Ambassadors of Swing

Writer: 
March 31, 2004
Big Band: swinging in Card Gym, 1937

 Big Band: swinging in Card Gym, 1937. Photo: Duke Univeristy Archives

 

In the fall of 1934 (mid-Depression, post-Prohibition), Sonny Burke '37 arrived on campus talking about a band. A musician since the age of five, Burke played violin and piano and, like many Americans, was enamored of the jazz greats of his time--Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, in particular--and the brand new sound they'd found: "swing."

Burke wasn't the first. There were already several bands on campus, including the Duke Blue Devils, led by Lester R. Brown '36, who would later become famous as the leader of Les Brown and His Band of Renown. But Burke landed on a formula for enduring entertainment and a name well suited to the task. For the next thirty years, Burke's Duke Ambassadors, an independent, student-run, thirteen-piece dance band, served the university as both in-house social scene and exportable entertainment. At the "Sunday Night Sings" in Baldwin Auditorium, the band played hit tunes, led group singing ("follow the bouncing ball"), and held "audience participation events" like the "So You Want to Lead a Band" contest. "Everybody got a kick out of that one," recalls James "Benny" Steele '50, B.S.E. '53, bandleader from 1951 to 1953. "I'd pick somebody out of the audience to take my place, and it would sound awful. But it was really funny."

Baldwin was just one of many venues, and when the Ambassadors weren't on campus, they were a tough crew to track. They might be at Tantilla Gardens in Virginia Beach or Palisades Park in New Jersey or perhaps in Iceland, as they once were, regaling crowds in ReykjavÌk. At the request of the U.S. State Department, the Ambassadors made several overseas appearances in the late Fifties, with trips to the Azores, Bermuda, and Panama, becoming, in effect, the embodiment of the name Burke had chosen so long ago.

They played all over North Carolina and surrounding states, performing annually at the North Carolina Governor's Ball, at Fort Bragg and the Cherry Point Naval Base, and at nearly every college and university in the region, including the one down the road, where students couldn't resist great swing, even if it came from Durham.

When the war started, the music stopped. On December 8, 1941, the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, men at Duke, like men across the country, signed up to fight. Vince Courtney, then leader of the Ambassadors, joined the Air Force. The "prince," as he was known, Courtney played trombone and was the male vocalist, with a voice as clear and cool as running water--a sure bet, many thought, to lead a name band on the professional circuit. But Courtney, killed in the invasion of northern France, would never sing again, and his death marked the low point in the life of the band.

The first post-war appearance of the Ambassadors was at the Sunday Night Sing on East Campus in 1947. The band sat behind blue-and-white stands with "Duke Ambassadors" painted across the front. They wore beige corduroy jackets and bowties and opened the show with a tribute to Courtney, a song he wrote called "Dream Notes." It was a big day at Duke, festive and ballooned, a reunion of sorts. Across America, big-band music was in its heyday, but to students at Duke, the moment was personal. The Ambassadors were their own, and, finally, they'd come home.

In 1947, in Durham, you got your clothes at Kimbrell's and your burgers at Rinaldi's and everything else at Walgreen's. The war was over, the football team was winning, and there was just one thing to do about it: dance. Sammy Fletcher '47 had replaced Courtney as bandleader and reorganized the band on the model of professional groups flourishing at the time.

What had been a small outfit of four saxophones, three trumpets, and one trombone became a veritable big band with power and depth and a level of skill unheard of on a college campus. Fletcher added an extra instrument to each section, as well as a rhythm section (bass, piano, drums, and guitar), giving the Ambassadors the sound they would have--the richness of timbre, the sharpness of beat-- until its demise in 1964. Steele remembers the band's effect on students. "They'd hop all over the room. We'd play it all: Latin, Dixieland, jazz hits, the soft ballads. And, every time, they'd demand we play 'Stardust' last. And the couples would stand and sway, and they'd stay out there, even after the music stopped."