A taste of the segregated South

A long time ago, 1958, ’57, when I was a young accordionist, 16 or 17, I got a road job with a quintet of dance musicians. I was recommended by my teacher, an excellent musician himself. It seems a friend of his and his band leader, Ted Huston, just had his accordionist quit cold on him. They didn’t get along. I spoke to Huston on the phone, he seemed okay. He said he’d send me the band’s book of arrangements to study. He played piano and wrote the arrangements and would be willing to take a chance on me based on my teacher’s recommendation. Huston said he’f send me a plane ticket to Birmingham, Alabama, where the band was headed.

Most of all, the salary was a whopping $300 a week, which was a lot for that time. I have no idea, adjusted for inflation, how much that would be worth in 2014, but I think it’d be quite a lot. My father bought me a new tux and summer white jacket. My mother made a big bag of eggplant Parmigiano sandwiches for the flight to Birmingham, Alabama, which I told her would make me look like a greaser.

Anyhow, as I looked through the band arrangements when they arrived, some looked easier and some tougher than others. Previously, I had worked summers in the Catskills with bands, a whole other story. My teacher thought I could handle the book. He was more like a spirit guide than a teacher to me. So I accepted the offer. The plane ticket arrived. I was ascending to a new world altogether. Or so I thought.

My parents drove me through Brooklyn’s and Queens’ streets in the family Chevrolet to LaGuardia Airport. I was going to board my first flight, an American Airlines plane with two big engines. My mother handed me the sandwiches in a grease stained brown bag. I backed off. Hugged and gave her a big kiss. My father told me to save my money and send some home each week to pay off the new tux, shirts, underwear, sox, and black shoes. We checked my accordion in its grey box with roller wheels.

At LaGuardia, there were no pat-downs, x-ray machines, Homeland Security then. This was the 50s. Trust was still alive, at least in some places. I remember my parents’ final wave from the terminal when I boarded. Two young blond stewardesses greeted me. Yes, this was a new world. The engines revved, warmed, and the plane rolled noisily down the runway and lurched into the air. Suddenly, I was Alabamy bound.

I looked out at the blue skies and all the life there thousands of feet below, thinking what it would be like. Little did I know what awaited me way down there. After two hours, the captain went into his descent. He said the weather was sunny, 85 degrees, perhaps a sudden rain shower later in the day. We bumped down on the runway and whizzed along it and finally slowed to a stop. I was there.

From there, my instructions were to take a cab to a place called “The Club.” I was going to room with the drummer, Frank, an older guy, short, gray-haired, who’d been with Huston for some time now. The white cabbie asked where to. I told him “The Club,” as he hauled my accordion box and suitcase into the trunk. The cabby repeated, “The Club?” “Why that’s the ritziest place in town, top of Red mountain, overlooking the steel mills and city. Anybody who’s somebody goes there.” I was impressed, at least for the moment. At the airport bathroom and drinking fountains, there were signs, one said White and one said Colored. What was this? I passed on the water and bought a Coke at a newsstand, and a New York Times with some headlines about Martin Luther King, Jr.

As we drove out of the airport, we passed a community with unpaved streets and sidewalks, just shack houses, the children playing shoeless in mud puddles. This neighborhood was more busted up than anything I’d ever seen in Brooklyn. And all the kids were black. Some clothes waved on clotheslines slung from shack to shack. Black adults looked at the cab passing through the streets, which looked positively antebellum. And who was that white face staring at them? Me. I read the New York Times’ front pages and read about this rabble rouser, Martin Luther King, Jr., who had graduated from college, married decided to become a minister, like his father, and now was preaching freedom for blacks.

King saw how badly black people were being treated. He became involved in the Civil Rights movement. Then, in 1955 a black woman, Rosa Parks, was arrested because she didn’t give up her seat to a white person on a bus. This incident made many blacks furious. They protested and decided to boycott the city’s buses. Martin Luther King became the president of this boycott.

White racists started to bomb King’s home and wanted to force him to give up his fight for equal rights. But King wasn’t afraid. He continued working for the black people of Alabama, then America.

