Working for the Yankee Dollar

Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

  • Recently Minted

  • Spent Dollars

  • Search the Treasury:

  • Denominations

  • Creative Commons

Posts Tagged ‘macbeth the great’

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:

Advertisements

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

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.

blue_angel_postcard

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 »

Calypso Couture

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 22, 2014

With Memorial Day—the unofficial start of summer—creeping up on us here in the States, I figure it’s time to thaw out the piece on “Calypso Fashion” that I put on ice last fall.

In the spring and summer of 1957, when calypso was in vogue, calypso was…well, maybe not in Vogue, but nearly everywhere else.  In a March story about the coming flood, the United Press reported that “U.S. designers, going along with the calypso craze, are turning out everything from sports to jewelry in the styles and hot colors of the Caribbean.”1 American and Canadian department stores, especially, lost no time in promoting seasonal lines of “calypso” clothing.  Their efforts often amounted to little more than dressing up pedal-pushers, espadrilles and Bermuda shorts in new names: “Slim-Jim” trousers would now be known as “Trinidadians,” revealed the UP, while so-called “Jamaica” shorts were “longer than briefs, shorter than Bermudas.” Generically “tropical” fabrics and motifs—khaki and seersucker, stripes and frills—prevailed.  The tone of an INS wire story was more jaded, less gee-whiz: “‘Calypso’ looks pretty much like ‘Rhumba,’ ‘Matador,’ and other south-of-the-border fashion trends,” it shrugged.

For instance, a “calypso” outfit has to include a ruffled shirt, like last year’s popular matador shirts. Instead of a buttoned-up collar, however, “calypso” is worn lazily open. Sleeves are three-quarter length instead of wrist-length, and the ruffles are droopier.

“Calypso” ruffles can go any which way, not just up and down. You can stitch them to a scoop neckline or let them slide down the shoulder seam. The only requirement is that you have lots of them, preferably all over.2

Detail from the New York Times Sunday Magazine, 5 May 1942.  "The swirling folds of a calypso dancer's frock are echoed in the red and white striped glazed chintz."

Detail from the New York Times Magazine, 5 May 1942, p. 21. “The swirling folds of a calypso dancer’s frock are echoed in the red and white striped glazed chintz.”

1957-07-12 Desert News A5 Calypso LipstickWhile you wouldn’t know it from their hackneyed ad-copy (full of awful “calypso-ese” rhymes and blather about  gay colors and carefree living), the fashion industry had actually done one or two dry runs before ’57.  As early as 1942, in fact, in the wake of the first New York City calypso “boom,” the New York Times Sunday magazine ran a two-page pictorial surveying the work of New York designers who had turned the “vibrant tones that mingle on the Latin American palette” and the “richly imaginative native art and costumes of Mexico and Guatemala” into “a genuine source of fashion material” for North American women.  As for the Caribbean in particular: it obligingly “sends us its lush colors. From the dancers whose feet patter in ceaseless rhythm we have taken the drape of skirts that sway to sinuous movements.”3 Keep in mind that this was a full two years before the invention of Chiquita Banana—though not before the “invention” of Carmen Miranda, obviously.  The garish outfit supposedly available at Bonwit Teller (see photo at left) surely owed at least a small debt to the Brazilian Bombshell, although the more immediate inspiration may have been Judy Garland’s get-up in the previous year’s Ziegfield Follies, where, crowned with a bizarre phallic headdress, Garland sang the corny cautionary tale of Calypso Joe and “Minnie from Trinidad.”

