Life of Harmony
In grade school, Robert Eldridge changed history when he crossed Arlington’s racial divide. But that’s not what made him famous.
On September 1, 1959, Robert Eldridge III walked out of his parents’ brick bungalow in Arlington’s Penrose neighborhood to find two police officers waiting for him. He wasn’t in trouble with the law. They were there to take him to school.
It was no ordinary first day of school for Eldridge, nor for the other 600 students at Patrick Henry Elementary. “Bobby”—as he was known to friends and family—was the first black child to attend the all-white school, and at age 10, he entered the building through a gauntlet of police and photographers.
“There was a lot of pressure, but I knew in some way that it made more sense for me to attend a school that was three blocks away as opposed to a 30-minute drive,” says Eldridge, now 63 and a resident of Cherrydale. “I was a little uptight that day.”
In fact, much had happened in the five years leading up to that historic day. Following the Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, many of Virginia’s elected officials, including U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, fought vehemently against the federal mandate, arguing that desegregation directly contradicted the Virginia Constitution—which, on the matter of schools, stated that “absolute equality is impractical.”
Eldridge’s parents were unfazed. His father, Robert Eldridge II—the first black police officer in Washington, D.C. to pass the motorcycle test and whose career spanned 34 years—had moved his family from the District to Arlington in 1957 so that his children could have access to better schools. When Bobby’s application (along with 30 others) to enter the Arlington Public Schools system was denied by the Arlington County School Board, the Eldridges joined forces with other African-American families and hired an attorney, challenging the board’s placement criteria as racist.
Acts of civil disobedience followed. In 1958, Eldridge’s mother, Mildred, a Naval Gun Factory clerk, was arrested for picnicking at Arlington’s Bon Air Park. Back then, the green space bordered by Wilson Boulevard and North Lexington Street was a “whites-only” public area, per Virginia state law. When she refused to leave, officers cited her for “conduct tending to incite a riot.” The charge was later reduced to “disorderly conduct” and thrown out.
It was small, hard-fought victories like these that began to change the American fabric, as citizens nationwide rallied behind such figures as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.
And yet, on that first day of school, Eldridge recalls no anger, bitterness or defiance in his father’s voice. “My dad said, ‘Understand that people [here] have not met anybody like you. Just try to be nice to everybody. They are all basically good people.’ ”
Over the two weeks that followed, police arrived each morning and circled the block in their cruisers, watching Eldridge as he walked to school, neatly dressed in a light sports coat and pressed trousers. It wasn’t long before he was joined on his walks by Lorraine Allen (now Lorraine Gandy), a classmate who befriended him early on.
“It was a momentous time,” says Gandy, 63, now a teacher at Arlington Traditional School, “although I really didn’t understand then what was going on. I think some adults had problems with it, but not the kids. [Bobby] always carried himself with such dignity. Always. He just walked tall. I just remember him as a real honorable person.”
Crossing that racial barrier wasn’t the only significant event in Eldridge’s life that year.
About the same time he was settling in at his new school, his father began taking him to the Howard Theatre in D.C. to hear live performances by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ella Fitzgerald and Dave Brubeck. “My dad exposed me to a lot of music,” he says, “mostly progressive jazz and blues.”
In the world of jazz, the Eldridge family boasted a fair pedigree. Bobby’s great-uncle, Roy Eldridge, was an acclaimed trumpeter, known in the music industry as “Little Jazz.” He’d been a major influence on Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie in the 1930s and 1940s.
At 12, Eldridge received a clarinet as a gift from his father. “It was considered the granddaddy of woodwinds,” he explains. “[My father said], ‘If you can play clarinet, you can play saxophone, flute or any of that.’ But I hated it. All that squeaking and squawking…. I thought it sounded horrible.”
The likelihood that Eldridge would carry forth his great-uncle’s legacy seemed bleak for a time—until his neighbor, Henry Leak Jr., a student at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, introduced him to the saxophone.
“I tried it out of frustration with the clarinet and fell in love with it,” Eldridge says. “I just picked it up and it sounded pretty good. That’s when I realized that the saxophone was my deal.”
Leak’s talent never progressed beyond amateur level (he eventually joined the Army and became an accountant), but for Eldridge, music became everything. By the time he started high school at Wakefield, he was playing in R&B dance clubs like the Silver Dollar Saloon and the Crazy Horse in Georgetown to a mix of white and black patrons.“My father would drop me off at those clubs,” he recalls. “He would come in and tell the bartender, ‘Do not serve any alcohol to my son.’” And, taking note that his dad was a D.C. cop, they didn’t.
Racial tensions were palpable in the greater Washington area then as the civil-rights movement gained momentum. In June of 1960, a group of young people held a sit-in at the lunch counter at a People’s Drug Store in Arlington. Waitresses refused to serve the black customers in the group, and minutes later, the store announced that the lunch counter was closed, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.
School events were similarly strained as student populations became more integrated. “They did stop dances for a while at Wakefield; I remember that,” Gandy says.
But in music, Eldridge found the racial divide quickly disintegrating. It was a language that in many ways transcended skin color. “Everybody showed their honest appreciation for what was happening onstage, and there was never a problem,” he says in retrospect. “In fact, I gained a lot of friends during that time. They wanted to know where else I was playing so they could come see me.”
