Tag Archives: Savoy Ballroom

“THE HOME OF SWEET ROMANCE”: REBECCA KILGORE, DAN BARRETT, JOHNNY VARRO, WAYNE WILKINSON, NICKI PARROTT, DANNY COOTS at the ATLANTA JAZZ PARTY (April 18, 2015)

SAVOY

It wins you at a glance.

Where?  The Savoy Ballroom, of course.  The  Home of Happy Feet in Harlem stopped being a Swing mecca in 1958, but its spirit remains.

That spirit was very much in evidence at this year’s Atlanta Jazz Party, and on April 18, 2015, Rebecca Kilgore and a wonderful small band brought it even more sharply into focus with a performance of Edgar Sampson’s STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY. Her Stompers were Dan Barrett, trombone; Johnny Varro, piano; Wayne Wilkinson, guitar; Nicki Parrott, string bass; Danny Coots, drums.  (Does that closing riff owe its existence to Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge?)

You don’t need a ballroom with these wonderful musicians.

May your happiness increase!

EVERYBODY LOVES CECIL SCOTT

Photograph by Nat Goodwin

Photograph by Nat Goodwin

Clarinetist and saxophonist Cecil Scott remembered by Art Hodes:

I’ll never forget the day Baby Dodds and I visited Cecil at his home in Harlem (N.Y.C.).  He had what we referred to as “a railroad flat.”  It was a first floor apartment with a long hallway running through the length of the apartment. Cecil took us into the kitchen for a taste, then called in the family. He had 11 children, from the baby to the eldest going on seventeen. I had to ask, “Man, how do you guys operate?” To which he answered, “We eat in shifts and we sleep in tiers.”

One of the warmest people I knew, Cecil Scott.  His smile was contagious. Here’s a guy, operating on one leg (and I won’t go into how he lost the other; the only story I heard was hearsay); always jolly and passing it on. People running in and out of his home; all day. Plus a few cats and a dog. Life all around him. And the spirit of that home, unbelievable.

I had a trio at Jimmy Ryan’s that consisted of Cecil (sax and clarinet) and Baby Dodds (drums) plus Chippie Hill (Bertha) doing the vocals. There was a performer. She’d go out, a’singing, to the end of the room, and start from there.  And by the time she’d hit the bandstand she’d have “gathered her children” in; that whole audience was like in the palm of her hand. No mike. And Cecil could charm her. For when she came to work she could be in a mood; but Scott would look at her, and then say, “Chippie, where did you get that hat; you look beautiful.” And she’d wild, and beam.  And we’d be together. They were beautiful people.

There was a style of clarinet playing we used to call “dirty.” Then there was a way of playing it that would make me think of someone a’callin’ to a chicken. Cecil knew all about that. It was later that I learned that the recording by Clarence Williams that I loved to listen to, especially because of the clarinet playing on it, was something Cecil had done. Yeh! And when my boy Bob was born, Cecil sent his oldest daughter over to my house to take care of things while my wife was hospitalized. “Man, don’t mention money, what do you wanna do? Insult me? I’m your friend.” And then one scene that keeps comin’ back.

I’d gone out to Harlem to do a benefit with Scott and others.  It was a warm affair, and I partook of the goodies. In fact I “over” partook. Now we had to get to our gig (J. Ryan’s). I drove and Cecil sat beside me. It seemed bouncey, beautiful, with lights flashing on; most enjoyable. Even sirens. Eventually I got the message and stopped. I had been “bouncing” up and down on the snow-covered street, and the lights and sirens were the po-lice. I was “in a cast.” The one-legged man had to get out and talk to the gendarmes. He must have sounded convincing because I got off with a lecture. You know I’ll never forget Cecil.

EVERYBODY LOVES CECIL (by H. B. M.)

