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8/28/09

A Count, a Diva, a Finkel and a Blimp...


It was forty years ago. George Wein had begun to dilute his Newport Festival with pop additives and there had been a riot in that idyllic place. We were having our own jazz festival in New York and Dan Morgenstern, then editor of Down Beat, wanted a review, so he asked me to attend the Schaefer Jazz Festival, at Randall Island's Downing Stadium. It too had been diluted, but the lineup was interesting. I had lost my friend Timme Rosenkrantz two weeks earlier, so I could use the kind of tonic such festivals can be. Then, too, what the hell, the magazine's $15 fee for a Caught in the Act piece would at least get me transportation and a couple of beers. As it turned out, I would gladly have paid $15 for the shows I witnessed. Here—almost as published—is what I turned in for the October 30, 1960 issue.

The 1969 New York Jazz Festival ran for four nights on two consecutive weekends. The following report covers the final two concerts, Aug. 23 and 24, and is intended more as a review of the festival itself than of the “acts.”

Saturday night’s proceedings were scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. By 7:30, no announcements had been made and only an occasional glimpse of pianist Les McCann wandering around the bandstand indicated that there might be some music in the offing. That hint grew somewhat stronger at 7:40, when the piano was delivered. Ten minutes later, an emcee calling himself Sad Sam waddled on stage and proceeded with strained joviality to hurl inanities at the remarkably patient audience.

It was 8 o’clock before McCann (With Leroy Vinnegar, bass; Donald Dean, drums; Buck Clarke, conga) was able to start, but no sooner had the quartet begun the second chorus of Sunny than pandemonium broke loose. In a mad scramble, the $4.50 to $8 ticket holders descended on the $10 “VIP” Section, stepping on the toes of those legitimately there and, in many cases, securing better seats.

As soon as calm was restored, McCann and Co. tackled Sunny again, but it was no use—this time the competition came in the form of microphone feedback. There followed a ten-minute audio maintenance delay and a second invasion of the VIP section. This time the invaders, folding chairs in hand, filled up the aisles and all other open space in the higher-priced section. All this took place without any form of intervention from the festival’s officials or security guards.

Finally, at 8:20, McCann was able to bring Sunny to a natural conclusion. The sanctified beat continued with Burnin’ That Coal and led to With These Hands, a ballad on which the pianist also sang, then ended with McCann the Soul singer making social commentary with a song entitled Compared To What.

A young singer “all the way from Long Island” was next. Todd Finkel no more belongs in a jazz festival then does Liberace, but then, this was a jazz festival in name only. Even at this early stage, the unintended comic relief provided by Finkel was actually welcomed.

I daresay that Finkel might do well at the resorts or on the Ed Sullivan Show, but the stadium crowd was not ready for his gyration-accompanied Light My Fire. There was no fire there.

This painfully inept performance brought on nervous laughter which had not yet subsided when, in the desperate voice of one who knows he’s bombing out, Finkel bravely announced “a tribute to that great lady whom we all loved so much, Billie Holiday.”

Considering the soul-forsaken rendition of God Bless the Child that followed, and the mood of the predominantly black crowd, it is quite possible that a passing blimp spared Finkel from even greater embarrassment than the one he suffer.

The airship, hovering majestically above the stadium, slightly behind the bandstand, was one of those flying billboards. As soon as the crowd, inattentive to the performance on stage, spotted the ever-changing, flashing, multi-colored messages that moved from the airship’s bow to its stern, they became a modern-day Greek chorus, their voices rising in perfect unison. E-N...J-O-Y Y-O-U-R V-AC-A...T-I-O-N ... each letter was held until the next one appeared ... D-R-I-V-E S-A-F...E-L-Y-the messages kept coming while Finkel’s voice occasionally emerged from the poorly lit stage, “Mama may have, papa may have ...” A paper cup flew toward the singer as the crowd continued its incongruous chant. It missed, and the bewildered performer continued until, as if by design, his voice mike went dead.

The circus continued with Hugh Masekela. Clad in a Texas-cum-mod outfit, he received a tumultuous welcome from his dashiki-sporting fans. I won’t go into the music any more than I would review an art exhibit in the dark. As a matter of fact, the metaphor can be taken literally, since, sound system aside, Masekela and his men almost did perform in the dark.

One of the spotlights that constituted the stage lighting seemed to be out. However, it soon became clear that both spotlights were indeed on—one of the operators simply had poor aim and was missing the stage! Throughout both nights, a soloist would often find himself in total darkness while a stagehand was bathed in light. Add to that the thoroughly inadequate sound system, and you can imagine what a nightmare it all must have been for the performers.

Comedian Redd Foxx entertained while the stage was being set for the Basie band. His opening promise, “I swear to God and three other white men-you’re gonna have some fun now” was fulfilled and his became the only act of the evening to be spared a technical mishap.

As far as I could determine, Basie’s band played well and drummer Harold Jones propelled it along nicely. There were excellent solos by tenor-saxophonist Lockjaw Davis (especially on Cherokee), Eric Dixon, and trombonist Frank Hoods, and all 12 microphones seemed to be working, albeit somewhat off balance.

More insipid small-talk from increasingly sad Sam and, like the three witches in Macbeth, the Delfonics (the King Sisters of Soul) romped on stage, spouting a deluge of wildly animated r&b hits while a large segment of the audience showed where it really was at.

Woody Herman’s band followed and was sadly disappointing, but then, nothing could possibly have sounded good under the prevailing circumstances. Furthermore, it was now past midnight and the audience, which had not been granted the scheduled intermission, had spent at least five hours in sedentary discomfort while its ears had withstood a solid four hours of abuse.

It is clear that the main attraction of the evening was singer Dionne Warwick, for had it been otherwise, the stadium would have emptied out long before she came on, close to 12:30 a.m.

Preceded by a male vocal trio, the Constellations, Miss Warwick made a rather stagy entrance. Using most of the Herman band and the vocal trio to start things off, she began her opening number, Aquarius, from backstage. No sooner had she appeared than the Constellations’ mike went dead and we were again listening to half a performance. After three of Miss Warwick’s rather uninspired past hits, I’d had more than enough. Just before exiting, I looked back at the crowd, now awake and attentively accepting the acoustically garbled sounds of an idol, their rears and ears surely sore.

Sunday night’s event began 75 minutes late with a very good set by the Lou Donaldson Quintet. Trumpeter Gary Chandler provided one of the highlights of the evening with his obbligato work behind a Donaldson blues vocal. The sound system worked reasonably well (all the instruments could be heard) and the set was marred only by Donaldson’s use of the Varitone, particularly his application of strong reverb in the second chorus of the above-mentioned blues.

Sad Sam was back, but he hadn’t improved (where do producers dig up these emcees? Surely in New York…). He repeated some of his bad jokes of the previous night in introducing the next act, a vocal quartet called the Friends of Distinction.

The Friends were a cross between the Hi Lo’s and the Fifth Dimension, but I don’t believe they are any match for either group. I may be wrong, for a bad sound system can be as deceiving as a funhouse mirror, and unless the female half of the group turned to mime in mid-song, those mikes were dying again. During this set, a repeat of Saturday night’s invasion of the VIP section took place.

Chico Hamilton, sporting a small pigtail, did much to save the evening. His sextet (two trombones, two saxes, bass and drums) gave the program's most musically exciting performance, and much credit for that must go to bass trombonist Jimmy Cheatham, whose arrangements cleverly and most pleasantly combine the humor of jazz past with the seriousness of jazz present. I was also impressed with altoist Steve Potts.

After a hilarious set of her routines, Jackie (Moms) Mabley announced that she was going to “step out of character” to sing her latest hit, Abraham, Martin and John. The audience loved it, but I found it rather maudlin and Miss Mabley’s many plugs for the record (“It’s number two now... buy it, Moms needs the money,” etc.) rendered her tears incongruous.

Again, the scheduled intermission was skipped (without a word of explanation) and the program continued with a long but far from dull set by the Unifics. This singing group (four young men) whips around the stage, eight hands gloved in white, creating movements that would make a Siamese temple dancer envious. It’s a Soul group that relates to its audience in much the same way that Bessie Smith and her colleagues must have back in those tent show days. Their choreography was imaginative and their voices good. During a falsetto solo in the group’s second number, a girl in front of me fainted from excitement, and the stadium filled with orgiastic shrieks each time the group struck a suggestive pose.

Hordes of teenagers could be seen exiting the stadium as Lou Rawls stepped in front of a big band and tried to revive a dead mike. It was too far gone; he had to borrow a live one from the sax section.

After a good set by Rawls came Sarah Vaughan. “I brought the Mafia with me,” she said, laughingly, before introducing her trio, all of whom bore Italian names. Then she took a deep bow as she added, “and I’m the moll.”

Miss Vaughan was every bit the diva and she would soon demonstrate how truly cool a seasoned jazz pro can be. With regal majesty, she held the stage and gave a performance that commanded attention from even the rowdiest drinkers in the audience. The piano had been left out in the humid summer air overnight—it was out of tune and some of its keys did not work at all—but Sarah Vaughan seemed undeterred. With a smile, she improvised lyrics and, rather than love, sang about the piano, ”the worst I’ve ever worked with.”

It is hard to say who suffered most from the badly planned, incompetently produced New York Jazz Festival. Surely the performers did, as well as the serious jazz listeners in attendance. Perhaps the sponsors, Schaefer Beer, suffered a different kind of pain at the sight of a competitive brew being sold at the official stands, and by wandering vendors. Ultimately, however, it is jazz itself that must pay the long-term dues for this kind of circus.

Producer Teddy Powell should go back to his record hops until he is ready for the big leagues.

I wonder what became of Todd Finkel.

2 comments:

  1. I have a newsletter called "News and Views" from October, 1969, published by the Cunningham Women's League for Handicapped Children. It announces a show headlined by Todd Finkel and comic Lou Carey. My mom had Mr. Finkel autograph it for me. He wrote, in part,"Peace, Scott." I Googled Mr. Finkel and was eventually directed toward your blog. It's all I could find out about him. His appearance at the Women's League's show came after the Schaeffer Jazz Festival, as it is in his bio. I feel badly for him. I hope he continued to perform, perhaps in venues more suited to his style.

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    1. Thank you for leaving a comment. I, too, hope that Mr. Finkel went on to better things. I have never understood why he was included in this stellar lineup—somebody obviously knew somebody, etc. Then, too, the show's producer was clearly a dabbler and everything that could go wrong, did. The audience was restless and full of Schaeffer, so that contributed to this turning out as a cruel, but surely unforgettable experience for Mr. Finkel.

      I hope you pay my blog another visit.

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