An Interview with Tommy Benford
by Peter Carr, Al Vollmer and Laurie Wright

Storyville Magazine

An Interview with Tommy Benford

by Peter Carr, Al Vollmer and Laurie Wright

What follows is the amalgamation of interviews done by the three of us over a ten year period, sometimes together, sometimes individually. It follows that there has been a considerable overlap in our individual interviews, and this has been eliminated in the final text, as have our questions, to provide a continuous narrative in Tommy’s own words. His story will be carried further at a later date.

I was born in Charleston, West Virginia on 19th April, 1905 and I had a twin sister, but she died when she was a baby. I had another sister who was much older, and my brother Bill who was a couple of years older than me. When I was three years old my mother died, so I never knew her. Then, when I was five my father died too, so my sister and my aunt put my brother and I in an Orphan Institute — and that’s where our music started.

Our family was musical on both sides as my father was a tuba player and a drummer and my mother had played organ and piano.

Music was a big thing at the Orphanage, and every boy got a chance to play. I started out on alto horn . . . peck horn we called it, then they tried me on baritone horn, then on trombone and trumpet, but I didn’t like any of those things because when I was young I always liked to laugh and talk a lot and eat, and if you were blowing a horn, you couldn’t do those things. So I asked if I could try the drums because my daddy had been a drummer and a tuba player. So in the end I took up the drums and brother Bill took up the tuba. They had three bands in the Orphanage, and we made it into the top band, The Jenkins Orphanage Number One Band they called it. Bill and I were in that band along with the three Aitken brothers, Lucius, Gene and Gus, and we played against all the name bands in the U.S. — Sousa, Arthur Pryor . . . and we played all those marches and overtures — Poet And Peasant, William Tell, and so on. We’d have everything, just like the bands have today. That band was so far advanced, and this was around 1914 to 1916. They used to call us a jazz band, and we used to feature blues too. We had guys in the band who could sing the blues, so the first band I was ever in in my life played jazz and blues!

They did things right at the Orphanage and the first thing they did was teach you to read music... that’s what I tell the kids today, get your groundwork right, and you can go anywhere. They also gave us a good general education and you worked at different trades like shoe-making and tailoring. Discipline was strict, but fair. If one of the kids did something wrong and got caught we had a system just like a courthouse with the old man . . . Mr. Jenkins, he was beautiful, as judge, and some of the older boys as jury. And you went before them and got tried, and if you got convicted, you got so many lashes. My brother was always in trouble, he was in court practically every other day! If I had my life over again, I’d want to do the same thing all over. They taught us everything there, and they turned out some wonderful musicians . . . I’ve already mentioned the Aitken brothers, and there was Fess Whatley, Geechie Harper, Jabbo Smith and Cat Anderson, but he came later.

My brother and I always got along beautifully . . . I don’t think we ever had a fight in our lives. We used to fool around of course, and I remember one particular day he was hiding behind a tree and he dared me to try and hit him with a stone. It took me five or six tries, but I got. him. Then we changed places, and he had a go at hitting me.

Every winter we used to go down to Florida with the school, and the guys always used to kid me because I couldn’t stand the heat, and I always used to get sick. Every time . . . I’d just fall out. I remember one spring too, they sent us to a farm about 25 miles out of Charleston, and we used to steal the melons and all the corn. We got so bad, we had to come back to school. Man, we had some tough kids!

As I told you, the number one band played against all the top bands, and then they decided they were going to send us on a ‘World Tour’. We were supposed to start in England, but we were only there a couple of months when war broke out. One of our matrons got caught in Paris, and she couldn’t get out, so we had to wait until she got back to England before we could all come back to America. We finally made it, but we had to make a lot of detours on our way because a lot of places were mined. We had a 25 piece band; the oldest boy was 16, and the youngest only 5. I was going on 7 and my brother was 9, so we were among the youngest in the band. Bill was playing alto horn and mellophone then, but he switched to tuba later. We played marches and overtures and we did concerts . . . they lasted at least two and a half hours. The director had his picture taken with the King’s daughter, it was beautiful.

Then, when we got back from Europe, they just put us back to school and we carried on as before.

