The forgotten glory and lyrical magic of black Broadway musicals first performed half a century ago came alive again last night at the 26th annual Newport Jazz Festival-New York.
Musicians like Eubie Blake, Adelaide Hall and Edith Wilson, who made their Broadway debuts in the 1920s, captivated a capacity audience at Avery Fisher Hall by recreating some of their original music and roles. And they were joined by younger artists like recent Tony Award winner Nell Carter, star of the current Broadway hit, "Ain't Misbehavin'."
Host Bobby Short, resident meister-singer at the Cafe Carlyle and performing scholar of Broadway's golden era, opened the show with three songs associated with Bert Williams and George Walker, the vaudeville team that performed the first black shows to reach Broadway at the turn of the century.
It was a night for reminiscing for the checkered audience of young and old, jazz fans and Broadway musical buffs. Ederly couples applauded many songs they probably first heard as sweethearts.
People off all ages cheered the 96-year-old Blake, who bounced out on stage. "I'm going to play you things I was told to play," he said, sitting at the piano. "But I'd really like to play some ragtime. I may play some anyway."
And he did - throwing it in the middle of the sentimental "Love Will Find a Way," a song he co-wrote for "Shuffle Along" in 1921. he also played "Memories of You" and "I'm Just Wild About Harry," pieces he wrote in 1930.
The show-stopped for most, including positive and negative responses, was Diahann Carroll, who slinked on stage wearing a fur-trimmed black dress with a slit reaching to her hip.
"She's orchestrated up to her waist," quipped a listener.
Carroll had another view. "I'm so glad to be back in New York," she cooed. "I've been out in Tinsel Town and Vegas. So I decided to come trashy."
Her gauche appearance distracted but didn't destroy the splendid tribute she paid Ethel Waters. In a medley of songs introduced by or written for Waters, Carroll did not sing like the original but stamped songs like "Am I Blue," "After You've Gone," "Dina" and "Stormy Weather" with her own breezy personality.
Another spirited moment came when Wilson, now retired in Chicago, belted out her 1922, "He May Be Your Man, But He Comes to Visit Me Sometimes." Even octagenarian blues singer Alberta Hunter, sitting in the audience, bowed her shoulders to the swaying Wilson rhythm.
Hall, a native of Brooklyn but a resident of London since 1938, showed she still had the power to hit the final high note at the end of "I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby," which she introduced in "Blackbirds of 1928."
At the end, the audience begged for more as Herb Jeffries and Short led the company in a reprise of Duke Ellington's "Jump for Joy," the 1941 musical that starred Jeffries.