“When the present writer thinks of theater orchestras, she thinks of the Lafayette Theater in New York City since it was there that Black-women orchestras and theater were almost synonymous, from 1914 to 1920,” wrote the late D. Antoinette
Handy in her book “Black Women in American Bands & Orchestras” (Scarecrow Press, 1981). “A ladies orchestra under the direction of Marie Lucas made its debut at the Lafayette in late 1914.” Handy goes on to list the women in the orchestra that included such notables of the day as violinist Mildred Franklin, Maude Shelton on viola, and cellist Alice Calloway. Bassist Olivia Shipp would also be a member of the orchestra, replacing Nellie Shelton, who may have been Maude’s sister.
According to Handy—and in the future given her illustrious career she will be featured in this column—Lucas was a trombonist, though she may have also been a competent pianist, and began her affiliation with the theater in 1914. In effect, she was there two years after the 1,500 theater was built by banker Meyer Jarmulowsky and designed by architect Victor Hugo Koehler. Handy alludes to the possibility that Lucas may have had some connection to James Reese Europe’s Ladies Orchestra. Hand cites an article from The New York Age, Jan. 14, 1915, in which Lucas is mentioned as the orchestra leader at the theater and that she “distinguished herself” and was “winning unstinting applause at each performance.” A year later, the paper reported that “Marie Lucas and her girls are playing as though inspired this week, and it is to be observed that the work of the orchestra calls for as much appreciation as the work on the stage.”
Lucas and her all-girl orchestra were in the pit when the theater became the first major one in the city to desegregate, allowing Blacks to occupy seats in the orchestra section and not be confined to the balcony. At that time Lester Walton, the critic, producer and Broadway composer, was the manager and dramatic lyricist at the theater for several years.
Not much about Lucas is in Handy’s book, nor was it easy to find more information about her on various Black history sites. While the dates of her birth and death remain undisclosed here, she apparently had a tremendous influence on members of her orchestra, many of them male musicians, after her days at the Lafayette ended. Drummer Tommy Benford is one member who performed with her for several dates as well as renowned trombonist Juan Tizol. He worked with the Lucas Orchestra in 1920 before becoming a member of Duke Ellington’s band. His trombone technique perfected on the valve may have been enhanced by his time with Lucas. “Perdido” and “Caravan” were two of his compositions often performed by the Ellington orchestra.
There are several indications that Lucas ventured south to lead an orchestra at the Howard Theater, where Benford was a member along with Rafael Escudero, the bassist and tuba player, who like Tizol was a native of Puerto Rico. Multi-talented musician David Nelson, who according to several sources was related to the great King Oliver, also did a stint with the Marie Lucas Orchestra.