Then I got the idea I wanted to make some money from playing music, so I ran away. You couldn’t leave the Orphanage until you were 21 in those days, so most of the guys used to run away. I ran away four times and each time they caught me and brought me back. When you got hauled back, they punished you by stopping all your recreation. The first time I left was to join The Green River Minstrels. Gene Aitken had the band with them . . . he was a big fat guy, but a terrific musician on trumpet, bass and trombone. My brother was with me, but I got caught. Next time was a Circus, then a Carnival, and the last one I remember was a Doctor Show. My brother was with me on the Carnival too, but as he was older they didn’t worry too much about getting him back. I wanted to learn all types of music, so that’s why I did it.

When I got away the last time I worked in a hotel in South Carolina, and I was there about five weeks. Then my brother came by to get me to join another Circus. Then we joined a Carnival, and it was in that Carnival that I met a woman called Diyaw Jones. She was a very fine trumpet player and so was her daughter Dolly. Her son Bill was also a musician and her husband, who had just died was a saxophone player and a professor of music, and they had their own show. They also had Josephine Baker dancing. Diyaw was one hell of a musician and she was the first girl I heard who played the vibes . . . and she played the drums too.
(At the mention of Dolly Jones we asked Tommy how well he knew her and her style and he replied that if he heard her, he would recognise her. So, without saying what they were we played the second coupling by Luis Russell’s Heebie Jeebie Stompers, followed by the first, and Tommy immediately picked out the second title [Dolly Mine] as being by her, but was adamant that she was not on the remaining three — LW)

Dolly was as good as her mother, perhaps a little more advanced technically, but they were both very good. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear that the trumpet on the other three tracks is a little heavier than the one I’m sure is Dolly.

Diyaw Jones was an Indian, and she was in music a long time... she worked with Ethel Waters for a time with a girl called Pearl Wright on piano.
(According to the Columbia files, Diyaw is present on the three unissued titles from the 28 June 1927 session — LW)  Ethel also used Horace Holmes on cornet . . . he came out of the school too, and I came up with him. My brother worked with her too, and made records with her. I made records with her too, her and her husband who played trumpet . . . I can’t remember his name at the moment. (Eddie Mallory? — LW)

I stayed with Diyaw for a time until we got to Chicago. We played around there for a bit . . . and that was the first time I met Happy Caldwell, he and I were the two youngest in the band and we played at a place called the Columbia Tavern on 31st and State Street. That was Diyaw, myself, Happy . . . and the fiddle player that had the band was called Brown, but I don’t remember his first name. And we had a woman on piano, I can’t think of her name either, and Happy can’t either, but she was from Chicago and the last time I met her was in Paris, just before the second World War. That was a nice outfit we had, and Happy and I used to go around Chicago together after we finished, because we finished early, around twelve o’clock, and we’d go to the all-night places. And that’s the first time I met Louis Armstrong and Joe Oliver. We used to have to borrow long pants to get in those places as we were still too young and still wearing short pants. (It should be explained that ‘short pants’ at this period meant knickerbockers tucked into knee-length socks, and most American boys wore them, often until they came of age — LW)

I left Chicago with a road show, Edgar Marton’s Burlesque Show. That was a terrific show, lasting two to two and a half hours, with singing and dancing — real entertainment. We were in the pit the whole time and we played before the show started, during the show, and sometimes during the intermission as well. We only travelled with three musicians, a pianist, Diyaw and myself, and we used to hire local musicians in the cities where we played to make it up to nine or ten pieces, so it was quite a big orchestra. When we got to Pittsburgh I got a call from my brother asking me to come on to New York as my sister’s marriage had just broken up and he figured we should all be together, so I quit and went to New York.

We had a family get-together and talked about what we were going to do. “Can you read music?” my brother asked. “Sure, I can, why ask me that, you know we learned that at school”, I told him. “I just wanted to make sure, as I’ve got a job a week tonight at Leroy’s.” That was one of the top clubs in Harlem at 135th Street and 5th Avenue, and Gene Aitken had the band in there. Bill was on tuba, Frazier Smith on guitar, Jake Green on trombone and Steve Wright on drums. Buddy (Gene Aitken) played trumpet and trombone. I studied with Steve Wright, and with Herbert Wright. They were not brothers, but they used to work with Jim Europe in the 15th Infantry Band. During the War they used to make like machine guns on their drums . . . now you’re talking about drummers! I helped Steve later on when I played at Ryan’s and got sick. The guys said who can we get to take your place? So I said, “Try Steve.” He was OK on the slow tunes but on the fast tunes he couldn’t make it, so he asked for a guitar player to back him. He was fabulous, he could read anything and everything.

Leroy’s was quite a big place and they put on different acts; singing, dancing, comedians and so on, just like you get today, but it was all new then. They started at 9 in the evening and went on until 4 or 5 in the morning.

