Dr Carver Club

In January 1942, the US decided to send African American servicemen to Australia, provoking major concern for the Labor government, which did everything it could to prevent their arrival. ‘We are not prepared to agree to the proposal that US troops to be despatched to Australia should be coloured,’ declared Labor’s Minister for External Affairs, H. V. Evatt, underlining the bipartisan support for the White Australia policy. In fact the first major contingent of African American troops had already set sail for Australia. Bowing to reality, the government resorted to a number of measures to keep the African Americans segregated as much as possible.

Most African Americans serving at the beginning of WWII were assigned to non-combat units and relegated to service duties, such as supply, maintenance, construction and transportation, and the initial response of the government and the US Army was to send them to remote locations such as Cloncurry and Mt Isa. When it became necessary to base them in cities they were limited to residential zones and their entertainment facilities were segregated.

In Brisbane, African Americans were denied access to the greater part of the city and were restricted to the poorer districts south of the river. Following a number of clashes over access to dances the US Red Cross set up the Dr Carver Club in May 1943. Named after George Washington Carver, the noted African American botanist who had died four months earlier, the club was in a two-storey building in Gray Street. The ice skating rink on the second floor had been converted into a dance floor and the club provided accommodation, dining and entertainment for African American servicemen, with dances on two nights a week: ‘Managed by black Americans, it also had a staff of 20 local women who attended the club as dance partners including six Aborigines. Aboriginal women were also encouraged to come to the club as dance partners, but most of the 200 women who attended the club were whites who had got to know the black soldiers who were camped at Redbank, south of Brisbane.’[1]

Dr Carver Club 4091866
The US Fifth Air Corps Orchestra playing at the Doctor Carver Service Club on 19 August 1943. Galvin Johnson, Missouri, is at the microphone. Ms Lila Draper is dancing with Private Bob Walker, New York City. Photo by Harry Turner.

Willie McIntyre’s unit moved from Kingaroy to Strathpine, twenty-two kilometres north of Brisbane, at the end of March 1944, giving him the chance to play at the club over the next eight months. It was a memorable experience, as shown by his recording of ‘Carver Club Special’ just after leaving the army. ‘The Doctor Carver Club in Brisbane in 1943 was a club that was formed for Negro servicemen,’ he recalled forty years later. ‘The white American servicemen had their own club north of the river and in their wisdom the powers that be said the Negro servicemen couldn’t go north of the river, they had to remain south of the river. So they formed their own social club, and it was a very big club. It had an excellent dining room, had a dance hall and lounges and all the rest of it. And it was very difficult for white servicemen to get entry to the Dr Carver Club, in fact they were barred more or less. Even if taken in by invitation you were generally asked to leave. And so when I was asked there and eventually started to play in a group I thought it was a great privilege. Indeed, the sort of playing with Negro musicians was something that, even if they weren’t really first-rate – Morris Goode was playing trumpet and he certainly wasn’t any Roy Eldridge – but I thought it was great.’[2]

The US Fifth Air Corps Orchestra playing at the Doctor Carver Service Club. Photo by Harry Turner.

Goode was impressed by Willie’s playing, asking him when he was last in the US. When Willie said he’d never been there the trumpeter replied, ‘I’m amazed, I thought you’d had to have been in the States to play like that.’ Goode arrived in Australia around April 1943 and had some leave in Melbourne in the middle of 1944. He became friendly with local jazz musicians and fans such as Graeme and Roger Bell, Bill Miller and Ray Marginson, and sat in several times with the Graeme Bell band at the Palais Royal. In July 1944, he recorded two tracks with them for Miller’s Ampersand label, ‘You Rascal You’ and Goode’s composition ‘I’m Going But I’ll Be Back’. They reveal a strong Armstrong influence and Roger Bell described him as ‘quite an accomplished trumpet player in his own sort of Swing-Jump style’.[3] An iconic photo taken around this time, with Goode and Bell playing trumpets, would later be featured on the cover of the program for the first Australian Jazz Convention in 1946.

Goode may not have been a first-rate soloist, but he was certainly a very experienced and competent small-group and big-band player. He toured southern states of the USA with the Scotty Minstrels from 1935–36 before going to New York as a solo act. He then spent eight months touring with the Teddy Hill Big Band, which had featured trumpeters Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie and Frankie Newton at various times.[4] Teddy Hill went on to manage Minton’s Playhouse in New York, which featured emerging bop musicians such as Thelonious Monk, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

[See ‘Mondays at Mintons’, Michelle Redmond’s excellent documentary about her grandfather, Teddy Hill.]

Just how lucky Willie was to have been able to get into the club is illustrated by Oodgeroo Noonuccal, the Aboriginal writer and activist then known as Kath Walker, who was a wireless operator in the Australian Women’s Army Service. ‘I remember once I was over there [at the Carver Club],’ she said, ‘and the army, the US Army (Military Police) came in and they rounded this fellow up because he had white skin, and they said, “You shouldn’t be over here at the Dr Carver Club. We are going to arrest you and we are taking you in,” and he said, “But I’m a Negro, I’m black.” And they said, “Don’t give us that bull!” because he was pretty fair. So one of the guys from the other side of the street yelled out, “Hey mate! Hey mister! Take off his hat!” And he had crinkly hair . . . and they dropped him like a red-hot coal! They couldn’t drop him fast enough! Because they thought he was a white man going over to the black scene. They definitely separated the blacks from the whites in the United States, which to me was a pretty poor thing.’[5]

[1] Introduction by Robert A. Hall to Noonuccal, ‘Wireless Operator’, 122. In Fighters from the Fringe: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders Recall the Second World War, edited by Robert A. Hall, 111–134. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press. See also United State Red Cross, Dr Carvers’ Service Club South Brisbane.

[2] Buesst, Jazz Scrapbook DVD.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jazz Notes, no. 43, August 1944, 7; no. 44, 1944, 4–5.

[5] Noonuccal, ‘Wireless Operator’, 126.