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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for the ‘New York Nightclubs’ Category

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.

292869_65edeb1492da44ee8e8713df4cc5a9cf

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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Posted in Calypso, Duke of Iron, Gerald Clark, New York City, New York Nightclubs, village vanguard | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Anniversary XC

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 18, 2015

By strange coincidence, three institutions that played important parts in the spread of calypso in North America are marking big anniversaries this year—every one a good round multiple of ten: The New Yorker is 90, the Village Vanguard 80, and Radio Canada International 70. I hope to post about all three before the year is out, and today I start with the eldest.


For calypso researchers, The New Yorker is famous for one thing: “Houdini’s Picnic,” a profile of Wilmoth Houdini, the self-crowned king of New York calypsonians, that appeared in the issue of May 6, 1939. Its author, the legendary Joseph Mitchell, had recently joined The New Yorker as a staff writer after a star turn at the World-Telegram; “Houdini’s Picnic” was one of his earliest pieces for the smart-set weekly.  It’s a classic of its type: part character sketch, part urban chronicle—a type that, as it happens, Mitchell practically invented. “He was drawn to people on the margins,” comments Charles McGrath, reviewing a new biography of Mitchell: “bearded ladies, Gypsies, street preachers, Bowery bums, Mohawk steelworkers, the fishmongers at the Fulton Market.” But his tone is mostly curious and sympathetic. A “great noticer” and a “careful listener” with a superb ear for dialogue, Mitchell was a sociologist at heart, “genuinely interested in his subjects as human beings, remarkable because they so vividly demonstrate that one way or another we are all a little weird.” There is “no kitsch in his portraits,” adds current New Yorker editor David Remnick, introducing Up in the Old Hotel, the definitive collection of Mitchell’s writing for the magazine. By contrast, the Journal-American‘s H. Allen Smith, like many of Mitchell’s rivals and imitators, saw people “as ‘characters,’ and mined them for their colorfulness” (McGrath again). Smith’s portrait of Houdini, “Hot Dogs Made Their Name,” which appeared a year later (and was collected in Low Man on a Totem Pole), is arch and condescending. Where Mitchell is deadpan, Smith is jokey. Mitchell’s Houdini is rough-edged and well-spoken. Smith’s is a buffoon.

Joseph Mitchell wasn’t the only one of Harold Ross’s staff writers to cast an interested eye upon New York’s West Indian community.  As early as 1928, “The Talk of the Town” took an excursion to Van Cortland Park in Riverdale—er, the Bronx—to look in on the “group of West Indian Negroes” who congregated there on Sunday afternoons to play “an unusually beautiful game of cricket” (and speak an equally “beautiful brand of English”).  (J.M. Flagler would return in 1954 to write a long profile of West Indian cricketers in New York, “Well Caught, Mr. Holder“; Edith M. Agar and Brendan Dealy checked in once more in 1988.)  In the course of keeping up with “Exotic Harlem,” meanwhile, Pauline Emmet in 1930 schooled herself on West Indian-American cuisine: “The West Indian Negro…will scarcely look at a chicken,” she pronounced. “What he likes are yams, yucas, papayas, and things like that.”

And music? As I mentioned last month, it’s a safe bet that the Renaissance Ballroom’s house band, led by Vernon Andrade, wasn’t only supplying swing tunes for the 5000 masquerading Lindy Hoppers and Suzy-Q’ers at the West Indian “Coronation Ball” that Earl Brown visited in 1937. By December 1938 the magazine’s anonymous popular record reviewer, always abreast of emerging trends, was recommending “selected West Indian discs” as a last-minute Christmas gift for “friends who will be diverted by the curious rhythmic outbreaks in dialect from the Calypso singers.”  He began with a representative five, but as Decca had already issued “almost a hundred of these native naïvetés,” some of which seemed “shrewdly manufactured for the tourist trade,” he referred “Calypso collectors”—they were a thing—to midtown’s Liberty Music Shop for “[e]xpert first aid.”  By the following year, Steinway & Sons Record Shop, also in midtown, was advertising its own recommendations…

Ad for Steinway & Sons Record Shop, New Yorker 2 December 1939

Ad for Steinway & Sons Record Shop, New Yorker 2 December 1939

…and Houdini was back on the radar of the magazine’s unnamed reviewer, who led off his December 30th column with a notice for the album advertised above, Houdini’s—and calypso’s—first. (Heretofore, he explained, “Calypso songs, by which the natives of Trinidad comment informally on whatever events of the moment strike their fancy…have been casually released on single discs.” But they have “caught on so successfully during the brief time they’ve been available in this country that now Decca has come out with a three-record set.”)

