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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for the ‘Jazz’ Category

Sun Ra Centennial

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 22, 2014

Put the words “calypso” and “Sonny” together in a sentence, and everybody knows who you’re talking about. The son of Virgin Islanders, saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins grew up in New York revering The Duke of Iron, “Harlem calypso specialist” (as Life‘s notice of the Duke’s first appearance at the Village Vanguard dubbed him). Rollins’s latest album, Road Shows Vol. 3, includes a new cover of an old Duke standby, “Don’t Stop the Carnival”:


But there’s another Sonny in the jazz cosmos we should be remembering: Herman “Sonny” Blount, better known as Sun Ra, the bandleader, composer, avant-gardist and Afro-Futurist (and impossibly prolific recording artist) who arrived on the planet 100 years ago today.

Okay, so Sun Ra’s kaiso connection isn’t as clear as that other Sonny’s. Like Thelonious Monk, though (and other jazz greats such as Art Blakey, Cecil Payne, and Fats Navarro, who all split gigs with MacBeth the Great’s orchestra in the late 1940s), Sun Ra did share the marquee with calypso. Thanks to Robert L. Campbell, Christopher Trent, and Robert Pruter’s exhaustive and meticulous “From Sonny Blount to Sun Ra: The Chicago Years,” we know that for at least a couple of weeks in 1956, “Calypso Dancer” Mari Macks and “Ramona, The Girl From Trinidad” were part of the floor show at the Arkestra’s first steady gig in Chicago, at Cadillac Bob’s Birdland (later “Budland”) in the Pershing Hotel, Woodlawn:

Newspaper ad, Chicago Defender, January 1956


As for Sun Ra’s music, some claim to hear echoes of calypso in the moody “A Call For All Demons” (from 1956’s Sun Songs):

Others cite the Latin-flavored charts on 1959’s Tonal View of Times Tomorrow. Michael Shore points out the “Matilda” riff in 1958’s “Great Balls of Fire,” which he characterizes as a “strolling calypso instrumental.” And as the Zilner T. Randolph Combo, members of Sun Ra’s band (trumpeter Lucius Randolph and drummer Jim Herndon, joined by bassist and AACM stalwart Malachi Favors and guitarist Ellis Hunter) would put the calypso “Centipede”—possibly a cover of The Duke of Iron’s “Man Centipede“—on the B-side of their 45 rpm single “Too Late,” released on Chicago-based Edwards Calypso Records.

All of those compositions date from Sun Ra’s Chicago years, which encompassed both the nationwide crazes for mambo and calypso and the heyday of Jean Fardulli‘s Blue Angel, the Rush Street cabaret that showcased calypso from 1953 onward.


Still, as far as anyone knows, the Arkestra was not jamming out regularly on “Hold ‘Em Joe” or “Fire Down There” at any point in its long travels across the spaceways.

If you pushed me, though, I might even count the loopy 1982 anti-nuke antiphon “Nuclear War” as a distant calypso cousin:

Call it “interplanetary calypso.” Sun Ra is probably playing it on Saturn right now, gazing back at planet Earth as we foolish terrestrials incinerate ourselves, not in the atomic holocaust he imagined but in a long, slow, carbon-fueled burn.

Sun Ra, Carnival King?

Sun Ra, Carnival King?

More on Sun Ra:

Posted in Calypso, Sun Ra | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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 1958 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?

Posted in Calypso, CBC, Jazz, Lord Caresser, Rockhead's Paradise, Uncategorized | 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 »

Le Jazz Primitif

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 21, 2011

Sonny Rollins

Photo: John Abbott (WBGO's "The Checkout")

Sonny Rollins, who played the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival earlier this month, has given a number of interviews recently in which he discusses his career-long affinity for calypso.  (I’m thinking particularly of his conversations with Josh Jackson of WBGO’s The Checkout, with Larry Appelbaum for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project, and with John Swenson in OffBeat Magazine.)  “People relate to my Caribbean music all over the world,” he told Swenson, “but I notice something especially in New Orleans, the people there seem to have a deeper understanding of it.”

