A Musical Journey
The Jazz Scene in Champaign-Urbana from 1957 to 1973
By Tony Zamora
I was a resident musician living in the Champaign-Urbana community for more than 16 years, so I can readily attest to the active jazz scene that took place on the C-U North End from 1957 to 1973. In the late 1950's I frequently patronized several of the local nightspots in Champaign's North End. The local outlets for listening to live jazz music included the following nightspots. The Spotlight Café on Vine Street, the Social Club on Main Street, which was owned and operated by Wardell Jackson, the Amvets Club on East Washington Street, managed by George Tinsley, the Elks Lodge on Chester Street and the Inner Circle Lounge on North First Street. Several years later, Pirtle's Place opened on North Fourth Street, and featured live jazz entertainment. My jazz quartet was the first band to play there with the talented singer Bennie Tyree.
On the UIUC campus, the Illini Union hosted jazz sessions that were appropriately called "Jazz U Like It." In later years, the House of Chin showcased great local jazz combos. In addition, an underground series of jazz concerts were frequently held at the Red Herring in the Channing-Murray Foundation. Treno's on Goodwin Street also sponsored Saturday afternoon jazz sets that featured the Tony Zamora Jazz Ensemble that attracted large audiences from the campus and C-U community.
The local Amvets Club featured the late Count demon and his Demons of Jazz. The band was led by Count Demon (nee) William Evans and consisted of several outstanding musicians who were introduced to the C-U community by the late "Brother" Jack McDuff. McDuff, a native of Champaign, started out as a bassist/pianist, and later switched to and concentrated on the Hammond organ. By then, McDuff had already gained national and international prominence as one of the nation's leading premier jazz organists.
When I first visited these local clubs, I couldn't believe the high caliber of jazz that I was hearing when I initially heard Count Demon's band. The group was comprised of the late Joe Bradley, piano, Waymon (Punchy) Atkinson, tenor saxophone and the late Count Demon, drums and vocals. Bass duties alternated between local bassist Bill Boyle, who worked at C-U's School Music Service, Dewey Duerson (Indianapolis) and Bill Yancey (Chicago).
The Amvets management scheduled weekly "Blue Monday" night jazz sessions where the house was packed with local and out of town patrons and fans that included many college students/musicians who often sat in during jam sessions. Count Demon handled the house band chores while the club's management frequently invited musicians working in Chicago nightclubs to perform as guest artists with Count Demon's popular group.
Musicians living in or near the C-U area during this period included George Goldsmith, a prolific drummer from Detroit, who was stationed at Chanute Air Force Base, and saxophonist, Daniel Jackson, who hailed from San Diego and was also stationed at the Chanute A.F.B. Both would regularly sit in with Demon's entourage. A UIUC saxophonist, the late Joe Ferrantino (Chicago) and Denny Zeitlin (Chicago), a phenomenal young pianist at the time, frequently jammed with the house band, Firrantino, who later changed his last name to Joe Farrell, became a major player in New York jazz circles and was a stellar saxophonist/flautist and first-call studio musician on the NY scene.
The Amvets attracted a lively, diverse audience from across the country, including famous musicians who were appearing at Chicago jazz clubs. The Amvets Club management hired many great musicians on their Monday nights off during their Chicago engagements where they made guest appearances with Count Demon's band. The Monday night sessions showcased an outstanding all-star cast of musicians that included saxophonists Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt and Nicky Hill, trombonist, Benny Green and the great guitarist, Wes Montgomery, who would drive from Indianapolis to play with the "Demons of Jazz." Wes Montgomery and "Punchy" Atkinson became close friends and ended up touring together across the country.
Note that the Amvets Club was located across the street from the Bridgewater household, where Cecil Bridgewater (then a young aspiring trumpet player), could hear this live jazz flowing across the street through his upstairs bedroom window. It stands to reason that this "Window to the World of Jazz" made a lasting impression on Cecil and his younger brother Ronnie, and heavily influenced the Bridgewater brothers into becoming the caliber of musicians they are today.
I want to note the significance the late "Brother Jack McDuff" had on his hometown. Never forgetting his "roots," Jack often returned to Champaign with his smoking "Heating System" aggregation to perform at the local Elks Lodge on Chester Street and other venues. He would compliment his appearances with nearby gigs in Bloomington, Danville and Springfield, Illinois. When word spread indicating an upcoming McDuff appearance with his group, it was always the place to be. The community always responded in mass to hear Jack's band. McDuff's band was comprised of many talented musicians that included among others, the impressive drummer, Joe Dukes, saxophonists Harold Vick or Red Holloway, and an up and coming gifted guitarist, George Benson and another young talent in guitar, Pat Martino. These musicians became established performing artists with international reputations. They all had an important and positive impact on the C-U jazz scene.
