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African-American Navy Bands of World War II
Algiers Naval Air Station Band


photo courtesy of Hogan Jazz Archives, Tulane University


photo courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz Club Collection of the Louisiana State Museum

Top row: Bandmaster Vernon B. Cooper, Booker Washington, Alexander William Spencer, Paul Barnes, Herbert Trist/Trisch, William Casimir, Sidney Dufachard, Leon Harris, Frank Fields.
Bottom row: Gilbert Jones, Vernon Gilbert, Robert Anthony, Bertrand Adams Brooks, unknown, John Jones, Henry Ross Davis, Harold Dejan, Adolphe Alexander, Jr.

Harold Dejan thought that the Navy band at Lakefront had gotten "the cream of the crop" of local musicians. "They took all the best musicians you could find," he recalled, including his brother, Leo, and Willie Humphrey. "They had all the top musicians."

Wendell Eugene, who played in that band, agreed, telling Barry Martyn in 1999 that the Lakefront band was clearly the better of the two. But the Algiers band also had an impressive roster of some of New Orleans' finest musicians, including Harold Dejan, Adolphe Alexander, Paul Barnes, and William Casimir, and like the Lakefront band, they formed from their ranks a Dixieland band and a popular dance band that played regular club gigs in town.

That Algiers station would get a black Navy band was announced locally in the Louisiana Weekly on August 15, 1942: "Heartening news to local Negroes who were unable to enlist as members of the first band is the announcement made today by Lieutenant Kenneth C. Elliot, officer in charge of the local recruiting station, that another navy band would be formed within the next few days." It would have the same qualifications: "Applicants must not be under 17 years of age and not over 50. They must be able to pass the navy physical examination, and must be able to read music scores. There are no educational requirements."

Harold Dejan remembered being at Great Lakes for training for 16 weeks: "Every time we were supposed to leave, they made our chief recruit another band. So we took off from boots about three times. Everything went well. Oh, you wouldn't know there were so many musicians in the world."

At Algiers, Dejan played tenor sax with the marching band, baritone sax and clarinet with the orchestra, and in the Dixieland band he led he played alto sax.
the saxophone section in the Algiers Naval Station band, 1942
photo courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz Club Collection of the Louisiana State Museum
bottom up: Harold Dejan, Adolphe Alexander, Jr., H. Trisch, Paul Barnes, William Casimir. Bandmaster, Vernon B. Cooper
Dejan also had what he called a "mixed band" while stationed at Algiers, which appears to mean that it included white musicians. This band played regularly at the Gypsy Tea Room (where "the cats and chicks are all on the beam and stay that way") on Sunday evenings, sometimes in a "battle" with local favorite Sidney Desvigne's band.

The Louisiana Weekly's "Here It Is" column announced in August 1945 that Desvigne's band would battle the Gobs of Rhythm at the Tea Room, also calling it a "mixed band." But it notes that the band is led by Bertrand Adams. Other players listed include Pete De Mio (also known as "Grayboy") and a "bass digger [who] is also of the same race," Polo Barnes, Bill Casimir, and Harold Dejan.

Harold Dejan recalled that the band played parades quite often: "We used to start playing a march at the River and Canal and play a medley of marches and end up at Rampart and Canal, that's right. We had a good band."

