During World War II, over 6,800 musicians served in the U.S. Navy in about 285 bands. Over 100 of these bands were comprised of African Americans. All but B-1 were trained at Camp Robert Smalls, one of three camps outside of Chicago that were collectively known as Great Lakes. Camp Smalls was the primary training post for African Americans, who began arriving in large numbers in August 1942 to train for jobs in the many ratings that had opened up to blacks as the Navy eased its segregationist policies. Although not officially a Navy School of Music, barracks 1812 at Camp Smalls functioned as one. Directed by Leonard L. Bowden, a well-known teacher and bandleader who appears also to have been in charge of much of the recruiting for the Navy’s black bands, it provided an intense learning experience for the musicians who lived there. Samuel Floyd has called the Great Lakes experience “the greatest single educational and musical experience for blacks ever to occur in America.” His monograph, The Great Lakes Experience, 1942-45, is the primary document on these bands. Most of those who came through Great Lakes had already had some formal music training; many were professional musicians. Also, concert and marching bands from black colleges “contributed to the high musical proficiency” of the Navy musicians, writes Floyd, who numbers them at more than 5,000. The Chicago Defender reports that H. Noble Simms trained more than 100 bands at Great Lakes. Simms was one of Bowden’s three assistants; the others: Russell Boone, who was charged with training drum majors in band directing and the bands in military ceremony; and Jimmy Canada, who was in charge of arrangers.
The Navy recognized the value of recruiting musicians for two reasons. First, as a way to help placate black leaders who for the most part wanted integrated units, the musician rank was a good one at which to make public the Navy’s new policy that took effect on June 1, 1942 to allow blacks to enlist at ranks higher than messman. And for the sailors themselves, at stations throughout the U.S. and in the Pacific, the enlisting of many of the nation’s top jazzmen meant an elevated level of entertainment that would ultimately lessen the stresses of service.
Black audience newspapers of the time carried frequent notices about the losses from the best jazz bands to both the Army and Navy. The Navy’s bandsmen had to be be better than jazzmen, though, as most would be required wherever they wound up being stationed to perform symphonic works, patriotic pieces, martial music and Americana, as well as popular songs and jazz. They would also have to know how to march, as parading for bond rallies would be a frequent assignment. The Navy’s job, at Camp Smalls, was to instruct them in all of this.
Von Freeman, the Chicago jazzman who also played with the Navy’s Hellcats in Hawaii, recalled: “All of the great musicians ended up at Great Lakes. It was an incubator for the best and the brightest lights in the jazz world at that time, and the musical jam sessions were simply phenomenal.” In addition to the main regimental band at Camp Robert Smalls, bands were also formed for Camps Lawrence and Moffett, part of the Great Lakes complex. Bowden directed the Camp Smalls band and from the three bands, he selected and led an all-star band that performed special concerts and played on a weekly “Men o’ War Radio Show,” which was broadcast from WBBM in Chicago every Saturday night, the “only all-black service show presented weekly over a radio network.”
Also featured on the radio show were a 200-voice regimental choir, a vocal octet, and a vocal quartet, Flats and Sharps.
In addition to Floyd’s seminal work in documenting black Navy bands, Clark Terry’s autobiography is an excellent source of first-hand information about the experiences of black musicians in the Navy. Terry had known Bowden from the pre-war music scene in St. Louis. Bowden, who joined the Navy on August 20, 1942, had been band director at Tuskegee Institute, his alma mater. In 1922, he was band director at the Alabama Reform School at Mt. Meigs, and then band director at Alabama A&M, where he helped establish the Bama State Collegians. His job was to direct the music programs that would be developed at Camp Robert Smalls. According to Terry, Bowden was in charge of new musician recruits but how much he traveled to recruit is not clear.
Recruiting for Navy bands was done through extensive publicity in black audience newspapers and also by direct recruiting wherever there were black local musicians unions: Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Chicago especially. And in addition to the many outstanding college players, a surprising number of high school musicians were recruited–at least nine from Dudley High School in Greensboro, NC, which had a 100-piece marching band directed by James B. Parsons, and several others from Industrial High School in Birmingham, where Fess Whatley was their instructor. When NC A & T’s band director was unable to pass his physical to enlist and serve as Navy B-1’s director, Parsons was recruited for that position. Alll of the Navy’s black bands were headed by white bandmasters except for B-1 but Parsons was never awarded the rank of bandmaster; he retired at musician first class.
Some Navy bandsmen, including John Coltrane and Lou Donaldson, didn’t get recruited to play music. Coltrane was originally an apprentice seaman, the rating he held when he was shipped to Manana Barracks at Pearl Harbor, but his musical talent got him transferred from a construction detail to a job with the base band, the Melody Masters, which he eventually led.
Donaldson told Marc Myers in a 2010 interview that he was in radar school and doing quite well at it when he wandered by the base’s band room and heard a clarinet squeak: “I stuck my head in to see who was making that noise. The bandmaster was giving a guy a lesson. The guy was playing ‘Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite,’ a march.” After being noticed by the bandmaster, who asked if he could play, the bandmaster “put music up on the stand and asked me to read it. I did. He put up another song. I read that down, too. He said, ‘You are the best clarinet player I’ve heard around here. Do you want to join the band? Do you play the saxophone too?'” And though he’d never touched one, Donaldson said yes and was issued an alto sax and clarinet and given a musicians rating.
Donaldson had been a student at NC A & T when he enlisted. Like Von Freeman, he started out in the base’s C band, made up of most of the younger guys. But everyone mixed when it came to jamming. “The musicians in the different bands used to get together and hold jam sessions,” Donaldson told Myers. “I’d sit in and learn stuff. That’s where I met Clark Terry.”