Photograph by William P. Gottlieb, c. October 1946

Photograph by William P. Gottlieb, c. October 1946

Cecil Scott was sitting on the stool before the piano, his elbow on the keys and his right leg thrust stiffly forward. I sat across from him on a metal framed settee that looked a little like a double seat on a bus. There were several similar chairs in the room, a few music stands, and a tenor sax case on top of the piano. On the walls were several posters and many photographs showing Cecil at various times in his career. His weight varied with each picture, for his hobby is food and he eats until he weighs 210, diets until he weighs 160, and starts all over again. He is about 170 now, going down.

Almost as soon as I had met him, I liked Cecil. He is as warm and companiable as a fireplace. He is an energetic man, too, despite that awkward, unwieldy, artificial right leg. He’d suddenly lunge across the room to show me something, and lunge back again. It was more like an idiosyncrasy than a handicap.

“I suppose you want to know about the children,” he said. “There are thirteen of them, and I’ve got three grandchildren, with one more on the way. They’re from my eldest daughter, the one that deserted me. She’s the only one of my girls to get married.” He seemed to be peeved about that. “I’ll bet that’s her in the hallway right now. She’s in this house most of the day.”

It was the prodigal daughter. She entered the house very spryly.

“Has he been tellin’ you ’bout my children?” she asked. “They call him ‘Big Brother.’ You trying to keep young, Daddy?”

Actually Cecil looked very young, more like a man of thirty than a grandfather, and his wife, who entered then, didn’t look old enough to be a grandparent either. A little girl, about nine years old, was with her. She looked timidly about the room. There was a large white bandage about her ankle. 

“This is Elaine,” said Cecil. “She’s always wearing bandages. This morning it was her head. Now it’s her ankle. You run along, Elaine, and don’t you come back with that bandage ’round your nose.”

“But, let’s see now. About the music. It started when I was eleven years old out in Springfield, Ohio. I wanted to be a surgical doctor; spent all my time in doctors’ offices, and I figured I could make money with music. For two years I took lessons in clarinet and theory three times a week, and never missed a day. Started playin’ home dates with my brother Lloyd’s band. When I was seventeen I got married.”

“Eating is our big problem,” Cecil informed me. “Everybody has to eat in shifts. The little ones eat first shift, the middle ones second shift, and the big ones last shift. The dogs eat every shift.”

The house was full of children now. I could hear them moving everywhere. I met some more of the family, and Cecil coninued. He had come to New York and played with Lloyd’s band at the Saratoga Club. By 1928 he had his own band, and by 1930 was quite famous, playing at the Renaissance Ball Room with a band that had Roy Eldridge, Chu Berry, Dicky Wells, Frankie Newton, and Don Frye. Then he moved to the Savoy and trouble started.

“There was a girl at the Savoy,” said Cecil. “She had a man who was takin’ care of her, but she was makin’ quite a play for me. I didn’t pay her no mind until one night she asked me to a ‘rent party’ that her landlord was giving. It was one of those parties where they sold pigmeat and ‘white mule.’ There was a crap game going on and I started to win. I began buying everybody big pitchers of that white mule. Then her boy friend came in. There was some kind of misunderstanding right away. He slapped her, and she slapped him, and a fight started. Pitchers of while mule started flying through the air. Well, I had a big name, I had a reputation. I had to get out of there. I ran to the front door, but it had six locks I couldn’t open, so I ran to the back door. That had six locks too.

Well, I was a very active man in those days, so I jumped out the window, but it was a three story drop and I broke my ankle real bad.

Gangrene set in and they had to amputate several times. For a while the doctors didn’t have much hope. Chu Berry, my pupil, held the band together for me. Everyone was real nice. But, when I got out I didn’t feel like playin’. I was a very active man, used to jump off the piano with my saxophone and do a split on the floor, and things like that. I didn’t feel right standing with that band, a a cripple. So I disbanded it, although the boys sure didn’t want me to.

Then the neighbors started doing things for me. They brought me soup and stew, and stuff like that, and started sending me their kids to teach. First one, then two, then seven, eight, ten. I soon forgot about playing. For four and a half years I taught twelve to eighteen kids a day, and never had to advertise. At the same time I studied theory with Clarence Hall three times a week and took up weight lifting. I was too busy, and liked it that way.

