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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Posts Tagged ‘Jazz’

Roswell Rudd

Posted by Michael Eldridge on December 23, 2017


“You blow in this end of the trombone and sound comes out the other end and disrupts the cosmos.”
—Roswell Rudd

As a lapsed trombonist and a jazz fan for most of my adult life, I can’t help having a healthy respect for Roswell Rudd, even if his music rarely spends much time in my CD player. Known for his “free” playing, Rudd, who died Thursday, just a month after his 82nd birthday, was actually a musical omnivore with very big ears. In late life, especially, he made good on his work as a musicological researcher for Alan Lomax, collaborating with musicians from across the African diaspora. He never wrote anything even vaguely calypso-ish, as far as I know—Rudd fanatics, correct me if I’m overlooking something—though he did record with Puerto Rican cuatro master Yamo Toro. What I respect most about Rudd, maybe, is his lifelong championing of his mentor Herbie Nichols, whose music occasionally shows the oblique influence of his Trini and St. Kittian parentage (and of the San Juan Hill and Harlem neighborhoods where he grew up). Without Rudd’s evangelizing, Nichols’s work might still be languishing in the shadows.

Here’s Rudd, with Greg Millar and John Bacon, Jr., covering Nichols’s “Jamaica”:

More reading/listening:

Posted in Alan Lomax, Herbie Nichols, Roswell Rudd, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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 »

Reblogging: Jazz, Calypso and Other Radical Moves

Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 5, 2013

First, some plain old links.  The estimable Marc Myers, author (most recently) of Why Jazz Happened and custodian of JazzWax, one of my daily destinations in the jazz blogosphere, yesterday wrote about Jamaica Jazz, the 1957 album of tunes from the Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg Broadway musical Jamaica, arranged for the Don Elliott Octet by the great Gil Evans.  (I myself made a passing and unfairly dismissive reference to the disc a year ago; see “Le Jazz Primitif.”)  The show, which, as Myers describes it, depicts a small Caribbean island “trying to keep from being overrun by American commercial interests,” was primed if not exactly provoked by the Calypso Craze of that same year—Belafonte was originally meant to play the lead role, in fact—and it featured Lena Horne, Ricardo Montalban, and Josephine Premice, the subject of my previous post, singing some saucily calypsoesque tunes.  (Trying to keep from being overrun by American commercial interests, eh?  Good luck with that.)  Myers, whose blog is often browser-challengingly photo-heavy, includes a lovely shot of Premice with co-star Ossie Davis.

Next, some genuine reblogging, also about calypso and jazz and the ironies of cultural imperialism.  Over the weekend, Lisa Paravisini’s indispensable Caribbean culture aggre-blog Repeating Islands re-posted John Cline’s LARB review of Laura Putnam’s new book, Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age.  Putnam focuses on the “counterpublics” of the circum-Caribbean, particulary West Indians working abroad in Central America and their role in catalyzing the anti-colonial movements of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.  (Lest we think globalization is only about the inexorable triumph of Western capitalism.)  For my part, I’ll just repeat a couple of key paragraphs from Cline’s review:

In chapters on the black press and music within the circum-Caribbean, Putnam extends her earlier point about the “forgotten editors of port-town newspapers” to conclude that:

As British Caribbean migrants spread outward, they linked local publishing with Atlantic- and empire-wide media circuits to create an internationally connected black press, newspapers densely woven into community life but looking out across the globe.

A rift existed between those editors and the young “regge” dancers [of Port Limón, Costa Rica], a conflict between the “high” and the “low” culture of the imagined community. But it is through both these discourses that circum-Caribbean counterpublics were linked to the rest of the Black Atlantic. Newspapers in Port Limón, Costa Rica, and Panama frequently republished articles from newspapers like The Chicago Defender within days of their initial publication. (United Fruit’s fleet of boats was certainly useful in this regard.) Without this media network and its political concerns, it’s difficult to imagine how the crowning of Ras Tafari as Haile Selassie I could have been transmuted into religious beliefs among poor, rural Jamaicans. Putnam, too, makes a convincing argument that “jazz” and the “Jazz Age” was the result of more than just New Orleans, Chicago, and Harlem. In particular, she astutely observes that while few jazz musicians in Harlem were West Indians, the owners and managers of the venues they played frequently were — as was their audience, which constituted a significant portion of Harlem’s black population in the 1920s and 1930s. Through the same networks that brought occultism and black newspapers from the United States to the circum-Caribbean, traveling US jazz musicians had a significant impact on the development of later West Indian music, from Trinidadian calypso to Jamaican ska. Although Radical Moves only infrequently touches on West Indian immigration to New York, Putnam does mention the calypsonian Wilmoth Houdini, whose colleagues included the Duke of Iron and a son of Caribbean immigrants calling himself “The Charmer,” better known today as Louis Farrakhan. Houdini’s 1939 “He Had It Coming” was rearranged by Louis Jordan as “Stone Cold Dead in the Market,” sung by Ella Fitzgerald in 1946. This single initiated a run of five #1 R&B singles in a row for Jordan, a feat never since repeated. “Stone Cold Dead in the Market” and its fellows “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” and “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” are key moments in the transition from big band to rock ‘n’ roll, revealing a Caribbean ancestry within that most “American” of musics.

And then, in the spirit of solipsistic self-referentiality that animates the web, I’ll point you back to some of my own thoughts on jazz and calypso as popular musics in 1940s New York.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Radical Moves

Posted in Calypso, Josephine Premice, Lena Horne, Wilmouth Houdini | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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 »

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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