Celluloid Improvisations logo Jazz on Film Mark Cantor

Henri Woode and his Orchestra

While music takes up a great deal of screen time —there are no fewer than 11 compete performances in the film— screenwriters Lindsey and Hafner tried hard to inject some drama into the film.

Henri Woode: A Thumbnail Biography

Henri Woode was christened William Henri Woode in Omaha, Nebraska, on September 25, 1909. Although his first name is occasionally misspelled “Henry,” the spelling with the “terminal i” is correct, verified by the Social Security “death index,” which also suggests that he had eliminated the use of “William” quite early in his career.

Woode began piano and accordion lessons as a youngster, and SongDex (an online directory of songwriters and popular music: http://www.songdex.net), claims that Woode gave “concerts on piano at age 10,” and that within the next five or six years began working as a “theatre organist for silent films.” Little else is known about Woode’s childhood, and the biography developed by Dieter Hartman (Names & Numbers #21, April 2002) next finds him working with Jaspar “Jap” Allen in Kansas City and Oklahoma in 1930.

Woode’s next association with a name band was his 1931 tenure with the Lloyd Hunter orchestra, a territory group operating out of the Omaha area. Jo Jones was the drummer with the band, and he offers some interesting thoughts about Woode’s professional talents at this early date:

The one I learned more music from than anyone was Henri Woode. I roomed with him when I was with Lloyd Hunter’s band. He played piano and accordion, and sometimes I wanted to get my pistol on him because he would have music spread all over and he’d be using the bed as a piano, writing and singing. “The guy’s going crazy “ I thought. I didn’t want to go out and sit in the park. When we were on one-nighters in Iowa, I used to watch him. He’d come back in with another idea and start writing — with no piano. I picked up many things with the ten-piece band, and he really gave me an insight into ear training.

He was the band’s musical director. In most cases you are either an arranger or performer. Few people can ever be both. Even as of today, if Henri Woode brings in an arrangement to an orchestra, there will not be one mistake. And when he stomps it off you will play it from start to finish, and you’ll feel relaxed. All his arrangements are relaxed. (quoted by Stanley Dance in The World of Count Basie).

Woode’s composition and arrangement of “Sensational Mood” was recorded by Hunter’s Serenaders for Vocalion in New York City, on April 2, 1931. Discographies note, however, that the pianist on the date was either Burton Brewer or George Madison, and that Woode is not heard on the recording.

By early 1932 Woode was associated with the Earl “Fatha” Hines orchestra, where he was one of a number of featured arrangers for the band. Among his recorded works during this period are arrangements of “Sensational Mood” (the same as recorded by Lloyd Hunter the previous year) and “Rosetta,” the soon-to-be standard arranged for the band by Cecil Irwin. (While Hines is given label credit for the composition, Dan Morgenstern notes that Henri Woode claimed, through a friend, to have been the sole composer of this piece.) During the 1930s Woode also provided freelance arrangements to various bandleaders, and his score of “Goody Goody” proved to be an early hit for Benny Goodman in 1936. Other arranging work was done for the Count Basie orchestra, most notably “Broadway” (co- composed with Teddy McRae), which was recorded by Basie in 1941, and became a jazz standard thereafter.

With the coming of World War II Henri Woode apparently joined the Navy Seabees, where he formed and led a Navy band, presumably on the East Coast. However, this assumption is based on an inaccurate plot synopsis of the independent black featurette Love In Syncopation, discussed below, and while this scenario seems reasonable, Woode’s wartime service activities have yet to be verified.

By early 1946 Woode was associated with Lucky Millinder, co- writing with Millinder and Al J. Neiburg three numbers recorded by the Millinder orchestra and/or Millinder’s featured vocalist Annisteen Allen: “Sweet Slumber,” “More More More” and “How Big Can You Get, Little Man”; it is quite possible that Woode arranged the three numbers for Millinder as well. “Sweet Slumber” was also performed in the black cast feature Boarding House Blues, with Millinder’s orchestra backing vocalist Paul Breckenridge (All American News, 1947).

Woode continued as a freelance arranger throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Later in his career Henri Woode is credited with writing the original music for two exploitation features, Benny Yeager’s Nude Las Vegas (Cinema Syndicate, Inc., 1964) and Naughty Nudes (Cinema Syndicate, Inc., 1965).

Henri Woode died in New York City on May 31, 1994.

Love In Syncopation

Love In Syncopation is a 3 reel (30 minute) black cast featurette produced by William Alexander in New York City during the spring of 1946. It was released under the banner of the Associated Producers of Negro Motion Pictures. Surviving production file documents suggest that the film was made at Filmcraft Studios, Bronx, and that it was completed by June 20, 1946, if not slightly earlier. In a June memo to George P. Allen of the SOUNDIES organization, Williams Alexander states, “I am now about to complete the Henri Woode two reeler….” which suggests that recording and filming had probably taken place in April or May of that year.

Love In Syncopation has not been screened in many years, and much of the writing about it necessarily comes from secondary sources. Most information seems to stem from Henry T. Sampson’s Blacks In Black and White. In the revised edition, published in 1995, Sampson notes, “The film tells the story of the Henri Woode band and its struggles to gain recognition in the entertainment world. Woode’s band was formed in the Navy during World War II and was composed of former See Bees [sic].” However, a close review of the censorship script held by the New York State Department of Education archive reveals that the plot is much more mundane and commonplace, and has nothing to do with Woode’s armed service experiences: nightclub owner Powell Lindsay is convinced by his daughter, Ruby Dee, and her girlfriend, June Eckstine, to audition the Woode band for an engagement at Lindsay’s club. The extended audition / floor show follows and completes the film.

Released as a 30 minute featurette, William Alexander cut a trio of the performances by the Woode band from the film and licensed them for release as SOUNDIES; a “co-release” as a theatrical short and a series of SOUNDIES was quite possibly Alexander’s intent when production began. In 1949 musical performances were once again recycled in a series of one reel shorts released by Toddy Pictures Company: Harlem Mood, Harlem Carnival and Jitterbug Bite.

Production personnel for the featurette include William D. Alexander, producer; Leonard Anderson, director; Les Hafner, screenplay; William Kelly, photography; Gladys Brothers, editor; Fred Ryle, makeup; and Nelson Minnerley, sound. All of these filmmakers were active in New York at the time, largely working within the genres of ethnic, independent, educational and industrial film production.

Soundies Distributing Corporation of America licensed four numbers from the film, three of which were issued during February and March 1947, making them among the last of the SOUNDIES releases. These titles are “Adventure,” “Mistletoe” and “Broadway.” The fourth title, “Unexpected Kiss,” featuring Harrell Tillman on vocal, was licensed, but was not released as a SOUNDIE. Additional titles were performed in the featurette, but were not picked up for SOUNDIES release.

The above claim by Sampson notwithstanding, it is certain that the band that actually appears on screen is not a Navy band, but rather a jazz orchestra composed of veteran New York-based big band musicians. While it is possibly that some of these musicians saw military service with Woode, it is more likely that Woode assembled this orchestra upon release from the service, drawing upon a large pool of professionals available in New York City.

It was at one time suggested that Woode and band appear merely as sideline artists …. that the band did not exist as a performing unit per se, and are seen on screen performing to a soundtrack recorded by a studio orchestra. To the contrary, Woode did lead a performing band during this period, and a notice in the New York Amsterdam advertises an appearance by the orchestra at The Palace Park, at 5 West 110th Street. It can be assumed this band, or a similar one, appeared in the featurette under consideration.

The orchestra: recording and sideline personnel
William Alexander’s budget for the featurette would have been limited, suggesting that the same band that recorded the soundtrack would have been called back immediately following the recording session for sideline photography. Thus, we can assume that most (if not all) of the soundtrack musicians are also seen on screen. Establishing the personnel for the band has been a long and involved process. While would be hard pressed to say that the entire orchestra has been identified and verified, what follows is a reasonable estimation of the band’s personnel.