It wasn’t until Albert Socarras, a flute player with a Latin band, came to see me that I started playing again. He needed a sax player real bad. I didn’t want to go but he and his wife finally persuaded me. I played three days, and they gave me leader’s pay. I’ve been playin’ off and on ever since.

I think that my wife is the real reason for most of my success. When I lost my leg and became sensitive, afraid to face people, she was the one who revived me and gave me confidence again. She’s always encouraged me. We were born in the same town, in the same month, in the same year. We went to the same school together! Why, she’s been with me all my life!”

from SELECTIONS FROM THE GUTTER, edited by Hodes and Chadwick Hansen, pp. 214-16.

May your happiness increase!

ANOTHER MINT JULEP, PLEASE!

mjjb-dosn-cd-cover

A new CD, DURHAM ON SATURDAY NIGHT, by the Mint Julep Jazz Band, featuring the excellent singer Laura Windley, is a honey.

The MJJB is a small hot group — well-versed in playing for dancers, so they set swinging tempos and stick to them.  Their ensemble work is beautifully precise without being stiff, and they really understand the subtle mysteries of swing rhythm.  And the solos are just fine: not only can these young folks energetically pretend that 1941 isn’t really gone, but they can launch their own inventive solos time after time.

One of their main inspirations is youthful Ella Fitzgerald and the small group out of Chick Webb’s band — The Savoy Eight — and they evoke that sound perfectly without turning out pale note-for-note copies of the records.  I heard evocations of Sandy Williams and Sidney Bechet, but also Al Grey and Howard McGhee.

The repertory also looks with affection at the Ellington small groups and Victor band, the Kirby Sextet, the Ink Spots, the Basie band of the same period (I really welcome hearing JIVE AT FIVE, and the MJJB swings it the best way.)

They also find rather obscure pop tunes — which work!: GET IT SOUTHERN STYLE, ONE GIRL AND TWO BOYS, and there’s a nifty original, MIAMI BOULEVARD.

The excellent young musicians on this disc are Lucian Cobb, trombone; Laura Windley, vocals and glockenspiel; Aaron Hill, alto saxophone / clarinet; Keenan McKenzie, tenor saxophone / clarinet; Jared Worford, guitar; Jim Ketch, trumpet; Jason Foureman, string bass; Aaron Tucker, drums.  They aren’t restricted to the world of 1937, but there are no excursions into Sonny Rollins on a Swing chart, if you know what I mean.

Those boys rock,” the folks at the Savoy would have said.

Laura Windley is a special pleasure.  Many youthful singers in the “swing dance” scene have memorized the gestures of their idols — listening to the records so many times that they can mimic those Vocalions — and they, women and men, dress beautifully.  But as singers they lack their own personalities.  All gown, no voice.

Laura’s got her own sweet style with a serious rhythmic underpinning: if she were handed a song she’d never heard before, she could do it convincingly without echoing anyone else.  Her rich voice reminded me of young Ella — that hopeful, wistful, asking-for-love quality — but she can turn corners at a fast tempo, as she proves on the CD’s closer, the band’s romping version of Lil Armstrong’s HARLEM ON SATURDAY NIGHT.

Here’s a small sample from a band-within-a-band:

Laura Windley (vocals), Lucian Cobb (trombone), Aaron Hill (tenor sax), Keenan McKenzie (sitting in on soprano sax), Aaron Tucker (drums), J.C. Martin (guitar), Peter Kimosh (bass).

What you will hear on the CD will convince you that — like Swing itself — the Mint Julep Jazz Band is here to stay.  And that is very reassuring news.

Visit them, hear more from their CD (it’s also available on iTunes and CD Baby), and follow them here.

May your happiness increase!

CATHERINE RUSSELL, SWING SUPER-HEROINE

Catherine Russell

I don’t know how the singer and ebullient force of nature Catherine Russell would do in combat against Lex Luthor or a fleet of intergalactic starships.  But I do know that she is the sworn enemy of Gloom and Dullness, a tireless fighter for Joy and Swing.

