Category Archives: History

Walking in Memphis

This past summer, Susanne and I spent a week of vacation in Memphis enjoying the sights, sounds, and barbecue. We left with many great memories: Beale St., Stax Records, Sun Studios, Ground Zero Blues Club, the Delta Blues Museum, Muddy Waters house, the plantation where Pinetop Perkins drove a tractor. We ate barbecue five of the eight days we spent there, and soul food on one of the other days. Our lovely dancer friends, Michael Quisao and Annabel Truesdell, took us to a couple of great little local joints, including Di Anne Price’s “court” and a gods-honest Memphis juke-joint. We are both so thankful to them for the time and treasures of Memphis they shared with us.

For me, visiting Memphis was transformative. I feel as though I have a much more visceral understanding of the blues and of rock and roll. I know more deeply the roots of decades of our musical heritage. Living in Baltimore, I am no stranger to poverty. I’m not blindly walled off into little white-picket fenced plots of suburbia. I see it around me, and I see it often. But the poverty I see and experience here is nothing compared to the swaths of empty store fronts nestled in between vast fields along the Mississippi delta. I’ve often heard the blues talked about as a catharsis of the soul, a release of the worries of the day. There on the banks of the Mississippi, I felt but a drop of the depths of oppression, poverty, and struggle that the blues emerged from. Blues isn’t just a catharsis. It is a triumph of the human spirit; to be lifted so high from such lows.

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Filed under Blues, Blues Dancing, History

The Real Birdland

Yesterday was the Orioles first home game in Baltimore. I’m no fan of baseball, but I thought a baseball inspired post was in order. Living in Baltimore, home of the Orioles and Camden Yards, baseball is more than an institution. It’s a way of life. Driving around the other night, I saw a billboard that read “This is Birdland,” advertising the Orioles. Apparently, they’ve taken to nicknaming Camden Yards, “Birdland.” I guess they think they are clever since the team mascot is a bird and all. I hardly think one bird, an oriole, warrants calling the place Birdland.

The REAL Birdland was a jazz club named in honor of Charlie Parker, aka “Yardbird” or “Bird.” The Orioles rip this name off as a marketing gimmick. The club used it to honor a legend that played with the likes of Jay McShann, Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Hines, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Christian. Continue reading

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Filed under community, History, Jazz, Music

All Cats Go To Heaven: Pinetop Perkins

Blues pianist and legend, Pinetop Perkins passed away yesterday at the age of 97. I remember the first time I saw him at Glen Echo. The room was packed, and there was a large crowd of non-dancers clustered at the front of the stage to watch him play. He hobbled out with his walker. . .I don’t recall if he had his oxygen tank with him that night, sat down at the piano with his frail looking body, and then tore that piano a new one. It was amazing to see, and I had a fantastic evening.

The last time I saw him, he had clearly lost some of his edge, but was still just as entertaining. The man filled with such joy when he played for all those people. Over the years, he played with all of the great blues men. Most notably, he toured with Muddy Waters for years. This past year, he won a grammy for best traditional blues album. I can’t imagine a better way to go out of this world than with another Grammy.

The Pinetop Perkins Foundation has been established to honor this blues giant. The foundation helps young musicians starting their career, and older musicians at the end of their career. Consider making a donation in honor of this legend, and the wealth of great music he has left for us.

Photo courtesy of the Pinetop Perkins Foundation.

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Filed under Blues, History, Music

Jazz Women Are Not Unicorns

Name the top three most important women in jazz. I’m guessing you came up with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and then a third who was most likely also a singer. If you’re really the adventurous type, maybe you thought of a woman pianist/vocalist like Carmen McRae or Nina Simone. Generally, the history of women in jazz is told through the prominent singers and the occasional pianists, and not much else. Just take a look at this CD titled Women in Jazz from Putumayo. Every artist is a singer, and while I love all the artists on there, women have been doing a lot more for jazz throughout the years.

In fact, during the 1940’s when the men went off to war, many women played in various big bands of the time. Trumpeter Billie Rogers and vibraphonist Marjorie Hyams both played for Woody Herman’s band.  There were even some all girl bands like Ina Rae Hutton and her Mellodears and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. And of course, there are many pianists including Lil Hardin Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, and Marian McPartland. Continue reading

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Andrew J. Nemr Talks Tap and Swing

Years ago when I was just a kid in a dinner theater production of Oliver, I met Andrew Nemr. We’ve been good friends ever since, and I have had the privilege to watch his career develop. Mentored by Gregory Hines, Andrew is an outstanding tap dancer with a deep passion for the dance and its history. He runs his own tap company, Cats Paying Dues (CPD), which will be presenting his show, Echoes in Time, on March 4th at Symphony Space in NYC. I caught up with him in preparation for the show to chat a bit about some of his mentors, the connection between tap and lindy, and the upcoming performance.

