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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Posts Tagged ‘wilmoth houdini’

Post-Caribana Miscellany

Posted by Michael Eldridge on July 30, 2016

As I start this, the Caribbean Carnival grand parade will be wining down Toronto’s Lake Shore Boulevard for a couple more hours yet, and the Caribana revels continue through tomorrow (Sunday, July 31), so the “post-” in this post’s title is decidedly premature. But I’ve been away for many weeks, seeing exotic sights and enjoying the company of old friends, and now I’ve returned home to stare down the end of summer and face the impending doom of a new academic year. So I’m having a hard time living in the moment.

But it’s a beautiful day in northern coastal California, and I’m furiously procrastinating the things I really ought to be doing. This seems as good a moment as any, then, to catch up on a bunch of random items I’ve been collecting. And actually, the first item is apropos: while I was on the road, Dave De Castro, The Bandit, Caribana’s first kaiso king, finally got a proper obituary—and a good one, at that—from George Haim in The Star.

Another culture-bearer passed while I was away—a true literary giant: Bajan-born Canadian writer Austin Clarke, whose early work imagined the lives of West Indian domestics (and other working-class immigrants) in 1950s Toronto with poignant humor, and whose 2002 novel The Polished Hoe justly won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. (His memoir Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack, a devastatingly hilarious indictment of colonial education, surely carries one of the all-time best titles in literature.) Clarke’s death was noted by The StarThe New York Times, and Pride, among others, while ArtsEtc (Barbados) reprinted a 1998 interview, “Sail On, Prince of Tides.”

Thankfully, many of the elders are still with us, and it’s good to see them going strong—and getting recognition. For instance:

With support from Torontonian Drew Gonsalves (and his band Kobo Town), five-time T&T calypso monarch Calypso Rose has just released a new album, Far From Home, that’s garnering plenty of attention. (See, e.g., this feature story in the London Guardian.)  Accompanied by Kobo Town, the Queen will close this year’s WOMEX World Music Expo in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where she will also receive the WOMEX Award. Here’s Rose’s take on Lord Executor’s “They Say I Reign Too Long”:

And 90-year-old pianist Randy Weston, whose West Indian heritage was reflected in early recordings like “Fire Down There” (immortalized a year later as “St. Thomas” by his label-mate Sonny Rollins) and “Little Niles,” was just inducted into DownBeat magazine’s hall of fame. He’s the subject of the August issue’s cover story, and he’s getting ready to go out on tour. NPR’s Jazz Night In America caught him at the 2016 Panama Jazz Festival.

201608cover1

Other miscellany:

  • Old calypso, exhumed and restored: Lovey’s Band, “Oh, Mr. Brown” at Excavated Shellac
  • Old calypso, sampled and re-animated: Australian band The Avalanches build their new single, “Frankie Sinatra,” on Houdini’s “Bobby Sox Idol” (Thanks very much to an alert reader for this tip! But what is it with Houdini Down Under?—cf. C. W. Stoneking’s “Brave Son of America“)
  • Old calypso, mashed up: “Pimped-up Calypso: Case Studies” (I’ve been meaning for ages to give a shout-out to the excellent new blog by “Lord Investor,” who is on a mission to explain “to the world what’s so good about calypso.” In a distantly related vein, see Carrie Battan’s New Yorker piece about Mixpak Records, “Rhythm Revival“)

 

Posted in "Bandit" DeCastro, Calypso, Calypso Rose, Canada, Kobo Town, Randy Weston, Toronto | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Anniversary XC

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 18, 2015

By strange coincidence, three institutions that played important parts in the spread of calypso in North America are marking big anniversaries this year—every one a good round multiple of ten: The New Yorker is 90, the Village Vanguard 80, and Radio Canada International 70. I hope to post about all three before the year is out, and today I start with the eldest.


For calypso researchers, The New Yorker is famous for one thing: “Houdini’s Picnic,” a profile of Wilmoth Houdini, the self-crowned king of New York calypsonians, that appeared in the issue of May 6, 1939. Its author, the legendary Joseph Mitchell, had recently joined The New Yorker as a staff writer after a star turn at the World-Telegram; “Houdini’s Picnic” was one of his earliest pieces for the smart-set weekly.  It’s a classic of its type: part character sketch, part urban chronicle—a type that, as it happens, Mitchell practically invented. “He was drawn to people on the margins,” comments Charles McGrath, reviewing a new biography of Mitchell: “bearded ladies, Gypsies, street preachers, Bowery bums, Mohawk steelworkers, the fishmongers at the Fulton Market.” But his tone is mostly curious and sympathetic. A “great noticer” and a “careful listener” with a superb ear for dialogue, Mitchell was a sociologist at heart, “genuinely interested in his subjects as human beings, remarkable because they so vividly demonstrate that one way or another we are all a little weird.” There is “no kitsch in his portraits,” adds current New Yorker editor David Remnick, introducing Up in the Old Hotel, the definitive collection of Mitchell’s writing for the magazine. By contrast, the Journal-American‘s H. Allen Smith, like many of Mitchell’s rivals and imitators, saw people “as ‘characters,’ and mined them for their colorfulness” (McGrath again). Smith’s portrait of Houdini, “Hot Dogs Made Their Name,” which appeared a year later (and was collected in Low Man on a Totem Pole), is arch and condescending. Where Mitchell is deadpan, Smith is jokey. Mitchell’s Houdini is rough-edged and well-spoken. Smith’s is a buffoon.

