By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
From the time she was small enough to climb upon her mother and father’s coffee table and pretend it was a stage, Amber Weekes found comfort bursting into song. She has always known singing was her destiny. Maybe her passion for vocalizing began in the womb, when her father was crooning love songs to her mother with his Frank Sinatra, smooth-styled voice spilling across their room. Maybe Amber was inspired by the jazz vocalists she heard being played on the Los Angeles radio station, KBCA, famous for playing John Coltrane’s song, “Spiritual” as a morning-drive, theme song. Perhaps it was while little Amber was listening to disc jockeys like Jai Rich or Talley Strode who were pumping out jazz formats and playing Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. Even the late, great, bandleader Gerald Wilson had a noon day show on her mom’s favorite radio station titled, “Jazz Capsule.” The young child was listening. Later, Amber Weekes studied musical comedy and acting in high school, but singing was always Amber’s priority.
AMBER: “I remember vividly that on Sunday, daddy would go to church and mama would be busy fixing Sunday dinner. KBCA (105.1) would be playing and when daddy was coming home from church, as he drove up the street, he could hear the jazz floating out of our house. My parents were really into us having exposure to music. Their musical tastes were very eclectic. We listened to Ray Charles, The Beatles and early Barbra Streisand. They played records by Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan and Dianne Carroll.
“My paternal grandparents were immigrants to the United States. My grandfather was from Barbados and my grandmother was from Jamaica. They had six children to raise and my father, Martin Weekes, was one of six. My grandparents ran ‘Weekes Luncheonette,’ which was on the corner of 155th and St. Nicholas Place and that’s the way they supported their family. My aunts and my uncle and my dad all worked in the restaurant. It was open 24-hours a day, 365 days a year. I don’t know exactly when they opened it, but I believe it was sold in the sixties when drug activity in Harlem became very high. Duke Ellington lived right around the corner and Lena Horne lived close by and so my father and his siblings had contact with Duke and Lena and Sidney Portier and Harry Belafonte. One of the stories that my father tells is that when he was a teenager, around sixteen, in the late forties, I remember him repeatedly talking about how Duke would come in after the gig, two-o-clock in the morning, and Duke loved to have a fried egg sandwich. My father was a short order cook. He used to fix it for him. It was neat to have that history. Daddy said that he remembered that Duke would have his shirt unbuttoned and you could see the neck of his T-shirt underneath his buttoned-down shirt.”
According to a biography by Dana Avant, St. Nicholas Place between 150th and 155th streets was a middle-class neighborhood, with many of the neighbors either famous or they would become famous. Folks like James Bailey of the Barnum and Bailey Circus lived near Weekes Luncheonette and at the northern part of St. Nicholas Place a famed ballpark called the ‘Polo Grounds’ was where Willie Mays hit many unforgettable homeruns. Mays also lived on St. Nicholas Place, right across the street, in an apartment building near Polo Grounds. Other historic figures who popped into the popular 24-hour candy store and restaurant were historic names like Paul Robeson, Father of the blues, W.C. Handy, Langston Hughes, Teddy Wilson, Billy Strayhorn and Ellington. Such public figures as the male singers who made up The Inkspots group, lived in the Sugar Hill neighborhood. So did John Bubbles of Buck & Bubbles, a popular Vaudeville Comedy duo. In 1935, John Bubbles was part of the original cast of Gershwin’s “Porgy & Bess” production. He played the part of ‘Sportin’ Life.’ It was said that the Weekes daughters were so beautiful that men flocked to the Weekes Luncheonette and referred to it as, ‘Glamour Manor.’  They looked forward to catching a glimpse of Aunt Winnie, Aunt Delores, Cousin Blossom and the other brown beauties. Amber shared a story of how a famous actor fell in love with her Aunt Delores.
(L to R. Back row: Aunt Delores Sheldon, Aunt Winnie Weekes, Uncle Robbie Sheldon, Aunt Muriel Weekes, & my father, Martin Weekes; Front row: Grandmother Nettie Weekes, Aunt Joy Weekes, and paternal grandfather, Wilfred Weekes.)
