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Obituaries

Walter Fuller, 93; Trumpeter and Civil Rights Activist for Black Musicians in San Diego

April 29, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Walter Fuller, a jazz trumpeter who helped establish the San Diego jazz scene in the 1940s and became an advocate of civil rights for the city's black musicians and club patrons, has died. He was 93.

Fuller, believed to be the last surviving original member of Earl "Fatha" Hines' 1930s big band, died April 20 at a health-care facility in San Diego. He had been suffering from diabetes and related illnesses.

Influenced by the sound of Louis Armstrong, Fuller began playing trumpet professionally as a teenager in Chicago in the mid-1920s.

He joined legendary jazz pianist Hines' new orchestra in 1930, becoming a valuable sideman whose trumpet solos are credited with contributing greatly to the band's sound. Fuller also earned distinction for his exuberant singing and scatting on the band's 1933 hit "Rosetta."

"Rosetta" not only became Fuller's signature tune but his nickname, as well the name of his daughter, the only child of Fuller and his wife, Ida, a dancer.

When Hines disbanded the orchestra to create a smaller group in 1940, Fuller left to start his own big band with many former Hines orchestra members.

Fuller was born Feb. 15, 1910, in Dyersburg, Tenn. His father, a musician who performed in circus and medicine shows, taught him to play the mellophone at an early age. He later learned to play the trumpet, which his older brother, Wilbur, played professionally.

Fuller, who had stints playing with the Horace Henderson and Lionel Hampton bands, began his long association with the San Diego music scene in 1946, when he and a smaller version of his big band began a one-month engagement at the downtown Club Royal. Fuller remained at the club for a dozen years.

"He brought something unique to San Diego because it was what we now call jump swing," said Dan Del Fiorentino, curator of the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad. "What he was playing was real solid, swing jazz. That was very unique to San Diego. The main headliners there at the time were things like country bands, so here he comes along with this very driving, New York swing with a Chicago flair to it, and he blew them away."

But equally important to Fuller's musical contributions, Del Fiorentino said, was his role, "in a very quiet way," as a leader in the local civil rights movement.

"When I first came to San Diego it was a very prejudiced town," Fuller told Del Fiorentino in an oral history recorded for the museum. "The police used to follow us home every night after our shows. They had a law that restricted all black musicians from going outside of the club, not even to get air."

Fuller protested when the club changed its seating policy to require all black customers to stand in back even when seats were available in front.

"I told the management that 'You're going to have to change your policy here. When black people come in here and there are seats up front, you need to let them sit there,' " he said. After threatening to fire him, the club's managers changed the policy to allow all customers to sit wherever they wanted.

"It was," Fuller said, "the right thing to do."

When Fuller was asked to join the local chapter of the musicians union, he insisted on a change in the format of the union's directory.

"The union book had a page for white musicians up front and a list of colored musicians in the back," he said. Despite resistance from club owners who wanted to know the color of the musicians they were hiring, Del Fiorentino said, Fuller convinced the local union board that if the club owners wanted to be prejudiced there was no reason the union should make it easier for them to discriminate.

Eventually, Del Fiorentino said, every union chapter in the state redesigned its membership directory to alphabetize all members in one list.

In 1952, Fuller became the first black director on the local board of the musicians union, a position he held until retiring in 1986.

He is survived by his daughter, Rosetta Fuller of San Diego; two grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild.

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