At that time in the South, blacks and whites were separated in schools, restaurants, sports, stores, everywhere. The Times article went through these horrific tales of churches bombed and several children dying in them. I looked out the window to check where we were. The cab driver said, “This is it, my friend. This is ‘The Club.’”

“The Club” was an expensive-looking, private membership dining and dancing venue, with a post Lloyd Wright look. It had a big patio backed by glass windows for viewing the big steel mills (when we still produced steel) there. I tipped the cabby and carefully counted my change, tipped him well. “Have a good time,” he said, and drove away.

I heard the band rehearsing from outside. I walked towards the patio. Then walked inside where they were playing on a bandstand, Huston on the piano, with an early-sounding electric keyboard attached to the grand piano he was playing. There was a sax player, drummer who sang, bass player, myself soon there. Houston stopped when he saw me. I introduced myself. He said, “But where’s your big brother,” which got a laugh from the band. I offered him my hand, trying to shake off the lame gag. I answered, “I left him home. He hasn’t learned the changes yet.” Now I knew why his accordion player quit.

As I looked around there were tables at the windows and a dance floor lit from within that actually revolved when people started to dance. I thought of Lawrence Welk. Most of all, I noticed all the waiters were black, except for the bartender. All the guests sitting about were white and well-dressed. I was told by Huston that the guys in the band weren’t supposed to mingle with the guests. If we wanted something to eat or drink, we were to ask one of the black waiters, and they would bring it to the side room off to the right of the stage. Also, we were not to approach or converse with the patrons, (white people), on the patio during breaks. So the social order went.

These were the rules of the road. I was hungry and ordered a hamburger and coke for starters. Then I sat in to rehearse with the band. The arrangements were a bit square, over-syncopated, but I kept thinking of that three-hundred a week. It was doable.

What was more difficult was trying to be invisible to the white men and women speaking around me, and occasionally asking me a question about being so young. Despite the warning, I tried to be polite and to the point, though I caught the manager’s eye. The vibe was shared by the rest of the band. Huston as leader was the only one who had complete white man status. He spoke to one and all. Perhaps it was the grand piano he played with reasonable skill.

The black waiters did not ask for tips when they brought food. They did not ask for anything but what we wanted to drink or eat. After the rehearsal, Frank the drummer, my new roomy, drove us to our apartment in his new two-tone (black/gray) Nash with the seats that could be slung back to be beds. He introduced me to our neighbors, a young southern couple that was living in half of the semi-detached house we shared. She was pregnant as could be and her husband a redneck who talked about King and the “niggers getting uppetty and obsessed over one Rosa Parks who didn’t want to give up her bus seat to a white person, and how dangerous this was.” Fortunately, I was street smart enough not to ask why. I knew. Welcome to Segregation Row.

In fact, one day walking back from the segregated cafeteria about a mile away, I got on the bus because a sudden rain shower broke through the sky with thunder and lightning, and fell for about ten minutes soaking me. I caught up with the bus, got on, put my fare in and noticed I was in the white section. But there were no seats left in it, and being a New Yorker, I walked to the black section in the back and sat down on a seat between two black folks. All the heads turned to look at me. And the bus driver staring in the mirror said in a loud voice, “You can’t sit there, son. That’s the black section (as if I didn’t know). “But there’s no other seats,” I said. “Don’t matter, he said.” Seeing I wasn’t about to move, he got up and walked to the back of the bus to confront me.

“Now, I’m going to tell you one more time, either you go stand in the white section, or get off the bus.” I thought for a long minute as the bus went pin-drop silent. And then, as if an angel had pushed me, I got up and went to the open back doors and walked off the bus. Heads turned, black and white, staring at me, amazed, thinking who the hell is he? And as I stepped off the bus, lightening crackled again, and it began to pour again. The bus doors hissed shut and the bus took off, people still looking back at me. And I walked home as the burst of rain soaked me then turned to hot sunshine, as it is wont to do. I thought of having to play this game every day, and having to listen to my redneck neighbor bad-mouth King and others he deemed “bad niggers” every day. And I thought, King could be just twenty or thirty miles away. What a thrill it would be to see him.

