Interview with Carmen Fields, Author of Going Back to T-Town: The Ernie Fields Territory Big Band
Ernie Fields, a highly influential jazz musician who made significant contributions to music during the earliest days of jazz and swing in a time of severe racial segregation, has achieved many noteworthy accomplishments in his lifetime. His Territory Big Band released hit recordings, such as "T-Town Blues" and "The Mood" in the 40s and 50s. And, his band was the first Black band to play at the exclusive Tulsa club and to perform at the historic Cains Ballroom in Tulsa. Yet, despite these remarkable accomplishments, Ernie's contributions have been overshadowed by other big-name artists.
The new book, Going Back to T-Town: The Ernie Fields Territory Big Band, published by the University of Oklahoma Press, tells the untold story of Ernie Fields. Ernie's daughter, author and Emmy Award-winning broadcast news journalist Carmen Fields, wrote the book to keep his legacy alive.
Going Back to T-Town: The Ernie Fields Territory Big Band sheds light on the world of jazz in its early days and showcases Ernie's experience as a talented musician and businessman as he navigated racial segregation during the Jim Crow Era. "Carmen Fields tells her father's story in his own voice: how he weathered the ups and downs of the music industry and maintained his optimism even while he faced entrenched racial prejudice and threats of violence."
Carmen Fields spoke with Garden State Woman about Ernie's experiences as a musician and businessman and the experiences Black musicians faced during the Jim Crow Era.
- What are some stories you could share about Ernie Fields' life during the early days of jazz?
"One particular story comes to mind about Ernie Fields' life during the early days of jazz. His first experience participating in a "Battle of the Bands" in Denver marked a special turning point.Early in his career in the early 1930s, an Omaha-based promoter named Phil Dorsey invited him to be a part of a so-called "Battle of the Bands" in Denver, CO. The "battle" would be against Smiling Billy Stewart, a band out of Florida that was fairly well known at the time. The group was the official orchestra of Bethune-Cookman College and emphasized brass and section work. (In those days it was common for college bands to turn pro) Billed as a "winner takes all" event, the promoter assured Ernie Fields, not to worry about "a winner," as both bands would be paid.
Here's how the battle worked:
The bands would be stationed on opposite ends of the dance hall (the Rossonian, located in Denver's Five Points) and would take turns performing a number. "You'd play a number, and if you got a hand, the people would crowd around you," Fields said.Then the other band would play and most would go to the other end—back and forth like that. "And so, it seemed like it was even all along," he said. The group gave their best tunes. At some point they decided to do their top song, an arrangement of "I'll Always Be in Love with You," with vocalist Roy Milton. "I knew when Roy sang that tune, that would settle it," Ernie said. The people, he said, got to whistling and howling and carrying on "and Billy Stewart," Ernie noticed, "looked angry."
Stewart's group next swung into "Ring Dem Bells," from the popular 1930 comedy film, Check and Double Check, which featured Duke Ellington. According to Milton, the band "showered down on us like showers of rain," After that, fans never returned to the other end of the dance hall. "I believe they got us," said trumpet player Herbert Scott.
It boiled down to six or seven against fourteen musicians, Ernie recalled—"Six little green musicians" against Stewart's group which he said, "you couldn't see the men for the instruments hardly."
The humiliations led to his pivotal decision to get a big band, which he did. The enlarged organization would travel across the country and record. Recording was a fete not experienced by many of the so-called territory big bands of the day. Fields would continue, outlasting many and enjoying national popularity into the 1960s."
- How did Earnie foster an entrepreneurial spirit as a musician and band leader?
