Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Chappie Willet, Frank Fairfax, and Phil Edwards' Collegians: From West Virginia to Philadelphia

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Chappie Willet, Frank Fairfax, and Phil Edwards' Collegians: From West Virginia to Philadelphia

Article excerpt

In the spring of 1934, the Chicago Defender ("Detroit Likes Them" 1934) and Philadelphia Tribune ("Chappie Willet" 1934) ran a publicity photo of "Chappie Willet and His Greystone Ballroom Orchestra." The image not only provides one of the few glimpses of jazz composer and arranger Francis "Chappie" Willet (1907-1976) from his early, pre-New York City career, but it also documents the final chapter in the history of Edwards' Collegians, a West Virginia territory band. Typical of many jazz dance orchestras, the story of Edwards' Collegians begins at the height of the Jazz Age and ends in the midst of the Great Depression. But the group's migration to Philadelphia left a lasting impact on that city's music scene, as band manager Frank Fairfax Sr. (1899-1972) led the formation of Philadelphia's black musicians' union, American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 274.

Chappie Willet: Composer, Arranger, and Bandleader

Entertainer Harold Cromer (2004; b. 1920) describes Francis Robert "Chappie" Willet as being dressed like "you'd think he was going to Wall Street." By all accounts, Willet--over six feet tall and an articulate speaker, typically adorned in a three-piece suit, wire-rimmed glasses, a carefully trimmed moustache, and occasionally posing with a pipe--radiated refinement. (1) Guitarist Chico Hicks (2004b) remembers his former bandleader as "very clean cut ... no regular, you know, run-o'-the-mill guy."

Willet does not receive an entry in the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (Kernfeld 2001) or in Chilton's Who's Who of Jazz (1985). (2) All but forgotten during his own lifetime, Willet was one of many whose career fortunes seemed to rise and fall with the Swing Era. At the peak of jazz's role as popular music in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the composer, arranger, and pianist was one of the first-call writers in New York City's vibrant nightclub and stage-show scene. Willet created arrangements for tap-dancing stars such as Charles "Honi" Coles and the Nicholas Brothers, working at venues that included the Apollo Theater, Cotton Club, Kit Kat Club, Ubangi Club, and Cafe Zanzibar. (3) Bandleaders such as Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Teddy Hill, Gene Krupa, Jimmie Lunceford, Lucky Millinder, and Red Norvo all used Willet's talents, often during their extended New York theater or nightclub engagements. (4) The writer collaborated with once-legendary Broadway figures such as composer and lyricist Porter Grainger (ca. 1891-?) (e.g., "I Ain't Gettin' Nowhere Fast," 1938) and conductor and arranger Russell Wooding (ca. 1891-1959) (Cromer 2004), as well as established icons such as composers James "Eubie" Blake and Donald Heywood ("Gala Opening" 1941).

Willet enjoyed a formidable reputation during this time. Lunceford sideman and arranger Gerald Wilson (2004; b. 1918), in describing the Swing Era music scene, called Willet "one of the great arrangers around at that time." Among performers, Willet's name was identified with technically demanding music: Millinder sideman and trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison (1981, 2:18) observed that Willet "used to write such hard arrangements it would take so long to get these players together. And musicians could read in those days." From a later version of Millinder's orchestra, drummer David "Panama" Francis (1918-2001) remembered a Savoy Ballroom band battle in which the group "opened up with one of our big flag-wavers, 'Prelude in C-sharp Minor,' a great arrangement by Chappie Willet, to show off our musicianship" (quoted in Dance 2001, 380). Journalist Steve Voce related John "Dizzy" Gillespie's joking anecdote: "You remember Chappie Willet? He used to write a lot of way out things for the Millinder band in crazy times--three-eight; five-eight; twelve-eight; sixteen-ninety-five--you name it" (quoted in Shipton 1999, 367 n2:9).

Although not containing any of the odd meters cited by Gillespie, Willet's composition "Blue Rhythm Fantasy" did provide him with a modest hit: the work was featured as Teddy Hill's radio theme and was also performed by Armstrong, Krupa, and Millinder. …

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