Initial input was gathered at a NARAS screening in New York City in October 1994, with suggestions offered by Benny Powell, Harvard Davis, Buddy Tate, Leonard Gaskin and others; Harvard Davis viewed the film again in 1996, and reconfirmed five of the sidemen. Other musicians and jazz historians, including Theo Zwicky, have viewed the film over the years to help establish the personnel of the band. At present, the band’s personnel has been identified as follows, with a correct image print of the SOUNDIE “Mistletoe” used as the reference print:

  • Piano: Henri Woode guitar: Bobby McRae string bass: unidentified drums: Arthur Herbert
  • Trumpets, left-to-right: Wallace Wilson, Tommy Lindsey, Kenneth Roane, unidentified trumpet
  • Trombones, left-to-right: Fred Robinson, George Wilson, George Stevenson
  • Reeds: The reeds in the band provide some difficulty in terms of identification and placement. Instrumentation, left-to-right, is as follows: tenor sax — alto sax — alto sax — tenor/alto —baritone sax

    The alto sax seated in the middle of the section (third from the left) has been positively identified as Scoville Brown. There are two tenor sax players in the band, tentatively identified as Walter Wheeler and Ted Barnett. Both have the opportunity to solo (the tenor sax solo on the ballad “Adventure” is particularly strong), and the suggested placement in the section is as follows:

    Walter Wheeler, tenor sax to far left
    Ted Barnett, tenor sax, fourth from the left
    This leaves the presence of Marion Davis. Although I have not been able to verify his instrument, Buddy Tate suggested that his main instrument was baritone sax. If that is the case, then the also sax player (second from the left) remains unknown.
  • Vocalists and dancers
    The vocalist on “Adventure” is Harrell Tillman, whose life and career was covered in depth in an obituary printed in New York Times on January 28, 1998: Harrell Gordon Tillman, a Methodist minister who also pursued careers in acting and broadcasting before he turned to the law and became the first black judge in Texas, died on June 19 at the hospice of Texas Medical Center in Houston. He was 73 and lived in Houston.

    The cause was multiple myeloma [sic?], said a niece, Jane Tillman Irving of New York.

    Mr. Tillman, who practiced law in Houston for some 30 years, was admitted to the Texas bar in 1962. In 1964 Houston’s Mayor, Louie Welch, named him to the municipal court, making Mr. Tillman the first black judge to sit in Texas at any level. He left the bench in the late 1960’s to attend to his private practice full time.

    Mr. Tillman had a rich, commanding baritone voice that stood him in good stead in court, as well as on the pulpit and at the microphone, on stage and before the cameras.

    Mr. Tillman, a native of Philadelphia, graduated from Livingstone College in North Carolina. After serving in the Army, he tried his luck as a repertory stage actor in New York and, in the late 40’s, appeared in several motion pictures produced by blacks with all-black casts. Among them were ”That Man of Mine,” in which he shared top billing with Ruby Dee, and ”Love in Syncopation.”

    Deciding that Hollywood was not ready for handsome black romantic leads, Mr. Tillman followed his father’s path in the early 50’s and was ordained a minister in the A.M.E. Zion Church. He served as assistant pastor of the Church on the Hill A.M.E. Zion in Harlem until the denomination transferred him to Houston.

    He founded Walls Chapel A.M.E. there and served as its pastor for 15 years.

    During that period he was also heard on two local radio stations, leading a gospel music program and serving as the host of a talk show.

    During his career as a lawyer, Mr. Tillman served as general counsel for the Texas Joint Legislative Committee on Prison Reform, as director of the Houston Legal Foundation and as a delegate to the state Democratic Party convention. He ran for Congress, unsuccessfully, in 1978 and 1982.

    In addition to his niece, Mr. Tillman is survived by two daughters, Reba Tillman-Huff of Houston and Judith Hickman of Atlanta; a son, Harrell G. Jr. of Houston; two sisters, Sophie T. Irving and Jerusha T. McMurray, both of Manhattan; and two grandsons. His marriages to the former Daisy DeLeon Hannah and Jean LaBrie ended in divorce.

