Memorial Day Special: Band Director's Memory Lives On

Eugene Thomas and Avon Rollins
with Book Swing and Swab with St. Clair Cobb
at Beck Cultural Exchange Center
Knoxville, Tennessee
Eugene Thomas was 12 years old when he started learning to play the trombone at Beardsley Junior High School.  He still remembers how the band director influenced him to achieve something with his life.  "I do remember he was always proud of us," commented Thomas.

In the days of segregated Knoxville, Tennessee, when second best was the false message African American children heard from the rest of their world, the influence of a teacher could bring hope.  Another student named Avon Rollins was struggling to play the trumpet, and he recalls the same band director, "He was bright and sharp, creative, making something out of nothing, beat up horns, beat up instruments, beat up music sheets and sometimes beat up students.  But he made somebody out of them."

Former band members Thomas and Rollins agree that their lives might not be the same without the influence of band director St. Clair Cobb, who taught music to hundreds of young black students from the 1920s through the 1960s.  The grandson of slaves and son of a school principal, Cobb showed musical proficiency at a young age.  While Cobb studied music seriously and attended college, he managed to earn his teaching certificate without a college degree. 

Known for his strict teaching style, Cobb directed bands to earn frequent awards, and they were a favorite in parades.  Rollins shared, "My first recollection of Mr. Cobb was watching down Gay Street with a white suit, with his band behind him. Back in those days Austin High School and Mr. Cobb's band was the last band to play, but people would line up, they would stay, not only blacks, but whites would line the streets because they knew that in fact they would receive  a great musical performance by Mr. Cobb's band.  Because they were the best of the best."

Author Rev. Eugene Thomas
Thomas, who went on to finish college and seminary before serving as a Presbyterian minister, felt that Cobb's story needed telling and set out a few years ago to write a biographical tribute to his former teacher. The book, "Swing and Swab With St. Clair Cobb" uses the student rhyme with the word "swab" describing a slower paced march, in contrast to the stylish swing they often used.  "I was told by a person who should know that when he died they threw away everything he had," Thomas said about Cobb's death in 1974.  Since Cobb did not write any known musical compositions or books himself, his former student felt the band director's memory would be lost except for a few scattered records.

Thomas' work pulls those records, photos and recollections together, less like a tell-all volume but more like a family scrapbook.  The other former band member, on trumpet, says he never mastered band marching. But Rollins, who went on to march for civil rights with Dr. Martin Luther King and now directs Beck Cultural Exchange Center in Knoxville, said about the author, "He was very diligent in his research and his making contact with individuals who knew Cobb as a peer, those who knew him as a student.  And out of the ground came this book.  It's a magnificent book that people can learn from."

Thomas found evidence of Cobb's World War I military service in France.  He also tracked the whereabouts of Cobb's former students, gathering their impressions of their band director and taking note of what they've achieved.  The young African American students went on to become teachers, musicians and homemakers, military officers, physicians and elected government representatives.

In this day when we all can read snippets of information from our mobile devices, a book like Swing  and Swab invites us to slow down and reflect.  When I asked Thomas what his book offers young readers, he replied, "It would at least inspire them to say 'I can.'  If they would take the time to read, they would see, a lot of people were successful against the odds."

Swing and Swab is available through Beck Cultural Exchange Center.

Tomorrow:  will your family history be lost?