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Interview with: Arnett Cobb
Interviewed by: Louis J. Marchiafava And Charles Stephenson
Date: April 21, 1988
Archive Number: OH 457
LJM: Mr. Cobb, I’d like to begin the interview by asking you some questions more on the business side, about the business organization, how you dealt with promoters, arranging concerts and so on. When did you first have a manager, or did you have a manager in the early period.?
AC: Yes, I did. My wife was my manager. I started off with my godfather. He couldn’t be on the road with me, so what he did was train my wife. And, of course, she traveled with me also. And that was a great deal of help to me. And she learned the business as she traveled. He kept her informed of this, that and whatever. In fact, he worked out of the office that I was booked out of. I gothim the job there. So, that put him closer to what was going on.
LJM: Approximately what year did she assume the responsibilities of a manager? Was that from the very beginning?
AC: No. The very beginning of my band was 1947. So she came in around 1948, [the] beginning of 1948, which was about seven months after me being out there, we brought her in.
LJM: How were tours arranged at that time? Did she have to deal with promoters directly?
AC: Well, I had a guy . . . . I was working for a guy in a restaurant that I went in for one night and stayed with him over a month, and he set me up in a lot of things during that month’s time to really get me started. His name was Ralph Cooper. And he was working out of [the] Gayle Agency at that time, which was a big agency in New York. And I sort of got in on the road, too. That was right after I left Lionel Hampton’s band. That set me up in my own situation which wasn’t too hard for me with that type of help.
LJM: Later on, did you have another manager? Or did she remain your manager throughout your career?
AC: She remained with me until I gave up the band. I just decided to leave out of it. That was just before I moved to Houston. And I had gotten tired of that running up and down the road and going through the headaches you had to go through with the guys in the group. So, I just decided to give it up and come home.
LJM: What kind of headaches were those?
AC: Well, children’s headaches out of grown men. You can imagine what that is. They don’t know which way to go. They wake you up at four in the morning to ask you what time do you hit tomorrow night. Real simple things. They couldn’t wait until you wake up in the morning.
CS: Is that what you would call working with an agent?
AC: I had an agent. My agent was Universal Attractions. That was a booking agency out of New York City. They had Dinah Washington, the Ravens, and quite a few attractions at that time. Ben Bartley (phonetic spelling) was the head of the whole operation.
CS: Did they arrange nationwide tours?
AC: Yes. They set up all the tours.
CS: How many nationwide tours did you make?
AC; Oh, my God!
CS: Or is that a ridiculous question.
AC: Over a period of years, I couldn’t count. I started with them on these tours. I always wanted to be on one. After I got on one, I got tired of it right away: the traveling, you know. I used to do all the local work. And I wanted to get on the road – everybody was on the road. I’d never hit the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I wanted to get on it. I did. Never got off of it. I was so happy when I’d come home, I didn’t know what to do. That road!
CS: When we were here before, you described an incident where you had to travel for hours and then rehearse, and had a few hours to sleep, and the first show was at ten o’clock in the morning and only seven people, I think, showed up because everybody else apparently had gone to sleep. This was with Hampton.
AC: Yes. No, the show wasn’t ten o’clock in the morning. The show was that night. We had been traveling all night long and got in town that evening around four o’clock or so. No, around two, that’s what it was. After you got your things to the cleaners to get pressed and what have you. I thought I’d take me a nap and [when I] woke up, I just had time. They had to wake me up. The job was going on, the band was playing like mad.
CS: Then when you had your own band, did you schedule it in such a way that you would provide a time for people to get some rest after they had traveled?
AC: If possible. Yes, if possible. Now, I got caught in my own situation, too: tiredness. [They] had to come and wake me up. I’ve been in a lot of that. You only can take so much [with] your body. And, besides that, you’re going through these changed, you don’t be late on some jobs, leader or no leader, side men or no side men.
LJM: How formal were the contractual arrangements with the agents?
