Friday, July 06, 2007
Jazz Museum Honors Pianist Norman Simmons Thursday, July 12th
Jazz Museum Honors Pianist Norman Simmons Thursday, July 12th
The National Jazz Museum in Harlem
104 East 126th Street
New York, NY 10035
The Jazz Museum Honors Pianist Norman Simmons
Norman Simmons, Pianist
Thursday, July 12, 2007
This series is free and open to the public.
Pianist Norman Simmons is a consummate musician, best known for his ability to connect with jazz singers like Carmen McRae, Anita O'Day, and Joe Williams. Much more than just an accompanist, Simmons is an extremely accomplished soloist, arranger, composer and educator. Come hear him discuss his life and career at the offices of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, 104 E. 126th Street on July 12th, 6:30-8:30 p.m.
Born in Chicago in 1929, Simmons' childhood was filled with the sound of the big band era in full bloom. In particular, he was captivated by Duke Ellington Orchestra broadcasts coming over a neighbor's radio.
He started teaching himself at the family piano, but recalls that his playing and foot-stomping to keep time weren't very well-received by the downstairs neighbors. Undeterred, Simmons progressed quickly. At age 16, he enrolled in the Chicago School of Music, where he completed his studies in four years.
A motivated young musician, Simmons formed his own group in 1949 and began recording in 1952. His composition “Jan” was a hit for tenor saxophonist Paul Bascomb in 1953. Simmons kept a steady gig leading the house trio at Chicago's hottest jazz club, The Beehive, where his group would back touring greats like saxophonists Wardell Gray, Lester Young and Charlie Parker. Later, after leading a nonet at the C & C Lounge, Simmons began accompanying jazz singers in 1958 and quickly earned a reputation as an exceptional accompanist.
In 1960, Davis recommended Simmons to vocalist Carmen McRae, who had a reputation for being extremely demanding of accompanists. But the skilled and versatile pianist exceeded McRae's high expectations and they spent the next nine years performing and recording together.
In 1969, Simmons decided to pursue new musical avenues with other vocalists. With Betty Carter and Anita O'Day, he found greater freedom to improvise and his soloing prowess crystallized. In 1979, he began his long-standing collaboration with singer Joe Williams.
Williams and Simmons shared a simpatico that's in the league of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, Ella Fitzgerald and Tommy Flanagan, and Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. It can be heard throughout their music, especially on songs like “You Can Depend on Me.”
Simmons' ability to challenge himself and other musicians carries over into his work as an educator. He began teaching at Paterson State College in New Jersey in 1982 and also participated in the Jazzmobile program for 20 years, fostering music education at New York's public schools. Simmons' dedication to his students is equal to his commitment to jazz itself.
Simmons insists he enjoys helping others excel: “I always get a lot of satisfaction knowing that I pushed someone up to the skies.” His contributions undoubtedly provide even greater satisfaction to jazz musicians, students and audiences everywhere.
On Friday, June 29th, the Harlem Speaks series collaborated with the Riverside Theatre's New York Family Arts Festival to present a tribute to a living legend of swing dance, Frankie Manning. The evening began in the Riverside Theatre (located within the Riverside Church in Morningside Heights) with Jazz Museum Executive Director, Loren Schoenberg, interviewing the 93 year old lindy hop master. Cynthia R. Millman, co-author of the auto-biography, Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop, joined them on stage.
“This is the first time I've seen so much of my family in one place,” said Manning in response to the standing ovation he received upon his entrance.
Born on May 26, 1914, Manning lived in Jacksonville, Florida until the age of 3, at which time his mother Lucille brought him to Harlem, the birthplace of the Lindy. “She was the dancer of the family,” he recalled. Manning says that she danced the more formal social dances such as the fox trot and the tango, but that he most enjoyed seeing her get down on “blues nights” at Harlem rent parties doing the Charleston, the Black Bottom, and the Mess Around.
It was at one of those famed rent parties that Manning made a key finding. An older woman took him onto the dance floor to slow drag, also known as “the grind.”
“That's when I discovered I was a man!”
He also talked about growing up in the midst of this Swing Era playground, and his role as part of a group of dedicated dancers that inspired the dance styles and music of the 1930's and 40's. Based at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, he took his talent on the road as a dancer and chief choreographer for Whitey's Lindy Hoppers.
From Harlem's ballrooms at age 13, dancing at the Savoy Ballroom and the Cotton Club, to the elite Whitey's Lindy Hoppers as a dancer and choreographer, Frankie Manning has always been a major force behind the development of the dance that's truly an American art form. He is credited with not only creating the first airstep, but also the first ensemble Lindy Hop routine.
He discussed how he developed his lindy hop innovations--dancing to records, practicing and adapting variations on the moves of others to his own style, and his unique upper body movements, where he would be almost horizontal. “You look like you're flying,” he's often been told.
His influence can be seen in the moves of Michael Jackson, and in the fast-steppin' of the Brooklyn-based Jitterbug Kids, who danced up a storm in honor of Manning.
Manning also recalled the great big bands and musicians he adored-- Jimmie Lunceford, Jo Jones, Chu Berry, Ben Webster--and witnessing jam sessions 'til the wee hours of the morning among Louis Armstrong, Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman. He told us about the call and response between himself and Dizzy Gillespie, and a command performance for the Queen of England. “I was so flustigated that I curtsied!”
He said that there were 5,000 dancers inside and as many outside of the Savoy Ballroom the night of the iconic battle between the orchestras of Chick Webb and Benny Goodman. Although he gave the nod to Webb, Manning said that the dancers were the real winners that night.
The same holds true for the hundreds in attendance, many of whom stood in line to get an autographed copy of the aforementioned biography, or who danced in the South Hall of the Riverside Church to the sounds of the Jazz Museum in Harlem Big Band. After he finished the book signing, Manning led the crowd in a shimmy shaking soiree so swinging that the blues just gave up.