An Evening of Calypso Jazz, Afro-Caribbean Music and Global Jazz

with Étienne Charles and Frankie McIntosh, special guests Garvin Blake and David “Happy” Williams, and Grammy Award-winner Arturo O’Farrill and the Brooklyn College Big Band


Performances of Calypso Jazz, Afro-Caribbean Music and Global Jazz
An Evening of Calypso Jazz

If you were anywhere near New York there was only one place to be on this early Spring date. The County of Kings, sometimes known as Brooklyn was treated to an outstanding evening of music at Brooklyn College’s Whitman Theatre. Under the auspices of the Hitchcock Institute for Studies in American Music, the event was billed as An Evening of Calypso Jazz with Étienne Charles and Frankie McIntosh, special  guests Garvin Blake and David “Happy” Williams - featuring Arturo O’Farrill and the Brooklyn College Big Band. It was indeed a serious dose of edutainment.

In addition to the great performances there was an added bonus of a pre-concert talk that was both educational and engaging which featured a panel consisting of Frankie McIntosh - piano, Garvin Blake - steelpan, Étienne Charles - trumpet and David “Happy” Williams - double bass, with Ray Allen, Director of the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music and Senior Research Associate of Hitchcock Institute as both moderator of this pre-concert talk and host of the show. This initiative allowed the audience to gain valuable insight and awareness into personal backgrounds, critical influences and beginnings of these prominent practitioners of the Calypso Jazz music genre. Assembled here were some of the best musical talents to have ever left the shores of the Caribbean. Moreover they embody exceptional living history. It was a knowledgeable discussion that captured the interest of audience. Unfortunately, only an hour could be allowed for this important conversation. It is absolutely essential that a full symposium on the topics broached with these participants be convened in the near future.

Pre-concert talk:  left to right - Frankie McIntosh, David "Happy" Williams, Etienne Charles, Garvin Blake, and host/moderator Ray Allen
Pre-concert talk: left to right - Frankie McIntosh, David “Happy” Williams, Étienne Charles, Garvin Blake, and host/moderator Ray Allen

The distinguished panel additionally fielded some intriguing inquiries within that hour-long session from the audience Q and A.  Luminaries in attendance who posed questions, included the renowned and iconic calypso producer and record company executive, Rawlston Charles, of Charlie’s Records fame.

 “Has technology caused a decline in the music and improvising within the music itself because of the lack of investors in the music?” 

On improvisation

Garvin Blake - “...Way back you had guys like Emmanuel “Jack” Riley. These guys were really soloing. Unfortunately there is not too much of it recorded... Improvisation is at the heart of Pan music - Panorama kind of music. It’s kind-of frozen improvisation... It is definitely part of the evolution of Pan. 

Frankie McIntosh - “I believe that the decline in improvisation, kind of parallels the decline in purely instrumental music.  When you look at Ron Berridge and [the] Dutchy Brothers, their hits were strictly, like, instrumental.  But as the singer came to prominence, the musicians took more of a background role. The harmony underwent intensive attrition, so that most Soca pieces (today are) one, four, five, (referring to the basic 1 IV V chords which characterize much tonal Folk music)) - they just make a loop - so there is not much to improvise on. But there’s still great improvisers [out] there.  The difference now and then, is that whereas now, groups like Ming and Élan Parle, for instance, are considered esoteric groups, playing Calypso Jazz, distinct from mainstream vocal Soca. In the days of Bertram Innis, we would hear him play behind Sparrow, and that WAS the mainstream music.

“Most of the music now is sequenced, you know, synthesized, so there is not much room for improvisation.  In Pan, probably the only surviving vestige of (purely) instrumental music, there is still improvisation there.”

Étienne Charles -  “...on the technology tip - what technology did, it was the first time in the history of music that people who didn’t know anything about music, had a chance to make music and make money, at the same rate of people who had degrees in music and lots of experience playing music in different arenas etc. And so naturally as a result, the music kind of declined in a sense. One thing that Frankie touched on, is that you can’t have improvisation in the music if you don’t have a musician in the studio. That’s impossible. So when all of the music is sequenced based on a synthesizer and somebody pushing buttons, based on what they think sounds good - there is no room for musicians to actually come in and add their flavor... Now what you are seeing now, is you’re seeing a kind of a turn back...”

“What is the connection between Calypso and Dance?”

David “Happy” Williams - “Calypso is nothing but Dance. And so is Jazz. If you go back in the old days, people didn’t sit down like an audience, they danced; if you look at the old videos - Cotton Club, even before that, they danced. For me, I can tell when I’m having a good time. That is what I do. I dance, I can’t help it. And when I play, especially with certain musicians. If I’m not dancing then something is wrong. You know, there is no, like they say pocket, that’s what they call it.... So Calypso Jazz, Fusion, to me is mostly dance. I mean you can listen too, but it is hard not to dance.”

