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Interview with: Arnett Cobb
Interviewed by: Louis Marchiafava
Date: February 11, 1988
Archive Number: OH 0456.1
Click here for Part 2 (OH 0456.2)
Transcript Part 1
LJM: Mr. Cobb, I’d like to begin the interview by getting some background information on you. We’ll start off with the most basic information: when and where you were born, [and] then we’ll move on to some facets of your childhood.
AC: I was born right here in Houston in 1918 on August 10th. And, of course, I lived here all my life. I don’t think I left town until 1942 at the time when Milton Larkin and I went into the Rhumboogie in Chicago, and the band stayed [there] nine months. I stayed five of the nine months, and I left to join Lionel Hampton in San Francisco at the Golden Gate Theater. From that point on, I guess you know [that] I stayed with him for five years.
LJM: You stayed a while.
AC: After that, I formed my own group.
LJM: Let me go back and talk about your very early experiences with music and see what kind of influences it had on you. Where did you go to school her in Houston?
AC: Phyllis Wheatley High School. Bruce Elementary.
LJM: Were you introduced to music at an early age?
AC: In the school band there. But, I had it before that: my grandmother taught piano, so I had a basic piano. From that I went into violin when they would come into the school and fix the lessons at a dollar a week. We would go every Saturday and get the violin free. So, I did that, too. From that, I was in the Phyllis Wheatley band with my violin, the only violin in an eight-piece brass band. So, the instructor told me, he said, “Son, I can’t hear you.” I said, “I can’t hear me either!” He said, “Would you like to have a horn?” I said, “Sure.” He said, “I have one horn left. It’s a saxophone.” Incidentally, it was a C-melody saxophone which is not an orchestra instrument. It is strictly a band instrument, but I was happy to get it. So, I wanted to get the horn. He said, “Somebody’s got to sign for it.” He said I had to bring him a note from home from my parents, and [that] they’d stand for the horn, which I did. I asked my mother. She sent the note, and I got the horn. From that point on, I went for myself.
CS: Did you play that horn in the orchestra?
AC: In the band.
LJM: And how old were you?
AC: At this time I was fourteen.
LJM: How old were you the first time you ever held [and played] an instrument?
AC; I must have been ten or eleven years old.
LJM: Was it encouraged in the house?
AC: Yes. As I said, my grandmother taught piano, and my mother played piano. I had an aunt [and two uncles] that played piano. So, naturally, I picked up on it, too. I wanted to go behind [them], and when they got off the piano, I wanted to play it myself.
LJM: How were you able to play it by yourself at that age?
AC: Pretty good. The main thing I had to learn was the fingering of the horn and what the notes meant on the horn by name: A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Once I had that, I was O.K. because having piano and having violin prior to the saxophone, I had no problem with the music part. Once I got the fingering of the instrument, I knew the notes, and [I] just put [the] two and two together.
CS: So, reading the music was no problem?
AC: No. Learning the horn was the problem. And that wasn’t too hard because. . . . Well, with the saxophone everything is set up under your fingers. It’s just a matter of knowing when to press [and] how many [keys] to press at one time, and this sort of thing, which is coordination, you know.
LJM: You make it sound easy, but it’s not quite that easy!
AC: It is, really, when you stop and concentrate on it because it’s not as hard as the trumpet or trombone. You’ve got the lip positions on the trumpet. You only have three valves. On trombones, you’ve got seven positions. With the saxophone everything is under your fingers. Each key. So, it makes it easier. But, all the keys fight you, and you think it’s a hard instrument. But it’s not. It’s the easiest.
LJM: You make it seem that way. In any case, what about your father? Was he involved in the music profession?
AC; My father passed away when I was about six years old. He was the man that invented these money-changers on [street]cars. During those days my mother said thirty dollars for a patent in Washington was too much. He gave her the thirty dollars to send the blueprint in for a patent for the money changer. She sent the blueprint in and took the money and bought a dress, hat and shoes. The patent didn’t go through. Somebody else got the idea. He wanted to kill her. So, he lost that! Somebody else got ahold of it: Dad’s invention, the money changer [on the trolley cars].
LJM: What was his occupation?
AC: I really don’t know. I really don’t know. But I never heard him mention that. That’s strange, isn’t it? Now, you are the first person who ever asked me that. I didn’t know what he did. The only thing I knew was [that] I was six years old, and he was good to me. The last thing he got me was a Chesterfield overcoat. It was grey with a velvet collar around the top. I was proud of that coat! And a pair of shoes. I went around and chased my mother, and she had to take me outside and kind of tan me a little bit. I’d go around and say, “See my new shoes? See my new shoes?” I wanted everybody to see that I had new shoes.
LJM: Did you have brothers and sisters?
AC: [I was the] only one. I was the only child. My mother was one of ten: seven girls, three boys.
LJM: That’s a large family.
AC: As you see, I had a lot of relatives: uncles and cousins.
LJM: Did any other member of your family play music.
AC; My grandmother taught piano. My mother played, and I had two uncles that played.
LJM: Where did your uncles play?
AC: They played professionally. During those days, they had those speakeasies. [There was] one uncle that played in a speakeasy after hours where they’d sell that whiskey and white liquor. That’s what they called it: white lightning.
LJM: When you went to school, did you immediately get involved in the music program? Was it something you sought?
AC; Not in elementary [school], although I had it when I was going to elementary. Of course, you had nothing to really involve you in music, and when I first entered high school in 1931, nothing at that time really interested me in music until finally they got a little band together. Then, that’s when I first became interested.
LJM: Whose music at that time did you find particularly enjoyable, nationally speaking, or even regionally?
AC; Well, I knew more about national, and that was Duke Ellington. He was the greatest band leader. I didn’t know anything about Jimmie Lunceford. Nothing but Duke Ellington.
CS; How did you learn about Duke Ellington?
AC; From records. We had his old records, and my mother used to play them and dance around the house. That’s when we had one of the old gramophones that you had to wind up with the speaker that went out. This is the type it was, and I got a pleasure out of winding it up for her. It gave me something to do.
