Upon leaving the theater, everyone was buzzing about how great the show was, smiling and even giddy, looking at you, a stranger, with joy and asking, “Wasn’t that a fantastic show?” While in the men’s bathroom, guys were talking about the show and making note of the great outfits worn by MC Maurice Hines.
The show that had everyone in awe was last Saturday’s “Jazz a la Carte,” part of the Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival. The show’s musical director and creator is trombonist-composer Wycliffe Gordon and director-choreographer Ken L. Roberson, with tap dancer, choreographer and singer Maurice Hines serving as MC. It featured special guest Savion Glover with the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra, Apollo Hot Steppers, vocalist Theresa Thomason and the Youngbloods, trombonist-singer Natalie Cressman, pianist Aaron Diehl and trumpeter Philip Dizack.
Gordon blueprinted the original “Jazz a la Carte,” inaugurated by Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher, who reopened the Apollo in 1934 with this “colored review” featuring MC Ralph Cooper (a Negro film star), the great Benny Carter Orchestra and 16 gorgeous hot steppers with a mixed genre of performers from vaudeville, singers, comedians, magicians, dancers and jugglers. They had two shows that day, as opposed to the customary one show. The original Apollo hosted four shows per day.
Gordon’s “Jazz a la Carte” is an example of live performance at its best, reminiscent of the days when MCs had flair and talent like Hines. He changed four times, each outfit better than the last; he didn’t change the shoes since they were incredible two-tones.
Hines understands the art of connecting with the audience and engaging them with humorous stories about his adventures with his late brother Gregory Hines at the Apollo. His tap dancing was “fierce”–his word, which I lifted years ago–and two signature tunes of Frank Sinatra were in the pocket. Hines is a multitalented superstar who tells a story while performing with style and humor.
As the bandleader, Gordon kept the band swinging as hard as it did in the 1930s and 1940s, when jazz bands were for dancing, not parking on the dance floor. Gordon is known to sing a raspy blues or scat, but he can dance. Yes, he kicked up some mean steps with the Apollo Hot Steppers. The band followed a smooth but jazzy groove with Gordon and vocalist Thomason on “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and “Blue Indigo.”
Glover was monstrous tapping–the conversation between him and Gordon’s trombone was a real improvisational jazz-dance moment–lest we forget that Hines and his brother were the young hoofer’s teachers early on.
Diehl and Dizack brought their own fresh interpretation to the standard “Cherokee.” Meanwhile, Cressman wowed the audience with her voice then, surprise, she picked up her trombone and carried on.
The audience laughed, cheered, gave standing ovations and cheered again. Wow, what a show. What happened to shows like that? Why have we been downgraded to mundane shows that very seldom excite? Well, there’s always next year.
“The Savoy King” is a new documentary on bandleader Chick Webb and the renowned Savoy Ballroom, written and directed by Jeff Kaufman and co-executive produced by Voza Rivers and professor Joseph Jamal of New Heritage Films. The film was an important piece in the colorful tapestry of the Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival in association with the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, where the private sold-out screening was held.
Ironically, the film was shown 75 years to the date from when the Benny Goodman Band challenged Webb to the famous “Battle of the Bands” at the Savoy. Webb’s in-house band for the Savoy was declared the winner, so why is Goodman still remembered as the “King of Swing”?
The documentary portrays an important part of jazz history and Black culture and features interviews with Harlemites such as Gertrude Jeannette, actress and original member of the American Negro Theater; the late Dr. Muriel Petioni; John Isaacs, member of the legendary 1939 world basketball championship the Harlem Rens; and dancers Norma Miller, “the Queen of Swing” and a member of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, a team that called the Savoy home.
Ella Fitzgerald played a major role at the Savoy as the singer for Webb’s big band, as did the great dancer and choreographer Frankie Manning. In the elite “Cat’s Corner” there, Webb and partner Fredi Washington won a contest one year by creating the first “air step,” also known as an “aerial,” where Manning seemed to send Washington flying through the air.
Manning lived long enough to see his style of dancing fade away and then spring back to life. He was a cornerstone of that revival, both as a teacher and a dancer; he died at the age of 94 in 2009.
“The Savoy King” features the voices of an all-star cast, including Bill Cosby as Chick Webb, John Legend as Duke Ellington, Billy Crystal as Mezz Mezzrow, Danny Glover as Count Basie, Andy Garcia as Mario Bauza, Janet Jackson as Ella Fitzgerald and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as Dizzy Gillespie, among others. Hopefully, this film will be picked up on television or the big screen.
The family of Phoebe Jacobs (June 21, 1918-April 9, 2012), the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation and Jazz at Lincoln Center will pay tribute to Jacobs at Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on Thursday, May 24 at 1 p.m. There will be no printed tickets for this event. Doors will open at 12:30 p.m., and attendees will be seated on a first come, first served basis.
The tribute will feature the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis as well as Jimmy Heath, Jon Faddis, Lew Soloff, Mercedes Ellington, Bobby Sanabria, Antoinette Montague, Robert O’Meally, Victor Goines, Bob Stewart, Stanley Crouch, George Wein, Norma Miller, Brianna Thomas and more. Immediately following the program will be a second line procession along Central Park South.
Jacobs’ life was devoted to the perpetuation of jazz through the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, for which she served as executive vice president. She was one of the most important behind-the-scenes influences in jazz. Her phenomenal work touched many lives, especially those of young people, through jazz education and outreach.
Jacobs was the smiling face you would see at all the major jazz events. She was always willing to have a good conversation about jazz or let you know about the latest at the Louis Armstrong Foundation. She will be truly missed.