It would not be true to claim that Lucky Millinder was on the forefront of racial integration during the Swing Era. Benny Goodman was adding black musicians to his small groups as early as 1935, and during the war years, up to one-third of Charlie Barnet’s orchestra was black. Fletcher Henderson integrated his band in 1942-44, but it appears that this was a matter of necessity. Fletcher needed to replace musicians who were “gone with the draft.” Millinder’s involvement in integration came a little later, but it was truly an historic move.
Lucky Millinder’s motivation to integrate his 1946 band appears to be completely intentional. Certainly, there was a wealth of talented and available black musicians in New York City, especially those who were section players and would not be expected to solo regularly. In other words, bringing white sidemen into the band was a matter of choice, not necessity.
Little mention was made in the press at the time that Lucky made this important move in 1946. However, the following year, the integrated nature of the band was covered in the Pittsburgh Courier: “In recognition of his successful experiment whereby a group of mixed musicians played together the South, a citation was given to Lucky Millinder by the student board of A. and T. College…. Early last year, the colorful Millinder…added the first non-Negro member to his organization, in an extensive rebuilding move. …He felt the time had come to ‘do away with the jim crow [sic] attitude of Negroes as well as whites.’ Before his rebuilding program was over, he had literally put together an ‘all nations” crew’ with an Italian, an Armenian, an Irishman, a Jew, an East Indian, along with a number of Negroes. Not only have the men worked together without friction, but the band has played and traveled all over the South without incident.”
Traveling in the “without incident” is perhaps a bit of wishful thinking. The tours were fraught with stress and the fear of violence, and I have covered the formation and activities of this band, and the southern tours, in detail on my website: https://www.jazz-on-film.com/lucky-millinder-and-his-orchestra/
While we share this performance as a Soundie, it was originally released as one number in a ten- minute short subject titled Lucky Millender and his Orchestra. The one-reeler was produced for distribution to theaters that catered to black audiences, and producer William D. Alexander made sure that each of the musical numbers timed in at just three minutes. In that way, the three performances could be cut into individual numbers and re-distributed as Soundies, significantly increasing the monetary return for the production of the short.
I was able to speak with a couple of musicians who were in the band at this time. Trumpet player Leon Mariam told me that the tour to the South were “no skate.” He pointed out that five of the musicians in this band are white, and that the white and black players “got along fine.” Leon further recalled that the sideline session, that is, filming the playback, took place very early in the morning, after the band had returned from a one-nighter. Everyone was exhausted, he said. Indeed, look at the trombonist over Lucky’s left shoulder around three minutes into the film. He yawns, then appears to not off while the camera is rolling. Such is the life of a jazz musician in the late 1940s.
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