CS: How old were you at that time?
AC: Around that time, I guess I was around ten - - nine or ten years old. Just a little squee-wee.
LJM: In high school, obviously you played [in] the school band, but did you belong to any groups outside of school?
AC; No. I didn’t know anything about any group when I first entered high school. It was after I had been in school for a couple of years when things began to unfold about what was going on outside. I really was too small. Now, my mother would let me go see band like Louis Armstrong that came to town - - big bands from out-of-town. I would stand in front of the band all night just to listen. That’s really [how] involved I was in music. So, I caught all the big bands that came to Houston. You would have them at that time come in at least once a month, and I caught a big band every month [at the] Puritan Temple, and they [performed] at one time at the City Auditorium downtown. That was at two different places they would bring these bands in. Then, at other times, they brought them in at the Majestic theater. Then, after the Majestic, they would open Loew’s Theater up for these stage shows.
They never did have vaudeville shows at the Lincoln Theater, the major black theater in town, but [the Lincoln} had a pit trio that played music [during] talking pictures. That’s what they were for: for the scenes and the moods, and they played the movement [for each scene].
LJM: Did you ever get involved [in] that phase of it?
AC: No, but I always did my sitting down front so I could be close. You see, when I started to play, they didn’t have that. The only thing they started to have was amateur night on Wednesdays, and I didn’t get involved into that.
LJM: Did you have any idea in mind as to what you wanted to do when you were in high school?
AC: Not really - - not really. I was just, let’s say, coasting. I don’t think I was even searching for what I wanted to do. I began to really get into it because I I made my first money at fourteen years old. I played a picnic the nineteenth of June in Humble, Texas, and I played an intermission out at the barbecue and drinks. Strawberry soda! I had a ball! I was the youngest thing in the band. They had to find me to go back to play. I made four dollars on that trip, but I remember coming back on the truck: I was tired, and I went to sleep, and I [had] put my money in my shoe. When I got home - - (I was living with my aunt at the time) - - she asked me where they money was. I went down to get the money out of my shoe. My shoe was untied, and the money was gone! Somebody got me while I was asleep. She wouldn’t let me go anymore if I couldn’t bring my money home anymore, so I watched my money very closely after that.
LJM: How much did you [earn]?
AC: Four dollars. That was big money!
LJM: Yes. What year was that?
AC: That was in 1931.
LJM: What would you consider was the most important take-off point for you playing professionally after high school? You already mentioned that you really didn’t have very much in mind while you were in high school as to what you wanted to do.
Ac: Well, I tell you, the first thing that really excited me. I was just playing locally with the Phyllis Wheatley orchestra, and we would play all the school functions. On Saturday nights we would play downtown at a café called The Ethiopian Café on Milam [Street]. And I was very much followed today. We had our purple and white blazers on, dark trousers and our bow ties, and we thought we were something else! We stayed down there, I guess, for about two-and-a-half months. That was the biggest job I [had] ever had. I was so sorry when they closed that down - - closed the band down, anyway. It got to the point where they couldn’t pay the band, and they wasn’t paying the band that much. But, it was just a matter of drawing people in to eat, you know.
LJM: What kind of money are we talking about?
AC: Four or five dollars for musicians and eight dollars for the leader. And that was good money! You could get a lot out of that. Go to the grocery store [and] you could buy a lot for four dollars. I could get pan sausages, pork sausages, for four cent a pound; a loaf of bread for three cents. That’s the truth!
LJM: That’s the Depression years.
AC: Sure. Wee, we were in the thirties. . . the early thirties, and I could fry a pan sausage myself and take two pieces of bread and put a couple of sausages in and eat them and fill myself up. I did that many times.
LJM: The clubs you mention - - not just the ones you mentioned, but any of the clubs in general - - were those just black clubs or were they white clubs . . .
AC; No, no, no! We played both.
LJM: So, there wasn’t any problem with that at all?
AC: No, not for us, there wasn’t. We just had a dressing room for us. We stayed in the dressing room [until] intermission and came out and played, and that was it. There wasn’t any problem. We did that all through the South and traveled in the early thirties.
LJM: Let’s talk a little about you band and when it was formed. That was pretty early, wasn’t it?
AC: My group?
AC: I formed my group in 1947.
LJM: Okay. That’s a little later, then. Let’s not jump on into that. Let’s go on with you professional development in the 193-‘s after you finished high school. Now, you mentioned already some of the activities you were involved in. Apparently you were, at that point, interested in becoming a professional musician, I presume?
AC; I guess. I don’t know. I couldn’t pinpoint it because I don’t think I had my mind on it as a profession. I was just enjoying what I was doing then. You see, I didn’t focus that far ahead.
LJM: Was there a point, then, when you made a conscious decision?
LJM: When was that, and how did it happen?
AC: I was called by a guy from Louisiana who wanted to form a band for the summer, and I was working with the school band, and he heard me play. When school let it, he hired me for tenor saxophone. I was the youngest one in the band to tour Louisiana. He was from Louisiana. He was from Nortonville, Louisiana. I toured Louisiana with him for three months [with] guys, some from Louisiana, some from Houston, [and] different parts of Texas. It was just a mixture. It wasn’t an individual band. One of the trumpet players in that band was from Houston, Chester Boone, [who] came back after that, [and] formed a band and hired me. That’s how it really started. From school and after school band. And I joined him. Let me make a correction on ’31. That was in 1933 when I went out with Frank Davis and came back and joined Chester Boone’s band going into 1934.
CS; So, from Chester Boone, was there a connection from one band to the next?
AC: Well, he was in that band with Frank Davis. And then he formed his own band when he came back to Houston after he got the idea of what was going on.
CS: Then he asked you to come with him?
AC; Well, he was in that band with frank Davis. And then he formed his own band when he came back to Houston after he got the idea of what was going on.
CS: Then he asked you to come with him?