The reason?  Well, he recognizes that the Crescent City is effectively the northern capital of the Caribbean, but he suspects a deeper cause.  Like him, Rollins speculates, New Orleanians are “primitives” — a term academics would decry as problematic, though of course Rollins means it in the most flattering way: unschooled, un-self-conscious, authentic — someone who can tap into pre-modern roots.

Rupert Clemendore, Jazz

(Even Trinidadian bandleaders John “Buddy” Williams and Rupert Clemendore once released an album called Le Jazz Primitif — with tunes that were characteristically très sophistiqués — though I expect the exotic appellation was Emory Cook’s idea, not theirs.  Clemendore did a second album called simply Le Jazz Trinidad; the other notable entry in the short-lived “calypso jazz” category was Freddy Grant’s out-of-print Calypso on Bethlehem.  Others, like Dave Pike’s Carnavals and Don Elliott’s Jamaica Jazz, were mainly “exotic”-flavored lounge fare.)

At any rate, if the Jazz Fest primitives came to hear Rollins play calypso, they weren’t disappointed: I can’t find a full set list, but the accounts I’ve read say that Rollins opened with a 28-minute calypso, then followed with a ballad, another (12-minute) calypso, an unidentified postbop tune, and a 20-minute workout of “St. Thomas.”  (The encore had a “Bags’ Groove” head; no word on whether the Milt Jackson jazz standard was subsequently calypsofied.)   “Rollins seemed most comfortable with the calypsos,” reported Dr. Jazz on the Jazz Programmers List:

The lilting rhythms and short, melodic phrases made it easy for him to alternate a bright, singing sound on his sax with knotty harmonic variations and low, throaty honking.  Instead of tiring, as you might expect, Rollins kept getting stronger…His fingers loosened up, and the notes started coming faster and freer…the set was far from the nostalgic, last go-round for a living legend many expected. Rollins still had a lot to say, and he kept delaying the end of each number to make sure he had room to say it.

And the closer he gets to the ancestors, apparently, the more he says it with calypso.

The octogenarian Rollins isn’t the only modern improviser to have brought jazz and calypso together.  I’ve written before about Andy Narell and Lord Relator’s brilliant reexamination of Kitch’s marriage of kaiso and small-group jazz on University of Calypso.  This summer, in collaboration with veteran calypsonian Lord Superior, Trinidadian jazz trumpeter Etienne Charles (who’s already scattered a handful of fine calypsos on his first two albums; for a taste, see “Santimanité“) follows suit with Kaiso (try the 1080p HD version in full-screen!):

Meanwhile, singer Fay Victor, the Brooklyn-born daughter of Trini parents, gave classic calypso the “out” treatment, with the help of avant-garde ensemble Other Dimensions in Music, on Kaiso Stories (hear selections from the album on Jason Crane’s interview program The Jazz Session); saxophonist James Carter brought his talents to Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra’s “Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra” on Caribbean Rhapsody (which features folk and clavé, but not calypso, rhythms); and Virgin Islander trombonist Reginald Cyntje successfully crowdfunded the production of his first album, Freedom’s Children.  (He’s not saying yet whether it will include a cover of, say, “St. Thomas.”)

I propose that jazz audiences henceforth adopt a new expression of approbation for the killin’ solo: “Kaiso!”

Fay Victor, Kaiso StoriesJames Carter, Caribbean RhapsodyReginald Cyntje, Freedom's Children

Posted in Calypso, Jazz, Sonny Rollins | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Helan Går Dey

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 12, 2011

I’m hoping somebody can help me out here.  Sonny Rollins is on record (so to speak) as having first heard the melody of his signature tune “St. Thomas” on “his mother’s knee.”

A Wikipedian characterizes the tune as “a traditional nursery song from the Virgin Islands,” although Rollins himself, while acknowledging that the song went by various names in the islands, infers (in Erik Nisenson’s Open Sky) that it originated as “a Scandinavian folk song.”  He seems to have reached that conclusion in part because of the Virgin Islands’ Danish colonial history–and in part because a tune he “heard sung by [Danish operatic tenor] Lauritz Melchior in an old Hollywood movie” triggered a sort of Proustian memory of Mom.

