Friday, June 21, 2013

Leroy Cooper on Marcus Belgrave and Interview with Marcus Belgave

Cooper Meets Belgrave
By Susan Cross

I met Marcus when I came out of the military back in the ‘50s. He was in the Air Force in Wichita Falls, Texas. He would come down to Dallas on weekends where we would have the jam sessions. He was getting out of the Air Force. They brought him down to a jam session, and I just got out of the Army – that’s how long ago I met him. He figured that the guys in Dallas couldn’t play too much. He’s got people in New York so he figured he’s coming down south and these were nobodies. Well, he plays trumpet now, but he brought this trombone to the jam session. He was experimenting and those guys I played with were hot. He was surprised.

He said, “Next Sunday I’ll bring my trumpet.” Never underestimate your adversaries.

So people in this club where I was working in Dallas called the Harmony Lounge got to hear him. People like Pat Boone used to hang out in there. All the kids from north Texas, big college, up the road 30 miles, would come down to the Harmony Lounge and all the top musicians would come in and play. It was a regular Sunday shootout.

I told him, “Why don’t you try to get with Ray Charles?” A lot of the guys he knew from the sessions in Dallas were with Ray. When they went to his home town, Chester, Pennsylvania, he got in the band. When I came back into the band he was already there. We were old friends.
I’m talking back in the late 50s. We go back farther I think. We were so tight. It’s funny how a band would be so involved with people.

People don’t realize how tight. We used to go to night clubs and see these girls talking to a local guy, and we would say, that’s so and so’s wife. It was a shame. We would be upset. And some guy wouldn’t even know. He’d just say look at this. We’d say that’s a friend of mine. There was such a closeness.

Marcus always had such a good heart. He’s a good man. Guys used to gamble back in the early days. I remember in Detroit the road manager broke the band. But Marcus broke him. So we didn’t have any money. Every day Marcus would come by and take us to dinner. The band would line up like soldiers.

“Time to go eat,” Marcus said. We had a three dice game called 4-5-6. Poker with dice. We used to play it back in the day. It’s an interesting game and guys used to lose, lose, lose. I was just not a gambler.

I remember Marcus’ father, his brothers in Chester, all of them are deceased. We were tight. He left the band and then he came back. Every time I would go to Detroit, we’d have dinner or something and hang out. We keep in touch.

We went to Chicago for a reunion not too long ago. Cynthia Scott was there, too.
Marcus is very stable and very popular. He has a school in Detroit for jazz musicians that were very poor, ghetto kids. He’s gotten several awards. He’s highly respected.

Interview with Marcus Belgrave - August 2009

 Where are you from originally?
I’m from Chester, Pennsylvania. I knew Leroy before I joined the band. I met Leroy when I was in the Air force. I was stationed in Wichita Falls, Texas. I didn’t know too much about Texas so I was really despondent about being there. That’s when I met Leroy and he was working in a club. That was one of the first places that I got a chance to hear some real dyed in the wool jazz out of the southwest.
Everywhere you go you run into guys like Leroy and James Clay. They’ve got it all over the country. He was one of the great jazz musicians that I met. It was a revelation. I felt like I was a student. They gave me such a warm welcoming into a society of music that was not getting introduced to me. So it was an awakening to me. Running into Leroy Cooper and James Clay and Bobby Bradford in the same club. That was one of the most inspiring moments in my world. That’s my world. And John Hardee.

How long had you been playing trumpet by then?
My father taught me when I was young.  Then he sent me to a music conservatory in the Philadelphia area. Mike Boslet also taught me. I was all ears. My cousin, who is also a very fine baritone player in Dizzy Gillespie’s band, was the first one that taught me a Charlie Parker tune by ear. I was about 5-years old. My life has been one great musical experience and Leroy Cooper opened my eyes to the realities of places I could play. That was the most memorable experience. Being in Texas, I thought that being part of the Air Force band would be a great thing but it didn’t turn out that way. John Hardee taking me to Dallas and introducing me to these guys gave me a new life.

