J.A. Lassiter brought his team of Beale Street musicians — Pee Wee, Delbert, Leroy, Warren — to Lola Lounge for a scorching recording of “Let Me Dancin’.” The hours were late, but not late enough. So when the house lights went down at 1 a.m., the three bebop pianists let loose.
Most of the patrons of the cool, old white two-story of a bar in Athens, Ga., were white, and as they drank, jammed and boogied to the funky tunes, a few stood up and started dancing to the music. Dancers of the moment or that wouldn’t make the trip to Watts or Harlem to see John Coltrane and Wynton Marsalis at the Hollywood Bowl.
“Somebody ask her to clap and come on a chit dance,” Beale Street drummer Leroy Irby said, taking a pitch-fork and spinning his guitar.
Carolyn Cagle had finally laid down the beat and started bobbing. She had a moment in Chicago’s Black Bottom in the early ’60s that changed her life. That night she encountered Bob Koester, a trumpet player and acclaimed jazz educator, who bought her house. She spent the rest of her life teaching jazz.
Which made it so great to be surrounded by men and women of color, singing, grooving and dancing on an evening in April of 2000. Deep in Texas’s Beale Street Blues, Mr. Lassiter brought together his musicians and Ms. Cagle, whom he had never met but knew by her name from her weekly sessions in his club. The dancers were each chosen by a blind lottery.
By mid-day, when “Let Me Dancin’” was taking over the stage, Mr. Lassiter says he’d done 20 shows in eight days. He missed working on the lighting and had seen a good number of his musicians up all night back in New York doing a late-night show with Latin jazz legend, Vicente Fernandez. But this was bigger than any of that. There was the Mr. Lassiter orchestra: a virtuoso saxophonist, arranger and composer. There was the booker of the J.A. Lassiter Orchestra, Ms. Cagle, who was bringing in musicians such as the Thomas.
“This is all very joyful to me,” Mr. Lassiter says. “I feel very much like the neighborhood leader. I have let the kids on the street know you can do it, but they need to make it happen,” says the 82-year-old Mr. Lassiter.
Ms. Cagle is thrilled by the turnout. She used to sit at Lola Lounge, where she brought her students, working as a jazz buff and instructor. Mr. Lassiter saw her and hired her, naming her a senior associate. It was one of the most exciting weeks in her 35-year career teaching jazz at San Jacinto College.
“There’s so much talent here. So many great musicians and young people have an opportunity to come in and enjoy what they’re missing, and then move on to find their own opportunities to support themselves and grow,” Ms. Cagle says.
For Ms. Cagle, who has also worked with the Rhythm Nation, a sorority that serves black students interested in careers in music, one of the key reasons for the turnout is that everyone who participated on the team got to dance. They got to experience a magic moment together.
“One of the wonderful things about Beale Street is that we are community based, so anytime people are invited, that’s when we know they’re coming,” says Ms. Cagle. “I remember the first time my students came in and thought I was doing this, no one was really getting out of the hotel. I’m sure this is like that.”