Eldridge graduated from high school in 1968 and went on to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he found himself immersed in a world of kindred spirits. His roommate, jazz saxophonist Bill Pierce, would go on to play with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, a group that collaborated with Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard and Wynton Marsalis. Blakey, the band’s leader, was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame in 1982.
“Bobby was like my brother,” Pierce says. “He was highly regarded in New York because he was a great reader of music and played all the woodwind instruments. He wasn’t a soloist, not an improviser primarily, but he had a broad range of musical abilities. He could do the work that was available and sustain himself.”
Six weeks into the fall semester, Eldridge got his first break. While playing in a big-band ensemble, he was scouted by producer and music contractor Herschel Dwellingham. Before long, he was booked to play one week with Jackie Wilson and one week with Stevie Wonder as a member of the house orchestra at the Sugar Shack, a now-defunct R&B club near Boston Common.
That experience led to a string of gigs as a backup musician for stars including Gladys Knight, the Four Tops, the Temptations, the O’Jays, Lou Rawls, and Diana Ross and the Supremes. In 1970, Eldridge signed a four-year performance contract with Stevie Wonder and Motown Records that took him to Europe, South America and Japan.
“Stevie Wonder was a kid back then, just 17 years old,” Eldridge recalls. “I was 19. He would call me up in my hotel room and say, ‘Let’s go hang out, let’s go to a club.’ We would find out who was playing, get in a limo and go check them out, introduce ourselves.”
After Eldridge finished school (he dropped out to go on tour and then studied at the New England Conservatory of Music before returning to Berklee to earn his degree in 1973), his career continued to blossom. As a contract musician with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, he played for Broadway shows such as Sugar Babies with Mickey Rooney and the Duke Ellington musical revue Sophisticated Ladies.
During a 1983 performance of The Tap Dance Kid at the Shubert Theatre—featuring then-12-year-old child star Alfonso Ribeiro, best known for his roles on the TV series Silver Spoons and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—an 8-year-old Drew Barrymore jumped across the orchestra pit into Eldridge’s arms.
“She wanted to meet Alfonso but couldn’t get backstage,” he recalls. “I took her downstage and snuck her through the orchestra pit to meet him.”
However much a virtuoso, Eldridge never craved the spotlight. He preferred playing backup for a veritable list of who’s who, from Aretha Franklin and Cab Calloway to Wayne Newton. He made television appearances with Stevie Wonder, Tony Bennett, and later, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. And he soon came to realize that they were all just people.
“The greatest performers were the most down-to-earth. Tony Bennett, Bonnie Raitt—they were hands-on people. Sammy Davis Jr. used to invite the whole band to come into his dressing room and have a drink with him,” Eldridge says. “He would say, ‘It was great working with you guys, so don’t be a stranger. My dressing room is open to you all.’ ”
Not every superstar and diva he encountered was so gracious, although Eldridge is reluctant to recount the sordid tales that so often feed the tabloids. To do so, he says, would violate an unspoken code of mutual respect in the jazz business.
To be sure, there were (and still are) plenty of impudent musicians with bad behavior, but Eldridge was never one of them. “We didn’t carry ourselves like that,” Pierce says. “We grew up in an age when you were expected to be quiet, reserved and respectful—old school Southerners. [Bobby] was really sincere about music and being the highest-level musician as he could possibly be.”
Eldridge eventually returned to Arlington in 2002. For six years, he taught jazz at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown, before budget cuts ended his tenure.
Now he’s back to his nomadic ways, mostly shuttling between his home in Cherrydale and an apartment in New York. Never married, he has a 21-year-old daughter, Disa, in Helsinki, Finland, whom he tries to see twice a year.
But for the most part, his whereabouts are anchored by gigs. Sometimes it’s a performance on Broadway. Or at the Swedish Embassy in D.C. Or in one of the many local venues around Arlington offering live music, such as Northside Social in Clarendon.
When he’s in town and off duty, he likes to hang out at The Liberty Tavern.
Looking back on his life, Eldridge acknowledges a few knocks, but prefers to focus on the positive. “There were a couple of kids at school who were not too nice,” he says of his formative grade-school years. But the memories that stand out most vividly are of the other students, who came to his defense and became his friends.
In fact, 50 years later, one of those classmates played a part in saving his life. When Eldridge was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2008, his first instinct was to call his former classmate, Lorraine Gandy.
“She was one of the girls who were nice to me in grade school on my first day when I integrated the school,” he says. “When I was diagnosed and realized what I was up against, I called her because I had no health insurance. I didn’t think I could get any help. I thought my life was over.”
Eldridge knew that Gandy’s husband, Charles, was a doctor who might be able to offer some guidance. In a matter of hours, he’d been referred to Kathryn Dreger, an internist at Virginia Hospital Center, who, in turn, connected him to a surgeon, a radiologist and an oncologist for treatment. He started chemotherapy and applied for government medical assistance.
“That whole team saved my life,” says the musician, who is now in remission and getting follow-up care at the Arlington Free Clinic (where he also serves as the patient representative to the clinic’s board of directors).
“This city has changed for the good since 1959,” he says. “All styles of living, all types of folks. Very good.”
David Hodes is a freelance business, lifestyle and politics writer living and working in Arlington.