Going Back to T-Town


The Ernie Fields Territory Big Band

by Carmen Fields

There was a time when countless young people in the Midwest, South, and Southwest went to dances and stage shows to hear a territory band play. Territory bands traveled from town to town, performing jazz and swing music, and Tulsa-based musician Ernie Fields (1904–97) led one of the best. In Going Back to T-Town, Ernie’s daughter, Carmen Fields, tells a story of success, disappointment, and perseverance extending from the early jazz era to the 1960s. This is an enlightening account of how this talented musician and businessman navigated the hurdles of racial segregation during the Jim Crow era.

Because few territory bands made recordings, their contributions to the development of jazz music are often overlooked. Fortunately, Ernie Fields not only recorded music but also loved telling stories. He shared his “tales from the road” with his daughter, a well-known Boston journalist, and his son, Ernie Fields Jr., who has carried on his legacy as a successful musician and music contractor. As much as possible, Carmen Fields tells her father’s story in his own voice: how he weathered the ups and downs of the music industry and maintained his optimism even while he faced entrenched racial prejudice and threats of violence.

After traveling with his band all over the United States, Fields eventually caught the attention of renowned music producer John Hammond. In 1939, Hammond arranged for recording sessions and bookings that included performances in the famed Apollo Theater in New York. Ernie finally scored a top-ten hit in 1959 with his rock-and-roll rendition of “In the Mood.” At a time when most other territory bands had faded, the Ernie Fields Orchestra continued to perform.

A devoted husband and family man, Ernie Fields also respected and appreciated his fellow musicians. The book includes a “Roll Call” of his organization’s members, based on notes he kept about them. Going Back to T-Town is a priceless source of information for historians of American popular music and African American history.

Hardcover | 240 pages | University of Oklahoma Press | 2023

Carmen Fields is an Emmy Award–winning broadcast news journalist who currently produces and hosts the public affairs program Higher Ground on WHDH-TV, Boston. She co-anchored WGBH’s Ten O’Clock News from 1987 to 1991 and wrote the script for the American Experience documentary “Goin’ Back to T-Town” (1993)

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