The stories about racial confrontations that jazz musicians experienced are, unfortunately, limitless. I recently posted “The Jazz at the Philharmonic Dice Game Bust,” which told the story of how producer Norman Granz challenged segregation in Houston.
Here is a pretty interesting story that Louis Bellson tells about how his bandleader Tommy Dorsey stood up for trumpet player Charlie Shavers during a swing through the Carolinas:
Somewhere down South — North Carolina or South Carolina — segregation, of course, was going on. Tommy told the buyer [on one date], “He’s [Shavers] in my band. He’s an artist. He’s featured in the band.” He was told, “You can’t have him play here.” The governor was called. When we arrived at the gig, there was dinner for the band and way over there was a little table for Charlie — way separate. Tommy said, “What’s that for? No, Charlie eats with us!”
That night on the bandstand, about an hour and a half into the dance, here came five big guys. A couple of them had baseball bats. They wandered right up to the bandstand. Charlie and I said, “Uh oh, here it is. What are we going to do now?” Tommy went down to the edge of the bandstand, looked at them, and said, “If you guys don’t get out of here I’m going to wrap this trombone right around all your necks.” When we heard that we said, “Whoa,” and about that time the police arrived. Tommy wasn’t afraid of anybody. He had feelings…He stood up for Charlie.
– Book excerpt from Tommy Dorsey: Livin’ n a Great Big Way, by Peter J. Levinson
Tommy Dorsey Orchestra plays “Opus One,” featuring Charlie Shavers on trumpet