The Man Behind the Horn

By staff November 1, 2003

Starting out as a white musician in a black band in the days of segregation, trumpeter Leon Merian soon got an education in music-and much more.

Trumpeter Leon Merian began his career in the late 1930s and blew his horn all the way through the Big Band, swing and jazz eras of the '40s and '50s. Now living in Bradenton, he continues to play with his band every Tuesday night at Bongo's on Manatee Avenue and recently published an autobiography, The Man Behind the Horn. Here are some excerpts.

Shortly after my 10th birthday, my mother announced an unexpected treat. She was taking me to a very special matinee performance by the Boston Symphony in their fall series. Although the cost was minimal, even going was no mean feat in the heart of the Depression where every nickel counted.

Somehow, she managed seats in the first row of the balcony, and as the symphony players began to file in, take their seats, and warm up and tune, she remarked, "Take a look at all of those instruments, Leon, listen to all those instruments and let me know which one you like best."

Clueless about her intention, I watched bright-eyed as the violins took their places and began to warm up; then I noticed the woodwinds, the percussion section, the French horns and the trombones warming up. It was all very intriguing to me. But when the trumpet players took their seats and began to play, my face lit up, I pointed at them, and almost shouted at my mother, "There! That's what I like best!"

Then came Christmas a few months later. We were doing the family thing around the tree, and my sister had opened a big, long box with a doll in it. My mother had opened a box of handkerchiefs, and my father a tie, I think. Then my mother remarked, "Leon, what's that? Back at the back of the tree? Open that."

I looked at the box in question and realized it was about the same size as the box my sister had just opened. It was marked, "To Leon, from Santa."

"What is this, a doll?" I asked.

"Just open it," said my mother.

And I did. And when I got the top off that box, I couldn't believe my eyes. There was a bright, shiny new trumpet! I still remember it, "Made in Czechoslovakia" stamped on the bell. I found out later (much later) she'd bought it for fifty dollars from Carl Fischer, the big music store in New York City. That was an incredible amount of money in those days. In retrospect it must have taken her ten years to pay it off.

So I stuck in the mouthpiece, puffed my cheeks like every first-timer and blew and.nothing.

I took the horn away from my mouth, closed my eyes, and thought back to that day in the balcony at the symphony, visualized those trumpet players, how they had their lips pressed tightly together, their faces gathered in a kind of aggressive sneer. And I don't know how it happened, but I put the horn back up to my face, pursed my lips, gave it that same sneer, and blew! And this time, out popped a big fat note!

It didn't take long for Merian to start making money with his new possession, and by 1942 he had joined Lucky Millinder's band, one of the top swing bands in the country. As he writes:

I wasn't the only white with Lucky Millinder's band in New York. There were also Freddie Zito on trombone, and Johnny Bello on trumpet.

But I was the only white guy to go on a national tour with the band. Those other white cats left at the end of the Savoy Ballroom engagement, when they found out the road gig was heading south. They wanted no part of that scene. That was in 1942.

It was a gas to be the only white in an all-black band. I couldn't have asked for better acceptance than I received from the cats in Lucky's band. And in reality, the jazz education I was receiving in the black bands was probably far superior to that I would have received in any white band at the time. I think history bears out that theory when you look at the ultimate musical contributions and legacies of all the great cats I played with in that era.

These guys were the jazz hall of fame waiting to happen. Charlie Shavers, Lamar Wright, Sir Charles Thompson, Bull Moose Jackson, Bernie Peacock, Sam "the Man" Taylor, Harold "Money" Johnson, Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton, Lloyd Trotman, Panama Francis, "Big Nick" Nicholas, George Duvivier, Lucky Thompson, Bill Doggett, Art Blakey, Tab Smith, Emmett Berry, Dick Vance and Benny Green, to name just a few.

Not one of these guys ever sat down with me for a formal lesson, but I owe so much to them for what I was able to pick up from them, just by watching and listening. That was my school, and they were my professors.

However, when Lucky's band headed south on tour past the Mason-Dixon line, it was, as they say, a whole new ballgame.

