Beauty, Jazz and Dreams: Kathryn Wimp’s Musical Journey With Duke Ellington

— By Carrie Moea Brown

Stage name, Kay Davis production shot while touring with Duke Ellington

As Kathryn “Kay” MacDonald finished up the last two songs in her performance in Chicago, her eyes fixed toward the back of the auditorium. In walked a man surrounded by what in modern terms is referred to as an entourage. The year was 1944, and within moments she recognized what others around her already did— Duke Ellington had arrived. She left her place on stage and joined those down in the audience; pushing to get a closer look, when she finally reached him she was greeted with a question…

…“Can you be in Baltimore next week?” Ellington asked.

A week earlier, she and a friend attended one of Ellington’s performances. On a whim she decided to head backstage and after brief introductions she sang a tune. When she saw that Ellington seemed to enjoy it —and feeling even braver— she invited him to an upcoming performance.

“I was crazy about the man and his band,” Kay (now Kathryn Wimp) said in an interview with Northwestern Alumni News in 2001. “He was the epitome of style and class.”

She was pleasantly surprised that he had taken her up on her invitation— and even more surprised when he offered her a job. “I went home and packed my little trunk,” she said. “And that was the beginning of my career.”

The Formative Years

Born Kathryn MacDonald, in Evanston, Wimp knew early on in life that she wanted to sing. When her father, a chiropractor and her mother a homemaker from Evanston moved the family Bushnell, Ill. (62 miles outside of Peoria) she left behind a rich family history that included her grandfather, William H. Twiggs. An active civic leader, Twiggs was ahead of his time in working toward success in Evanston’s Black community. In 2000, this publication reported that he arrived in Evanston from Davenport, Iowa in 1884. He went on to own and operate a barbershop and printing press. Today, a park located south of Canal between Simpson and Payne streets bears his name.

Twiggs family c1912. Katherine Twiggs (Kay’s mother) far left

By the time Wimp arrived back in Evanston for high school her interest in music had piqued. “I remember singing ‘Trees’ in elementary school,” says Wimp by phone from her home in Florida. It was her first time singing in public. She also recalls that her father used to sing in a Catholic choir—and she credits that with being a major factor in her choice to pursue music.

In her last two years at Evanston Township High School, Wimp began taking voice lessons. The school was de-segregated because it was the only high school for students in Evanston, black or white. There, she was a student of Roy Schuzler, a music teacher at ETHS who happened to be a student of Northwestern University music professor Walter Allen Stults. The relationship she forged with Schuzler would prove beneficial when she enrolled as a voice major at Northwestern’s School of Music.

Back at ETHS, she joined a choir newly formed by the head of the music department. Wimp recalls walking into the rehearsal room to find the entire choir was Black. They were all perplexed, she says. The head music teacher, a white woman from Texas, explained that she thought forming an all Black choir was a good idea because she felt the Black students sang so well.

Wimp says they all walked out of the room.  And the notion of an all Black choir was soon dismantled.

There were other challenges that faced Blacks living in Evanston at the time. On Sundays she would go downtown with her two younger brothers and her parents to get ice cream, but they would eat it on the drive home because they weren’t allowed to sit in the parlor.

Once, when Wimp was a teenager she and a friend who was darker skinned attempted to eat in at a popular diner in downtown Evanston. The staff offered to serve the lighter skinned Wimp, but refused service to her friend. They eventually let them eat in, but according to Wimp they doused the food in salt. She and her friend cleared their plates and left. She proudly refers to it as their version of a sit-in.

Early Training

The first Black undergraduate to enroll and subsequently graduate from Northwestern was Lawyer Taylor. The Louisville-born Taylor enrolled at the age of 34 and graduated in 1903. Thirty-five years later Wimp enrolled at Northwestern’s School of Music majoring in vocal performance. Only six Black students were enrolled in the music program at the time and because of Northwestern’s policy at the time, students of color were not permitted to live in the residence halls.

“We used to drool over Willard Hall, which was right across from the music building,” Wimp said in 2001. “I had a good time at Northwestern, but there were those limitations.” Wimp says that the limitations placed on both Black and Jewish students forged a sense of unity. “We kind of bonded together,” she says.

But those years were not without controversy. In 1942 at Northwestern’s annual Waa-Mu Show, a showcase of the campus’ musical talents, Wimp sang a duet with fellow music major Jack Haskell despite the social taboos on cross-racial stage romance.

The Man and His Band

In 1943 Wimp graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in voice. The following year she received her Master’s degree. Then, the opportunity came to work with Ellington. One of her first experiences in Ellington’s band came when he taught her the simple melody to “Creole Love Song.” Within an hour she was onstage with him performing the song. The year was 1944. The place was Carnegie Hall.