Now, for a while I concluded that Rollins must be referring to the old Swedish drinking song “Helan Går” (“Bottoms Up”), which Melchior performed, uncredited, in 1948’s Luxury Liner, a “Latin” romp with George Brent and Jane Powell (and Xavier Cugat).   Melchior also recorded the tune around the same time–as did the Belafonte Folk Singers, a decade later.  Have a listen:

Okay, so … the connection is faint, or strained, or something.  I’m no musicologist.  Still: making allowances for poetic license and jazz improvisation, it works, sort of.  But then I heard Christopher Lydon’s interview with Rollins for Radio Open Source, where it emerges that it wasn’t a “Scandinavian” tune he’d had in mind at all, but a different drinking song, “Vive la Compagnie” (“Vive l’Amour,” probably English in origin), which Melchior sang in his film debut Thrill of a Romance (1945)–and which became part of his concert and nightclub repertoire (!) in the early and mid-1950s.  (It’s also included on the LP The Lighter Side of Lauritz Melchior. I didn’t take the time to do a mash-up for this one, but in case you’ve forgotten the melody of “Vive l’Amour,” here’s a hammy, late-career Melchior on YouTube:)

Fair enough: the melody and structure are much closer.  I get how “St. Thomas” could be construed as an “interpretation” of “Vive l’Amour” (which is how Rollins describes it in the Lydon interview).

The Charmer

And yet…is there any reason to think that the song to which young Sonny’s mother dandled him on her knee has anything to do with either the Swedish or the English drinking song, or even some strange cocktail of the two?  After all, Louis Walcott, later Louis Farrakhan, a/k/a “The Charmer,” had recorded the tune (as “Fire Down There,” pronounced “Fyah Doung Dey”) for Monogram  in 1953 or 54, with the McCleverty Brothers–also from the Virgin Islands–as his backup band.  (I’m no prude, but I’ve gotta say that “Fire Down There” seems scarcely more age-appropriate for young children than “Bottoms Up” or “Vive l’Amour,” even if its lyrics purport to proffer some motherly advice:)

Duke of Iron, "Fire Down There"The Duke of Iron, a favorite calypsonian of Rollins and something of a hero in the Virgin Islands, also recorded “Fire Down There” for Monogram in the early 1950s.  (The Duke’s version of “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” another famous Rollins calypso, became the theme song for VI’s nearly-rained-out carnival in 1952.  Although Lord Invader was the first to record that tune [for Decca in 1939], the Duke waxed it for Moe Asch in 1944 and performed it with Invader at Carnegie Hall in 1946.)  And pianist (and Rollins’s labelmate) Randy Weston, whose Jamaican-Panamanian father hosted friends from all over the West Indies at the family’s house in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn–and frequently took his son to Harlem to hear calypso–had already done a jazz rendition for his album Get Happy, released earlier in 1956:

So what’s the deal?  These are all remarkably similar “interpretations.”  Is Sonny just misremembering, or did Rollins, Weston, The Duke of Iron and the McClevertys all have the same obscure Anglo-Viking forebear?  Virgin Islanders, ethnomusicologists: what’s the answer?  Skol! (And tak!)


P.S.: Melchior’s filmography is at the Lauritz Melchior Web.

Posted in Calypso, Jazz | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Calypso auf Deutsch

Posted by Michael Eldridge on July 16, 2010

Earlier this week one “DottoreFunk,” an anonymous German music fan who specializes in “[u]ploading great live jazz music that appears late at night on German TV,” posted to YouTube a documentary film by Tobias Kremer und Elmar Sommer called “WDR Big Band Calypso Fever.”

What the film documents, more specifically, is the run-up to “Calypso Night“—a February 5, 2010 concert by the WDR Big Band.  WDR is the state-supported radio station for northwestern Germany, based in Köln; its house big band, led by Brooklyn-born Michael Abene, is one of the world’s premiere jazz orchestras, and undoubtedly one of its most versatile.  It caught “calypso fever” courtesy of American steel pan virtuoso Andy Narell, who brought along Calypsociation, a Parisian steel orchestra with which Narell has been, uh, calypsociated since 2001, and veteran calypsonian Relator (a/k/a Lord Relator, né Willard Harris), who has lately been convincingly carrying the torch of the late Lord Kitchener, most notably on University of Calypso, an utterly terrific album released last year on Narell’s Heads Up label.  (The disc pays tribute to Kitchener’s U.K. recordings of the 1950s, which featured sophisticated arrangements employing some of the best British-based jazz musicians of the day, many of them West Indian.)

