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Queens Jazz Trail shows off borough’s music legends

But it should. Jazz, with the exception of native-American song and dance, is the only indigenous U.S. music, and although it was born among the plantation slaves of the Old South, 20th century jazz greats chose Queens as their home more than any other single place in the United States. They came here in the 1920s, mainly because they were barred by discrimination or explicit segregation from living in other suburban communities.

Flushing Town Hall and the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts have reprised their popular "Queens Jazz Trail" with remaining tours on Saturday, April 7, May 5, and June 2.

Singer Colby Knight, who grew up in Queens, and jazz bassist Clyde Bullard, director of performing arts for the Flushing Council, lead the five-hour tour, starting with the historic Town Hall., which has become a center for jazz performances.

Each tour is a learning experience not only for the 10 to 20 guests, but for the two leaders as well, Bullard said. "I appreciate what I've learned," he said.

Bullard, who grew up in Harlem and the Bronx, was incredulous when he first learned that jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, John Coltrane, and more made their home in Queens, and remained in the borough until their deaths.

The tour - which recently was awarded the "Silver Otter" of the Professional Guild of British Travel Writers as the year's best overseas tourism package - is partly in a van and partly on foot. It goes first to Corona, where Armstrong and Gillespie, often thought to be feuding rivals, were really neighbors and friends. "Satchmo" lived in a red-brick home at 34-56 107th St. with his wife Lucille from 1943 until his death in 1971; the modest house is now a National Historic Landmark, and is being converted into a museum.

Indispensable to a jazz tour is Addisleigh Park in St. Albans, which has the highest concentration of jazz greats' homes in Queens; saxophonist Illinois Jacquet described the neighborhood as one "to be proud of, a monument to black achievement." The homes of Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Fats Waller, Cootie Williams, Duke Ellington's bandleader-son Mercer, Illinois and Russell Jacquet, and others are stops on the tour.

The tour is made even more interesting with videos of the greats in performance, played in the van, and an early afternoon soul food buffet of fried chicken, spare ribs, and catfish, with the traditional side dishes: macaroni and cheese, rice and peas, collard greens, candied yams, and cornbread. The not-a-time-to-diet feast is accompanied by a live performance by young musicians.

Anyone on the tour who wants to join in the performance is welcome to; no auditions here. "Whatever happens happens," said Bullard. "Actually, we've gotten some really talented people up there" over the years the tour has been conducted.

The tour generally attracts 10 to 20 people, Bullard said. Most are middle-aged who had grown up listening to people like Armstrong and Gillespie.

Will there be audiences, and performers, to keep jazz alive in the 21st century? Bullard is worried there might not be, but he's less pessimistic whenever he sees young people listening to, or performing, jazz. And rap music, the current "cultural expression of the times" attracting not only young, urban African-Americans but also white, Midwestern kids, actually owes much to jazz, Bullard said. Many rap artists will take rhythms and bars from jazz tunes, and use them as a recurring, taped loop in their music. Although much of rap music is modernday poetry and expression, Bullard said, "I'm not down with" lyrics that describe - critics say celebrate - murder, rape, and strong sexism.

At first glance, admission to the jazz tour might seem pricey at $75 ($65 for those over age 65 and students under 21), but Bullard stresses that the ticket includes five hours of touring and information, screening of the vintage films, live performances, and the heaping buffet. "You go to any jazz club, and after cover charges, parking, and everything else, you're looking at $35 or $40 just for that," Bullard said.

Reservations must be made advance. Call 463-7700, ext. 222.

Reach Qguide Editor David Glenn by e-mail at glenn@timesledger.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 139.

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