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Sunday, May 17, 2020 | 3-5 pm

Planet D Nonet Plays the McKinney’s Charts

$25 general admission / $20 students, seniors, SC members

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McKinney’s Cotton Pickers were an African American jazz band in Detroit, Michigan led by William McKinney. Between 1927 and 1931, they were one of the most popular African-American bands in the country. Many of their records for Victor were bestsellers. In 1927, Fletcher Henderson’s arranger and saxophone player Don Redman was invited to become the Cotton Pickers’ musical director. Trumpeter John Nesbitt helped Redman with arrangements and rehearsals. In 1928, the band included Cuba Austin (drums and vocals), Don Redman (clarinet, alto saxophone, baritone saxophone, vocals), Todd Rhodes (piano, celeste), Prince Robinson (clarinet, tenor saxophone), Milton Senior (trombone), George Thomas (clarinet, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, vocals) and Dave Wilborn (banjo, vocals). Other band members included Benny Carter (clarinet, alto saxophone), Doc Cheatham (trumpet), Ed Cuffee (trombone) and Rex Stewart (cornet).

Toward the end of 1929, a number of soloists who were not regular members of the band sat in for a series of recordings including Sidney de Paris (trumpet), Coleman Hawkins (clarinet, tenor saxophone), Fats Waller (piano, celeste), and Kaiser Marshall (drums). In 1931, Redman left to form a band and was replaced by Benny Carter. The Cotton Pickers disbanded in 1934, unable to make money during the Depression. The manager of the band was Jean Goldkette, himself a well-regarded white bandleader.
A New McKinney’s Cotton Pickers (NMCP) was organized in the early 1970’s by David Hutson using the arrangements by Don Redman. The band featured banjoist Dave Wilborn, who was the only surviving original member. They performed at Carnegie Hall and did a tour of Europe and recorded three LP’s. This band had quite an effect on Planet D Nonet members RJ Spangler, James O’Donnell and John “Tbone” Paxton in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The NMCP’s often featured Lou Barnet on sax. Lou spent a year in the Sun Messengers with RJ, James & Tbone and his influence is still felt all these years later. Legendary swing musician Teddy Buckner recorded on one of the NMCP LP’s and other regular members of the band included Orrin Foslien, Ernie Rodgers, Paul Klinger, Mel Fudge, Al Winters, Chuck Robinette, Johnny Trudell, and Tom Saunders. Occasionally his nephew, also named Tom Saunders, would sub on tuba.

Tom (the tuba player) is now a very well-regarded musician living down in New Orleans and he patiently searched for the NMCP’s charts, eventually finding them with the last living member, Ernie Rodgers. Ernie promised to send them to Tom but sadly passed away before he was able to do so. Miraculously, his family followed through and sent the mildewed charts found in the basement to Tom five years after his demise.

Tom painstakingly went through each of the 36 charts and took Dave Hutson’s hand-written transcriptions and computerized them, often adding his own transcribed solos from the original recordings and also returning many to their original keys. The NMCP’s were built around Dave Wilborn, the sole survivor of the original band and of course it’s 40 years later, so he wasn’t singing in the same keys as he was back then!

Last summer, Tom contacted RJ and offered to send him the charts with two caveats: he can’t sell them and he must play them live. The McKinney’s Cotton Pickers were a twelve-piece outfit with four reeds, three trumpets, one bone, four rhythm. The Planet D Nonet features three saxes, two trumpets and one bone. Typically for the Spring concert the band does add guitar, so that is not a problem. Alex Colista was brought in on alto and tenor sax. He is a long-time sub and appears on two PD9 recordings so he is a part of the family already. Then Max Popkin was tapped to play third trumpet. The band started rehearsing weekly in September with a break around the holidays. The music is inspirational. Subs are often needed to fill-out parts. Both young and older players alike are fascinated to learn of this great Detroit legacy.

Every year, the Planet D Nonet pays tribute to great swing artists that have inspired them This is maybe actually pre-swing, but who is nit-picking? In the past, the band has performed the music of Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club, Billy Strayhorn, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Moten, Eddie Durham, Buddy Johnson, Danny & Blue Lu Barker, so much great music! Now the band brings it closer to home with the McKinney’s Cotton Picker’s!

 

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