Bernard Mason would have been B-1’s bandmaster had he not failed the Navy’s physical, so he remained at North Carolina A & T as band director while many of his former students were off to Raleigh for enlistment.
Under Mason’s direction, A & T’s bands–he directed both a marching and concert band–had become nationally renowned and a favorite at local and regional special events. The Norfolk Journal-Guide recognized the band’s excellence as it announced the formation of B-1: “The crack A. and T. College Band, recognized as one of the finest college organizations of its kind in the country, will be the nucleus of the first colored navy band.” Both the marching and concert bands traveled extensively throughout the South and East, and Mason, who was a big part of their draw.
The youthful Mason was a “fantastic musician,” recalled B-1 trombonist Richard Jones. “He could stand in front of a whole band and pick out the one guy with a bad note.” This is a particularly ironic skill given the story bandsmen tell of the two times the Navy tried to replace B-1’s bandmaster, James Parsons, with a white bandmaster. In each instance, during rehearsal for the “National Anthem” prior to a big public event, one reed would squawk, the bandmaster would stop, fuss, and start again, only to have another one squawk, and the process would go on until the white bandmaster would give up in exasperation, never able to find the culprit(s). And each time, the baton came back to Parsons.
Mason and and his band were why clarinet player William Skinner, a Norfolk native, had traveled to Greensboro to attend college. Skinner had seen them perform several times: “And I’d heard all about Bernard Mason. ‘Prof’ they called him. That was the best band around, and he was the best violinist I’d ever seen. We used to sit and cry watching him play. He’d be playing ‘Ave Maria’ and we’d all be sitting there crying. So I went to school there and played in the marching band and the orchestra.”
Soon after the commencement address at A & T in 1941 by the president of Howard University, A & T choir director Warner Lawson was hired by Howard. He, Mason, and Nathaniel Dett, who was choir director at Bennett College, had established Greensboro as a center for high art music in the United States; they organized frequent concerts by their respective college organizations and were responsible for bringing to campuses and the city many celebrated musical artists. Howard subsequently hired Mason as its band director.