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St. Albans Festival Highlights Boro’s Jazz History

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Jazz, in all its rhythmic and improvisational glory, is coming as a full-fledged festival to St. Albans. The Black Spectrum Theatre, which is responsible for the recent production of “A Soldier’s Play,” is heralding the premiere St. Albans Jazz Festival on the evening of Saturday, July 19.

The outdoor concert, which is free to the public, is anticipated to mark the beginning of a long tradition of presenting the latest and best in jazz music to the heart of the community where scores of jazz legends past and present have come to make their home.

The festival is a collaborative partnership between Black Spectrum, Jazz Knights, and the Majestic Men, and the continued financial and moral support from Assemblyman William Scarborough (D-St. Albans) and City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), majority whip.

On the bill starting at 4 p.m. will be the St. Albans All-Star Jazz Band; the Casey Benjamin Band; the Jazz Gents; Q5, a youth jazz ensemble; a special guest female vocalist and many other guest performers.

The night will be electrified with the wild, unpredictable sounds that evolved from slave songs to prison songs to blues to ragtime to what was originally called jazz, sparking the Jazz Age in the 1920s and becoming the most popular music in America in the 1930s.

It was a uniquely American musical art form, born in the Mississippi Delta first as an inevitable fusion of marching band, ragtime and blues, then as an amalgam of the soulful hymns rooted in the perpetual oppression of enslaved African ancestors and the exotic French-based sounds of the Creole culture.

The birth of the St. Albans Jazz Festival is in true reverence to so many of the music’s most luminescent dignitaries who found a home in the later stages of their careers and lives in Queens. The jazz festival is being promoted as a tribute to a legacy of legendary jazz artists whose star-studded path to greatness culminated in their putting down roots in the community of St. Albans and other Queens neighborhoods.

Perhaps the most famous Queens resident was Louis Armstrong. As a citizen of the world and, for the better part of his last three decades, of the borough, Satchmo was a permanent fixture to the residents of the tree-lined block in Corona where the stately brick-adorned Louis Armstrong Home gives a sense of history, Americana and a symbol of the culture of the 20th century.

Armstrong and his fourth wife, Lucille, made it their home for close to 30 years, and recently the city took it over and has transformed it into a museum. The restoration initiative has led to the establishment of the Louis Armstrong Archives, on permanent display at Queens College. The archives are a treasure trove of artifacts from the life of the most recognizable jazz originator, exhibiting a fascinating assortment of Armstrong’s prized possessions, including trumpets, manuscripts, and thousands of hours of private tape recordings of his thoughts and travels, a passionate hobby for which he became equally legend.

The list of jazz greats who lived in the local community or other parts of Queens is staggering, and includes such musical luminaries as stylish swing band leader and early jazz innovator Count Basie, who was born in Kansas City; scat vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, considered by many as the empress of female jazz singers; the inimitable and tragic Billie Holiday; stormy screen temptress Lena Horne, who lived on 178th Street; eccentric trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, whose cheeks and neck swelled like a squirrel bursting with stores of winter provisions when he played his unmistakable horn. He got his start performing duets with saxophone legend Charlie “Bird” Parker as they embarked on their joint invention of Bebop (later, just Bop), and then made a name for himself among jazz instrumentalists. Dizz lived on 106th Street.

The jazz fusion drummer Lenny White, who helped make musical history with the progressive jazz ensemble Return to Forever, called Queens home. Also making their home in Queens were Cannonball Adderly and Roy Eldridge; the colorful “stride” pianist Fats Waller; the modern groundbreaking saxophonist John Coltrane; modern-day singer Brook Benton; Arthur Prysok; Illinois Jacquet; and the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.

Famous white jazz performers as well are included in this esteemed company, and their contributions are somewhat impressive: the ageless Tony Bennett, whose voice and looks only seem to get better; Glenn Miller, who invented a sound that had the country dancing; great clarinetist Woody Herman; and the King of Swing himself, the man who first brought black and white musicians together in one ensemble when segregation was the tradition, Benny Goodman. (He hired astounding vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and pianist Teddy Wilson for his offshoot quartet, which also included drummer Gene Krupa.)

A special presentation will be made at the festival to Mona Hinton, wife of the jazz legend Milt Hinton, as she officiates as honorary grand marshal of the festival. Hinton, through his work with Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and Dizzy Gillespie, helped lay the foundation for modern jazz bass.

The festival will run from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., and since it takes place in the open air, people wishing to attend should bring a blanket or a chair.

For further information and to become a patron, sponsor or volunteer at the festival, contact Carl Clay, executive director of Black Spectrum Theatre, at 718-723-1800.

Posted 7:17 pm, October 10, 2011
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