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African American History Forum

Black History All Jazzed Up

Sunday | February 10, 2008
Sonny Bradshaw, Contributor

Jazz - classical black music - once taboo in Jamaica and referred to as 'devil music' by the churches, was not to be played on Sundays.

We had the popular music of North America and Europe played by what were called road bands in dancing halls like PORA (Prison Officers Relief Association) on Laws Street, The Jamaica Success Club (63 Upper Wildman Street), the Jubilee Tile Gardens (Upper King Street), the Forrestors Hall (North Street), the Progressive Lawns (North & Church Streets) and later Bartleys Silver City on East Queen Street, all in what is now called downtown Kingston.

But things and times changed along the way and the same churches were having fund-raising functions using the music of the day, 'a little jazz', now getting respectable, handed down from the North - those same slave-oriented sounds coming out of the brothels in the Caribbean Port of New Orleans in the USA.

The black music was getting white and the technology afforded more widespread dissemination and popularity in the 'black' neighbourhoods on the US mainland and in islands like Jamaica.

Bringing home records

But we in Jamaica, land we love, are a different lot in many ways, culturally and otherwise. So much later and lots of water under the bridge, when the farm work project started, people like jazzman Clement 'Sir Coxsone' Dodd spent a lot of his cotton-picking earnings to bring back records (78 rpms) of the music from Florida with the distinctive blues as well as rhythm and blues sounds to play on his box, called a sound system.

In time, these sound systems moved from their local surroundings of Pound Road (now called Maxfield Avenue) and South Race Course (home of Lord Koos) and eventually took over the dancing halls everywhere - and not just in Kingston.

The sound systems began substituting for road bands as they could play very long hours (without tiring) and the music was for both dancing and listening, as they played what could be called jazz and blues (what a term!).

The jazz part really got respectable when bandleader Milton McPherson promoted a two-night concert at The Ward Theatre called Fashions In Jazz (I can't remember the year). But what gave jazz an extended popular music life was the series of Jazz Concerts - Carnegie Hall Style also at The Ward Theatre, devised by me and piano player civil servant land surveyor, Lloyd Adams. We kept up this series from 1954-58 with no foreign act, just Jamaican musicians and artistes.

It can be remembered that on the day of the first concert of the series only one ticket was booked, that by jazz lover Dudley Ball, but at showtime the 900-seat Ward Theatre was bursting at its seams, including the fowl coop gallery.

Jazz, the classical black music, was at the top of its game, later being included in Stephen & Dorothy Hill's Celebrity Concert Series which first brought mostly white classical music. But later came international acts like the legendary Louis Armstrong, fantastic piano virtuoso young Oscar Peterson, breathtaking jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, a new (at the time) sensation, jazz singer Carmen McRae, who reportedly has Jamaican roots and the top of the modern jazz singers, the Divine Sarah Vaughan.

These top acts could not be accommodated at The Ward Theatre alone, so the new Russell Graham run 1900-seater Carib Theatre and even the open air Tropical Theatre on Slipe Road had to be pulled in to satisfy the jazz audiences of the day.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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