Friday, July 24, 2009

AIN'T NOBODY HERE BUT US CHICKENS

A true story: "Adventures of Junior Ann, and Emily Fox.

Junior Ann had a portable record player. "I want you to listen to my friend's hit record, 'Choo choo ch'boogie. (Click the link and you'll hear what I heard.)

She'd been on the road with Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five. She saved enough money to take the summer course at the Charles Weidman Studio. (I wrote him and my first dance job, see my "Credentials" post.) Her friend Louis was paying for the course. "My friend wants me to put together some steps for him and the other horns. He likes my idea -- his big hit number, "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens" used to be top of the chart. A black chick and white chick dancing to it might bring down the house."

Junior Ann was black. We were the same height. I had long red hair, she had long, ironed black hair. Her features were definitely negro. Everything about me was definitely white. Junior asked me to work with her on the duet. "Just a 32 bar chorus -- The Duke loves my idea. The Duke says we can have a spot on his show." (Apparently both Duke Ellington, and Louis Jordan thought a black and white girl dance team was a great idea.)

I murmured something to show that I knew about choreography -- "Gee, if we do it twice we have a 64 bar number." (The only choreography I'd ever done was Sibelious's "Valse Triste," a tragic waltz, which I performed at a woman's club for a friend of my mother's.)

As a scholarship student at the Weidman Studio, I swept the front foyer and office, cleaned the bathroom, mopped the theater floor. I worked part-time at Forest Neighborhood House in a black section of the Bronx, teaching dance to black kids age five to twelve. My salary was $2 an hour for the four classes I taught each week.. Eight dollars a week was almost enough money to live on. (My rent was zero. I was a landlady, renting out bed space in my $30 a month five-room cold-water flat --each of my 5 roommates paid $7.00 a month.)

It took two evenings to put together a dance number, using steps that I'd learned in Weidman's dance classes. Junior wanted us to wear the leotards we wore for class -- black V- necked body suits, and get someone to make us expensive looking circular skirts. Junior insisted they had to be bright orange jersey, hems trimmed in black satin, subtly sequined. Weidman's costume lady said she'd make them for $15 per skirt, if we sewed on the sequins ourselves.

"I'll pay for them, Em, but you'll have to pay me $15.00 for your skirt, " Junior said.

It was a big investment, but a very exciting project. While we sewed on the sequins, Junior told me I had to change my name. "We're going to be famous. Make your name one syllable, so it balances mine, mine getting top billing of course."

I decided I'd call myself "Fox." The "Ann & Fox" team had a nice sound.

Music, costume, choreography were ready. We'd planned to take Juniors' portable record player, and play "Nobody Here But Us Chickens." It had a solid beat for 64 bars. Junior clapped her hands the way blacks clapped on the off-beat. I counted, (and clapped) exactly on the beat. So we decided we'd do the audition without music. Just the two of us counting sounded almost like an African tribal song.

The audition time, place, date kept getting postponed. Finally we did performed it for Louis Jordan in Buzz, the manager's office, a small 9 x 12 space. Louis seemed to like me. He told Junior, "You and foxy are okay. I'll talk to my partners."

Duke Ellington was very kind. Polite, soft spoken. We were ushered into the orchestra's practice room. While we cleared away folding chairs, a small piano, and instrument suitcases, The Duke asked us questions about what our favorite classical music was -- Junior elbowed me so I talked about Beethoven. We used our counting, chanting tribal song.

When we finished, while we were mopping off the sweat with the towel Junior brought along, The Duke talked very softly about his famous "Black and Tan Fantasia" and said some educated things about poetry in motion. It got a little weird when he patted Junior Ann's backside in a friendly personal, not quick way, and patted my cheek. He said, "Foxy lady, you give my secretary your phone number, give us a ring next week, honey."

Junior grabbed my hand. In the ladies room, as we put on our street clothes she explained that Duke Ellington's wife was in town.

The following week Junior said, "It's too soon to phone."

The week after the next week Junior said --"Louis says Buzz said his audiences won't be comfortable with a white girl and black girl sitting on the edge of the platform. Don't be discouraged -- I'll phone Duke next week."

During the week, in a Sam Goody music store (they had listening booths with turntables and earphones), I listened to all the Duke Ellington recordings they had in stock, and mentally kept practicing our 64 bar choreography. Weidman's five-week summer course ended and Junior said she had a booking. "The moment I get back, I'll talk to The Duke and Louis -- remind Louis how us two chicks can put 'Nobody Here But Us Chickens' back at the top of the charts. Then I'll tell The Duke about the offer from Louis, and fan the flames on the 'Ann & Fox' team."

It's a puzzlement -- did The Duke think I was a girl for love-stuff that pickup girls do? What was Junior's relationship to Louis Jordan?

On a record jacket, I saw a photo of him and two girls that sat in front of the band. The girls on the right looked like Junior Ann.

Duke Ellington left town after a sell-out engagement at the Paramount. I saw the show. I thought about going back stage. Instead, I stood in the crowd outside the stage door. I could have waved but I didn't. I saw him get into his limousine and drive off.

Junior Ann disappeared. End of the year I got a Christmas card from her. It was addressed to Emily Fox -- no note, just her return address -- 1212 Las Vegas Blvd. Las Vegas Nevada.

I never did send Junior Ann $15 for my orange skirt, but I wore it when I was teaching.

"Nobody Here But Us Chickens" got to be a hit again, as a Looney Tunes Video.

1 comment:

Carola said...

I love to hear the stories of your early working life in NY. I just reread your credentials blog and wanted MORE MORE--a full-fledged memoir!!

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