AC; Yes, he did. There were two of us out of the school band that he asked, and both of us were saxophone players: one from one school; one from the other. Eddie Vinson was one, and I was the other.
CS; What school did Eddie go to?
AC: Jack Yates. I was at Phyllis Wheatley.
LJM: In one of the former interviews I did with a musician he said there was a rivalry between Yates and Wheatley in terms of music.
AC; Oh, there was . . . in bands and football teams. We would hit that Armistice Day Parade, and they had three different units of the high schools: Booker T. Washington was the bugle corps, and Jack Yates and Phyllis Wheatley were bands. But the competition was between jack Yates and Wheatley [about] who were the best. That kept us hustling and practicing to be the best. So, it gave us something to shoot for, you know. We had quite a few good musicians that came out from both schools, but that was all because of the contests.
LJM: Now, the Louisiana trip was your first professional out-of-state. . . .
AC: I came back and told everybody, “I [have] been north!” You would have thought I had gone to New York - - all the way!
LJM: How long were you gone?
AC: Three months. All summer. In fact, I was late getting back to school.
CS; Were you only in Louisiana during those three months?
AC: We played Louisiana and a few dates in Mississippi. We played in Biloxi, I remember that. I’m not too familiar with any other place, but I know we played in some places that were too small to remember. But Biloxi I remember well. What is the town where all the water coming out of New Orleans goes north?
CS: Baton Rouge?
AC: No. It’s past Baton Rouge. It’s just out of the State of Louisiana, I think, going into the next state. I can see it in my mind, but I can’t remember the name of it.
LJM: That’s all right. So, when you returned, did you have a clearer view of what you wanted to do then?
AC: When I returned off of that tour?
Ac; I had a clearer view that I wanted to play with that type of a band away from school, and I got it. They called me to change my schedule in school. I was taking Latin first period, and I hated it! Oh, I tell you, I hated Latin! It’s so hard to grasp. I went to my principal and asked him for a change-of-class and could I come in the second period because I was working at night. My mother was making a meager salary, and I was taking the weight off of her. She spent all my money on me: school clothes and whatever. He granted me the privilege, and I came in second period. I had to get a little more rest. But, I did take the weight off of her, money-wise, and I made my own living. I bought my own clothes. I could get a suit at Stein’s for fifteen dollars. Thomas McCann shoes were three dollars, tops. You could get a hat for $4.50-$5.00; a shirt for $3.00. I could dress up for $25 and have some change left. That’s the truth! I wash I could do it today.
LJM: When did you graduate from high school?
LJM: After 1935 then, you were out there on the job market?
AC: I was still playing in town. You see, I was working nights all the time: [at] the Harlem Grill in the Fourth Ward. [I was] working six nights a week. Finally, they put in money, and they gave me seven because they started the Monday session of matinees into night. So, that filled that whole week up. We weren’t getting a salary. We worked on the door: fifty percent of the door. On some occasions, the band took sixty per cent and the owner of the place took forty per cent.
CS; Was that a cover charge?
AC; We called it an admission because this guy never did charge over ninety-nine cents to keep from paying that tax during those days - - that government tax. We would work on the door with him. He didn’t offer us a salary, so we were on our popularity, and we made money. We made more money that if he had paid us a salary. He didn’t like it too much after we really got into it, but he didn’t have the foresight to see that it could build. We would have to do our own [thing] with our parents. It was good just to get out and be exposed; exposed to the public with our music. There was only two guys older than the rest of us, and that was Milton Larkin, himself, and the singer, George Lane. George and Milton were the two oldest.
CS; Wasn’t Milton about ten years older than you?
AC; Between eight and nine. Let’s see, I’m seventy in August. Milton is seventy-six now. He’ll be seventy-seven in October, so that’s the distance between our ages.
LJM: You joined Milton Larkin’s band in 1936. Where did the group play?
AC; Harlem Grill, the same place that Chester Boon played, and Milton Larkin took over the house band.
LJM: He took it over?
AC; Well, he took it over because he had the musicians and a fresher band, not a sounding band. So, it was turned over to him, and we built. . . really built! We started matinees on Mondays, and, after Mondays, we started one on Sunday. People had nowhere to go. Sunday evenings, you go to Emancipation Park. On a beautiful day, you were just walking with your girl friend. So, with the matinees, they had somewhere to go for entertainment . . . to dance. So, it made it real nice. The movies had worn out. They’d get tired going to the movies.
LJM: How did you first get in with Larkin’s band? Did he approach you?
AC; Well, when I was in Phyllis Wheatley High School, they had one of the guys that was in school who was Sam Harris. I. H. Smalley [who] was over at Booker T. Washington [High School], and Milton Larkin. There were four of us. Smalley was the only one that had a car, and he would pick us up and we would go out with our horns and practice. We would get music from the store [so] we could play harmony parts. We would just practice reading music and playing harmony. That was our kicks. So, everybody else that played mostly in those days, everything was from here (by ear) and no music. So, you had to create your own harmony. So, we got music so we could hear the harmony perfect. We had a great time doing that, and that’s how we go to do it, too. It was Smalley’s transportation that enabled us to do it. It was pretty rough riding a trolley car across town and all that with your horn when we could throw the horns in his car and everybody ride together.
LJM: At this time in Houston, were there any private parties like those we know that take place in Rover Oaks? Was there anything comparable to that?
AC: Yes. We had parties we were asked to play at. And how we got the parties, we started playing some white jobs, and they would hear the band, and then one of them would say, “You can’t hire the whole band! Can a few of you play for us? We’re having a party at such-and-such a time.! So, we told them to talk with Milton Larkin. They’d talk with Milton, and we’d play the house party.
LJM: So, Milton Larkin made the decision on who was going to play?
AC; Yes. Well, we picked the guys out . . . . You have to have your rhythm section, then with the other horns. Milton would be one of the horns, and I would be the other. You see, Milton wasn’t much of a take-off man, and I was the one getting most of the taking-off in the band.