AC: Mine weren’t too formal. In fact, I didn’t have a signed contract. I didn’t even have a signed contract with my agent.
LJM: Wasn’t that rather dangerous?
AC; Not really. That left us both free. But, it was a matter of being honest and what you promised to do: that a man’s word, just like he would say to me, He said,” If your word’s no good, you’re no good to me.” I take a man at his word.
LJM: Is this the sort of arrangement you had throughout your career?
AC: No, no. That was this one thing. I had a contract with [the] Gayle Agency, but I’m speaking of Universal Attractions’ Ben Barnes. Now, here’s a guy [who] had done a lot for me before I joined the organization. So, we were pretty close to have that type of relationship.
LJM: How was it arranged as to the percentage of profit an agent gets in this type of . . ?
AC: Well, your contract would state. . . Let’s say I was making $400 a night. So, it would be $400 down to a split over $800. That means that I would get me $400, he would get $400, equally as much, and after it balanced off for both of us, that you’d split above that. . . whatever the split was, whether it was 50/50, 60/40. Of course, the band was always in favor of the largest percentage. They’re out there on the road. They had more to take care of.
CS: What did it cost for your first band that you took on your two-week vacation from Hampton and went to Philadelphia?
AC: When I had my vacation?
AC: I had sixteen days’ vacation, and I came here first. I spent eight days over here in Houston. Then, I went back to Philadelphia.
CS: Do you remember what the contract was for that job?
AC: I think it was $1,750.
CS: $1,750. That was for how many musicians?
AC: I had a group of seven musicians.
CS: That would be three rhythm . . . .
AC: Three rhythm. Yes. I hired four horns for the line that included myself.
CS: Did they [each] receive the same amount of money?
AC: No. You had guys who were worth more money, [and were] more of an asset to me than others were [and] that I could depend on and take a lot of weight off of me. I couldn’t carry all that weight by myself, [so] I needed help. And where I got the help, naturally, they got extra money.
CS; Front men were paid more?
AC: Yes. It wasn’t the same salary all the way around.
CS: I’ve noticed in my research that individuals would go from one band to another [then] to another, and often, they’d stay only about two years or so, and then they’d go to another band. Did you have any problems like that?
AC: There was no sense in jumping for a few more dollars. Of course, the money was not that much, but if you’re satisfied where you were, you’d stay there.
CS: I wondered during my research why they were doing this.
AC: It was for money. Somebody would offer them five dollars more.
CS: Or did they just get tired of playing the same arrangements over and over again?
AC: I doubt there was any cases like that. The main thing was centered on money. Because, if you were with a band any length of time, you would appreciate being able to play certain arrangements because you wouldn’t have to look at new music all of the time. You would memorize it and be comfortable. I memorized all of my stuff with Hampton. We’d play in the theaters, and I could look out in the audience and play with the chicks. The only thing I had to read was the show music. We were . . . .
CS: Then you could read your audience.
AC: Right! And that’s important.
LJM: How did you arrange the salary split with your musicians? Was there an accepted scale, or was this done on an individual basis?
AC: Well, there’s always a scale, base scale, but I never had a group that I paid [just] the scale to. I always paid them above scale money. But there were individuals in the group that would get more money than the others. In fact, I had a man that if I left the bandstand, he’d take over, and he was paid more than everybody else. It’s what you call a “straw boss.” I was “strawing” in Lionel Hampton’s band when I was there. And he’d leave, and I’d take over. I did a lot of things in that band. I took over the uniforms, saw that they were our for cleaning and pressing, ready for the next theater engagement. We had theater uniforms. We had night uniforms. So, that was my job.
LJM: What about ordinary things we think about, such as publicity [and] news releases? Was that handled by your wife, the manager or through your agent?
AC: When I had my group, I had what you would call and “advance man” for publicity that I paid $150 a week to, to set up that publicity situation. He would carry our placards from city to city, driving, and he’d stay ahead of the group.
