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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for the ‘MacBeth the Great’ Category

Harlem’s Calypso Renaissance

Posted by Michael Eldridge on April 20, 2015

Another landmark gone. The New York Times recently reported that Harlem’s Renaissance Casino and Ballroom, which for years was literally a shell of its former opulent self, is now rubble. (Last December, the Times covered local preservationists’ last-ditch efforts to stop the demolition. A more hopeful story appeared back in 2007.)

Together with its neighboring Theater, the Casino and Ballroom took up an entire block of 7th Avenue between 137th and 138th Streets, on the edge of Strivers Row. Built in stages between 1921 and 1923, the “Renny” touted itself in its grand opening announcement as having been been “built by Colored capital, and owned and managed by Colored people.” Paul Robeson sang there; Oscar Micheaux’s films debuted there; Armstrong, Henderson, Ellington, Basie, and Calloway played there; and Joe Louis fought there. It was also the home of legendary basketballers the Harlem Rens.

Renaissance Casino & Ballroom, 7th Avenue at 138th Street (looking north), Harlem, ca. 1930

From DigitalHarlem.org

Screenshot from DigitalHarlem.org

But the Renny wasn’t just a Harlem cultural mecca, it was a West Indian Harlem cultural mecca. Its founding partners were three businessmen from Antigua and Montserrat, Garveyites who believed in Black self-sufficiency. The Rens basketball team owner was from St. Kitts. For years the Casino’s house band was the Vernon Andrade orchestra, remembered now as a “Latin” band (when it’s remembered at all). But like many Harlem dance bands of the day, Andrade’s played a variety of styles: hot jazz, swing, rumba, mambo…and calypso. Andrade himself, as I learned from Lara Putnam’s Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age, was a Panamanian born to West Indian parents. According to his trombonist Clyde Bernhardt, “[h]alf of Andrade’s band was West Indian,” and Bernhardt’s uncle derided the bandleader as a “monkey-chaser.” In 1937, the New Yorker mentioned Andrade providing the music for a massive “Coronation Ball” at Rockland Palace, and it seems unlikely that the 5000 attendees, “most of them West Indians and loyal Britons,” would have marked George VI’s accession to the throne with non-stop rumbas. Indeed, Andrade, “one of the few [bandleaders] from the Islands who has solved the riddle American swing,” in the opinion of the New York Amsterdam News, played “Sly Mongoose” “as a regular part of his repertoire” in 1939. (A footnote: Lara Putnam also writes that in the mid-1930s, a full decade before she covered Wilmoth Houdini’s “Stone Cold Dead in the Market,” a teenage Ella Fitzgerald sang with Andrade’s band at the Renny two or three nights a week.)

For two decades, at least—possibly longer; my newspaper searches haven’t been exhaustive—the Renaissance was also the venue of choice for Trini expat Gerald Clark, the preeminent West Indian bandleader in New York, and his protégés, the Duke of Iron and Macbeth the Great. While the three also headlined nightclubs, concert halls, and private parties in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx throughout the 1940s and 50s, and while they naturally made the rounds of other Harlem ballrooms (Rockland Palace, Park Palace, the Savoy, the Audubon, the Congress, the Golden Gate), they kept coming back to the Renny. The first of Clark’s annual “Dame Lorraine” costume balls actually took place at the Lido Ballroom in January 1934, but just a month later his Caribbean Serenaders performed at a Washington’s Birthday Ball at the Renaissance, and from then on it was Clark’s “go-to” venue. His dances drew hundreds, often thousands, of patrons. Saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who as a young child lived on 137th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, remembers going with his mother “to a lot of calypso dances,” very likely right around the corner.