That night, after playing to the aristocratic crowd, I was introduced by Ted to a pretty redhead with her parents. Ted joked about me, “He just got out of bed. His girlfriend had a cold all week.” Next night, after the gig, Donna turned into the driveway in a big white Lincoln, top down, wanting to spend some time with alone . . .” But that’s another story.

I think of how close I came to getting pummeled every time I or Frank challenged our redneck neighbors. That angel was looking over my shoulder again.

One day, a little kid was chanting to an elderly black woman walking to the bus after work, “Nig-ger, nig-ger.” Frank walked right across the street and told the kid, “Listen, sonny, you can’t talk to a grownup like that. It’s not nice.” The kid turned around and ran inside his house. In about two minutes, he came out again with his mother, who shouted at Frank, “You damn Yankee, don’t you talk to my child that way.” Frank explained what happened. The kid’s mom didn’t want to hear it and turned away and the kid started again . . .

In the morning, Frank and I were going to a rehearsal but he couldn’t start his car. He called a tow truck. It turned out someone put water in his gas tank, which had to be siphoned and refilled with gas. Nice people. So it went.

And six weeks later, I said goodbye to Ted Huston, the cute but brain- shackled girls and guests of “The Club,” the black waiters smothering their anger, as Huston got sacked: along with his electric keyboard. He offered the band a gig in Saginaw, Michigan, in a bowling alley, because “The Club’s” manager wanted to give each guy in the Huston band a fifty dollar pay cut. I felt I’d spent my time “On the road to King,” though he lingered too long umtil he reached that awful Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. And died so mercilessly at the CIA’s sharpshooting hands . . .

Fortunately, I came back as a hero to my Brooklyn neighborhood and happy to be there, Then I went to Brooklyn College with a rainbow coalition of students. I rode the Nostrand Avenue bus everyday from Williamsburg to Flatbush, through Bedford Stuyvesant, both ways each day, and through many other black sections, none so bare of love and respect for race or compassion as Birmingham. It’s more than money or skin color that it’s about. It’s about the freedom to be even a shadow of that angel/man Martin gave his precious life to be.

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer and life-long resident of New York City. An EBook version of his book of poems “State Of Shock,” on 9/11 and its after effects is now available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. He has also written hundreds of articles on politics and government as Associate Editor of Intrepid Report (formerly Online Journal). Reach him at gvmaz@verizon.net.

2 Responses to A taste of the segregated South

  1. Tony Vodvarka

    I recall driving home to NYC from Fort Bragg in 1962. Having just finished “summer camp”, the two weeks of active duty required in the Army reserves (a unit I volunteered for after a stint in the Regular Army), my companion, Sgt. Alvarado, and I were driving north through Virginia and stopped at a café for refreshment. I have to mention that we were both in full class A uniform, complete with green beret and jump boots. Alvarado, almost 50 years old, was a Korean War veteran with the Puerto Rican National Guard. He had medals and battle ribbons from his lapel to his pocket. To be able to get into our unit, he had graduated the rigorous Fort Bragg jump school at 45 and came out top of the class. We asked the clerk in the café for a soda and sandwich. The miserable chump said, “I’ll sell ‘em to you but he has to eat it outside”. For a moment, I was so stunned that I could hardly respond and then felt the adrenalin kicking in. Suddenly having a flash of me rolling around on the floor with some stupid redneck, we did the smart thing and walked out. But that shock never left me and one year later I participated in my first demonstration, the march on Washington for jobs and freedom in August 1963. I had the honor of being about a hundred yards from Dr. King when he gave his historic speech. Would that his vision could have been attained.

  2. What a great story Jerry. I don’t recall you ever telling my brother Joe and I about you’re traveling to Alabama for a gig, way back when you used to visit us in Queens Village, and show us some new jazz chord substitutions on you axe. What a life changing experience it must have been for you. Best regards, Vic