When calypso began to be featured at Cafe Society and the Village Vanguard in the summer of 1939, it naturally showed up in “Goings On About Town,” and eventually the Vanguard even took out small ads:

The New Yorker 11 May 1940

The New Yorker 11 May 1940

In 1941, Robert A. Simon was amused by the calypso that Belle Rosette (Beryl McBurnie), who had debuted at the Vanguard in December 1940, sang at one of Louise Crane’s high-concept “Coffee Concerts” at MOMA—a “South American Panorama” that also featured Elsie Houston, the Grupo Incaico, and a Haitian “Rada” group.  (“Some of the visitors may have expected terribly primitive revelations,” quipped Simon, “but the event was no more aboriginal than a good floor show.”) Belle Rosette’s offering “began with international topicality and ended with something about Bach and Toscanini discussing Calypso music.” If that report seems a tad flip, then Simon at least conceded, after a lame attempt of his own, that “manufacturing Calypso lyrics isn’t so simple as one might expect.”

Houdini’s swan song for The New Yorker was in 1944, when he made an uncredited cameo in an ad for Bell Telephone, which had begun overseas long distance service to Trinidad earlier that year (and nicked the image in the lower lefthand corner from the cover of Houdini’s above-mentioned album for Decca). Note the nod to the “Good Neighbor” policy.

New Yorker, 14 October 1944

New Yorker, 14 October 1944

The last New Yorker writer to engage with New York’s West Indians in a spirit akin to Mitchell’s was J.M. Flagler, who twice in the mid-50s called upon cricketer, Con Ed clerk, and amateur composer Joseph Willoughby as his native informant: once to comment on the West Indian Day Parade, then held on 7th Avenue in Harlem, and again to weigh in on the 1957 Calypso Craze. On the latter occasion Willoughby, who with his partner, Harlem M.D. Walter Merrick, wrote “Run, Joe,” a 1947 hit for Louis Jordan, was equivocal: “On the one hand, I stand to profit personally,” he conceded, as his songwriting services were once again in demand and three recordings of his older calypsos had been reissued. “On the other hand, I fear that the cause of calypso is not being well served artistically.” Make that cricketer, clerk, composer…and diplomat.

In more recent years, the keen and versatile Hilton Als, who joined The New Yorker in 1994, and who, in the words of Coco Fusco, was reared in Brooklyn “by uppity Caribbean matriarchs,” can be counted on periodically to shed light on things West Indian and West Indian-American (“Notes on My Mother,” excerpted from his memoir, The Women, is an early example)—although it was Ian Frazier who wrote on the Brooklyn Labor Day j’ouvert parade back in 2010.

newyorker-90th-int-2

Kadir Nelson’s cover—one of nine—for the 90th Anniversary issue of the New Yorker (via the It’s Nice That blog). Any chance Eustace has some classic calypso loaded on that smartphone?

 

 

Posted in Calypso, Calypsonians, Harlem, New York City, New York Nightclubs, The New Yorker, Wilmouth Houdini | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Premice Back in Print

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 15, 2013

premiceMost of what I know about Josephine Premice, you could find on Wikipedia.  (The rest, I stole from Ray Funk.)  Born in Brooklyn to wealthy Haitian-émigré parents, she studied dance with Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham and made her Broadway debut in 1945 in Dunham’s Blue Holiday.  (Like both her teacher and her contemporary Pearl Primus, Premice, too, studied anthropology in college.)  Just weeks earlier, she had appeared in Sierra Leonean choreographer Asadata Dafora’s second “African Dances and Modern Rhythms” recital at Carnegie Hall, a diasporic extravaganza with tap dance legend Bill Robinson, jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, and calypsonian the Duke of Iron. (She had also been in Dafora’s inaugural African Dance Festival in 1943.)  At the end of the year she joined Beryl McBurnie, the Caribbean Club Dancers, MacBeth the Great, and Gerald Clark and his Caribbean Serenaders for a gala at the Park Palace Ballroom, and in May 1946, for the third year in a row, she was part of the annual United Nations Folk Festival (as an “interpreter of Haitian songs and dances”) at the Golden Gate Ballroom, an event put on by the George Washington Carver Community School to observe “I Am an American Day.” Late that year, she embarked on a thirty-state concert tour with folksinger Josh White, a fellow cast member from Blue Holiday; the trip is described in some detail in Elijah Wald’s excellent Josh White: Society Blues.  Roger Kovach gives a firsthand account of a People’s Songs fundraising party that White and Premice attended while passing through Chicago—a Who’s Who gathering documented with a photo spread in Down Beat. In the wee hours, says Kovach, with the twenty or so remaining guests crowded into the host’s kitchen, White and Leadbelly began a vocal cutting contest:

Josephine was stretched across the kitchen table, signing an autograph for one of the guests. White looked down at her rear end and started singing “Backwater Blues” (“Hello, baby, I had to call you on the phone,” the refrain goes; “Jelly jelly, jelly’s all on my mind, Jelly roll killed my papa and made my mama blind”…)

White and Premice get a berth

Josh and the Haitian dancer Josephine Premice take ship for Europe, seen off by Josh’s wife, Carol, and his children Beverly and Josh Jr., c.1951. | Elijah Wald

Put this anecdote together with White’s reputation as a ladykiller and a contact sheet of unused photos from Wald’s biography showing White and Premice about to embark on a steamship on their way to a European tour, and you can’t help wondering whether Premice’s relationship with White was more than just professional.