New York Amsterdam News, 21 February 1934 (courtesy Ray Funk)

New York Amsterdam News, 21 February 1934 (courtesy Ray Funk)

New York Amsterdam News, 2 March 1946

New York Amsterdam News, 2 March 1946

“The Renny hosted events for island benevolent societies,” says Putnam, as well as

West Indies–wide reform groups, and race-based organizations, like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, that counted both Afro-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans among their members. British Caribbean migrants in interwar New York routinely belonged to organizations across all these categories: and the Renny was their place. Events included a mass rally in support of the jailed Marcus Garvey in 1923; a “monster mass meeting” of the West Indian Reform Association in 1924 to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of (West Indian) emancipation and discuss “vital issues affecting the islands”; and an invitation-only 1930 gala to welcome a Jamaican cricket team brought north “to improve the game in New York.”

In July 1947, Wilmoth Houdini chose the Renaissance for a Harlem edition of the Calypso “Pop” Concerts that had sold out Carnegie Hall in May and June. A marquee event previewed by all the Black papers nationwide, its teaser was a calypso monarch competition featuring Lord Invader, Macbeth the Great, the Duke of Iron, and the Count of Monte Cristo (the Duke’s brother). As I’ve mentioned before, it’s not known who won or even who judged the contest, but winning probably wasn’t the point anyway. The advance publicity was apparently enough to draw jazz writer and photographer William Gottlieb, who shot a series of striking photos now at the Library of Congress. (I’m speculating somewhat, but the stage and balcony visible in Gottlieb’s photos seem to jibe with interior shots of the ruins of the ballroom that I’ve seen online.)

1947 07-12 Afr-Am Houdini et al Ren Cas

Afro-American (National Edition) 12 July 1947

The last Renaissance Ballroom clipping currently in my collection is for a Labor Day Carnival dance September 7, 1953, with music by Macbeth and his Rhythm Boys. What more logical place to retire to after a parade down 7th Avenue? Macbeth celebrated all the holidays there, it seems:

Poster for an all-night Christmas Eve

Poster for an all-night Christmas Eve “Breakfast Dance,” 1949

IMG_0426 (corrected)

Poster for Bastille Day Ball, 1950

Closed in 1979, the Renny sat empty and derelict for decades, although its social and cultural significance made it a prime candidate for landmark preservation status. Unfortunately, that designation would have made things difficult for powerful real-estate developers, to which detractors accuse the property’s owners and nominal caretakers, the neighboring Abyssinian Baptist Church, of selling out. (In 2010, the ABC demolished another neighbor of equal historical importance and greater architectural distinction, the “annex” of the 137th Street YWCA, where in April 1945 the Duke of Iron produced the first large-scale, sit-down calypso concert in New York, possibly with visitors from Trinidad including Lord Beginner, King Radio, Tiger, Lion, Atilla, and/or Lord Invader.)

More on the Renaissance Theater, Ballroom and Casino:

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Posted in Calypso, Duke of Iron, Gerald Clark, Harlem, MacBeth the Great, New York City, Sonny Rollins, Wilmouth Houdini | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Brand-Name Calypso

Posted by Michael Eldridge on November 14, 2013

Oscar Brand (WNYC Archives | ©WNYC)

Things have a way of hiding out on the Internet.  Case in point: these three-year-old YouTube posts of excerpts from a 1959 episode of Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival.  The legendary lefty/balladeer/recording artist/author/producer’s program has aired weekly on WNYC since December 1945 (!)—which makes Brand a legendary broadcaster above all, I guess.  (And did I mention “nonagenarian“? Go ahead: think of anybody—anybody—in North American folk music over the past 70 years.  They’ve almost certainly been on Folksong Festival.)

Like his 1940s fellow travelers in “People’s Songs,” an organization to which, like all groups, he belonged only ambivalently, Brand has always taken a broad view of folk music, which means that he has occasionally showcased calypso on his program.  (He even wrote and sang one—”Small Boat Calypso”—for his 1960 album Boating Songs and All That Bilge.  I confess I haven’t heard it, though given Brand’s weakness for comic and bawdy songs, I wouldn’t want to vouch for its authenticity.)

