Will Vodery: Musical genius

HERB BOYD | 9/11/2014, 4:21 p.m.

When the movie version of the show reached the screen, Vodery’s trademark was once more evident, even if it was embellished by other arrangers. Nonetheless, he received no screen credit. During much of this creative period, he had an office at the Gaiety Theatre office building in Times Square, which made his services easily accessible for Broadway producers. Meanwhile, with Will Marion Cook, another notable musician of his day, Vodery wrote “Swing Along” in 1929.

At a time when there were a number of independent Black film companies hoping to cash in on the latest technology, Vodery, along with Robeson, Noble Sissle and others, founded the Tono Film Company. However, it didn’t last long and left little record of achievement.

When the incomparable James P. Johnson, the stride pianist of Harlem who had such a tremendous influence on Gershwin, composed his musical comedy “Keep Shufflin’,” he hired Vodery to orchestrate it for him. In many respects, it was a sequel to Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s groundbreaking “Shuffle Along” that is deemed the musical that inaugurated the famed Harlem Renaissance.

According to James Weldon Johnson in his standard-bearer study of Harlem in “Black Manhattan,” Vodery’s jazz arrangements for the Ziegfeld productions were virtuosic as they were for many other Broadway musicals. “In this field,” Johnson wrote, “Mr. Vodery stands among the foremost. He is at present on the staff of arrangers of the Fox Film Company.” This was written in the mid-1930s.

A noted authority on the Harlem Renaissance, Bruce Kellner observed that Vodery arranged the music for Lew Leslie’s musical revues “Blackbirds” from 1926 to 1939. Earlier in his career, Vodery joined Leslie in the “Plantation Revue,” featuring Florence Mills, along with her husband, U.S. Thompson, Edith Wilson and Shelton Brooks, himself a prolific composer.

On Nov. 18, 1951, Vodery died in Farmingdale, N.Y., only a few months before Metro-Goldwyn Mayer released the Technicolor film version of “Show Boat.” To be sure, watching the film would have probably only brought back memories of what might have been at another time in another place.