Étienne Charles - “I just want to say one thing on that point. We live in a world now where things are separated from what they come from. And any time you go back to the rituals out of which these [types of] music came - Jazz, Calypso, Samba, Rhumba - you can go down the whole list. There was always dancing involved in it. And what a lot of people don’t know in this part of the world, is that the western civilization is the only culture in the history of time that has two separate terms for music and dance. Everywhere else it’s one thing. Music and Dance. Music is dance. Dance is music. Musicians are dancers and dancers are musicians. So we just have to remember that and it’s okay.”

Garvin Blake - “As Étienne said, I think music and dance is synonymous, but I think one of the troubling things for some people in the Pan world - Panorama has become such... the music in Panorama has become really ornate and stationary so it seems like some of the ‘dance’ has been removed from it and that becomes like, troubling to some people. But I think Pan is really dance music. It’s really music for the road. It’s music people chip behind. And I think the best music is what makes someone tap their feet, however you groove to it; so you can have the most sophisticated line and theatrically its correct - but if it doesn’t move people - doesn’t reach them, you know it’s gone. Pan coupled with Pan is a drum. And I think the purpose of drumming in most cultures is really to move people - to get people to dance. Rituals. And I think Pan is really that - the whole origin started from percussive. We added more notes. And I think the best Panorama tunes to me, to date, are the ones that people dance to. That’s why people still like Woman on the Bass - they like Rebecca because those were dance pieces. There are some other pieces that won Panorama but after the competition you’re like, “This is not moving me so.” Yea, Panorama music should be dance and Pan is dance.”

Watch the complete panel discussion here.

The genius of these musicians was on full display. Getting to hear the Brooklyn College Big Band perform a Frankie McIntosh arrangement of Becket’s “Teaser” was indeed special. As Grammy award-winning conductor Arturo O’Farrill said “The beauty of this writing could only be Frankie McIntosh.” And Dr. Ray Allen said, “...arguably the greatest Soca arranger ever.”

Program Note

“The intersection of Caribbean music and jazz usually evokes images of Afro-Cuban Latin jazz and Nuyorican salsa. But over the last century there has been an ongoing dialogue between musicians from the English-speaking Caribbean and their North American counterparts. This evening’s concert will explore the blending of West Indian calypso and steelband music with African American jazz, emphasizing the contributions of players and composers from Trinidad, St. Vincent, and Jamaica.”

Special Guest Bios

St Vincent-born pianist and arranger Frankie McIntosh is an alumnus of Brooklyn College’s Conservatory of Music and the holder of a Master of Music degree from New York University. Recognized internationally as one of the most celebrated arrangers of calypso and soca music, he has led hundreds of recording sessions with such stellar figures as the Mighty Sparrow, Chalkdust, Shadow, and Calypso Rose. In 2015 he won a Sunshine Award for his contributions to Caribbean culture and was featured on a stamp in his native St. Vincent.

Trumpeter, band leader, percussionist and composer Étienne Charles is a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music and is currently Associate Professor of Jazz Studies at Michigan State University. A native of Trinidad, Professor Charles has recorded and performed with many jazz and popular music icons including Monty Alexander, Roberta Flack, Wynton Marsalis, Marcus Roberts, Marcus Miller, the Count Basie Orchestra, and David Rudder. His recordings, including Creole Christmas (2015), Creole Soul (2013), Kaiso (2011), Folklore (2009) and Culture Shock (2006) explore the intersection of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and instrumentation with jazz and world music.

Steel pan virtuoso Garvin Blake has played and arranged for a number of Brooklyn-based bands including Metro Steel, Pan Rebels, and Despers USA. A native of Belmont, Trinidad, he worked closely with iconic West Indian musicians Clive Bradley and Raf Robertson, the latter of whom he credits with introducing him to jazz and encouraging him to develop as a pan soloist. Blake’s recent CD, Parallel Overtones, explores new possibilities for the steel pan through a rich blend of calypso and jazz.

David “Happy” Williams

Bassist David “Happy” Williams, son of famed Trinidad bandleader John “Buddy” Williams, has been a stalwart of the jazz scene in the United States for decades. He has appeared on hundreds of recordings and is a regular with the Cedar Walton Trio and with Étienne Charles. He has performed with numerous jazz and popular luminaries including Elvin Jones, Ornette Coleman, and Roberta Flack.


Artist Bio

Arturo O’Farrill

Arturo O’Farrill is one of New York’s most accomplished Latin jazz musicians. He was trained in piano and composition at the Manhattan School of Music and at Brooklyn College, where he received a Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2006. He has won four Grammy Awards, including for his 2014 recording “The Offense of the Drum” and his 2015 composition “The Afro-Latin Jazz Suite.” He is the leader of the internationally-renowned Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble and an Assistant Professor of Music at the Conservatory of Music of Brooklyn College where he is currently developing a new Global Jazz program.

