Alderson celebrates ‘Bricktop,’ the queen of jazz

By Jeffrey Kanode, for RealWV

In Cathey Sawyer’s play “Bricktop, Legend of the Jazz Age,” Ada “Bricktop” Smith gathers with her band in her nightclub in Paris, Chez Bricktop. Using music from the time period and from Bricktop’s repertoire as foundation, Sawyer lets Bricktop tell her own story: stories of the people she knew and the friends she made, stories of a black woman from America living among the expatriates in Paris, a woman liberated to live a full life in a faraway land, removed from the racism endemic to the United States. The stage of her life’s drama was the stage in her club in the 1920s through the early ‘60s, and it became a world stage. Bricktop’s friends and admirers included King Farouk, Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, and John Steinbeck, among many others.

And such a grand, even epic life began in Alderson, West Virginia.

In “St Louis Blues,” Bricktop sings: “Now my name is Bricktop/I was raised in a lion’s den.” A recording of Bricktop singing this song can be found online, and Sawyer insisted on including the number in her play. “She’s referring to that lion leash law in Alderson,” Sawyer said. That subtle, but very authentic allusion to the town of her birth shows that even as she walked and talked among kings and poets, musicians and writers, Alderson remained somewhere near, deep in Bricktop’s consciousness.

Most scholars agree that the plantation owner who enslaved Bricktop’s grandmother raped her, resulting in the birth of Hattie, Bricktop’s mother. “Her mother loved Alderson and West Virginia,” Sawyer noted. “Her father was a very popular barber in town.” Sawyer said that when Bricktop’s father died, her mother faced the daunting, lonely task of providing for the family, alone. She decided to move the family moved to Chicago where an uncle lived who could help them begin anew.

“Bricktop wasn’t in Alderson for long, but she always heard about it her whole life from her mother’s love and her wanting to come back here to be buried,” Sawyer reflected.

Alderson has gathered for the last eight or nine years on the Memorial Bridge on a Sunday near the date of Brick Top’s death—August 14—for the Bricktop Festival. The 2023 festival happens this Sunday from 6-8pm.

Susanna Robinson taught music for years in Monroe County, and now she teaches voice, piano, and occasionally accordion at the Warner School of Music, in Lewisburg. She performs as the main vocalist at the Bricktop Festival, along with her band: guitarist Bill Huffman , William Penn on keyboard, and Blake Miles playing bass. Robinson describes Huffman as “the smoothest guitar player in the world,” and reflecting on Penn’s talent, she said, “He is such a crooner, so smooth. He’s a legend in the rhythm and blues world in the Roanoke area.” Miles “has ‘cred’,” Robinson said. He taught K-12 doing orchestral conducting. “He’s so easy to work with,” she noted. This year, Robinson will also feature some of her young Warner voice students performing jazz numbers.

For Robinson, the event, like Bricktop herself, exudes a spirit of inclusion and community. “My guys love this gig because every kind of person comes. It’s a diverse crowd. It’s kids. It’s old people. It’s rich people. It’s poor people. It’s music lovers and people who are just out for the evening. It’s a great combination.”

Even the environment itself catches the good vibes of Bricktop. “It’s a lovely event on a late summer evening. The sun sets behind us, the geese fly over. One year when we were singing ‘Sentimental Journey’, a train went by and we just vamped. It was perfect—a song about traveling and riding on a train, and a train goes by,” Robinson noted.

Robinson said that her journey toward appreciating and loving the legacy of Bricktop Smith began over a long time period. “You know, for years I had heard little snippets about Bricktop’s life. A principal that I worked with at one of my schools knew all about her. He found some old newspaper article on Bricktop, ran off a copy and gave it to me. I became fascinated. “ Robinson said that among the details of Bricktop’s life that drew her in was Bricktop’s relationship with Josephine Baker—Bricktop served as a mentor to Baker—and Langston Hughes—the great figure of the Harlem Renaissance worked as a busboy at Chez Bricktop when he was just getting started as a poet.

Playwright, director, actor and former Greenbrier Valley Theatre Producing Artistic Director Cathey Sawyer first heard about Bricktop years before she came to Greenbrier County and the Greenbrier Valley Theatre. A student from Yale who Sawyer knew was contemplating doing a thesis on Bricktop, but never completed the project. Sawyer never forgot what the Yale scholar told her about Bricktop, the creative seeds those conversations planted, but “it got moved to the back burner until things got settled. Then I started doing research.”

Sawyer’s research on Bricktop can only be described as intense. She went to primary sources— archives including Bricktop’s letters and papers from the library at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem, Emory University in Atlanta, and field research in Chicago. In mining material for her play, Sawyer wanted her work to give Bricktop the space and the opportunity and the grace to speak with her own voice, in her own words. “I wanted it to come from those sources and not somebody else’s interpretation.”

Bricktop captivated Sawyer because of the work Bricktop intentionally did to lift other people up. “Her story is a unique story in that it’s actually probably more about the people that she supported and brought along and gave performance venues to than it is about herself, as a performer. She’s known much more for the people she cultivated and helped along, befriended.”

Again, those names echo like a roster of legends of twentieth century American culture: Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, to name just a few.

She met Langston Hughes when she had just arrived in Paris, set to go into business opening a jazz club with famous World War I aviator and boxer Eugene Bullard. When Bricktop saw the tiny stage in the club, she broke down crying because the size and scope of the venue did not meet her aspirations. Langston Hughes came out of the kitchen where he was working, comforted Bricktop, and gave her something to eat.

Bricktop’s life can only be described as expansive. At the outbreak of World War II, she left Paris, and returned to the United States, moving to New York City. “When she encountered all the racism that she had left behind, she was so shocked by it. She couldn’t get anything going in New York. She was pretty destitute,” Sawyer said. During this low period in her life, Bricktop heard a program on the radio that began her journey to join the Catholic Church. She left the United States behind and moved Mexico City, and later Rome. She owned jazz clubs in both cities.

In Rome, Bricktop found audience and friendship with the pope. “It became very important for her to live in Rome so she was nearby the Holy Father. She raised a lot of money for Catholic charities. They used to say, ‘Don’t take your coat off in Bricktop’s or it’ll be given to the Church,” Sawyer noted.

Bricktop is buried in New York City, in a Woodlawn Cemetery.

Cathey Sawyer has made a research-pilgrimage there. There’s a corner of that cemetery called “The Jazz Corner,” where many jazz musicians including Duke Ellington, are buried. “She’s in this little tiny place way off in a corner far away from that. I wish she was at least in ‘the Jazz corner,’” Sawyer reflected.

Sawyer’s “Bricktop, Legend of the Jazz Age” was a featured play at the National Black Theatre Festival, an international event. It continues to be performed throughout the United States, most recently in Franklin, New York.

From the old bridge crossing the Greenbrier in Alderson, Susanna Robinson and her band will share many of the songs Bricktop loved and sang.

In a quiet corner of the cemetery of the Old Greenbrier Baptist Church, one can find Hattie Smith’s grave. The elements have taken their toll—one can scarcely make out her name now…but it’s there. This woman who loved Alderson and always called it home mothered a daughter named Ada, a singer and entrepreneur the world knows as “Bricktop.” This daughter had to leave America to find the equality which was her birthright, but she became the nurturer of great talents who would define American culture. With deep roots in Alderson, West Virginia, Bricktop was a friend to poets, a pope, musicians, writers, and kings.

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