This I believe…
Our elders possess a well spring of life experiences, and if we just make that effort to look back with them, our lives can be richer for it.
In July of 1941 my dad rode the Los Angeles street car downtown to the Mayan theatre to see a live stage show that literally grabbed his imagination. As he described the experience to me over thirty years later, I could sense that he still felt the power of that show.
“Jump For Joy” featured Duke Ellington’s greatest orchestra “The Blanton Webster Band. It starred Ellington vocalists Ivie Anderson and Herb Jeffries, bluesman Big Joe Turner and a nineteen year old Dorothy Dandridge. “Jump For Joy” entertained with amazing music and dance but also promoted racial equality at a time when our a nation was still in the grip of racial segregation. During the run of the show the Glendale chapter of the Ku Klux Klan picketed “Jump For Joy.” The producers and one of the actors, Paul White who sang the song, “I Got A Passport From Georgia”, received death threats.
My dad passed away in 1984 and it wasn’t until about twenty years later I thought back to what he said about “Jump for Joy.” I started to research on the internet and found that Herb Jeffries, who had been a friend of my dad, was 92 years young and living up in the local mountains. When I contacted him he and his wife invited me up to visit. I videotaped our discussions. When he got around to “Jump For Joy”, I sat mesmerized.
I became obsessed with finding out as much as I could about the show and the people in it. I found four other surviving members of the cast, comedian Wonderful Smith, and dancers Henry “Phace” Roberts, Avanelle Harris and Alice Key. All were in their nineties. All spoke on camera about the show and described “Jump For Joy” as perhaps the high water mark of their careers. One introduction led to another and another.
Suddenly, I realized that I had unwittingly documented with my camera not just “Jump For Joy,” but fragments of the Central Avenue Jazz Scene in Los Angeles and the era of 1930’s and 40’s African American entertainment in general.
A few people with vivid recollections didn’t want to go on camera, but most did. As I write this, Alice and Avanelle and Herb are thankfully still with us. But for Wonderful and Phace and others related to the show, we have a video record. The camera captured the twinkle in their eyes and those precious memories of a transcendent moment when their special talents aligned with Duke Ellington’s grand creative experiment in a trying era.
I turned on the camera, just sat back and listened. It was an unforgettable experience.
This I believe.
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