I had the pleasure of attending the annual Chicago Architecture Foundation’s open house on October 17th and visited a number of fascinating sites, but none as incredible as the site of the former Sunset Cafe. According to the WBEZ website (that’s Chicago’s National Public Radio station), “The Sunset Cafe, also known as The Grand Terrace Cafe, was a jazz club in Chicago, Illinois operating during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. It was one of the most important jazz clubs in America, especially during the period between 1917 and 1928 when Chicago became a creative capital of jazz innovation and again during the emergence of bebop in the early 1940s. From its inception, the club was a rarity as a haven from segregation, since the Sunset Cafe was an integrated or “Black and Tan” club where Afro- and Euro- Americans, along with other ethnicities, could mingle freely without much fear of reprisal. Owned by Louis Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser, the venue played host to such performers as Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Johnny Dodds, Bix Beiderbecke, Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and, above all, Earl “Fatha” Hines and his orchestra’s members: Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan.”
As I stepped up into the area that is now the manager’s office at the Ace Hardware that inhabits the building, I realized that this was the stage, the exact same stage where Satchmo had performed, along with these other jazz heroes and heroines. Chills. Here are a few photos that show what it looks like today. The original artwork that appeared on the back of the stage wall is still there, although it has been covered in places with fixtures, like a vent and cabinetry.
There was also a large sign in the front of the store that they had removed from storage for the open house, a sign that advertised the brunch at the Grand Terrace, which was the second incarnation of the Sunset Cafe. My jaw dropped when I saw the musical performer advertised as Sun Ra. I asked the docents on duty at the site, but they had no idea who Sun Ra even was! Herman Poole “Sonny” Blount (he wasn’t known as Sun Ra until 1952), settled on Chicago’s South Side in 1946. He performed at “Chicago clubs such as Kirk’s Grand Terrace, the Vincennes Lounge, Parkway Ballroom and Budland,” according to the University of Chicago.
Anyway, back to Satchmo. Having just combed through Star Newspaper archives all summer long, and having written about Girl Satchmo (Kentris Fagan) for Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music, I thought about Louis Armstrong in Jamaica. I knew he had performed on the stages in Kingston and throughout Jamaica, just as he had on this stage in Chicago, although in Chicago his manager owned this stage so Satchmo was more of a regular here instead of a visiting musician. I went back through some of my records and found that Satchmo indeed did visit Jamaica, a number of times, and because Satchmo was born in New Orleans, and Jamaicans were able to receive radio transmissions from New Orleans radio stations on a clear night, and because jazz was prevalent throughout Jamaican clubs, Satchmo was very popular in Jamaica. His films, like High Society, were screened at theaters like the Rialto.
When Satchmo first visited Jamaica in 1957, it was big news. The Daily Gleaner ran stories on his every move–when he came into Palisadoes Airport, where he would appear, etc. He stated in the article below, “I have met several Jamaican musicians in the United States and it’s a pleasure to be here.” One of the greeters at the airport was none other than Ken Khouri of Federal Records.
Satchmo and his wife Lucille were greeted by the mayors of Kingston and Montego Bay, gossip columnist Kitty Kingston revealed that he was serenaded at the airport by a calypso band and hounded by fans for autographs at the Myrtle Bank Hotel where he stayed, and after his last performance during his 1957 visit, the ambassadors to the American consulate on the island, gave him a private party at their Barbican Heights home.
That calypso band who regaled Satchmo with Caribbean tunes? None other than Lord Tanamo and Count Lasher!
Satchmo returned to Jamaica in 1960 to perform again, and he always remained popular.
When Louis Armstrong died, it was front page news in Jamaica.
It was in 1962 in London that Louis Armstrong met Girl Satchmo, Kentris Fagan, but it wasn’t the first time. A caption in the Star Newspaper on June 28m, 1962 beneath a photo of the two together states, “Satchmo and his girl imitator: In London last month for a Daily Mirror party, world-famous entertainer Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong meets for the second time the only known female imitator of his unique style of singing. Jamaican-born Kentris (Girl Satchmo) Fagan is all smiles as they pose for the camerman. First meeting was in Jamaica in 1957 when Kentris was emerging from Mr. and Mrs. Vere Johns “Opportunity Hour” and “Opportunity Knocks” shows. She has been very successful in England and on the Continent and her records have been smash hits. Kentris expects to be in Jamaica for the Independence Celebrations.”
You can read all about Girl Satchmo in my book. She was quite a phenomenon and after her career imitating Satchmo, she used her vocal abilities to record a number of gospel records. Here’s a small excerpt:
In the late 1960s, Girl Satchmo then turned to a different label for her recordings and she partnered with Tommy McCook and the Supersonics for producer Duke Reid on Treasure Isle in Jamaica, and Fab and Trojan in the U.K. The songs, “I’m Coming Home” and “Take You For a Ride,” still featured her gravely growl that punctuated her natural singing style. But Girl Satchmo was more than a novelty act—she had real talent, real business acumen, and a real conversion. In 1971 she founded her own record label, Kangaroo, and released her own single, “Crazy But Good” as Girl Satchmo and Reggae Kings. She produced the song as well. The same year she put out the song “I Found Out Pt. 1” with the B side, “I Found Out Pt. 2” as Girl Satchmo which she also produced.
Girl Satchmo toured Germany and had immigrated to England by the end of the 1960s. She had been traveling there since the mid-1960s when Vere Johns paid her way to England since she was very close with Johns and his wife. She once wrote them a letter saying, “Thanks to you and Mrs. Johns for all I am today. You brought me up and made me an artiste.” Girl Satchmo traveled back and forth between England and Jamaica to perform. She performed in London at the St. Pancras Town Hall and numerous nightclubs, but she returned to Jamaica in the early 1970s as noted in a Daily Gleaner article on August 1, 1971 with the headline “Girl Satchmo for Independence jump up.”
1 thought on “Satchmo, Girl Satchmo, and Jamaica”
Another fascinating column Heather. When I was in Jamaica earlier this year I went to a mid-week outdoor karaoke session and there was a lady still doing the Satchmo impersonation thing. I think she was too young to be Girl Satchmo though.