11 August 2008 | wmorrow59
These guys are great! And who is that drummer?
Although this musical short wasn't included in the recent three-disc DVD set of The Jazz Singer, which offered a number of fascinating Vitaphone releases, here's hoping that the set sold well enough to prompt a follow-up. There are many more mini-musicals out there awaiting rediscovery, and this one definitely belongs in the next package. Harlem-Mania is a nine-minute jazz program featuring the Norman Thomas Quintette, who perform three numbers: "Sleep Baby Sleep," "Listen to the Mockingbird," and "Melody in F." I've tried to dig up information about this band without much success thus far. The musicians don't receive individual billing in the credits—I'm not even sure which one is Norman Thomas—but they deserve some recognition. I'd especially like to learn the identity of the band's drummer. He's a grinning Eddie Murphy lookalike who gives an amazing performance and absolutely steals the show. He's charming, charismatic and funny, and once you've seen him, you want to see more.
The band performs on an elegant French-style stage set that looks like it could be used for a play about Marie Antoinette. The pianist sits at left, the drummer at right, and a vocalist stands between them. Under the opening credits raucous drumming is heard, but the program begins on a deceptively sedate note, as the tuxedoed vocalist croons a sentimental tune about those dear old boyhood days, when Mother would sit him on her knee and sing him a lullaby. In content and delivery the song sounds like it should be sung in a Gay '90s setting by a man with a handlebar mustache. When the song reaches the chorus, two dancers trot out onto the stage and launch into a relaxed shuffle. Just as we're starting to think that this short may be a little on the dull side, the camera pans over to the drummer and the real show begins. He's laughing for some reason, very aware of the camera, and immediately starts showing off: he tosses his drumsticks into the air and catches them on the beat, uses them to pantomime combing his hair, and similar tricks. He's a ham, but it's also clear that he's a first class drummer, and he's certainly more interesting to watch than the two dancers, who seem kind of half-hearted about what they're doing. The drummer throws himself into his work (or is that "play"?) with everything he's got, jumping up from his seat, dashing around his drum kit, smacking and whacking the drums and cymbals as he goes and keeping perfect time. The cumbersome Vitaphone camera can hardly keep up with him.
Next, while he takes a breather, the pianist plays a high-speed solo rendition of "Listen to the Mockingbird," at one point playing with his left hand only while holding his right hand behind his back. When he's finished the two dancers return for the finale and resume their indifferent shuffle; they know all too well that this last number belongs to the drummer, and they're only on stage to provide a minor distraction. Sure enough, the drummer now takes over the proceedings. He dons a little hat and proceeds to dramatize his performance, rushing back and forth, pausing to smack a drum as if it were a naughty child, pretending to play his drumsticks like a violin, juggling them, and even rolling around on the stage, drumming the floor. In the last moments of the film he takes a mighty dive at his drum kit, sliding into it like a ballplayer for a resounding, final "Boom!" This is quite a performance, and again I wish I knew the man's name. He has the comic skill of a great silent clown, combined with the musical chops of a Gene Krupa. It's hard to believe that such a talented performer could have gone entirely without recognition, but whatever the case, at least it's good to know that we have this record of his skill to enjoy today, so many years later.
P.S. Since writing this little essay I've been contacted by Mary Callie, the granddaughter of Norman Thomas, who was kind enough to provide me with some information about the band's personnel. She hadn't seen this film at the time she wrote me, but she noted that her grandfather was the pianist. The singer may have been his brother, Sonny Thomas, and the drummer was almost certainly Freddie Crump. The Quintette moved to England in the 1930s, and Crump in particular became quite well known there. I found a description of him online that sounds very much like the highly charismatic performer seen in Harlem-Mania. Thank you, Ms. Callie, for this information!