Columbus Day may be mired in controversy in 2022, but that was not the case 85 years earlier, when October 12 became a national holiday. Prior to 1971, all such federal holidays were celebrated on their calendar date, rather than on a Monday. The second Columbus Day, in 1938, fell on a Wednesday, and the ballroom operators had plenty of dance band action set for Tuesday night. Since almost everybody had Wednesday off, most places planned to stay open until 4 a.m.

Photos of Roy Eldridge, Erskine Hawkins, and Mal Hallett

Roy Eldridge, Erskine Hawkins, and Mal Hallett: swinging in Columbus Day in 1938

The dancers had choices! Woody Herman’s Orchestra was at the Raymor Ballroom, and around the corner at the Roseland-State Ballroom, the bands of Glenn Miller and Tommy Reynolds staged a battle of music. The sweet band of Clyde Lucas was at the Statler Hotel. And the Egleston Square Gardens hosted a trumpet battle royal, with the bands of Roy Eldridge, Erskine Hawkins, and Mal Hallett, with his trumpeters Frank Ryerson and Micky McMickle.

The Egleston Square Gardens was a second-floor ballroom just off the square. It had very tall windows, and passengers on the Washington Street Elevated could observe the goings-on inside the ballroom as the train rolled into the Egleston Square station.

Eldridge and Hawkins were both on the ascent in October 1938. Eldridge was working with his older brother Joe, the saxophonist. Roy was already a soloist of note, with a string of well-received recordings on Vocalion, including “After You’ve Gone,” “Wabash Stomp,” and “Heckler’s Hop.”

Erskine Hawkins formed the ‘Bama State Collegians while attending the Alabama State Teachers College, and he brought the band north in 1936. It already included his best-known sidemen: pianist Avery Parrish, saxophonists Julian Dash and Paul Bascomb, and trumpeter Dud Bascomb. This band, by 1938 renamed the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, recorded the widely popular “Tuxedo Junction.”

Mal Hallett led a high-octane swing band all through the 1930s, through which passed Boots Mussulli, Gene Krupa, Jack Jenney, and many more. At the heart of the band were two trumpeters who joined Hallett in 1932, Dale “Mickey” McMickle and Frank Ryerson.  They made a formidable pair. They had been with the band so long, each had occupied both the lead and jazz chairs, although Ryerson probably played lead most of the time. He was also Hallett’s chief arranger and straw boss.

I’ve found no accounts of the evening in the Boston press, so we don’t know, for instance, if there was any cutting going on, or who sat in with whom. But there are a few interesting postscripts. Ryerson left Hallett’s band shortly after this engagement to go with Jack Teagarden, and Roy Eldridge filled in for him for a short time. That isn’t something found in most Eldridge biographies, but there are photos of Eldridge on stage with the Hallett band.

In early 1939 McMickle also left Hallett, for the band of Glenn Miller. He played lead and anchored the Miller trumpet section until Miller broke up the band in 1942. Bobby Hackett once said that “Whenever the trumpets sounded really good, it was because McMickle was playing the lead.”

Eldridge, Hawkins, Hallett, Herman, Miller, Reynolds, Lucas…they made Columbus Day Eve 1938 a big night for the big bands in Boston.