For the February concert, broadcast (and webcast) live on WDR—alas, I missed it—Narell and Abene adapted the small-group arrangements for a combined jazz and steel orchestra, with often stellar results.   A promotional video for the concert broadcast still lives on WDR Big Band Köln’s MySpace page, and you can download a copy of the “Calypso Night” concert program from WDR—though not, sadly, a podcast of the concert itself.  (Is there a CD and/or DVD in the works, perhaps?)

Kremer and Sommer’s film aired on the German “EinsFestival” channel beginning May 18.  Still photos from the film and/or the concert are available at the EinsFestival website, at, in WDR Big Band Köln’s MySpace, and at the WAZ Media Group’s “DerWesten” website.  For the moment, at least, the film is available in its entirety (split into five parts) on YouTube.  Even if you don’t understand German, it’s fantastich. Here’s part 1:

(Edit: sadly, the moment is no more: WDR has apparently requested that the videos be removed—chalk up another one for [state] capitalism killing music…)

(Edit, 26 October 2010: the video is back, in its entirety, here.  Meanwhile, a lovely “making of University of Calypso” video is here.)

(Edit, 25 June 2012: Narell has now released recordings of that splendid concert and others on DVD.)

Posted in Calypso, Jazz | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Eric Hobsbawm’s Calypso-phile Cousin

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 24, 2010

You learn something new every week from A Blog Supreme‘s Friday link dump.

Eric HobsbawmThis time, it was about nonagenarian Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm‘s semi-secret past as a jazz critic.  As Hobsbawm relates in a recent reminiscence in the London Review of Books, for ten years in the late 50s and early 60s, he covered jazz for The New Statesman under the pseudonym Francis Newton, borrowed from the “Communist jazz trumpeter who played on Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit.’”  His beat was the Soho jazz scene, which then featured the likes of Jamaican-born saxophonist Joe Harriott—though Hobsbawm confesses that, raised on swing, he spent much of the 50s “trying to understand or at least come to terms with bebop.”  (His columns were collected in 1989 as The Jazz Scene, but the book is now sadly out of print.  Several essays on jazz also make up the final section of his working-class history Uncommon People.)

Of course this same era was the heyday of West Indian culture in Britain.  For example: 1956, the year of “Francis Newton”‘s first byline, was also the year of Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners.  (A year later Colin MacInnes, with whom Hobsbawm was friendly, would add a hip, white perspective with City of Spades.)  And until “blue beat” came along in the early-mid-60s, calypso was more or less the soundtrack of boheme London.  Lord Kitchener had arrived with his buddy Lord Beginner on the S. S. Empire Windrush in 1948 and never looked back; he counted Princess Margaret—whose famous “calypso tour” of the West Indies in 1955 raised the music’s global profile—among his most ardent fans.

Cousin Den

Cousin Denis

But here’s the kicker: Hobsbawm had come to jazz, he says, “thanks to [his] cousin Denis Preston.”  That would be jazz writer, BBC presenter, and record producer Denis Preston, who oversaw not only dozens of influential jazz discs for Pye and Columbia in the UK, but scads of sides by African and West Indian musicians, including classic recordings by Beginner and Kitchener for Parlophone and Melodisc, many of which have been collected on the London Is the Place for Me series from Honest Jon’s Records.  (In fact, as John Cowley points out via a post on the late DJ and music writer Charlie Gillett’s blog The Sound of the World, Preston counted calypso as his “first real success.”)

Richard Noblett, who researched and wrote the superb notes for the Honest Jon’s series, explains that Preston had included Freddy Grant’s West Indian Calypsonians in a London jazz concert he’d produced in 1945, and that three years later, serving as Decca’s representative in New York, he’d discovered the Harlem calypso scene and returned to England determined to promote the music there.  Since many of the West Indian musicians he hired who were then resident in the UK were  experienced jazz sidemen, it seems fair to give Preston at least partial credit, along with Kitch and his childhood friend Rupert Nurse (musical director at Melodisc), for introducing modern, debonair jazz arrangements into recorded calypso.