The clichés about tropical tones and sinuous frills persisted.  In April 1945, as “Rum and Coca Cola” dominated the Hit Parade, Brooklyn’s Russek’s department store presented “Carry On at the Country Club in Calypso Casuals” as part of its “Suddenly Summer” fashion show at the Hotel St. Regis. (The “‘take it easy’ shirts and skirt dresses, influenced by the romantic costumes of the famous singers of Trinidad, were shown in Caribbean canary….”) The Seamprufe company, as I mentioned last fall (“Giving Calypso the Slip“), was already trying to get its “calypso colors” into women’s frilly things—er, intimate apparel—in 1949. SoCal’s “The Broadway” department stores reprised that campaign eight years on, with stockings that promised a “rich, riotous loot [sic] of sun and fun in color influenced by the Calypso craze.”  “We borrow these happy tones from the West Indies,” Broadway’s admen explained, “and bring them to the sheer realm of hosiery.” In the realm of cosmetics, Max Factor hyped its new “CaLYPso Beat” lipstick as a “laughing color” of “happy character”: “It sways to a rhythm that’s excitingly sweet / Dances on your lips in Calypso Beat.”  And while it concerned itself with curls, not frills, the Antoine Salon in Toronto, advertising its “Calypso Permanent” (“You’ll beat the drums for it”), promised a “magic Voodoo to the way our haircutters scissor this new cut that gives you the native loveliness of an Island beauty.”

Seamprufe’s visual motif of the barefoot, straw-hatted (and, need I point out? dark-skinned) troubadors serenading the elegant white lady from a safe distance also survived.  It appears, for instance, in a 1955 ad for Saks Fifth Avenue (“Calypso Nights,” below), touting casual evening dresses by the Bermudian designer Polly Hornburg, a former fashion model and colonial culture-vulture who made her name selling “tropical” couture to the international jet-set out of her chain of  “Calypso” shops in Bermuda and Jamaica.  The daughter of one of the island’s top (Anglo) hoteliers, Hornburg set up her flagship boutique in 200-year-old slave quarters in the colonial capital of Hamilton. To quote Jamaica Kincaid: There’s a world of something in this, but I don’t have time to go into it right now….

Detail from New York Herald Tribune, 30 November 1955.

Detail from New York Herald Tribune, 30 November 1955.

Two years later, in the midst of the Craze, those same stylized figures, all white teeth against dark skin, were beating out the “rhythm of summer” for Simpson’s department store in Toronto.  (“Imagine the startling clarity of black and white,” the ad read, “…in staccato squares and gay polka-dots, against your suntanned summer skin…”)

(Toronto) Globe and Mail, 7 May 1957.

(Toronto) Globe and Mail, 7 May 1957.

But well-heeled (white) women weren’t the only target audience for calypso-themed fashion.  By 1957, it was mostly middle-class suburbanites who were being invited to enjoy—symbolically, anyway—the “light-hearted abandon” that typified the Islands, to answer their “irresistible invitation to lazy living” by donning a Marianne Blouse or a Calypso Sway Skirt.  The call included black burghers, too, although their pitch had a slightly earthier spin: in a two-page “Modern Living” spread, Chicago’s Jet magazine, known nationally as “the Negro bible,” featured its cover girl modeling examples of the “calypso blouse, which has captured the fun, excitement and romance of a full-blown Caribbean carnival.”  Its “frothy ruffles,” bare midriffs, and “air-cooled lacy necklines,” Jet glossed, were “all so typical of the carefree calypso life.”

Jet, May 1957

Jet, 16 May 1957

Meanwhile, an ad in the teen-oriented Dig magazine tried desperately to appeal to young males with a figure that looked as if Ricky Nelson were torn between joining a barbershop quartet and the Lecuona Cuban Boys. “Hey, Mr. Tally-Man,” it suavely exhorted young hipsters, “don’ be a bu-bu. When daily-lite [sic] come down by the sea-side, be sure you’re siftin’ sand in the new A-1 Beachers” (the jean company’s latest clam-diggers).  As for Dig-readers’ dads: a January 1958 full-page ad for Simpson’s encouraged male snowbirds “Going South” to buy Enid Mosier’s Hi-Fi Calypso LP and stock up on madras shirts, Dacron dinner jackets, and sport coats and Bermuda shorts in linen and space-age “Terylene.”