AMBER: “If you ever read Sidney Portier’s book, ‘This Life,’ there’s a chapter of the book called, Cry the Beloved Country, where he actually mentions the luncheonette. Sidney Portier was a young actor at that time and a regular patron at the Luncheonette. In fact, that’s where he met my oldest aunt, Delores. They dated and they were engaged. It’s all in his book. Delores was my father’s oldest sister. Mr. Portier mentions all four of my aunts in the book and that my grandfather had two sons. Sidney and my Aunt Delores were friends until she died. To have that kind of history in my family is amazing. All my life, I’ve heard stories about my dad and my uncles being young people at that special time in Harlem, and how they met so many celebrity folks, like Duke Ellington and Dianne Carroll. Dianne was there at that time. I did meet Ms. Carroll once, when I was very young, and she remembered the luncheonette, saying that when she was a kid it was her candy store of choice. People forget that Dianne Carroll was a singer. I found myself much more interested in her when she was a summer fill-in for the Carol Burnett television variety show. She and my mother had the same piano teacher. Mom, Evan Weekes (pronounced Yvonne), loved to sing and was the church soloist in the church choir.”
DEE DEE: So, your mom and dad were both musicians?
AMBER: “Well, daddy was just musically inclined without even trying. He was able to play the piano by ear. He played the trombone and when he was very young, he was like a Frank Sinatra clone. Daddy always sang. In fact, when he was in the army, he was in a talent show in Germany and was offered a record contract or there was some conversation about him pursuing a music career. But he was a child of the Depression era and my grandparents were struggling. He really wanted to do something that he felt would give him a more stable life. When daddy left the service, he became an Aerospace engineer and then a lawyer. My father was really an extraordinary man. My mom loved to sing as well, but she leaned more towards the classical side of things. Mom is still alive. I have two sisters. Both have beautiful voices and we all sang and played instruments as children. My sister Dwan Weekes-Glenn is a retired entertainment lawyer. Nicole Y. Weekes is a Neuropsychologist and tenured faculty member at Claremont Pomona College. Unlike me, both my sisters are marvelous dancers too.
“Before I forget, my first album, ‘Round Midnight’ came out a long time ago in 2002 and perpetuates a promise I made to myself. I’m a big fan of Oscar Brown Jr., and I’ve committed myself to record at least one of his songs on every album. My first album had his song, “Hazel’s Hips” on it. So “Hazel’s Hips” was kind of an acknowledgement of my mother introducing me to the work of Oscar Brown Jr., and also a way of acknowledging the luncheonette that my grandparents had and the relationship that Sidney Portier had with my Aunt Delores.”
When I looked up these lyrics to Oscar Brown Jr.’s song, they perfectly exemplify Amber’s grandparent’s famed luncheonette and their pretty daughters.
Hazel’s hips are a concert of contours and curves, as she slips to and fro
’round the tables she serves; I buy six meals a day in my fav’rite cafe,
’cause I see hazel that way.
hazel’s eyes are divine and her hair is so fine, but her hips bring the tips!
hazel dips me my soup, serves me my cup of tea, my heart flips when i see
hazel smilin’ at me; so I say, ‘honeybunch, can’t I have you for lunch?’
but hazel just gives me a hunch. Hazel’s legs are a toast and her waist is the most,
but her hips bring the tips!
On Amber Weekes’ newly released “Pure Imagination” album, she continues to celebrate Oscar Brown Jr. Scotty Barnhart is outstanding on trumpet during her polished presentation of Oscar’s famed composition, “The Snake.” On Oscar Brown Jr.,’s “Brown Baby” composition, Weekes and Trevor Ware duet, effectively showcasing Amber’s voice with only bass accompaniment. Ware pulls out his bow, during this arrangement, to beautifully sing his solo.
Trevor Ware is currently bassist with the Count Basie band and he’s an in-demand studio musician, as well as a popular bassist in and around Southern California. Ware helped co-produce this latest Amber Weekes’ release. I asked Amber how Ware got to be a co-producer on her recent album.
