Celluloid Improvisations logo Jazz on Film Mark Cantor

Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra

Lucky Millinder was one of the most charismatic of bandleaders, and he parlayed the ability to communicate with audiences into a career that lasted two and a half decades.

The history of integration in jazz film is a complex story, one that is waiting to be written. Let us consider this article a very basic pre-primer, with one specific case considered in detail.

To the best of my knowledge, the earliest example of an integrated jazz band appearing in a sound film is The Delightful Rogue (RKO, 1929). But the fact that drummer Lionel Hampton and four white musicians are seen playing on a South Seas island “explains” the integration, and would have softened the impact of an integrated band for 192Os audiences.

In 1937, Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton are seen with Benny Goodman, as special members of the Benny Goodman Quartet, playing one number in the well-known feature Hollywood Hotel (Warner Bros., 1937). Four years later, Roy Eldridge appears with the Gene Krupa orchestra in Ball of Fire (Goldwyn, 1941), followed later that year by two SOUNDIES featuring the same band.

It has been widely noted that Barney Kessel appears in the classic short subject Jammin’ the Blues (Warner Bros., 1944), although the image is distorted by special effects meant to disguise his presence among a group of black musicians. Other instances of integration on screen seem to be almost random: Black singer Tessie Maize and a black chorus line dancing in front of (probably) Ray West’s white orchestra (Fowler Studios, 1931); Chuck Wayne on guitar in a series of SOUNDIES in a combo under Phil Moore’s leadership (Filmcraft Productions, 1946); Gene Krupa guesting with Sid Catlett’s band for one number in the black cast feature Bpy! What a Girl!(Herald Pictures, 1947).

But the most striking example of all, at least before the 1950s, is a film featuring Lucky Millinder’s 1946 orchestra in which six of the musicians are white. This fully integrated band was not one put together for the appearance in this movie short. Rather, it is a touring band that not only played the Apollo Theater in New York City, but worked in the Deep South as well. Clearly, the 1946 Lucky Millinder short deserves our close attention!

Associated Producers of Negro Motion Pictures
Recognizing that money could be made in the production of black cast films, African-American entrepreneur William Alexander formed The Associated Producers of Negro Motion Pictures sometime in early 1946. Corporate offices were located at 212 East 49th Street in New York City.

Born in Colorado, and educated at Colorado State University and the University of Chicago, William Alexander’s first involvement in film was apparently with the Office of War Information. Although best known for his black cast musical featurettes and revues, Alexander also produced documentaries and, somewhat later, television newsreels. Later in his career he was appointed the official “State Filmmaker” for both Haile Selassie (Ethiopia) and William S. Tubman (Liberia). In addition, it should be noted that Alexander was the only black film maker from this period to cross over to mainstream Hollywood, producing “The Klansman” for Paramount in 1974.

Some sources, including Dr. Henry Sampson’s Blacks in Black and White (Scarecrow Press, 1995), claim that Williams Alexander announced the company’s formation in August 1946. Other evidence suggests that while Alexander may well have made an August announcement to the press, the formation of the company was already a fait accompli. Two Alexander shorts, LUCKY MILLINDER AND HIS ORCHESTRA, and THE INTERNATIONAL SWEETHEARTS OF RHYTHM, were available for private screenings as early as May 7, 1946, suggesting a February-March production date.

On May 4, 1946, Alexander met with George Allen (formerly Ulcigan) of the Soundies Distributing Corporation of America, and he informed Allen that Associated Producers had completed two one-reel short subjects, one featuring Lucky Millinder, the other the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Both films, Alexander suggested, contained material that might be released as SOUNDIES, and this proved to be the case. The shorts were “disassembled” into six individual three-minute performances, and distribution as SOUNDIES began with the August weekly release, continuing through November.

While Associated Producers was a short-lived concern, it did release a number of black cast films featuring important musical talent. Among its output are Rhythm In A Riff(1946, featuring Billy Eckstine and his Orchestra); Love In Syncopation (1946, Henri Woode and his Orchestra); That Man of Mine (1947, International Sweethearts of Rhythm); Jivin’ In Bebop (Dizzy Gillespie, 1947 – An Alexander Production).

Lucky Millinder
Lucky Millinder was one of the most charismatic of bandleaders, and he parlayed the ability to communicate with audiences into a career that lasted two and a half decades. Millinder was not an instrumentalist himself, although he took an occasional vocal on record or film soundtrack. Millinder is a bandleader deserving of a full biography, and what follows is merely a cursory outline of a most successful, lengthy and fascinating career.

