The Jazz.com Blog
July 22, 2008 · 3 comments
Even if jazz musicians aren't making much money, they soon will be on your money -- be on the lookout for the Duke Ellington quarter. Not to be outdone, the US Postal Service has issued a series of stamps featuring the regal Duke and other icons of African-American music. Jazz.com's arnold jay smith reports on the recent ceremony to commemorate their release. T.G.
Keeping to their penchant of honoring black Americans, the United States Postal Service issued five stamps celebrating movies with all black casts. Three of the five feature jazz or jazz-related icons Duke Ellington's Black and Tan, Louis Jordan's Caldonia, and Josephine Baker's Princess Tam-Tam. The remaining two are The Sport of the Gods, a silent film by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Hallelujah.
Family members spoke at ceremonies held at the Newark Museum in Newark, NJ. In addition, actor Lynne Whitfield, who starred in the Baker bio-flick, hosted the event. She was wearing a white summer dress sans Baker’s bananas, who wore not much else.
The movie's title tune, “Black and Tan Fantasy,” is a jazz classic, and the movie also includes two other tunes and features Fredi Washington with Ellington's Cotton Club Orchestra. This short film has been available for some time and it is an excellent teaching tool showcasing the band with it’s phalanx of stars. Two of Ellington’s four grandchildren, both Duke’s son Mercer’s children — Paul Mercer, who leads the current version of the DE Orchestra, and Mercedes — stepped to the podium to thank the USPS for so honoring their grande pere.
It was the second such honor bestowed upon Duke by the USPS. The first came 1986 as part of the Black Americans series. (It was the last 22 cent stamp issued by the USPS. As a postage increase had already been announced there was never a second printing; it proved to be hard to get.) A very early Ellington composition was called “Three-Cent Stomp.” Mercer adapted an Ellington-Strayhorn tune and called it “22-Cent Stomp.”
Ellington appeared in movies with Amos ‘n’ Andy (Check and Double Check), James Stewart (Anatomy of a Murder), and wrote a score for Paul Newman, Sidney Portier and Louis Armstrong (Paris Blues) as well as many short films under his own name.
Multi-faceted Louis Jordan, who has been called “the other Louis in jazz," was much more than that. Whitfield noted that Jordan was an actor, a dancer, a singer, a forerunner of rap, rhythm & blues and its successor rock and roll, not to mention that he could play any and all reed instruments. And, oh, could he swing! Not only that, Jordan was a crossover juke box favorite who made records with Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and seemingly everyone else on the then hugely popular Decca Records label with arrangements by Sy Oliver. His recordings were charted hits and his music was made into a London West End and Broadway show called “Five Guys Named Moe.” The late actor Ronald Reagan, who went on to greater fame in another field, once appeared with him as a backstage host for a revue. Like Ellington, Jordan made many movies and when their names appeared even under the titles late night crowds gathered. At the stamp ceremony, Jordan’s widow Martha spoke eloquently of him.
Sometimes called “sepia movies,” the flicks played theatres in both white & black neighborhoods often late at night tacked onto the features. Baker’s was another story; she was a bone fide star. The lithe movements and exotic visage of this dancer, plucked from a chorus line, established her as an instant attraction. Jean-Claude Baker, one of the dozen “rainbow tribe” adopted children of Baker, gave an emotional dedication. “Contrary to popular belief Josephine was not drummed out of her country,” he said. “She left voluntarily because she felt freer to do the things she most desired.” However, I seem to remember that there was a tax matter. Baker went on to say that she was given many medals by France, her adopted country, for her work in the WWII resistance underground. “She died a French citizen but never formally renounced her U.S. citizenship, a country she truly loved,” he concluded.
Baker’s dances would be considered flamboyant, perhaps even racist, by today’s standards. She danced nude save that belt of bananas and appeared in African tribal settings. The walls of Jean-Claude’s restaurant, Chez Josephine on West 42nd St. in NYC, are festooned with her likeness including the Princess Tam-Tam movie poster. Dubbed “La Belle Africaine,” Baker occasionally appeared with Ellington. I always felt that Duke’s “Les Plus Belle Africaine" was dedicated to her.
This blog entry posted by arnold jay smith