I did get a job, but not there. I went in the Palm Garden on 135th Street with a friend of mine called Bob Fuller, who played clarinet and sax. We were only there a short time and then we went to The Garden Of Joy on 7th Avenue on the hill, and that was a beautiful place and we stayed up there quite a while . . . until the end of the season. We took Gonzell White’s place as she was going out on the road, and we got the job on the recommendation of my brother. She had a terrific show and a terrific band . . . Gus Aitken, Coleman Hawkins — that was the first band I saw him in, and I think after that he went with Fletcher, Harry White, her husband, on alto saxophone and Rastus Crump on drums. He was a terrific show drummer and he’s still living in Europe, I think Copenhagen, or maybe up in Sweden. We stayed there until the end of the season and then we played a series of different jobs including one at the Danceland on 125th Street — this must have been around the early part of 1923, I guess. Then I had a whole lot of short jobs . . . I worked with my brother in another of those ‘dime-a-dance’ places down on 86th Street, then at The Rainbow at 125th and Lexington — that was one of the biggest dance places in Harlem. It wasn’t too hard working in those places, as you played an hour and you got half an hour off, and you just played one tune for each dance, and never more than three minutes before they cleared the floor.

When I was coming up, I wanted to play all kinds of music, so I never stayed with any band for more than six months, and the guys got to know this, and after five months or so they would say, “We’d better start looking for another drummer.” I still feel that way, and I like a change regularly.

After playing all those short jobs . . . I remember working with people like Billy Fowler, Will Marion Cook and so on around this time, Marie Lucas got my brother and I to go into Goldgraben’s Cafe with her.
(According to Hoefer, this was an old-style saloon with a tile floor and wide booths which was open all night and became a favourite hangout for working musicians after their jobs — PC)  After we closed there, we went to Washington, and that’s where we got Juan Tizol on trombone and his cousin on violin . . . I never knew his name, and Bill Johnson on guitar. We brought these three guys out of Washington to a job in Asbury Park, New Jersey at the Smile-A-While Inn. Marie played piano, trumpet and trombone, and she also arranged and conducted, and that was the damndest band I ever worked with. Incidentally, her uncle was Will Marion Cook.

From Asbury Park, we went to The Tent in Atlantic City. At that time Jean Goldkette was playing at a club on the Boardwalk and he heard so much about our band, he and his boys used to come down every night, and he used to ask Marie if he could direct the band. Marie had one of the first and the best all-girl bands, but she drank a lot, in fact, she lost that job we were on because of that, and Herb Branch the trumpet player took the band over, and we went with a burlesque show to Binghampton, New York and a place in Pennsylvania. Clarence Robinson was the producer and director and that was some show. We had Ethel Waters, Edith Wilson, Tim Moore and Jennie Lee, Mantan Moreland, and Buck and Bubbles, and when we got back to New York, we went into a theatre on 14th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenue until the show eventually broke up.

Around this time . . . I think this must have been 1924, I subbed with Duke Ellington for a month. This was when Elmer Snowden had the band and my brother Bill was on tuba. Sonny got sick and that’s when Bill asked me to come and sub for him. We were in the Kentucky Club on 48th Street off Broadway. That was Bubber Miley, Arthur Whetsol, Charlie Irvis, Duke, Bill, Otto Hardwick and Elmer. They only had one sax. Bill didn’t stay with Duke too long, he left when Elmer did.

Around this time too, I was in a band at the Rhythm Club which was originally Marie Lucas’s. There was me, Frazier Smith, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith and Louis Metcalf. Metcalf had come to New York with Jimmy Cooper’s Revue, and he came in and sat in and played a couple of tunes with us one night, and I hired him fora couple of weeks — that was his first job in New York.

After that job closed, I heard through a friend that Sidney Bechet was getting ready to open at Herman’s Inn at 145th and 7th. That place later became known as the Club Basha. I got the job with Sidney and he had Johnny Hodges, Frazier Smith, Jake Frazier on trombone and a piano player from New Orleans, and we stayed there until the place closed, which wasn’t too long, maybe six months. Johnny Hodges was playing so much soprano at this time that Sidney gave him his soprano, and that’s how Hodges came to get that gold soprano.

