He led one of the most successful Black “territory” bands of the early Jazz and Swing eras. His friends included Count Basie and Duke Ellington. His orchestra topped the Billboard chart in the 1950s with a Gold Record.
His name was Ernie Fields, and his daughter, Needham resident Carmen Fields, shares his story in her book “Going Back to T-Town, The Ernie Fields Territory Big Band,” which is being released today (University of Oklahoma Press, pp. 240, $26.95).
Fields is an Emmy Award winning Boston broadcast news journalist. She calls her book a labor of love, researched and written over the course of four decades to set her father’s place in history. She discussed her book and her father in an interview with the Needham Observer.
JH: You paint a vivid portrait not only of your father, but of the wider Big Band Era through the stories he loved to tell of his experiences with his orchestra members. But his historic music career was unexpected after he graduated from the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) trained to be an electrician.
CF: He had a job working for a small electric company in Greenwood, the area of Tulsa known as Black Wall Street. Quite by accident, he heard these young people rehearsing for an engagement and stopped and listened. And they noticed him and said, ’Why don’t you come and sit in with us sometime?’ It took a few years before he had the confidence to give up the electric job and pursue music full time.
JH: And when he did, he discovered that his real talent was more than playing his trombone, it was in creating the sound of the orchestra by bringing together and managing the musicians.
CF: It was on-the-job training because he had no experience in management or leadership. He was an acceptable musician, but he was more a businessman and entrepreneur. He created a popular “territory band,” one of many during the 1920s and ‘30s that toured from town to town. He was based in Tulsa but traveled to Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Little Rock, Ark. That was essentially the territory.
JH: The Ernie Fields Orchestra was an all-Black big band traveling through the Jim Crow South. So not only was your father managing a large group of musicians, he was navigating through strict segregation.
CF: That was the fact of life. This was before the Civil Rights Act, this was before the “Green Book.” And it was against the law in a lot of instances for white musicians to be a part of the organizations. If there was any fraternization it was after hours when they had jam sessions or after-hours juke joints. And as for managing musicians, there are all these different personalities, and some of them are geniuses and some of them not so much but may think they are. I can’t imagine what it took to keep a cohesive organization like that. In addition to musicianship and rehearsing he stressed grooming, they had to look a certain way, and be on time, and not be inebriated. He was very conscious of his wholesome brand.
JH: Your father was the first Black band leader of his era to have a white performer join his orchestra.
CF: One of his musicians would say, “The way you talk to white people sometimes makes me nervous!” But he was just always forthright in his conduct. He was overall a very optimistic person. He was open for new experiences, and I guess I would say he dwelled on the good in people, and in most instances he found more good than bad. He was a man of enormous faith, and he was also confident. That’s quintessential Ernie Fields.
JH: Your father credits your mother, Bernice, for supporting him in a career that left her on her own at home with you and your brother for long periods of time.
CF: My father would always say, “If there is only one thing l love your mother for it’s that she told me to go and stay as long as I needed to and not to worry.” She would never be accused of telling him to put the horn down. In his words, there was no grumbling at all. She was easygoing and not a complainer. They were quite a little team in that time. She was integral to his success, giving him the freedom to pursue it.
JH: Recording contracts in New York brought Ernie Fields into the wider music industry along with Count Basie and Duke Ellington. He evolved his sound when jazz and swing gave way to rhythm and blues and the emerging popularity of rock ’n’ roll. His 1959 recording of an updated version of “In the Mood” was a hit with radio DJs and led to a chart-topping Gold Record and an appearance on “American Bandstand.”
CF: That was very exciting. That was a very important time when you consider it was a time when you didn’t see Black people on television. I was proud and I was aware of the significance that my father was on TV — national TV— because that was something very unusual.
JH: You’ve said you wrote the book so that people know Ernie Fields was there, to secure his place in history. Any other hopes for it?
CF: Several college educators who teach the Swing Era use some of my father’s music as an example. So there is a part of me that hopes that from this book there will be an opportunity to reconstruct or share the charts of his early music so that it can be performed in high school or college orchestras. That would bring enormous joy to me if I could hear his music performed again.
You can hear a collection of Ernie Fields’ recordings on the fan-created website ernie fields.org.