October 8, 2019

Archive Tucson: Jazz on Meyer Avenue

Cass Preston talks segregation, music on Meyer Avenue and growing up in the '30s and '40s.

Cass Preston describes growing up in Tucson during the 1930s and 1940s, experiencing segregation and playing music with his dad's band on Meyer Avenue. You can find the rest of the interview with Preston on the Archive Tucson website.

Transcript

AENGUS ANDERSON, HOST: Cass Preston grew up near Park and 18th Street in the 1930s and 1940s.

CASS PRESTON: The neighborhood was mixed. Go down to the Mexican neighborhood, we knew most of the kids down there. Played with them, wrestled-- you know, they had dirt floors. We would kill lizards with slingshots, we made slingshots, and we would go hunting, kill the lizards, and climb trees. We didn't do much because, on that side of town, nothing was going on.

We walked downtown. We had four theaters, I think, but it was segregated. You couldn't sit downstairs you had to sit upstairs in the balcony. Certain places you couldn't eat. El Charro Restaurant--you know that? No signs, you had to understand. They told you when you went in: you could take it out. But it was just, you know, we couldn't eat in there. And when you go to the theater, you knew. You just knew. The word got around: when you go to the theater you sit upstairs. My dad never talked about it and my mom never talked about it. It was just something people accept. You know? It's a way of life, and that's what you do.

And my dad attended the University of Arizona for almost a year, I think, then his money ran out, so he had to get out. Got a job as a janitor at Dunbar School. So we, being his kids, cleaned the school up after school closed, go home, and my dad would get up early the morning, go open up the school. Dunbar, I'm sorry. I didn't get a good education. I got cheated.

This is my take. The black teachers came from the south. They had degrees, but I don't know how well educated they were because I don't-- I didn't-- I didn't get much! I'm not going to blame it all on them. Maybe I couldn't handle it. Yeah, I think they cared, but they was just doing what they knew.

Well, every time I think about Dunbar, I think negative.

I worked on Meyer Street shining shoes. My dad made me a shoe box. Everything was down there on Meyer Street, man. They had all the clubs. I used to see fights down there, a couple guys get stabbed and everything-- oh yeah.

We had a lot of records. We had a lot of records around: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington. That's my music right there. All that type of music right there was mine, and my dad played sax, had trumpet, had drums. Clarinet--we had instruments in the house. And he knew musicians, used to come over to the house and play a lot of times. It was fun.

My dad played with musicians at clubs. When I became of age, I was playing trumpet in the band. My brother, Ted, was playing drums. Well I used to play at the Beehive. It was on Convent, right near the police station, and here is where all the black musicians came to play, like Pullman Porters like that. They weren't expert musicians, but they played. And they dropped by the Beehive. Everybody would drop by the Beehive, and you'd jam in there.

My brother started playing there first, then I start playing there. $3 a night. It was a mixed club, but mostly black. And that's where all the prostitutes lived in the back.

Meyer Street, there was so many places down there, and people lived there, you know? And back north was a little more business. A guy was famous for his hot dogs. My dad used to bring them home when he used to play the gigs. He'd bring us, wake us up and have hot dogs. Yeah, those hot dogs. I can taste them now, yeah...

ANDERSON: Preston went on to graduate from Tucson High, earn a High Jump Scholarship to Arizona State, serve in the Air Force, teach at Pueblo High School, and, along the way, become a Tucson trumpet legend who you can still see play in town.

This story is part of Archive Tucson, an oral history project produced by Aengus Anderson through the University of Arizona Libraries' Special Collections.

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