Ernie Rodgers: A Chat With This Year's SEMJA Award Recipient

Baker's Keyboard Lounge will be the place for this year's SEMJA Awardbrunch on Sunday, May 16, 1999, from 1 to 4 p.m. Detroit saxophonist and educator Ernie Rodgers is this year's recipient and will perform with his quartet and guests. His quartet includes Rudy Robinson on piano, Don Mayberry on bass and Bobby Welch on drums. Rodgers' former and present students are invited and will celebrate him in music and in words. A door charge of $10 includes the cost of a buffet brunch. Please call SEMJA at 734-662-8514 for more information.

Recently, I had the chance to talk with Rodgers at his home in Detroit. We talked a lot about his parents and how they started the RAPA House, the Rodgers Academy for the Performing Arts. 

"My parents were adagio dancers, ballroom stuff. We [the family] were all dancing, we were always on the show. My bed was in the dressing room. I can remember being in the dressing room with Duke Ellington in the late 30s. I remember he didn't put his pants on, he didn't want to wrinkle them. Walked around in his shirt tails! I was always on the bandstand trying to listen to musicians. Cootie Williams' horn was the first horn I played."

When the family finally got off the road they moved to Detroit and his parents focused more on developing a booking agency. His mother, LaJune, took over the agency on his father's death and moved into the RAPA House at 96 E. Vernor Highway, between Woodward and John R. Vernor later became the Fisher Freeway Service Drive. Ernie recalled that his mother "always had entertainers around the agency. There was always rehearsing, so we ended up setting it up as a concert café. We took half of the house and made it the theater part with the stage in the back and the kitchen on the side. We cooked and we had the RAPA house going. We had lessons there, dancing lessons, all the exotic dancers (shake dancers) worked out of her agency. She was booking small bands going everywhere, including my band. My first band was the Starlites. We were all over the state and down into Ohio. (Drummer) Bobby Welch was in the band and when I went into the Army in 56 he took over the band. RAPA House jam sessions were on Saturday and sometimes on Friday, from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. I paid the rhythm section and the guys came in to play. I remember one night all of Ray Charles' band was there. What a night!"

When he returned from the army in 1958 he returned to music studies at Wayne and got his degree in 1963. One of his early jobs was at Miller Middle School. 

"We had a tremendous band over there. Shoo-Bee-Doo (Reginald Fields) was one of my students and I started Marion Hayden on the bass over there. Then I organized a little jazz group. Hugh Masakela was in town and came over and played. Kids got to see what's out there. They got to see where they can go [with a career in music]. I started at Northwestern High School in the fall of 1971. I can remember that '71-72 was unbelievable, those kids played so well. They were just like sponges. A lot of kids came out of there: Ralphe Armstrong, James Carter, Charles Green (alto), Clarence Penn (played with Betty Carter for a long time), John Allen (tenor) player, Alex Harding (went to New York)."

After the jazz program at Northwestern folded, Rodgers stayed on as Assistant Principal, but maintained his teaching activities at Wayne State. He will retire from the Detroit Public Schools this year after 39 years of service. He will continue to teach at Wayne and hopes to open up a new RAPA House within a year. "I will have nothing but jazz and dining. New Orleans cuisine, my wife would run it. She can cook in any language you want! My great aunt cooked at the (old) RAPA house. So many people remember the RAPA House. I look forward to it!"


Southeastern Michigan
Jazz Association


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