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The Rebirth of Cool
A Jazz Renaissance In Southeast Queens

By Shams Tarek

Scores of Southeast Queens residents and the greater New York music community turned out under light drizzle this week to pay respects to late local jazzman Edwin Swanston.

Hank Turner blows his horn
at South Jamaica’s Carmichael’s Diner, which is sponsoring a St. Albans jazz festival on July 19.

PRESS Photo By Shams Tarek

Swanston was a Hollis pianist who recorded tracks with legend Louis Armstrong in the 1930s and 1940s and was one of two surviving original members of the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, widely cited in jazz circles as the most authentic swing band in the world.

His June 18 funeral at the Roy L. Gilmore Funeral Home in St. Albans marked the end of an era for a lot of local musicians and jazz fans.

But with death comes a possible rebirth; as they paid respects, many of Swanston’s admirers were also quietly planning – through a big concert and new historical society – a renaissance of jazz in Southeast Queens.

A St. Albans Tribute

The new era of recognition will begin with a six-hour jazz festival in St. Albans, once home to dozens of internationally-known jazz celebrities and still home to many working and amateur musicians.

Hollis pianist Edwin Swantston, second from left, died at age 80 on June 13. He poses with fellow member of the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, which is performing at a July 19 jazz festival in St. Albans Park.

The 1st Annual St. Albans Jazz Festival, an outdoor celebration to be held at 4 p.m. on July 19 at the neighborhood’s namesake park, is meant to “pay tribute to the legacy of St. Albans jazz greats and celebrate the history and contributions of a great neighborhood, its people and its traditions,” according to Carl Clay, director of the Black Spectrum Theatre Company, which is organizing the event.

The St. Albans All-Star Band, put together just for performing at the free event, will be one of the main acts.

The musicians will include:
• Howie Grate, drums
• Omaje Allan Gumbs, piano
• David Jackson, bass
• Bill Jacobs, vibes
• Steve Kroon, congos and percussion
• James Spaulding, alto sax

The current incarnation of the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band will also perform, as will Q-5, a youth jazz band featuring a dozen kids from St. Albans; The Casey Benjamin Band, also from the neighborhood; The Jazz Gents, a band of adolescents and young adults from the Manhattan School of Music featuring a couple of area musicians; and a guest female vocalist.

Mike Dawson of St. Albans is creating The St. Albans Historical Jazz Society.
Courtesy Mike Dawson

Mona Hinton, the wife of late legend Milt Hinton and grand marshal of the festival, will be given a “special presentation,” according to organizers, but details aren’t known yet.  Hinton, who has the St. Albans street where he lived named after him, is considered a one of the founders of modern jazz bass through his work with fellow Queens residents and legends Armstrong, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie.

Awards will also be given to living legends who used to call—and some still do—St. Albans home.

They include:

• Drummer Roy Haynes, who backed up stars like Lester Young, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie for years and is now being recognized as a bandleader himself

• Drummer Walter Perkins, who has worked with bassist Charles Mingus and now leads the house band on Wednesday nights at Jamaica’s Carmichael’s Diner

• Flutist Frank Wess, known as one of the first major jazz flutists

• Saxophone player Jimmy Heath, who has worked with Gillespie and has been called “Little Bird” because of his similarity to virtuoso Charlie “Bird” Parker

Past legends from St. Albans, like John Coltrane and Lester Young, will also be honored at the event.

The festival, which is starting right after the end of the neighborhood’s “Family Day” celebration, will also be a forum for local historians to present information about St. Albans and its jazz heroes, according to organizers.

The festival is being sponsored by Black Spectrum, along with all of St. Albans’ elected officials.  Carmichael’s Diner and The Door, two local venues for live jazz, as well as the NAACP and other local jazz advocates, are also sponsors.

Organizers are currently looking for more help in putting together the festival. For more information about the festival and how to participate, call Black Spectrum Theatre at (718) 723-1800.

New Jazz Society

Mike Dawson, a St. Albans resident and percussionist who often plays congas with the house band at Carmichael’s Diner, talks with wide eyes and in hushed tones about being able to work with Perkins and the other jazz veterans in the group.

His eyes open wider and his voice gets more earnest when he talks about another project he’s working on – one that he likes to tell people is going to turn his neighborhood into a focal point for jazz fans and historians around the world.

Dawson and his partner Billy Mitchell are days away from incorporating The St. Albans Historical Jazz Society, which Dawson’s been thinking about for years, planning for months and and for which he has now created a formal mission statement.

Performance and education, especially for young people not widely exposed to jazz, will be the first priorities of the Society, which Dawson hopes will get a lot of support after next month’s festival.

The Society will aim to increase the number of jazz performances and events in Southeast Queens, according to Dawson, with an insistence that they also teach people about the history and techniques of the genre.

“Right now the mission from God for me is trying to educate these kids,” Dawson said.

Preservation and recognition will be the second priorities of the Society, said Dawson, who noted that there are so many jazz and other black music legends from the area that “it’s like something in the water in Southeast Queens.”

Dawson wants to establish a “living monument” in St. Albans Park that will recognize both past and present jazz musicians from the area who’ve made significant contributions to the music.

Dawson also wants the Society to have an element of community service to it, looking for it to “develop social reforms within the community” and “promote positive artists and music.”

The Borough Of Legends

St. Albans, as well as the rest of Southeast Queens and other parts of the borough, has been home to some of the biggest names in jazz history.  Here’s just a sampling of them, with an extremely condensed description of each of their instruments.  

St. Albans

Count Basie (piano)
Brook Benton (vocals)
Earl Bostic (saxophone)
James Brown (vocals)
John Coltrane (saxophone)
“Wild Bill” Davis (piano/organ)
Ella Fitzgerald (vocals)
Roy Haynes (drums)
Milt Hinton (bass)
Billie Holiday (vocals)
Lena Horne (vocals)
Illinois Jacquet (saxophone)
Slam Stewart (bass/vocals)
Fats Waller (piano/vocals)
Frank Wess (flute/saxophone)
Lester Young (saxophone/clarinet)  

Jamaica and Hollis

Buck Clayton (trumpet)
Roy Eldridge (trumpet)
Milt Jackson (vibraphone)
James P. Johnson (piano)
Charles Mingus (bass)
Charles “Cootie” Williams (trumpet)  

Western Queens (Corona, Jackson Heights, Sunnyside)

Cannonball Adderly (saxophone)
Nat Adderly (trumpet)
Louis Armstrong (trumpet/vocals)
Bix Beiderbecke (cornet)
Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet)
Benny Goodman (clarinet)
Jimmy Heath (saxophone)
Glenn Miller (trombone)

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