Jazz has taken some hard hits this past week in New Orleans and now locally with the passing of saxophonist Alonzo "Pookie" Johnson.
Alonzo "Pookie" Johnson
There are many things that can be said about "Pookie," especially among musicians and fans who knew him well. Just as his closet musical ally Jimmy Coe was designated the Dean of Indiana Avenue Jazz, "Pookie" was the heart and soul who maintained that street's modern jazz or bebop movement. I think he played every club on the Avenue as a leader or sideman. He loved to sing and shout his humorous blues with his self-effacing wit and humor.
Jazz Kitchen owner David Allee fondly remembers "Pookie" as a friend and great musician: "'Pookie' was the heart; he was one of those guys like Jimmy Coe, who passed away a year and a half ago. He had so much soul and life coming out of him musically. He always had something funny to say and could always lift your spirits."
Trumpeter Cliff Ratliff, who played many a gig with "Pookie," recalls their relationship: "'Pookie' to me was like a big brother, a father and a dammed good friend. He will be sorely missed because I learned a lot from him."
"Pookie" attended Crispus Attucks High School and Butler University's Arthur Jordan School of Music. Many honors followed his music career.
He was enshrined by Sen. Richard Lugar in 1985 as a "Living Legend of Jazz" in the Hall of Records of Congress. In 1991, Indianapolis presented him a key to the city and then proclaimed "Pookie" Johnson Day in 1996. That same year Gov. Evan Bayh proclaimed him a Sagamore of the Wabash.
His recorded output consists of Legacy on Forum Records, featured sideman on Jimmy Coe's Say What on Time Records, Russell Webster's Together Again and Buddy Montgomery's Three Brothers and Five Others on Pacific Jazz.
He was passionate about passing on his love of jazz and music to kids. In a commercial for the Indy Jazz Fest, he poked fun at himself about not ever having learned to master the clarinet. Alonzo "Pookie" Johnson did not have to; he was a master at communicating his love of the art of jazz. His legacy is sound.
Conversation with Charlie Smith
Jazz guitarist Charlie Smith is excited about his new Project band along with his new approach to playing. He reveals why he is so driven.
NUVO: Is it difficult for you not to be influenced by other guitarists?
Smith: There are great guitar players who do influence me, but to copy them really wouldn't be an honor to them. It's more like to assimilate the way they look at things.
NUVO: I have noticed you have backed a lot of vocalists here. Do you like accompanying singers?
Smith: Absolutely. As far as Indianapolis goes, I have worked with some of the greatest vocalists. I love working next to singers.
NUVO: If you were given a blank check to perform or record with any artist in the business what would you like to do?
Smith: I would like to be able to reach more people through my instrument.
The Charlie Smith Project featuring Michael Stricklin, tenor sax, Reggie Bishop, keyboards, Frank Smith, bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums, has its official release of On the Double at the Jazz Kitchen Friday, Sept. 9. This is one hot, tight band and the recording gives the proof. In a world of clone-type guitarists, Charlie Smith is an honest-playing breath of fresh air.
Two big events
The Third Annual Indiana Avenue Renaissance Festival takes place Sept. 8-11 on the grounds of the Madame C.J. Walker Building, in the ballroom, theater and plaza. The indoor festival on Sept 8 and 10 has a Cotton Club Cabaret Concert and Dinner, featuring Brenda Williams and Gregg Bacon in a cast of local talent. On Sept. 9, R&B star Howard Hewitt performs in the theater. All performances are at 8 p.m. The free Outdoor Festival has Billy Myers & Kelleen, Mary Moss & Friends, Liquid Soul, No Regrets Blues Band, Rob Dixon & Triology, Cynthia Layne & Friends, Bill Lancton & Guitar Summit and The Indy Jazz Company.
Penrod Arts Fair: Indy's nicest Saturday opens Sept. 10 for Penrod. The jazz tent will feature performances by Bethany Dunlap & Neapolitan, Rob Dixon Quartet, Cynthia Layne & Friends and Frank Glover. Music runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Last Sunday, the Madame Walker Theatre Center held a wonderful Sunday Jazz Brunch in the ballroom. It was set up beautifully with decorative table placements and islands of varied food items that were sumptuous. The music was the icing on the cake: Carl Hines on keyboards with a very realistic B-3 organ attachment, Bill Pennick's cool jazz tenor sax work and Ray Drummond on drums and vocals served up some of the best mainstream jazz of standards and ballads. Mary Moss sat in and served up her skillful, energetic set. The biggest surprise to me was Doris Davis, a jazz vocalist I had never heard. She asked to sit in and effortlessly swung away with "A Foggy Day." She took chances and showed great range, intonation and flawless timing as the trio swung away behind her. She was just as effective in selling a ballad with style and feeling. This group deserves wider exposure.
It was a marvelous event; only one thing spoiled it: The Casio Ballroom wasn't half full. From 1 to 5 p.m., Jazz Brunch is as good as it gets, especially serving jazz of this caliber with dining to match for only $20. The Sunday Jazz Brunch is held the first Sunday of each month.