The Duke of Iron’s first appearances on WNYC precede Brand by more than half a decade, and in his sophomore date on June 27th, 1940 (as reported by the left-leaning daily PM), the Harlem-based calypsonian unveiled an ode to the public station and its patron saint, Hizzoner:

P.M. (New York), 27 June 1940

P.M. (New York), 27 June 1940

Station WNYC
Yes, WNYC, it is owned by the people of N. Y. C.

[…]

You have heard of that great little fighter
And I mean our Mayor LaGuardia
Who for days and nights of much deliberation
Fought for the existence of his pet station.
We look up to him as the godfather
For without his aid we couldn’t get so far.
Through his efforts you would be glad to hear
We’ll be on the air for another year.

Still, given the Duke’s pre-eminence on the New York scene, not to mention his own occasional involvement with the People’s Songsters, it’s a safe bet that he eventually took part in Brand’s Festival, too.  [Update, April 2014: he did indeed—and more, besides.  Stay tuned.]

L-R: Josh White, Oscar Brand, Lord Burgess, ca. 1954 (WNYC Archives | ©WNYC)

At left is Brand with folksinger Josh White and calypsonian Lord Burgess, né Irving Burgie, the man behind Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song” and dozens of other Caribbe-ish tunes.  (The photo probably dates from around 1954, after Burgie had made an LP for Stinson Records and was playing a six-week date at the Village Vanguard.)  And below are the excerpts from that undated 1959 show, when MacBeth the Great was two years dead but his namesake Orchestra lived on, under the leadership of brother Pelham Fritz, who went on to a long career as a New York City Parks & Recreation official.  (Bandmember Claude “Fats” Greene would later take the helm before striking out on his own.)

The first tune is a cover of Sparrow’s prize-winning, animal-rights-oriented take on the Sputnik panic, “Russian Satellite.”  In the second, the band is joined by Lord Invader, who skewers segregationist Governor Orville Faubus in his original composition, “Crisis in Arkansas.”

______________________________________________

You can find “legitimate” archival audio from Folksong Festival at WNYC’s website.

Several items from Fats Greene’s discography on Cab & Camille records are also floating around on YouTube, and they’re all well worth a listen: “Justina,” “Senorita,” “Calypsorama,” and “Shake ‘M Up.”

Posted in Calypso, Duke of Iron, Lord Burgess, Lord Invader, MacBeth the Great, Oscar Brand, Uncategorized, WNYC | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Ralph MacDonald, 1944-2011

Posted by Michael Eldridge on December 18, 2011

Ralph MacDonald (KickMag.net)

Ralph MacDonald (KickMag.net)

I learned this morning from the “Limers” discussion group that percussionist, composer, and arranger Ralph MacDonald had passed–too soon–at age 67.  MacDonald may be best known to the wider world as the co-writer of two R&B classics, the Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway duet “Where Is The Love” and Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Just the Two of Us,” with vocals by Bill Withers.  Denizens of the dancefloor and citizens of the hip-hop nation, meanwhile, will remember him for the old-school breakbeat sample from “Jam on the Groove” and for Saturday Night Fever’s Calypso Breakdown.”

Calypso Carnival

Calypso Carnival (RCA, 1971)

MacDonald didn’t come by his “calypso” credentials casually.  The son of Trini-born, New York-based calypsonian MacBeth the Great (Patrick MacDonald), he was an accomplished pannist who at age 17 started a decade-long stint as Harry Belafonte’s arranger and music director, eventually writing much of the latter’s Calypso Carnival album.  With pan master Robert Greenidge, he also brought a touch of authenticity to Jimmy Buffett’s “Coral Reefer” band.  (Greenidge, MacDonald, and fellow Reefers also performed and recorded independently as “Club Trini,” while MacDonald himself released eleven albums as a leader.)

“Extensive” doesn’t do justice to MacDonald’s list of sideman credits.  As the New York Times noted, he was “the ghost” behind dozens of 1970s radio hits.  His percussion flavors albums by everyone from jazz lions like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Joe Henderson, and Ron Carter; pop stars Bette Midler, Don McLean, and Paul Simon; and R&B icons Aretha Franklin, Teddy Pendergrass, and Ashford & Simpson.  (As for his calypso bona fides: he also answered calls from David Rudder and the Mighty Sparrow.)

