Verner column: A noteworthy jazzman with Rowan roots
‘Hello. My name is Clyde Edric Barron Bernhardt. I have been part of music long before my first professional job on Halloween Night, 1923, in Elwood City, Penn. Now I am past eighty, still playing my horn and singing my blues. And enjoying every minute of it.”
So begins “I Remember: 80 years of Black Entertainment, Big Bands and the Blues,” the remarkable story of a remarkable jazz artist who was born in Rowan County at the turn of the 20th century. He was both witness to and participant in the birth of the great jazz era, played his trombone and sang alongside legends such as Fats Waller, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie “Bird” Parker and even had dinner at the White House with President Reagan.
And to think it all began in a haunted house in Gold Hill.
North Carolina can claim kinship to several jazz greats, including Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, Max Roach and Lou Donaldson, the stellar saxophonist who was born in Badin and was inducted into the N.C. Hall of Fame last year. While those names will be familiar to jazz enthusiasts, Bernhardt isn’t as well known. I stumbled across his story while perusing a list of North Carolina jazz figures and then found the biography he wrote (published in 1986, with editorial assistance from jazz and blues historian Sheldon Harris) in the History Room at the Rowan Public Library. Bernhardt’s life and local ties are worth another look, especially during Black History Month.
Bernhardt’s father, Washington Barnhardt (his son later changed the spelling), moved from Mt. Pleasant to Gold Hill in 1892, at age 14, to work in the mines. There, he married Elizabeth Mauney, whose parents had taken the name of their white slave master. Bernhardt writes that the young couple lived for a time in the “Hannah Shaver house,” where Clyde was born on July 11, 1905. The house supposedly was haunted, with “strange noises” and “moaning” that had “scared the living daylights” out of previous tenants. Haunted or not, the family didn’t tarry there long. That same year, they moved to Richfield, in Stanly County, where Washington Barnhardt had bought 12 acres (at $1 an acre, the son notes) and the industrious parents ordered a wooden bungalow from Sears, Roebuck and Co. that a carpenter assembled for them.
The first section of the biography describes a largely happy early childhood in which the father, apparently a fan of music and good times, took the youngster Clyde to see traveling shows in the area. Clyde describes a wide-eyed trip to see the Sparks Circus in Albemarle and a memorable visit to Salisbury, at age 4, when his father brought him to a “Decoration Day” parade. The extravaganza — down Main Street, one imagines — included a group of sharply dressed black musicians, dancing along as they played “shiny instruments that bounced the bright sunshine right into my eyes. ... I had never seen anything like this.”
But his real musical introduction came a few years later, when the blues singer “Ma Rainey” came to Badin with her traveling minstrel show, “The Georgia Smart Set.” As Bernhardt recounts, he hung around the big tents, fetching Coca-Colas for Rainey, running other errands and watching the musical and comedic performers, a stage-struck child who already harbored the beginnings of a brassy dream to live a life “in music and entertainment.”
“I always did like the trombone, and I knew I wasn’t going to dig in no mines,” Bernhardt told Salisbury Evening Post writer Joe Junod in a 1974 article written when the musician, then 69 and recovering from a heart attack, was visiting in the area.
Bernhardt’s father died of heart problems in 1915, a devastating trauma for young Clyde — “the end of the world to me” — and the family’s fortunes fell. For a time, Clyde was taken in by a white couple, Rufus G. Kluttz and his wife, Carrie, who by his account treated him as a son, buying him nice clothes and seeing that he attended school. Before long, however, his widowed mother moved with Clyde to Pennsylvania, following the migration north of many other black Southerners of that era. While living in Harrisburg, Clyde saw a trombone in a pawn-shop window. He bought it for $25, began taking lessons and within a few years had developed a reputation as an accomplished sideman, working his way up to famous New York jazz clubs like the Savoy Ballroom and the Cotton Club. Eventually, he had his own groups, including the Blue Blazers and the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band.
While Bernardt lived a long and full life, dying in Newark, N.J., in 1986 at 80, it was by no means an easy one. There were inflicted cruelties that time never healed. For many years, he played in white venues where audiences were happy to hear his music, but black performers might have to sleep in the car or get their meals at the back door of restaurants.
Yet there’s no self pity here, only vivid recollections of the wonderful American jazz heritage he helped create.
“I hope this book encourages people to try hard to accomplish what they want to do,” he writes. “Study. Even sacrifice. If they got good common sense, they will find it pays off.”Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post