LJM: He wasn’t a take-off man?
AC: Not Milton. He was beautiful, straight solo and melody. Everything was light.
LJM: How long did you stay with Milton Larkin?
AC; Six years, from 1936 to 1942, and I left him and joined Lionel Hampton. We were in Joe Louis’ Rhumboogie [Club] in Chicago, and I left there and joined Lionel Hampton in the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco.
LJM: Was there any particular reason, outside of advancement, that you left Larkin’s band?
AC; No. Just to improve and be able to see some of the country; to see if I would be accepted. I had turned down one job with Mary Lou Williams. She had asked me to join her band. She was on 52nd Street in New York, and I was afraid of it because I had never been in New York. I didn’t know if I’d be able to make it there.
Then I got this Lionel Hampton deal. It came through the theater manager in Chicago at the Regal Theater, Ken Bluitt. He comes in the club one night and sat down and wanted me to join Hampton’s band, and he says, “Call me at the Theater tomorrow. I want you to be there at two o’clock. I want to talk to you.” So, I was there at two o’clock, and, sure enough, he did call. He offered me a salary and asked me if I’d be interested in joining, and I told him, “Yes.”
CS; So, apparently Hampton came to hear you. . . .
AC: Well, he came to hear me here in Houston at the Eldorado [Club] with Milton Larkin when his band was still here, and that’s when he became interested in getting me. I took Illinois Jacquet’s place. Jacquet was also from Houston. So, he [Hampton] likes the Texas sound, so I took Illinois’ place.
[The Texas sound] is a bigger sound. I used to practice in a prairie-like - - you know,- - behind __?_ Store in the Fifth Ward, which is open field. When you get an open field, you can hear yourself. It’s surprising. When things are quiet, there’s no traffic back there, and that where I would go to practice my horn.
CS; Would that change require a change in the embouchure?
AC: No, the same embouchure but changing sound because it’s open. The sound doesn’t have anything to do with it.
CS: How does this affect the effort of actually blowing through the instrument?
AC: It comes from [the diaphragm]. You use the same.
CS: The same amount?
AC: The same amount! You don’t do any differently than you would if you were practicing “piano” (softly).
LJM: It comes from your diaphragm?
AC: Some musicians are throaty, but you can get more power from here (indicating diaphragm).
LJM: Was the pay much better with Hampton?
AC; Well, a little. It wasn’t that much. I tell you I went in for . . . . I was making $60 at the Rhumboogie [Club], and I took $75 and scale prevailing, which meant if the scale was about that, I got above that money[salary]. Like, if I were going into a club, it might be $135 a week. So, I would get that. But $75 was on one-nighters. That way, instead of paying me by the night, he paid me by the week. I didn’t know too much about it. He got me there, because they made more money on one night[s] than they did in clubs, and I was on a two-year contract. But, when the next contract came, I was pretty wise, then.
LJM: Were your first music recordings made while playing in Hampton’s band or had you done some recording before?
AC: I hadn’t done any before.
LJM: So, that was the first time.
CS: Where did you first record with Hampton? In New York?
AC: In New York. No, it wasn’t. It was back in Hollywood, California, [for] Decca [Records], in the Hollywood Studios. We were playing [at the] Trianon Ballroom in Southgate, California, and we were on that job for a month. On our day off, we recorded. That’s how it happened.
LJM: Did you get more money out of the recordings?
AC: I got the scale, whatever the scale was. You got that.
CS; At that time, weren’t you just paid for making the recording and nothing else?
AC: That’s all. The leader got the difference in the royalties and the leader’s fee. You see, Hamp signed a contract with Decca for $75,000 a year for himself. That was his salary, and the record company would pay the band members scale salary.
CS: Did Hamp get a royalty on the recordings that were sold?
CS; This is what led to Caesar Petrillo’s ban on recordings.
AC: Yes, it was. It was December 31, 1947, and when 1948 came you couldn’t record in New York. But we did record. We went across the river to New Jersey and recorded. So, that was recordings we made off the company, and then we went through the union and got paid on-the-spot. Normally, the checks came through the union in fourteen days or within fourteen days.
LJM: Were there any significant influences in Hampton’s band that you later incorporated in your own?
AC; In what respect?
LJM: In terms of style?
AC: I liked his style. He was a hard driver. Of course, I was a driver before then, and he had me driving more - - just punching. He always had that one month when he would blow you to death. So, I had to learn to start off not-too-strong because anytime he’s say “One more!” I [didn’t] know what height I could reach, just blowing, but if you start off slow and build gradually - - because he’s going to say, “One more!” and I would be prepared for it, but it took me a while to learn that. I’d go off-stage huffin’ and puffin’ because he wouldn’t know when to quit.
CS; That would explain the origin of your tone being described as a squealing sound.
AC; Yes, because I’d go anywhere (do anything) to find something else to do.
CS: In other words you were over-blowing the instrument.
AC; Sure. My lips would be sore - - sore and tired. You had to overblow it.
What else could you do? If you’re ready to quite, you take your build (climax) to [its] peak, and he’d say, “One more [time.]” You don’t know where you’re going from there. It really catches you off-guard. So, I had to learn from that how to start off with him because I ]knew he was going to say, “One more!” The first time I did it, he didn’t go any further, and I hadn’t built it up, so he cut me off. So, I had to get all that together. I got “the feeling” with him because he’s thinking all the time. He’s some guy!
CS; Were you in any of those performances of Flying Home that lasted, as I recall, an hour or so?
AC; Yes, sir. I’d be on the stands playing while the band is marching out of the theater and I’m still going.
CS; Did he rotate soloists, [for example] one soloist for so many minutes, then you and then Hampton?
CS; Then it was all of you together?
AC; On single things, like Flying Home, it was me on the mike out there. Then he’d get the bright idea to bring the brass section and the reed section. All these started to march and get off the stage and march around the theater, and I’m still blowing [on-stage]. He’d stop and play with people and beat on the seats. Oh, boy! And I am just up there getting out of breath. I had to learn to cope with that because I was just wearing myself out, and nobody was paying me any mind, you know. They were watching the band march through the audience, and I was there blowing my heart out. So, I learned how to just relax and ‘cheat’ while they walked.
