REVIEW: New York Jazz Night Out

Billy Eckstine at the world famous Blue Note

Billy Eckstine at the world famous Blue Note

New York; eternal Mecca for the hipster. The upper echelons of fine dining and sophisticated jazz. A place where clubs like the Blue Note still throb with a decadent groove downstairs in basement caves. Yes, brother, if you can’t get it in Manhattan it ain’t worth gettin’.

That’s why about 150 lucky fans stood in line for two hours to catch the memorial tribute to vocalist Billy Eckstine at the world famous Blue Note. They packed the internationally mixed crowd into this smoky dark jazz temple with no room for petty segregations.

Fine upper West Side ladies sat with young black cats in baseball caps, performers sat next to jazz fans and I had the pleasure of sharing my table with two charming jazz lovers from Spain.

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The first two acts of the evening were quite forgettable, but when all of the tuxes and horns hit the stage, there was no mistake that the Duke Ellington Orchestra had arrived. Under the direction of Mercer Ellington they made their presence known with a churning and bumping version of ‘Take The A Train’. We’re talking real Park Avenue ballroom swing with arrangements that jumped from sweet ensemble to 150MPH straight ahead.

The sax section was dripping, dipping and sliding all the way like one huge jazz monster, and the crowd responded in turn with shouts, claps and whistles. Then three tunes later up popped John Hendricks to belt out ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing’ and carry on a scat solo that sounded so much like a tenor sax that I had to do a double take.

While Hendricks and the band wailed, this funny cat with thick glasses sat down at the table across from me and started bobbing his head to the beat. I noticed that he was looking for a light, so I reached over and fired him up.

After a powerful upbeat set by young vocalist Judy Bady, I found out that this strange character was the legendary Little Jimmy Scott. Soon he was up on the stage to eulogize Mr. B as “The crusader for the cause o all black jazz vocalist.” and to croon ‘All Of Me’ in his slightly feminine falsetto voice.

At least 100 people were still waiting in the cold New York night for a chance to sneak in while musicians cavorted upstairs and drifted in and out of the club. The band was playing ‘Caravan’ as glasses clanked and food shuffled across tables. Sylvia, lcmme and I were joined by big momma Melba Joyce who provided light commentary on the parade of performers. Later that night she got up and rocked the house with some powerful scat, too.

{xtypo_quote_right}When Little Jimmy caught me taking notes he shrieked, “You can’t write notes on paper and shit. That’s soul!”{/xtypo_quote_right}There was no mistaking the next vocalist, though. Tony Bennett described Mr. B’s legacy as “…making love to great music.”

Then he and his silver tie with diamond stickpin made love to ‘Stella By Starlight’ while women with distinctly New Jersey accents shouted, “We love you Tony!” It all got very suave. I saw a club promoter hug this thin dude in a Stetson and cry “Godfather!” Phyllis Hyman dished up a witty tune with Grady Tate on drums, despite her sore throat. I was stunned though, when Grady came from behind the set and brought the house down with his sweet steady voice on ‘Body and Soul’. It certainly is a rare find a drummer as talented as Grady who can sing with the best of them.

Speaking of the best, Andy Bey was a treat. This piano player with a VSOP voice gave Chet Baker’s version of ‘They’re Singing Songs Of Love, But Not For Me’ some sweet and stylish competition. In fact, he prompted Little Jimmy Scott to proudly shout “I raised him up!” as Andy vindicated the earlier abused ‘When A Bee Lies Sleeping’.

His tone control and vibrato are on par with Nat King Cole and he can sing the blues a gritty as a Mississippi Delta levee. When Little Jimmy caught me taking notes he shrieked, “You can’t write notes on paper and shit. That’s soul!” Yeah you right Jimmy. Andy Bey is to be heard and not described.

It was creeping past 2a.m. and the five glasses of red wine were beginning to effect my attention span. I could tell it was time for Little Jimmy to go to bed too. He was pitching and bucking in his seat screaming, “Shut up and sing!” to vocalist who had waited all-night for a chance to pay tribute to Mr. B.

I was brought to consciousness by the thunderous chords of Bobby Enriche on the piano. He was literally pounding up and down the keyboard like Thelonius Monk on speed. With the help of Tony Mofit on drums this trio churned out another hour’s worth of furious jazz.

By 3 a.m. though, it was definitely time to leave. The overweight, out of tune, fusion violinist dressed in black who was now causing a club mass exodus had apparently triggered some seizure in Little Jimmy Scott who began cursing and swinging at the knees of Ben Duncan, tonight’s master of ceremonies. Little Jimmy was tactfully removed by the doorman while Ben and I mused over the possibility that the violinist was entirely tone deaf.

I cut out and caught a cab back uptown. For all good things must come to an end and judging from the songs and stories of more than 20 performers who took part in this show, the life and music of Mr. Billy Eckstine was an extraordinarily good thing.?

This article originally appeared in Sin Magazine.