"Pleasing an audience was paramount, and he believed it was a key ingredient in his success. Fields said he tried to play what the audience liked to hear, and not just what he liked to play. His audience appeal was guided in part by skilled music arrangers, Parker Berry, Leslie Sheffield, Rozelle Claxton, J. J. Johnson and Rene Hall. Hall was accused of using "too many notes"—or making his arrangements intricate and hard to master. However, once mastered, thanks to Fields' demanding rehearsals, they proved to be crowd pleasers. Vocalists were also an important part of the organization—Melvin Moore and Estelle Edson among them--men and women who could deliver sweet numbers as well as bring the house down shouting the blues. There were other crowd-pleasing devices to distinguish him from other orchestras like one-legged dancers. Yes, one-legged—not peg legged dancers! One reviewer described one such performance as dance moves that "would defy the balance on many a two-footed person." Another newspaper noted that when dancer Frank James performs, "the crowd is hushed and attentive with men and women alike shaking their heads in utter disbelief." There were other entertainment tools, from having a violin player on hand for jazz violin that was growing in popularity or to add country and western flair. Fields often said, when he saw talent, it was hard for him to pass up a person, whether he needed them at the time or not."
- What were some of the challenges and constraints Ernie and other Black musicians faced during the Jim Crow era?
"The main challenge for Black musicians was getting food, as many establishments did not serve Blacks or required the indignity of going to side or back doors for take-out service. Another challenge was lodging or use of restroom facilities while on the road. One technique Fields used was appealing to the mercenary instinct of some service stations operators. The bus the orchestra travelled in had two forty-gallon tanks—one on each side. He would always keep one side full, but when he pulled into a station, would ask if he filled up, could they use the restroom. For the average station in the middle of nowhere, the fill-up could be a bit of a windfall. However, If the attendant said "no" to the restroom request, Ernie Fields said, "I would drive on!"
Lodging could also be a challenge, especially if in communities where there was not a significant Black population. The band was one the road in Alabama one night and it was two degrees below zero. They couldn't get rooms anywhere. One of the guys suggested they "throw a brick through a window so they will put us in jail." Ernie wanted no part of Alabama law enforcement. Instead, someone suggested a nearby barracks of some sort. There were only cots and the only cover they had was their overcoats.
Ernie recalled another visit in Mississippi sometime in the 40s, when the band bus pulled up to a small convenience store. Fields and the fellas walked around and picked up the items they wanted and made their way to the cash register to pay. While they were shopping, two or three young "colored lads" came in, picked up a few items and made their way to the cash register, too. The cashier told the youths, "They are not from here," nodding toward the musicians. "You have to tell me what you want and I'll get it for you. You do like you always do the next time you come in." When Ernie got back outside, he said he would never forget what happened next. The front of the bus, where the destination appears on commercial buses, had his name, Ernie Fields. One of the kids looked at that and said he had never heard of that town and wondered where it might be. The other kid replied, "It must be from up north somewhere.""
- How was Earnie able to maintain his optimism while being confronted with racial prejudice?
"Even though sometimes confronted with racial prejudice, Ernie Fields enjoyed many cordial and respectful relationships with white people. That contributed to his optimism in large part. One such loyalty came from the country and western star Bob Wills. He was instrumental in helping Fields secure dates in formerly all-white venues. One such opening he secured for Fields was performances at Tulsa's Cain's ballroom. Fields was the first Black orchestra to perform there, the venue management being threatened by Wills to steer other white acts away from the famous Tulsa establishment if the Fields orchestra was barred. Wills also gave Fields advice on salary strategies, reminding him often, "Don't play yourself cheap. You are an artist."The guidance was welcome, as at the time, Wills was one of the—if not the-highest paid bandleaders in America.
Finally, Ernie Fields was a man of enormous faith and remarkable integrity. He credited his ability to avoid many dangers to "the good Lord looking out" for him. Importantly, he also enjoyed the unwavering support of his wife, Bernice (Copeland) Fields. He would often say, if it was "one thing "he still loved her for (they were married 67 years) it was her acceptance, without complaint, of his career on the road as he was mostly away from home pursuing his dream of a world-famous orchestra. "Never did grumble," he said. "Never did grumble at all.""
You can purchase Going Back to T-Town: The Ernie Fields Territory Big Band here.
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