I can’t wait for the next installment of Hobsbawm’s hepcat memories, in which he will undoubtedly reveal how one of England’s most famous intellectuals limed with the West Indians at the Sunset Club in Carnaby Street and dingolayed at the earliest years of Notting Hill Carnival.

Posted in Calypso, Denis Preston, Eric Hobsbawm, Great Britain, Jazz | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Bop Guy Goes Calypso

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 11, 2010

In last weekend’s Saturday link dump, NPR’s A Blog Supreme pointed to a Brilliant Corners post by Matt Lavelle, who managed jazz sales at the old Tower Records on 4th and Broadway in New York during its final years.  Like a few thousand other people, I’ve got fond memories of that place.  The staff in the jazz department, which for ages took up half of the third floor, were wry, knowledgeable, and hip, and a number of them were working, if underemployed, musicians.  My favorite fixture, though, was an older gent named Garl Jefferson, who came out of retirement to take the job and stayed for well over ten years.

I only got to know him after about a decade’s worth of semi-annual pilgrimages.  Tower’s international section was for a while adjacent to jazz, and when I came to the counter in the summer of 2000 with a question about some obscure calypso disc that I hadn’t managed to find, the clerk referred me to Garl.  I was glad he did.

Happy Go Lucky Presskit Detail

Detail from a page of the “Happy Go Lucky” presskit (1942, rel. 1943)

Jefferson was born in Harlem in 1932.  Charlie (Congressman Charles) Rangel was in his brother’s class.  He met Sidney Poitier at the Red Rooster in the 1950s.  His high school basketball coach once wangled him an after-school job as Langston Hughes’s gofer.  And Jefferson was eager to tell me about how calypso, along with bebop and mambo, was a staple in Harlem during and after World War II.  (And even later: when he came back from the Korean War in 1954, he said, “there were still [calypso] bands and dances going on”).  He knew—and so did everyone else he knew—Houdini and the Great MacBeth and the Duke of Iron and Lord Invader and the Gerald Clark band.  He recalled seeing Sir Lancelot in “I Walked With a Zombie” and “Happy Go Lucky,” and he sang from memory a verse and chorus of Lion’s “Ugly Woman,” which Lancelot performed in the latter film.  Even Charlie Parker kept some West Indian music in his bag, he noted, citing not only Bird’s own “Barbados”—“one of the things that [eventually] got my wife closer to me, because she’s second-generation Bajan”—but also a cover of “Sly Mongoose.” (It’s included in the 1952 Live at the Rockland Palace concert; Jefferson remembered it being in Parker’s late 40s repertoire.)

Calypso Ball at the Golden Gate Ballroom (Amsterdam News, 1 February 1947)

As a teenager, Jefferson said, he heard all kinds of music in Harlem, and he leaned strongly towards bop.  But he often went to calypso dances with his best friends, many of whose parents were West Indian, at places like the Park Palace, the Renaissance Casino, and the Audubon Ballroom, as well as at smaller halls rented for the night by a West Indian social club or benevolent association.  Most any weekend, he said, you could count on hearing calypso somewhere or other.  Even at legendary jazz spots like Murrain’s and Small’s Paradise, he remembered attending “calypso dances…as well as jazz sessions.”  (He may have been too young to get into Boxil Jackson’s Caribbean Club on 7th Avenue.)  Usually there would be just one band—vocals, sax, trumpet, guitar, bass, conga, maracas—on the evening’s bill, he said, sometimes two or more at larger halls like the Park Palace.

At the time, Jefferson wasn’t aware whether any of these acts had a reputation outside of Harlem, but it wouldn’t have mattered: for him and his friends, the calypsonians’ cool factor didn’t depend upon their success downtown or out of town.  He could go to school the following Monday and say, “Man, we were at a dance [on Saturday] and MacBeth was burnin!” and he wouldn’t have to explain or defend his judgment.