Lucius “Lucky Millinder” was born August 8, 19OO in Alabama, although he was raised in Chicago, where he began working as a master of ceremonies in the late 1920s. He fronted a band for a tour of the RKO theater circuit in 1931, and then took over “Doc” Crawford’s orchestra. Making the move to New York City, this band made a film appearance in the obscure black cast feature Scandal (Lincoln Pictures, 1933). Millinder took this band, or possibly a reconstituted orchestra, to Europe in 1933, returning to the United States in the fall of the year.

In 1934 Millinder began fronting the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, a roll that he filled until the spring of 1938. The band was managed by Irving Mills, and was used by Mills to fill engagements when his other popular outfits, the Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway bands, for example, were unavailable. While the Mills Blue Rhythm Band may have lacked a distinctive style, it was a popular band, recording regularly for various labels throughout the 1930s, and appearing in a 1934 Vitaphone short. Creative arrangements offered solos by such renowned artists as Henry “Red” Allen, Buster Bailey, Tab Smith, J. C. Higginbotham, Harry “Sweets” Edison and others.

After leaving the Mills organization Millinder took over the Bill Doggett orchestra, and while the band went unrecorded, we have film evidence of its existence: In the late fall or early winter of 1939 Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra appeared in the Nu-Atlas short (released by RKO) titled Readin’ ‘Ritin’ and Rhythm. The band’s performance of “Ride Red Ride” is the highlight of this ten minute short subject. Doggett’s nephew, Bill Doggett, Jr., noted, “The band was a fine one, and apparently they worked regularly. Still they couldn’t make it and the band folded in early 1939.”

It appears that arranger Jimmy Mundy provided Millinder with his next orchestra, although there is also evidence that the Mundy band was co-led by Bill Doggett. The band had been put together by Mundy sometime in the early part of 1939, and it recorded for Varsity in December of that year. There had been some holdovers from the earlier Doggett-led band; Doggett and Shadow Wilson remained on piano and drums. The two were still with the band when Lucky Millinder took it over in early 1940. It was this band that spent a month or so in February-March 1940 performing in the black cast feature Paradise In Harlem. The band was a fine jazz outfit featuring two important Swing trumpet players, Freddie Webster and possibly Bobby Moore.

Throughout the early part of the 1940s Millinder led one of the finest, and most underrated, big bands in the nation. Not only did the band feature some truly outstanding soloists — Dizzy Gillespie, Stafford “Pazuza” Simon, Tab Smith, Buster Bailey, Bill Doggett and Clyde Hart, among others — but it also had, in Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one of the strongest vocalists in all of jazz. Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra recorded regularly for Decca, and it was this aggregation that made four SOUNDIES in August-September 1941. Later in the decade, with the constant personnel changes common to the war years, such men as Sam “The Man” Taylor, “Bullmoose” Jackson, Burnie Peacock and Freddie Webster (who had also been with the band briefly in 1940) shared the bandstand with Lucky.

Millinder recorded and broadcast throughout the 1940s, and while the music moved toward rhythm and blues, jazz was never far in the background. Millinder’s appearance in BOARDING HOUSE BLUES (All-American News, 1948) includes both an untitled bop-influenced instrumental, as well as the R&B hit “The Hucklebuck.” As we will see, the R&B influence was in place when the Millinder band appeared in the film under consideration here.

Lucky Millinder left the music in 1952, although he reassembled a band twice, in 1955 and 1960, in the attempt to record that elusive jukebox hit. He spent the final decade and a half of his life working as a DJ, in music publishing, and as an executive in a whiskey distillery. Millinder passed away in 1966, a young sixty-six years in age. He left a marvelous legacy of recorded and films music, and certainly deserves a detailed biography.

The Lucky Millinder Orchestra – 1946-1949
It would be incorrect, and historically unfair, to claim that Lucky Millinder was the first black bandleader to integrate his band. Fletcher Henderson had made that courageous step during the war years. Due to the recording ban, however, the orchestra did not record commercially. There are a few broadcasts and AFRS transcriptions of the band, and its history is detailed in Walter C. Allen’s comprehensive Hendersonia (Jazz Monographs, 1973).