LJM: Was it satisfactory?
AC: Oh, yes. Sure. He got $150 a week, plus I paid for his transportation costs, gas, his car and whatever happened with the automobile. We didn’t have to go in his pocket. He had his own car, and I had the privilege of us of it with him. He wanted to go anywhere. He wanted to be out there, so I just took care of his transportation for his car so he could have it.. Incidentally, he didn’t have but one arm. And he was a powerful guy with that one arm. Very neat! When you’d see him, he was immaculate all the time. That was very striking to a lot of people. He made a good front man. He represented well.
LJM: What was his name?
AC: His name was Joe Turner.
LJM: How long was he with you?
AC: He was with me about six or seven months. He didn’t stay long because, right after that, I sort of broke up the band and got off the road. I had him around the latter part of the band, [but] I wish I had [had] him in the front part.
CS: You needed him?
AC: I did need him, yes. I got him too late. He was tied up otherwise prior to the time he came with me. But I met him when I was in the Lionel Hampton band because he did work. He did work for Lionel Hampton, quite a bit for him.
LJM: One area that we wanted to discuss with you was the European tours. We didn’t have time during out last session. When did you start going overseas?
LJM: Rather recently?
LJM: Can you [give] us the background on that? How did it come about?
AC; Well, I had turned down Europe for quite a few years because I was just afraid to go over there by myself. And I used to ask my wife if she’d go, and she’d say, “No;” that she wasn’t going to go. Her mother was kind of ill at the time, and she didn’t want to leave her. So, I just turned it down. But my Mother told me one day. . . . she said, “Baby, if I were you I would go because they’re going to stop inviting you after a while if you keep turning them down, and when you want to go, you won’t be able to go because they’ll stop inviting you.” So, I took heed to that. In 1973 I accepted [an invitation] and have been going [there] ever since.
CS: Where was your first European performance?
AC: Paris. I worked for this firm out of Paris. Black and Blue was the name of the company. They had a record company called “Black and Blue,” and that was the name of that company also.
LJM: How were you received?
AC: Very well received. I was well-known over that, but I didn’t know it. Through records. I didn’t know my records were over there. And through my reputation with Lionel Hampton’s Band.
LJM: You didn’t know your records were over there? You weren’t getting a cut of the sale?
AC: Well, it was kind of a strange thing in those days. You got gypped out of a lot of money. I would never receive a breakdown or [a] statement. I was with Apollo Records at the time, and they did me in, too. I finally caught on to what was going on. Really, my agent was the one that told me about it. He went up there on a meeting with me one day, and he brought it up, and the woman was so mad at him she didn’t know what to do with him. There was nothing she could do to fight him. She and her husband ran the company, but he was always [off] on a safari. He was in the jungles all the time hunting. That’s what he like to do and left all the weight to her. So, that’s who you had to deal with.
LJM: Well, that must have been going on for quite some time.
AC: I didn’t stay too long.
LJM: I meant the selling of your records in Europe.
AC: Oh, sure it had. I was well-known over there and didn’t know it. And they’re making money. I [discovered this] later on.
LJM: Apparently they were making quite a bit [out] of it.
AC: A lot, I found out later on.
CS; What other places in Europe have you performed?
AC: Well, I’ve been to Italy, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Spain.
CS: What about Norway and Sweden?
AC: I’ve been up there [in] Norway, in Oslo. I have only made one trip up there. I liked it very well. It’s very nice up there. I never had the opportunity to go back there.
CS; And what about Germany?
AC: Oh, I’ve made many trips to Germany.
CS; Many trips to Germany?!
AC: Many, many trips to Germany. My last trip was in Germany. I came home from Germany. I worked Hamburg. I did quite a bit of work in Hamburg. There’s a club down there . . .every time I hit that part of Europe, he wants me back. And I’d go in there. The last time, I was in there three times on one trip over in Europe, and I was over there two-and-a-half months.
LJM: Were these solo trips that you’d go on, or did you take people with you?