CS; They were walking into the audience?
AC: All around! Like, they’d get off this side of the stage and go to the back and go around to the other side, come up this aisle and come back up [on-stage].
CS; But you stayed on-stage.
LJM: You were the only one up there?
AC; The rhythm section was there; drums, bass, guitar, piano. Then the rest of the band was marching with him.
LJM: How much did he actually himself contribute?
AC; Quite a bit.
LJM: He wasn’t just using, or wearing out, his people?
AC; No, he worked. He worked hard. He was soaking wet when he got off the bandstand - - socks and all. He had to dry off; take everything off and dry off and put on fresh clothes after every show.
LJM: Are there any aspects about your participation in Hampton’s band that we haven’t touch on that you think are significant? It is hard for us to know all the integral influences it may have had on you.
AC: Well, I think I know that Hamp couldn’t keep a show on time. He would go over-time terribly. We went to Broadway in the Capitol Theater first, and we did a dress rehearsal at five o’clock in the morning where they timed the show and run down the scene where we following behind stage [theater screen] where the band would be ready to open the curtains. This is the dress rehearsal, of course, the day of the show.
We would get on the stand and do the show. The show is timed because the movie is [just] so long. We had to time the show to thirty-five minutes instead of an hour or an hour and fifteen minutes.
We got up there on the first show and ran over, and he said, ”Okay.” So, he had to put Gladys [Hampton] on to get him off on time because, if you didn’t and you ran over-time for the stage hands when the theater closed, they had to pay the stage hands overtime. They were trying no to go above that budget. They didn’t want that. So, the asked Gladys to see that he got off. Gladys asked me to clock it and tell him when it was time to close. Then, ten minutes prior to closing-time was the time to play Flying Home. I did that. It didn’t make any difference.
CS: Who is Gladys?
AC: His wife. So, it didn’t make any difference. He was just a hard guy to get off the stand. So, finally, we got in the Strand [Theater]. We’d come in from Denver, Colorado, and rehearsed, beginning at midnight, upstairs in the theater. The show [movie] was on, and they let us go at 2:30 and asked us to be back at 5:30. So, that means you are going to bed!! Now, we had traveled: come in from Denver with no sleep. I’d get my wife to wake me up. Being afraid to go to sleep, she didn’t go to sleep because she ought to get me down. She got me out of bed. I got on the subway and went downtown.
Now, here we are. These guys are so tired! All the guys stayed up. The whole band is up for rehearsal. Now, it is time for the show. The first show went on at 10:35. We got seven pieces [of] the band out of an eighteen-piece band. That’s pathetic. And the union man . . . . We came off the stage and that pit went down, we had the union man, the theater manager and Gladys - - everybody to talk about it. They said, “This is a business. These people are spending money, and we can’t have this down here: being late!” But, we can’t say what they’ve done to us. We had lost rest, and they don’t know what our boss has done, you know So, we have to soak this in and take it: whatever he put on us, we have to go stay upstairs. But, [Hamp’s] got somebody to take care of him, so he’s got it easy. If it hadn’t been for my wife, I wouldn’t have been there either. Everybody didn’t have a wife, and that made it pretty rough. I saw some rough days that I took pretty good that others couldn’t take. Hamp was hard on the musicians. He didn’t have any feeling for anything but the job. He would call a rehearsal regardless of how tired we were, but I found out why he did it. We’d get in about five hours before time to play. We hadn’t had any rest while traveling. He would give us an hour to check in and [then] call a rehearsal. We would get there and do another version of Flying Home and go right back to the same version that we’d been playing all the time until time for the job to begin. It wasn’t the idea of the rehearsal; it was the idea to keep you awake to be sure you’d be there for the job so he [wouldn’t] have half [of] a band. That’s why he did it, but we didn’t know then.
CS: You say, “different version.” Did you have different versions that you used?
AC: Different arrangements? Yes. And he never did use those; only to rehearse. He kept Flying Home the same way all the time.
CS: The one that’s on record?
AC: Yes. [He’d say], “I got a new one [that’s] going to dress it up a little bit.” You’d go in and rehearse it, and you don’t play it, but that [was] to keep you awake.
LJM: You left his band [to] organize your own [band]. How did that come about? What year was that?
AC: 1947. I had talked [with a guy from Watt’s Zanzibar] when I was in the __?__ Theater in Philadelphia with Hamp’s band. There were two brothers that ran [the bar]. They came to see me at the theater, knowing the band was going to have sixteen days off during that summer, [to see] if I would come and play for [them] during the time I was off in Philadelphia; [to see] If I could come and play at that club during the off-time, sixteen days, so that would give me two weeks there. There were only six days to each week. So, I told him, “Yes.” He told me what he would give me. So, I made a little money while I was off and had a few days left before going back to work. But what happened was, he went to Gladys and asked her, and she told him I couldn’t do it. Then he came to me and said, “She wouldn’t. . . .” I said, “What do you mean, she wouldn’t? That’s my own time!” So, I took the job. What she wanted to do was she wanted to do was she wanted to book it and get her cut out of it, and he wouldn’t do it. He had to come and see me. So, that’s the way it worked out. They wanted money off everything. Whether you did it, or who did it, they wanted the money off of it.
LJM: Everybody wanted their cut.
AC: Yes. And they had the money! That’s how they got it: off of somebody else.
CS: This is the bookers that you’re talking about?
AC: This is the leader’s wife. She was the manager. She was the one that took care of all the business. Hampton couldn’t take care of anything. All he did was just play his instrument. Of course, he had his voice of what could be done, but she cook care of the business.
LJM: You did you get your band organized? Who did you select?
AC: In my group?
LJM: In your group.
AC: Guys mostly out of Lionel’s band.
LJM: Was that sweet revenge?
