On Thursday, May 23rd, Carmen Fields, author of Going Back to T-Town: The Ernie Fields Territory Big Band which the Jazz Journalists Association recognizes as among the best biographies of 2024, takes center stage at WriteBoston’s annual fundraiser, Pros&Conversation.

She will be joined by Porsha Olayiwola, World Poetry Slam Champion and founder of the Roxbury Poetry Festival, and Dr. Kimberly Parker, author of Literacy is Liberation and Director of Crimson Summer Academy at Harvard University. This accomplished panel of storytellers will be in conversation with our own Teens in Print aspiring journalists, Sandro Tavares, senior at TechBoston Academy, and Nahla Criswell, 8th-grader at Saint John Paul II Catholic Academy. 

cover of the book

About Going Back to T-Town

Headshot of Carmen FieldsFields has written a love-song to her late father and big band leader, Ernie Fields, who as a trombone player and businessman maintained the longest standing territory band, from the late 1920s to the mid-1960s. His determined pursuit to make it big came towards the end of his career in 1959 with the popularity of his composition, “In the Mood,” which landed the band appearances on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, the must-see TV of its day, like the 1970s hit show Soul Train and today’s Dancing with the Stars. 

The music landscape of the 1920s and 1930s that Ernie traveled was racially hostile, segregated, encountering white patrons who at gun-point would demand the band continue past closing or raid clubs to break drinking glasses because Blacks had drunk out of them. The Ernie Fields Orchestra, at one time a 17-piece band, always gave “dance lovers” and “jitterbugs” what they came for – popular tunes played at the highest levels, with unusual dance acts, such as the Tulsa native, Frank James, or James Hodge dancing on one leg, or Eugene “Upside Down” White who would sing upside down – who Ernie fired because a pistol fell out as he sang. 

The orchestra was a training ground for young musicians and performers; Ernie, a band leader with a gift for discovering talent, maintained a disciplined system, insisting that musicians finish high school and learn how to manage their finances and put money away. Ernie never gambled or got drunk, and sent letters home to his dedicated wife, Bernice Fields, a teacher who made it possible for Ernie to be on the road, and according to Ernie, “never grumbled at all.” The two made a home for their two children, Ernie Jr. and Carmen, and purchased their home and ensured that both children graduated from college debt-free. 

There are a number of cameos in Fields’ telling of Ernie Fields’ story: Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Count Bassie; the young Miles Davis, who Ernie passed over, and Ernie’s favorite vocalist Melvin Moore, considered more gifted than Perry Cuomo but never got his big break, who claimed he was the one to discover Miles. Lesser known and unacknowledged according to Fields is her father’s claim that he was the first to hire and travel with a white musician. Benny Goodman gets in the history books for hiring Billie Holiday in 1933, but Ernie had several white musicians, a highly risky and revolutionary act in the 1920s at the height of Jim Crow.

How to use this book in your classroom

At WriteBoston, literacy is a 3-dimensional skill activated by reading, discussion and writing. We know that young people want to engage with diverse modes of storytelling; Carmen Field’s book deserves to be read in high school classrooms. Teachers can pair this biography with Tara J. Yosso’s “Six Forms of Community Cultural Wealth”(2005) to chart how the Ernie Fields Orchestra navigated and flourished in the wake of the Tulsa Race Massacre. We invite teachers and educators to join us on Thursday, May 23rd to hear more from Carmen Fields and our featured authors about how to bring storytelling alive in their classrooms.