AC: No, they were solo. I only carried a group one time. Only once out of all my trips. And I carried my own group. [But] even at that, I left them. I left them with Steve Williams, and they did a couple of jobs with somebody else . . . “Fathead” Newman, that’s who it was. And go on back home. That was the only time I carried a group. They’re so expensive. You’re not able to make any money when you carry your own group because you’ve got to pay them, and there’s only so much money you can get. So, it really cuts you down.
CS: Did you use what we call the “house band” wherever you were?
AC: Yes. And they had good groups over there. But to make a night, I could always make it with whoever it [was], as long as they could halfway play. I don’t have any problem.
LJM: How long did your tours last?
AC: Anywhere from two to three months. I’ve tried on the last two trips, I’ve cut them down [to keep] from staying over so long because you get kind of homesick. You want to come home. The last one was six weeks, and I liked it better. Six weeks.
CS: What was the most unforgettable moment that you can think of in Europe?
AC: In Europe? It had to be during the first time I was going there because it was exciting to me, and I [some] pretty good contacts. It must have been around 1974. I started going in 1973, and I began to meet people. Around 1974 I met quite a few people over there, and it was very exciting to go back because this time I knew somebody. I knew where I was going, and I couldn’t wait to get there to see them. The first time, I was very reluctant, going into strange territory, not knowing anyone there. It’s a weird feeling, especially if you’re going by yourself. My wife didn’t want to go with me, so I didn’t go the first time [the first time I was invited]. So, finally, I had to make up my mind to make it.
CS: Did you play [at] any USO?
AC; I never have played any USO. They’d tell what they [wanted] to pay you, and I never could see those trips. They had a bunch of artists on there, and the money was based the same.
LJM: In general, is it more profitable on the European tour[s], or is it more profitable just staying in the United States?
AC: On a trip there, sure. You’d make more money over there in two or three months than you could make here in two or three months because, from being from out-of-town, you’re not local, and the money goes up. See?
LJM: Were there any particular countries where you found more of any appreciation for jazz?
AC; They love it over there very much, but [in] France they really love jazz. They love it in Switzerland, but they can take it or leave it over there. They’re not like France. Spain was a pretty [country for a] concert.
CS; What about Italy?
AC: Italy is alright in its place. They don’t knock over nothing heavy to get to you.
CS: Do the Germans get excited?
AC: Oh, they’re more excited than [a lot of] other places. But, France is the most exciting country for jazz.
CS: Did you ever play in the Far East?
AC: Well, yes I have. I’ve been as far as Japan, and they love [jazz] over there. Japan is beautiful.
LJM: How does one go about setting up contacts in Europe?
AC: They contact you. They have one guy who will contact you for the tour and, in return, he’s working for several other people [close] to [him]. And that’s the way they set it up, by working together.
LJM: I was kind of under the impression that agents from here would . . . .
AC; Well, you have agents here, but I mean when they contact us, they contact us direct[ly] since I don’t work through any agents now. I have it right here from the house. But, you’re right there. There are agents here that want to set it up normally for the groups that they have.
LJM: I want to go back for just a few moments and ask you a few questions from [our] last interview. We talked about your appearances on the East Coast, but we really didn’t talk too much about your activities on the West Coast. Did you play often in the West?
AC: Not too much.
LJM: Was there any particular reason for this?
AC: Well, you just don’t get too many calls from the West Coast. When you get out there, everything is such a distance away. You’re in Los Angeles, and about the nearest place you would play close to Los Angeles would be San Diego, which is about ninety miles, and everything else is far away, like Oakland, ‘Frisco. You’ve got 400 or something miles, and everything is so far apart. So, if you’re going for a location, [that way you’re] going for one-night stands, and one-nighters are where your money is. They’re not on location, [so] I’ve never been too anxious for the West Coast.
CS; Did you make any appearances [in] Las Vegas or Reno?