My first exposure to real segregation, racism and the fact that all men were not yet created equal in America, came in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1942. After rehearsal that day, we headed to the hotel, which turned out, naturally, to be a "colored' hotel. And I was not welcome, at all, whether or not I played with the band. That was just the way it was. Lucky used every bit of his charm but couldn't budge the owner. So Lucky apologized to me and said there was nothing he could do, which I was beginning to understand.

"No problem," I replied, full of 19-year-old confidence and bravado. "I'll stay at another hotel. I saw a couple back by the auditorium."

Lucky peeled off a fiver, smiled and handed it to me as I headed out the lobby.When I arrived at the first hotel, I walked into the lobby and up to the front desk. Aside from a black shoeshine boy, everyone else was white. This would do just fine.

"Can I help you, young man?" asked the desk clerk.

"Yes, sir. I'll need a room for three nights."

"No problem, son," he answered, as he handed me a pen and began to turn the register around for me to sign in. "Salesman? Haven't seen you around before."

"No, sir. Trumpet player. With Lucky Millinder's band. We'll be playing at the auditorium the next three nights. Hope you can make it."

At which point he took the pen from my hand, slammed the register shut, and said, "We're full. Beat it."


"Full. Your ears plugged? Out."

And he nodded at what I came to understand later was known as a good-ole boy cracker, about six foot four and 250 pounds, who rested his elbow on the counter and said to me, "No nigger lovers allowed, boy. Out."

I was too stunned to even reply. I backed away, then out of the lobby, knowing what was happening but not believing it.

As I walked into the lobby of the second hotel, there were three of them already waiting to greet me.

"Full, son. Be on your way."

It was pretty clear what my status was in this town. Couldn't stay in the "Colored" hotel, couldn't stay in the "White" hotels. Which left the band bus as the only fully integrated option available.

Playing with Lucky I was living the life of a black musician. Immersed in that lifestyle, it was very easy to accept the black point of view, not only about music, but about life in general. Sometimes, I even wished I could have been black. There was an honesty about their music and the way they played. When you heard a black player.trumpet, trombone, saxophone, whatever.playing the blues and then you heard a white player, not matter how good the white cat was, you could hear the difference.

Of course, racism wasn't the only drawback to life on the road. It was tough on a marriage, too. Even after Merian settled down to working mostly in New York, the musician's lifestyle of booze, women and late hours caused problems.

Beginning with the Broadway shows, and continuing for years, I was a bad boy. I was screwing around, seeing other women, attending late parties, all that sort of thing. It didn't make for a healthy marriage.

Let's face it, the music business is not conducive to a good marriage. The wife has to be super understanding, because it's difficult. People will say, "You can't blame the business," but, yes, you can, because all the temptations are out there. You're on the road, you're off the road. You're at rehearsal. You're always in contact with people in the music business and show business. There was never a shortage of fans, groupies, and showgirls. A very off-hours, disruptive lifestyle with no stability. The only consistency is the inconsistency.

You're always working these smoky clubs and there are always female fans hanging out at the bandstand. Then there's the drinking situation, which makes a bad situation worse. Everyone's always ready to buy you a martini or whatever. You can develop a bad habit real quick. You might be playing in a club and someone would say, "Hey, Leon, you're really smoking' tonight. Come on and have a taste with us."

Then someone else would chime in, "Don't forget, you promised you'd come to our table!"

Before you knew it, you'd have three or four drinks lined up on the piano, and you couldn't let them go to waste.

But it wasn't just the drinking. It was the whole scene. The temptations were incredible, and I, like most cats, didn't have what it took to say no to them.

Not to rationalize, but how many musicians do I know who've been married two times? Three times? More? Artie Shaw was married eight times. So was Charlie Barnett. The list could go on and on.

For [first wife] Anne and I, the end came gradually. We started having arguments, about the business, my comings and goings, any number of things. I came home from rehearsal one day, and she was going through my pants pockets before sending them to the cleaners.

"What's this?" she wanted to know.

It was a joint (marijuana).

Then I walked in another day and she asked me, "Did you read that letter that I put on your desk today?"

I could tell from the tone of her voice there was a serious problem.

"Uh, no, I haven't seen it."

"It's right there on your desk."

