Date Posted: 2006-04-28
Don Albert- New Orleans` Gift to Texas
by Paige VanVorst
(ed note: Last issue we discussed Joe Darensbourg, who spent most of his career bringing New Orleans jazz to the West Coast. This issue we meet Don Albert, an Orleanian who spent fifty years in the shadow of the Alamo.) Don Albert was one of the "younger" New Orleans musicians, more of a swing player than a New Orleans traditionalist, though he remained close to New Orleans jazz his entire life, even when he wasn`tt actively working as a musician.
Don Albert was born Albert Anite Dominique, August 5, 1908. He lived in New Orleansâ ™ heavily Creole Seventh Ward, at 1719 N Robertson St. His father was a cigarmaker and worked at a nearby cigar factory owned by his cousin Ulysses Bigard. There were no other musicians in Albert`s immediate family, though his uncle Anatie "Natty" Dominique, was a very distinguished New Orleans trumpeter who recorded with Johnny Dodds, Jimmie Noone, Jelly Roll Morton and others during a long career in Chicago. His second cousins, Albany "Barney" Bigard and Alex Bigard, were also distinguished musicians, the former as the star clarinetist in Duke Ellington`s Orchestra, the latter as a drummer with a number of New Orleans-based groups.
When Albert was growing up, the musicians were prominent people in the community, though in a Creole community during that time music was considered an avocation, though an often- profitable one, and the youngsters all aspired to join one of the distinguished orchestras when they grew up, playing light classical numbers, or working in one of the city`s many brass bands. In his neighborhood the old heads in the music business were "Old Man" George Moret, a trumpeter and leader of the Excelsior Brass Band, and Manuel Perez, trumpet star of the Onward Brass Band. Both men were also cigarmakers by trade.
Young Albert Dominique had a fairly difficult life- his father was relatively unreliable, given to bouts of heavy drinking that occasionally led to abusive treatment of the youngster. Young Dominique took refuge in music. He followed the brass bands, watching his heroes like Moret and Perez, sneaking into dancehalls to hear greats like Chris Kelly, whose playing he tried to copy.
His father arranged for him to take trumpet lessons from a friend of his, Nelson Jean, but he was drunk both times Albert showed up for his lesson and he stopped going there, arranging instead to study with Milford Piron, leader of the orchestra of the Autocrat Club, a prominent Creole organization and brother of Armond Piron, leader of one of New Orleans` most prominent bands. Piron was a professor of the old school, and taught Albert via solfege, or sight-singing, a method under which you study music extensively before you even try to play an instrument, to develop good sightreading skills.
Albert started working little jobs when he was about fourteen. He worked a bit on the Susquehanna, a boat that ran between the Spanish Fort and Slidell on Sundays. During the week he worked at a mattress factory; one of his co-workers was George Colar, later famous as New Orleans trumpeter Kid Shiek.
Albert Dominique became engaged when he was eighteen and after his marriage he settled in Dallas with his new wife. The transition from New Orleans to Texas was difficult with all sorts of differences in customs and cuisine, but they were determined to make it in Texas, and Albert wound up with a good job, with the Troy Floyd Orchestra, one of the best bands in Texas. They were fixtures at the Shadowland, a prominent Texas nightclub and Albert got his first chances to record with Floyd, a session with the full band, and another as a member of a small group backing a series of blue singers.
There was a fracas within the Troy Floyd band over the money from the recording session and Albert quit the band and returned to New Orleans and a job with Bebe Ridgely`s band. The money wasn`t what it had been with Troy Floyd and he was faced with returning to a day job to supplement his musical income as he now had a young son to raise.
Salvation came in the form of another Texan, Bernard Goldberg, who offered to put up the money for Albert to start his own group for some jobs in Dallas and San Antonio. Goldberg had apparently heard Albert with Troy Floyd and when he heard that a band was needed in conjunction with an upcoming state fair, he found Albert.
Albert put his band together in New Orleans, raiding the groups of Bebe Ridgely and Sidney Desvigne. From Desvigne he got reedman Herb Hall, singer Sidney Hansell and pianist Al Freeman Jr. From Ridgely he took reedmen Louis Cottrell Jr and Arthur Derbigny as well as banjoist Ferdinand Dejan. Most of the players were Seventh Ward Creoles like Albert. The band set out for Texas in three cars, and got organized in Dallas.
One of the first things Albert Dominique did upon becoming a bandleader was change his name- Texans had a terrible time pronouncing his name, so Albert Dominique became Don Albert, though never legally; Don Albert was merely a stage name.
