By Jim Gallert and Lars Bjorn
Beginning in the late nineteen thirties, trumpeter Mathew Rucker (1919-2017) became a force on the competitive Detroit music scene, leading bands, making money, and living his Life. His Spirits of Swing had two Detroit musicians who went on to receive worldwide acclaim – Pianist/Organist Milt Buckner and Yusef Lateef. He scaled back to smaller groups when big bands faltered during World War II. After the War, Rucker had the chance to join the great Fletcher Henderson orchestra. Rucker passed his audition, and remained with Henderson nearly two years. The big band era was failing, and Mathew reacted to the changes in Jazz by aiming for the future: He bought a Taxicab, and started driving on his off-hours. He watched his music income fall and his Taxicab income rise. Mathew bought another cab. By 1957, flush with cabs, he decided to start his own company. His Blue Eagle Cab Company prospered and supported Mathew and his growing family. He retired in 1991, giving control of the company to his daughter, Patricia. She sold Mathew’s company several years ago for a tidy sum.
Detroit, like the rest of the U.S., was caught up in the big band era – that hip nexus in American culture when, from 1934-44 jazz was America’s popular music. Detroit benefitted from having many musically gifted individuals. Each of the City’s secondary schools had a solid music program, and there were bands a-plenty to furnish a solid beat for the dancers. A standing favorite among Detroit’s dance cognoscenti was trumpeter Mathew Rucker’s thirteen-piece outfit – the Spirits of Swing.
Rucker’s journey into jazz began in Anderson, S.C., where he was born on September 1, 1919. He was the younger of two boys. Their parents separated while the boys were quite young, and Mathew and his brother James traveled north with their mother, Ruth, to Ecorse, Michigan, in 1931.
While a student at Ecorse High School, his life’s ambition was defined when he saw Louis Armstrong’s orchestra at the Fox Theater . “I was sold on the trumpet,” said Rucker. “I sold the Detroit Tribune to buy my first horn.”
Right away we note a few of his many positive attributes: He’s able to set goals and figure out how to achieve them. And, this mature sixteen year-old goes out and accomplishes his goal.
His family moved into Detroit’s Black Bottom area near Miller High School, which Mathew attended, and lived in several dwellings during the 1930’s. “Things began to happen for me…musically…at Miller. They had a very good music program,” he recalled. Mathew fell in with other talented students, like the Jackson brothers (bassist Alvin and vibist Milton), tenor saxophonists Bill Evans (known later as Yusef Lateef) and Lorenzo Lawson, and guitarist Billy Burrell (Kenny’s older brother).
Miller had fine music instructors, Mr. Louis Cabrera, who handled dance music, and Mr. Goldenberg, who taught European classical repertoire. Mathew was active in both programs. “Mr. Goldenberg took a personal interest in me,” Mathew recalled. “We went to Columbus (Ohio) to a music competition. I played a classical piece. Miller High School gave me great recognition for that.” In addition to idolizing Armstrong, Rucker admired three Detroit trumpeters: Russell Green and Billy Horner, both of whom had classical training, and King Porter, who was a sho nuff Blues man. Green recalled that “Mathew was heavily into Erskine Hawkins back then. He had strong chops and he could hit those high notes.”
While at Miller, Rucker assembled a seven-piece band that auditioned for various jobs around town. “All of the musicians were from Miller,” he recalled. “We used to rehearse at our guitarist’s (George Gleaton’s) house after school.”
Mathew Rucker had the ingredients for a career in music – talent, organizational ability, and good personal skills – and he hoped to go to college after graduating from Miller in 1937. But his mom became seriously ill, and Mathew ditched his college dreams and moved into music full-time to help support his mother. Rucker married young – he and Margaret Christian were eighteen when they wed in 1938.
