Sunday, March 15, 2009

Who Knew? Jazz History in An Unlikely Place

The wonderful thing about jazz is that you never know when you will have the opportunity to witness history. It can be at a concert, or a setting as routine as a jam session. Even a simple conversation can be very enlightening.
I consider myself reasonably familiar with the jazz happenings globally, and uniquely familiar with jazz happenings locally in Cincinnati and the Midwest. So, clearly I did not expect history at the Sunday jam session at Ballet-Tech Cincinnati this past Sunday.
First, some background. I have described the Sunday jam session at the Ballet-Tech Cincinnati in a previous blog (Kids: The Future of Jazz). On this Sunday, the moderators announced that there would be local Cincinnati jazz legends in attendance.
The usual scene was present; great local players playing with the group and several incredibly talented youngsters holding court. A very nice happening overall.
However, during this session, a Cincinnati Jazz legend was called to the stage. What was unusual was that this particular lady, Jay Albright, was a national jazz icon living anonymously in Cincinnati!

Ms Albright grew up in Harlem, NY. She told personal accounts of Billie Holiday befriending her; helping her gain admission to the Apollo Theater, and helping her career in the early days. She also told of her group "Three Dukes and a Duchess"; how this group and the players were helped and encouraged by Max Roach and others in the Harlem jazz scene at the time; and how Charlie Parker and other luminaries were common fixtures in their life.
And then...she sat down at the keyboards and played! Her daughter accompanied her on the drums. It was abundantly clear that she had distilled all the influences and experiences in her playing. Her phrasing; her nuanced, logical, intuitive playing; not flashy, but compelling nonetheless, was quite revealing. Thoroughly wonderful!
The duo played an unknown original, and two standards: "Summertime" and "Take The A Train". These two songs were punctuated by her daughter "Punky" doing a superb job on drums and vocals. The duo joined the jam session group for "Now's The Time".
At the end of their time on stage, I asked her daughter "Punky" where they were playing locally; she explained they mostly do private parties in town....
Someone with such compelling history, talent, and still so much to give being relegated to the cocktail party circuit is sad indeed. Perhaps that will change soon.

This episode reminds me of my time in college at The University of Virginia several (LOL) years ago. At the time, I was the director of jazz music for the campus radio station WUVA; I had a Sunday afternoon jazz show for three years. During one of my many forays to the local record shop (Back Alley Records), I met a gentleman named George "Big Nick" Nicholas. He was the man John Coltrane wrote the song about. Big Nick was living in obscurity in a small apartment on Jefferson Avenue in Charlottesville, Va. We used to listen to many records; he was particularly fond of a singer named Mabel Mercer. He told me great stories about Dizzy Gillespie's big band, Billie Holiday, and others during that time.
I eventually did an interview with him on my radio show; he began to play the Tenor sax again and was invited to give a seminar in my jazz studies class at the university. Much later I learned he eventually went back to New York, and recorded again! He influenced another generation of Tenor sax players....
Jazz history, in obscurity in Charlottesville Va. Who knew?

So, if you have the opportunity to go to a jam session, visit a record store, or go to a concert, you just might be exposed to jazz history!

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