Host & Moderator

Ray Allen
Ray Allen

Ray Allen is professor of music at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. In addition, he directs the American Studies Program and serves as a senior associate at the Hitchcock Institute for Studies in American Music at Brooklyn College. He teaches courses on American folk, popular, and concert music, and American cultural studies. Trained in folklore, ethnomusicology and American studies, Professor Allen’s research has ranged from African American gospel and Caribbean Carnival music to works of composers Ruth Crawford Seeger and George Gershwin. His most recent work has been on the urban folk music revival. Ray Allen is the Department Chairperson Music, Conservatory of Brooklyn College

The Performances

Well, as we said earlier it was Calypso, Pan, Soca, Jazz and whole lot of Combo (small band), Big Band, front and center at Brooklyn College on this specific evening. And when the masters come out to play, there is only one thing to do. Sit back and just listen (or dance!).

Frankie McIntosh continues to be that distinguished musical gem whose genius is never overstated but always on point.  His chords, timings, phrasing, voicing, solos and of course his “feel” will leave most musicians shaking their heads and muttering “hmm, hmm, hmm” - he is old-school, New Jack, and he’s “You haven’t gotten here yet” so here’s your first contact. Look, plain and simple, Frankie McIntosh is a bad man - as bad as Muhammad Ali, musically speaking - but he has never had to say it - he just played. Just listen.

Now you add the free-flowing and steadiness of David “Happy” Williams on bass, the smoothness and the thoughtfulness of Garvin Blake, funkiness and drive of Damon DueWhite (yea, that guy from the ‘island’ of Philadelphia) on drums and the creativity and the historical contextual savvyness of an Étienne Charles - and let’s not forget Charles Daugherty on saxophone - you’re going to have, as James Brown used to say - a “funky good time,” on an engaging and high note. They brought an unapologetic Brooklyn attitude to with their distinctly Caribbean artistry.

Selections by the Brooklyn College Big Band

Old School Étienne Charles
Culture Shock Étienne Charles
That’s the Culture Raf Robertson
arr. Frankie McIntosh
Teaser Alston “Becket” Cyrus
arr. Frankie McIntosh
Douens Étienne Charles
Desert Rafi Malkiel
Think Twice Monty Alexander
 arr. Étienne Charles
The Triumphant Journey Dafnis Prieto
Down on the Island Sand Kit Goldstein Grant
Untouchable Nicholas Roman

And then there is Arturo O’Farrill, the director of the Brooklyn College Big Band. As you watch this Grammy Award-winning musician conduct this band you are reminded of another great one - the late master arranger Clive Bradley. Not nearly as demonstrative as Mr. Bradley but just as effective in leading the band and drawing the audience into the music and performance by his sheer enjoyment of the music. A little shimmy with the left shoulder and then to the right - a little step forward, or back, a dip of the hip and circular wave of the arm and the man has everyone in lock step.  It is ironic that one of the main topics in the pre-concert panel discussion was the relationship of dance to music where it was unanimously agreed that the two should never be separated. But Arturo said it best in this regard when he addressed the audience and told them that after the music starts ‘If you don’t feel the shimmy from your toes up to your tibia, and the need to move and express yourself - check your pulse.”

The Brooklyn Big Band conducted by Arturo O’Farrill
The Brooklyn Big Band conducted by Arturo O’Farrill

Arturo O’Farrill, Director
 Yi-Hsuan Sobina Chi, Assistant

Dimitry Milkis, alto/soprano sax, flute
Melissa Fishman, alto sax, flute
Marvin Carter, Luke Scales, alto sax
Alissa Abrams, clarinet
Sean King, Ben Redzovic, tenor sax
Andrew Brin, tenor sax and clarinet
Matthew Loew, baritone sax

Frank Scarano, Mahasin Nor-Pomarico, trombone
Aux Tucou, bass trombone

Salvatore Arena, Tariq Allen, Josh Mizruchi, trumpet
Nick Roman, trumpet and euphonium

Sean Vigneau-Britt, Andy Mason,
Yi-Hsuan Sobina Chi, Erica Umhoefer, piano

Angelo Branford, guitar
Marcin Jacek Wisniewski, guitar and percussion

David H. Mensch, double bass

Jacob Cavell, Sam Parsons, Allan Randall,
Isaiah Pierce, Michael Kohlberg, drums and percussion

Sextet, left to right: Frankie McIntosh, Garvin Blake, David "Happy" Williams, Charles Daugherty, Etienne Charles.  Out of camera-shot - drummer Damon DueWhite
Sextet, left to right: Frankie McIntosh, Garvin Blake, David “Happy” Williams, Charles Daugherty, Étienne Charles.  Out of camera-shot - drummer Damon DueWhite

Frankie Mclntosh/Garvin Blake Sextet
Étienne Charles, trumpet Charles Daugherty, saxophone
Garvin Blake, steel pan
Frankie McIntosh, piano
David “Happy” Williams, double bass
Damon DueWhite, drums



Performances of Calypso Jazz, Afro-Caribbean Music and Global Jazz

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