Jeffriesí life is a history of jazz in first person

Bruce Frasier
The Desert Sun

January 14, 2001

Ken Burns didnít contact Herb Jeffries for his eight-part Jazz series, but he should have.

Jeffries, who will be 90 this year, is a cultural phenomenon. Not only does he have memories and stories from personal friends going back to the beginning of jazz, but his own career is hotter now than it was in 1941 when he starred in Duke Ellingtonís socially significant musical, Jump For Joy, which Jazz is expected to cover next week.

"I had a nice career," Herb said from his Palm Desert home. "(But) right now, I canít tell you whatís happening to my career. My God. Iím going to be 90 years old. I guess they want see if Iím still walking."

Herb had just returned from the University of Judaism in L.A. after a three-night run of Blow Gabriel Blow, a show on how jazz, particularly trumpeters Louis Armstrong, Mannie Klein and Ziggy Elman, broke down discrimination like the walls of Jericho.

The show features jazz, klezmer and freolich music with Herb telling stories and singing songs. Heíd like to find a promoter to do the show in the desert.

Bill Witte, are you reading?

Legends: Herb hasnít been able to see Jazz, but he agrees with Burnsí selection of Armstrong and Ellington as the two most significant jazz figures.

Armstrong started Herb in the business. He was singing for tips at a Detroit nightclub in í33 when Armstrong came by and told him he was too good for that gig. He wrote a note for Herb to give to Chicago band leader Erskine Tate. Herb did and Tate said, "If Louis says you can sing, get up here." He sang two nights for Tate before Earl Hines hired him away to sing for him at Chicagoís Grand Terrace.

"Louis was the boss," Herb said. "If he recommended you, you were in."

Herb placed Armstrong, Ellington and Hines, Armstrongís most noted pianist, in his 10 top jazz legends.

"Louis was the first one accepted into white society," said Herb. "When a lot of other black artists were mostly performing in black churches and black clubs, Louis broke out in places where only whites were playing.

"Earl Hines was a man of total dignity. His orchestra was like Ellingtonís. He wore tails. Hines was dressed equally beautiful as Ellington and Ellington was named one of the 10 best-dressed men in the world.

"Ellington has done more to sophisticate things than anybody else. He took (jazz) away from primitiva. He put aristocracy in it. I know what he did for me. I came out of the ghetto. I never had a chance to go to high school. This man inspired me to go back to school when I was 41 years old."

Bruce Fessier is the people/entertainment editor for The Desert Sun. He can be reached at (760) 778-4622 or via e-mail at

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