The Camp Smalls band, or A band, was featured in the “Forty Million in Forty Days” campaign in Chicago in 1943, using a “stump the band” approach: for a liberal donation, they would perform any three compositions requested by the donor, and they were never stumped. The Company A band also performed a spectacular open-air concert at Comisky Park that was broadcast on July 8, 1944.
Floyd writes that bandsmen trained at Great Lakes were shipped out to various bases across the country in 25-piece units and that one 45-piece (or regimental) band was sent to Chapel Hill. Here, he like others has conflates a second band that came to Chapel Hill after B-1, which was trained at Norfolk and was the first to be stationed at the Navy’s pre-flight school on the UNC campus there. They were replaced by a 25-piece Great Lakes-trained band in May 1944. The one 45-piece band that left Great Lakes was sent to St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, to be stationed with the pre-flight school there. The Navy also kept at least one white regimental band stationed at its Music School.
Most black bands were billeted on the base they served, and their duties were exclusively music related. They played for military functions at command and for public occasions such as bond rallies and parades and ships launchings, and also for varieties of public events at almost any kind of venue. Smaller bands cut from the main band at each base also played at dances for officers, at base functions and at USOs, and it is not unusual to find evidence of Navy bandsmen moonlighting with other professional combos at night, especially in San Francisco, Seattle, and New Orleans, in their rich jazz scenes. Although bandsmen were supposed to be assigned tasks only related to their musicians rating, documented conflicts over menial assignments given to bandsmen occurred in St. Louis and Hawaii and no doubt elsewhere.
The list of bands below is incomplete, a work in progress. Bands are listed as units and also according to the Navy base where they were stationed. Bases did not necessarily keep the same bands for the duration of the war, the Navy generally didn’t keep records of unit bands, and bands did not necessarily stay together, although several were recruited as whole or nearly whole bands and for the most part stayed together.
For an entertaining program that also provides historical background on the service of African Americans in U.S. Navy bands, watch Navy Pioneers: A History of African Americans in the Navy Music Program, a Smithsonian Institute production that was written by Navy band archivist Senior Chief Musician Michael Bayes.
African-American Navy Bands of World War II
The Great Lakes Bands:
- Ship’s Company A Band
A regimental band based at Camp Robert Smalls and led by Leonard L. Bowden. Clark Terry served in this band from his enlistment until his discharge in June 1945.
- Ship’s Company B Band
A regimental band based at Camp Lawrence and led by Nathan Prince; swing band led by Eddie Pennegar.
- Ship’s Company C Band
A regimental band based at Camp Moffett and led by H. Noble Simms; swing band led by Edwin Batchman.
- Great Lakes Radio Band
Led by Leonard Bowden
B-1, also designated Band 739 after it arrived in Hawaii
A regimental band comprised of the first African Americans to serve at rank higher than messman in the modern Navy, a distinction that for 60 years was mistakenly granted sailors who trained at Great Lakes. Trained at Norfolk and served at Chapel Hill and Pearl Harbor. Included these swing bands: the Cloudbusters, at Chapel Hill; the Manana Meteors and the Moonglowers, at Manana Barracks, Pearl Harbor.
Trained at Great Lakes and stationed subsequently at Beeville, Texas and New Orleans.
Barbers Point Band
Also known as the Hellcats.
Beeville, Texas, Chase Field Naval Air Station Band
Corpus Christi, Texas, Naval Air Station Band
Earl, New Jersey, Ammunition Depot Band
The depot was part of the much larger New York Naval Yard, which operated from 1800-1966.
Grosse Ile (Detroit), Michigan, Naval Air Station Band
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Naval Base Band
Lakehurst, New Jersey, Naval Air Station Band
Livermore, California, Air Station Band at Camp Parks
Los Alamitos, California, Naval Air Station
B-1’s replacement band, arrived at Manana Barracks in October 1945.
Minneapolis, Minnesota, Naval Air Station Band
New Orleans (Lakefront) Naval Air Station bands
Likely at least 3 different bands served this post.
Quonset Point, Rhode Island, Naval Air Station Band
Red Cross ship band
Richmond, Florida, Naval Air Station
Sharps & Flats
Sand Point, (Seattle) Washington, Naval Air Station Band
also known as the Jive Bombers
Ulithi Atoll, Caroline Islands, Advanced Fleet Anchorage
Albright, Alex. The Forgotten First: B-1 and the Integration of the Modern Navy. Fountain, NC: R.A. Fountain, 2013.
Floyd, Samuel A. The Great Lakes Experience, 1942-45. Carbondale, IL: S. Illinois U, 1974.
“A Little Known Legacy: The Great Lakes Experience: A Salute to African American Navy Bandsmen at the Great Lakes Naval Base, 1942-1945. A Weekend of Nostalgis, Feb. 28 – Mar. 2, 2003.” Chicago, IL: Feb. 2003.
Myers, Marc. “Lou Donaldson Interviews.” Jazz Wax. June 2010. 3-parts. Web. 29 July 2014.
“Navy Musician Trains over 100 Bands.” Chicago Defender 25 Aug. 1945: 14.
“Navy’s Three Sees Troupe as One of the Greatest.” Chicago Defender 9 Oct. 1943: 19.
Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1999.
Strawther, Larry. Emails to author. 5, 6 June 2016.
Terry, Clark, Gwen Terry and Bill Cosby. Clark: The Autobiography of Clark Terry. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 2011.