The jazz memories of singer Don Gardner
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    Auction Finds

    Jazz singer Ann Robinson’s photos at Village Vanguard

    I didn’t recognize the singer in the stack of photos among many others in a half-cut cardboard box on the auction table. She seemed to be bellowing out some song with all her heart, and having fun doing it.

    She was identified on the back of the photo as Ann Robinson, who at that moment in time was performing at the Village Vanguard in New York City, 1941. I initially thought the photographer was not identified, but checking the photos later, I found a name. Two of them bore this stamp: “Photograph by Hans Knopf “PIX.” Knopf was a well-known magazine photographer who was once married to socialite/etiquette columnist Amy Vanderbilt, and shot several photos of Marilyn Monroe.

    PIX Publishing from 1935 to 1969 provided news and feature photos to magazines, including Life and later Sports Illustrated, both of whom Knopf worked for.

    The grouping contained at least a dozen or more duplicate photos of Robinson, whom I’d never heard of and neither had my auction buddy Janet, who considers herself a jazz connoisseur. I was obviously curious about who Robinson was, so I Googled.

    Ann Robinson at the Village Vanguard in New York, 1941.

    Ann Robinson at the Village Vanguard in New York, 1941.

    I could find very little about her life, and found only snatches about her career as a night-club singer and performer in a few musicals on Broadway during the 1940s. She sang before white audiences in several clubs in New York, including the Village Vanguard, which featured some of the top jazz performers; the Cafe Society Downtown; Le Ruban Bleu, the Three Deuces and the Elks Rendezvous. At the Le Ruban Bleu, she performed “gut-bucket rhythmic and riff rough-house vocalizing,” as one recent book noted. That seemed to be her specialty.

    Robinson’s name came up frequently as one of Broadway producer Leonard Sillmans’ “New Faces” of 1943. Sillman’s revues – 13 of them from 1934 to 1968 – introduced new performers to Broadway, then to radio and to the movies (where they were short-lived in both cases).

    Sillman is credited with giving many actors their first push at stardom. Henry Fonda, Eartha Kitt, Van Johnson and others had their first Broadway roles in his shows, which consisted of humorous sketches, dancing and singing. His most successful show was in 1952, with Kitt, Alice Ghostley and Paul Lynde. That show was made into a movie. Other performers included Tyrone Powers, Gypsy Rose Lee, Eve Arden and Imogene Coca.

    He was the only Broadway producer who didn’t hesitate to cast newcomers in his shows, the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper noted in January 1943. He found them from everywhere – night clubs, vaudeville, modeling agencies, radio soap operas, local theater. For the 1943 show, he auditioned 300 young people, traveling across the country from Chicago to Hollywood to Maine, according to the newspaper.

    Ann Robinson at the Village Vanguard in New York, 1941.

    Ann Robinson at the Village Vanguard in New York, 1941.

    “Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1943 in New Shoes” opened at the Ritz Theater on Broadway in December 1942 and closed in March 1943 after 94 performances, according to a book about Broadway musicals of the 1940s. The third in the series, it was a two-act revue, with skits spoofing Orson Welles, Broadway agents, the medical field (about an operation on a sick shirt), beauty schools, among others.

    Robinson sang alone and with the company in that production. A New York Post critic liked parts of the revue but called the show itself amateurish. She loved Robinson, though, according to the book.

    “The Harlem singer Ann Robinson ‘picked up the show and carried it around with her whenever she came on,'” the book quoted critic Wilella Waldorf of the Post. “Apparently Robinson’s scat-singing style was something new to the critics and Waldorf described it as a ‘curious rhythmic exercise’ called ‘riffing.'”

    Other critics were also enamored, writing that she improvised her songs and had a “gay breezy style.” One noted that she was the favorite of the audience that night.

    Ann Robinson at the Village Vanguard in New York, 1941.

    Ann Robinson at the Village Vanguard in New York, 1941.

    A Billboard critic found the show generally uninspiring and the skits not very funny, but praised Robinson’s performance. “Ann Robinson, young Negro singer with a great deal of stage presence and a dynamic delivery, helped put every number in which she appeared over with a bang. Her complete ease and naturalness came as a relief after the often forced and stagy deliveries of the others in the cast.”

    Robinson was the only black member of the show, according to the Pittsburg Courier newspaper. By April, she was the main star at the Plantation Club on 52nd Street, a New York street filled with jazz clubs. And in September, she was in a variety and comedy show at Elks Rendezvous on Lenox Avenue in Harlem. Robinson also toured the country with USO Camp shows entertaining soldiers.

    In 1944, she was apparently headed back to Broadway in “On the Town” at the International Theater in a show whose music was written by Leonard Bernstein about three sailors on shore leave. It opened at the Adelphi Theater in December 1944;  I could find no mention of a show at the International.

    For two months in 1945, she played a character named Chloe in a musical/comedy called “Memphis Bound,” also on Broadway. With an all-black cast, it was a two-act revue about a group who perform the play “H.M.S. Pinafore” to raise money to free their Memphis-bound ship from a sandbar.

    In his autobiography “Bass Line,” musician Milt Hinton was said to have remembered Ann Robinson (who presumably was also known as Anna Robinson). Hinton was a noted bass player who took iconic photos of the era’s top jazz greats.

    Ann Robinson at the Village Vanguard in New York, 1941.

    Ann Robinson at the Village Vanguard in New York, 1941.

    Hinton moved to Harlem in the late 1920s, and at some point met Robinson, who was a dancer with the Three Rhythm Queens at the Cotton Club (the dancers were said to have been there in 1935). Robinson was a free spirit (Hinton said she’d answer her door naked), sexually liberated and outspoken. She also wrote songs that others recorded – for which she was never credited – and her material and routines were copied by others.

    Robinson showed singer/comedian Martha Raye some vocal stylings during the 1930s, according to Jet magazine. Hinton found the two very similar in their delivery: “… both were dancers with unusually wide mouths, who incorporated this physical characteristic into their comedic performances.” He said that Ray used some of Robinson’s material.

    Robinson apparently made several three-minute records in 1939 with Jimmy Johnson & His Orchestra, scatted on a song called “Harlem Woogie,” and performed as Anna Robinson on a song titled “Hungry Blues” written by Langston Hughes with music by James P. Johnson in a one-act opera. It was titled “De Organizer,” about organizing black sharecroppers in the South. The opera was performed in 1940 at Carnegie Hall, and CBS was going to use it for radio but found it too controversial.

    Listen to her sing “Hungry Blues” and “Harlem Woogie” with Jimmy Johnson & His Orchestra.

    Robinson was said to have become addicted to heroin and was murdered in an alley behind her Harlem home. She died in 1946.


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