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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Posts Tagged ‘william gottlieb’

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 »

Calypso Weegee Board

Posted by Michael Eldridge on November 17, 2013

Ugh.  I’ve just spent the better part of a Saturday trying—in vain—to figure out how to include a Pinterest “board” and/or a Flickr slideshow in this blog post.

WordPress promises that I “can easily embed [my] Pinterest profile, boards, or individual pins simply by pasting the links into any post or page.”  Only it turns out their easy instructions simply don’t work, and I’m not the only frustrated blogger who says so.  (Thanks, WordPress.)  Sadly, Pinterest’s slightly more complex instructions, which involve JavaScript, don’t yield any better results, despite one user’s cheery assurances to the contrary.

Ditto for Flickr: I’ve tried both WordPress support and this convincing-sounding gigya shortcode workaround, and the best I can come up with is a stubbornly empty black rectangle.  Fail!  Clearly these solutions have worked for at least some other bloggers (or in some instances, apparently, they haven’t worked…until they have), so maybe I’m doing something wrong or I just need to try one or two or twelve more times or Google Chrome is wonky or it’s a simple case of “your mileage may vary.”  I don’t know.  But I give up.

L-R: Count of Monte Cristo (George Anderson), MacBeth the Great (Patrick MacDonald), The Duke of Iron (Cecil Anderson), Houdini (Frederick Wilmoth Hendricks), Lord Invader (Rupert Grant). Prob. Renaissance Ballroom, New York City, July 1947. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress.

All I wanted to do was find a good way to gather and display some of the great calypso photography from 1940s New York that’s scattered across the web.  I’ve already used one or two items from the huge trove that Down Beat writer/photographer William P. Gottlieb bequeathed to the Library of Congress; here’s another at left.  As far as I can tell, there are a baker’s dozen calypso-related items in that collection (not counting one reproduction of a finished Down Beat article), all of them dating from July 1947.  Nine were probably shot at a calypso monarchy competition staged at the Renaissance Ballroom; the other four at the Village Vanguard, where Josephine Premice was appearing with a small band.  You can view them all at LoC or on my Flickr slideshow.

While there are spoilsports who contest the “public domain” status of the Gottlieb material, I figure what LoC says, goes.  The disposition of some other photographers’ work is a bit cloudier.  For instance: both Lee Sievan and Weegee took candid shots of calypso performances (at clubs and private parties) as part of their documentation of the Naked City.  One print resides at the Met, a few more at ICP (and a few belonging to ICP, some of them duplicates, at Getty Images), others at commercial galleries, and twenty-some at the New York Public Library’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.  I’ve collected many of these on a private Pinterest board, although I’m not sure whether to go public with it, in part because I don’t care to be a serial “cease-and-desist” recipient.  On the one hand, a Pinterest “pin” is just a glorified link to another source.  On the other, it actually does entail reproducing an image from that source.  For its part Pinterest, in its Copyright and Usage policies, does all the requisite genuflecting to the DMCA, even though everyone knows perfectly well that its users’ pages contain practically nothing but copyrighted images.  Museums and galleries have themselves reproduced such images on their own websites with the dodge that “[i]mages are copyright of their respective owners, assignees or others” and/or that further reproduction requires permission of the Estate of the artist.  That weak statement of scruple doesn’t stop some of them from putting “Pin It” buttons on their web pages, though.

So where does that leave a poor, bewildered academic without a good lawyer?  Well, WordPress’s technical difficulties have mooted my quandary somewhat, at least for the time being.  But if you want to complicate things by joining the covert op, then here’s my “Calypso Weegee Board’s” secret location.

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Postscript: in late October, Pinterest struck a deal with Getty Images that addresses some of this—sort of.  Without really clarifying or even squarely acknowledging the copyright issue, Pinterest has given Getty an undisclosed sum for access to its photos’ metadata, in exchange for which Getty will evidently look the other way whenever I pin a Getty Image to one of my boards.  Pinterest gets to save face by saying this is all about making pins more “useful.”  (And Getty’s general counsel insists it’s not a “licensing arrangement.”)

Posted in Calypso, Lee Sievan, New York City, Weegee, William P. Gottlieb | 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 »

 
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