AC: I played them, but not in their main places. I just played one-night-stands there.
LJM: I’d like to turn our attention to your production of records and go back to the first one you cut. Do you remember [how that transpired]?
AC: Well, there was a guy by the name of Ralph Cooper. But nothing materialized. And then a guy, Jerry Jerome, that used to be with Benny Goodman was with the record company. He was with the Apollo [Recording Company], and he heard the group. And he heard one tune he thought should be recorded. And I had an arrangement [of] When I Grow Too Old To Dream. It was pretty long, and he thought it would be nice to make Part I/Part II out of it, which we did. And he just flipped over it. And it turned out to be a big tune on record. But he was such a lively guy. He was very encouraging to me about a lot of things because he was a well-experienced guy. He had been out there with Benny Goodman [and] Lionel Hampton during the early years. And he had come off the road and gone into the record business. . . or the cutting side of it. And he was a saxophone player, also. We used to sit down and talk about the sessions. and playing. And what-have-you. Then we’d get into the record talk. But that’s neither here nor there.
LJM: Frequently, now, when we hear of record sales topping a million or so, and it’s a big success. Of course, to me that’s rather unusual for somebody to top a million. In the days when you played, or when you were cutting records in the earlier period, what was considered a success margin/ How many records did you have to have?
AC; If you sold forty or fifty thousand, you were doing great. I got up to that one time. But never anymore. But I was doing good if I got twenty [or] thirty thousand, which I was satisfied with. You get that much distribution of records, the rest of it is mouth-to-mouth. And mouth-to-mouth is better than any record. They can say more.
LJM: How many records did you cut altogether, roughly?
AC: The last time I counted, before I came home, was twenty-two sides for one company, and for Berkeley, I cut, I think, sixteen sides, which means eight records. There were several companies - - I can’t remember [all the names now]. It’s been so long.. I can’t be accurate.
LJM: And you have no idea how many records were sold in Europe, do you?
AC: No. I really don’t. If I knew the truth of it, I might get some more money!
LJM: Did you every go back and get any reimbursements on those?
LJM: You have? How did you go about that?
AC: Well, I was told [that] I had some money spread out for me and who had it, and that’s who I went out and contacted. And sure enough, I don’t know how accurate it was. The account was [there], but there was some money there. And you never can be sure. Money is a bad, tempting thing to a lot of people.
CS: Did you get any royalties from anything that [was] played on the radio?
AC; You get what you call five percent royalty on radios [for] each play. But you don’t get that accurate, either. In the first place, if you have a company like BMI—[and] I’m with BMI- - they clock those things. How they do it, I don’t know. Then you get royalties from them.
CS; From BMI?
AC: Broadcast Music. See, ASCAP and BMI, those are the only two organizations you have for band.
CS: Broadcast [Music, Inc.] evolved because of the problems that ASCAP had with radio, television and recording. . . .
AC: Right. But, it’s the same thing with BMI.
CS: BMI had the same problems?
AC: Well, they’re the same type of company. No, I don’t mean with problems.
LJM: When was the last time you cut a record?
AC: Oh, my goodness! [It’s] hard to say. It was actually live at the Wortham [Theatre]: “Keep on Pushin’ on Beehive [Recording]. The Wortham was the last actual recording that I did. The actual [recording] for the Archives.
LJM: Are there any areas that we really need to deal with that we haven’t asked you about?
AC: I can’t keep up with the one you’ve been over!
LJM: One of the thing I was thinking about might be of some interest to people listening to this [was] some of the band that you worked with, like Lionel Hampton, or some others. The record that was just handed to me is “Keep on Pushin’” by Beehive [Records].
CS; Is it still in circulation?
AC: Not around here. Could be in other parts of the country. The guy that was handling the [deal] for me, [and] I got them from , he went out of business. His wife left him, and he went to Atlanta, so he closed the shop up and followed her. So, they threw me out of there.
LJM: Do you have any memorable experiences about any of the bands that you played with that stand out in your mind?