Birth of the Spirits
His first gig with the Spirits of Swing was at the Calumet Show Bar, at Twelfth and Calvert. “We played there every Sunday,” Rucker remembered. “We also worked at the Webb-Wood Inn.” He enlarged the band to eleven pieces by adding a couple of reeds (including Lateef), a trumpet and trombone. “It was real easy to have a big band at the time,” said Mathew. “You could go to the music store and buy arrangements. It was pretty simple to change them, too.” Lateef always spoke highly of the Spirits. “Our music was unique, and we had this personal sound,” he recalled. The “personal sound” Lateef cites was created largely by the arrangements of Milton Buckner. “It was incredible how Milton did it,” said Rucker. “He would just sit and write arrangements as though he was writing a letter.” Buckner never played piano with the band – he was the full-time arranger and received a modest $4.00 per chart. Lateef contributed a few charts, too, unfortunately, their names have been forgotten by Mathew, and Yusef.
Rucker’s band landed a spot at the 1941 Michigan State Fair, a prestigious gig for the twenty-one-year-old bandleader. Lionel Hampton was his competition during a “battle of the bands” event, and Mathew played all of Buckner’s charts. “Lionel came up to me afterwards and asked, ‘who wrote those arrangements?’” Rucker said with a chuckle. Hampton made Buckner an offer, and Milt started a seven-year gig with Hamp in November 1941.
The Spirits were garnering attention inside and outside of Detroit – “we were the most popular band in the city,” claimed Rucker. One afternoon he was approached by the manager of bandleader/bassist Hartley Toots about a Southern tour. Toots, a Florida native, was based in Miami, and he was popular. He’d been on tour and ended up in Detroit, minus his band. He wanted to organize a tour back to Florida, and, after checking out the Detroit music scene, he made Rucker an offer. “We would play our music, and Hartley Toots would ‘front’ the band. It was a good deal, from a business standpoint,” Rucker recalled. Most of the Spirits had been educated in Detroit, and had a good education. They were young, but they were prepared, musically.
The band would be part of a full show which included singers, dancers, and comics – and they would travel in Joe Louis’ “Brown Bomber” baseball team bus! Most of the musicians had never been out of Detroit, let alone Michigan, and Toots and his manager schooled the musicians on personal conduct – the South was deadly territory for Black folks, especially musicians, and many carried pistols for self-defense. The tour started around September 1939. Fortunately, there were no grotesque incidents; the ugliest episode involved Toots’ manager – he absconded with the funds two months into the tour! They finished in Miami and returned to Detroit in one piece, tired but wiser. The racial tension had taken its toll on the youngsters; Rucker declared he “wouldn’t do a tour like that again.”
The tour had had one positive aspect. Because of the high concentration of performances – Toots amplified the number of gigs in order to recoup the lost cash – the Spirits of Swing had become a cohesive, swinging unit. Mathew managed to secure enough gigs on Detroit’s ballroom circuit to survive. The city had at least a dozen established ballrooms, most of which operated seven nights each week. The Mayfair and Mirror were favored locations for the Spirits. They were also a favorite of Detroit entrepreneur Sunnie Wilson, who frequently used the band at his Forest Club.
Rucker liked to tinker with his band’s library. Buckner’s charts still sounded great, but Buckner had moved on, so Rucker would buy “Stock” arrangements and re-work them into something more interesting. “We played numbers that were popular, such as “Jumpin’ At The Woodside”, “Take The A Train”, “Summertime”, and “Dark Eyes”, which was my main feature.” The guys liked Basie style blues, which trombonist Robert Lewis vocalized. “He had sort of a Billy Eckstine sound,” said Mathew. “He sang ballads, too.” Lateef and Alfonso Ford, on tenor sax, Edgar Williams on trumpet, and Clarence “Pete” Peterson on trombone were the featured soloists; Priscilla Royster handled vocals. Rucker usually stayed in front, counting off tempi, calling numbers, handling announcements – and showing off his Armstrong chops!
When war broke out, the Selective Service Act began to decimate the entertainment industry; musicians were drafted and Rucker struggled to find replacements, but he managed, and the Spirits carried on through war years. The Wartime situation did affect the size, and sound, of his band, which bothered Mathew, and he found fewer gigs for the Spirits, which bothered him more. He began working as a single in different groups. Mathew always enjoyed a good reputation among musicians, and he was able to work steadily. When he got his “Greetings!” notice from Uncle Sam, he spent his final night with his pals at Yusef’s house. “None of us got any sleep, and when I reported the next morning, they found something wrong with my urine and told me to go home. I never heard from them again!”