The Algiers Naval Station was commissioned in 1901 as a dry dock that was operational by January 1902. It proved "perfect in all details" and helped the port of New Orleans because it was usable by merchant vessels and warships alike. Congress appropriated almost $5 million additional for the construction of new buildings and other improvements and the purchase of additional land which pushed the station's river frontage to 3,700 feet with a depth of 3,000 feet. The station was closed briefly for financial reasons about 1913 but reopened in 1915 after Secretary of Navy Josephus Daniels and his assistant, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, visited the site and "were impressed by the splendor of its buildings and their outstanding care and maintenance." Principal among these buildings was a plantation house on the grounds that had attracted the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt and his daughter, Alice, during inspections for the dry dock. The President ordered that the stately magnolias on the base site not be disturbed and recommended that the mansion be used as the Admiral's home. It later became the home of the Commandant of the Eighth Naval District. During World War, Algiers Station operated as Receiving Station and Industrial Navy Yard for repairing vessels, housing machine, blacksmith, boiler, and carpentry shops and a foundry with "the largest rollers for rolling steel plates in the South." Submarine chasers, 88-foot harbor tugs, and seaplane wrecking barges were built there, and captured German ships were repaired and remodeled. The base also included a supply department and hospital, and a fireman's and machinist mate's school. Most operations at the base ceased in June 1933, and for the next two years the base was used to house transient military personnel; from December 1938 to September 1942, the National Youth Administration used most of the station as a training school, housing as many as 1,500 youth at a time. The original dry dock was disassembled and sent through the Panama Canal to Pearl Harbor in the buildup to World War II, which saw a resurgent Navy presence at Algiers, which was formally re-opened in 1939. During World War II, the base had a Supply Department used to outfit the many Navy vessels being constructed in the region; an armed guard center that trained guards for merchant ships; an inspections center; a landing craft program that outfitted LST (landing supply troop) vessels; and a new dry dock. Also operational there were firefighting and gunnery schools.

Algiers Naval Station band, 1942
photo courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz Club Collection of the Louisiana State Museum

Although not much is currently known about the activities of the Algiers Station Navy Band, a roster of musicians who played with it is impressive:

Bertrand Adams, trombone.

Adolphe Alexander, Jr., photograph by Julian Smith Coswo, 1953
photo courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz Club Collection of the Louisiana State Museum
Saxophones, clarinet, bass horn.
"Tats" Alexander was born in New Orleans, July 15, 1898 and died in 1969.
He was with the Tuxedo Brass Band, 1921; played on riverboats with Sidney Desvigne's orchestra, 1921-23; with WPA bands during the Depression; with Papa Celestin from mid-40s to '54; with Eureka Brass band; retired from music in 1955.

Robert Anthony, trumpet

Paul D. "Polo" Barnes, clarinet, sax.
b. NOLA Nov 22, 1902; d. NOLA April 13, 1981.
The brother of Emile Barnes, Polo played with the Young Tuxedo Orchestra, 1920; the Original Tuxedo Orchestra with Papa Celestin & Ridgley in '21; with Papa Celestin till 1927; then with King Oliver until '35 (and also kept a diary of those years); and with Kid Howard at Lavida. He stayed in New York for a while after war, then returned to NOLA. He composed "My Josephine," recorded by Papa Celestin.

Bertrand Adams Brooks, trombone.

William Casimir.
Bill Casimir, brother of John, played on the SS Capitol in Fats Pichon's band with Manuel Crusto, who played in the New Orleans Lakefront Navy Band.

Vernon B. Cooper (white), bandmaster.

Cooper is credited with having organized the band in 1942.

James Davis, drums.

Henry Ross Davis

Harold Dejan, 1967
photo courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz Club Collection of the Louisiana State Museum
Harold Dejan, e-flat clarinet, saxophone.
One of the most beloved of all New Orleans musicians, Harold Dejan was born there on February 4, 1909 and died there on July 5, 2002.
He was renowned as a performer, band leader, and friend to any in need. He led several small rhythm & blues groups in New Orleans and was in his brother Leo's Moonlight Serenaders about 1918. He toured with the Joyland Revelers and Ridgley's Tuxedo Band in the 1920s and then quit music briefly. In the '30s he worked on the steamer SS Dixie, which sailed from New York to New Orleans, and the SS Ouchita on Lake Ponchartrain; in '50s, with the Young Tuxedo Brass Band and then as leader of the Olympia Brass Band (with fellow Navy bandsman Wendell Eugene on trombone). Dejan also led what was perhaps the Navy's only Dixieland jazz band during World War II, comprised of players from the Algiers Navy band and others.
The Original Moonlight Serenaders, 1919-21
with Leo Dejan on trumpet and Harold Dejan (middle) on sax and clarinet; also Arnaul Thomas, drums; Henry Casanave, sax, and Sidney Cates, banjo
photo courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz Club Collection of the Louisiana State Museum

Sydney Dufachard, clarinet.