West Indian Day Parade

West Indian Day Parade, 6 September 1948 (W. Smith, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs & Prints Division)

He was emphatic that a broad social spectrum—middle-class and working-class, West Indian and African-American—was represented at these events.  “For a kid my age, at the time, in the late 40s, [a calypso dance] was a social function that you counted on being at.”  The venue might only have accommodated a hundred people or even fewer, “but it was a happening!” The same went for the West Indian Day Parade, originally held on Lenox Avenue in Harlem: “For me, that was a big deal.  It meant a lot to me and the rest of the kids in my generation.”

Even if you weren’t an habitué of the dances, though, calypso was in the air: “On the jukebox, you would hear eighty per cent jazz, and all of a sudden here comes Louis Jordan.”  (Here he broke out in song again.)  “‘Run Joe!’ And ‘Stone Cold Dead.’  And that’s what I’m alluding to: you’re gonna hear this whether you want to or not.  So that’s why I’m saying, it wasn’t a matter of me going seeking it out, it was there for me to pick up on.”

Socially speaking, Jefferson said, calypso in Harlem was “primarily dance music”: at the clubs, “the accent was on dancing, and everybody’d be bumping hips.”  But his friends had plenty of records at home, too.  And when you heard calypso on disc or on the radio, “you listened to hear the words” as well as the music.  “Doris, darling I am feeling blue,” he sang, quoting a variant of Growler’s “I Don’t Want No Calaloo”: “I believe what the neighbors tell me is true / Just gimme de royal codfish / And not de green ting inside de dish / My darling I can’t call you / Cau’ I don’t want no more callaloo.”

What Jefferson particularly recollected, though, were tunes with social and political relevance, including one about Axis leaders and the cult of personality, whose title he remembered as “You Got to Have Power” (“Hitler had power, power; Mussolini had power, power; Hirohito had power, power”), as well as another uptempo tune that mentioned Pakistani Prime Minister Ali Khan: “This is really true / I dream one day I was really a Hindu (2x) / All the Indians from Hyderabad / Come to see me because I was feeling so sad.”  “Now at my age,” said Jefferson, “if I can still remember some of the words to these things, you’ll understand what an impression it made.  It wasn’t fleeting.”

Another tune he recalled was “Fire Down Dey”: “The first place we heard that was in the old Park Palace,” he said; “just about all [the] bands would play it.”  And that’s why, he said, when Sonny Rollins recorded the same melody a decade later, “it wasn’t nothing new to me—but he called it ‘St. Thomas.’”

Intriguingly, when I first chatted with Jefferson at the register in Tower, he thought he remembered a friend of his father’s, a sideman with Rollins, who was reputed to be the Duke of Iron’s uncle.  When we sat down to talk at length a few days later, though, on a lunch break at the Astor Place Starbuck’s, he told a different story, about a tenor player with MacBeth the Great, a big man—physically not unlike Rollins—who had a particular talent for energizing the dancers.

“Knowledge, experiences, aren’t here to be kept to yourself,” Jefferson told me as we were packing up and saying our goodbyes.  “You gotta share it, otherwise you don’t really have any knowledge.”  You’ve got it, Garl.  I hope you’re still kicking.  Thanks for sharing.


Addendum, January 2014: I’ve since confirmed that the tune Jefferson recalled above was indeed Muriel Gaines singing “You Got to Have Power” (National 8001B, 1945), backed by Sam Manning’s Serenaders.

Posted in Calypso, Garl Jefferson, Harlem, Jazz, New York Nightclubs | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

A Life of Craft Beer and Calypso

Posted by Michael Eldridge on November 21, 2009

Nicholas Pashley, "Cheers!"I’d hate for it to get around that what follows is the upshot of my ongoing research (nobody tell my Dean! not a word to Fulbright!). But the fact of the matter is that while delving into the history of calypso—and race, and multiculturalism, and immigration, etc.—in Canada, I’ve also been schooling myself about Ontario craft brewing.

Instead of finishing Himani Bannerji’s Dark Side of the Nation, for instance, I’ve been falling asleep at night with Nick Pashley‘s hilarious first book, Notes on a Beermat: Drinking and Why It’s Necessary, and before that, his latest, the delightful Cheers: An Intemperate History of Beer in Canada. The good people who post at sites like The Bar Towel and CASK! have also served as discerning and enthusiastic guides to the region’s best efforts. (Heaven knows you need someone to show you the lay of the land, since Ontario’s Liquor Control Board—like its surprisingly large contingent of United Empire Loyalists a relic of the province’s whiter, tighter days—is not much interested in enlightening you, and the hopefully named “Beer Store,” owned by the multinational overlords of megabrewers Labatt and Molson, would really just as soon keep you in the dark.)