Rucker continued to work, landing spots in some prime Detroit bands, like Ted Buckner’s fine Club 666 combo in 1945. He would shortly move onto the national music scene.
The Big Time!
The Great Fletcher Henderson was slated to play a week at the Paradise Theater (January 5 – 11, 1945), and he hired several Detroit musicians to fill wartime vacancies (Henderson, too, was struggling). He recruited trumpeters Lee Trammell, Willie Wells and Elisha Hanna. Rucker didn’t audition this time out, but two months later Henderson wanted to replace a trumpet, and ace bop trumpeter (and Rucker pal) Willie Wells got Rucker an audition, which led to a two-year gig with Henderson. It was well known among musicians that Henderson’s charts (written in uncommon keys) were not easy to play. “His music was exceptionally difficult,” Mathew agreed, but his Miller training was solid, and Mathew played the charts first time through. Part of the audition consisted of the blues, and that Mathew could play, too. He mostly played lead with Henderson’s band, sometimes splitting the work with Wells. Rucker was always on the lookout for extra cash, and he was the copyist for Henderson and the other bands at the DeLisa, taking scores and creating an individual part for each instrument.
Rucker is present on several broadcasts, as well as a recording date in October, 1945, his sole studio session. It’s Willie Wells who has the solo spots, and they’re good, but Fletcher, whose early band featured Louis Armstrong, wasn’t too receptive to bop – “he would sort of tolerate it if you didn’t carry it too far,” Mathew recalled.
In Henderson’s orchestra were some amazing musicians, including future jazz Cosmologist Sun Ra (known then as Herman Blount), who joined as pianist during the Club DeLisa gig in 1946. Mathew didn’t keep up with ‘avant-garde’ jazz during the sixties, and had never heard of Sun Ra. When he associated the two names, he looked incredulously at various photographs of Ra in his celestial garb and burst out laughing. “Man, that guy was CRAZY!” he said. “…he used to talk to me, this crazy talk. He’d say, ‘this piano’s gonna become obsolete, we’re gonna have something like a harpsichord. Music’s gonna change, everything’s gonna be electric.’ He was a good piano player…a quiet guy who usually didn’t say much, but he talked to me quite a bit. I’d listen, but to myself I’d say, ‘this guy’s NUTS!’”
Rucker stayed until the end of the DeLisa gig, and then returned to Detroit. The time with Fletcher had taught Mathew much about the music business and brought him close to a musical architect of the highest order. Mathew refers to his stint with Henderson as “one of the most gratifying musical experiences in my life.”
After returning home, Rucker, eager to restart his Detroit music-making, rejoined Ted Buckner’s combo. Mathew was starting over personally as well as professionally; he’d married for the second time and now had three daughters.
He found that the jazz scene had undergone a sea change. “Music changed after the big band era,” he recalled. “Bebop came in.” Detroit became a Bebop hothouse, and many older musicians were unwilling, or unable, to retool their styles to play modern jazz. Many played in Louis Jordan-styled “jump bands,” but those jobs often paid less. Mathew, a musically mature twenty-eight years of age, tapped into his blues bag, and put together a small band which frequently included Detroit Blues Queen Alberta Adams. “We played music you could dance to,” he recalled. “We were not playing Bebop.”
But Rucker couldn’t make ends meet, and he took a day job at Dodge Truck in Trenton. He hated the work, but it allowed him to provide for his family.
“I was able to play at night, and I always felt if I could make $300 a week just playing, I would quit (the day job).” He never hit his money target, and continued to work at Dodge Truck until 1962. “It was like going to prison every morning,” he said, and it’s clear from the sad look in Mathew’s eyes that there are few good memories from his time at Dodge Truck.