    Singer Maxine Johnson’s first recordings were with the Nat “King” Cole Trio, a transcription date for Keystone on July 22, 1940. During the same month she sang briefly with the Count Basie (she was Helen Humes’s replacement), and she returned to the Basie organization in January 1945, this time replacing Thelma Carpenter. Johnson remained with Basie through the end of February, retuning during the summer for a solitary AFRS broadcast.

    Little is known about the dance team Tops and Wilder, although it should be noted that their names have been often mis-reported in the past (Taps and Wilder, Tops and Wilda, etc.). In addition to two additional SOUNDIES from 1943 (Prancing In the Park and Harlem Hotcha), they also appeared in the black cast short Chicago After Dark (All American News, 1946). Nothing has been uncovered about the second dance team, Ronall and Edna.
  • Other members of the cast
    Leading man Powell Lindsay had a brief period of exposure in black cast films during the 1940s. He not only appears in and wrote the 1946 William Alexander / Associated Producers of Negro Motion Pictures feature, That Man Of Mine (discussed below), but also wrote the screenplay for the filmed review Jivin’ In Bebop (Alexander Productions, 1946). Three years later he both wrote and directed Souls Of Sin (Alexander Productions, 1949).
    Love In Syncopation is the film debut of Ruby Dee the beginning of a major and distinguished career on both stage and screen. June Eckstine, wife of famed crooner Billy Eckstine, had appeared in the original Dizzy Gillespie 1945 “Hep-sations” tour, and makes her film debut in this featurette; this might well be her only screen appearance.
  • The music
    The three Woode performances issued as SOUNDIES are the only pieces from the featurette currently available for screening, and all are superior shorts by a forgotten jazz orchestra. The arrangements, probably by Woode, are tight and well organized, with their execution precise and swinging; Woode’s rhythm section is especially strong, with a lot of credit going to drummer Arthur Herbert. The bands soloists include ex-Fess Williams trumpet Kenneth Roane; Fred George Stevenson on trombone; and both tenor players. While Wheeler and Barnett produce fine solo statements, special mention must be made of the solo on “Adventure,” a somewhat dour ballad piece which is brought to life by a sixteen bar tenor interlude by Ted Barnett, drawing strongly on the rich jazz vocabulary, wide intervals and swinging execution developed by Chu Berry.

    A rundown of the musical contents of the featurette can only be inferred from the censorship script, and no details are available for the non-SOUNDIE performances. The opening credits suggest that the music was written by the following individuals, although it has not been possible to match names with all compositions: Henri Woode, Joe Purnell, Abner Silver and Henry McRae. (It is possible that the last named is an error for guitarist Bobby MacRae, who indeed contributes a number in the feature discussed below.)

    Of the musical performances in the feature, “Broadway,” “Adventure” and “Mistletoe” were issued as SOUNDIES (all are noted in bold print below), and as a result dance, vocal and solo credits can be confirmed through a viewing of the films. The order of performances in inferred from a censorship script but has not been verified.
    1. Dear One (theme)
    2. Broadway (Henri Woode, composer and arranger) (soloists: Wallace Wilson, trumpet; George Stevenson, trombone; Walter Wheeler, tenor )
    3. Adventure (Harrell Tillman, vocal) (soloists: Ted Barnett, tenor sax)
    4. Rosetta (Henri Woode, composer and arranger)featuring Henri Woode at the piano + possibly additional soloists 5. Keep In Rhythm With Love (Maxine Johnson, vocal)
    6. Unexpected Kiss (Harrell Tillman, vocal)
    7. Mistletoe (Tops and Wilder, dance) (soloists: Kenneth Roane, trumpet; Ted Barnett, tenor sax)
    8. Moonrise (possibly Ronall and Edna, dance)

    The three SOUNDIES present a well rehearsed, thoroughly professional jazz orchestra. The two solo statements Ted Barnett suggest that we need to reevaluate this forgotten tenor saxophonist. Trombonist George Stevenson and trumpet Wallace Wilson solo effectively, both within the broad tradition of Swing music. Kenneth Roane is a bit more fluent than Wilson, and it is evident that he was aware of the strides being made by the modernists.

