Exhibition explores Virginia's vital role in jazz
By MICHAEL PAUL WILLIAMS Richmond Times-DispatchSep 1, 2017
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Johnson’s Happy Pals were the premier jazz band of central Virginia from the mid-1920s to World War II. At a 1929 big-band contest at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, they beat all comers — including the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Alexandria native Claude Hopkins was the musical director of La Revue Nègre, a Parisian show starring the legendary Josephine Baker. His Claude Hopkins Orchestra would become one of the most popular big bands in the U.S. in the 1930s.
Joan Shaw of Newport News sang at the Apollo Theater and was recognized by Downbeat magazine critic Leonard Feather among the finest female jazz vocalists of 1964. Frustrations with her career and racism led her to reinvent herself as Salena Jones — her new first name a portmanteau of Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne.
“She bought a one-way ticket to Europe and never came back,” said B.J. Brown, executive director of the Richmond Jazz Society. “When she gets to Europe, they fell in love with her.”
Those artists, as well as luminaries such as Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, Ruth Brown and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, are part of an upcoming exhibition on the history of jazz in Virginia that will open in conjunction with concerts and conversations by the Richmond Jazz Society.
On Sept. 19, the exhibition “VIRGINIA JAZZ: The Early Years” will open at the Valentine with daylong activities and live music. This multimedia history of the development of jazz from the early 1900s to the mid-1960s includes photographs, biographies, a video montage of vintage film clips and music, and a Victor-Victrola.
More than 30 Virginia artists are in the exhibit. “These are artists who made national and international impact on jazz, and the development of jazz as an art form,” Brown said.
She called it incredible how many artists either born in or affiliated with Virginia became nationally or internationally known in the jazz world. “It was very much a learning experience for me.”
She hastened to add that the list is in no way definitive, and could easily have included more. “I’m hoping people will say, ‘You forgot that person.’”
“We are also recognizing that these musicians inspired other musicians like Lonnie Liston Smith and Al Foster,” a Richmond native who was a drummer with Miles Davis’ band. Weldon Irvine of Hampton was an organist and music director for Nina Simone. He wrote lyrics to her song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”
Brown noted that Irvine stressed political awareness and was a mentor to many of New York’s hip-hop artists, including Common and Mos Def.
The exhibition features Robinson, the innovative dancer whose toe-tapping lent lightness and elegance to what had been a flat-footed form.
His choice may be less obvious than it seems.
One day at his Jackson Ward statue, “we were asking the kids if they knew who Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson was, and they said, ‘Bojangles chicken?’” Brown recalled. “The kids are not learning this, and we are not teaching them.”
Other choices are less obvious but remarkably noteworthy. Vaudevillian Henry Sterling Creamer, a Richmond native, wrote the lyrics to the popular song “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.” Norfolk native Keely Smith, with her husband. Louis Prima, won the first Grammy for best performance by a vocal group for “That Ol’ Black Magic” in 1959.
Lynchburg native Creed Taylor founded CTI Rec-ords, one of the most successful jazz labels. Its artists included Simone, Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard, George Benson and Herbie Hancock.
In conjunction with the Valentine exhibition, which will run through April, the jazz society will hold a series of programs and celebrity lectures, one featuring Mercedes Ellington, a dancer, entertainer, granddaughter of Duke Ellington and co-author of “Duke Ellington: An American Composer and Icon.” John Edward Hasse, retired curator of American music at the Smithsonian Institution, will also speak on Ellington.
On Tuesday, Sept. 12, the jazz society will launch its Fall Guest Educators Concert Series with a musical tribute to Thelonious Monk, whose 100th birthday would have been in October. The event at the Capital Ale House Downtown Music Hall will feature guest speaker Larry Ridley, a jazz bassist and former Monk sideman, followed by a performance by the Charles Owens Quartet.
Cecelia Calloway, a storyteller, vocalist and daughter of Cab Calloway, will perform in November.
The jazz society started the guest educators concert series in 1980 at the advice of jazz violinist Joe Kennedy Jr., a Richmond Public Schools educator and one of the first two African-Americans admitted into the Richmond Symphony, “to seek out those artists who deserve wider recognition, especially those Virginia jazz artists,” Brown said.