Premice at the Vanguard

Portrait of Josephine Premice, Village Vanguard, N.Y., ca. July 1947 | From the William P. Gottlieb Collection of Jazz Photos, Library of Congress

Upon her return to New York, Premice began to emphasize singing over dancing, starting a run at the Village Vanguard in January 1947 that eventually extended to seven months.  (She later sang at Vanguard owner Max Gordon’s swankier East Side club, the Blue Angel, and at Greenwich Village’s forward-thinking Cafe Society.)  According to Billboard, her act included the Haitian air “Chouconne” and “Tongue-Tied Baby,” a version of Lord Kitchener’s recent carnival hit “Tie Tongue Mopsy.”

By June, Premice was part of the “enlarged cast” of an encore performance at Carnegie Hall of “The Calypso Carnival,” originally conceived as a one-off showcase for all of the calypsonians then resident in New York—Houdini, the Duke of Iron, the Great MacBeth, and Lord Invader.  (See “Ol’ Time Calypso Come Back Again, Part 3.”  The Afro-American reported that “more than 5,000 devotees of Caribbean folk lore” had missed the initial sell-out show in May and characterized Premice as “the darling of Broadway stage and smart night clubs.”)  In December, she was a featured vocalist behind the Duke of Iron in the Broadway flop Caribbean Carnival, with choreography by  Primus and McBurnie.  The New York Post’s Richard Watts, who gave the revue one of its few comparatively kind write-ups, noted that the show had some good points—among them “Josephine Premice…a fine, tall, delightful girl, who sings amusingly, engagingly and with distinction.

Ppremice_dunesremice then returned to nightclubs, sometimes sharing a bill with Josh White (the two were in fact lifelong friends), and she made the jump to concert halls in May 1948 with her debut at the Apollo Theater, which played her up as “Broadway’s Haitian Born Star.”  She broke into recording with a single for Decca in August 1949; backed by the “Calypso Rhythm Boys,” she sang “Sweetie Joe” and “I Go Siesta,” both tunes penned by expat Trinidadian bandleader and impresario Sam Manning.

Like other folk and nightclub singers of the 40s and 50s—especially ones with Caribbean connections—Premice routinely included calypso in her repertoire, and by the early 1950s she was known both here and in Europe as a “calypso specialist.”  No surprise, then, in 1954, to find her in the cast for the out-of-town previews of Harold Arlen and Truman Capote’s West Indian fantasy House of Flowers.  (She left the show before it reached Broadway, though she had a starring role in the 1968 revival.)  For the similarly exoticist Jamaica, Arlen’s 1957 collaboration with Yip Harburg, Premice was given two of the  three numbers with the strongest calypso flavor: “Yankee Dollar,” whose title and theme recall the tag line of Lord Invader’s “Rum and Coca Cola,” and “Leave de Atom Alone.”   (The third, the humorous “Push de Button,” went to headliner Lena Horne.  New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning saw Premice as the “hot flame to Horne’s cool fire.”)

Earlier in 1957, during the height of the Calypso Craze, Premice had released two albums: Caribe: Josephine Premice Sings Calypso for Verve and Calypso for GNP. Caribe‘s liner notes award her some rather exaggerated credentials, declaring her “the first American to sing calypso in this country,” then embellish her talents further with the aid of hackneyed racist tropes: “But even more than just being able to sing calypso in an authentic manner…she brings an electric excitement to every song along with a primitive, bestial kind of passion and a dramatic mood.” (When she appeared in Las Vegas at the Dunes in January 1957 with “her company of Afro-Cuban [sic] Calypsonians,” an ad in the local paper featured a bust of Premice with sensuous lips and downcast eyes framed by her own sinuously beckoning fingers, promising that the show would be “Wild! Savage! Electric! Pagan! Primitive! Passionate!”)

premice_caribepremice_calypsoWith the recent reissue of Caribe on CD (paired on a single disc with Calypso, which is also available separately as a digital download or a CD-on-demand), the entirety of Premice’s “calypso” output is back in print.  The Caribe/Calypso disc has also been pirated by the shadowy “Vintage Masters” label, with an anachronistic cover photo from the Smithsonian’s William P. Gottlieb collection.  The Jamaica original cast album, meanwhile, was re-released a decade ago on the Collectables specialty label, on a double CD with the Lena Horne/Harry Belafonte Porgy and Bess.