AMBER: “Well, Trevor started playing with me when I first began performing in Los Angeles clubs. I met him originally through vocalist, performer Sweet Baby Jai. He did a couple of shows with her. A long time ago, there was a place called the Tower Restaurant that was inside the TransAmerica building. It was a beautiful restaurant. I was doing a gig there and it was either Baby Jai or Barbara Collins (who was representing Baby Jai at the time), who recommended that I use Trevor Ware. It may actually have been Elliott Douglas who was playing piano on that gig. I know that Elliott and Trevor had worked together quite a bit. Anyway, Trevor wound up working that gig with me. There was something about Trevor that resonated with me in a different kind of way. After that gig, we became good friends. He was my steady bass player for a long time and for a while he was my musical director. We recorded the “Round Midnight” album in 2002. Trevor Ware and reedman, Louis Van Taylor produced it. I knew Louis and we had worked together, but I’ve had a longer relationship with Trevor. There’s just a level of comfort that I have with Trevor. So, I hadn’t done an album in a really long time and I was ready to do another one. Trevor just seemed like the logical person to call. There’s a kind of organic engagement between the two of us. He and I started putting together the concept of the album and of course it changed over the two years it took, from conversation to completion. But it really did start with him. You know, over the years we haven’t worked together that much because he’s just become the A-list bass player for everybody. When it came time to do the recording, I really wanted him involved. He started the production, helped me figure out most of the album and what the repertoire was going to be. Because of Trevor’s busy schedule, it seemed challenging to finish it in the time-frame that I wanted. So, it just evolved into including other producers and musicians like Mark Cargill, who I’ve known longer than I knew Trevor. I’ve known Mark since I was nineteen. Mark is an extraordinary violinist and string arranger. He does the string arrangements for the television series, ‘Dancing With the Stars.’ Mark had seen my Facebook posts about doing the album and he offered to assist.
“I had gone to Louisiana in April and when I came back, we were trying to complete things. We thought, well why don’t we do “Gone at Last”? But I want it to sound New Orleans authentic. Trevor said, well, I can’t write a ‘second line.’ Let’s get Kenny Sara to do it.”
Kenny Sara produced the Paul Simon tune, “Gone at Last” and Amber Weekes employed the Bucjump Brass Band to authenticate the Louisiana sound and production that she wanted. Kenny Sara headlines the Sounds of New Orleans, a four-piece band whose forte is New Orleans based jazz music, R&B and funk. They have become an entertainment fixture at Downtown Disneyland’s Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen for over ten years. On this latest release, “Pure Imagination,” Weekes captures the toe-tapping excitement of Sara’s production, with the band adding gospel overtones, vocal chants and modulations that make you want to dance and shout.
Amber Weekes has a smooth, pleasing style. Her voice is crystal clear and during this repertoire, she pleasantly performs a Baker’s Dozen of notably familiar songs. Opening with the title tune, borrowed from the Willy Wonka movie, Amber Weekes invites jazz vocalist Sue Raney to make a guest appearance. She has studied with Raney and their voices blend nicely. I am struck by the Weekes way of stylizing her music, leaving space for the songs to breathe. Her phrasing is measured, like an instrumentalist rather than a singer. She doesn’t hold the tones out for long periods of time or delve into lengthy legato phrasings. Weekes displays skills by going straight to the notes without sliding. Every word is clearly enunciated and every melody is emotionally enriched. Her choice of tunes shows an expansive appreciation for many genres of music and includes compositions by Paul Simon, Duke Ellington, Oscar Brown Jr., Barry Manilow and Johnny Mercer. She introduced me to “When He Makes Music” by Marvin Fisher and Jack Segal. Lyrics like:
“His laughter is an echo in the breeze, that hushes larks and thrushes in the trees and calms the wave that rushes from the seas, when he makes music,” are lyrics that remind me of what makes a great song. Producer, Mark Cargill, adds an amazing violin solo on this ballad. His instrument sprinkles angel dust over Amber’s sweet delivery.
All in all, this is a treasure trove of great songs by a vocalist who understands the importance of an honest and emotional delivery. Blessed by her ancestry, music is just part of Amber’s DNA. The release date of this Amber Weekes project is scheduled for January 3, 2020.