“I sang, it got a wonderful ovation and then I got the heck off the stage!” she exclaims.

Her first recording with Ellington came about as he was teaching fellow band member Al Hibbler notes from “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ but the Blues.” Wimp sat humming along off stage. Ellington asked her to join in humming. When he eventually decided to keep her on the track Wimp was less than thrilled.

“I called home crying,” she says. She wanted to be on the frontlines.

Jet Magazine, Dec. 25, 1952

But there were plenty of opportunities to showcase her talent. The following year, in April 1945, President Roosevelt died. Ellington’s band was the only jazz band asked to perform for a national audience. One piece “A City Called Heaven,” was sung by Wimp. The years went on and according to Wimp band members came and went. Among those, the only still alive are Maria Ellington (of no relation to Duke), who later married Nat King Cole and gave birth to Natalie. She now resides in Florida. The second was Joya Sherrill who now resides in Great Neck, NY. But Wimp describes Ellington as a “genius” and says that even with constant flux of female band members he remained focused. She says, unlike many of his day he didn’t fraternize with female band members. In fact, he completely absorbed by his work.

“Music was his mistress,” she says. He was always at the piano. She even heard that later he bought a portable piano –presumably before they became a main stay– which he toyed with while on the road. She says he would stay up until all hours of the night “constantly composing” music.

The years between 1944 and 1950 were filled with high profile engagements, one-nighters and cross continental trips. Wimp describes life on the road as hard.

“It’s not that glamorous day after day,” she says. As time went on “I kept holding on hoping something dramatic would happen,” she says.

The band toured relentlessly, to the Palladium in England and with the Nicolas Brothers and Pearl Bailey in Liverpool, and seemingly everywhere in between. “It was quite an experience, very exciting,” she says. In 1947 the band toured California, Texas and Georgia.

It was a “whole different thing,” she says referring to race relations. She says they were bad, and despite their high profile they couldn’t even sit down in restaurants to eat. She recalls a frightening time in Macon, Georgia. The band had just finished a show and their manager, who was white, arranged a deal with a restaurant owner across the street from the theatre. Ellington and his band hastily made their way into the restaurant, so as to avoid any controversy. When a patron saw the band arrive he demanded to know why Blacks were being served.

The restaurant owner introduced Duke Ellington. And according to Wimp the angry patron answered, “I don’t care about no Duke Ellington!”

Before things could get any more tense, Wimp ran out of the restaurant and back to the concert hall where she set up a make shift hot plate. That night, she heated a can of Campbell’s soup over the sink in the ladies’ restroom.

Though things were rough at times, she and the band remained focused. But by 1950, after a four-week tour of Europe Wimp says, “I was tired. . . I got home and said, ‘That’s it,’” she says.

One night gigs and the relentless travel schedule began to take their toll. To this day she says feelings of fatigue remind her of those one-night summer gigs.

On the music of the day she says, “It escapes me.” But she is also encouraged by the recent resurgence of old standards from the likes of artists like Michael Buble, hailed as a modern day master of the music of yesteryear.

As for advice she gives to people aspiring to break into the music business. She says, “So much of what happens to you, no matter what you do is luck.”

Kay Wimp, visiting relatives in Chicago viewing artifacts Shorefront found in her childhood home in 2006.

She parallels this with the story of a childhood friend from Evanston who also graduated from Northwestern’s music school. Ann DeRamus was Black and studied classical piano. She was considered a prodigy by most, but breaking into the world of a classical pianist as a Black woman proved to be difficult. She went on to become a social worker.

But, Wimp adds that today, “If you’re really serious about something, no matter what you do, trust and have faith that it will happen.” She adds, “Look at me. I never dreamed that I would be on stage with Ellington.”


Notes: The original article first appeared in the original printed version of Shorefront Journal, volume 7 number 3, 2006. Images from the Shorefront photographic collection, Kay Davis music collection.


A Portrait of Helen Cromer Cooper

Helen Cromer Cooper
Helen Cromer Cooper high school graduation photo. c1928. Photo by Twentieth Century Photographers.

By Shawna Cooper-Gibson —

Helen Cromer Cooper was born in Evanston, Illinois in 1906, home to Northwestern University, one of the most highly ranked U.S. educational institutions, and, during her lifetime, to a burgeoning African American population as well. Ms. Cooper, a pioneering Black female Northwestern student (class of 1931), lived a long life in and outside of Evanston and died in her hometown in the year 2000.