AC: Well, Lionel Hampton was the only band I was with other than the local band here with Milton Larkin. And that was about it. I had a lot of fun with that band. We had a good band, too, locally! Sixteen pieces (members).
LJM: That’s when you were playing for the private clubs?
AC: Yes. One nighters. Of course we were in the club here. The Eldorado [Club] was where we really [were] housed.
LJM: You-all never did go on the road with it?
AC; Yes. We went as far as Virginia. We did about three months out of one year. And it was quite enjoyable. We had to go out with somebody else because the band wasn’t known yet. So, we went out with a singer.
LJM: Who was the singer?
AC: Lil Green. She was the one that did In the Dark. That was a pretty big hit in those days, back in the 1930’s.
LJM: So, This is the 1930’s you’re talking about?
AC: Yes, [and] I’m a young musician!
LJM: Did you find that having a vocalist in the group - - did that add something to the popularity?
AC: That helped to rest you. Take a lot of load off of [you]. It was good. People like to hear a singer, especially with a female vocalist. The men always loved it. So, it all played its part.
LJM: Have you worked with Jewel Brown often?
AC: (answer difficult to understand.)
LJM: That’s right. You mentioned that before. How long has she worked with you?
AC: Jewel’s been with me now off and on for about two-and-a-half years. She had worked with me before. I brought her out to Paul’s Sidewalk Café out on Main Street back in 1960 when she first came - - - before she went out with Louie Armstrong, that’s when it was.
LJM: So, she sang with you before she went out with Armstrong?
AC; Yes. That’s where he got her from: my band.
LJM: Did he pay her more:
AC: Oh, yes.
LJM: Did you ever play with him?
AC: Not to play in his band, but we played together at The Famous Door in New York. I was with Lionel Hampton, and they had their opening [and] open house. They had the Frank Sinatras there: Benny Goodman; the Jerry Jeromes; Billy Eckstein. They had a bunch of celebrities in that night, on opening night. Lionel Hampton [and] John Kirby; __?_, and that was it. Louie Armstrong and Hamp got into it on the stage, and they were singing: Louie Armstrong and Lionel. Neither one of them could sing, but Louie was a better showman. That was a fun night!
LJM: What kind of place was it?
LJM: What kind of individual was Louie Armstrong? Was he a good person to work with?
LJM: Louis Armstrong.
AC: I never worked with him.
LJM: I knew you never worked with him, but you played with him.
AC: Everybody seemed to say [that] he was a nice guy to work for. He don’t get into your business. In fact, he never handled his band. His manager handled it. He stayed out of it. So, you didn’t even have a chance to get into an argument with him. He left everything up to his manager.
CS; He always seemed happy.
AC: Happy, and that’s a good way to stay: stay away from the band. Because you run into some headaches out there, man, with musicians.
CS: We musicians do have a tendency to be a little temperamental.
AC: That’s what it is: temperamental. Just don’t be the leader. Be one of the musicians.
LJM: Was most of the contention over the split in salary and other things?
AC: No, many things. It might be something on the dance stand: they’re taking the spot away from you or something else. No one certain thing.
CS: [But] you would never know when somebody would get upset?
AC: Not from the stand, you wouldn’t. You’d know it if you’d come backstage.
LJM: In looking over your career, from the [present vantage] point, what are other significant points that you could point to that had an impact on your career, good or bad?
AC: What do you mean by “what other”?
LJM: Well, are there any?
AC: Not to my knowledge. You mean, other than music?
LJM: No, I mean in your career [in] music, are there any events or circumstances that had an impact upon your career as it developed, good or bad?
AC: Not offhand. I can’t think of anything offhand, not now.
LJM: The question is sort of prompt.
AC: Your question is sort of prompt [and] I can’t think of anything offhand. Of course, something would stick out if it was. I don’t know of any.
LJM: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
AC: My pleasure. I enjoyed it as long as you ask the questions!