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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Posts Tagged ‘gerald clark’

Anniversary LXXX

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

New_Masses_Duke_Ball

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

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

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

NYJA_Trinidad_Calypso_003_crop

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

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

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:

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

Chenk’s Calypso: The Duke of Iron on the Air

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 7, 2014

The Duke of Iron (Cecil Anderson).  PM, 27 June 1940.

The Duke of Iron (Cecil Anderson). PM (New York), 27 June 1940.

When I first wrote about Oscar Brand’s patronage of calypso back in November 2013, I hadn’t yet visited the New York Public Radio Archives, whose pleasantly cluttered offices take up the back corner of one floor of NYPR’s new (well, comparatively new) headquarters on Varick Street in SoHo.  On a trip there in January, I discovered—with a huge assist from Director Andy Lanset and Senior Archivist Marcos Suiero Bal—that Brand wasn’t the first at WNYC to help boost calypso’s fortunes.  Before the war, a progressive young producer named Henrietta Yurchenco (“Chenk”) showcased the Duke of Iron on at least a half-dozen installments of Adventures in Music before giving him his own show, Calypso, over the fall and winter of 1940-41.

Andy came up with a notebook containing about 20 scripts for Calypso that Yurchenco left to the station—she died in 2007—while Marcos, with help from Andy and the Smithsonian’s Jeff Place, tracked down a broadcast transcription of one of the shows.  (It was made by Moe Asch, who regularly set up his Presto in front of the radio and recorded off the air onto acetate discs.  Over several decades, he amassed a few thousand hours’ worth of such recordings.) I penned a few paragraphs contextualizing the program, and WNYC posted the whole package to their blog on April 25th.  The indispensable Repeating Islands kindly picked it up a few days later.

The free version of WordPress still won’t let you embed most audio players, and I don’t want to steal WNYC’s thunder anyway.  So, first:

There’s lots more calypso-related material in the Archives, and with Marcos and Andy’s indulgence, I’ll be contributing two more posts about it to the WNYC blog.  In the meantime, since I can afford to be a bit more reckless with graphics (and more profligate with words) than they can, here are some additional supporting materials for the first post.

Gerald Clark and His Calypso Orchestra, with vocals by the Duke of Iron, "Walter Winchell."  The charismatic columnist and radio commentator ("Flash!") was a favorite with calypsonians.  The admiration was mutual: Winchell sometimes plugged the singers in his columns.

Gerald Clark and His Calypso Orchestra; vocal by the Duke of Iron, “Walter Winchell” (Varsity 8130, 1940). The charismatic columnist and radio commentator (“Flash!”) was a favorite with calypsonians. The admiration was mutual: Winchell plugged the singers in his columns.  This tune and three others were recorded in December 1939, at the end of the Calypso Recorders’ initial ten-week run at the Village Vanguard. You can “watch” it on YouTube.

The first page of Paul Kresh's draft script for "Adventures in Music," June 27, 1940

The first page of Paul Kresh’s draft script for “Adventures in Music,” June 27, 1940

PM (New York), 30 July 1940. The figure behind the mask is probably Bill Matons, a/k/a “The Calypso Kid” (later “Calypso Joe”), a Wisconsinite who abandoned a career in modern dance for his own brand of interpretive “calypso” dance, and who led a small troupe that accompanied Gerald Clark and the Calypso Recorders at the Vanguard shows.  A pantomime performed to Atilla the Hun’s famous “Roosevelt in Trinidad” was one of his staples. Matons also claimed to have coached the calypsonians in dramatic technique, and he may have served as the entire group’s business manager as well. For WNYC’s “Calypso” he was a sort of liaison, taking listener requests and suggestions.

The Duke of Iron (center) and his Trinidad Calypso Troubadors, preparing for an engagement at the Pago Pago Club, New York, January 1941. The "Calypso Kid" (Bill Matons; see above) and his dancers joined the Duke for this engagement.  Credit: New York Journal-American Photo Morgue, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. Special thanks to Linda Briscoe Myers.

The Duke of Iron (center) and his Trinidad Calypso Troubadors, preparing for an engagement at the Pago Pago Club, New York, January 1941. The “Calypso Kid” (Bill Matons; see above) and his dancers joined the Duke on this engagement. Credit: New York Journal-American Photo Morgue, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. Special thanks to Linda Briscoe Myers.

Finally, see an article in the April 8, 1940 issue of Life magazine entitled “Old Calypso Songs from Trinidad Are Now Becoming a U.S. Fad,” which includes a photo of the Duke of Iron with clarinetist Gregory Felix and an unidentified figure, possibly at the Village Vanguard.

Sources and acknowledgments:

The quotes in the opening paragraph of the WNYC blog piece come mainly from Henrietta Yurchenko’s 2002 memoir Around the World in 80 Years, though the “microphone from a monkey wrench” crack is taken from a 1999 interview with Emily Botein on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday.  Additional biographical details were gleaned from obituaries in the New York Times and the London Guardian.

Other factual information in my account is drawn from archival research and contemporary periodicals, though like every calypso researcher I’m deeply indebted to the pioneering work of Don Hill, in particular his 1993 book Calypso Callaloo and his 1998 essay “‘I Am Happy Just to Be in This Sweet Land of Liberty’: The New York City Calypso Craze of the 1930s and 1940s,” and to the meticulous research of John Cowley, especially his 2006 essay “West Indies Blues.”

Big thanks once again to Andy Lanset and Marcos Sueiro Bal at the NYPR/WNYC Archives for their generous hospitality (and, to Marcos, for his deft editing).  Thanks, too, to Jeff Place at Smithsonian Folkways and to the staff of the New York Public Library, especially those at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the research collections of the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

Posted in Duke of Iron, Moe Asch, WNYC | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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