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Burgundy Jazz (and Calypso)

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 28, 2014

Just a quick shout-out on this last day of February to the CBC, which (in honor of Black History Month) put together a fantastic web documentary called “Burgundy Jazz: Life and Music in Little Burgundy.”  In 13 short segments, it surveys an important aspect of the social and cultural history of Montreal, one of the outstanding centers of jazz in the 20th century.  The website features brilliant design: high-definition video is front and center, but for each segment you can open (as an opaque pop-up) a photo gallery, a supplemental audio file or two, and a video extra.  (For inhabitants of the Apple-verse, there’s also a companion iBook and iPhone app.)  Luckily, the snazzy form is all about foregrounding the spectacular content: “Burgundy Jazz” features pithy history, smart interviews, and fantastic archival photos and film footage.

CBC Music’s blog links to the series Intro.  It’s worth watching all thirteen episodes from start to finish; they clock in at between 3 and 10 minutes each.  But if you’re in a hurry, start with Chapter 1, “Trains and Porters,” about the rise of Montreal’s St. Antoine neighborhood (a/k/a “Little Burgundy”), which in the early decades of the 20th century became home to the city’s tight-knit black community.  Many—most?—of that population’s early members were of West Indian origin, including Jamaican-born Rufus Rockhead, a former railroad porter and bootlegger who as proprietor of Montreal’s first black-owned nightclub grew to be one of Little Burgundy’s legendary figures.  Rockhead and his club are the subject of Chapter 9, “Rockhead’s Paradise.”

Many of the Canadian jazz musicians who gigged at Rockhead’s and other local spots during Little Burgundy’s heyday—pianist “Steep” Wade, for instance—were themselves West Indian by birth; others, like Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones, had West Indian parents.  But Rockhead’s most celebrated Caribbean entertainer wasn’t a jazz musician at all: for three solid years, from 1949 to 1952, the calypsonian Lord Caresser was a fixture in the downstairs bar.  (See my “Caresser in Canada.”)

A screenshot from Episode 9 of "Burgundy Jazz," featuring Louis Jaques's iconic 1951 photo from the Montreal Evening Standard of Lord Caresser performing at Rockheads Paradise

A screenshot from Episode 9 of “Burgundy Jazz,” featuring Louis Jaques’s iconic 1951 photo from the Montreal Evening Standard of Lord Caresser performing at Rockhead’s Paradise

I happen to know that CBC Radio has a number of other items locked away in its Toronto archives—including an episode of Lord Caresser’s radio show (which ran on the service’s national and international networks between 1946 and 1948)—that shed light on mid-century Black Canada.

  • “Another Man’s Country,” a 1959 documentary written and hosted by lawyer and activist Violet King, interviews participants in the West Indian “Domestic Scheme” about their experiences in Canada.
  • A “Wednesday Night” broadcast from 1956 is given over to discussion, readings, and performances by West Indian writers Jan Carew, Errol John, Sylvia Wynter, George Lamming, Edgar Mittelholzer, V.S. Naipaul and Sam Selvon.  (A 45-minute roundtable discussion among the seven is moderated by a young Stuart Hall.)
  • Various segments of “Assignment” from 1957-1960 note the rise (and fall) of the Calypso Craze, report on music and dance traditions from Trinidad (with help, in one instance, from Dot Evans and the March of Dimes quartet), speak with a Jamaican social-work graduate in Toronto, drop in on the Beryl McBurnie dance troupe’s visit to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and interview Eric Armstrong, owner of Toronto’s “Calypso Club.”

It’s great stuff, and it ought to be heard.  Let’s hope that “Burgundy Jazz” signals the start of an effort to dust off some of the many other resources related to Black Canadian history that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has in its vaults.  If not, well…independent researchers might have to exploit the fact that most of this material was produced under Crown copyright.  And Crown copyright, unlike the infinitely extended copyrights that are damaging the public sphere in the U.S. (and now Europe), quite sensibly expires after 50 years.  So all of the programs I mentioned above, for instance, are in the public domain.  Kudos on “Burgundy Jazz,” CBC.  Next?

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