That Man Of Mine

In 1946 Henri Woode appeared in his second and final film, a black cast feature titled That Man of Mine (Associated Producers of Negro Motion Pictures, 1946). This time he fronts a combo billed as Henri Woode and his Sextet (on-screen credit) or Henri Woode and his Six Hepcats (one sheet poster).

Virtually unscreened in many decades, this feature has been recently preserved and is now available, if on a limited basis, for evaluation. That Man of Mine is another William Alexander production, this time 56 feature film, as opposed to three-reel (30 minute) featurette. The film largely draws upon the same production personnel: Leonard Anderson, director; Les Hafner, screenplay (from a story by male lead Powell Lindsey); Nelson Minnerley, sound; and Fred Ryle, makeup, all worked on both Alexander films under consideration. Other production personnel, again New York film making veterans, include Don Malkames, photography and Theodore H. Markovic, film editor;.

Alexander probably filmed and recorded the feature in the latter half of 1946, and was ready for a screening as early as December 23, 1946. The production location is unknown, although Filmcraft Studios in the Bronx is a reasonable guess.

As is often the case with William Alexander’s films, some musical performances (in this case six by the International Sweethearts of Rhythm) were released during the same period as compilation performances in one reel musical short subjects. In addition, the Henri Woode performances also turn up in one reel shorts released in 1949.

While music takes up a great deal of screen time —there are no fewer than 11 compete performances in the film— screenwriters Lindsey and Hafner tried hard to inject some drama into the film. Film producer Lem Coles (played by Harrell Tillman) is concerned that his leading lady and fiancé Joan (Ruby Dee, in her second appearance on film) will not have the “oomph” necessary to carry the picture. Against objections of director Sid Thomas (Powell Lindsey) , he hires Jenny Jones (Tommie Moore) to replace Dee, renaming her Honey Diamond. Dee walks out and the romance is in serious jeopardy. When Moore “wiggles” too much on screen, she is replaced by Dee, the lovers reconcile, and the film ends on a happy note.

Much of the music in the feature is provided by the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a contribution that is important enough to warrant a future article. For now, however, it should be noted that while most of the performances are familiar from two shorts films compiled from the feature, there are two numbers that are unique to this feature!

The sextet: recording and sideline personnel
For his sole feature film appearance Henri Woode appears with a sextet. It is not known if this is a regular performing unit, a small group pulled from the big band, and used as a cost cutting measure —the appearance of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm would have increased the budget considerably— or an ad hoc combo put together just for the film. There seems to have been at least one change in personnel since the production of the featurette, and at present we note the following on (presumably) soundtrack and screen:

  • unidentified trumpet – This does not appear to be Kenneth Roane or Wallace Wilson, the solo trumpets in the featurette.
  • Scoville Brown, clarinet probably Ted Barnett, tenor sax – I am almost certain that this is the same tenor sax featured with the big band, but I refrain from a completely positive identification
  • Henri Woode, piano
  • Bobby MacRae, guitar
  • unidentified string bass
  • Arthur Herbert, drums
  • Vocalists and dancers
    Of vocalist Percy Branch and tap dancer Kenneth Broome, unfortunately nothing is known to date. These were obviously accomplished artists, probably performing at the time in the New York City area, but there are no recordings, press notices, or further film / television performances to fill out their biographies. Billie and Millie were performance dancers, and they can be seen in the short subject Skyline Review (Mentone/Nu-Atlas, 1937). The late Frankie Manning identified the duo in the 1937 short as Billy Williams and Mildred Cruse, although there is a chance that the personnel has changed in the ensuing decade. In an interview conducted with dancer Harold Cromer in November 1985, Cromer stated, “They were a dance act out of the St. Paul – Minneapolis area …. they were married in the 1930s, I think …. and they were around for a while. They were night club dancers, and they played the theaters where colored people could play and watch, and they had their act together. They weren’t good enough for the Cotton Club, or places like that, but they were around a long time. They could sing, too, but they didn’t all that much. They just concentrated on their dancing.”