Players on the Pure Imagination album include: Amber Weekes, vocals; Peter Smith & Tony Compodonico, pianists; Trevor Ware, bass/co-producer/background vocals; Jeff Littleton, bass; Charles Ruggiero & Nathaniel Scott, drums; Mitchell Long & Ramon Stagnaro, guitars; Justo Almario & Danilo Lazano, flute; Keith Fiddmont, alto & tenor saxophone; Dale Fielder, baritone saxophone; Curtis Taylor, Jeff Kaye & Scotty Barnhart, trumpets; Mark Cargill, violin/string arranger/conductor & co-producer; Munyungo Jackson, David Jackson & Don Littleton, percussionist; Nick Mancini & Gabriel “Slam” Nobles, vibraphone; Sue Raney & Mon David, vocals; Paul Baker, harp; Brian Swartz, horn arrangements; Mark LeVang, accordion; THE BUCKJUMP BRASS BAND: Robbie Hiokie, trombone; Randall Willis, tenor saxophone; Louis Van Taylor, baritone Saxophone; Vince Tividad, sousaphone; Mark Justin, piano; Kenny Sara, bass drum/snare drums/percussion/background vocals/ handclaps.
By Dee Dee McNeil
John Coltrane, tenor saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Elvin Jones, drums.
It seems that several tapes originating at the Rudy Van Gelder studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, have been recently re-discovered and resurrected. Among them is this classic John Coltrane recording session that was saved to analog tape in June of 1964. This was during a time when Coltrane’s spiritual recordings were soaring in popularity and transforming his career path, as well as the world of jazz. It was between his recording of the “Crescent” album and Coltrane’s super successful, “A Love Supreme.” The songs on this new project may be familiar, but the actual recordings have never been heard, in their entirety, before this release. The classic Coltrane band is in place, featuring all-stars, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. Of course, John Coltrane was on tenor saxophone and you will hear the legendary musicians playing “Naima,” a take One and take two exploration of this beautiful composition begins and ends this album.
This recording came about when filmmaker, Gilles Groulx, approached John Coltrane to score a French film titled, “Le Chat Dans le Sac,” (translated to The Cat in the Bag). No one was sure Coltrane would do it. Monsieur Groulx explained it was a love story, taking place in Montreal, Canada, with political undertones. The unexpected result of this request was that John Coltrane agreed and brought his band into the studio to revisit songs he had already recorded. Their session was recorded on quarter inch, analog, mono tape and mixed by Rudy Van Gelder. Groulx happily took the master to Canada to use in his film. The final film production only included ten minutes of Coltrane’s 37-minutes of recording time. Now, we can hear their entire session.
The title tune, “Blue World,” opens with Jimmy Garrison setting up the tempo and mood on his double bass, soon joined by the piano chords of McCoy Tyner and the skipping drum sticks of Elvin Jones, galloping across the piece with precision and inspired time. John Coltrane takes his stance into the spotlight with slow deliberation, making the tenor saxophone sing in only the way he can. Blasting into a crescendo ending, with Elvin Jones going wild on trap drums and the music building to a frenzied pitch, the finale of this song is dramatic. “Village Blues” is recorded three times and you will enjoy all three takes. Additionally, there is the “Like Sonny” composition and an over seven-minute rendition of “Traneing In.” The mix is crystal clear and the tracks are better than the original, previous recordings. They sound freshly improvised and crisp, like new money.
FRANCE LINE-UP: Louis Armstrong, trumpet/vocals; Jack Teagarden, trombone/vocals; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Earl Hines, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Sid Catlett, drums. GERMANY LINE-UP: Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocals; Trummy young, trombone; Bob McCracken, clarinet/vocals; Marty Napoleon, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums.
Imagine, stepping into a magical transformer and being whisked back in time. For a minute, just pretend you have entered a time machine. Moments later, you are sitting in a small jazz club in New Orleans, it’s 1946, and just mere feet away from your table, a young man, destined to become a living legend, is blowing his horn. Other’s on the scene are Jack Teagarden on trombone and Barney Bigard on clarinet. Crouched over the piano keys is Earl “Fatha” Hines. Arvell Shaw stands tall next to his double bass and Cozy Cole is slapping the trap drums. The leader, standing center stage in a dark suit and bow tie, is Louis Armstrong. The ensemble is performing together in preparation for a European tour.
