Aging Musicians Revitalize Harlem's Jazz at Tribeca Film Festival

"The Last of the First", whose working title was "Architects of Swing", Premiered as the only JAZZ Documentary Feature at the TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL, UA Theater on May 2, 2004 / 7:15pm, May 4 / 2:00pm and May 8 / 6:00pm.

Producer Al Vollmer intended this as his unique contribution to the legacy of jazz with a rare look at some of "the last of the first" and one of the longest running bands in the history of jazz. "The subjects of this documentary are veteran jazz musicians who started in the 1920's and 30's. In addition to Lionel Hampton, Milt Hinton, Hank Jones, Jonah Jones, Jay McShann and Benny Carter, it features The Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, a group of veteran jazz musicians, who to this day embody the spirit and authenticity of early Swing-Jazz. We want to pay tribute, give something back to these extraordinary musicians and preserve their music and their tales for generations to come--before it is too late."

This feature documentary has incorporated a wide range of witnesses including Tony Bennett and Dr. Billy Taylor, jazz experts such as Dan Morgenstern - Institute of Jazz Studies Rutgers and Phil Schaap - historian, WKCR DJ and Congressman John Convers of Michigan who passed House Resolution 57, designating jazz as "a rare and valuable national American treasure to which we should devote our attention, support and resources".

The Harlem Blues & Jazz Band was formed in 1973 by Al Vollmer with a purpose of giving opportunities to veteran musicians of the 20's and 30's, this band is - in the words of Dr. Billy Taylor - "a wonderful collection of people . . . These men and women have shaped the vocabulary we all use." Members of the on screen band include Al Casey (Fats Waller's guitarist and last living member of Waller's Rhythm); Lawrence "Larry" Lucie ( first guitarist with Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong's All Stars and the last living musician to have recorded with Jelly Roll Morton); Johnny Blowers (Artie Shaw, Bunny Berrigan, Sidney Bechet and Frank Sinatra's drummer for 11years); Joey Morant (trumpeter who is able to present Louis Armstrong's humorous and serious sides simultaneously); Bobby Pring (trombonist with Buck Clayton and Loren Schoenberg's Bands) and Alex Layne (who has also supported Coleman Hawkins, Billy Eckstine, Carmen McRae and Max Roach).

Noteworthy on screen members (who have since passed on) are: Ed Swanston (pianist in Louis Armstrong's Orchestra in the movie "Atlantic City"); David "Bubba" Brooks (Bill Doggett's tenor saxophonist); and vocalist Laurel Watson (with Duke Ellington, Count Basie and the HBJB until 1999) but don't take my word for it listen to Laurel itemize her credits herself standing in front of Harlem's Apollo Theatre.

Watch the HBJB as they travel to Russia to perform the music of Louis Armstrong at Moscow's Tchaikovsky Hall at the request of conductor Yuriy Saulskiy in celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Jazz Ambassador Louis Armstrong's birth on June 3, 2000.
For an audio/video sample that includes a vocal by Ruth Brisbane go to:

Then follow them as they tour Europe and upon returning joyously play their last night of a seven year gig at a New York club that closed in spite of their success.

Sadly band members pass on but musicians traditions run deep and even a funeral and a memorial service include poignant moments that will touch the hearts of every viewer.

Watching these aging musicians perform memorable music adds each composers melody, for example guitarist Al Casey (88 )plays his own "Buck Jumpin' solo almost as recorded with pianist Thomas "Fats" Waller some 63 years ago and reports, "Good old young days." Drummer Johnny Blowers (93) replays a snippet of "Caravan" and guitarist Larry Lucie (96) plays and sings public domain tunes and while he's working out in the gym states confidently, "I got to make it to a hundred".

After the closing tune "Indian Summer" Johnny replies, "It won't get any more beautiful" not knowing that we will soon be able to watch these performances over and over again on DVD or a neighborhood theater.


BARRON VOCA408-Vol 2: "The Harlem Blues & Jazz Band-From Past To Present Featuring and dedicated to Laurel Watson", is available from Cadence/NorthCountry distributors or JazzPhone (866) 411-JASS $15.OO Postpaid. This CD was recorded during the period 1982-1987. Only Al Casey, drummers Shelton Gary and Johnny Blowers survive.
BARRON VOCA407-Vol 1: "The Harlem Blues & Jazz Band-From Past To Present Featuring Doc Cheatham". Recorded from 1973 to 1975 only Barbara Dreiwitz - tuba survives.

P-VINE 5796 "The Very Best of Swingin' Jive Guitarists" includes "Buck Jumpin' ", "Buck Still Jumps"(ASCAP).
FANTASY ODJCCD6752 "Al Casey - Buck Jumpin'" includes his tunes "Pantin' At The Panther Room" and "Buck Jumpin'". (ASCAP).
CIRCLE CCD-176: "The Jazz Swing All Stars: Hot Nights in Harlem" recorded in 1998 with trombonist Al Grey and clarinetist Sammy Rimington who join Mr. Casey for some wonderful Swing-Jazz at George and Nina Buck's Palm Court Restaurant in New Orleans.
JAZZPOINT JP1044: "Al Casey - A Tribute to Fats" recorded in Holland with pianist Red Richards.

JAZZ INC 3921: Johnny Blowers and His Giants of Jazz includes his drum solo of "Caravan".

TCB 97702: "Smooth Sailing" produced by Aleardo Buzzi in May 1995.

Dan Kassell
Member, Jazz Journalist Association
5/3/04 All Rights Reserved

For HBJB photos additional history contact:
Dan Kassell

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Unknown
  • Event Date: Premiere May 2 to May 8, 2004
  • Subtitle: A Feature Documentary about Extraordinary Musicians
Dan Kassell

Dan Kassell expands his curiosity by attending concerts, conventions, lectures and movies to take note of the History of Jazz from the indigenous Caribes in the Caribbean to Algiers New Orleans, Chicago and New York. As a member of the Jersey Jazz Society since 1972 he's witnessed musicians who learned from jazz's founders. Reviews also appear in, Amazon and and historically in AllAboutJazz-New York, Mississippi Rag or Jersey Jazz since 1972.

First inspired by Thomas "Fats" Waller playing "Your Feet's Too Big," Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert, Louis Armstrong solos, Duke Ellington's Famous Orchestra and Bob Wilber with Marty Gross and Kenny Davern's Soprano Summit he's also became fascinated by the spontaneous improvisation of Free Jazz while working on publicity for Chico Freeman.

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