After Count Demon's band broke up, Count and Joe Bradley remained in Champaign for a while, while Waymon "Punchy" Atkinson joined Wes Montgomery for a nationwide tour before eventually returning to his hometown of Akron, Ohio. Count opened The Star Record Shop on First Street, but continued to play with local bands, which included several years of playing and singing with my group, The Tony Zamora Jazz Members. Demon was a seasoned, experienced musician/showman and was a stabilizing force for me when I established my band, because he had a wealth of knowledge about the music business that he readily shared with me. His wisdom and encouragement reinforced my decision to move forward with forming my own jazz group.
Harold "Pete" Bridgewater headed several local bands that featured many excellent musicians. Those I can recall are: Norman Langford, piano and saxophone, Ernest Hite, piano/organ, Clyde "Sweets" Perkins, drums (all deceased) and George Roberts, a fine pianist who was a former band member of the Original 4 Clefs. Roberts still resides in the C-U area. I too, had the distinction of playing with the Pete Bridgewater Quartet.
After a stint with several local soul bands, I decided to form my own jazz combo. The primary reason for this decision was that I wanted to play jazz, and the opportunities to do so were limited if I were to remain a sideman with a soul music group. It should be noted that many jazz musicians got their experience by playing with soul music groups, for example, the Ray Charles and the Lloyd Price Orchestras.
It was in the vicinity of the early 1960's that I was fortunate to meet Donald Smith, a very talented music student from Richmond, Virginia, who was enrolled in the School of Music at the UIUC. He was a prolific keyboard player, and an exceptional flutist/vocalist.
The challenge of organizing a band required the acquisition of band and sound equipment, along with purchasing a van to transport band members for road engagements, especially since local jazz gigs were tough to secure. It was a worthwhile venture and a challenge for me to keep the band afloat and working regularly. Events finally took a turn for the better when I began securing additional engagements outside of the C-U area. This move turned out to be far more rewarding than I could have ever anticipated.
I was encouraged and supported by Daniel Perrino, now a retired UIUC administrator, who is still active as a young program advocate and advisor to perform in C-U schools. Dan is also an accomplished musician, performer, community advisor and music devotee. Dan often heard the group when we performed at C-U park concerts. He was instrumental in paving the way for various outreach programs by way of his influence in opening doors of opportunity that started with the "Musical Conversations" Series. This project enabled my band to perform in the various UIUC residence halls and was followed by additional opportunities and invitations to do the same in local schools and community parks throughout the C-U community.
The band soon became what is referred to as a "Territorial Band," playing engagements at Chanute Air Force Base and in the cities of Springfield, Chicago, Danville, Decatur, Joliet, Lockport, Rock Island, Kankakee, Carbondale, Lincoln and Peoria, Illinois. I also landed gigs in Fort Wayne, Kokomo, Lafayette and Indianapolis, Indiana.
As the group progressed, I received a standing Saturday afternoon gig at a favorite campus hangout called Treno's. You had to come early or you couldn't get a seat because of the large diverse crowd. The group also performed frequently at the Illini Union and in the UIUC's residence halls. In town, we played at Pirtle's Place, the Inner Circle Lounge and the Champaign Elks Club on Chester Street. I also booked engagements at local restaurants and we played for private parties. We also performed at the Officer's Club, NCO Club and Airmen's Club at the Chanute Air Base at Rantoul.
The band was comprised of standout local talent and student musicians attending UIUC. Musicians in my band at various intervals were: Donald Smith, piano, organ, flute and vocals; Maurice Davis, trumpet; Ron Dewar, saxophone; Cecil Bridgewater, trumpet; Maurice McKinley, drums; Glen Kronkite, drums; John Dutton, drums; Bill Parsons, drums; Milton Knox, organ; Russell Cheatham, organ; Jim McNeely, piano; John Alexander, trumpet; George Marsh, drums; Joe Boyce, vibes; Charles Morris, piano and organ; Lamont Parson, guitar; Preston Jackson, guitar; Lester Brown, drums; Nathaniel Banks, trumpet; Willie Komla Amoaku, percussion; Ben Ale, percussion and Count Demon, drums and vocals. Other vocalists that journeyed at times with the band were Tee Tee Coleman, Maxine Thomas, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Bennie Tyree. Many musicians frequently sat in with the group.
It was during this period that I initiated several opportunities for the band to play elementary and school park concerts. The concerts were underwritten via the Champaign-Urbana Park Districts. The musicians were compensated through the Champaign Musician's Union Trust Fund, Local No. 196, A.F.M.