Children were thought to be especially susceptible to calypso’s call: even in 1955, “Calypso” playclothes were meant to satisfy the pre-teen’s demand for “copies of big sister’s styles,” while young boys in 1957, it was imagined, would find “Calypso” clothes “Crazy, man, crazy!”

Detail from Buffalo Courier-Express, 2 June 1957.

Detail from Buffalo Courier-Express, 2 June 1957.

(Toronto) Globe and Mail, 1 March 1955.

(Toronto) Globe and Mail, 1 March 1955.

Where were the calypsonians in all this?  The Duke of Iron, of course, had already sung about ladies’ lingerie. MacBeth the Great’s band had been hired occasionally to play for society fashion shows over the preceding decade; so had Duke’s. But while both men had plenty of sartorial flair, neither is known to have plugged “calypso” sportswear, say, or to have registered any opinion whatsoever about calypso-branded fashion.

Another natty dresser who dabbled in calypso did.  Fred Astaire, who at the height of the Craze recorded the dismissively ironic “Calypso Hooray,” was interviewed by Richard Hublar for a profile in GQ, “The Astute Astaire: “Asked about the so-called Calypso influence in sportswear, Astaire replied cheerily: ‘I sincerely trust that there is none whatsoever.’”

You can view more examples of Calypso Craze Fashion, including a full-color ad for Max Factor’s “CaLYPso Beat” and the ad described above for A-1 Manufacturing Co.’s “Beachers” pants, in the online preview for Bear Family’s Calypso Craze box set.


References:

1 Gay Pauley, “Caribbean Colors, Calypso Styles Form Latest Trend.” Schenectady Gazette 28 March 1957: 32.  An abbreviated version of the story appeared on the Women’s page (“The Distaff Side”) of the Toronto Star (20 March 1957: 31) as “Calypso Craze Hits Fashion Designers.”

2 “Calypso Beat Is Taking Over In Styles As Well As Music.”  Toronto Star 18 March 1957: 25.

3 Virginia Pope, “From Exotic Climes.” New York Times Magazine 5 May 1942: 20-2.

Posted in Calypso, Fashion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Brand-Name Calypso

Posted by Michael Eldridge on November 14, 2013

Oscar Brand (WNYC Archives | ©WNYC)

Things have a way of hiding out on the Internet.  Case in point: these three-year-old YouTube posts of excerpts from a 1959 episode of Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival.  The legendary lefty/balladeer/recording artist/author/producer’s program has aired weekly on WNYC since December 1945 (!)—which makes Brand a legendary broadcaster above all, I guess.  (And did I mention “nonagenarian“? Go ahead: think of anybody—anybody—in North American folk music over the past 70 years.  They’ve almost certainly been on Folksong Festival.)

Like his 1940s fellow travelers in “People’s Songs,” an organization to which, like all groups, he belonged only ambivalently, Brand has always taken a broad view of folk music, which means that he has occasionally showcased calypso on his program.  (He even wrote and sang one—”Small Boat Calypso”—for his 1960 album Boating Songs and All That Bilge.  I confess I haven’t heard it, though given Brand’s weakness for comic and bawdy songs, I wouldn’t want to vouch for its authenticity.)

The Duke of Iron’s first appearances on WNYC precede Brand by more than half a decade, and in his sophomore date on June 27th, 1940 (as reported by the left-leaning daily PM), the Harlem-based calypsonian unveiled an ode to the public station and its patron saint, Hizzoner:

P.M. (New York), 27 June 1940

P.M. (New York), 27 June 1940

Station WNYC
Yes, WNYC, it is owned by the people of N. Y. C.

[…]

You have heard of that great little fighter
And I mean our Mayor LaGuardia
Who for days and nights of much deliberation
Fought for the existence of his pet station.
We look up to him as the godfather
For without his aid we couldn’t get so far.
Through his efforts you would be glad to hear
We’ll be on the air for another year.