Posted in Beryl McBurnie, Calypso, Josephine Premice, Lena Horne, New York City, New York Nightclubs | 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: , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Art D’Lugoff, Jazz (and Calypso) Impresario

Posted by Michael Eldridge on November 15, 2009

Art D'Lugoff in 1993

Art D'Lugoff in 1993 (photo credit: Fred Conrad for the New York Times)

The news spread quickly around the jazz blogosphere last week that Art D’Lugoff, founder of New York’s legendary Village Gate, was gone at age 85.  Lee Mergner honored him at Jazz Times and Sam Stephenson marked his passing at Duke University’s Jazz Loft Project, while Marc Myers gave a salute at JazzWax and Patrick Jarenwattananon offered an appreciation at NPR’s A Blog Supreme.  The latter linked to a New York Times story from October 2008 about D’Lugoff’s re-emergence from retirement to help with programming at Le Poisson Rouge, the forward-thinking Village venue that now occupies the space of D’Lugoff’s old club.

No question: D’Lugoff was a motive force behind a pivotal epoch in jazz history.  But his musical interests were catholic: the Gate was famous for its eclectic pairings (his obituarists remember D’Lugoff for his “Salsa Meets Jazz” series, in particular), and his role in, say, fostering the 1960s Folk Revival was every bit as big as the part he played as a custodian of hard bop and post-bop.  And lest we forget: “Folk Song,” for the generation that preceded D’Lugoff, the internationalists of the 1930s and 40s, included forms like—you guessed it—calypso.  Sir Lancelot stumped for Henry Wallace, for example, while Lord Invader recorded for Moe Asch’s Disc (and later, Folkways) label.  Both were at times pulled into the circle of Pete Seeger and People’s Songs, who produced (among other things) the famous series of “Midnight Special” concerts at New York’s Town Hall, some of which showcased calypso, and one of which was documented on Rounder Records as Calypso at Midnight and Calypso After Midnight.  (Kevin Burke offers an account of that show at his splendid website, The Rum and Coca-Cola Reader.)

Steel Band Clash Flier

Flier for a 1956 concert produced by Art D'Lugoff (courtesy Art D'Lugoff)

Art D’Lugoff wasn’t part of People’s Songs:  he was too young, for one thing, and by the time he became professionally active, the Songsters were being hounded by HUAC.  Still, he was a fellow-traveler, and Seeger & Co. made an impression on him; in any event, like them, he saw calypso’s popular appeal.  By the mid-1950s he, too, was producing calypso concerts, first as part of his own “Midnight Special” series (a moveable feast at the Actor’s Playhouse and elsewhere), then as “Calypso at Carnegie”—two, three, and sometimes four shows a week, for ten solid months from August 1956 through May 1957.  During this period his Festival Productions also managed and promoted several West Indian acts, including the Duke of Iron, Lord Burgess (Irving Burgie, who wrote or co-wrote most of Harry Belafonte’s Calypso album), Lloyd Thomas, Johnny Barracuda, Massie Patterson, and Muriel Gaines, as well as the Virgin Islands Merrymakers and Rudy King‘s “King Rudolph’s Trinidad Steel Band,” between whom he frequently staged “Steel Band Clashes.”

I had the pleasure of talking with D’Lugoff one Spring morning in 2003, in the kitchen of his upper West Side apartment, a spacious place filled with books, music, memorabilia and file cabinets.  Our conversation was interrupted by a steady stream of phone calls and doorbell buzzes, and like the rest of the world, we were distracted by certain other external events, as well.  (That very day, the warmongers in Washington were marching into Iraq; two days later, 300,000 New Yorkers would march down Broadway in protest.)  But D’Lugoff was delightfully voluble, eccentric, and generous, just the same; whenever he remembered something in his files that I must have, he would hastily excuse himself, then reappear a minute or two later with yet another manila folder or sheaf of photocopies hot off the industrial-strength xerox machine that occupied most of the pantry.

I’m away from home and my own file cabinets for a spell, and consequently I don’t have access to my interview tapes and transcripts.  Until I get back to California, then, have a look at this excellent interview with Marc Myers (Part 1 | Part 2).

Brochure for Festival Presentations

Brochure for Festival Presentations, 1957 (courtesy Art D’Lugoff)

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Posted in Art D'Lugoff, Calypso, Folk Song Revival, New York Nightclubs, People's Songs | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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