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From Far and Wide

In Denver: Oh, say can you hear?--Daytime jazz club folds in Harlem--Canadians revisit Ellington

By Published: August 17, 2008
Colorado jazz singer Rene Marie's unaccompanied version of the national anthem at a Denver state-of-the-city address in early July called to mind guitarist Jimi Hendrix's blues-rock rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Though city officials and assembled citizens applauded, the stirring lines of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" sent waves of mixed emotion across the country. Mayor John Hickenlooper told The Denver Post that Marie's rendition posed "a distraction from the great work...of our city employees over the past year." It was the singer's first and last performance at a Denver civic event, he allowed. National sentiment was more con than pro. Even Sen. Barack Obama took a stand: "We only have one national anthem," the presidential aspirant told The Rocky Mountain News. "And so, if she was asked to sing the national anthem, she should have sung that." Official anthem since 1931, "The Star Spangled Banner" was a poem by Francis Scott Key written in 1814 and set to an English drinking song by composer John Stafford Smith. "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" was penned by the African-American author James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson in 1899. First performed in 1900, the song today is the unofficial "black national anthem."


Jazz singer Rene Marie delivers an unexpected black national anthem in Denver. Video still: Denver's Channel 8.

A daytime jazz club folded this summer after two and a half years in Harlem, and the July 5 New York Times played up the story. EZ's Woodshed on Adam Clayton Powell Blvd., offering live jazz in the afternoon, charging no cover and selling only soft drinks and coffee, take-in food, art and souvenirs, was a happy place but no moneymaker. The business failed to cover its nut. As owner Gordon Polatnick "sat among the detritus of his experiment—drum kits, stage lights, microphone stands, boxes of Sweet'N Low and plastic forks and knives—he was philosophical. "It's not wrong," Polatnick told the Times reporter. "I just didn't make it happen."

Contacted by this column, Polatnick, 47, charged that reporter Timothy Williams portrayed the owner's mood as "gloriously happy" while his club was struggling. Polatnick said he worried about it every day. "I could not have dreamed that after directing all this time, energy, good will and money to bring some positiveness to a forgotten corner of Harlem, my efforts would be greeted with such a supercilious dismissal," he said in an e-mail. "So many people, from the hundreds of musicians who entertained to the scores of community advocates who offered their talents and passions free of charge, were dissed and ignored by this reporter who was so blinded by my financial missteps that he missed what was clear to almost everyone else: EZ's Woodshed was a beautifully built jazz oasis that brought the best out in people."

The entrepreneur said his business plan was sound enough to persuade the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone to approve a $100,000 loan for the daytime project that drew visitors from as far as New Jersey and Connecticut. "I intend to pay everyone back by building up my ongoing Big Apple jazz tour business." According to the Times, Polatnick said his debt amounted to "about $300,000."

Readers can learn more about Gordon Polatnick's customized Big Apple jazz tours at www.bigapplejazz.com. This JJ editor took a guided evening tour of four clubs several summers ago, and was more than satisfied.


Club owner Gordon Polatnick with two Japanese women guests and bassist Hakim Jami at EZ's Woodshed, in Harlem. Photo courtesy of Gordon Polatnick.

Duke Ellington comes across close-up and relaxed in combo settings with Duke on piano and a rhythm section plus key horn players. Early this summer their laid-back style was invoked in "An Intimate Evening with Duke Ellington," a two-night tribute to the master by the Yardbird Suite All-stars of Edmonton, Canada. Inspired by a Danish TV video of a Duke concert taped in 1967, Senator Tommy Banks, on piano, and seven other top local players plumbed the styles of Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves and other great sidemen. The Copenhagen telecast had the leader in solo and trio settings for one set and an octet in the next. The Canadians got hold of the original arrangements for most of the tunes and left out some others. Audiences approved of what the Edmonton Journal called "a cool mix."

New life for old jazz videos was offered in September for DVD players worldwide, thanks to an initiative by Danish Radio. "In jazz circles, it is definitely not forgotten that many great jazz musicians performed in Denmark 30 to 40 years ago," said Charlotte Gry Madsen of DR International Sales. She named, among others, Bill Evans, videotaped at Louisiana Museum in HumlebÈ—¦k in 1975; videos of Oscar Peterson from 1964 and of Sonny Rollins from Danish jazz festivals in 1965 and 1968. The DVDs are produced as part of their "Jazz Icons" series by a California firm, Reelin' in The Years, which earlier had purchased videos of Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk from the DR archives. "These are rare recordings of high quality, and therefore we have people regularly asking about them," said Madsen. For more information email cgm@dr.dk

There's a photo of Les Paul showing the musical pioneer and namesake of Gibson's most iconic guitar at his 83rd birthday bash in 1998, at the Iridium Jazz Club. But the next decade's celebration was apparently overlooked. The master's 93rd birthday was feted at the same New York venue on June 9, 2008. Les Paul was born June 9, 1915 in Waukesha, WI. His Monday night Iridium shows swing on, at 8:00 and 10:00 pm.

Web hit-of-the-month: We search the Web for good jazz—it's a musical goldmine! Joanne McGinnis of Mission Viejo, California, offers a track from The Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band in Europe, 2007-2008, featuring Woody Allen: http://jerryzigmont.com/Jerry_Zigmont_Music/Jerry_Zigmont_Music.html



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