Still, given the Duke’s pre-eminence on the New York scene, not to mention his own occasional involvement with the People’s Songsters, it’s a safe bet that he eventually took part in Brand’s Festival, too.  [Update, April 2014: he did indeed—and more, besides.  Stay tuned.]

L-R: Josh White, Oscar Brand, Lord Burgess, ca. 1954 (WNYC Archives | ©WNYC)

At left is Brand with folksinger Josh White and calypsonian Lord Burgess, né Irving Burgie, the man behind Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song” and dozens of other Caribbe-ish tunes.  (The photo probably dates from around 1954, after Burgie had made an LP for Stinson Records and was playing a six-week date at the Village Vanguard.)  And below are the excerpts from that undated 1959 show, when MacBeth the Great was two years dead but his namesake Orchestra lived on, under the leadership of brother Pelham Fritz, who went on to a long career as a New York City Parks & Recreation official.  (Bandmember Claude “Fats” Greene would later take the helm before striking out on his own.)

The first tune is a cover of Sparrow’s prize-winning, animal-rights-oriented take on the Sputnik panic, “Russian Satellite.”  In the second, the band is joined by Lord Invader, who skewers segregationist Governor Orville Faubus in his original composition, “Crisis in Arkansas.”

______________________________________________

You can find “legitimate” archival audio from Folksong Festival at WNYC’s website.

Several items from Fats Greene’s discography on Cab & Camille records are also floating around on YouTube, and they’re all well worth a listen: “Justina,” “Senorita,” “Calypsorama,” and “Shake ‘M Up.”

Posted in Calypso, Duke of Iron, Lord Burgess, Lord Invader, MacBeth the Great, Oscar Brand, Uncategorized, WNYC | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Ralph MacDonald, 1944-2011

Posted by Michael Eldridge on December 18, 2011

Ralph MacDonald (KickMag.net)

Ralph MacDonald (KickMag.net)

I learned this morning from the “Limers” discussion group that percussionist, composer, and arranger Ralph MacDonald had passed–too soon–at age 67.  MacDonald may be best known to the wider world as the co-writer of two R&B classics, the Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway duet “Where Is The Love” and Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Just the Two of Us,” with vocals by Bill Withers.  Denizens of the dancefloor and citizens of the hip-hop nation, meanwhile, will remember him for the old-school breakbeat sample from “Jam on the Groove” and for Saturday Night Fever’s Calypso Breakdown.”

Calypso Carnival

Calypso Carnival (RCA, 1971)

MacDonald didn’t come by his “calypso” credentials casually.  The son of Trini-born, New York-based calypsonian MacBeth the Great (Patrick MacDonald), he was an accomplished pannist who at age 17 started a decade-long stint as Harry Belafonte’s arranger and music director, eventually writing much of the latter’s Calypso Carnival album.  With pan master Robert Greenidge, he also brought a touch of authenticity to Jimmy Buffett’s “Coral Reefer” band.  (Greenidge, MacDonald, and fellow Reefers also performed and recorded independently as “Club Trini,” while MacDonald himself released eleven albums as a leader.)

“Extensive” doesn’t do justice to MacDonald’s list of sideman credits.  As the New York Times noted, he was “the ghost” behind dozens of 1970s radio hits.  His percussion flavors albums by everyone from jazz lions like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Joe Henderson, and Ron Carter; pop stars Bette Midler, Don McLean, and Paul Simon; and R&B icons Aretha Franklin, Teddy Pendergrass, and Ashford & Simpson.  (As for his calypso bona fides: he also answered calls from David Rudder and the Mighty Sparrow.)

