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Black Manhattan: Theatre and Dance Music of James Reese Europe, Will Marion Cook and Members of the legendary Clef Club

Edward Pleasant (baritone) and Awet Andemichael (soprano)

rec. May 2003, Academy of Arts and Letters, NYC

NEW WORLD RECORDS 80611-2 [67:41]




“The Castle Perfect Trot” (1914), James Reese Europe – Ford T. Dabney.

“Carolina Fox Trot” (From the Ziegfeld Follies of 1914), Will H. Vodery.

Overture to In Dahomey (1902/03), Will Marion Cook.

“Deep River: Old Negro Melody” (1916), arr. Harry T. Burleigh.

“Sambo: A Characteristic Two Step March” (1896), Will H. Tyers.

“When the Band Plays Ragtime” (song,1902), Bole Cole & the Johnson Brothers.

“Castle House Rag” (1914), James Reese Europe.

“Smyrna: A Turkish Serenade” (1910/1914), Will H. Tyers.

“Ballin’ the Jack & What It Takes to Make Me Love You” (medley fox trot, 1914),

Chris Smith & James Reese Europe.

“Meno D’Amour” (intermezzo, 1906), Will H. Tyers.

“Hey There! (Hi There!)” (one step, 1915), James Reese Europe.

“Tar Heel Blues Rag” (1915), J. Tim Brymn.

“Congratulations” (“the Castles’ Lame Duck Waltz,” 1914), James Reese Europe.

“Strut Miss Lizzie” (fox trot, 1921), J. Turner Layton/arr. Will Vodery.

“Panama: A Characteristic Novelty” (1910/1911), Will H. Tyers.

“The Clef Club March” (1910), James Reese Europe.

“Under the Bamboo Tree” (song, 1902), Bob Cole & the Johnson Brothers.

“Cocoanut Grove Jazz” (1917), J. Tim Brymn.

“Swing Along!” (1902/1912), Will Marion Cook

It’s taken us a good long while to work our way back to the 2003 inaugural volume in this series. You can read a review of volume 2 here and a review of the latest volume is forthcoming. This first disc set the template: crisp, stylish and accomplished performances of classic material recreated with panache and precision. Its use of original orchestral scores, if available, gave a sense of instrumental verisimilitude to the performances and the pit-sized band recreated the forces available at the time. The American theatre, cinema, dance and vernacular traditions are in good hands.

This programme concentrates on the Clef Club, a fraternal and professional organization dedicated to the advancement of black musicians and entertainers. It was founded in 1909 by James Reese Europe and his confreres and soon included the great and good performing in New York. Its use of stringed instruments – banjos, mandolins, harp-guitars and the like - instead of the piano ensured portability for musicians. In that respect alone, the club was ground-breaking. Whether on the concert stage, dance hall or private party, the musicians affiliated to the Clef Club were some of the very best in town.

What makes these performances so attractive is their vivid sense of style, their appropriate and pervasive foregrounding of stringed instruments and percussion, and the ebullient recreation of the splendid series of pieces by stellar black composers such as Europe, Will Marion Cook, Will Vodery, William H Tyers, Dvorák’s copyist and colleague Harry T Burleigh, and so on.

The aura of the times is summoned up by the number Europe and Ford Dabney wrote in praise of dancers Vernon and Irene Castle, The Castle Perfect Trot whilst the Ziegfeld Follies of 1914 was the natural resting place for Vodery’s Carolina Fox Trot. The vogue for the exotic near-tone poem was met by Cook in his workIn Dahomey, of which we hear the overture, and in Tyers’ Smyrna, A Turkish Serenade. The existence elsewhere of pieces such as In Abyssinia and In Bandanna Land point to this thirst for exotica, but In Dahomey was a pioneering work for African-American theatrical music, the first full-length musical created and performed by black artists in a leading Broadway theatre. Note the superb slow drag second subject and its operetta surety – Herbert hues abound.

Tunes that were soon to enter the lexicon of jazz can be heard, most prominently Ballin’ the Jack, composed by Chris Smith, a superb songwriter who, like Irving Berlin, never learned to read and write music. Salty Dog is a pretty close cousin of this piece too. Tyers had a penchant for salon effusions of which Meno d’amour is a particularly engaging example and there are cheeky quotations in Europe’s Hey There! (Hi There!), a piece drenched in the heavy armour of Sousa’s influence. Strut Miss Lizzie comes from the pens of Layton and Vodery and was a popular piece for jazz bands in the 20s and beyond, not least Dixielanders. Here there’s a fine fiddle solo. Of all the jazz standards it’s Panama that I detest the most even when Red Allen played it. But in its original guise, as performed here, this Tyers’ song, subtitled a Characteristic Novelty, is utterly charming, leisurely and winning. Just shows you. Cocoanut Grove Jazz, composed by J Tim Brymn was the first published work by a black artist to include the word ‘jazz’. Fortunately, it’s well-orchestrated, colourful and does include some blues hues. There are two enjoyable vocals in the programme.

This is a beautifully recorded album with a lavishly illustrated booklet that includes a biographically and musically valuable essay by Benjamin.

Of course the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra and Rick Benjamin have also recorded Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha (see review ) to tremendous effect and acclaim. I recommend the inaugural disc in the series as indeed I do all of their magnificient recordings.

Jonathan Woolf


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