Arrayed behind the twenty-one-year-old Harry Belafonte on the night of his unlikely debut as a singer in January of 1949 was a quartet of modern music greats: Al Haig on piano, Max Roach on drums, Tommy Potter on bass, and bebop founding father Charlie Parker on alto saxophone.
The club was the Royal Roost in Midtown Manhattan, which, the year before, had begun presenting the young lions of modern jazz—Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Dexter Gordon—with live radio broadcasts hosted by the famed jazz disc jockey Sydney Tarnopol who plied his hipster trade under the moniker Symphony Sid.
Belafonte was a high school dropout who, after serving in the navy at the end of World War II, had used his G.I. bill money to study acting at the New School. The program put on some of its plays at the 48th Street Theatre close by the Royal Roost.
When not on stage, Belafonte would volunteer to do props or lighting at the theatre and after the shows walked over to the Royal Roost where he would order a beer for 50 cents, nursing it at the bar at the back of the club and enthralled by the music up front beyond the tables where the rich “swells” ordered expensive drinks. Soon the young man was befriended by titan tenor saxophonist, Lester Young, a regular performer at the club.
One night in 1948, Young and his sideman, along with the Roost’s booking agent Monte Kay, came to a New School production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Belafonte played the Troubadour, a part not in the original play, but one invented for him so that he could set the musical mood with snatches songs by Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. As made clear in his engaging and candid autobiography of 2011, My Song, Belafonte only allowed himself this public vocal display because it was funneled through the mystical figure of the Troubadour. He saw himself as an actor who could sing when the occasion demanded it. He was not a singer.
After the play Young and the other musicians heartily congratulated the young actor and all went back to the Roost for a festive drink. Belafonte was happy simply that this clutch of jazz elites—including the hippest of them all, Lester Young, a man credited by Belafonte and many others with coining the slang use of “cool”— knew something of his work as an actor.
As 1948 neared its end Belafonte’s G.I. Bill money had run out and his wife, Marguerite, was pregnant. Unable to land other acting gigs, he gave up his classes at the New School. Like his friend and fellow would-be actor Sydney Poitier, Belafonte took a job delivering clothes with a hand truck in the Garment District.
With his artistic ambitions battered, Belafonte went to the Roost one night. The waiters allowed him to sit at a table front of the club to hear Lester Young. In between sets the saxophonist came to talk to his young friend, and Belafonte confided that things looked bleak. Young and one of his sidemen encouraged Belafonte to ask Monte Kay for a gig singing in the club. Belafonte again insisted he wasn’t a singer, but, urged on by Young, finally did make his plea to Kay, who gave him a one-off chance singing between sets.
The problem was that Belafonte didn’t have enough material, so over the next week Al Haig helped him work up a few standards. He was in good hands with Haig, an elegant, incisive, and inventive pianist who’d studied at Oberlin and held sway over a wide range of musical styles and moods, from bebop burners to hazy ballads.
On that Tuesday in January, after Young and his band played the first set, Kay introduced the next act: “Ladies and Gentleman, the Royal Roost is pleased to introduce a new discovery, Harry Bella Buddha!”
Seated at the keyboard, Haig dashed off a flourish for the newcomer, but before Belafonte could start singing Tommy Potter had picked up his bass and was playing along. Then Max Roach took his place at the drum set, and finally Parker strode onto the bandstand.
Haig segued into the planned opening tune, “Pennies from Heaven,” but before Belafonte could start singing, Parker had launched into an effusive solo backed by his rhythm section. Belafonte’s umbrella was indeed upside down as the jazz plentitude rained down around him.
But for a terrifying moment Belafonte floundered in the bebop inundation. He had no idea when he should enter. Soon enough, Haig nodded to Belafonte. He opened his mouth and sang.
His engagement was extended for a week, Symphony Sid now introducing the young singer to his radio live audience: ”Down here at the Royal Roost, we’ve got an exciting singer, Harry Belafonte. Now this is a great story, folks … One week ago he was in the garment district pushing a rack of clothes. Now’s he’s packin’ ‘em in at the Roost. It’s a Cinderella story, is what it is, which is why we call him … the Cinderella Gentleman.”
He was kept on at the Roost for nearly half a year with his pay upped from the initial $70 a week to $200. Later that same spring he found himself eight blocks away singing on-stage at Carnegie Hall.
Soon he had made his first shellac recording: a 78 on Roost Records, whose tagline was “Music of the Future.” Belafonte’s future would be brighter, longer, and far more lucrative than that of the music Roost meant: bebop.
There is no recording of Belafonte’s debut, which survives only as anecdote. The sound of that night can only be triangulated.
That first 78, issued on the house label, was made with the band of another regular Roost performer, the bop trumpeter Howard McGhee. The new music was notorious for the difficulties of its harmonies and tempos, but there is nothing threatening in Harry’s recording debut with “Lean on Me.”
Recordings survive from this period of Parker and the Haig-Roach-Potter rhythm section at the Roost, as in New Year’s Eve broadcast a couple of weeks before Bird’s spirited musical introduction for Belafonte. Symphony Sid emcees the jazz party at the “Metropolitan Bopera House” (the Roost, of course) kicked off with the future music’s eponymous title tune “Be-Bop” careening towards midnight between 1948 and 1949 at searing, celebratory speed.
Later that year, buoyed by his rousing successes at the Roost, Belafonte also recorded ballads and easy swinging numbers with Al Haig and Tommy Potter (with drummer Roy Haynes instead of Max Roach). The mellifluous, but bop savvy tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims was also on board for Belafonte’s rendering of “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” flavored with the exoticizing spice of mild Latin groove.
This “Night” points the way to the calypso calm for which Belafonte would become famous, already a long way from those first pennies spouting from Parker’s alto saxophone at the singer’s legendary debut—Belafonte’s terrifying and triumphant baptism by fire, the Banana Boat of his future christened by bebop flames.
Next week—Island in the Sun: Belafonte on the Mountain Top
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)