In late 1948, Harry Belafonte was having trouble finding work as an actor. At the time, he was performing with New York’s American Negro Theater and studying at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School in Greenwich Village.
Appearing in the theater’s production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Belafonte had to sing a song. He had no musical training nor did he have any interest in becoming a singer. But he had a good voice.
After each night’s performance, Belafonte typically took the subway uptown and hung out at the Royal Roost on Broadway between 47th and 48th streets. Eventually he befriended jazz musicians at the club, and they came to see him perform in Of Mice and Men. When Belafonte complained that he was having trouble finding work as an actor, musicians suggested he try singing to help support himself.
One night, Lester Young told the club’s artistic director Monte Kay that Belafonte was a good singer and that Kay should give him a shot. Kay asked Belafonte if he had a set’s worth of material. Belafonte told him he didn’t. When asked if he could play an instrument, Belafonte replied that he couldn’t.
So Kay teamed Belafonte with pianist Al Haig, who helped him put together a repertoire. Two weeks later, Belafonte was ready. On that first night at the Roost, Belafonte was supposed to sing only with Haig. But as he took the stage, Max Roach came up and sat behind the drums, Tommy Potter picked up the bass and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker came up to play behind him.
After his appearance that night, Belefonte was both an actor and a singer. In 1949, he recorded two sides for Jubilee, followed by two sides in Hollywood and then two for Kay’s Royal Roost label in New York. In 1951, Belafonte put together enough folk songs to open at the Sage in Greenwich Village. He then had a hugely successful folk run at the Village Vanguard. Belafonte’s big break as a singer came in 1952, when he was signed by RCA, which had him record Caribbean folk songs. The rest is history.
For today’s post, let’s just listen to Belafonte’s entire jazz discography in 1949. In listening to the first two tracks, one wonders what might have been had Belafonte remained a jazz singer, at least for a few years:
Belafonte singing The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, with Zoot Sims (ts), Al Haig (p), Jimmy Raney (g), Tommy Potter (b) and Roy Haynes (d)…