MIDTOWN JAZZ 30th Anniversary GALA Review by Gregg Culling

Last night, Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church, at 54th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York City, celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Midtown Jazz series in great style. The evening was dedicated to the memory of Edmund Anderson, creator of the series, along with his wife Joan Uttal Anderson, and also singer/teacher/actress Barbara Lea who was its host for many of those years. The current producer of the series Ronny Whyte presided over the evening’s festivities.

The Russ Kassoff Big Band began the proceedings, held in the sanctuary of the church, with an appropriate opener: Horace Silver’s “The Preacher,” which showed off the 16-piece band and its instrumental soloists. Their vocalist Catherine Du Puis joined them for a fresh and thrilling arrangement of Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night.”

Jazz Pastor Emeritus Dale Lind told a bit of the history of St. Peter’s Church and its association with jazz. The congregation, he said, will soon celebrate its 150th anniversary, having begun on the second floor of a grain store on East 49th Street which served the horse stables nearby. The jazz performances began more than 50 years ago because of all the performers, and the leadership of the church that was interested in that music.

A regular guest of the jazz series, and a frequent “understudy” as producer, Eric Comstock said he owes much of his musical education having attended many of the performances here. He chose Lane/Harburg’s “Old Devil Moon” in an unusual wandering rhythm and harmonic version that was quite wonderful indeed. Jazz great Bucky Pizzarelli was joined by Ed Laub on duo guitars for a beautiful rendition of Claude Thornhill’s “Snowfall.” Afterwards, Joan Uttal’s son Bro spoke a bit of his mother, telling about her stints as a TV actress and director, and voice-over coach, and also saying that he remembers her wedding to Edmund Anderson where Duke Ellington served as best man.

Jay Leonhart sang a fun song about his wife’s long-held secrets (as a girl she saw the Dodgers play at Ebbets Field), and singer/pianist Alex Leonard, with Jay, sang and played a snappy version of “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive,” after which singer Patty Dunn scatted through “A Foggy Day.”

One of the highlights of the evening was the performance by Junior Mance, who walked very slowly up to the piano, but his legendary fingers never stopped flying off the keys as he brilliantly showed off his “Broadway” to raucous applause. Brilliant!

The debonair pair of Chris Gillespie on piano and Keith Loftis on sax, from the Hotel Carlyle’s Bemelman Bar, were jawdropping with the combination of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” melding it into a Bach fugue that had to be heard to be believed. Wonderful!

Pianist Lenore Raphael entertained with “If I Were a Bell” that swung and had lost of pep. Jazz trombonist Art Baron, who was the last trombonist Ellington hired, had fun with Tyree Glenn’s “Sultry Serenade” which also became known as “How Could You Do a Thing Like That to Me,” giving it lots of bite, with sudden dynamic changes, and great showmanship.

The incomparable Carol Fredette gave us her take on Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful,” with attitude. Unfortunately, it was much too short and we wished we could have heard more. Marion Cowings sounded younger than ever in a very nice rendition of Harry Warren’s (with Mack Gordon) “I Had the Craziest Dream,” making it sound almost like an Italian streetsong.

Marlene VerPlanck showcased Ronny Whyte’s (and Francesca Blumenthal’s) “The Party Upstairs” from her album “Now.” She’s a pro all the way, and you could tell she was ready to give that guy upstairs what for when she got a hold of him. Ronny afterward read a congratulatory note from Dick Hyman who could not appear (along with several others who had called in sick). Ronny regaled us with his own (with Jack Burns) “Hampton Blues” from his “Whyte on Whyte” CD. It’s always fun to hear how the very wealthy can also have the blues, like when the maid is away and they can’t find the gin, or they have to go for more Botox and/or Viagra. Poor things.

Daryl Sherman told of the legend of “Flamingo” by Edmund Anderson and Theo Grouya, and Herb Jeffries’ famous recording of it in the early 40’s which became a big hit on the hit parade even though Anderson scolded Jeffries for singing the wrong lyrics. Jeffries later said that most people are delivered into the world by stork, but he came by flamingo! Daryl played and sang all the correct notes and lyrics, and made them all proud.

The Russ Kassoff Big Band reunited, again with vocalist Du Puis, for a terrific arrangement of the Barbour/Lee hit “It’s a Good Day,” full of brass and pep and zingers. The Band ended with a piece dedicated to several of Kassoff’s idols including Steve Jobs and George Mesterhazy. His arrangement combined Lennon’s “Imagination” with Bricusse/Newley’s “Pure Imagination” that began with some powerful and rich harmonies,to end the program.

Happy 30th Anniversary to Midtown Jazz at Saint Peter’s!

~ Gregg Culling, NYC

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