She proved this again last night at Symphony Space in a concert sponsored by the Sidney Bechet Society.  With her were some of her usual comrades-in-arms: Matt Munisteri (guitar and musical director); Mark Shane (piano); Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet); Dan Block (clarinet and tenor); Lee Hudson (string bass); Rocky Bryant (drums).

Catherine is not only a splendid singer, with an unerring internal pulse and gift for melodic invention; she moves easily through a variety of moods in the course of an evening.  In addition, she is a happy embodiment of living swing: flashing a gleaming smile, joking with the audience, and dancing all over the stage.

She truly has a good time, and it never seems artificial.

Rather, she is delighted to be there to make music for us and her pleasure comes through, whether she is picking just the right tempo for a bluesy slow drag or spontaneously interacting with an audience member.

After an instrumental exploration of BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME, Catherine came on to offer a varied program.  A special pleasure was observing a mature artist who has fully internalized a variety of influences — from the fierce women blues singers to Motown queens, from the dancers at the Savoy Ballroom to gospel choirs, all these influences seamless and fully developed within her own personal style.  Listening to Catherine, one never feels, “Now she’s becoming this performer or this one; now she’s acting out that recorded / seen performance.”  No, the result is fully in blossom — homage to the great influences before her but also singularly her own.

When she approached an early-Twenties blues, SHAKE THAT THING, it owned property in several universes — not only the kind of music one would grind to in 1923 Chicago but a sultry call-to-shake entirely appropriate ninety years later.  Her other blues performances — one about financial distress (the concert was, after all, held on April 15), her own evocation of Esther Phillips’ AGED AND MELLOW, and Dinah Washington’s ominious MY MAN’S AN UNDERTAKER — were just as dramatically compelling.  She wooed us with AFTER THE LIGHTS GO DOWN LOW and then hilariously dismissed us with I’M CHECKIN’ OUT, GOOM-BYE.  Other classics that Catherine has made her own — an encore of KITCHEN MAN, WE THE PEOPLE, standards SOME OF THESE DAYS and DARKTOWN STRUTTERS’ BALL — had their own joyous light.  In twenty songs, she turned herself and her personality to the light as many ways, but each time we recognized her essence: soulful, experienced, thoughtful, deeply feeling and deeply amused.

Visit Catherine’s websiteFacebook page or Facebook music page.

And for the immediate future . . .

CAT DIZZY'S

Catherine will be appearing with Mark Shane, Matt Munisteri, Lee Hudson, and Mark McLean at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (Jazz at Lincoln Center) for four nights — Thursday, April 25, through Sunday, April 28 — with shows as 7:30 and 9:30 PM.

Come and be amazed by Catherine Russell, performing superhuman feats of humanity, humor, creativity, and swing, as if they were easy to do — which for her, they are.

May your happiness increase.

DON’T MISS THIS: “THE SAVOY KING” COMES TO NEW YORK CITY

Good news!  THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB AND THE MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA is coming to New York City . . . .

The Savoy King is an important contribution to our knowledge and our history.  I highly recommend that those who have the opportunity see this film.” – Harry Belafonte

“Vibrant and evocative – – I loved every minute of The Savoy King.” – film critic Leonard Maltin

With the voices of: Sunpie Barnes as Barney Bigard, Bill Cosby as Chick Webb, Billy Crystal as Mezz Mezzrow, Tyne Daly as Helen Oakley Dance, Keith David as Charles Buchanan, Andy Garcia as Mario Bauzá, Danny Glover as Count Basie, Jeff Goldblum as Artie Shaw, Janet Jackson as Ella Fitzgerald, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as Dizzy Gillespie, John Legend as Dizzy Gillespie, Ron Perlman as Gene Krupa, Voza Rivers as Sandy Williams, Eugene Robinson as Teddy McRae, and Charlie Watts as Stanley Dance

THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB AND THE MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA  will screen at THE 50TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL:

Saturday, Sept. 29 (noon), at The Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St.

Tuesday, Oct. 2 (3:30pm), at The Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 W. 65th St.