AC: Well, call it what you may. Everybody was tired of what he was putting on everybody, so they were ready to leave.
LJM: How many did you take?
LJM: How did your relationship with Hampton continue?
AC: Oh, good. He couldn’t blame me for it. Each man was his own. I can’t force anybody to do anything. They went because they wanted to, and they wanted to follow me.
LJM: How many were in your original band?
AC: Five of us.
LJM: Who were they?
AC: Geroge Rose, piano player; Dave Page was one trumpet player with Hampton; Poor George Jones, drummer; Walter Buchanan, bass; and Michael (Booty) Woods on trombone; and me, Arny. Two horns and three rhythm.
LJM: Do you remember what the first assignment of your band was?
AC: Philadelphia . . . at Watt’s Zanzibar. I knew I was going to work there because he had already contracted me before I left [Hampton’s] band. I told him I was leaving, and we had the dates set already. You see, I was already off with Hamp’s band because we got a summer vacation: sixteen days. Two weeks I took, so if I was going back with [Hamp’s] band, I would have still been within my rights. So, they had a Blue Sunday there. You don’t work on Sundays in Philadelphia; [just] Monday through Saturday.
CS: You were at The Zanzibar for two weeks?
AC: Two weeks.
CS: Where did you go from there?
AC; I put my notice in after that before I left the band. You gave them two weeks’ notice, so my two weeks’ notice ended in Philadelphia, and I didn’t go back to the band.
CS: So, then you had your own band. What was your next job?
AC: Well, I’ll tell you what happened. While I was in The Zanzibar, [the] Gale Agency had called them to put an attraction in [and] to see what they wanted. They said,”[I] don’t need anybody. I got an attraction.” “Well, who do you got?” “Arnett Cobb.” [The agent] said, “He’s with Lionel Hampton.” He said, “No, he’s not! He’s with me.” So, they got on the train that night and came to Philadelphia to see what the hell I had. Well, from that point, they asked me to come into the office, and they wanted me to come in and talk business with them. So, I was off on Sundays, and I didn’t get [to] come back to Philadelphia until about . . . . I left about four o’clock on Monday. So, I went. They had me in the office that morning and talked me into a contract. So, I signed with them. I told them I wouldn’t sign with anybody for over a year anymore because I didn’t want to get bogged down. So, they said, “Why not over a year? It takes a long time for us to bill you.” I said, “Well, if we can’t understand one another in a year, we won’t ever understand one another. I’ll see if I want to be here after a year, and you’ll see if you want me here after a year. Neither of us [failed the other]. They didn’t like it too much, but they had to accept it, see? So, that kept them on their toes. If they wanted me, they were going to take care of me by keeping me working because they’ll give your jobs to somebody else. [I told them] just to tell them that I’m busy has hell!! And I’d [learned ] that, waiting for a job. Those agencies were something else.
LJM: How would you describe the style of music of your band?
AC: I’d clock mine as just straight=ahead jazz; nothing other than just straight-ahead jazz: melodic jazz.
LJM: How would you describe “melodic” jazz?
AC: With melody involved in it. You’d know what I’m playing. If it’s a standard tune, you won’t just start playing solo in it.
LJM: Was there any kind of “Texas quality” to it?
AC: I guess all of it was Texas quality because that’s all I knew: the Texas sound and how we played in Texas.
LJM: If you placed your band on the right side [of the stage] and another jazz band from Chicago on the left [side], would your audience know there was something different about your band - - that it had a Texas sound?
AC: Yes. We were different. Very much so.
LJM: Did you have any contact with Milton Larkin during this time?
AC: I left a band to join his band.
LJM: Right. But did you continue any type of relationship with him, professionally, after that?
AC: Not professionally. No. I would see him when I would go to New York. He was living in New York.
LJM: Now, he had been in the Army for a while.
AC: Well, we were together before he went into the Army. In fact, we went in induction together. They took him, but I got by on account of my back.
CS; What was the problem with your back?
AC: I was hit by a car when I was ten years old. I never did tell my mother about it. I couldn’t hardly get out of bed in the morning, but once I straightened up, I was all right for the rest of the day. But I suffered a long time after that. So, finally, I ended up in later years I had to have an operation on it. I had two spinal operations just for that neglect during those day [of] not telling my mother. You see, I had slipped off from home to go to the movies because I had an aunt working the movies downtown, and I could get in free. It was only eight cents round-trip by trolley car: four cents each way for students. So, I took advantage of it. My mother worked out, you know. I paid for it, too! I would never tell her. Between the shows when they would come up with the world news and all that. . . . The kids weren’t interested in that. We would go back for the comedy. After that I would go the street and get me a sandwich. Coming back to the theater, I’m rushing back to eat my sandwich in the theater and ran against the light. Being small, with cars parked on the side, I ran against the light and the man didn’t see me and hit me while [I was] running across the street. Well, some people gathered around, and one lady said, “This boy is hurt! Somebody call an ambulance!” When she said that I got up and ran into the theater. I didn’t want anybody to know. That’s how simple I was, because I didn’t want [my mother] to know that I had been hurt. But I suffered from it. I never did tell anybody how hard it was for me to get up out of bed and straighten up in the morning. I was like a young man with rheumatism trying to straighten up. I didn’t want anybody to see me, but once I straightened up, I was all right for the rest of the day.
CS: That’s commendable.
AC: Yes. Well, I did it, but I don’t know how commendable it was. I was suffering. That was the worst part: getting up in the morning. So, in later years, I had to sleep with a board under my mattress. I couldn’t stand for my buttocks to sink down and pull the muscles in my back. I ended up having two operations on it, but it’s solid now. It’s strong.
CS: Is that why it’s easier for you to stand [for long periods] now?
AC: Yes, it’s easier. Even from that, this hip was damaged, too, and I went back later [and] I had the hip operation in 1951: in 1948 and 1949, a spinal operation and the hip in 1951.
LJM: You weren’t involved in any other accidents after that, were you?