More recent collaborators include the late Amy Winehouse; “When Steel Talks” caught a 2008 appearance with the Caribbean All Stars on video (HQ version here).  But my favorite recent performance of MacDonald’s is on Kaiso, the splendid album that Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles released earlier this year.  He’s featured prominently on this sweet, soaring cover of Kitch’s “Sugar Bum Bum”:

Now he’s beating percussion with the ancestors.  Rest in peace, Ralph MacDonald.

_______________________________

Posted in MacBeth the Great, Ralph MacDonald | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

“If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me.”

Posted by Michael Eldridge on August 14, 2011

MacBeth the Great (Patrick MacDonald)

MacBeth the Great (Patrick MacDonald), probably at Renaissance Ballroom, July 1947 | From the William P. Gottlieb Collection of Jazz Photos, Library of Congress

I keep coming across bits of trivia I can’t believe I haven’t stumbled upon before.  I already knew, thanks in part to Garl Jefferson, something of how calypso shared fans and venues with bebop in late 1940s Harlem.  Turns out they even shared bills.  Here’s a lovely anecdote from a famous piece previously unbeknownst to me, Paul Bacon’s “The High Priest of Bebop: The Inimitable Mr. Monk” (published originally in The Record Changer in 1949, it was reprinted in Rob Van der Bliek’s Thelonious Monk Reader):

There is, in Harlem, a monstrous barn of a dance-hall called the “Golden Gate”; quite a number of affairs are produced there every year, and the usual system is to have two alternating bands working–in the last few years the two bands have been one bop group and one Calypso band.  (There are a couple of remarkable calypso bands in New York, playing a real powerhouse music which is closer to Harlem in 1928 than Trinidad in any year.) The occasion I’m thinking of took place there in 1947…Macbeth’s calypso contingent shared the stand with a bop sextet fronted by Monk; the boppers were second in line, so, after a long set by Macbeth, Monk’s band wandered desultorily to the stand.

Monk fussed with the piano, discovering that it was a pretty venerable instrument…Close examination showed him that the pedal post was shakily attached; he jiggled the whole piano apprehensively, then shrugged his shoulders and concentrated on some music left behind by Macbeth’s pianist.

A little later I became aware that Thelonious was doing something extraordinary…as I watched, mesmerised, I saw that he was yanking at the pedal post with all his might (first he kept up with the band by reaching up with his right hand to strike an occasional chord, but he had to apply himself to the attack on the post with both hands, and get his back into it, too). There was a slight crack, a ripping sound, and off came the whole works, to be flung aside as Monk calmly resumed playing.  He never looked at it again, but when Macbeth’s man came back on the stand he stopped short, stunned.  It was obvious that here was a new experience, something outside the ken of a rational man; for the rest of the evening he looked upon Thelonious with a new respect.

Thelonious Monk by William Gottlieb

Thelonious Monk at Minton’s Playhouse, ca. September 1947 | From the William P. Gottlieb Collection of Jazz Photos, Library of Congress

(Bacon, the designer of dozens of classic albums for Blue Note and Riverside in the 1950s and one of Monk’s early journalistic champions–jazz nerd and Down Beat writer/photograph Bill Gottlieb was another–was interviewed at length last year by Marc Myers for his blog JazzWax.)