After getting organized in Dallas, Don Albert and his Ten Pals headed for San Antonio and a job at the Chicken Plantation, which lasted six months and enabled him to pay off his backer. He followed the owner of the Chicken Plantation to Shadowland, and worked several more months as the house band there.
The band settled in San Antonio and Albert`s family moved from New Orleans to join him. Albert seems to have been restless playing local jobs- he was always looking for something bigger and better. That meant taking the band on the road, as the band would never attract the attention it needed to become a major attraction playing local jobs.
Don Albert and His Ten Pals took to the road in 1931 for the first of eleven tours that ultimately brought them to about half of the continental United States. The Albert band is generally considered a Southwestern territory band- they competed within their territory initially with Troy Floyd and ultimately with Boots and his Buddies.
The band kept expanding as business got better and trends in the Swing Era began calling for a larger group. Albert added New Orleans players when he
could- he added trumpeter Alvin Alcorn in 1932 and picked up bassist Jimmy Johnson, who had been with Buddy Bolden. "We thought he was pretty old because he`d been with Bolden," Alcorn remembered, "but he was only in his late forties when he died."
The Ten Pals title began to constrict. Albert started billing the group as "Don Albert and Ten Pals- All Twelve of Them." Ultimately he billed the band as "Don Albert and His Orchestra- America`s Greatest Swing Band." Like many territory bands, Albert`s group was a cover band- they offered their own arrangements of the latest hits by other groups- if Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford or Andy Kirk had a hit with a number, one of the band`s arrangers would work up a chart.
The Albert band was a "commonwealth" band, meaning the players shared the income rather than receiving a fixed salary. They began a fund using tips received for playing requests and bought a used bus- ultimately they had a brand-new 33-passenger bus owned by the band and maintained from the money in the fund.
When they began traveling a lot they even hired two drivers so they could make long runs without worrying about having the driver fall asleep. Many of their southern jobs were percentage jobs anyway, which were well-suited to the commonwealth system- they would collect 70% of the gate as their fee, and Albert would watch the door like a hawk to make sure he got a fair share of the proceeds.
Ultimately, Albert stopped playing and devoted himself to bandleading and business development. Alvin Alcorn took over the lead from Albert; this may have been due in part to Albert`s relatively square style- he was always a sweet trumpeter rather than an Armstrong disciple like most of his peers, and he may have felt that the band put on a stronger front with the younger men he`d hired. He often worked as an advance man, traveling ahead of the band to line up work. He was very light-skinned and when he was up North he often passed for white. He claimed to have inadvertently integrated a large number of hotels and restaurants during his travels.
Press accounts of the time always referred to the group as an up-and-coming band, ready to break out nationally any time and become a household name like Basie and Ellington. Albert was always cautious about turning his fate over completely to one of the large booking agents like Irving Mills or Joe Glaser.
He`d generally work with local bookers, selling a block of dates in a particular region. This usually worked well, though it spelled disaster for the group in
1935- they were booked for a couple of theatre dates in the New York area and at the same time one of their bookers had arranged gigs for them in Pennsylvania and Ohio. They blew off the latter gigs and raised a storm of protest from the bookers of the gigs, each of whom was left with a ballroom full of angry patrons when the Albert band didn`t show up. Charges were filed with the Musicians` Union and the Albert band was blacklisted, which meant they couldn`t work other than in the South, where the Union was relatively ineffective.
Gradually things were worked out and the suspension was lifted, just in time for the band`s recording session. Brunswick sent a field recording unit to San Antonio in the fall of 1936. They set up in the ballroom of the Bluebonnet Hotel and proceeded to record dozens of groups, including dance bands like Albert`s as well as western and Mexican groups. They recorded eight selections in about four hours- the producers were looking for quantity rather than quality and they were allowed only one second take- several of the numbers sound like they would have been great with a bit more work. The records circulated primarily in the Southwest, though enough copies turned up elsewhere that the session ultimately helped generate more work for the band.
By 1938 things started to unravel for the band- several of the key players
left- pianist Lloyd Glenn, who wrote many of the arrangements, tired of the road, as did Herb Hall, who`d been with the band since its inception. Albert need help to regroup, and he returned to New Orleans and borrowed over $4000 from Creole gangster Beansie Fauria. This got him back on his feet and assured him of work in New Orleans, as Fauria was then running the Tick Tock, a popular nightclub in the same building as the well-remembered Astoria.