AC: Yes. The one I had in Connecticut. I had an accident in Connecticut. I blacked out and ended up getting ready to hit the Merritt Parkway coming down into New York and blacked out. I swallowed my own saliva, and I gave a cough to kick it out. I was running [this] staggering system of lights, but very slowly I would be coming to the last one and it would turn green. I was getting ready to go hit the Merritt Parkway and ended up in a filling station yard. The center of the front license plate hit that tree. When I did come to, I couldn’t move my legs: it felt like my legs had gone through the floor, and I couldn’t get them out. I couldn’t pick my legs up, and I was asking them what was wrong. My wife was in there with me. My daughter was three months and twelve days old at the time, and she was crying, and somebody got her out. Finally, I wanted to know how she was. I heard my wife just moaning, groaning and aching, and my daughter was crying. All she got was a little bump on her forehead. They released her to her mother and took her into observation for forty-eight hours, and she was doing all right. So, my wife and I got the worst of it.
LJM: So, you were in the hospital quite a while.
AC: Yes. I was in the hospital. My wife stayed there a month and [they] released her. She had a broken arm. They released her to come home, and I stayed a little later and went home by ambulance and stayed at home, then [I was] transferred to the hospital for joint diseases. I had a double-spiked collar from the ankles up to this part of my chest, and I couldn’t move in it. But that was to protect me [while] traveling. You could take it off: cut the straps on it and take it off. They would roll me in it and take it off and then rub my back, oil me down and that sort of thing and let it rest.
LJM: What year did all this occur?
LJM: The Connecticut accident?
AC: Yes. . . . Wait a minute! No, no, no! It was in 1956. [The year] 1948 was the spinal operation for the other thing. The accident thing with the hip, that was in 1951, June 26, 1951.
LJM: Now, from the late 1940’s to 1956 you still had your own band going?
LJM: Did you have new members?
AC: When I went back I told everybody they had first preference to the job if they wanted to come back, and they all came back. Later, they started going other places. Two of them had jobs with other bands, but they left them to join me, so the bandleader understood.
LJM: This probably is a pretty hard question, but I think historians or people listening to this tape or reading the transcription would want to know your honest evaluation of it. Did that accident severely damage your career in any way?
AC: Well, maybe, in the beginning, because I didn’t know whether I would be able to do it . . . . because I lost my teeth up here, and I only have three up and three down. I wore a plastic brace to pull [everything] in line to get my jaw fixed, but, surprisingly, it didn’t damage it. It took me about three months . . . a little better than three months . . . to get myself together after I started back to work [and] get acclimated to blowing with these teeth.
LJM: Anyone watching you would never suspect that.
AC: I use an upper plate. I lost the rest of them because they were damaged, but the doctor said, “If they don’t bother you, don’t bother them.” And as they began to bother me, I would go to them. One day I began to gasp. I had an abcess, and I couldn’t stand for them to pull it, so they gassed me. I came out from under the gas afterward, and I said, “ When are you going to pull it?” They had pulled it already. So I said, “After that, man, I need a drink!” They took me [into] the booth and said, “What are you drinking?” I said, “Bourbon and water,” and doggone if she didn’t bring me a bourbon and water! I was so surprised and happy at the same time. I needed it, too!
LJM: Where were you living at this time?
AC: I was living in New York.
LJM: What brought you back to Houston?
AC: Well, after I had my accident, I tried it. You see, I had my accident in April of 1950, or was it 1956? I did a year out there, and it was all right until the snow would part, and I had to bust in the snow. [I] couldn’t lift my legs up, and I would get snow in my shoes, so I would wear galoshes and the, sometime, the snow was so deep going through it, it would get inside my galoshes. I had just had enough of it. So, I said, “This is pretty tough to go through trying to make a living in my condition, so I’m going to go where the weather don’t snow.” And I came home.
LJM: When you came [back] here, what did you find professionally?
AC: Not too much of anything, but I dreaded after coming back and getting out where the action was. I ended up going around to . . . . I formed a band here and went into the Ebony [as the] house band. So, that gave me something to do. Then, I ended up managing the club. After starting to manage the club, I had a joint downtown in a strip joint just as a soloist behind the striptease. They paid me $150 a week for that. So, I was making it pretty good, but I got sick of it. Then Paul Fenwood came in one night. I met him up in New Hampshire. He ran a small sidewalk cafe. He came up to me and said, “Arnett Cobb?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “This is Paul Fenwood.” “Oh, how are you doing, Paul.” “What the hell are you doing in a joint like this?” He says, “Man, you need to come out of this joint! You come and work for me. I will open up a place.” I thought he was kidding. So, he did. He opened up Paul’s Sidewalk Café on Main Street. He came to me, and Jewel Brown went together. Then, he moved over on Holcombe Boulevard, changed the name, and I went over and worked for him over there. I worked with Bobby Doyle Trio over there. Kenny Rogers was in there playing bass and singing, and Russell on drums and Bobby doyle on piano. Do you remember Bobby Doyle? He’s from Boston.
LJM: I’ve heard of him.
AC: You know Kenny. He’s a big man.
LJM: When you came to Houston, then, your band broke up?
AC: Yes. I disbanded . . . to come home. I disbanded in February to start to get myself together, and I came home in June. But I couldn’t run up and down the road and get myself together. You see, I had a two-family home in Englewood [New Jersey], but I had to leave my wife there to straighten everything out. I thought I was going back. After I had gotten here and stayed for a while, I decided I would just sell the place and not go back up there. I have been here ever since, so I sold it. I had a guy, my tenor [saxist], that I had look out for a buyer for the place, and I sold it to them. I go by there every time I go up there to take a look at it to see how it looks. I also say I had this place for myself: I owned it.
CS: Did you go back to New York to performed after you came to Houston?
AC: Yes. I go back all the time. I’m going back in March [of] this year. I will be there from the first of March through the sixth.
AC: In a new club in the Village called The Locust. [I have forgotten so] I will have to ask my son-in-law, but I’ll be there for a week: March first through the sixth.
