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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Anniversary LXXX

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 14, 2016

This blog has been dormant for a long time. Not deliberately; it’s just—well, you know. Connect the dots. Fill in the blank.

Anyway, reading about the 50th anniversary of the legendary Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (originally the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, the group has held a regular Monday night gig at the Village Vanguard since February 7, 1966) got me thinking about an unkept promise from last May, when I noted that three institutions who played big roles in promoting calypso in North America were all celebrating milestone anniversaries in the same year. (I only ever got around to writing about one of the three.)

The VJO doesn’t haven’t an especially close connection to calypso, of course. Okay: there’s Jim McNeely’s “305,” named for his former street address in…Crown Heights? Flatbush?…anyway, he claimed the tune’s West Indian feel came from rhythms he’d heard in his old Brooklyn ‘hood. (He eventually recorded it with the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra.) And Bob Mintzer’s “Antigua,” a samba-flavored calypso included on the VJO’s 2002 release, Can I Persuade You:

But that’s about all I can dig up, calypso-wise, in the band’s five-decades-long songbook.

The Vanguard itself is an altogether different matter. Among Max Gordon’s most successful early bookings were the “Calypso Recorders,” a cabaret-style revue built around Gerald Clark’s Caribbean Serenaders and vocalist the Duke of Iron, with accompaniment by Bill Matons, a lefty modern dancer whose small troupe interpreted the Duke’s calypsos with pantomimed masked dramas. (Popular Front types had lately begun adopting New York-based calypsonians as fellow travelers, thereby imbuing calypso with a certain bohemian cachet: Clark, for instance, had already been tapped to provide music for The New Masses annual ball later that year, while Wilmoth Houdini had recently concluded a run at Barney Josephson’s forward-thinking Cafe Society.)

New_Masses_Duke_Ball

The Vanguard show—which started in late August 1939, at a moment when calypso 78s were flying off the shelves of mid-Manhattan music shops (Clark’s was the backing band on most of them; hence his insistence on being billed as the Recorders)—ran three times nightly, and it was such a hit, with enthusiastic notices in BillboardVariety, and all the New York dailies, that at the end of ten weeks, Gordon signed Clark for another ten months. He continued to book calypso periodically all the way through the 1950s.

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My lack of follow-through on this post was due in part to sheer peevishness. A year ago I spoke on the phone with what journalists would call a “high-ranking official” at the Vanguard, who told me that business records and other ephemera from the old days were scarce, but warmly offered to let me peruse the club’s booking “bible”—containing names and dates of headlining artists—and suggested, tantalizingly, that there might be other “ledgers” I could look at too. But when I followed up a few months later, in preparation for a summer visit to the city, I got the cold shoulder.

No matter. The Village Vanguard’s own website features several great pieces of calypso ephemera, including the above handbill. I’m writing about some of the reviews as part of a chapter on calypso’s embrace by the American left in the 1940s. In the meantime, here’s a photo of Matons, a/k/a The Calypso Kid (he later made a career as “Calypso Joe”), performing the pantomime to “Edward VIII” that he introduced at the Vanguard in 1939:

NYJA_Trinidad_Calypso_003_crop

Bill Matons, publicity shot for an engagement at New York’s Pago Pago Club, January 1941. (New York Journal-American photo morgue, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin)

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