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Johnny Otis on Lester Young and the racism that territory bands encountered

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Johnny Otis (center), playing with the Johnny Otis Revue

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     In his 1993 book Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue, the jazz and blues musician and impresario Johnny Otis writes primarily about the music scene in Los Angeles during the 40’s and 50’s.  Otis — who discovered the likes of Big Mama Thornton, Jackie Wilson and Etta James, and who is considered one of the most prominent white figures in the history of R & B — also devotes substantial portions of his book to the toxic white racism so prevalent in American entertainment in the first half of the 20th Century.

      The following excerpt — which begins and ends with an homage to Otis friend Lester Young — describes the experience of having to deal with the disgrace of blackface minstrelsy while Otis traveled with black bandleader George Morrison’s “territory band,” which was based in Denver but traveled in nearby states.

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      Back in the forties, Lester [Young] overheard one of my friends call me “Hawk” (as in hawk nose). From that moment on, I was Lady Hawk to him. Nothing negative intended: he called everybody lady something or other. Some years later, as I was getting off the elevator at the Chicago Pershing Hotel, I heard him call out, “Hey Lady Hawk, let me see your machine-o’reenie.” Don Robey had just brought me a new portable tape recorder to help me as I scouted talent for his Peacock record label. Even the most portable models weighed a ton in those days, so, I was happy to stop by his room. I would’ve been delighted anyhow, of course, because to spend time with Prez was to enjoy his “o’reenie, o’roonie” language and to just bask in the glow of his gentle genius.


     I’d give my right arm to have the tape Lester and I made that afternoon. Somehow, through the years, it got away from me. Maybe somebody lifted it? I don’t know. I wish I had it now so I could transcribe it verbatim. But I’ve relived it so many times in my mind that I remember a lot of what we chatted about.


      LESTER: “So, the Little Esthereenie kittie was a good lick o’reenie for you, hug?”


      J.O.: “Yeah, the little chick was a blessing for us. She’s raisin’ sand all over the country.”


      LESTER: “Y’all eatin’ regular now…dig.” [chuckle]


      J.O.: “They’ll be tryin’ to copy her song, evonce – that’s the stuff you gotta’ watch, dig.”

      “Evonce” was another Lester Young secret punctuation word that nobody knew the actual meaning of.

      As a kid, Lester was playing in the Young family band. Often this meant minstrel-type performances in the Deep South. The shows featured high-energy showmanship, often in demeaning blackface makeup and outrageous circus costumes. Lester’s nephew Jimmy Tolbert explains that young Prez refused to indulge in Big Jay McNeely-style rolling-on-the-floor antics. As the various family members wer jumping over each other’s backs, doing splits and wildly carrying on all over the stage, Lester’s idea of flash was to hold his horn sideways and up high, a habit that stayed with him throughout his career.


      I remember we had to put on funny hats to amuse the white folks during my time with George Morrison’s band in Denver, but that was the early forties, and blackface makeup and overt Uncle Tomming was not something we had to do in Denver during that time. The cutesy hats were degrading enough, however. The older musicians used to tell us about the twenties and thirties when earning a living in the lesser territory bands hinges on one’s willingness to swallow pride and act the buffoon.

      The white territory bands didn’t experience the same degree of humiliation. They were required to don funny hats and clown at times, but it was not racially degrading, as it was in our case. Moving from town to town in little raggedy school buses, having to go to the back door of restaurants to get something to eat, and being turned away at flea bag hotels and having to sleep in the freezing or sweltering bus – all this was hard to take. But the biggest hardship was the funny hats and having to suffer through some of our bandleader’s Uncle Tommish renditions such as “Sonny Boy” or “Shine.” George Morrison was a lovely person, but he would whip out his violin at a moment’s notion, sit on a stool center-stage, and do a version of “Shine” that would fill the musicians with shame and anger. The white folks loved it, of course, but this only made matters worse. George Morrison rejected the idea that this was kissin’ white folk’s asses. He referred to it “Black Diplomacy” and point out that without the “Sonny Boy” and “Shine” features, we wouldn’t be working. Of course, he had a point.


     Lester came up in the twenties and thirties when experiencing what we had to bear in the forties and fifties would’ve ben considered mild. In spite of what we went through, however, I don’t hear hardship in Lester’s playing. I hear a melancholy power and a lament, but I also hear a joyous celebration of life, the human spirit, and sexuality. But the, I’m a Lester Young freak. To me, Prez is the one figure who stands above the entire field of music as the guiding spirit of American artistry.

      Sweets Edison remembers that Prez “could play anything he thought of.” Anyone who plays an instrument and does any improvising, knows that, like reading music, you must be a few bars ahead of yourself at all times. Your brain says, “I’m coming up to the so-and-so part, so I’ll play thus and so.” But we also have a little monitor sitting up there – I certainly do, because of my technical limitations – and this monitor might tell us, “Yeah, that’s a great idea, but don’t try it!” So, you either modify the idea or go on to safer ground.


      Lester didn’t have that problem. He heard something in his head and he played it.

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Excerpted from Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue, by Johnny Otis

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Johnny Otis plays “Hand Jive,” from the Johnny Otis Show

Lester Young plays “Mean to Me”

George Morrison’s Famous Jazz Orchestra plays “I Know Why”