Riverwalk Jazz Presents "A Night at Bricktop's: Jazz in 1930s' Montmartre"


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Beginning Thursday, October 7, Riverwalk Jazz, heard nationwide on Public Radio International and Sirius/XM, will present a special broadcast on Ada 'Bricktop' Smith, who played barkeep to the “Lost Generation" of international ex-patriots living in Paris in the 1930s.

The broadcast will feature frequent guest singer/actors Vernel Bagneris and Topsy Chapman, who offer narratives drawn from the memoirs of Bricktop and Langston Hughes. The Jim Cullum Jazz band is joined by pianist Shelly Berg and Django Reinhardt-inspired guitarist Paul Mehling. Check the Riverwalk Jazz website at http://www.riverwalkjazz.org for local listings.

Bricktop, the red-haired, cigar-smoking American singer made the jump from Harlem to Montmartre—and her nightclubs became all the rage. A Who's Who of musicians clamored to play there. The glitterati of the 30s knew hers was the place for ultra-chic, café society.

Born Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith in 1894, to her black father and mulatto mother, the baby's flaming red hair earned her another name—Bricktop. She was a teenager when she got her first job in show business on Chicago's South Side and wound up a headliner in Harlem's top Jazz Age cabarets.

But Paris was Bricktop's magic charm. Her bistro was a beacon for Parisian nightlife. The international set gathered there to bask in her hospitality and enjoy each other's company. Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot wrote about her. Cole Porter gave her gowns and furs, and even composed a song for her. And F. Scott Fitzgerald once quipped, “My greatest claim to fame is that I met Bricktop before Cole Porter."

Bricktop ran several clubs in Montmartre. Her spot on Place Pigalle was a combination nightclub, mail drop, bank and neighborhood bar for the most elegant people in Paris. Bricktop would leave the stage and walk around the tables, stopping to rub a bald head, kiss a cheek, or tell a joke.

In 1931, Brick moved into the grand, old nightclub—The Monico and hired singer Mabel Mercer. She booked only the best musicians—Sidney Bechet and Django Reinhart played for Brick. When Louis Armstrong was in town, he came by to play, as did Fats Waller and Duke Ellington.

Bricktop's great musical guardian angel was the supreme master of popular song—Cole Porter. She taught his friends the latest New York dance craze at his 'Charleston cocktail parties' and he introduced her to the set that would become her loyal clientele. Cole was the only person who had a special table reserved for him—at all times—at Bricktop's. No one else was ever allowed to sit there, even when the club was packed, and the Porters were in New York. Not even the Prince of Wales got such royal treatment. Through the years, Cole Porter found ways to show Bricktop that her affection was returned. He composed his tune “Miss Otis Regrets" for her to perform and it became her signature.

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