Not Your Everyday Jazz Club Lineup
On April 13, 1952, Storyville wound up what must have been one of the strangest weeks in its history: a triple bill, with John Carradine reciting Shakespeare, Johnny Windhurst playing New York Dixieland, and Sam Gary singing folk songs.
John Carradine was a towering presence on stage, performing the roles of Shakespearean heavies like Macbeth and Hamlet. His most famous film role was that of the preacher Casey in Grapes of Wrath, but the prolific actor is credited with well over 200 films. In the 1940s, he formed a touring theater company, and to keep it on the road, he took parts in B-movie horror films. His resume includes many forgettable films like Voodoo Man, Half Human, and Astro Zombies. Performing at Storyville was a far better way to raise funds. George Wein said he learned more about Shakespeare over one dinner with Carradine than he had in four years of college. Carradine didn’t read, he recited, and he apparently held the audience spellbound. Although he threw a scare into everybody by fainting on stage one night, the engagement was deemed a success and Wein invited Carradine back for a week in December.
Johnny Windhurst, a melodic trumpeter and cornetist out of the Bobby Hackett school, was a self-taught player who never learned to read. He arrived on the jazz scene at age 19 in 1945, in Boston, when Sidney Bechet picked Windhurst to replace Bunk Johnson at the Savoy. He stayed busy playing that mix of swing and trad dubbed New York Dixieland in clubs from Boston to Chicago, but by 1952 his career had already reached the almost-famous point that marked its peak.
Wein might have been taking a risk by hiring Sam Gary. Advertisements did not use his last name, they just said “folk songs by Sam.” A longtime musical associate of Josh White, singer Gary was something of a political hot potato in those days of McCarthyism; never branded a Red, he was still sympathetic to leftist causes and had a history of activism, having taken part in the Songs for John Doe project with White and Pete Seeger in 1941. Wein, to his eternal credit, decided that Gary’s mix of blues and spirituals did not constitute a threat to democracy, and hired him as an opening act several times at Storyville.
What an unlikely trio, and what an unusual week.
Try as I might, I could not find Carradine reciting the Bard, but I did find Johnny Windhurst playing “Pennies from Heaven” in 1958. That’s Roland Hanna on the piano.