It appears that eventual tour was recorded on February 22 – 23, 1948 during the Nice International Jazz Festival. It was recorded live at the famed Nice Opera House and also at the Titania Palast in Berlin, Germany. The group of musicians varies. Velma Middleton is featured, along with Louie, on vocals. Sometimes the dynamic Sid Catlett is the drummer and other times, it’s Cozy Cole. Earl Hines is the pianist in France and Marty Napoleon plays piano in Germany. But the steadfast trumpeter and star of this live production is Louis Armstrong.
This recording is part of Dot Time’s Legacy Series and these treasured tracks were recovered in forgotten, European archives of a live performance of Louie Armstrong and his All Stars in both Nice, France and later, in Germany, during a Berlin recorded broadcast on RIAS (Radio in the American Sector) files.
On the bluesy presentation of “Rockin’ Chair,” Jack Teagarden lends his smooth vocals to the mix, with Armstrong playfully answering him in his signature vocal style and adding a bit of comic relief during their duet. One thing I always admired about Louis Armstrong, (other than his amazing musical agility on his trumpet) was his penchant for entertaining. Sometimes musicians play only for themselves and each other, forgetting about the audience or having the attitude you can love it or leave it. Louie Armstrong knew that singing was a strong audience pleaser and always included this in his shows, as well as adding comedy relief. Louis Armstrong understood the importance of entertaining. The story goes that Armstrong’s manager at the time, Joe Glaser, told him before his European tour not to sing. He said they were all foreigners and didn’t speak any English. Armstrong nodded gravely, but as you hear, he paid absolutely no attention to Glaser’s instruction not to sing. In his own way, he was a serious activist, using music as his catalyst. He opened every concert singing Fats Waller’s poignant “Black and Blue” composition. It reflected the racism in America and always was received with marvelous applause and appreciation. You will hear his performance of that song on this album, along with the popular, “Sunny Side of the Street.”
He scats his way through “Them There Eyes,” as only Louie could do and I was intrigued with the blues song, “My Bucket Got a Hole In It,” featuring the boogie-woogie bass line I used to hear my own father play on our upright piano. Louis Armstrong then pays homage to his roots on “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” and on “Mahogany Hall Stomp” the band has an on-stage jam session with Arvell Shaw making a strong statement on his bass and Barney Bigard swinging his clarinet solo boldly into the audience. Closing with “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” Louis Armstrong leaves us a message from beyond this world and a promise, like a blown kiss, that love crosses all boundaries the same way great music does.
This amazing deluxe, seven-CD or 10-LP package of music reminds us that Nat King Cole was a piano master. This delicious compilation of Nat Cole’s early years, between 1936 to 1943, offers nearly 200 recorded tracks by the illustrious jazz musician before he ever signed with Capitol Records.
“This is a really important project for Resonance,” says co-president or the label, Zev Feldman. “We’ve done some pretty substantial packages over the years, such as our three-disc Eric Dolphy and Jaco Pastorius sets with 100-page booklets, but this Nat King Cole box is truly a definitive, king-sized set.”
Many people only recall Nat King Cole as the silky, satin-smooth voice that made the “Christmas Song” a forever-hit-holiday standard. When Nat Cole sang, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose …” the entire universe swooned. But long before he became a popular voice on the recording scene, Nat was inspiring great piano players like Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner and George Shearing with his amazing style and technique. Nat King Cole grew up in the jazz business, listening to icons like Earl “Fatha’ Hines and Art Tatum. You can clearly hear some of their influence in this amazing set of early recordings.