More recent collaborators include the late Amy Winehouse; “When Steel Talks” caught a 2008 appearance with the Caribbean All Stars on video (HQ version here).  But my favorite recent performance of MacDonald’s is on Kaiso, the splendid album that Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles released earlier this year.  He’s featured prominently on this sweet, soaring cover of Kitch’s “Sugar Bum Bum”:

Now he’s beating percussion with the ancestors.  Rest in peace, Ralph MacDonald.

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Posted in MacBeth the Great, Ralph MacDonald | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

“If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me.”

Posted by Michael Eldridge on August 14, 2011

MacBeth the Great (Patrick MacDonald)

MacBeth the Great (Patrick MacDonald), probably at Renaissance Ballroom, July 1947 | From the William P. Gottlieb Collection of Jazz Photos, Library of Congress

I keep coming across bits of trivia I can’t believe I haven’t stumbled upon before.  I already knew, thanks in part to Garl Jefferson, something of how calypso shared fans and venues with bebop in late 1940s Harlem.  Turns out they even shared bills.  Here’s a lovely anecdote from a famous piece previously unbeknownst to me, Paul Bacon’s “The High Priest of Bebop: The Inimitable Mr. Monk” (published originally in The Record Changer in 1949, it was reprinted in Rob Van der Bliek’s Thelonious Monk Reader):

There is, in Harlem, a monstrous barn of a dance-hall called the “Golden Gate”; quite a number of affairs are produced there every year, and the usual system is to have two alternating bands working–in the last few years the two bands have been one bop group and one Calypso band.  (There are a couple of remarkable calypso bands in New York, playing a real powerhouse music which is closer to Harlem in 1928 than Trinidad in any year.) The occasion I’m thinking of took place there in 1947…Macbeth’s calypso contingent shared the stand with a bop sextet fronted by Monk; the boppers were second in line, so, after a long set by Macbeth, Monk’s band wandered desultorily to the stand.

Monk fussed with the piano, discovering that it was a pretty venerable instrument…Close examination showed him that the pedal post was shakily attached; he jiggled the whole piano apprehensively, then shrugged his shoulders and concentrated on some music left behind by Macbeth’s pianist.

A little later I became aware that Thelonious was doing something extraordinary…as I watched, mesmerised, I saw that he was yanking at the pedal post with all his might (first he kept up with the band by reaching up with his right hand to strike an occasional chord, but he had to apply himself to the attack on the post with both hands, and get his back into it, too). There was a slight crack, a ripping sound, and off came the whole works, to be flung aside as Monk calmly resumed playing.  He never looked at it again, but when Macbeth’s man came back on the stand he stopped short, stunned.  It was obvious that here was a new experience, something outside the ken of a rational man; for the rest of the evening he looked upon Thelonious with a new respect.

Thelonious Monk by William Gottlieb

Thelonious Monk at Minton’s Playhouse, ca. September 1947 | From the William P. Gottlieb Collection of Jazz Photos, Library of Congress

(Bacon, the designer of dozens of classic albums for Blue Note and Riverside in the 1950s and one of Monk’s early journalistic champions–jazz nerd and Down Beat writer/photograph Bill Gottlieb was another–was interviewed at length last year by Marc Myers for his blog JazzWax.)