He continued to play music at night, something many Detroit musicians did, including Yusef Lateef, who played in Mathew’s band when possible. Yusef never failed to impress Rucker. “He was absolutely awesome, especially on Flying Home,” Mathew recalled. “Illinois Jacquet didn’t have anything on Yusef!” Lateef’s career changed when he left his day job at Chrysler for good to play with his own band at places like Klein’s Show Bar. While at Klein’s he made some classic recordings in New York and moved there in 1960, joining many other Detroiters. Mathew and Yusef remained lifelong friends and spoke regularly. Lateef played at the 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival. He took part in a panel discussion in the Jazz Talk Tent. Brother Yusef was clearly delighted to see Rucker in the audience. It was touching to see the friends warmly embrace.
From Trumpet to Taxicab
In 1955, drummer “Big John” Johnson offered Mathew a spot in his combo, an offer which Mathew quickly accepted. “Big John got the best paying jobs around, playing for rich white folks in clubs,” recalled Rucker. They had a stormy relationship, and Mathew was fired twice by the drummer. “The second time he fired me (in 1957), I never went back,” he said. “I’d bought a taxicab some time back, and I’d been driving for the Rocket Cab Company.”
Mathew managed to juggle the Dodge Truck and Rocket jobs and still play music, but he concluded his future was in the taxicab business. “I fell in love with taxicabs,” he said. “It gave me something I could depend on. I saved my money and bought more cabs.” Mathew Rucker quit playing his beloved trumpet that same year (1957), and it was a move that changed his life. “I quit smoking and drinking. It was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
In 1984, at age 65, he bought out his silent partners, becoming sole owner of a business at an age when most people are ready to retire. His Blue Eagle Cab Company grew steadily and peaked at around 95 active cabs – and, it was profitable. Rucker was a shrewd businessman and managed to compete against Checker and City, the two dominant area cab companies. He sold his business in 1998, although he told us he was “semi-retired” in 1992 and left the day-to-day operations to his daughter Patricia. Mathew still showed up at the office seven days each week, which is true to character; he puts 110% into every activity.
After selling off his cab company in 2003, Mathew started to relax a little bit. These days he watches television. He’s especially fond of News programs, and L.A. Lakers Basketball games – Kobe Bryant was his favorite player. He organized and hosted annual reunions of the Spirits of Swing until he and Yusef were the last men standing. Mathew turned 93 in 2012. His memory is sharp, and while he doesn’t often listen to music, he’s justifiably proud of his contribution to jazz. He loves to talk about the Spirits, or any other aspect of Detroit jazz history, but he hasn’t picked up his trumpet since that day in 1957 when he traded in the bandstand for a Taxicab stand.
Mathew died in 2017.
Copyright 2012, Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert. This feature first appeared in Metro Entertainment Plus, 1991. Most quotes from Mathew Rucker are from a 1991 interview with the authors. A few Rucker quotes are from several conversations between he and Jim Gallert.
-  Lateef, Yusef, interview, Downbeat, May 20, 1965
-  Don Redman was scheduled to perform, but Mathew doesn’t recall him playing. Buckner developed his “locked hands” style of playing while with Hamp.
-  In sifting through adverts for the Toots tour, I found dates for two gigs at Cincinnati’s Cotton Club which were over a year apart. Either there was a mistake in dating the ad, and they both referred to a single engagement; or, there were two tours. Toots was back in Detroit in May, 1940 and died in a bus crash in April, 1941.
-  Ms. Royster’s sister later married Blue Bird Inn owner Clarence Eddins. Pianist Willis Shorter became a Motown mainstay on piano/vibes.
-  Ted (brother of Milt) was an alto saxophonist who had spent six years in Jimmie Lunceford’s orchestra, one of the finest swing bands of the era. He returned to Detroit in 1943 and led the house band at Club 666, one of the most prominent spots in Paradise Valley.
-  Brother of pianist Roland. The guys nicknamed him, “Bebop” Hanna.
-  There were talks between Mathew and Detroit-based Sensation Records about recording Rucker’s combo, but terms could not be reached.
-  Sun Ra, Personal Interview, Jim Gallert, Detroit Jazz Center, December 27, 1980.
-  Ra remembered Mathew Rucker, and asked about him when Gallert mentioned his name to Ra during a gig at Alvin’s Finer Delicatessen on Cass Avenue in Detroit in 1991.
-  $300 in 1950 equals ~$3,266.62 in 2020.