Helen Cromer Cooper’s mother, Mrs. Helen Cornell Cromer, known to her friends as “Jinky,” was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada and later lived in St. Catherine’s, Ontario, Canada. Her father came to Evanston in 1897 with a White family and was biracial. Though Mr. Cromer’s familial roots are a mystery, she believed that “whoever it was who brought him [north], spirited him away, and I suppose for a better life”.

Ms. Cooper was baptized in 1919 at St. Andrews Church in Evanston, where her family faithfully attended services and activities. St. Andrews, which was founded in 1919 to serve residents of Evanston and surrounding areas, petitioned for mission status and served as a place of worship for many Black Evanston residents through its multicultural congregation. The church also served as an agent of change by challenging some of Northwestern University’s segregation policies, most notably a 1921 resolution addressing the denial of three women students of color in their request to use the University’s swimming pool. The resolution declared the University’s action deplorable and protested its racial discrimination.

Ms. Cooper enrolled at Northwestern University in September of 1927

Following her graduation from the Evanston Township High School, Ms. Cooper took some time away from school to work full-time and save money for the college education to which she aspired. Additionally, Ms. Cooper had to take several courses in order to gain admission into a 4-year institution. Unlike her White peers, she had some difficulty finding post-secondary employment. Despite being one of the best in her commercial courses, none of the places at which she was initially interested in working would offer her a position. She attributed her inability to obtain employment to racial prejudice. This lack of vocational opportunity, however, only seems to have strengthened her desire to obtain a college education.

Eventually, it was Ms. Cooper’s good fortune to find a job as secretary to Mr. Adam Perry, who had sought her mother’s assistance in catering for the Evanston Country Club. Mr. Perry encouraged Ms. Cooper’s scholarly ambitions and granted her time off to enroll in commercial courses as long as she was able to complete the work he needed done. Ms. Cooper described Mr. Perry as an influential member of the Black community, donating money to the Emerson Street YMCA and the Community Hospital.

Ms. Cooper enrolled at Northwestern University in September of 1927 and majored in sociology with the intention of going into the field of social work. Women had to be in the top 25% of their high school graduating class in order to gain admission to Northwestern University. Proud of her achievement, she retained her first tuition payment receipt of $173 through late adulthood.

Ms. Cooper balanced her scholarly life with numerous extracurricular activities in addition to her vocational responsibilities with Mr. Perry. These pursuits included participation in the YWCA, the International Club, and the Women’s Athletic Association. Ms. Cooper made numerous friendships in these organizations. However, she noted that the approximately 20 African Americans enrolled at Northwestern University at the time were not allowed to live in on-campus residence halls, making the environment at NU less than inviting.

Another influential factor in Ms. Cooper’s college experience and later life was her involvement in her sorority. As an undergraduate student, Ms. Cooper was initiated into the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, Beta Chapter in Chicago on January 29, 1929. Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) was the first Greek-lettered sorority established and incorporated by African American college women. Ms. Cooper remained active in AKA during her time in graduate school and as a professional, eventually becoming president of the New York chapter. She maintained her membership for over 67 years, including 12 years of service on the National Board as the treasurer, and received one of the sorority’s highest honors in 1956 for service. As financial director, she assisted in the development of a more streamlined process for monetary transactions and operations of individual chapters, thus contributing to the overall wellbeing of the organization.

Ms. Cooper took some time out of her rigorous academic and work schedule to be, like her mother, civically engaged. This was evident in her volunteer work in the election of Edwin Jourdain. Jourdain, a graduate of Harvard College in 1921 and Harvard Business School, led a protest against Harvard’s enacted policy to exclude Blacks from freshman dormitories. . . In 1931 became the first African American elected alderman in Evanston. He also became Illinois’s first Black assistant school superintendent and was a lifelong activist, fighting for the desegregation of schools and public facilities as well as equal pay for teachers.

My senior year Blacks did not attend. . . you couldn’t get a ticket to the senior prom

Unfortunately, Ms. Cooper’s experiences at Northwestern were not all so positive… Being denied the basic rights that were afforded to the average White student, such as the use of the swimming pool, left her with negative feelings toward the university.

This exclusion was particularly evident in another incident that occurred during Ms. Cooper’s Senior Ball, a celebratory event that marked the end of Northwestern University’s senior class’s academic year prior to commencement celebrations:

“My senior year Blacks did not attend. . . you couldn’t get a ticket to the senior prom, so I got a White girl with whom I was very good friends to get tickets for me… One of the fellows, Louie Caldwell, who subsequently was a State Legislator here in Illinois, and I went. The next day there was an editorial in the Daily Northwestern, “Senior Ball Goes Black and Tan,” and questioning the judgment of the couple who attended”.

