Cheryl Stephens will be remembered by longtime jazz fans as a petite gal with a big voice and a happy disposition who overcame physical adversity to become one of the finest and most popular traditional jazz vocalists during the Dixieland resurgence in the latter part of the 20th Century. Unhappily, the arthritis that had plagued her throughout her life took its toll, and she passed away on Nov. 26 at the age of 69.
Born in Yonkers, New York, Cheryl moved with her family to Arizona for health reasons when she was six years old. Her mother Lorraine was a professional dancer and teacher who obviously endowed her daughter with musical talent. Cheryl sang at recitals and in her school chorus, but admitted to being very shy at that stage of her life.
Her sister took her to a country-western bar in 1969, and she was hooked on the music, and two years later she was performing with Mike Dale and the Sidewinders. In 1973, she formed her own trio and was doing conventions and outdoor concerts as Cheryl Stephens & Hickory.
Her introduction to Dixieland occurred in 1975 when clarinetist Jeff Woodhouse was looking for a vocalist with his band. He called the Musicians Union and was given two names. The first girl was not at home, and Cheryl was, so a new career was launched. It was through Jeff that she met Dick Knutson, who talked her into going to the 1979 Sacramento Dixieland Jubilee with the Desert City Six as a lark.
Cheryl was a very serious student of her music, continuously adding new tunes to her repertoire by listening to tapes or hearing a song she liked at a festival. She would extensively research a song because she felt that “Dixieland is like singing a history book.” She liked the challenge of improving on a tune or arrangement and tried to present the lyrics in a conversational manner, feeling that many conveyed great messages, particularly the gospel and blues numbers. She said she avoided listening to too many female singers because she wanted to maintain her own style.
A festival program perhaps best described Cheryl Stephens, saying: “A tiny package of vocal dynamite, Cheryl can belt out a bawdy tune, give glory to a gospel song, or soothe you with a svelte and sultry blues with all the gusto of someone twice her size. She brings to her performances a clear, clean directness and a cheerfulness that is downright contagious, in addition to her beautiful voice.”
Husband Bill is on record as saying that in spite of her outwardly demure nature, she was a demanding person who expected a lot of herself. One thing I especially remember about Cheryl was her sneaky sense of humor. You could be having a fairly serious conversation with her, and suddenly she would come out with a comment that would completely blow you away. She was a real sweetheart!
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Drummer Hal Smith was traveling on Interstate 10 near Pascagoula, Mississippi on Nov. 13 on his way from New Orleans to Pensacola, Florida when he was rear-ended by another automobile. His car was totaled, and he suffered some bruises, a cut of the forehead and a banged-up shoulder. His bass drum also was a casualty of the collision.
The accident prevented Hal from fulfilling his commitments at the Thanksgiving San Diego Jazz Fest. Josh Duffee took his place with the quintet featuring Kris Tokarski and Chloe Feoranzo, and Doug Cobb handled the drumming for Dave Bennett’s Memphis Speed Kings.
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Kristy Reed Cocuzzi passes along some extremely good news about her multi-instrumentalist husband that “after four surgeries, including a major surgery on Dec. 9, and eight rounds of chemotherapy, along with an amazing team of medical professionals, John has kicked cancer!”
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Cathie and Dave Tatrow celebrated their 29th wedding anniversary last month. Dave shared some details of their nuptials, writing, “We were secretly married in a judge’s chambers in Troy, Michigan prior to leaving on a Caribbean cruise with the New Reformation JB and 200 of our fans. Cathie and I had been talking about getting married for some time, but no one in the band thought we were serious.”
“When we were at sea, the cruise promoter put together a mock wedding, with the ceremony officiated by the ship’s radioman. Everyone thought it was a big joke and had a great time. The band played, and the radioman even sat in on drums for a couple tunes. Eventually I announced that Cathie and I had actually been married a few days earlier, much to the dismay of my bandmates. People still talk about that cruise and our ‘surprise’ wedding.”
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The schedule of showings of the documentary, Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past has its New York City premiere set for the week of Jan. 13-19 at Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street. The 90-minute film will be shown at the Northwest Film Center in Portland, Oregon on Jan. 25. Other West Coast showings coming up in April 2017 include San Diego, April 4; Scottsdale, AZ, 5th; Payson, AZ, 6th; and the Laemmle Theatres in Los Angeles, beginning on April 14
A promo for the flick tells us: “What does it take to keep Jazz Age music going strong in the 21st century? Two words: Vince Giordano—a bandleader, musician, historian, scholar, collector and NYC institution. For nearly 40 years, Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks have brought the joyful syncopation of the 1920s and ‘30s to life with their virtuosity, vintage musical instruments, and more than 60,000 period band arrangements. This beautifully-crafted documentary offers an intimate and energetic portrait of a truly devoted musician and preservationist, taking us behind the scenes of the recording of HBO’s Grammy award-winning Boardwalk Empire soundtrack, and alongside Giordano as he shares his passion for hot jazz with a new generation of music and swing-dance fans.”
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From his new book, Just Getting Started, Tony Bennett writes: “We would not have our careers —our lives—without the gifts of the African-American artists who created jazz and the blues, our great American musical art forms.”
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Bob Koester, who founded Chicago’s Delmark Records and recently sold his Jazz Record Mart, turned 84 in October and celebrated by launching a new store. Bob’s Blues & Jazz Mart is now open at 3419 West Irving Park Road in the Windy City.
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Stan Vincent passes along word that Jim Marsh, Grand Dominion’s banjo player for about a dozen years, succumbed to cancer at the age of 85. A memorial service was held in September attended by Grand Dominion band members and other musicians. At the end of the ceremony, pursuant to Jim’s wishes – rather than mourn – those in attendance cherished the memories of the good times shared through their music and raised a toast of Glenmorangie single malt, his favorite. An electrical engineer originally from Somercotes, England, Jim had previously been leader of Canal Street and Mud Bay, manager of the Chosen 7, and a member of New Apex, Red Beans & Rice, and Riverside jazz bands.
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I always enjoy hearing from our readers, especially when they catch me with some misspoken fact in one of my stories. Since my wife and I have just downsized to an apartment in a resort-style senior community, my email address has changed to firstname.lastname@example.org. So keep those letters and comments coming.
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Here’s to long life! At the start of the 20th Century, average life expectancy globally was just 31 years. Today it is 71. (I’ll be 91 come January 14. I find that hard to comprehend.)