After that I went with Charlie Skeete in Brooklyn at the Strand Ballroom at Fulton and Levins. I stayed with him for two or three years, and while I was with him I made my first records, and we also made a movie with Jean Harlow and Lewis Stone, but we were only on the soundtrack.
(I played the Edison coupling to Tommy and he came up with the following personnel: Leonard Davis, Tommy Hodges, t; Tommy Jones, tb; Gene Johnson, cl/as/bsx; Clifton Glover, cl/as/ts; Charlie Skeete, p; Joe Jones [brother of Tommy], bj; Bill Brown, bb and himself on drums — AV)  Kenneth Roane was originally on trumpet and was replaced by Leonard Davis, who played all the solo work. Jimmy Archey came in the band after Tommy Jones left, and we had another guy called Tommy on trombone too. Bobby Sands on sax was with us for a time too. Eventually, we left Brooklyn and went to Duprees Hall in Asbury Park. When that closed, I joined my brother, who had just formed his own band. In fact, he took some of Skeete’s guys as well as myself.

He had 6 pieces to start with, Ward Pinkett, Geechee Fields, Joe Garland and Lee Blair, as well as the two of us, and we went into one of those dancing places which didn’t last long. Then we moved on to another one on 125th Street, and then on to the Rose Danceland further west on the same street. By then Bill had enlarged to 11 pieces with Ward — a wonderful player, my brother gave him his first job after he left Cincinnati — on 1st trumpet, Preacher Jones and Ward’s cousin, Edgar Courance, on 3rd. Rudy Powell and Russell Procope were also there, and Lester Armstead from Brooklyn on piano. Most of the guys were sight readers and could play anything. And in those days you had to play everything; waltzes, a little jazz, cha-chas, meringues, tangos . . . everything!

It was while we were there that we met Jelly Roll Morton. . . .

to be continued

 The continuation of an interview with Tommy Benford
by Peter Carr, Al Vollmer and Laurie Wright

It was in the spring of 1928 that I first met Jelly Roll Morton. I was playing in my brother’s band at the Rose Danceland up on 125th Street, and this particular night this fellow came in the club and wanted to know if he could come up and do a number with the band — we didn’t know who he was at the time. Seems he’d met one of the guys out on 7th Avenue and wanted to know which band was playing in there. So he came up and spoke to the proprietor and asked if he could do a number. He told him, “Yes, he could sing a song”, but my brother Bill got quite upset and said that Jelly couldn’t do anything unless he said so — it was his band. But Jelly was nice to him, and Bill said yes, anyway. Jelly had a whole lot of music with him — printed orchestrations — and he gave Bill one of his sheets and asked if the guys could read. “What kind of band do you think I’ve got,” said Bill, “Give me the music, I’ll pass it out.” I don’t remember which tune it was, but it was one of Jelly’s own, and we played it. Jelly went crazy about the band and came back up there nearly every night. We found out later that he’d been going all ’round New York taking in the different bands, but we were the one he really liked. He said we were terrific and asked if we wanted to make some records with him — he had a contract with Victor. He talked a lot about this and how he was going to build us up, and we talked it over and said we were agreeable providing the money was right. So, a couple of days later he brought in the contract and we started rehearsing. We did that in the mornings — the dance hall finished at 1.00 a.m. — it wasn’t like a night club, so we weren’t too tired. We rehearsed in a little night club on 7th Avenue called the Hoofer’s Club nothing goes on in those places during the day, so they were always available for rehearsals, and we went in there fora couple of days from 10.30 until 2.00, and Jelly was very particular, he knew just what he wanted. He played piano himself and had Omer Simeon come in on clarinet.

We made the records for RCA, downtown on 57th Street. We had to be at the studio for 11.30, and we worked until 3.00.
(The recording sheet shows that the sides were made in Liederkranz Hall, and that the session was from 1.30 p.m. until 5.25 p.m. so possibly a rehearsal session was held at the studios in advance of the actual recording — LW)  Lester Armstead, who was our regular pianist got paid even though he didn’t get his name used — that was a Union rule as he was a regular member of the band. He was actually there, and I recall him playing on a couple of numbers, but maybe that was just while they got the balance right, but he got paid for the whole session. At this time, Jelly didn’t play at the Rose Danceland with the band, that was always Lester, and he was some pianist! But he lived in Brooklyn and didn’t always make the job and we began to use Nick Rodriguez when he didn’t show, and eventually Nick took his place for a time. I’ve a feeling that Jelly had something to do with that, maybe he recommended him to my brother.

