Claude Hopkins – Dorothy Donegan – Stuff Smith Trio – Jubilee Program – October 16, 1944 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
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Back over to some Big Band of the 1940s this week. This one from the legendary Jubilee program produced during World War 2 for Armed Forces Radio and broadcast on October 16, 1944.
As I’ve said before, one of the most interesting aspects of this program was the fact that it was one of the first racially mixed radio programs to be broadcast – even though it wasn’t for civilian listening, largely relegated to training camps, bases and frontlines, it has managed to become a staple in many radio collections and has been something of a benchmark for music history, especially in the area of Jazz.
Jubilee was a hugely influential program and very popular among troops across the color line. So popular in fact, that prominent White entertainers had guest spots on the show toward the end of the war.
This one, from October of 1944 features Claude Hopkins, a name not all that familiar in recent years, but a name that was associated with a number of artists who were alumni and went on to achieve successes in their own rights. Hopkins was born in Alexandria, Virginia, United States, in 1903. His parents were on the faculty of Howard University. A talented stride piano player and arranger, he left home at the age of 21 to become a sideman with the Wilbur Sweatman Orchestra but stayed less than a year. In 1925, he left for Europe as the musical director of The Revue Negre which starred Josephine Baker with Sidney Bechet in the band.
He returned to the USA in 1927 where, based in Washington, he toured the TOBA circuit with The Ginger Snaps Revue before heading once again for New York City where he took over the band of Charlie Skeets. At this time (1932–36), he led a fairly successful Harlem band employing many jazz musicians who were to become famous in their own right, such as Edmond Hall, Jabbo Smith and Vic Dickenson (although his records were arranged to feature his piano more than his band). This was his most successful period, with long residencies at the Savoy and Roseland ballrooms and at the Cotton Club. In 1937 he took his band on the road with a great deal of success.
The high-pitched vocals of Orlando Roberson (Orlando Herbert Roberson 1909–1977) brought the band a good part of its popularity. The band included Ovie Alston, Fernando Arbello, Shirley Clay, Vic Dickenson, Edmond Hall, Arville Harris, Pete Jacobs, Sylvester Lewis, Ben Smith, and Jabbo Smith.
Also on the bill is Dorothy Donegan who was born and grew up in Chicago, and began studying piano in 1928. She took her first lessons from Alfred N. Simms, a West Indian pianist who also taught Cleo Brown.
She graduated from Chicago’s DuSable High School, where she studied with Walter Dyett, a teacher who also worked with Dinah Washington, Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons, and Von Freeman. She also studied at the Chicago Musical College and the University of Southern California. In 1942 she made her recording debut. She appeared in Sensations of 1945 with Cab Calloway, Gene Rodgers, and W. C. Fields and was known for her work in Chicago nightclubs. She was a protege of Art Tatum, who called her “the only woman who can make me practice.” She said that Tatum “was supposed to be blind…I know he could see women.” In 1943, Donegan became the first African American to perform at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall.
Along with Stuff Smith and his trio and the usual dollop of humor and repartee, this is what Jubilee was about and it lasted throughout the war and well into the late 1940s.
A historic show with landmark artists, brought together to help morale, but wound up having a much bigger impact on music and society for years and decades to come. Note: Sound is a little rough in spots and damaged to a degree. But it went through a war and wasn’t stored under the best conditions, so cut it a bit of slack. It’s the notes we’re after.