In 1933, 11-year-old Percy Hughes was given two magnificent gifts. First, a neighborhood tennis enthusiast patiently taught him how to hit the ball over the net. And before the year was out, he found a clarinet waiting for him under the Christmas tree. Whether wielding a racquet, clarinet or his signature saxophone, Percy Hughes has been making sweet music ever since.
After years of practice and participation in school bands, Percy earned the equivalent of a Ph.D. in music through his membership in the Army Ground Forces Band during WWII. During the war years, he was able to jam with the country’s best musicians who had been plucked from Big Bands led by the likes of Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
By the time he was discharged, his passion for jazz had already charted his life’s course. A Minneapolis native, he returned home to study music theory, conducting and voice at the Minneapolis College of Music and the MacPhail School of Music. He formed his own band in 1946 and, to local jazz fans, every night was Saturday night when Percy and the boys wailed away in Minnesota nightclubs. Forced to reduce the size of his band as the popularity of nightclubs waned with the advent of television, Percy and his quintet became a fixture at the Point Supper Club in Golden Valley, playing six nights a week for 17 years until the day it burned to the ground. Undaunted, he donned a tuxedo and began performing three to four nights a week in the plush Kashmiri room at the Ambassador Motor Lodge in Minneapolis, an arrangement that lasted nearly a decade.
To keep his nights free for music, Percy joined went to work for the Post Office and delivered mail for 28 Minnesota winters. “Carrying mail was the perfect day job for me,” he said. “It was good exercise and I enjoyed the people on my route. When I had the opportunity to retire at 60, I jumped at the chance to devote myself full-time to music.”
His numerous recordings include the album, “I Remember Judy,” a tribute to his wife, a jazz vocalist who succumbed to cancer on New Year’s Day in 1975. “We had planned to do an album together,” Percy said softly. “But when she knew she wasn’t going to make it, she ordered me to do the album and to do the singing in her place.”
Although his commitments to music, mail and married life left him precious little time for tennis, he continued to hit the courts whenever he could. “I didn’t have the freedom to play in many tournaments,” he recalls, “but I had joined a tennis club after I got out of the service and really enjoyed playing socially. I met a lot of wonderful people that way.”
Although he did manage to win a few trophies, Percy is characteristically modest about his prowess with a racquet. “I was never a great player,” he acknowledges. “I wasn’t a strong ground stroker but I had quickness. I took pride in learning the game and playing it correctly.”
To this day, Percy, who’s been a USPTA Certified Tennis Instructor for 17 years, never passes up an opportunity to pass on his knowledge and love of the game to tennis to fans of all ages:
• He’s been an instructor for the Senior Tennis Players Club since Jack Dow founded it back in 1982. This independent Twin Cities organization with over 1800 members invites tennis players 50 and older to take part in weekly tennis games, round robins, tournaments, free weekly lessons and a variety of social events. In 1988, Percy became the second recipient of the annual Jack Dow Senior Development Award.
• He actively volunteers with Inner City Tennis, a nonprofit 501(c)3 foundation that teaches kids of all ages how to play tennis at city parks and school gyms. But their real mission -- and Percy’s personal passion -- is to help young people build character, competence and commitment to personal and community improvement. On October 26, 2002, Percy and his jazz band provided the music for Inner City Tennis’ 50th anniversary celebration.
• As assistant chairman of the Minneapolis Post Office’s sports council, Percy started that organization’s first tennis program more than 25 years ago with the help of his friend, Jack Johnson, who volunteered to host the program at Nicollet Tennis Center (now officially known as the Reed-Sweatt Family Tennis Center).
• He’s served on the USTA/Northern Section’s Community Development Committee for the last six years and has contributed his time and talents to the USTA in a variety of capacities for more than 20 years. He continues to actively promote tennis to participants of all ages through workshops, mentoring, coaching and teaching.
Percy is quick to point out that coaching the very old and the very young involves more than just tightening up techniques and barking out commands; it demands patience, empathy and compassion. “You have to be alert to help older people enjoy the game without injuring themselves,” he explained. “You have to do more than say, ‘Do the stroke this way.’ A lot of seniors can’t do It that way. Being 80 years old myself and having gone through three hip surgeries, I understand about physical limitations. The same goes for the crumb-snatchers. You have to toss the book aside and determine what their little bodies can handle.”
His happiest, most meaningful tennis teaching experience was working with the “little bodies” at the Minneapolis American Indian Center in the mid-1990s through the USTA/Northern Section’s Multicultural Tennis Program. Percy, who has traces of Mohawk Indian blood flowing through his veins, worked with Native American children at the center until hip replacement surgery landed him on the sidelines. “I was really touched by all the cards and well wishes from the dear children there,” he recalled. “As soon as I began teaching there, they invited me to participate in their weekly religious ceremony. They really accepted me and made me feel like family.”
Percy may be a wonderful coach and mentor, said USTA/Northern Section Executive Director Marcia Bach, but he’s an even better man. “I’ve known Percy 25 years,” Marcia said. “In fact, he used to deliver mail to our house when I was growing up. He’s a wonderful volunteer and he has a tremendous passion for the game. You won’t find anyone with a bigger heart than Percy Hughes. Just the mention of his name brings a big smile to everyone’s face. He’s one of the greatest people I’ve ever known.”
Although Percy has been rolling up his sleeves and laboring away in the tennis trenches for years, his greatest visibility in the community undoubtedly comes from his high-profile jazz career. He’s a longtime board member of the Twin Cities Jazz Society. And a steady stream of awards and tributes over the last 20 years have cemented his status as a local legend. The highlights:
• In 1983, he received the second annual Minnesota Black Music
Award in recognition of his lifetime musical achievement
When lifelong friend and fellow bandleader Red Wolfe formed the Ellington Echoes two decades ago, Percy signed on for an extended gig. The group’s repertoire of Duke Ellington standards has delighted Minnesota music lovers ever since. When Wolfe died in September 1991, the family turned over leadership and the band’s musical library of octet arrangements to Percy. The band is now known as Red Wolfe’s Memorial Ellington Echoes. Carrying on Wolfe’s legacy is one of Percy’s greatest honors. “I wanted to keep Red’s name alive,” Percy said. “We were like brothers. You still hear about Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. They’re long gone but they were the giants of jazz. Red Wolfe’s name belongs right up there in my book.”
Red Wolfe’s Memorial Ellington Echoes continues to perform at colleges, tennis events, park board concerts and occasionally at nightclubs when the management is willing to ban smoking for the night. Percy also can be found making music at the Hopkins Center for the Arts and at the annual Hopkins Raspberry Festival.
Perhaps his greatest enjoyment comes from sharing his love of both tennis and music with the “crumb-snatchers” he’s so fond of. A father of six, grandfather of 17 and great-grandfather of 10 with his wife, Dee, he never turns down an offer to put together a music clinic or concert to educate and entertain school kids. Those efforts are funded in large part by the schools, the local musician’s union, Percy himself and the Twin Cities Jazz Society.
Percy Hughes may have been introduced to his twin passions nearly seven decades ago but the flame is still burning brightly. “They’re both still a romance for me,” he said happily. “I still enjoy doing both. Making music is like breathing to me. And even though I’m no longer able to play tennis competitively, I can teach and I can demonstrate. I still have credibility on the court.”
This biography is used here with the permission of the USTA/Northern Section.