Sipping a cocktail surrounded by the musical stylings of a four-piece ensemble at Blues Boulevard Jazz, it’s difficult to imagine a time when the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway had a tough time performing in Greenville.
Like a clash of discordant melodies, jazz’s greatest stars were composing and performing the music of a golden era while Jim Crow laws thumped down a heavy bass line as these undisputed legends crisscrossed the South. It was common for them to perform in segregated clubs, which forbid them from mingling with white patrons. Taking breaks meant hanging out with the black kitchen staff, or waiting in a car until a white band member brought them a bite to eat.
That didn’t stop them. At the peak of the Swing Era, musicians would play until one or two in the morning and then drive hundreds of miles in unheated buses or piled ten to a car to get to the next gig. Some, such as Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington rented their own train cars to eat, travel, and sleep in. Other artists who made their living on the road developed a network of black families with spare bedrooms who would welcome them.
When Calloway, Armstrong, Fitzgerald, Ellington, Fats Waller, and other lesser-known artists such as Lionel Hampton, Luck Millinder, and Jimmy Lunsford came to Greenville, they stayed in a private residence on Asbury Avenue.
During this time, black musicians even had to hide the fact they would play for an all-black audience. One longtime resident of Greenville who’s now deceased held on to a handbill advertising a Duke Ellington show and dance attended for just 35 cents. But Ellington’s name doesn’t appear. The headliner is an unknown, in this case a member of the band. She and her sister met Ellington and his band later, at the house on Asbury, at one of many “after parties” that became just as entertaining as the shows themselves. Another Greenville resident once recalled seeing Ella Fitzgerald there, bowing to her fans and promptly losing her hairpiece.
Heavy prejudice persisted through the next twenty years. But with help from Frank Sinatra and later Elvis Presley, who insisted on using the best musicians for their bands regardless of race, it became more common to see black and white performers sharing the same stage.
Here in Greenville, local musicians like the late Moses Dillard experienced little resistance to performing at places like the Poinsett Club. His daughter, state representative Chandra Dillard, recalled that even though he was a teenager at the height of the civil rights movement and participated in the integration of the library and at other protests, he never had a problem playing, except that as a minor he had to be escorted by an adult. The times, they did indeed change.