I remember that Jelly was very particular about the tempos he wanted, and right at the beginning of the rehearsals he said to me, “Watch my foot, I’ll give it to you, and you hold it there.” We made a whole lot of things at that first date, and some of them never did come out.

When the first records did come out Jelly was working with us and he wanted to take the band out on tour to promote the records. Jelly was alright, he did everything properly and always asked my brother before he did anything with us. So when he wanted to go on the road, Bill told the guys and some wanted to go, and some of us didn’t. I know that Ward and Bill and myself and Geechy Fields didn’t want to go — we had a nice easy number where we were — but some of the other guys went out with Jelly. But I guess things didn’t work out too well because they were complaining when they got back.

I worked with Jelly several times after that first record date and when I got back from Lisbon I went up to the Union and they told me he’d just died — I couldn’t believe it. A lot of guys didn’t like him because he talked too much about what he could do, but he could do it, and I liked him, and my brother Bill liked him too.

We stayed at the Rose Danceland until I had an argument with my brother. Bill hired some new guys for the band — I think Clarence Grimes was one — and I found out he was paying the new guys more than he was paying me, so I quit, and just left the band. That’s when I went to the Alhambra Theatre with Edgar Hayes, playing for all the different shows. I was there on and off altogether for about three or four years I guess. You know, if you can read, you can play shows.

I also did a lot of gig work and made records at this time — one of the people I worked for before I went to Europe was Fats Waller, and lots of others too.
(Mention of recordings made us play the three Miley Mileage Makers couplings to Tommy, as few days earlier we had played these to Happy Caldwell in an effort to fill some of the gaps in the personnel. Tommy listened carefully, and then commented . . .) That’s definitely me on drums and I’m sure I hear three trumpets on that first date — Bubber is the muted horn and that’s Ward playing open. Could be my brother on the first date, but that’s definitely not him on the others, Bill only ever played tuba, and it sounds more like Billy Taylor to me. I don’t know who the banjo player is.

After I left Hayes, I went to the Red Rooster — 138th or 139th Street with a guy called Sy Devereaux. He was a clarinet and alto sax player and we had Isidore Langlois on guitar, Wilson Mysers on bass and Norman Lester on piano. That was the band I went back to Europe with — Sy had this contract to play at the Chez Florence in Paris, that was in 1932, and I had some of the happiest times in my life over there, and that’s where I met my first wife — she was from Vienna.

The above article was serialised in the Storyville magazine, No. 100, dated April—May 1982, pages 124—129, and No. 111, dated February—March 1984, pages 105—107.

April—May 1982 and February—March 1984 Laurie Wright

Note: Tommy Benford died on 24th March 1994. (Social Security Death Index) His SSDI record gives the same date of birth of 19th April 1905 that he gave himself in the above article. However, the ages recorded for him in the 1920 U.S. Census and the 1930 U.S. Census indicate that he was two years older than that. Similarly, Bill Benford’s 1930 U.S. Census entry and two passenger lists from overseas trips suggest that he was a year or two older than the age generally given for him in jazz reference books.

The Jenkins Orphanage that Tommy Benford mentions was founded and run by Reverend Daniel J. Jenkins (1862-1937) in Charleston, South Carolina. The Jenkins Orphanage provided music tuition to youngsters, many of whom later became famous jazzmen. Apart from the Benford brothers, and the people mentioned above, other inmates who learned their craft there included trumpeter Amos White, trombonist Julius “Geechie” Fields (who is mentioned above and worked with Jelly Roll Morton at the same time as the Benfords) and Count Basie’s guitarist Freddie Green. [AJN 1, 47, 52-60] Bands from the Orphanage visited Europe on a few occasions and Bill Benford visited England on one of those trips in 1914. Several years after leaving the orphanage, he later returned in 1926-1927, during which time he recorded with The Plantation Orchestra in London in December 1926. [BG 21]

Return to Main Morton Page Back to Top Forward to Posthumous Articles Page

Home Page

Jelly Roll Morton J. Lawrence Cook Frank Melrose
Roy J. Carew Anita Gonzales and Bob Kirstein Radio Broadcast Max Kortlander An Essay in Genealogy
International Researchers Jelly Roll Morton and Alan Lomax Library of Congress Narrative MIDI Files Recommended Listening
WWI Draft Registration Cards and Essays Jelly Roll Morton Iconography Library Photograph Gallery Document Archives
Recently Updated Articles Jelly Roll Morton Recordings and Discography Jelly Roll Morton Posthumous Articles Directory of Related Links

1999—2022 Monrovia Sound Studio