There it was, all right, from a woman I'd been seeing.

And my well-developed personality traits didn't help matters. Fiery, feisty, outspoken, hot-headed, temperamental, tempestuous, uncontrolled, aggressive.they all applied. And not only were they ruining my marriage, they clearly prevented me from climbing further up the totem pole of musical success. It was not a talent problem that held me back in my stormy musical career.

Still, Merian loved blowing his trumpet and the camaraderie he shared with other musicians, on the stage and in the recording studio.

Recording in those days, from the Lucky Millinder band through all my vinyl records, was a real joy. The main ingredient was a feeling of togetherness among the musicians. A cohesion, which I would call love.

Playing together like we used to, you got to know each other and trust one another, and this was the feeling that made the band really come together, that made your solos really outstanding. Because, you know, a cat would give you a wink while you were playing, or an encouraging smile, and that meant a lot. You looked around, saw cats you were used to playing with, and a feeling of family, of unity, permeated the session.

Today, I don't get that feeling in the business. For example, when you enter a studio now, it's almost empty.

"We're just doing the piano and rhythm track today," the musical director might say. "We'll add the strings and sax section later."

And you end up in a booth, playing with earphones on. It's almost dehumanizing. Kind of like artificial insemination.

You don't have people you can turn around and look at for encouragement, because they're not there. How can you do your best in a session like that? It takes all the joy out of recording.

There are a lot of fine bands and musicians today, and they do make good recordings. Their CDs are clean and tight, but they don't generate the passion of old. That feeling of love, of passion, isn't there.

Merian moved to Florida in 1989, and it was here he faced a life-changing event.

While I was far from too old to blow up a storm on the horn, I'd had enough of the ice storms and snowstorms and the bitter, gray cold of New England. Florida meant sun-filled days, warmth and a much less stressful environment. There was a lot happening in jazz in the Sarasota area at that time, and the demographics and population certainly seemed right for my kind of music. You could consider Florida as the last outpost for our kind of music, and even at that, we seem to be losing.

I was out on Anna Maria Island one afternoon to enjoy some lunch and a swim. I dropped into the Sand Bar restaurant for some grouper and a couple of beers. Afterward, I stopped at a convenience store that was advertising a special on chablis, two for the price of one, and took advantage of the sale.

I sipped on about half the bottle, then thought it would be just the right time to take a dip.I started to swim straight out in the azure blue water, oblivious to the riptide and undertow curling under me, just having finished off my chablis. I turned around to head back to shore, and then suddenly I noticed the land was a barely visible thin strip on the horizon. It was so beautiful way out there, with no boats, people, or lifeguards in sight. I was completely on my own. However, unknown to me, the riptide had taken me way out there, in shark-infested waters. I was later told by my doctor that this area is where they all hang out.

At this point I realized I was in big trouble. Big time.

I began to swim back, but made no progress against the outgoing tide and current.I swam until I felt my arms were about to fall off. And by some miracle, as I stopped to tread water with my last remaining energy, and to contemplate whether or not it was time to just float it out, my feet just barely touched the smooth, sandy bottom of the Gulf.

And at that moment, I was convinced the Lord had saved me, had kept me from panic, and had deposited me on this beach. Somehow I knew I had another chance, one that must be lived with no more booze, drugs, womanizing or sin.

I resolved that every day after was a gift from God, and that I would determine my direction through prayer, and go, as the Thoreau quote says, "confidently in the direction of my dreams" with the Lord at my side, taking life on with vigor and enthusiasm. And one of the primary vehicles for that has been my teaching.

Teaching today is a source of great satisfaction to me, making major use of my talents. Currently my students range in age from 12 to 81! .I take great pleasure in it and consider it one of the elements that help me stay healthy.

Amazing, the power of music. It says in the Bible that the trumpet will announce the second coming and I am hoping that I will be chosen.

That is, if Gabriel wants to take the day off.

From Leon Merian: The Man Behind the Horn, by Leon Merian with Bill Bridges. Published by Diem Publishing Company. Copyright 2000. Available at Circle Books, where you can also purchase a copy of Merian's latest CD, The Real Thing.

Filed under
Show Comments