September 13, 10am to noon, there is a press screening and Q&A at The Walter Reade Theater, with Director / Producer Jeff Kaufman, Executive Producer Voza Rivers (Chairman of The Harlem Arts Alliance), and NEA Jazz Master Roy Haynes

September 28, 8pm, a panel with a Swing Dance to follow, with The George Gee Swing Orchestra, and special guest vocalist Lainie Cooke.  The panel will be hosted by Judy Pritchett, and will include:  Dr. Richard Gale (son of Savoy Ballroom owner Moe Gale), Swing dance master Norma Miller, and Jeff Kaufman (director / producer of The Savoy King).  Location: Dance Manhattan, 39 West 19th Street, New York, NY 10011.  (212) 807-0802

October 2, at noon: a panel at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of Harlem Arts Advocacy Week.  Hosted by Voza Rivers of the Harlem Arts Alliance / New Heritage Theatre Group; the panel will include: Dr. Richard Gale (son of Savoy Ballroom owner Moe Gale), Swing dance master Norma Miller, playwright / actress Gertrude Jeannette, drummer Roy Haynes, and Jeff Kaufman (Director / Producer of The Savoy King).  Location: The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York NY 10037-1801

“We fought a war with music and dance, and that’s what opened the doors.”

– Norma Miller

inclusive pr | http://www.inclusivepr.com  |  323-460-4111.  Mickey Cottrell: mickey@inclusivepr.com  |  Jonah Blechman: jonah@inclusivepr.com

Note to JAZZ LIVES readers: this is not only a splendid film about Chick Webb and the music he created and helped make the American popular language — it is about that music’s power to create acceptance and break down barriers.  THE SAVOY KING is also a wonderful film — even if you have never heard or heard of Chick Webb, it has its own power to enchant without ever seeming didactic.  

I’d make it required viewing for anyone who thinks (s)he wants to make a film, because it’s so far beyond the usual parade of talking heads . . . . 

Don’t miss it!

Here is my review and a beautiful one, SWING SPIRITS HAUNT SEATTLE, by Candace Brown —           

May your happiness increase.

THE HOME OF SWEET ROMANCE

Nowhere but the Savoy Ballroom in New York City:

Let’s go this Thursday!  My air-step is earth-bound, but we could listen to the bands and watch the people who can really dance.

Another treasure for sale on eBay, thanks to mdt141mike.

For the real story of the Savoy Ballroom and its King, visit here to learn more about Jeff Kaufman’s brilliant and moving film, THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB AND THE MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA.

May your happiness increase.

A GREAT HUMAN STORY: “THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB and the MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA”

We have all seen our share of documentaries, perhaps beginning in elementary school.  The least successful are tedious although well-meaning, taking us year-by-year, serving up moral lessons.  Although they strive to inform and move us, often they are unsatisfying and undramatic in their desire to present us with facts.

Jeff Kaufman’s brilliant feature-length portrait is a soaring antidote to every earnest, plodding, didactic documentary.  It is full of feeling, insightful without being over-emphatic.  It tells several stories in affecting, subtle ways.

Chick Webb was a great musician — a drummer other drummers still talk about with awe and love.  He guided and lovingly protected the teenaged Ella Fitzgerald, helping her grow into a mature artist.  Crippled from childhood — he would never grow much taller than 4′; he was in constant pain; he died shortly after turning thirty — he was fiercely ambitious and ultimately triumphant in ways he did not live to see.

But this is far more than the story of one small yet great-hearted man.  It is much larger than the chronicle of one jazz musician.  It is the story of how Webb’s love, tenacity, and courage changed the world.  That sounds hyperbolic, and I do not think that any American history textbook has yet made space for the little king from Baltimore, who deserves his place alongside Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson.  This film will go a long way towards correcting that omission.  For Chick, tiny yet regal behind his drum set, helped create an environment where Black and White could forget those superficial differences and become equal in the blare of the music, the thrill of the dance.

