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SWING! Excerpt: The Coppolas

Back to SWING! The New Retro Renaissance

JOHN COPPOLA: There was a shoeshine parlor in Oakland called the Hollywood Shoeshine Parlor, with 22 shine stands. You had to wait in line because the military, especially the paratroopers, all wanted their shoes spotless. The bootblacks would get 10 or 15 guys up on chairs, put on “Rockabye Basie,” and they’d all pop the cloth at the same time, catching all the accents, and the room would just be swingin’!

When I was 11, Arthur Peoples took me to Sweets Ballroom for the first time. Basie was playing and his band included Harry Edison, Buck Clayton, Ed Lewis and Al Killian on trumpets, Lester Young on tenor, and Jo Jones on drums. That’s when I realized the power of the trumpet section to carry the band. Shortly after, he took me to see the Gene Krupa Orchestra with Roy Eldridge on trumpet, and that made me want to play trumpet even more. By the time I was in Tech High School, I was going to Sweets three or four nights a week!

Once the war got rolling and these young guys were being drafted or enlisted, I began working professionally as a musician. At age 13, my first job was a one-nighter with Rudy Salvini’s band, and in the summer of 1945 I played at Camp Curry in Yosemite with the Buddy Stone Band. I’d had a good teacher; he had a physical disability so he didn’t go into the service. He began to hire me for jobs he would contract. I didn’t have much experience, but I had the endurance; I could play loud and high and that seemed to be enough. When I started high school I began to drift away from my poor uncle and began concentrating on music, and by my senior year I was steadily working nights at Sweets Ballroom.

So, I got to hear and see all the great swing bands of that period; everyone came through Oakland. It was segregated. The bands would come in to work two nights, and if Monday night was “Colored Night,” that’s when I would go, of course. All the hip young white cats would be there, because on that night the bands wouldn’t play the commercial stuff. In those days bands had to play waltzes, polkas, dances of every kind of everything. But when you caught Basie or Lunceford on colored night, they would play just swing and would stretch out more; the soloists got to play longer. That was the premium night. Hardly anybody danced; you’d look back and see people just deeply listening to the band. Way in the back some people might be dancing.

When a band like Basie came to town, every aspiring musician would be there early. The house band would play from 8-9, and the main band would come on at 9. So if you were really hip, you’d be there at 7:30 and listen to the house band, which was good. By the time Basie or Lunceford or whoever it was came on, there’d be 20 young cats grabbing their spots up front so they could study the band and try to pick up on stuff.

R/S: What were some of the other venues?

JC: Earl Hines had a big band for months at Slim Jenkins’ old place on 7th St. The bands played movie theaters too. Most theaters were set up for stage shows. In Oakland they had the T&D (which ran movies and had big bands), The Orpheum, the Fox Oakland and the Paramount. Sometimes it was hard to choose. There was one night when Basie was at the Paramount, Ellington at the Orpheum, Lionel Hampton at the T&D and someone else was in town, too. Another night, Harry James was at the Auditorium, Dave Matthews at the Scottish Rite, Basie at the Fox Oak, Benny Carter at the old Orpheum, and Charlie Barnet at Sweets. Oakland had a lot more live music than San Francisco. Remember, there were 100,000 servicemen in town who knew they were about to go overseas, and they just wanted to party. And the ballrooms were the place to be.

R/S: What was the situation with ladies?

JC: By the late part of ’42, people were flocking in from all over the country to work in the shipyards. People came from down South and the Midwest. The shipyards paid well and you could work as many hours as you wanted. America was coming out of the Depression and all of a sudden people had money, but there was nothing to spend it on! You couldn’t buy a car— they didn’t make them during the war.

There was rationing, although it was a bit of a joke. People couldn’t buy more than four pairs of shoes a year, but who buys that many shoes, anyway? There was gas rationing, and if you did have a car, that was a problem. You had an A, B or C card, and if you were working in defense you could get more gas coupons. There were also meat and butter coupons, but the rationing was generous compared to England; I didn’t see any skinny people.

There were a lot of young ladies coming in to work the shipyards; those were the days of “Rosie the Riveter” — remember that song? You had an influx of people who were either 4-F, or if they were really skillful, they got deferments because they were more important to the war effort in their work. The women came in and started taking over; this was really the breakthrough for hiring women in all industries: the military, the airplane industry (when women began working on electronic parts). They actually hired dwarves or midgets to do the welding at the bottom of ships, where it got very narrow. Everybody worked back then because there was a lot of work.

They let seniors in high school, or 16-year-old guys work in the shipyards if their parents okayed it. A lot of guys went to school only a half a day and did that . . .

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