LJM: Did Larkin have a foothold here when you came back?
AC: He wasn’t here. He was still in New York. I came to Houston before he did.
LJM: We [understand from] our research that a lot of musicians who came through Houston when [Larkin’s band] was here had a “rough” time of it with him. Do you know anything about that?
AC: When was that? Do you mean with Milton’s band?
CS: Like at the Eldorado Ballroom?
LJM: Yes. They used to call it the Eldorado Ballroom.
AC; On Dowling and Elgin.
LJM: Sy Oliver once recalled that “the rough times” Larkin’s band gave them whenever they went through Houston.
AC: Yes. Out band was sounding as good as theirs. Then we had a lot of Lunceford’s arrangements in there, a lot of Duke’s arrangements, so the band was well-rehearsed and played well. We had a better band. Milton and the [other players] knew what we had. We just were having fun. We were interested in what we were doing and enjoyed it. So, that’s a good thing. We had a good band, and I can look back on it and see how good it was after I had gotten around. But I couldn’t see it while I was in it. It was a fun thing for most of the youngsters in there.
LJM: I won’t say where I heard this, and you probably will remember. It was at a rehearsal not too long ago, and there was a musician from New York who was kind of doing things his own way, and there was some remark made about “That’s the way we do things in New York.” I think there a Mr. Arnett Cobb who said, “God damn New York! This is the way we do things in Houston!” Is there some fundamental difference in the way bands operate?
LJM: Can you expound on that?
AC: Well, in New York musicians play one against the other, Bandleaders against the other, and they’re not sincere. But then, it is just a matter of dollars and cents, and they don’t have that feeling of having a band, a good band, working together to make it a good band [that would] be an asset to them, and this was [with musicians] as well as the leader. This was the attitude that they were trying to take care of, and New Yorkers still have that attitude. Well, there were plenty of musicians around New York with that attitude. And the Musicians’ Union, I guess they have over 50,000 or more musicians listed in that union, and everybody’s not working. You can get a good musician, but you can’t do it in Houston. You don’t have that many good musicians around that you can just let a guy go and pick somebody else that’s not working already because most of the good guys are working. So, when these guys want to get an attitude, you just have to remind them that this is not new York and jobs are not that plentiful here. Here you hold on to what you’ve got.
LJM: When I first heard that remark, I said, “That’s going to come up in my interview, but toward the end of it. I was curious about its meaning.
AC: I said it! Yes, I said it. It was a drummer with me. That’s who it was. He’s from Houston, too, but he lived in New York, and, incidentally, he just dies this year. He went to Europe with me on one trip.
CS; Is that Ray Bauduc?
AC: No, no. This was J. C. Curtis: Joe Curtis. He came back with that New York attitude after he had gotten in demand and wanted to pull a few tricks on me. I said, “No, man!”
LJM: How did you find the reception of jazz in Europe when you toured?
AC: Very good. Better than here. In Europe and Japan [it was] very good.
LJM: Is it a revival or is it a new interest?
AC: New interest? Where?
LJM: In Europe.
AC; No. It’s been there since the Louis Armstrong days in the beginning. They just love American jazz. Of course, you’ve got a lot of them playing like American’s now. They’ve got some good musicians playing over there. They copy the style.
LJM: Do you find a revival or a continuing interest in jazz here in Houston?
AC: You’re getting a continued interest now through the colleges, like Texas Southern [University]. The other musicians of the other colleges, they are beginning to get enough interest in it. Lannie Steele was one of the main guys that helped to build that interest. I think he taught over there for ten years, and he formed a jazz band over there and had a good band. It made a difference in what was going on in the Music Department. The Music Department over there is “long hair”: violin players, strictly symphony and that sort of thing. Not too much on jazz. But he enjoyed getting the jazz band together if they wanted to do it.
CS: Do you think the institutions of higher learning, as they call themselves, have ignored or done a disservice to jazz by ignoring it?
AC: Well, they are to a certain extent, but there’s nothing they can do to really hurt it because what they say doesn’t mean anything. It’s what you do before the people that ask for it. So, that doesn’t having any bearing. If it was Juiliard [School of Music] or whatever it was, they could come in and say, “This guy is nothing. He can’t play, and he goes through us.” They can’t do that. People accept you as what you can do.
Not, I know guys that never had a music lesson. I am one, other than piano lessons years ago. I taught myself to play saxophone. You’ve got a lot of self-made musicians that play better than some of the studied musicians. It really don’t make any difference. I think it’s mechanical if you don’t hat the “feel” for it, but if you have the feeling for it, you can play it. I’ve seen a lot of mechanical musicians that read [and] were very educated in music, but that’s not blowing the horn.
CS: I’m glad to hear you say that because that substantiates my point-of-view.
AC: Is that right?
AC: But I’m telling you from facts and experience. I don’t care how much you have learned knowledge-wise, if you don’t have it within you from the heart, you can’t play. It just becomes a mechanical musician, technical-wise, and that’s all you are, just technique. Typically, you take no soul, no feeling, Nothing! Just notes!
LJM: Has the Texas sound changed significantly over the years?
AC: Oh, yes. Very much.
LJM: How has it changed?
AC: Youngsters changed it. They don’t have the same feel. They come up with the Bebopper situation . . . . and Bebop, too me . . . .Everybody’s not a Dizzy Gillespie. Gillespie can play Bebop! Dizzy Gillespie can play any kind of way he wants to because he’s an experienced man, but, beginning with Bebop, that’s the only way they could play. They’re lost. You can’t get any job playing Bebop.
LJM: I’d like to conclude the interview at a later date. We need to go over the interview, and I’m sure that are questions that we didn’t ask that are needed to fill in other areas. I think this is a good place for us to conclude for now. I want to thank you very much. This is an invaluable contribution to our archives.
AC: I’m glad to do it: make a contribution to some of the things I’ve been through that could help the youngsters coming up. So be it!