Without Webb, would there have been a Savoy Ballroom where American men and women could have forgotten the bigotry so prevalent, lost in the joy of swing?  I like to imagine someone, trained into attitudes of racism from birth, hearing HARLEM CONGO on the radio and feeling transformed as if by a bolt of lightning, not caring that the players were not Caucasian, making the shift in his / her thinking from cruel derision to admiration and love.  How may people moved to an acceptance of racial equality because they were humming Ella’s recording of A TISKET, A TASKET?  We will never know . . . but just as the sun (in the fable) encouraged the stubborn man to shed his heavy coat where the cold wind failed, I believe that jazz and swing did more than has ever been acknowledged to make White and Black see themselves as one.

And the film documents just how aware Webb was of the reforming power of his music.  The idea of him as a subtle crusader for love, acceptance, and fairness is not something imposed on him by an ideologically-minded filmmaker: it is all there in the newspaper clippings and the words he spoke.

Here is Candace Brown’s superb essay on the film — with video clips from the film.

I must move from the larger story to a few smaller ones.  Put bluntly, I think filmmaker Kaufman is a wonder-worker, his talents quiet but compelling — rather like the person in the tale who makes a delicious soup starting with only a stone.  It took six years and a great deal of effort to make this film, and the result is gratifying throughout.

Making a documentary in this century about someone who died in 1939 has its own built-in difficulties.  For one thing, the subject is no longer around to narrate, to sit still for hours of questions.  And many of the subjects friends and family are also gone.  Chick Webb was a public figure, to be sure, but he wasn’t someone well-documented by sound film.  Although his 1929 band can be heard in the rather lopsided film short AFTER SEBEN, the director of that film cut Chick out of the final product because he thought the little man looked too odd.

I don’t think so.  Here is a still from that film (with Chick’s dear friend John Trueheart on banjo and my hero Bennie Morton on trombone):

But back to Kaufman’s problem.  Although there are many recordings of Chick’s band in the studios and even a radio broadcast or two, other figures of that period left behind more visual evidence: think of the photogenic /  charismatic Ellington, Goodman, Louis.  Of Webb and his band in their prime, the film footage extant lasts four seconds.

So Kaufman had to be ingenious.  And he has been, far beyond even my hopes.

The film is a beautifully-crafted tapestry of sight and sound, avoiding the usual overexposed bits of stock film and (dare I say it) the expected talking heads, droning into the camera.  The living people Kaufman has found to speak with love of Chick Webb are all singular: jazz musicians Roy Haynes (swaggering in his cowboy hat), Joe Wilder (a courtly knight without armor), Dr. Richard Gale (son of Moe, who ran the Savoy), dancers Frankie Manning and Norma Miller . . . their affection and enthusiasm lifts up every scene.

And Kaufman has made a virtue of necessity with an even more brilliant leap.  Webb wasn’t quoted often, but his utterances were memorable — rather like rimshots.  Ella, Gene Krupa, Ellington, Basie, Helen and Stanley Dance, Artie Shaw, Mezz Mezzrow, and twenty others have their words come to life — not because a serious dull voiceover reads them to us, but because Kaufman has arranged for some of the most famous people in the world to read a few passages.  Do the names Bill Cosby and Janet Jackson suggest how seriously other people took this project?

THE SAVOY KING is a work of art and an act of love, and it desrves to be seen — not just by “jazz lovers” or “people who remember the Big Band Era.”

It has been selected to be shown at the 50th annual New York Film Festival, tentatively on September 29, which in itself is a great honor.

That’s the beautiful part.  Now here comes four bars of gritty reality.  In the ideal world, no one would ever have to ask for money, and a major studio would already have done a beautiful job of exploring Chick Webb’s heroism, generosity, and music by now.  But it hasn’t happened, and we know what results when the stories we love go Hollywood.

Filmmaker Kaufman is looking for funding through INDIEGOGO to arrange a “proper launch” for this film — the goal being $5000 to cover the extra work of our PR team (media, publicity, sales, etc), and other key expenses that will help lead to a commercial release.  All levels of support (ideally $75 and up) will make a real difference.  Here is the link.

Think of a world made better by swing.

See and support this film.

May your happiness increase.