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    The jazz memories of singer Don Gardner

    I hadn’t much noticed the gray-haired man with the cane until my buddy Rebecca mentioned that he was someone famous. She spoke his name, and I recalled seeing his young face with a wide smile on one of the album covers displayed at eye length along a wall in another room.

    Don Gardner’s cover was among several from the archives of the Philadelphia Clef Club, and was on display at the Brandywine Workshop as part of a celebration of jazz in the city recently. When the program started, Gardner was asked to speak, and that’s when I learned who he truly was. He was both the director of the Clef Club and had been a noted jazz singer, although I did not recognize his name.

    He was apparently full of stories about many famous African American jazz musicians back in the day, because someone asked him to tell one of his stories – which he told both reluctantly and tersely.

    Don Gardner album cover

    A compilation of songs from 1963 to 1970 by Don Gardner on an album released in 2014.

    I’m always eager to hear a good story. So I sat down with Gardner, who’s now 84, to listen to him talk about his life as a singer and the jazz folks whose names are words on my tongue but fond memories for him, along with the history of the black musicians’ Local 274 that founded the Clef Club.

    How did you get started as a singer?

    I got started in church (in Philadelphia). My father sang in a quartet and I sang with them. My sister played piano. The only regret I have is I didn’t let her teach me piano. But I had so many friends that played that I didn’t think I needed to learn. (Gardner played the drums.)

    I used to sneak in clubs and sing (at age 15). I looked older than my age back then. I used to sneak in a club on Norris Street when Doc Bagby was playing. He would play a certain riff, I’d run in, sing my little song and go back out. Doc Bagley with his organ trio. So I got the bug.

    (It was 1946.) I was still in school. I used to sing with Jimmy Shorter’s Big Band Dance Band so I just got a reputation and had a good following. (Gardner recorded his first record at age 18 in 1949. He says he has 60 of the 45-rpms that he recorded. “We didn’t make no money on records,” he said. “You made your money on personal appearances. … They never really paid us back in the day, that’s the way the business was.”)

    I got my own band and had a band up until 1970 when I stopped.

    Why did you stop?

    Because the business had changed drastically. People were going to the clubs, paying to get in to listen to music they had at home so they could dance. Or you go into a club and they charge you to go in and you look up there and they got about 12 young kids playing the latest stuff and all the girls packing in there to see them.

    I had worked up to a certain amount of money and I couldn’t bother with that. I couldn’t compete with it. Things changed. My crowd was now having kids. They couldn’t go out and party too much more.

    When I came back (to Philadelphia) in ’85, I went to the old clubs I used to go to, the few that were still here. I saw chicks who were in the clubs when I was here. To me that was ridiculous. They were grandmothers with these wigs on trying to be young.

    I just learned that I wasn’t a diehard musician to start off with. I always took music – the government taught me that – it’s a business. So you have to look at all the aspects of it and I saw my way of doing this business wasn’t going to work anymore. These kids were coming out here working for almost nothing and packing the joint, so who the man gonna hire? They’re gonna hire him.

    Don Gardner

    Don Gardner talks about his life as a singer and the other jazz greats who were his friends.

    What kind of music did you sing?

    We used to sing jazz, we used to play jazz, Basie, anybody. Jimmy Smith started out with my band (the Sonotones, in the early 1950s), from piano to organ. (Guitarist) Thornell Schwartz was in my band. He went with Jimmy when Jimmy went out. And Groove Holmes came after Jimmy.

    After that I had a few other fellas around town and I finally found a girl, Dee Dee Ford, and she became my partner. When she left I went to a seven-piece band. Then I found the musicians weren’t the same kind of musicians.

    What was missing?

    Commitment was missing. It was all about money.

    How was your generation different?

    We shared with each other. Music, ideas, the whole works. I could go see Sonny Stitt and ask him for anything, he’d give me an answer. I could go see Lionel (Hampton), he’d do the same thing. (Count) Basie, any of them.

    You go see people now they’re so busy with all these people around them you can’t even get to talk to them.

    These people were your contemporaries, people you knew?

    Yeah, Billy Eckstine, I got here at the right time because I knew Billy. I knew Dinah Washington, very close friends. Dinah gave my wife a mink coat because she didn’t have a mink coat. So she went out and bought a mink coat and gave it to her.

    That sounds like a wonderful time?

    Honey, you have to live it, you have to be there. It was amazing people. On stage they were one way. When they came off stage, they were like me and you, but if they didn’t want to be bothered they’d let you know. Especially Dinah. If she liked you, you knew it because she’d cuss you out. Give you the shirt off her back.

    I’ve known people like Bobby Blue Bland, the blues singer, because we were on the road together. Sam Cooke, we were on the road together. All the Motown acts during that time.

    I think I came up at the right time and I always told my mother, ‘Boy, I’m glad you and daddy got together.’ This was really the time to be out here.

    I left New York, went to Hackensack, New Jersey, then I moved to Teaneck (NJ), then to (Atlanta) Georgia in 1970. I went there really to remodel Curtis Mayfield’s house. I was his road manager when he did “Superfly” (1972). I was just out there with him. Then I worked for his record company, going around taking records to stations.

    You worked for Curtis Mayfield?