Difficulties for Ms. Cooper were not limited to the social activities. Ms. Cooper experienced what she considered racial issues in the classroom as well. Being told that an African American could not get an “A” in French class again dismayed Ms. Cooper.

According to Ms. Cooper, there were some staff members who were instrumental in her decision to pursue Social Work as a profession: My freshman year I talked with my adviser, a young woman over at Northwestern. I was vacillating between going into teaching; although, I had always said I didn’t want to teach, but into physical education or social work. And one of the things she asked me is if I had ever thought about the fact as a physical education teacher, as I aged, I would be less able physically; whereas, a social worker, my value would increase.

Her sociology fieldwork experience while at Northwestern proved to be a vocational turning point for Ms. Cooper. As part of her sociology program, Ms. Cooper began her internship at Hull House in 1928 and had the privilege of meeting Jane Addams, one of the first female Nobel Peace Prize winners and founder of the first American settlement house. Ms. Cooper served as a social work intern primarily doing group work specifically with children. Following her internship at Hull House, she worked at the Family Welfare Association in Evanston.

After completing her studies at Northwestern, she applied for graduate fellowships several institutions. . . The National Urban League and the university in Cleveland offered her fellowships, but she accepted the Mary C. Walker Fellowship (named after a pioneering African American teacher in California), which offered $1,500 per year for two years at the New York School of Social Work.

Although Ms. Cooper was an accomplished professional in social work, she was not immune to the overt racism during her tenure in New York. Her colleagues as well as some of her clients still looked down upon African Americans, even if they themselves were people of color. Positions of responsibility were more likely to be filled based on skin color than on ability or seniority.

 I had people all along the way who helped me and. . . I had a responsibility to mankind. . . to pay back, to give of myself. . .

Ms. Cooper explained, however, that even as a young social worker in New York, she was revered for her skills: “. . .even when I worked in New York with just case workers, I was given the problem people because I had great success in helping them”. . . Eventually, she was promoted to a position of management over 250 employees. Further facilitating her career however, she possessed a master’s degree in social work, a rare achievement for men of the day and even more unusual for women and for women of color, in particular.

Despite the occasional disappointments, Ms. Cooper was nonetheless promoted often throughout the course of her career in social work. In Washington, D.C., her specific job title was “Consultant to the Commissioner of Welfare”. In the mid-1950s, Ms. Cooper was the first person of color appointed Assistant Regional Representative of the Bureau of Public Assistance in Region XI of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. In 1958, she returned to her hometown of Evanston and was appointed Associate Regional Representative for the Bureau of Family Services, Region V of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Ms. Cooper’s rising years do not seem to have much affected her commitment to professional and community life. In 1958, she returned to the Chicago metropolitan area to be closer to her family. There, Ms. Cooper joined the Chicago Urban League. Ms. Cooper’s involvement in the Urban League led to her appointment to the commission that worked to integrate the city of Evanston’s elementary schools.

In her later life, Mrs. Cooper served as chair to the Evanston Commission on Aging. When she was asked why she became so involved in the Evanston community, Ms. Cooper explained that she “was fortunate enough to have parents who tried in every way to push me. I had people all along the way who helped me and. . . I had a responsibility to mankind. . . to pay back, to give of myself. . .”.

Ms. Cooper’s activism continued through the work of a number of neighborhood organizations. While there is scant mention of it in the interviews she granted, Ms. Cooper was also part of the Family Focus Advisory Board, an organization that has provided family support programs for parents, children, and teens in the Evanston area since 1976. Additionally, Ms. Cooper was part of The Links, one of the oldest and largest national volunteer service organizations of women who are committed to enriching, sustaining, and ensuring the culture and economic survival of African Americans and other persons of African ancestry.

As part of the North Suburban Coordinating Council Steering Committee, the Evanston Police Advisory Commission, and the Citizen’s Advisory Commission on Aging, Ms. Cooper kept herself both busy and meaningfully involved. She was long a member of the YWCA, the oldest and largest multicultural women’s organization in the world. She served well as a devoted member of the Unity Scholarship Committee. Ms. Cooper was active in civil rights initiatives and supported the cause for freedom and justice by participating in the 1963 March on Washington when she was 56 years old. She eventually became a lifetime member of the NAACP.

Note: This article is excerpted and edited by permission of the author for length from her Boston University School Of Education dissertation, Sourcing The Persistence: A Portrait of Helen Cromer Cooper by Shawna Cooper-Gibson. Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Education, 2011. Source notes were mostly removed for readability. Full notation is in the submitted dissertation and most from a series of audio interviews conducted over a number of years. The dissertation, audio and transcripts are available in the Shorefront Legacy Center archives.