A host of big-name African-American stars will perform excerpts of shows originally acted and sung by the icons that inspired them at Queensborough College on Feb. 17.
Those icons — saxophonist Louis Jordan, nicknamed “King of the Jukebox,” popular ragtime musician and writer of the first Broadway musical Eubie Blake, jazz legend Duke Ellington, Corona’s very own saxophonist Louis Armstrong, jazz singer Cab Calloway, pianist Fats Waller, original member of Sinatra’s Rat Pack Sammy Davis Jr. and the crooning soft baritone singer Nat King Cole — comprise part of the group known as the “Black Stars of the Great White Way.”
They’re African Americans who not only became famous in the performing arts — both on and off Broadway — but also pushed for civil rights with their music.
Ellington, whose father was a butler at the White House, grew up playing his music at the Capitol and later went on to become a musical ambassador for the U.S., Chapman Roberts, director of the show, said. The United States would send him and other musicians like Armstrong to the Middle East to smooth over relations — setting the spectacular musicians up in four- star hotels.
“Ellington would say, ‘I can stay in four-star hotels in the Middle East, but I can’t stay in one in my own country,’” Roberts said.
Other musicians illuminated racial struggles in their music and traveled internationally fighting for equality of skin color and for human rights in general, Roberts said. That will be touched on in the Feb. 17 show and will be further explored in a production at Carnegie Hall in November.
“It’s Black History Month, and part of the performance is to be sure that that legacy isn’t lost,” Roberts said. “These were the most popular musicians of their time, and I want to be absolutely sure the influence they had on the world isn’t lost.”
Roberts, who arranged the vocals for “Your Arm’s Too Short to Box with God,” “Blues in the Night” and “Five Guys Named Moe,” lives and breathes jazz and Broadway.
On Monday morning he picked up the phone from his apartment in Manhattan Plaza, a large federally subsidized residential complex on 43rd Street and Ninth Avenue where 70 percent of the tenants work in the performing arts. People like Alicia Keys and Tennessee Williams have called the brick buildings home.
“Oh, hello,” he said. “ I was just handed a play bill of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ Morgan Freeman plays the head waiter.”
“This is crazy,” Roberts said. He was referring to Freeman’s first show in 1968, before he became the Hollywood staple he is now.
Freeman will not be performing, but other Tony-nominated performers will: East Elmhurst native Keith David, Ted Levy, Andre De Shields, Larry Marshall and Norm Lewis.
Additional appearances will be made by trumpeter Longineu Parsons, who will honorArmstrong, tapper Omar Edwards of “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk” and “Showtime at the Apollo,” Queens-based pianist Frank Owens, bassist Clyde Bullard, South African drummer Sipho Kunene, guitarist Keith Robinson, the York College Big Band, The Robert Mann Dance Centre and 14-year-old piano prodigy Julius Rodriguez.
Other Queens venues will be celebrating Black History Month as well.
The Louis Armstrong House Museum at 34-56 107 St. in Corona will feature for the month 40-minute guided tours that explore Armstrong’s life using private photographs, manuscripts and audiotapes. Visitors will learn how Armstrong impacted the civil rights movement both as an artist and an advocate. Call (718) 478-8297 for more information.
The Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center at 100-01 Northern Blvd., also in Corona, will host the 28th Annual Langston Hughes Celebration on Saturday, Feb. 9 from 11 a.m to 5:30 p.m.The event pays tribute to poet and author Langston Hughes with film screenings, lectures and musical performances. Call (718) 651-1100 for more information.
The Black Spectrum Theatre Co. at 177th Street and Baisley Boulevard in Jamaica will present “Alexandre Dumas(A Play)” Feb. 7 through 10. Call (718) 723-1800 for more information.
When: Saturday, Feb. 17, 3 p.m.
Where: Queensborough Performing Arts Center
222-05 56 Ave., Bayside
Tickets: $35, (718) 631-631, qcc.cuny.edu