Jazz Returns to Overtown

Legends of Jazz

Round about two in the morning on weekends from the 1930s through the 1950s, the smartly dressed residents of what was then known in Miami as Colored Town would gather at the doors of the hotels on NW Second Avenue. There they would wait for jazz greats like Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nina Simone to return after performing for white-only crowds at Miami Beach's swankiest clubs and hotels.

"Maybe the stars just wanted to get some sleep," observes Dorothy Jenkins Fields, founder of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida, "but the Overtown [Colored Town] residents knew they were there and would beg to hear just one song. They would end up playing until six in the morning." The demand for jazz grew so strong in the neighborhood that eventually the brightest black stars began to bypass Miami Beach altogether and were booked directly into Overtown's Lyric Theater.

Legends of Jazz, a program presented by the Florida Chamber Orchestra, harks back to the glory days of the Lyric. Directed by Cuba-born Marlene Urbay, who has conducted orchestras from Boston to Tokyo, Legends presents a history of jazz for a community divided by tensions that are no longer simply black and white. "The idea was to unite important figures from African-American and Latin jazz, to show our shared roots and paint a common landscape of the music," says Urbay, describing the program.

The 26-member Florida Chamber Orchestra will open the evening with a revue that follows jazz from ragtime through big band, swing, and bop. The orchestra then will accompany African-American keyboardist Lonnie Smith and Cuban immigrant saxophonist Carlos Averhoff as they play original compositions and classics from the African-American and Latin jazz traditions. Between them the two soloists have recorded more than 50 albums, earning two Grammy nominations each. (Averhoff is a veteran of the acclaimed Cuban jazz band Irakere, which grabbed the 1979 award for Best Latin Recording.)

Currently a Miami resident, Averhoff points out what the Cuban and African-American traditions have in common. "You start out with the same African roots," he says. "The same forces that influence the development of African-American music have also developed on the island of Cuba. All the soul and all the sorrow of that race is reflected in the music of every country where you encounter people of African descent." Africa has had a profound influence on both Afro-Cuban and African-American music. "To put it simply," he explains, "the music is more rhythmic than melodic in both countries."

The sounds of each culture have also profoundly influenced each other. "Every nation where Africans have lived has searched for its own language and its own rhythm," Averhoff says. "The fusion of Afro-Cuban music with Afro-American music began a long time ago, when a whole series of people like [band leader] Mario Bauza and [percussionist] Chano Pozo came to New York."

Lonnie Smith, who moved from New York to South Florida ten years ago, experienced those influences firsthand. The keyboardist composed his own Latin-influenced works in the early 1960s for Columbia Records and has jammed with Latin legends Patato and the late Tito Puente. He views his connections with Latin musicians as part of a larger global fellowship: "We all basically love each other and admire each other's music and talent -- just like Dizzy [Gillespie]. He was influenced by Latin music also. It's really relative. We're all related somewhere."

 
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