Things got tougher and tougher for the band and Albert finally gave up the group in 1940 and took a civil service job with one of the many military bases in the San Antonio area. He stayed active in music, however- he began booking concerts at various venues- bringing in groups like Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan, Earl Hines, Andy Kirk and Jay McShann.
By the mid-40s Albert had opened his own nightclub, the Keyhole, in a converted movie theater. It was a popular club during wartime as there were a large number of bases nearby full of young soldiers looking for swing music. One young soldier, Zoot Sims, became a fixture at the club, working weekends with whatever band was playing the Keyhole. The first Keyhole closed about 1948 and moved to New Orleans, where he spent a lot of time and money trying to buy the Gypsy Tea Room. He`d become interested in running an integrated nightclub after his experiences with the first Keyhole, which was one of the few black-owned clubs in San Antonio with a sizeable white clientele. New Orleans wasn`t ready for something like that and he returned to San Antonio, though his visit wasn`t in vain. While there he met jazz writer Orin Blackstone, who interviewed him for JazzFinder, the first time the band received serious attention from the record-collecting community.
Albert returned to San Antonio and opened a second Keyhole in a newly-constructed building on the outskirts of town. Business was good, probably too good.
His policies had attracted the attention of the newly-elected Commissioner of Fire & Police, an avowed segregationist. He immediately took after the Keyhole, harassing the club repeatedly for minor infractions, on more than one occasion arresting all the patrons. Albert decided to fight, hired an attorney, and got a restraining order against the city. The case went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court and Albert prevailed all the way; the City of San Antonio was required to pay his legal expenses after the courts ruled that there had
been no valid basis for any of the police actions against the club.
Albert continued his civil service work throughout the fifties and sixties and he kept the Keyhole running until the mid-60`s. He`d pretty much retired from music by the late 1950`s. During the early days of the Keyhole he`d often play along with the band but gradually the groups were no longer in keeping with his style.
Things changed suddenly for Albert in 1961, when he was visited by Bill Russell and Paul Crawford from the Tulane University Jazz Archive. Russell interviewed Albert about his beginnings in music and suggested he might want to return to playing. Albert discussed his background at length for the interview and as soon as Russell was gone, he got out his trumpet and started practicing.
Albert started rehearsing with some of the local San Antonio musicians, including members of the Happy Jazz Band and the Alamo City Jazz Band. Jim Cullum Jr remembers going to the Keyhole for jam sessions and our new release this time out was recorded at one of the rehearsals, apparently for the Tulane Jazz Archive.
Albert went to New Orleans to present his tape to Bill Russell and Richard Allen and met Joe Mares of Southland Records. He wound up making three sessions for Southland, two with Sweet Emma Barrett and one with a pickup group called the Echoes of New Orleans. Albert became socially active in New Orleans, becoming an official of various Creole societies and participating in many Mardi Gras balls and other festivities. He is also featured on at least one of Al Rose`s Right to Profit albums, and Albert made appearances at some of the early New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festivals.
He was an enthusiastic if somewhat limited trumpeter in his later years. It took him a while to build up his stamina- during the early days he`d tire easily but by the 1970`s he was back at full strength. I heard him in concert at the Illiana Jazz Club in 1975 and he was doing fine. He was staying with his uncle Natty Dominique and touring with a fine band which included Louis Cottrell, Freddy Kohlman and Wendell Eugene.
Things turned seriously bad for Albert in 1978- he was out for a drive and a car ran a stoplight, broadsiding his car. His wife of over fifty years, Hazel Dominique, was killed instantly and he was seriously injured. He never really recovered from the accident- his injuries healed but the trauma of losing Hazel changed him permanently. He developed kidney problems but refused to have the required surgery and died March 4, 1980 of kidney failure.
Don Albert led one of the many fine swing bands that never quite achieved national attention, and he carved out a musical career that kept him in the public eye for over fifty years. His band was always full of fine New Orleans players and it served as a bridge between New Orleans jazz and the music of Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford and other name bandleaders. Like many territory bands, his was seriously underrecorded, but they did make it onto record and his sides are still quite listenable.
Our new release features Don Albert with Jim Cullum Sr on clarinet and Chuck Reiley on trombone. Don`t let the Southwest Jazz Band name fool you- this is the real stuff New Orleans style.
(For the full Don Albert story, be sure to look for "Jazz on the Road: Don Albert`s Musical Life" By Christopher Wilkinson. Univ of California Press, 2001.
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