Almost simultaneously, the UIUC Jazz Band, under the direction of Professor John Garvey, was performing great jazz during the period when my ensemble was flourishing. Garvey's band was comprised of an outstanding roster of highly skilled jazz-minded students, who were also seasoned musicians. They performed brilliantly in attaining new heights to where they won several National Collegiate Jazz Band Competition Awards. The big band also toured the international circuit where they served as U.S. musical ambassadors to the U.S.S.R. (Russia). Professor Garvey's outstanding achievements in jazz at the UIUC were enormous and deserve wider recognition.
The motivational factor that prompted me to approach Paul Karlstrom, then Secretary-Treasurer of Local No. 196, A.F.M., was ignited when I started giving saxophone lessons in my home to several young students residing in Urbana. It downed on me that similar projects could best be implemented and accomplished at the Douglass Community Center where more youngsters would have the opportunity and the advantage of receiving free instructions from the roster of skilled musicians who were in my band.
I met with Paul Karlstrom to discuss the possibilities of obtaining funds to underwrite a free tutorial music program at Douglass Community Center. The funds would be earmarked to purchase band instruments for the young people enrolled in CU public schools. I was also successful in obtaining the funding. In my discussions with Paul Karlstrom, it was agreed that the Musician's Union would donate funds with the understanding that the instruments would be purchased locally for this youth project. I followed this up by going to School Music Service where discussions were held with the owners about the purpose/goals of the project. School Music Service listened and generously consented to sell the band instruments at a discounted price and the project was underway.
I coordinated this project, which required the cooperation and volunteer efforts of several musicians who taught music lessons on the various instrument we had available. Douglass Center already had a long-standing history of sponsoring the Douglass Center Drum and Bugle Corp. Musicians who participated and served as instructors were Maurice McKinley, percussion; Cecil Bridgewater, brass; Donald Smith, keyboards; and Tony Zamora, saxophone. There were other musicians who taught, but I don't recall their names. At this particular time, Douglass Center was under the directorship of Booker Ford, who cooperated fully with all the musicians and welcomed the program with open arms. Any project that benefited local youth in the North End was needed and appreciated.
This is how this significant mission got off the ground. The instruments were purchased from School Music Service and the musicians immediately began teaching these willing and anxious young students at the Center. It is important to note that we started from scratch and we were dealing with many youngsters who were having their first exposure and experience with an instrument with music lessons taught by jazz musicians.
I have high praise for Donald Smith, Cecil Bridgewater, and Maurice McKinley, and several others for the time, dedication and expertise they gave in terms of teaching CU youths the art of music as was emphasized with this project. This mission could not have been accomplished without the support of many local organizations, businesses, and individuals who all deserve applause for their contribution to enhance, uplift, and musically educate the youth in CU's North End at that time. This was a program whose outreach also benefited the entire CU community and attracted large audiences at park performances.
In the late 1960s, Dan Perrino introduced me to Willie Komla Amoaku. Amoaku, a UIUC foreign graduate student in ethnomusicology from Ghana, West Africa, was pursuing his MFA degree and studying under Professor Bruno Nettl. He was steeped in the knowledge of African music/culture and was an incredible master drummer. He later became a member of my jazz ensemble and introduced a plethora of African rhythm and concepts to the group's repertoire and sound. Our relationship developed to the point where Amoaku and I joined hands in establishing the Uhuru Ensemble. We had several productive meetings that developed into a mutual friendship of respect and brotherly love. The Uhuru Ensemble project was another episode in Champaign-Urbana's cultural history that soon became a unique adventure of its own, but achieved untold community success.
The Uhuru Ensemble project brought together local jazz musicians, UIUC educators, students, and local high school students from the CU communities who were taught to perform authentic African music and dance. Jazz and poetry were also intertwined in the presentations. The ensemble was comprised of more than 30 participants that included educators, musicians, dancers, and poets, with the ensemble performing at many local schools, parks, and at state penal institutions. Uhuru was one of the first cultural ensembles to perform at penal institutions in Illinois. I must say that this was a wholesome, beautiful, and rewarding experience.
As time moved into the early 1970s, most of the musicians moved on to other destinations. The majority of the participants that were involved in the teaching aspect of the program and the nucleus of my band moved to New York City to further their musical career objectives. By that time, I had received an offer and accepted a position at Purdue University in 1973.
This is another episode of a lengthy story about a series of enriching experiences that involved a number of diverse people from around the world who came together in Champaign-Urbana for a common cause and purpose. This was a collective of bright, young men and women who created and shared some of the most enlightening and entertaining African music/jazz/dance/poetry that was entwined and embraced with the richness of West African ad American culture.