PROVIDENCE — Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles will be among the luminaries evoked Friday afternoon at the Downtown Marriott on Orms Street, not far from where the jazz greats actually played at the Celebrity Club.
In a 4 p.m. show called “Celebrity Club Remembered,” eight teens will sing and dance a tribute to New England’s first integrated jazz club, which surmounted race barriers in its 1949-1958 heyday.
Paul Filippi opened the Celebrity Club with money he’d saved from his job as a doorman at the Crown Hotel on Weybosset Street. Later, Filippi, who was white, owned Ballard’s restaurants in Providence and on Block Island. He died on the island in 1992, at age 78.
His family will be at the free show Friday. His son, Blake Filippi, said the family is honored that the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society is recognizing the club’s contributions. “Some of the greatest musicians this nation has ever known performed to integrated crowds in a time of racial segregation, changing prevailing attitudes across the region.”
Back then, even in the North, a person of color might be qualified for any number of positions, but it seems there was always something that disqualified the African-American from getting the job. Fats Waller addressed this phenomenon with humor in “Your Feets Too Big.”
Evoking Fats Waller in a duet are Charles Laws, 13, who attends the Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts, and David Danicher, 12, who goes to Nathanael Greene Middle School and wants to be a movie actor. They sing:
Don’t want ya, ’cause ya feets too big
Can’t use ya, ’cause ya feets too big
I really hate ya, ’cause ya feets too big
Luna Abréu-Santana, 15, who goes to Classical High School, and Aimee Martinez, 15, who goes to Paul Cuffee High School, act out the song’s story, until Janell Brown, 16, also of Classical, steps in as narrator, closing out that act and summing up the club’s strategy for success:
“At Celebrity Club, everybody’s feets were just the right size.”
At a rehearsal Wednesday, artistic director Robb Dimmick encouraged the eight teens, who he said had been handpicked. They are part of the “Jazz is a Rainbow” program, produced by OPERAtunity, which itself is a cooperation between Opera Providence and the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. As part of a group of 50 students, they were guests at part of the Newport Jazz Festival.
The production’s writers also perform, Michael Palter on bass and Lynne Jackson on keyboard. They tied the jazz standards together with “word bridges” that emphasize the club’s cultural significance.
Brown embodies Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, as Vaughan singing “Come Rain or Come Shine,” intermingling with Abréu-Santana singing “Cry Me a River” as Dakota Staton.
Friday’s performance will cap two weeks of intensive study, which included acting lessons and such jazz techniques as scatting, note-bending and vocal coloring.
They also learned about Ed Hooks, who is scheduled to be in the audience Friday. His connection to the club was that he was being born upstairs in his grandmother’s house while Duke Ellington was practicing downstairs in the grandmother’s parlor.
Dimmick explained Wednesday that the stars at the Celebrity Club were booked for a week. Segregation still reigned across America, and African-Americans weren’t welcome in most hotels. So when even big stars such as Duke Ellington played in Providence, they stayed in private homes.
After the performance, at about 5:30 p.m., a plaque commemorating the Celebrity Club will be unveiled and dedicated on a traffic island at Randall and Charles streets, just yards from where the club once stood in what is now the Charlesgate complex.
By DONITA NAYLOR
Journal Staff Writer
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