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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Posts Tagged ‘harlem’

Harlem’s Calypso Renaissance

Posted by Michael Eldridge on April 20, 2015

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

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

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

From DigitalHarlem.org

Screenshot from DigitalHarlem.org

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

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

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

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

New York Amsterdam News, 2 March 1946

New York Amsterdam News, 2 March 1946

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

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

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

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

Afro-American (National Edition) 12 July 1947

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

Poster for an all-night Christmas Eve

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

IMG_0426 (corrected)

Poster for Bastille Day Ball, 1950

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

More on the Renaissance Theater, Ballroom and Casino:

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

Ol’ Time Calypso Come Back Again, Part 3

Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 3, 2012

A couple of months ago, the internet did one of those things it’s meant to do (but rarely does): it served up a huge cultural treasure, indexed, annotated, and easy to use.

The Association for Cultural Equity, founded in 1983 by musicologist Alan Lomax and housed at Hunter College in Manhattan, exists “to explore and preserve the world’s expressive traditions with humanistic commitment and scientific engagement.”  Its enlightened mission: to “preserve, publish, repatriate and freely disseminate our collections.”  (You can read the full statement here.)  Those collections include the Alan Lomax Archive—a “priceless” (and staggering) trove “of recorded music, dance, and the spoken word” begun in 1946.  So far, the online archive includes over “17,000 free full-streaming audio field-recordings, totaling over eight hundred hours […]; scans of 5,000 photographic prints and negatives; sixteen hours of vintage radio transcriptions; and ninety hours of interviews, discussions, and lectures”—with more to come.

Ticket to Calypso at Carnegie

Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Lord Invader

Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, and Lord Invader. Afro-American (National Edition), 4 May 1946.

For calypso fans, the earliest item in the archive is also one of the best: the complete tapes of the December, 1946 People’s Songs “Midnight Special” concert at New York’s Town Hall, previously released on Rounder Records as Calypso at Midnight and Calypso After Midnight.  (Chris Smith penned a smart review of those CDs for Musical Traditions magazine, while Kevin Burke provides historical context at The Rum and Coca-Cola Reader.)  The concert’s front page leads to a track-by-track rundown; clicking on each track’s title yields an audio player and full recording details, with credits and scholarly notes by Don Hill and John Cowley.

Pearl Primus in "Calypso"

Philadelphia Bulletin, 19 October 1947 (courtesy Ray Funk)

The “Calypso at Midnight” show paved the way for a series of high-profile calypso concerts in New York over the next twelve months: at Carnegie Hall (as part of the Carnegie “Pop” Concerts series in May and June 1947), Town Hall and Carnegie Hall again (both in October 1947), and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (late 1947 and early 1948), and it probably emboldened Sam Manning to rush into production an ill-fated Broadway revue.  (That show, which previewed in Philly and Boston as “Calypso” and opened as “Caribbean Carnival” on December 5, 1947 at the International Theatre on Columbus Circle, closed after just eleven performances.  Although it was billed as the “First Calypso Musical Ever Presented,” that distinction arguably belonged to Katherine Dunham‘s similarly short-lived “Carib Song” from 1945.  [See Darrel Karl’s Keeping Score for recording histories of “Carib Song” and “Caribbean Carnival.”])

Calypso @ BAM

New York Times, 30 November 1947

According to the Afro-American, the May 8th, 1947 Pop Concert at Carnegie “saw more than 5,000 devotees of Caribbean folk lore unable to gain admission,” which meant that “by popular demand,” a second show (“with an enlarged cast”) had to be scheduled for June 9.[1]  Of “Calypso at Midnight,” the socialist Daily Worker had noted somewhat patronizingly that “[i]t has never been more noticeable that the first laughter and applause [for the calypsonians’ bons mots] comes from the uppermost reaches of the balcony.”[2]  (Meanwhile, calypso continued to draw crowds at clubs in Harlem and at other African-American gathering spots uptown like the Golden Gate Ballroom, the Park Palace, and the Renaissance Casino.  [See “Bop Guy Goes Calypso.”])

Lomax Geo Archive“Calypso at Midnight” isn’t the only item in the ACE archive of interest to calypso enthusiasts: Lomax traveled extensively throughout the Caribbean in 1962, and everything he recorded there has been placed online, indexed by session, date, and place.  That same material is also searchable via the Lomax Geo Archive, an ingenious tool that, with the aid of customized Google Maps, lets you retrace Lomax’s itinerary point by point and listen to the field recordings from each stop.  (The above link is centered on Port-of-Spain, but you can resize and/or recenter the map on any locale.)  There’s also a special feature on Lomax’s work in Grenada and Carriacou, and a little searching and sifting turns up all of Growling Tiger’s performances at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival.

So why aren’t other archives—at universities, research libraries, the BBC, the CBC—doing (more of) this?  They’re all sitting on collections that, if they were only made freely accessible, could enrich the world’s cultural patrimony.  You can supply the answers: not enough money, not enough staff, not enough resources.  (I get it: I work at a state-funded institution savaged by repeated budget cuts, too.)  Copyright mazes.  Possessiveness.  Inertia.  Etc., etc.  But ultimately it’s a matter of institutional will.  Copyright?  There are workarounds, there are people of good will, there’s public shaming.  Money, staff, resources?  Crowd-source it—either the financing and/or the labor. (There are plenty more scholar-drones like me out there who’d be glad to do some “hive” work in The Cloud.)

And you private collectors: ars longa, vita brevis.  You can’t take it with you.  It couldn’t be easier to start a blog.  Channel your OCD into something beneficial.  Get to work sorting, scanning, and digitizing, even if it’s only for 15 minutes a week.  I’ll begin:

  • Carnegie Hall program booklet, “Cla-Mac of Trinidad Inc Presents | Its First in a Series of Authentic Calypso Concerts | On Sunday Evening, Oct. 12th, 1947; 8:30 p.m. Sharp | At Carnegie Hall, 57th St. & 7th Ave.”
  • Flyer, “People’s Songs Inc Presents | The Midnight Special at Town Hall | A Series of American-Folk Music Concerts under the Supervision of Alan Lomax | Calypso at Midnight | Gerald Clark and Band | Lord Invader | Duke of Iron | Macbeth the Great | Town Hall, Saturday Dec. 21, 11:30 p.m. [illustration by David S Martin]”
  • And:
Carnegie Pops Calypso Town Hall Calypso Carnival Manning's Caribbean Carnival
L-R: New York Amsterdam News, 3 May 1947 | New York Amsterdam News, 15 October 1947 (courtesy Ray Funk) | New York Times, 30 November 1947

[1] “Calypso Carnival in Demand Encore.”  Afro-American, nat’l ed. 7 June 1947: 8.
[2] Murray Chase, “Music in Review.”  Daily Worker 24 December 1946: 11.

Posted in Alan Lomax, Association for Cultural Equity, Calypso at Midnight | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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 »

 
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