Erskine Ramsay Hawkins was born on July 26, 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama and was named after a local industrialist who was rewarding parents with savings accounts for doing so. He played trumpet in the Industrial High School band directed by Fess Whatley, a teacher who trained numerous African-American musicians that went on to populate the orchestras of Duke Ellington, Lucky Millinder, Louis Armstrong and Skitch Henderson.
Dubbed “The 20th Century Gabriel”, Hawkins composed the jazz standard “Tuxedo Junction” in 1939 with saxophonist and arranger Bill Johnson. It became a hit during World War II rising on the national charts to #7 performed by his orchestra and #1 played by Glenn Miller’s. While a bandleader Erskine featured several female vocalist like Ida James, Delores Brown and Della Reese.
From 1967 to 1989 Hawkins played the lobby bar and show nightclub at The Concord Resort Hotel in Kiamesha Lake, New York. He was inducted in 1978 into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. Erskine Hawkins, trumpeter and bandleader, died in Wilmington, New Jersey on November 11, 1993, at the age of 79.
Adolphus Anthony Cheatham, better known as Doc Cheatham was born on June 13, 1905 in Nashville, Tennessee. Growing up without jazz, he was introduced by early recordings and touring bands of the late 1910s. Abandoning family plans to be a pharmacist to play music, he retained the name Doc and started with the soprano and tenor saxophone in addition to trumpet in the African American Vaudeville theatre.
He toured the TOBA circuit (Theatre Owners Booking Association) accompanying blues singers but it wasn’t until his move to Chicago and hearing King Oliver that his focus turned to jazz. A year later Louis Armstrong added his influence on Doc’s playing. Cheatham went on to play with Ma Rainey, worked in the big bands of Bobby Lee, Wilbur de Paris, Chick Webb, Sam Wooding, Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Claude Hopkins and Teddy Wilson through the 30s and 40s.
By the late 40s into the 50s Doc play in New York City Latin bands of Ricardo Ray, Marcelino Guerra, Perez Prado and Machito. In the 60s he led his own band for five years then worked with Benny Goodman. In the 70s he began singing after scatting during a Paris recording session, was well received and he continued to sing for the rest of his life.
Cheatham created his best work after the age of 70, winning a Grammy with Nicholas Payton and Butch Thompson for the Verve Record release of “Doc Cheatham and Nicholas Payton”. Trumpeter, singer and bandleader Doc Cheatham continued playing until two days before his passing on June 2, 1997, eleven days shy of his 92nd birthday.
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Al Grey was born in Aldie, Virginia on June 6, 1925 but grew up in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. After serving in the Navy during WWII, where he started playing trombone, he joined Benny Carter’s band, later moving to Lionel Hampton’s trombone section. After some solo worked he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in ’56 and a year later was touring Europe with Count Basie.
Trummy Young inspired Al’s early trombone style and he developed a wild, strong and full sound. Solos often consisted of short, pronounced phrases with precisely timed syncopation. He became known for his plunger mute technique, later writing an instructional book title “Plunger Techniques”. When playing with the plunger, however, he would produce the most mellow fill-ins and shape melodic answers to the lead voice.
After 1961 Grey performed only occasionally with the Count and apart from leading his own combos, he collaborated with many jazz greats such as Herbie Hancock, Melba Liston, J. J. Johnson, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Jack McDuff, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. His trombone skills were also featured on the award-winning soundtrack for The Color Purple.
Al Grey, who passed away on March 24, 2000, greatly contributed to the post-swing era jazz-trombone vocabulary and will be remembered for his charming personality as well as his ability to bond with audiences around the world.
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Gordon “Specs” Powell was born June 5, 1922 in New York City. He started out musically on the piano but by the late 1930s he became exclusively a drummer. He began in the swing era working with Edgar Hayes in 1939, Benny Carter in 1941-42 and Ben Webster.
He started working as a staff musician for CBS in 1943 and by the early 60s he was lead drummer on The Ed Sullivan Show. He only led one recording session for Roulette Records in 1957 titled “Movin’ In”.
Remaining active until the 1970s, Specs Powell, jazz drummer and percussionist that worked in the bebop and hard bop idioms was honored by the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 2004.
Though he passed away three years later on September 15, 2007 at the age of 85, Specs Powell selected discography lists his orchestra and big band albums, “Movin’ In” and “Big Band Jazz” and left behind an impressive albeit a selected collection of recordings with Teddy Wilson, Jess Stacy, Red Norvo, Erroll Garner, Shirley Scott, Reuben Wilson, Bernard Purdie and Billy Butler among others.
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George Thomas Simon was born on May 9, 1912 in New York City into a wealthy and talented family, with his brother co-founding the publishing house Simon & Schuster and his niece singer Carly Simon. He began as a drummer and was an early drummer in Glenn Miller’s orchestra.
After graduating from Harvard University in 1934 he began working for the Metronome magazine the following year, then became editor-in-chief from 1939 to 1955and shifted it, from writing technical articles, to being a chronicler of the swing era. Simon was probably the most influential jazz commentator during the swing era and with his inside connections in the jazz world, he was able to report information about bands and their personnel with great accuracy.
Leaving Metronome he went to the Jazztone Society, consulted for the Timex Jazz Shows, wrote about jazz for the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Post newspapers. He also did liner notes for a variety of jazz musicians including Thelonious Monk who was stylistically quite different from the swing-era musicians Simon championed.
In 1978, he won a Grammy Award for Best Album Notes, was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame and on February 13, 2001 after years of suffering from Parkinson’s disease, he died of pneumonia in New York City.