So Monk’s Caribbean connection wasn’t just second-hand.  He grew up in San Juan Hill, an African-American neighborhood on Manhattan’s west side with a heavy West Indian presence.  As Robin D. G. Kelley tells it in his magisterial biography of Monk, “With the music, cuisine, dialects, and manners of the Caribbean and the American South everywhere in [San Juan Hill], virtually every kid became a kind of cultural hybrid,” and on the radio, at block parties, and through his neighbors’ victrolas, Monk inevitably “absorbed Caribbean music” (23).  His drummer Denzil Best, co-composer of the calypso-inflected “Bemsha Swing,” was the child of Bajan parents.  (“Bimsha” is a phonetic approximation of “Bimshire,” one of Barbados’ nicknames.)   His admirer and sometime student Randy Weston recorded “Fire Down There,” a/k/a “St. Thomas,” almost a year before Sonny Rollins did.  In fact, Weston once told Rhashidah McNeill that his waltz “Little Niles,” composed in honor of his young son, was inspired by a “swinging quadrille” played for him by MacBeth.  And while Monk’s go-to bassist and Weston’s childhood friend Ahmed Abdul-Malik, better known for his shared love (with Weston) of North African music, liked to tell people that his father was Sudanese, Robin Kelley claims that Abdul-Malik’s given name was Jonathan Timm and that both his parents were from St. Vincent.  The bassist covered “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” a road march claimed by Lord Invader but associated with the Duke of Iron and Virgin Islands carnival, on his 1961 album The Sounds of Ahmed Abdul-Malik–again, a year ahead of Rollins.  I’ve heard it rumored, moreover, that Abdul-Malik played for a time in MacBeth’s band.

MacBeth the Great on Time

MacBeth the Great, “Calypso Holiday” (Time Records S/2144, 1964)

As for MacBeth himself: born Patrick MacDonald in Trinidad, he made his first big mark as a performer singing with Gerald Clark’s band at the Village Vanguard in 1940. The stylistic contrast between MacBeth and one of the other featured singers, Sir Lancelot, was marked; as the Afro-American saw it, MacBeth “[stole] the show.” Short in stature, he nevertheless cut quite a figure: “Gayly dressed in red satin trousers, black loosely-belted tunic, casually draped black and green turban, the ends of which fall over his right shoulder, he sings the clever, clever words of the songs, shaking maracas.”[1] MacBeth recorded one tune, “I Love to Read Magazines,” with Clark for Varsity before the war, then more sides for Guild/Musicraft in 1945, Asch/Disc in 1946, Jade around 1949, and Monogram in the early 1950s. He participated in the famous “Calypso at Midnight” concert at New York’s Town Hall in 1946 and subsequently organized his own twelve-piece orchestra. (“Macbeth’s Calypso Band” also appeared on screen with Lord Invader in the “Pigmeat” Markham vehicle House-Rent Party that same year.)  Besides playing in New York, where for many years he took part in Carnival balls in Harlem, Macbeth also performed up and down the East Coast. According to one account, his band was in such demand that it sometimes had to be “split into two groups in order to fulfill engagements which were scheduled on the same night.”  After his death, the sides that MacBeth had done for Bob Shad‘s Jade label were collected on a 1964 album called Calypso Holiday, released by the legendary producer, jazz fan, and A & R man’s latest venture, Time Records.  (Time was superseded by Mainstream, which was eventually acquired by Sony Legacy, who may be behind a recent digital reissue of MacBeth’s Jade sides–along with scores of other Mainstream titles.  [Update, April 2014: in fact, the catalog of Mainstream and its subsidiary labels was reacquired by Bob Shad’s daughter Tamara in 2004.])  MacBeth’s son Ralph MacDonald, an accomplished percussionist and sometime arranger for Harry Belafonte in the early 1960s, got his start in his father’s band.

Though it was Wilmoth Houdini who crowned himself “King” of the New York calypsonians, in July 1947 Houdini, the Duke of Iron, Lord Invader, and MacBeth the Great, along with “dark horse” the Count of Monte Cristo (the Duke’s brother), staged a monarchy competition at Harlem’s storied Renaissance Ballroom and Casino to determine “the undisputed right to the title of Calypso King.”  (I suspect that’s where William Gottlieb’s “Portrait of Calypso” shots were captured.)  I don’t know which of the rivals prevailed, or whether his victory was ever in fact disputed.  But of course MacBeth’s kingly stature was implicit all along.


[1] “New Kind of Singing: Calypso has Four Parts.” Afro-American  22 June 1940: 13

Posted in Calypso, Jazz, MacBeth the Great, Thelonious Monk | Tagged: , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

 
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