Camelot in 4/4 time

A golden age in Dallas jazz turns 40

It doesn't look like much now--just another run-down building in a neighborhood gone to seed, where flat-black burglar bars seem to have spread across doors and windows like mildew, and by noon clots of the glassy-eyed have staked out the favorable corners, bag-wrapped brown bottles at their feet. Windows in the building are boarded up from the inside and the front double doors are securely locked now at the American Woodman Hall at the corner of Oakland and Carpenter, but there was a time--the late '50s almost into the late '60s--when this weathered building was not only new, but the center of a musical scene of startling fertility and influence. Back then, the Woodman was the nest from which an entire generation of Dallas' jazz talent received nourishment and instruction from older, wiser masters. Even more surprising--for the stiff segregation that was public policy at the time--black and white, the tutored and the savant, met without suspicion or fear, unified by a common love of music.

The American Woodman Hall saw the molding of a host of now-famed local talent, from saxmen like Marchel Ivery (tenor), Eugene "Worm" Halton (alto then, although he plays tenor now), guitarists such as Nappy Chin, Roger Boykin, and Donnie Gililland, and others, often with the help of already established names like David "Fathead" Newman, James Clay, Billy Harper (all tenor saxophone; Fathead also plays flute and alto), and Al Dupree (piano). It was our own golden age of jazz, initiated almost by chance, ushered out by deep changes that those affected couldn't even begin to see--let alone fully comprehend--and it's the subject of a retrospective and reunion sponsored by the Sammons Center for the Performing Arts' Sammons Jazz program, scheduled for Wednesday, September 3.

The American Woodmen started out as a fraternal organization headquartered in Denver, Colorado. Designed at first to foster fellowship (arguably like the pleasure and social clubs of New Orleans), it later used the advantages of massed membership to provide insurance benefits much like Texas' own Sons of Hermann. Like the Sons of Hermann Hall that now sits at the east end of Deep Ellum, the Woodman Hall provided the various lodges--in this case called "camps"--an opportunity to make a little money on the side through the rental of the hall when it wasn't needed for official business.

The building was still relatively new in September 1957 when Billy Burke, the first black sales rep hired by the American Tobacco Company south of the Mason-Dixon line, and Tony Davis, publisher and founder of In Sepia--now the The Dallas Weekly--came together. The pair joined an entrepreneurial spirit (primarily Davis, whom Burke calls "the greatest promoter Dallas has ever seen") with love of music (principally Burke, who calls the music room in his North Dallas home--shelves full of jazz CDs and cassettes, walls covered with pictures--"my heaven").

"It was a whim, really," recalls Burke today. "In Houston, there was this place called the Ebony Club that hosted a jam session, and we were talking about it. I thought it was something that we'd plan and eventually do, but the next night Tony came by in his car and said, 'Ride with me.'" The two ended up at the Woodman, which was fairly new and without any renters for the space on Sunday afternoons. To Burke's surprise, Davis immediately began asking questions about price and availability; almost before Burke knew it, the pair had engaged the hall for half a year, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., for $35 an afternoon.

At the same time, the Red Tops--built around a musically inclined core of neighborhood kids Worm Halton, Bobby Saunders, and Claude Johnson--were inching their own way toward the venue. "When we started out, we were just fooling around," Halton remembers. "We started out on Bobby's front porch, then we moved up to little places where we'd just play for barbecue sandwiches. Then Howard Lewis and John Henry Branch got ahold of us, and they'd start sending us out on little jobs." The group moved up to hotels and venues like the Empire Room and backing up traveling acts such as Ruth Brown. At the same time, they attracted other like-minded older kids such as trumpeter Willie T. Albert and guitarist Roger Boykin. When the Woodman needed a band, the Red Tops (by then led by Albert) were ready, coming aboard as the house group.

The afternoon show caught on almost instantly. "Within a month," Burke says, "word of mouth had spread so far that it was standing room only every Sunday." At first admission to the hall--which could hold around 300 souls--was one dollar; a table was another 50 cents; the Red Tops made $64 (roughly $8 a man) for the afternoon. You brought in your own booze and bought soda and buckets of ice, and if you didn't have any food to take in, the hall had a kitchen. "I can still hear Johnny Shields [the MC] saying, 'Don't forget--we got chicken in the basket for 65 cents,'" Burke recalls with a chuckle.

Segregation had black Dallas confined to the south side of town; many patrons lived within walking distance, and few were farther away than a short drive, bus trip, or taxi ride. The afternoon soon assumed a central role in the life of the community. "People dressed up," says Boykin, who joined the band shortly before they started playing at the Woodman. "It was a big party and a fashion show, too, because people were dressed up, to the nines. It was right after church. It was very festive, like a dress-up picnic indoors."

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