The tune, “With Plenty of Money and You” was cut in 1938. Nat King Cole is playing piano so swiftly he sounds like the studio engineers speeded up the tape. He has perfect time as his finger race across the piano keys. It’s just a spectacular listen, with Oscar Moore on guitar and Wesley Prince on bass. This was the very first recording session for Nat’s trio and unique because there was no drummer. Even before this release, the very first recordings Nat Cole made was with his brother Eddie for Decca Records. He was only seventeen-years-old, but it was obvious, even then, that Nat King Cole was a piano prodigy. You will enjoy Nat’s first versions of “Sweet Lorraine” in this collection, that later in his career became a huge R&B and pop record hit. You can hear how his tone and vocal style developed, from the 1930’s to his expansive success in the 1960s. but even more significant is Nat King Cole’s amazing abilities on the piano. This recording documents his astonishing talents on piano, as well as bringing several unforgettable songs alive that we may have forgotten and deserve to be remembered like, “All for You,” and “There’s No Anesthetic for Love.” This is a ‘must-have’ for any jazz collector’s library! Release date is November 1, 2019.
Dee Dee McNeil CDs, “STORYTELLER” and “WHERE CAN OUR LEADERS BE?” are Online at CDBaby.com or Amazon.com. As a journalist, Dee Dee is available to write liner notes, biographies and feature articles on jazz musicians and singers. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave your message and phone number at 248-262-6877.
DEE DEE McNEIL
Dee Dee McNeil is An Educator/Singer/Songwriter/Poet/Journalist/Producer & Playwright. Originally from Detroit, Michigan, her poetry was published in the first edition of Dudley Randall’s poetry anthology, “The Broadside Annual.” Several other anthologies followed. As a contract songwriter for Motown Records, several iconic artists have recorded her music including Diana Ross & the Supremes, Gladys Knight & the Pips, David Ruffin, Edwin Star, The Four Tops, Nancy Wilson, Rita Marley, Kiki Dee, Jonah Jones, Side Effect, Rapper ‘Styles’, LL Cool J, Gip Noble, The Marvelettes, Robert McCarther, Peggy Duquesnel and the historic Rap group, The Watts Prophets, of which Ms. McNeil was a member. She moved to Los Angeles in 1970 and became an alumnus of Budd Schulberg’s Watts Writers Workshop. She was one of the first women to Rap in the late ‘60s and early 70’s, speaking up for women’s rights. She recorded as a member of the Watts Prophets in 1970, reciting her original poetry, playing piano, singing and adding original music to their premiere release entitled, “Rappin’ Black In A White World,” named from a song McNeil penned with co-writer, Marthea Hicks.
Her articles and Cd reviews have appeared in Cadence Magazine, All About Jazz Newspaper and she had a jazz blog at www.lajazz.com for five years. As a freelance journalist, her articles have appeared in Good Old Boat Magazine, Pathfinders Travel Magazine, Ambassador National Italian-American Foundation magazine and many more. she was a music journalist for the AOL.com owned Patch Online newspapers. Her Column was called “Music Matters.” She once had a Jazz column in the Michigan Chronicle Newspaper. Another of her syndicated entertainment columns appeared in several newspapers across the country and in Canada. In 2009 her book “Haiku In My Neighborhood” was published, featuring the photography of Roland Charles.
In 2010, she presented her “Haiku In My Neighborhood” literary enrichment program as part of the City of Inglewood Parks, Recreation and Community Services, teaching haiku to children aged five to eleven as part of an after-school program. In 2011, she successfully presented the same program for older children at the Horace Mann Junior High School in Los Angeles. In 2012, one of her short stories was chosen and featured by the Sally Shore “New Short Fiction Series” read and presented by actress Angela Gibbs at the Watts Towers under the banner of “From the Ashes Revisited” to tribute the Watts Writers Workshop alumni. In 2014, her short story entitled “Singing My Way Through Adversity” was published in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries – 101 Stories of hope, Healing, and Hard Work.” In 2016, her essays were published in three separate “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books: “The Spirit of America”, “My Very Good, Very Bad Dog,” and “The Joy of Less.” Currently, she has a jazz blog where she previews CDs and writes feature articles about jazz artists at www.musicalmemoirs.wordpress.com and she contributes to LA Jazz Scene.buzz with a column called “Dee Dee’s Jazz Diary.”