How long were you in the Air Force?
I was with them over two years. It was during the Korean War. It was a four-year hitch but after two years you could take a voluntary discharge and that’s what I did.

When did you join the Ray Charles band?
After I left the Air Force, I met Ray Charles and Leroy was with him then. I got a chance to sit in with them. I didn’t get a job with them then because one of the guys was sick and he went home so I did get a chance to sit in with them, but he was coming back. So it wasn’t until about three months later until I got hired. Ray came to my home town and spent about three weeks and I got the job. The last day Ray Charles was going to be in town I went by this club and someone said, Hey, they’ve been looking for you. Ray Charles asked could I be ready in an hour. I said I’ll do my best. Leroy wasn’t in the band then. Three months before that, a few months before Christmas, I guess he decided to stay home in Dallas. And for whatever reasons Ray told me that if you want this gig you can have it. I didn’t think too much about it. I wanted to play with Ray’s band because it was one of the first bands I heard that had that heart and soul. That was 1958.

How long were you with the band?
I stayed with him off and on until 1963 then I went back with him a couple of times 1970-71.
When was the last time you got together with the band members? 

We did a tribute to Ray in Chicago last year [2008] at the jazz festival. They wanted someone there who had been in the band so they asked me to put the band together from Ray’s small band. Leroy came up for that. They gathered us together; the ones who had played in Ray’s small band. Leroy was number one, Phil Guilbeau on trumpet, Hank Crawford, David Newman, and me on trumpet. Cynthia Scott was there, too. Leroy and David Newman are the ones I kept in touch more than the others. I’ve always been in contact with Cooper. The great reunion. Previously we had done one with Ray in Chicago in 1997.

Is that the last time you saw Ray?
That was one of the times that Ray got everyone back together. Ray was very much a part of that getting together of the band which he called his favorite small band. The last time was in 1979 for Saturday Night Live.

What are you involved with now?
I’m happily married to a beautiful lady named Joan. We perform together, playing jazz.
I founded an organization for underprivileged kids to learn music. Actually the kids had formed together so I just made it a foundation. They wanted to learn something about jazz and performing. I guess I was just in the right place at the right time. So many came through and became successful. It wasn’t planned. I was involved with a government sponsored program that lasted three years in Detroit. When that folded up, there was some kids that didn’t have the opportunity to come under that wing and they wanted to continue. So they came to me. They were very ambitious and dedicated.
It became so successful with those young people, and so many of them have made great lives and have done quite well on their own.

Copyright © 2013 Susan Cross – All rights reserved

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Happy Father's Day to the Fathers whose children never knew them

And then there was a very special man who saw his children only from afar. One who never got to play the role of dad but never forgot the two sons he had fathered once he was made aware of them by their their mothers whom he had met along his travels.
Although the children were raised well by step-fathers, he knew they shared his blood. He saw his likeness in their faces and watched them grow when his path took him through their separate towns.

Amazingly the two boys ended up attending the same college and grew to be best friends. One day he sat on a bench outside a building at the university and saw them exiting together after class. "It was like looking into a mirror of me in my past," he said. "I couldn't believe that the two young men didn't know they were brothers." Then again, maybe something special drew them together and they shared common interests.
He never got to shoot hoops with them or teach them to play the saxophone like his dad had done with him. Unknowingly, they probably grew up listening to his music and admiring his talent, eventually seeing him on TV and even possibly in a movie.
In some cases, men like these were wonderful, unselfish fathers who missed out on the joys of participating in their children's lives. Instead this one followed in his father's shoes, playing music throughout his life. Eventually his talent and many moments of serendipity led to a life on the road, to special places representing his country in an Army band and on to a successful, professional career. The baritone saxophones he owned were his children; his bandmates his family.
Telling this story, staring off into the past, tears formed in his eyes. Living as a musician has its rewards. It also has its sacrifices.

Copyright © 2013 Susan Cross – All rights reserved