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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for the ‘Sonny Rollins’ 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


Screenshot from

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:

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

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