And then there’s the, erm, “field research.” While there are honest folk who’ll dispute this claim for a variety of reasons, Hamilton has, to my mind, precisely one genial spot for acquainting oneself with Canadian craft beer: the Winking Judge on Augusta Street.  In a city of half a million, with a major university. Go figure. Luckily Toronto, the urbane sister city along the lakeshore, which unfairly casts its long shadow westward all the way to Hamilton, features any number of friendly, first-rate establishments to which one may repair for a pint of locally brewed, cask-dispensed refreshment after a hard day slaving over a hot microform reader.

George Maharaj and his collection

George Maharaj with items from his collection (Trinidad Guardian)

One of Pashley’s favorite haunts (he’ll be having a book launch there on Tuesday, November 26, in fact) is the Granite Brewery at Eglinton and Mount Pleasant, where I took myself on Thursday after a pleasant afternoon at the home of George Maharaj, author, archivist, and (we decided) “adjunct lecturer”—just three of his many titles—and still, for the time being, at least, the owner of one of the world’s foremost collections of recorded calypso. (For decades, Maharaj has been trying to persuade the government of Trinidad & Tobago, or failing that, the University of the West Indies, to preserve and promote the nation’s cultural heritage by founding a calypso institute and research library with his formidable collection at its core. Let’s say it’s been a frustrating twenty-odd years.  You can find out more about Maharaj, and buy his two books, at Roots of Calypso.)

To judge by his spiral-bound address books, the gregarious Maharaj knows just about everyone in the world, and one of his six-and-a-half billion connections is Wilma Cayonne Cromwell, widow of “Jamaica Johnny” Cayonne, a Trinidadian who performed in New York in the late 1950s (and later, in Canada, in the 1960s), notably at the beatnik hangout Cafe Bizarre.  Even more bizarre: there was a second Jamaica Johnny, a rough contemporary of the first, who made his name in Amsterdam, where he recorded several sides for Philips, including this ode to the fruits of brewing science (a copy of which was on the shelves of Maharaj’s collection, of course):

Okay, so Amstel hardly counts as craft beer, and Jamaica Johnny isn’t the first entertainer, or even the first calypsonian, to employ his talents hawking products of questionable quality. (While the Netherlands produces a number of top-shelf brews, Amstel is the Dutch Bud: clean, consistent, and thoroughly unadventurous.) Just the same, I couldn’t help but see, in my serendipitous introduction to the commercial side of Jamaica Johnny’s career, an emblem of my current idyllic life. A week or so ago, NPR’s A Blog Supreme ran a feature on Bruno Johnson, founder of the Okka Disk record label and proprietor of two highly esteemed Milwaukee taverns. The latter specialize in craft beer (American and Belgian), while the former specializes in free jazz, by the likes of Ken Vandermark, Fred Anderson, and—you knew there was going to be a Dutch connection here somewhere—Peter Brötzmann. “Good music by day, craft beer by night,” wrote Patrick Jarenwattananon, pithily summing up Johnson’s life.

Back in my home state of California, a cabal of administrators, under cover of an ongoing budgetary crisis, is busily realizing one of the right wing’s oldest and wildest dreams, deprofessionalizing the professoriate and methodically dismantling what used to be the greatest system of public higher education in the land. (That’s one way to shut up those tenured radicals.) It’s not a hopeful prospect for an academic to return to. But for now, I still get to relish a core feature of what Stanley Aronowitz once called “the last good job in America.” I.e., I get to hang out in libraries, read books, and enjoy the hospitality of good people like George Maharaj by day, then pore over my notes, catch up on my periodical reading, and quaff pints of Granite Best Bitter Special (well, okay: and delight in the company of my longsuffering family) by night. As Jarenwattananon said of Bruno Johnson: “Best. Life. Ever.”

Posted in Beer, Calypso, Canada, George Maharaj, Jamaica Johnny, Jazz | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

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