Frank "Dude" Fields (May 2, 1914 - Sept. 18, 2005) , tuba, string bass.
Fields began with the Claiborne Williams band in Donaldsonville, LA, and later played with Papa Celestin; in 1965, with Albert French's band; and with New Camelia Band in '80s. He was named in 1990 to the Jazz All-Stars Honor Roll in New Orleans.

Cie Frazier (Feb. 23, 1904 - Jan. 10, 1983) drums
Cie Frazier was born on Feb. 23, 1904 in New Orleans and played with many of the best known dance bands of the city, including A.J. Piron's, Sidney Desvigne's, John Robichaux's, and Papa Celestin's. He began playing professionally in 1921 with Lawrence Marrero, was in the Young Tuxedo Band in 1923, and worked in the ERA and WPA bands in the mid-1930s. He made his first recordings with Celestin in 1927. In later years, he played with Sweet Emma Barrett, the Humphrey Brothers, and Billie and Dee Dee Pierce.

Vernon Gilbert

Leon Harris

Gilbert Jones, trumpet.

John Jones

Gilbert Jones

Reuben Roddy, alto sax.
b. Joplin, MO May 5, 1906; d. NOLA 1960.
With Eureka Brass Band in 1946 after playing w/ Count Basie, Bennie Moten & Walter Page; with dance bands led by Kid Thomas in '50s.

Henry Russ, drums, tuba, string bass.
b. NOA Aug 7, 1903.
Bandleader at dance halls in '20s, w/ Peter Lacaze's NOLA Band; in Depression, switched to trumpet & worked with WPA & ERA groups.

Alexander William Spencer, horn.

Herbert Trist/Trisch, clarinet.

Booker Washington
It's possible that Booker T. Washington was actually Booker T. Glass, who was born in New Orleans on May 10, 1881 and died there on June 25, 1981. Booker T. Glass, who also performed with Harold Dejan in the Great Olympia Band, was re-named Booker T. Washington by the man who adopted him. A plumber who worked at the Algiers Naval Station, Booker T. Washington is remembered by Harold Dejan as in the Algiers Navy band. He played in at least one other band, led by Armand Piron, that included these New Orleans Navy musicians: Eddie Pierson and Louis Barbarin, who served at the Lakefront station, and Bill Casimir, who served at Algiers.

George A. Williams
Harold Dejan said that George Williams was the son "of the famous Claiborne Williams" who lived in Donaldsonville, LA.

Sources

Burns, Mick. The Great Olympia Band. New Orleans: Jazzology Press, 2001.

Chase, Dooky. Personal interview with author. New Orleans: Oct. 10, 2014.

Dejan, Harold, with Els W. Velduisen. Everything Is Lovely: A Family Portrait. Pijnacker, the Netherlands: Holland Olympia, 1989.

Eugene, Wendell. Interview with Barry Martyn. 4 Nov. 1999. New Orleans: Hogan Jazz Archives, Tulane University.

Mike. "Here It Is." Louisiana Weekly 28 Apr. 1945: 6.

Newhart, Sally. The Original Tuxedo Jazz Band. Mt. Pleasant, SC: History Press, 2013.

Purnell, Theodore. Interview with William Russell. Feb. 3, 1961. New Orleans: Hogan Jazz Archives, Tulane University.

Rose, Al and Edmond Souchon. New Orleans Jazz: A Family Album, 3rd ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1984.

"23 Musicians Inducted for Naval band." Louisiana Weekly 15 Aug. 1942: 6. Woods, David L. "New Orleans, La., Naval Station, 1803-1818; Algiers Naval Station, 1901-1933, 1939-1947; Naval Station, 1947-1966; Naval Support Activity, 1966-1983." in United States Navy and Marine Bases, Domestic, Paolo E. Coletta, ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985: 333-336.