Craig: Welcome, Andrew, to All the Cats Join In.

Andrew: Thanks, glad to be here.

C: So, I remember attending your college graduation party a few years back (or more), and meeting tap legends Buster Brown and Brownie Brown. Can you tell me a little bit about those guys?

A: Oh wow. You know, I didn’t know they were going to be there. Buster and Brownie were members of the Copasetics, a fraternity of mostly entertainers, that included Billy Strayhorn (Ellington’s writing partner), Honi Coles, Cholly Atkins, and LeRoy Myers. All of the members came up at a time when tap dance was part of the popular culture of America, so we’re talking the 1920s until the late 40s, early 50s.

Buster and Brownie, specifically, were two of my personal examples of the joy that one can have being a tap dancer and sharing the dance with others.

C: Yeah, I certainly got to see that in them that day. The reason I mention them is that I distinctly remember them having some serious swing moves on the dance floor that day. I’m guessing they were in their 80s, but they could still man-handle a woman across the dance floor!

A: Yes sir. If my recollection serves me, Brownie danced with every girl at the party. Like I said, pure joy! And yes, Buster was 88 or 89 in 2001 and Brownie was around the same age.

C: Was it common for tap dancers to social dance as well? Continue reading

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Filed under community, History, Interviews, Jazz, Music, Tap, Video

Vintage Jazz Buffet (1 of 5)

After talking about pop music as a gateway for beginners to connect to lindy hop, I started thinking about how to get dancers more deeply invested in and knowledgable about vintage jazz/swing/big band. Some of that comes from time and exposure. Some of it comes from encouraging them to learn about the music, talking about it, sharing favorite songs, proclaiming “I love this song” when a great song comes on. We also need to ensure that information is available to start their own journey of exploration.

Here is a musical buffet of vintage songs. One hundred different songs by one hundred different artists. I’ll post twenty a day for the next five days. I’ve listed them alphabetically by author’s first name because that’s how I searched my music collection. Also, there’s no rhyme or reason to the songs I picked for each artist. Sometimes, I picked a classic like Duke Ellington’s “Cottontail,” and sometimes I picked lesser known songs like Glenn Miller’s “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.” If I left out a favorite song or a favorite artist, it wasn’t meant as any kind of slight, and you should just add them to the comments.

Also, I didn’t list the recording info because the idea is for this to be an inspiration. Look up the artist and see what else they’ve recorded. Find different versions of the song by the same artist or by other artists. Allmusic.com is a great resource where you can look up artists, read their biography, see their discography, and get a list of similar artists. For beginners, I’ve highlighted some artists that I think are good to start with.

  1. “Beat Me Daddy (Eight to the Bar)” – Andrews Sisters. The Andrew’s Sisters were the most successful female singing group of the time. Their collection goes far beyond the few well known hits that always get played. Its worth looking through their collection for some real gems like “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh” and “Hold Tight.”
  2. “Drinking Wine, Spo Dee O Dee” – Andy Kirk & His Clouds of Joy. Besides having the best band name ever, Andy Kirk recorded some solid tunes in the 30’s and 40’s. He never reached real fame with his band, but many great sidemen came through his band including Don Byas, Fats Navarro, and for a short time, Charlie Parker.
  3. “Watch the Birdie” – Anita O’Day. Anita O’Day started out with Gene Krupa’s band (featuring trumpeter Roy Eldridge), and these recordings from the 1940’s are the most approachable for dancers. In her later recordings, she started incorporating be-bop into her soloing. There are still some good tunes from those years, but you have to hunt for them a little more. Continue reading

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Filed under Big Band, C-Jam, Dixieland, History, Jazz, lindy hop, Music, tools of the trade, vintage

It’s Not Like a Bacon Dress

In honor of Millinery and Chapeau night tomorrow, our yearly tribute to hats and hair pieces, I’ve decided to share my latest obsession: Pork Pie hats! I’m sorry if this post is a little more rambling than normal, but I’m too excited to formulate a structure for all of the amazing pork pie-ed-ness in my head right now.

Over winter break, I started reading the Norma Miller memoir, Swingin’ at the Savoy. In the preface by jazz historian, Ernie Smith, Smith delves into fashion, mentioning how pork pie hats were in vogue among jazz and blues musicians, and how dancers adopted the style for themselves. Continue reading

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Filed under Blues, History, Jazz, lindy wardrobe, vintage