So Monk’s Caribbean connection wasn’t just second-hand.  He grew up in San Juan Hill, an African-American neighborhood on Manhattan’s west side with a heavy West Indian presence.  As Robin D. G. Kelley tells it in his magisterial biography of Monk, “With the music, cuisine, dialects, and manners of the Caribbean and the American South everywhere in [San Juan Hill], virtually every kid became a kind of cultural hybrid,” and on the radio, at block parties, and through his neighbors’ victrolas, Monk inevitably “absorbed Caribbean music” (23).  His drummer Denzil Best, co-composer of the calypso-inflected “Bemsha Swing,” was the child of Bajan parents.  (“Bimsha” is a phonetic approximation of “Bimshire,” one of Barbados’ nicknames.)   His admirer and sometime student Randy Weston recorded “Fire Down There,” a/k/a “St. Thomas,” almost a year before Sonny Rollins did.  In fact, Weston once told Rhashidah McNeill that his waltz “Little Niles,” composed in honor of his young son, was inspired by a “swinging quadrille” played for him by MacBeth.  And while Monk’s go-to bassist and Weston’s childhood friend Ahmed Abdul-Malik, better known for his shared love (with Weston) of North African music, liked to tell people that his father was Sudanese, Robin Kelley claims that Abdul-Malik’s given name was Jonathan Timm and that both his parents were from St. Vincent.  The bassist covered “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” a road march claimed by Lord Invader but associated with the Duke of Iron and Virgin Islands carnival, on his 1961 album The Sounds of Ahmed Abdul-Malik–again, a year ahead of Rollins.  I’ve heard it rumored, moreover, that Abdul-Malik played for a time in MacBeth’s band.

MacBeth the Great on Time

MacBeth the Great, “Calypso Holiday” (Time Records S/2144, 1964)

As for MacBeth himself: born Patrick MacDonald in Trinidad, he made his first big mark as a performer singing with Gerald Clark’s band at the Village Vanguard in 1940. The stylistic contrast between MacBeth and one of the other featured singers, Sir Lancelot, was marked; as the Afro-American saw it, MacBeth “[stole] the show.” Short in stature, he nevertheless cut quite a figure: “Gayly dressed in red satin trousers, black loosely-belted tunic, casually draped black and green turban, the ends of which fall over his right shoulder, he sings the clever, clever words of the songs, shaking maracas.”[1] MacBeth recorded one tune, “I Love to Read Magazines,” with Clark for Varsity before the war, then more sides for Guild/Musicraft in 1945, Asch/Disc in 1946, Jade around 1949, and Monogram in the early 1950s. He participated in the famous “Calypso at Midnight” concert at New York’s Town Hall in 1946 and subsequently organized his own twelve-piece orchestra. (“Macbeth’s Calypso Band” also appeared on screen with Lord Invader in the “Pigmeat” Markham vehicle House-Rent Party that same year.)  Besides playing in New York, where for many years he took part in Carnival balls in Harlem, Macbeth also performed up and down the East Coast. According to one account, his band was in such demand that it sometimes had to be “split into two groups in order to fulfill engagements which were scheduled on the same night.”  After his death, the sides that MacBeth had done for Bob Shad‘s Jade label were collected on a 1964 album called Calypso Holiday, released by the legendary producer, jazz fan, and A & R man’s latest venture, Time Records.  (Time was superseded by Mainstream, which was eventually acquired by Sony Legacy, who may be behind a recent digital reissue of MacBeth’s Jade sides–along with scores of other Mainstream titles.  [Update, April 2014: in fact, the catalog of Mainstream and its subsidiary labels was reacquired by Bob Shad’s daughter Tamara in 2004.])  MacBeth’s son Ralph MacDonald, an accomplished percussionist and sometime arranger for Harry Belafonte in the early 1960s, got his start in his father’s band.

Though it was Wilmoth Houdini who crowned himself “King” of the New York calypsonians, in July 1947 Houdini, the Duke of Iron, Lord Invader, and MacBeth the Great, along with “dark horse” the Count of Monte Cristo (the Duke’s brother), staged a monarchy competition at Harlem’s storied Renaissance Ballroom and Casino to determine “the undisputed right to the title of Calypso King.”  (I suspect that’s where William Gottlieb’s “Portrait of Calypso” shots were captured.)  I don’t know which of the rivals prevailed, or whether his victory was ever in fact disputed.  But of course MacBeth’s kingly stature was implicit all along.


[1] “New Kind of Singing: Calypso has Four Parts.” Afro-American  22 June 1940: 13

Posted in Calypso, Jazz, MacBeth the Great, Thelonious Monk | Tagged: , , , , , , | 7 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 »

 
%d bloggers like this: