, a Mississippian who attended Piney Woods School from 1953 to 1957, is director of the Institute for the Study of the History, Life and Culture of Black People at Jackson State University.