This is an excerpt from Leroy Cooper's memoir as told to me back in 2007. The material is copyrighted by Susan Cross and cannot be copied, published or duplicated without permission.
After I left school, I went to Waco, Texas with the little band. While we were there we met a big band leader that had a territorial band. There was a guy named Ernie Fields from Tulsa, Oklahoma that had a big band and part of his band had quit him. I’ll tell you who he had in his band: J.J. Johnson, the trombone player that wrote for the movies; Miles Davis was in that band; Gene Ammons; and Yusef Lateef. All of these guys went on to be big names but back then they were young so they left his band.
Someone from Ernie Fields band called down to where we were staying in Waco. They heard there were some musicians staying there, and they wanted this trumpet player to come join them. We were all high and everything, drinking our wine.
I said, ‘Tell ‘em you got the greatest saxophone player in the world sitting here.’ The guy put him on the phone and he said, “You want a job?” And I said, ‘Yeah.’
I was all cocky; I was tough and I was big and he said, “Okay, I’ll send you a train ticket to come to Oklahoma.” There was four of us, they sent us train tickets. All the people in Waco said we were going to be nothing and we said, ‘We’re going to join Ernie Field’s band in Tulsa, Oklahoma.’
So we caught the train, and I got to the band, and they were more professional than I was accustomed to. These guys were warming up and I heard the sounds coming out of their instruments, and I was afraid to toot my little horn. So I was just sitting there. The bandleader could see I was terrified because I was just a teenager so he said, “I’ll tell you what. Just play anything you want to play and tell the piano player what key you want to play it in. The guys didn’t even want to speak to me—that’s how musicians are. So I played Lady Be Good. And they got all friendly and introduced themselves. I thought, Wow I made an impression.
They wanted me to take Yusef Lateef’s place. He was a famous tenor saxophone player. I didn’t play tenor, I played alto. So that night in bed I thought, the baritone is the same pitch as the alto, it’s an E-flat instrument. They had an opening for a baritone player and the baritone player didn’t have to play solos because it was a bit awkward. So I told the band leader at rehearsal to let me try the baritone. He said okay. I didn’t have a baritone so one of the guys lent me one. So I got on the baritone and I wasn’t used to playing those notes and going through all those changes, and finally I told the bandleader, ‘Look, you can just give me bus fare back to Dallas and I’ll try again.’ I was giving up.
Back in those days, the band leader was like the father. He called everybody Hoss.
“I see something in you, Hoss.” he said, “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you give Hal McIntyre or Mooney who played with Duke Ellington’s band, (he was playing lead alto) you give him a dollar or two when you can afford it, and get him to teach you our book. So I got a room down the hall from Geezil Minerve, who went on to play with Duke Ellington, and I would worry him every day to teach me something. I was practicing every day. He was strict and he was from Orlando, Florida. He was a West Indian guy. And he would kick things up. I would say, ‘Slow it down,’ and he would say, “HuH Hut hut”, so being under him I improved. I got this new instrument that was a baritone and I got to where I could play. Sometimes he would get his flute and I could keep up with him on the flute, and in fact I was getting pretty good and they told me anytime a band comes through, worry the baritone player to death about the ins and outs about the instrument.
Basie’s band was forming in Oklahoma City and I was living in Tulsa. So when they came to Tulsa I would worry the baritone player to death. His name was [Jack] Washington. I would ask him, ‘Why do you do this, and why do you do that?’ He would say “Leave me alone.” But still we messed around.
Ernie Fields gave us our first trip to New York. The band went to do the show at the Apollo Theatre. Charlie Barnet’s band was playing there. Charlie Barnet’s band had all these big studio musicians. I remember the drummer had all these drums up on the stage. I had never seen that many drums and our little drummer had some little $1.98 drums. He was my buddy so he said, help me put my drums up on the stage. He was ashamed to take his drums up.
That night, Charlie Barnet had a birthday party and said everybody’s invited. So I went up there and I was drinking up the booze. And I was shaking hands and they didn’t know we were little country bumpkins from Oklahoma that didn’t know nothing. I went out on the stage and sang that first night. Our little drummer got a job with Dizzy Gillespie so when they took the program out I said ‘We don’t have nobody to sing.’ Lemon Drop was the song. So I said ‘I’ll sing it.’ I was 19 and I would do anything. This was at the Apollo Theatre where they would throw bricks at you; I went out there and sang my little song, baboom boom boom and blew with them so long that I got ahead.
The bandleader was teaching me stage decorum. I went out there and I turned around and he said “back up, back up.” I was learning how to entertain. The band paid me more money than I ever had in my life. He called me into where everybody got paid, this was in the late ‘40s, and I never had seen $100, and this man counted me out 100 bucks and he kept going. I thought ‘He’s counting out the money for the band.’ And then he got to $125 and he said, “Okay. Spend it wisely.”
I said ‘I get all this money? And you get paid like this every week?’ He said, “Yeah, boy.” And I said, ‘Wheee! I got money in my pocket!’ I spent it wisely. It was January and I was wearing my little Texas raincoat. I said I need a coat, so one of the little guys hanging around said “I’ll show you where you can get a coat cheap, and uh maybe I can get one if you get it cheap enough.” I thought he’s pulling my leg because everybody in New York needed a coat in January. He took me to a dry cleaner and all the unclaimed stuff was on the rack. He said, “Pick you out a coat.” Oh man, I got this nice, warm overcoat and the guy said “Give me 20 bucks.” ‘20 bucks?’ I said. The other guy I was with said “Fifteen.” I paid $15 and had a nice warm coat and the other guy got him a coat for about five. So I spent 20 bucks and both of us had coats.
He said “Now you need some snow boots.” For my little $125 I had a new suit and everything for the first time in my life. I wanted to go to a barber shop and get the works—shoe shine, nails—like I had seen it in the movies, so they fixed me up. I thought, ‘Oh, I could get used to this.’
They did a record while we were over in Jersey and a Broadway producer saw me. I didn’t know the baritone was popular like that and he said, “I think I can use you in a Broadway show.” I’m with this band over here and he was paying over 2, and I was traveling. Too much was happening too fast, but in the midst of all this Uncle Sam sent me a letter and I was drafted.