By Carmen Fields
Honoring my Father, the Early Jazz Band Leader- Ernie Fields
Entrenched Racial Prejudice Did Not Hold Him Back
My father, the late Ernie Fields, was a big band leader. He was on the ground level of the swing era in the infancy of jazz, which was on its way to becoming America’s original music. But that magical time of the late 1920s into the 1940s with its stage shows and ballroom dances, had a dark side. The exhilaration was sometimes stained by encounters with prejudice and racism.
On my father’s very first foray outside his Tulsa, OK base into a Texas oil boom town, brought his first encounter with racist rage. One of the band members walked into their lodging house while a white officer was questioning people there. Quite unexpectedly, my father said, the ranger slapped the band member, “practically knocked him down.” He reportedly then said, “Don’t be coming in here when you see that I’m busy.”
That late 1920s incident, though startling, did not deter my father’s quest for the “big time” with his fledgling music organization. He returned to Longview, Texas where a December 15, 1931 article in the Longview News Journal promoted an upcoming engagement noting, the Fields orchestra was “one of the best ever to play in East Texas.”
He would go on from there to augment his small group into 17 pieces, purchase a bus for traveling sound the country—west coast, along the eastern seaboard and of course, the often-dangerous deep south. His travels and triumphs are detailed in my newly-released memoir, “Going Back to T-Town: The Ernie Fields Territory Big Band.” (OUPress.com) Neither racism nor the hardships of the Great Depression deterred his career, known now as the last great territory big band. By the late 1930s his group caught the eye of talent scout John Hammond.
After Hammond heard the band, first in Tulsa, then in Wichita with promoter Willard Alexander, Fields was signed, and off to New York City for performance at the Apollo Theater and other east coast venues and recording sessions on the historic Vocalian label. Although the recordings met with modest popularity, the next decades brought ups and downs. He often recalled many “close calls” over the years, but blessedly no harsh consequences. The stories he told were without rancor or bitterness—only from time to time, an occasional touch of annoyance at the inconveniences.
One such close call came in Lee County, Florida, known, he said, as one of southwest Florida’s “bad places” for Blacks. His bus broke down and while he waited at a nearby service station, trouble arrived. At the stop, “You couldn’t hardly call it a town,” he said, “maybe four or five stores” a white man dad described as “so dirty he was nearly black as me,” arrived. The redneck insisted no Blacks were allowed in the town, and the bus would have to be moved to the other side of the town line, a telephone pole a few yards away. “I work with people on the railroad,” the bumpkin said, “but we just don’t allow them in our town.” The band members hustled out of the bus, with the vocalist, Melvin Moore, proclaiming, “You heard what the honky said, we don’t want to be in this town if he don’t want us in his town!” He reminded his colleagues, “Twelve men can move a house. Let’s move out of this town.” All the band members scampered out to help push. They pushed the bus down the road past the telephone pole that marked the town line.
By his own account, the best days for the Ernie Fields organization were the mid-forties, when Dad thought his band was “tightest” in musicianship and instrumental arrangements. But, indeed, it was also dangerous travel for Blacks, never knowing when an unspoken or unwritten rule might be broken and violence resulting. He often recalled the challenge of traveling with a white musician, long before Benny Goodman integrated his band.
In piecing together the saga of his career for the book, I was struck over and over again by his leadership. His organization was an important training ground for hundreds of musicians who cycled through. Some of the names jazz enthusiasts might recognize, like Freddie Green, Harold “Geezil” Minerve(a), Leroy Cooper and Yusef Lateef. Others are less prominent like Rene Hall, Al Duncan, Melvin Moore, and Booker Ervin. Countless others are obscure; some forming their own combos or groups that did not travel, or became school teachers, preachers, bus drivers, porters, postal workers—you name it!
Modest fame would find my father in the early 1960s when his rock and roll version of the old Glen Miller recording “In the Mood” took off. By this time, he was in his mid-50s when the trades dubbed him a “new talent.” The national television appearances and other recognition, including a gold record for one million record sales, brought the fame he craved. Ernie Fields loved every minute of it!
The fame he enjoyed was not just a testament to musicality. It was an affirmation of his resolve in the face of obstacles. Yes, the obstacles included firmly entrenched racial prejudice, but it also included the ever-evolving music tastes of the public.
But as Father’s Day approaches there is something else striking about Ernie Fields that comes to my mind—that is his integrity. Many a deal was made on a firm handshake and a steady gaze in the eye. Those were the bygone days when one’s word really meant something. His integrity meant trust and assistance from western music legend Bob Wills and pioneering promoter Jim Halsey. Such reputations for ethics were not always the case. That reputation would hold my brother, multi-instrumentalist Ernie Fields Jr. in good stead. As he took over our father’s organization and began traveling, our dad said he was “proud that I had made the reputation that there wasn’t anywhere that he (Jr.) went where he was ashamed to say that he was my son, and a lot of those promoters down south all east and west, [said] your dad played for me.”
I’m proud to share the Ernie Fields story with the world.
Photos are courtesy of Carmen Fields
Carmen Fields, author of Going Back to T-Town: The Ernie Fields Territory Big Band, is an Emmy Award–winning broadcast news journalist who currently produces and hosts the public affairs program Higher Ground on WHDH-TV, Boston. A former Boston Globe reporter, she also co-anchored WGBH’s Ten O’Clock News from 1987 to 1991 and wrote the script for the American Experience documentary “Goin’ Back to T-Town” (1993).