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Trumpet legend Cat Anderson got his start in Charleston

Trumpet legend Cat Anderson got his start in Charleston
May 2019

How the Jenkins Orphanage launched many musical careers

Few trumpeters in jazz history ever rivaled Cat Anderson’s high-note ability. With a range spanning more than five octaves, he was indispensable in Duke Ellington’s orchestra. Cat, born William Alonzo Anderson in Greenville, South Carolina, got his musical start in Charleston. Having lost both of his parents in 1919 at the age of four, he was sent to live at the Jenkins Orphanage, in what had been the Old Marine Hospital on Franklin Street. It was there that Anderson received his introduction to jazz. The Reverend Daniel Jenkins, who had founded the orphanage in 1891, gave his early charges various discarded instruments, mostly brass (considered a way to build up lung power and ward off tuberculosis), to play. As their talent coalesced, he launched the Jenkins Orphanage Band, who performed on downtown street corners and raised funds for the institution. By the 1920s, a handful of Jenkins Orphanage Bands were touring the country and later Europe. Over the years, the bands nurtured many musicians, such as Anderson, Augustine “Gus” Aiken (1902-1973), and Cladys “Jabbo” Smith (1908-1991), who became successful professional performers. Anderson went on to play with many notable groups before he joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1944, stunning audiences with his solos in high registers, unaided by a microphone. His trumpet roared alongside the Duke intermittently until 1971, when he settled in the Los Angeles area, where he died a decade later.


Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress