Friday, March 13, 2009

Day One: The bus trip to Hell

If this is Hell, you can have Heaven. The annual Tribute kicked off with another great bus tour. Among the highlights was a visit to the Grand Ballroom on Cottage Grove near 60th Street in Chicago. It's one of the last of its kind. The area around the University of Chicago used to have a lot of great ballrooms, including the Midway Gardens (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) and the Trianon Ballroom, the sister to the still standing Aragon Ballroom on Chicago's North Side. The latter two are long gone, but the Grand, an impressive yet modest ballroom remains.

A lot of great people were on the bus, including my seat mate, Leah LeBrea of the West End Jazz Band, and my buddy Yves Francois. Those two later hooked up at the jam session at a Racine bar, the name of which escapes me at the moment. Yves played wonderful trumpet with a plunger mute, while Leah was her usual solid self on banjo.

Several videos were played on the bus as we made our way to the appointed stops. They included Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, both examples of all-black musicals of the 1940s. Stormy Weather was the better of the two, less abounding in stereotypes and filled with wonderful entertainment from such great cast members as Bill Robinson, Lena Horne, Fats Waller and Cab Calloway.

Other stops on the tour were the gravesite of bandleader Charley Straight, who once employed Bix, and the Elmhurst historical museum, which has an exhibit on Chicago jazz that boasted such artifacts as Benny Goodman's clarinet and music book and an award given to Louis Armstrong by Down Beat magazine, which was published in Elmhurst. The Elmhurst exhibit was good, but a lot of names were misspelled.

Earlier, we visited the Oriental Theater, which I had never seen before. An excessively ornate interior designed by Rapp & Rapp included a combination elephant and sea horse meant to symbolize Chaos (it succeeded). There were restrictions imposed by the tour guide: no pictures in the theater itself and apparently no mention of the Iroquois Theater, on the ruins of which the Oriental stands.


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