Joseph Mitchell wasn’t the only one of Harold Ross’s staff writers to cast an interested eye upon New York’s West Indian community.  As early as 1928, “The Talk of the Town” took an excursion to Van Cortland Park in Riverdale—er, the Bronx—to look in on the “group of West Indian Negroes” who congregated there on Sunday afternoons to play “an unusually beautiful game of cricket” (and speak an equally “beautiful brand of English”).  (J.M. Flagler would return in 1954 to write a long profile of West Indian cricketers in New York, “Well Caught, Mr. Holder“; Edith M. Agar and Brendan Dealy checked in once more in 1988.)  In the course of keeping up with “Exotic Harlem,” meanwhile, Pauline Emmet in 1930 schooled herself on West Indian-American cuisine: “The West Indian Negro…will scarcely look at a chicken,” she pronounced. “What he likes are yams, yucas, papayas, and things like that.”

And music? As I mentioned last month, it’s a safe bet that the Renaissance Ballroom’s house band, led by Vernon Andrade, wasn’t only supplying swing tunes for the 5000 masquerading Lindy Hoppers and Suzy-Q’ers at the West Indian “Coronation Ball” that Earl Brown visited in 1937. By December 1938 the magazine’s anonymous popular record reviewer, always abreast of emerging trends, was recommending “selected West Indian discs” as a last-minute Christmas gift for “friends who will be diverted by the curious rhythmic outbreaks in dialect from the Calypso singers.”  He began with a representative five, but as Decca had already issued “almost a hundred of these native naïvetés,” some of which seemed “shrewdly manufactured for the tourist trade,” he referred “Calypso collectors”—they were a thing—to midtown’s Liberty Music Shop for “[e]xpert first aid.”  By the following year, Steinway & Sons Record Shop, also in midtown, was advertising its own recommendations…

Ad for Steinway & Sons Record Shop, New Yorker 2 December 1939

Ad for Steinway & Sons Record Shop, New Yorker 2 December 1939

…and Houdini was back on the radar of the magazine’s unnamed reviewer, who led off his December 30th column with a notice for the album advertised above, Houdini’s—and calypso’s—first. (Heretofore, he explained, “Calypso songs, by which the natives of Trinidad comment informally on whatever events of the moment strike their fancy…have been casually released on single discs.” But they have “caught on so successfully during the brief time they’ve been available in this country that now Decca has come out with a three-record set.”)

When calypso began to be featured at Cafe Society and the Village Vanguard in the summer of 1939, it naturally showed up in “Goings On About Town,” and eventually the Vanguard even took out small ads:

The New Yorker 11 May 1940

The New Yorker 11 May 1940

In 1941, Robert A. Simon was amused by the calypso that Belle Rosette (Beryl McBurnie), who had debuted at the Vanguard in December 1940, sang at one of Louise Crane’s high-concept “Coffee Concerts” at MOMA—a “South American Panorama” that also featured Elsie Houston, the Grupo Incaico, and a Haitian “Rada” group.  (“Some of the visitors may have expected terribly primitive revelations,” quipped Simon, “but the event was no more aboriginal than a good floor show.”) Belle Rosette’s offering “began with international topicality and ended with something about Bach and Toscanini discussing Calypso music.” If that report seems a tad flip, then Simon at least conceded, after a lame attempt of his own, that “manufacturing Calypso lyrics isn’t so simple as one might expect.”

Houdini’s swan song for The New Yorker was in 1944, when he made an uncredited cameo in an ad for Bell Telephone, which had begun overseas long distance service to Trinidad earlier that year (and nicked the image in the lower lefthand corner from the cover of Houdini’s above-mentioned album for Decca). Note the nod to the “Good Neighbor” policy.

New Yorker, 14 October 1944

New Yorker, 14 October 1944

The last New Yorker writer to engage with New York’s West Indians in a spirit akin to Mitchell’s was J.M. Flagler, who twice in the mid-50s called upon cricketer, Con Ed clerk, and amateur composer Joseph Willoughby as his native informant: once to comment on the West Indian Day Parade, then held on 7th Avenue in Harlem, and again to weigh in on the 1957 Calypso Craze. On the latter occasion Willoughby, who with his partner, Harlem M.D. Walter Merrick, wrote “Run, Joe,” a 1947 hit for Louis Jordan, was equivocal: “On the one hand, I stand to profit personally,” he conceded, as his songwriting services were once again in demand and three recordings of his older calypsos had been reissued. “On the other hand, I fear that the cause of calypso is not being well served artistically.” Make that cricketer, clerk, composer…and diplomat.

In more recent years, the keen and versatile Hilton Als, who joined The New Yorker in 1994, and who, in the words of Coco Fusco, was reared in Brooklyn “by uppity Caribbean matriarchs,” can be counted on periodically to shed light on things West Indian and West Indian-American (“Notes on My Mother,” excerpted from his memoir, The Women, is an early example)—although it was Ian Frazier who wrote on the Brooklyn Labor Day j’ouvert parade back in 2010.

newyorker-90th-int-2

Kadir Nelson’s cover—one of nine—for the 90th Anniversary issue of the New Yorker (via the It’s Nice That blog). Any chance Eustace has some classic calypso loaded on that smartphone?

 

 

Posted in Calypso, Calypsonians, Harlem, New York City, New York Nightclubs, The New Yorker, Wilmouth Houdini | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Harlem’s Calypso Renaissance

Posted by Michael Eldridge on April 20, 2015

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

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

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

From DigitalHarlem.org

Screenshot from DigitalHarlem.org

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

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

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

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

New York Amsterdam News, 2 March 1946

New York Amsterdam News, 2 March 1946

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

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

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

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

Afro-American (National Edition) 12 July 1947

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

Poster for an all-night Christmas Eve

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

IMG_0426 (corrected)

Poster for Bastille Day Ball, 1950

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

More on the Renaissance Theater, Ballroom and Casino:

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

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 »

 
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