What motivated Lucky Millinder to bring white musicians into his band is something that can only be inferred, although it appears that “progressive thoughts” played a large part in his decision to integrate the orchestra. 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. In other words, bringing white sidemen into the band was a matter of choice, not necessity.

In the notes to the CD “Porky Cohen – Rhythm and Bones” (Bullyseye Blue, 1996), Porky Cohen talks about his time with the band, and the difficulty traveling through the South with an integrated orchestra. Strangely enough, he has relatively little to say about Millinder.

“In 1948 I … got a call from Lucky Millinder’s manager. Lucky was going to integrate the other way. [He had, of course, done this two years earlier.] Lucky said the band would be working the Savoy for twelve weeks, but first we were going down south for two weeks.”

“Lucky was a warm, gregarious sort of guy, very sharp…. He was a dancer, he’d be on a box in front of the band, he’d jump around and do the splits.”

Little mention was made in the press at the time of the film’s release in the summer of 1946. The following year the integrated nature of the band was noted by an unidentified writer for the Pittsburgh Courier, who writes,

“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 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 all over the South “without incident” is perhaps a bit of wishful thinking. Porky Cohen recalls the white bus driver who was “appalled and horrified” at being asked to transport the mixed band on the tour. Segregated restaurants and bathrooms, substandard rooming conditions, the difficultly of getting from rooming houses in one part of town to the gig in another, the fearful presence of the Ku Klux Klan, all were part of this courageous effort on Millinder and the musicians’ part.

Joe Wilder was on this tour with the Millinder band, and he spoke with jazz scholar and biographer Ed Berger: about the experience:

“When we toured the South we were playing mostly for black dances and we stayed in private homes, including the white musicians. Everyone is peeking out from behind the curtains making sure the sheriff or the Klan wasn’t sneaking up on us.”

“One time we went with Lucky’s band, which had five white musicians at the time, to Charleston. We were there about five hours early and were waiting for the ballroom to open. Up comes the sheriff’s car with the sheriff and his deputy. The sheriff gets out and says, “Who’s in charge here?’ Lucky said, “I am.” Well, I’m tellin’ you boy, there ain’t gonna be no mixed bands down here in Charleston, SC!” And Lucky says, “Well this isn’t a mixed band.” The sheriff looks around and says, “You mean to tell me those aren’t white musicians over there?” “No,” says Lucky. So now the sheriff walks up to each white musician and asks, “You colored?” And each guy said yes. He looked at the deputy in disbelief. He gets to Porky (Solomon) Cohen, our first trombone player, and says, “Now, you gonna tell me that you’re colored too?” And Porky, who had a pronounced lisp, answers emphatically, “Why, thertainly!” We were almost doubled over laughing. Finally he turned to the deputy and said, “Well, if they all say they colored, ain’t nothin’ we can do about it,” and they got in the car and drove off! Many years later I’d run into Porky in New York in the middle of the theater district and ask him, “Are you?” And he’d say, “Why, thertainly!”

Drummer Roy Harte, in conversation with his son Rex, painted an somewhat more somber picture of the tour to the South:
“I remember Roy told me that he and another white guy would go get the food for everybody, the whole band, in certain towns. They drove through towns with people hanging in the trees, and he remembered being in that same town when Lester Young and his white wife were chased out of town on their wedding night.”

I was able to speak with two musicians who played with the band, Porky Cohen, and Leon Merian; the latter appears in the short under consideration. Porky recalled the band well, and noted how much he enjoyed playing with it. “I wasn’t soloing much at that time. When I was with Charlie [Barnet], most of the solos went to Tommy [Pederson] or Herbie Harper. The guys in the Millinder band were terrific, and we played some great music together. No tension within the band, just when we were on tour. And that came from the outside, not from Lucky or members of the band” Leon Merian also felt that the integration worked well: “The guys got along fine on the bandstand, although we didn’t necessarily hang out together when we weren’t playing. But in the band, everything was professional. Money Johnson was the featured trumpet soloist with the band, and I learned a lot listening to him. Swell fellow with fine chops, and a great jazz imagination.”

Regardless of the positive attitudes cited above, Millinder’s groundbreaking effort could not have been easy for any of the men involved. As Leon Merian’s son James noted in a Boston Globe obituary (August 22, 2007), “He ended up sleeping in the bus a lot of the time. He wasn’t allowed to stay in the black hotels because he was white, and he wasn’t allowed in the white hotels because he was with a black band.”

Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra On-screen
The band that appears in this short subject has only been partially identified, and if the reader has additions or corrections, I would appreciate hearing from him/her. While I do not generally refer to the race of a musician, in this case it seems to be an important part of the historical record.

Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra

Trumpets, left-to-right:

  • Unidentified trumpet – probably John Bello (white musician) (Al Grey felt that this might be Lammar Wright, Jr. With all due respect to Mr. Grey, I don’t think this is the case.)
  • Harold “Money” Johnson (black musician)
  • Leon Merian (white musician)
  • unidentified black musician

Trombones, left-to-right:

  • unidentified white musicians, possibly Frank Mazzoli
  • Chester Burrill (black musician)
  • Gene Simons (black musician)

Reeds – All members of the reed section are African-American.

  • Top row, left-to-right: Sam “The Man” Taylor, tenor sax; Ernest Purce, baritone sax
  • Bottom row, left-to-right: Clarence “Bullmoose” Jackson, tenor sax; Eugene “Heads” Adams, alto sax; Billy Bowen or Bill Graham, alto sax


  • almost certainly Johnny Allen, piano (black musician)
  • unidentified white guitar
  • unidentified white string bass, possibly Jerry Cox
  • Ray Harte, drums (white musician)

The Vocalists

Annisteen Allen
Millinder introduces Annisteen Allen as “…a little gal from close to the Mexican border…San Antonio, Texas, that is, that little Hot Tamale…” In reality, Allen was born in Champaign, Illinois. While Allen sang a lot of blues material, her blues was that of the urban north, not Texas or the Mississippi Delta. Her earliest recordings, from the year before her film debut, were for the King and Queen labels. While the bands backing her may have been billed as her Home Town Boys, or the Panama Francis Orchestra, the sidemen were from the Millinder band. Allen recorded with Millinder shortly before the production of this film, and continued to work with him until 1951, joining him for a reunion of sorts in 1960. She worked as a solo artist from the early 1950s through mid 1980s, recording under her name until 1961. Allen passed away in New York City in 1992, at the age of 71.

Clarence “Bullmoose” Jackson
“.I really get her going when I whip out my big ten inch…” [pregnant pause, so to speak] “…record of a band that plays the blues…] With those lyrics, and a hit recording for King Records, Clarence “Bullmoose” Jackson insured his celebrity among collectors of jazz and rhythm and blues. But before this 1952 hit, Jackson had cut his teeth with the Millinder band. His solos are squarely in the rough cut, aggressive “Texas Tenor” style. A swinging and inventive tenor soloist, Jackson was also an engaging vocalist, never far from the blues in his musical interpretations. Jackson recorded prolifically in the 1950s, retiring from full-time music in the early 1960s. He returned to performing in the 1980s, shortly before falling ill with cancer and passing away in 1989.

The Composers and Arrangers
The opening credits of the short include the statement, “music composed by Lucky Millinder, Henry B. Glover, Toussaint Pope, Arnold Clawson.” All four had worked extensively within black entertainment — Henry Glover was an A&R specialist at King Records, Toussaint Pope and Arnold Clawson were composers. Unfortunately, the writing credits can be specifically ascribed to only one song: “Big Fat Mamas Are Back In Style,” by Lucky Millinder, Toussaint Pope, and Arnold Clawson. Presumably these three, plus Henry Glover, were involved in the remaining two songs in the featurette.

It is unknown who arranged the three songs, and even making an educated guess is difficult since none of Millinder’s arrangers for this period are identified in the literature. One clue can be found in Walter de Block’s 1962 discography of the band. He notes that in January 1946, just before the film was produced, Bill Doggett returned briefly to the band. It is possible that Doggett wrote some of the arrangements used in the film.

Production of the Short
Precious few production documents are available for this film short. The film was submitted to the State of New York Motion Picture Division for censorship approval in October 1946, although a review in Motion Picture Exhibitor three months earlier suggests that the film was released theatrically in mid July. And, one must remember, producer Alexander informed George Allen of the SOUNDIES organization that the film was completed in early May. Thus, we can infer that the film was produced ca. March-April 1946.

The director of the film, Ray Sandiford, is best known as a film editor who worked on such iconic television programs as The Phil Silvers Show (Sgt. Bilko), and Car 54, Where Are You. It seems appropriate that Sandiford is known as an editor, since very little happens in terms of set up or camerawork in this short. Most of the directing, if one wants to call it that, took place when the film was cut by Sandiford and Robert Rippen in the editing room. The only other production person of note is Don Malkames, one of the most underrated of cinematographers, who was long active as a first call cameraman on the East Coast.

Where the film was recorded and filmed is unknown, although rental stages in Manhattan, Astoria and Fort Lee, New Jersey were regularly used for the production of low budget, independent shorts. This one reel short was probably produced over a period of two days, or three at the most.

The Music

Hello Bill
An inconsequential composition by any stretch of the imagination, this is still an exciting performance, with Lucky taking the vocal, and three members of the band offering exciting jazz solos. On screen we see and hear Harold “Money” Johnson’s exciting trumpet, and a wonderful tenor sax encounter between two masters of the extroverted Texas Tenor style: Sam “The Man” Taylor and Clarence “Bullmoose” Jackson.

Leon Merian remembered very little about this film, which is not surprising after the passage of so many years. He did recall, however, that they filmed the short in the early morning “work hours,” after a long night of playing, or perhaps after returning from a tour. “We were dog tired,” said Leon. Indeed, if you watch carefully, the white trombone player, seated to the top left of the section, first yawns, then actually nods off, in the middle of the performance!

I Want A Man
A twelve bar blues featuring the vocal talents of Annisteen Allen, this piece is enlivened by two solo statements by Sam The Man” Taylor. Miss Allen is a fine singer, if somewhat generic in sound and approach. We have so much of this type of vocal blues on film, one wishes that other soloists had perhaps taken her place on stage.

Big Fat Mamas (Lucky Millinder, Toussaint Pope, and Arnold Clawson)
Three unidentified female sideline extras enter from stage right, presumably the big fat mamas who are the topic of the song. Bullmoose Jackson sings the lyrics in a upbeat, rhythmic style that would be a hallmark of his approach for years to come. However, when he picks up the tenor sax, the excitement really begins. Sounding a bit like Illinois Jacquet, or perhaps early Dexter Gordon, Jackson takes a creative chorus before the short ends.

Final Thoughts
At first glance, this short seems to be no different than many of the band shorts that had been filmed since the late 1920s: ten minutes in length, no story, just a straight presentation of musical performances on screen. In this case, each song has a vocal, each has some jazz solo work within the tightly-written arrangement. The camerawork is not inventive, but the straight-ahead visual presentation does allows us to clearly focus on the performers.

While bebop was in full flower at this time, and would be felt and heard in Boarding House Blues (All-American News, 1948), the Millinder band’s next film effort, there are no hints of the new sounds in this short. The soloists all perform within the standards dictated by Swing melodies, phrasing and harmonies; in this case, it is music essentially out of Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins. Still, seeing and hearing “Money” Johnson on screen is a delight, as is the work of the two tenor men, especially the Sam Taylor – Bullmoose Jackson encounter in the first number. There is nothing revolutionary or progressive to be heard, and the music is more solidly informed by rhythm-and-blues than by bop.

On the other hand, as has been noted above, the screen appearance by an integrated black band was unheard of in 1946. Indeed, if this had been a major studio production, this integration would not have been tolerated. Case in point: the 1950 Universal short “Sugar” Chile Robinson-Billie Holiday-Count Basie and his Sextet, in which white clarinet player Buddy DeFranco (heard on soundtrack) is replaced on screen by Marshall Royal.

It was not until 1957 that this pattern began to change, and to change very slowly at first. The producers of the essential television program, The Sound of Jazz (CBS Television, 1957), allowed Pee Wee Russell, Nat Pierce and Gerry Mulligan to play in otherwise black combos and bands. But in 1946, with lynching in the South still common, the armed forces still segregated, and racial prejudice common nationwide, Lucky Millinder took a stand against existing conditions. That the resulting music is strong is something to be enjoyed. That the music was played by a fully integrated band is something to be respected and celebrated, even at this late date. It was not until 1957 that this pattern began to change, and to change very slowly at first. The producers of the essential television program, The Sound of Jazz (CBS Television, 1957), allowed Pee Wee Russell, Nat Pierce and Gerry Mulligan to play in otherwise black combos and bands. But in 1946, with lynching in the South still common, the armed forces still segregated, and racial prejudice common nationwide, Lucky Millinder took a stand against existing conditions. That the resulting music is strong is something to be enjoyed. That the music was played by a fully integrated band is something to be respected and celebrated, even at this late date.