    The remaining vocalist, Powell Lindsey, who plays the one of the leads in the film, has a pleasant voice whose vocal helps conclude the feature.
  • Other members of the cast
    The careers of Harrell Tillman, Powell Lindsey and Ruby Dee are covered under Love In Syncopation. The remainder of the cast were mostly newcomers to film, although Tommie Moore had a distinguished, if limited, film career.

    This appears to be the only film appearance of Rhina Harris, who plays Ruth Bubois, the head of costumes and music at the film production company. The same can be said of Flo Hawkins, who plays the part of the secretary. Betty Haynes (Chris, the agent), is a most engaging performer, and the most accomplished of the three, but this too seems to be her only appearance on film. Born Tommiwitta Moore on December 2, 1917, Moore was by this time was billing herself as “Tommie.” She had previously appeared in four black cast films: Bargain with Bullets (Gangsters on the Loose) (Million Dollar Productions, 1937); Spirit of Youth (Globe Pictures, 1938); Broken Strings (Goldport Productions, 1940); and Mystery In Swing (Aetna Film Company, 1940). In the 1950s and 1960s Moore performed on both television and in feature films. Perhaps more important was a role in Beggar’s Holiday, the long-running musical (1946-47) that was directed by Nicholas Ray, and featured the music of Duke Ellington.
  • The music
    The sextet performs three numbers, the first two of particular interest. “Woode Would” was composed by Bobby MacRae, the combo’s guitarist. It is a bop-influenced melody, play in a style that strongly recalls the John Kirby Sextet. There are solos by the unidentified trumpet (busy, in a style perhaps influenced by an early Howard McGhee); Ted Barnett on tenor sax, more in a Lester Young/ Dexter Gordon mode than the slightly earlier featurette with the big band; swing clarinet by Brown; unidentified string bass; and a brief 8 bars from Woode. Dancers Billie and Millie perform a jitterbug routine that is not unlike their film performance a decade earlier in the short subject Skyline Review.

    “It’s Just Like That” is an uptempo jump piece played in the manner of 52nd Street combos of the period. Vocalists Percy Branch sings in style that reminiscent of Wynonne Harris. Tap dancer Kenny Broome’s performance is not post dubbed (the taps and image match perfectly), suggesting that this number, and possibly the other two by the combo, were filmed live.

    “Dear One,” which some sources note as Woode’s theme, is sung by male lead Harrell Tillman, and is a low key ballad which is used to end the feature.

    1. Woode Would (Bob MacRae) Henri Woode and his Sextet (soloists: unidentified trumpet; Scoville Brown, clarinet; Ted Barnett, tenor sax; unidentified string bass; Billie and Millie, dance) 2. It’s Just Like That (Marion Marlowe; Henri Woode) Henri Woode and his Sextet (Percy Branch, vocal; Kenny Broome, tap dance) 3. Dear One (Marion Marlowe; Henri Woode) Henri Woode and his Sextet (Harrell Tillman, vocal)


These two films are important parts of the jazz film legacy, presenting performances by a highly professional and proficient pair of bands by an obscure figure in the music. The big band swings mightily, and Woode’s talent as a composer and arranger are brought to the forefront. The second film allows us to view a typical small group of the period. The first number in particular, reflecting the influence of bop on classic 52nd Street Swing, makes one wish that there was more available from the combo.

Nobody would argue that the Woode orchestra or sextet were seminal groups in the music; but we can certainly assert that they deserve more attention than many other groups that were at the right time and place to record, receive film offers and “gigs,” and to be given notice in the press. Woode was a skilled composer, arranger and band leader, and his film legacy adds to our understanding of what was happening in jazz during this transitional period in the music.