    I learned a lot from Curtis about the business, publishing and all that kind of stuff. ‘Cause right now I get money from some of the songs I wrote, although I didn’t write that many. I maybe wrote 10 tunes – “I Need Your Lovin’.” My tunes have been covered by other people.

    (The name of the song didn’t register with me until I later heard it on the web and remembered it fondly. Gardner and Ford recorded that chart-topping song in 1962; it was part of their night club act at Small’s Paradise in Harlem.)

    That’s good for me because at my age now, every once in a while when I get broke, a check comes in from somewhere. I say the Lord takes care of fools and babies.

    I put in a swimming pool at Curtis Mayfield’s home in Atlanta. (Construction) used to be a hobby. I formed a construction company in Atlanta.

    Don Gardner

    Don Gardner as a young singer. Photo from album cover.

    You sound like a renaissance man?

    I’ve done a little bit of everything, I went to school for cooking, baking and restaurant management, and only worked one time. My mother ‘nem used to have a restaurant. I used to cook at Horn & Hardart (restaurant) at Second and Market to make money.

    I was making more money when I was 17 than my father made working all week and I only worked three nights a week. He worked for a coal company. He could throw a shovel full of snow two feet to the second floor, because he’d been doing it so many years.

    I tried to do that. I mean I tried and tried. I knew it wasn’t the job for me. I could sneak in the nightclub and make more money than my father made all week. But he could do more with that money (than I could with mine) even though I gave most of it to my mother.

    I don’t know how they did it. There were five of us and how they made it on the little money he made and the little money my mother made and raised kids and other people would be in the house. You never had to worry about food. I don’t know how they did it. Mother did domestic work for Jews like most folks did at the time.

    What other work did you do?

    When I finished (with Mayfield’s pool), I went to work for a masonry company. When I did the pool I hired a black mason and I learned how he did the tile. I got down and tiled, and learned how to do it.

    After I learned it I went with a slate and tile company, and we did the first three subway stations down in Atlanta – Martin Luther King (King Memorial station), East Point and something else.

    My mother got sick and I moved back to Philadelphia in ’85.

    Musicians’ Local 274

    By then, a decade or more had passed since Gardner had performed in front of a crowd. He gave up his union card when he quit the business in 1970, but his mind is still full of the history of Local 274, which he joined in the 1950s.

    It was formed like others across the country – most of them in the South – when the white American Federation of Musicians (AFM) barred blacks as members. African American musicians started their own as AFM locals – first in Pittsburgh in 1897 and Chicago in 1902. One was also organized in Philadelphia, and is mentioned in a 1920 AFM journal, but was said to have shut down in the 1930s.

    Then in 1935, Local 274 was organized, and its member included some of the country’s top performers: Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Clara Ward. It became popularly known as the Clef Club, encompassing the union hall and social club at a location that the local had purchased in 1948.

    As segregation began to wither, the AFM forced the black musicians’ unions across the country to merge with the national, which had granted them charters. The 274 was the last surviving one when it merged in 1971 after losing a court fight against the AFM’s decision to expel it.

    Don Gardner's records

    An up-close view of records on the album cover.

    Here are Gardner’s recollections of Local 274:

    They were the last black union to go under, (from) over 50 around the country. When desegregation started happening, instead of merging some of the whites into the blacks, they (AFM) made all the blacks merge into the whites. And they lost their autonomy.

    We’re the only ones that held out. We were not the only ones who had their own building, had their own liquor license at the time. The liquor license we have now, we’ve had that liquor license since the early ’40s.

    They thought that when they made us merge, they were going to end up getting our building and all that. The powers that be (in Local 274) at the time sold everything to the Clef Club, the social arm, a year or so before they went under. So consequently when they went under, the union didn’t get nothing.

    Most of the members refused to go there (into Local 77, opting instead to join AFM locals in surrounding cities. Gardner was in Detroit at the time). They didn’t want us before so why should we go there now. Some of the diehards went there, thought they could change something.

    Tell me more about how the Clef Club became its own entity?

    It was called the Philadelphia Clef Club of the Performing Arts. The Clef Club was realized in 1966 as a social arm for the union. I think they just knew something might happen, so they said let’s start this. So they sold everything that the union owned to the Clef Club for a dollar, to keep it.

    The union had nothing to do with it (the Clef Club) anymore. When they sold everything, the union had to pay the Clef Club rent. They did it all legit so they (the AFM) couldn’t say you just did that and fight to get it.

    Those cats that were there at the time they all came from the South, and they knew about owning all that kind of stuff. I think if it had been somebody born up here, we would’ve all been gone. They were smart, and what we’ve been doing is just trying to keep it together.

    That’s been a struggle? In what way?

    Money. Blacks don’t support blacks, which is something I don’t understand. We’ve been going to schools and the kids don’t know nothing about black music. You hear blues today, it’s usually some white boy singing it. They done took it and gone with it. And blacks don’t even want to hear that.

    How long will you remain with the club?

    Until I die. I say that because I (thought) I’d be dead by 40, because I was driving up and down the highway falling asleep at the wheel and all that kind of dumb stuff, trying to make it to the next gig. I had so many friends end up getting killed on the road. But the Lord spared me so I guess he spared me for a reason and I think that’s the reason.

    (The Clef Club) is a legacy. It’s a way young kids can learn about their heritage and learn music.


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