A guest post by Michael Catoggio, co-author, Capital District in the Swing Era website.
It all started with a couple of photographs.
My family photo album had the usual shots of aunts, cousins, grandparents. It contained photos of summers on Adirondack lakes, holiday celebrations, and visits to California relatives.
Five or six photos were starkly different—photos of my father, Dominic Catoggio, in various bands and orchestras, most from the 1930s and 1940s. My father worked fulltime as a musician until I came along in 1950. Tragically, he died at the young age of 46, when I was just seven.
The time with my father was short. I have carried this loss with me throughout my life.
One photo in my family album was a complete mystery. A ten-piece band of odd-looking characters (my father in the middle of the group) with the apparent bandleader off to the left. After a year of research, I identified the group–drummer Jimmy D’Angelo’s Orchestra.
In another photo, my father stands with D’Angelo in front of a neighborhood store. My dad holds a clarinet. Jimmy holds the case out toward dad and offers a comment and a smile–two, young friends, hanging out in the neighborhood.
Over the years, my curiosity grew about my father’s earlier life, his musical career, and the Swing Era more generally. This led me to join forces with my friend Bill Schilling to research history of the Swing Era in the Capital Region.
Family photographs were starting points, but our search quickly expanded. We spent two years reading local, historical newspapers. We charted musical activity on spreadsheets. We spent a couple of months digging through the photograph collection at the Albany Institute of History and Art and the Albany Public Library. We found other people like me, children of local Swing Era musicians, and interviewed them. They provided photos, documents, and stories. We compiled lists of local musicians. We dug through the 1940 census.
After collecting data for a few years we realized–Hey, we have a story to tell! We created a PowerPoint presentation and began giving public talks. Eventually we decided to create a new website.
Over the course of our research, we learned more about the two friends in the photo. In the 1930s and 1940s, my father lived at 339A Madison Avenue, a couple blocks away from D’Angelo, who lived at 86 Jefferson Street. They spent much of 1938 and 1939 playing extended gigs at the Tally-Ho Club at 50 Hudson Ave., the University Grill (later rechristened University Tap Room and finally University Twist Palace) at 85 S. Pearl St., and Club Frolic a couple doors (the future location of Swire’s Furniture).
What began as a search for my father turned into an exploration of Albany’s role in the swing era. Researching my dad led me to D’Angelo and to an extended circle of friends and musical colleagues. Bill and I found the Horton Girls’ Orchestra; the Francis Muphy Orchestra; the Mike Pantone Orchestra; Jackie Lawyer and his “Brown Buddies”; the Pete Emma Band; Freddy Engel and His Orchestra and many more. Altogether, we identified over 300 local musicians.
Of course, musical superstars occasionally came to town to perform in some of Albany’s bigger venues. Benny Goodman came to the Palace. Cab Calloway played the Kenmore Hotel’s Rainbo Room. Duke Ellington played Harmanus Bleecker Hall. But it was the local bands and orchestras that brought swing to neighborhood joints every single weekend.
We discovered close to 70 musical venues, mostly east of Lark Street, featuring live musical performances, between 1935 and 1945. We were floored. Live music was everywhere in a city with a population of only 136,000-plus in 1940.
Like Jimmy and my father, many of the musicians, Bill and I tracked down lived in or near the area that would later be demolished for the Empire State Plaza and South Mall Arterial. I can imagine the two young men on a summer night walking from Jefferson St. down Madison Ave. to a Pearl St. club. Along the way, they might have passed Les Bernard, who lived at 73 Jefferson, perhaps stopping to chat with accordion player Frank Cusato, who lived right across the street.
After dad died, my mom and I moved into her mother’s house on Providence St. off Delaware Avenue. On Sunday afternoons in the early 1960s, I would walk through the vacant neighborhoods where Jimmy once lived, oblivious, of course, to these earlier events. I walked through a web of streets with no structures on either side. It reminded me of photos of London after the blitz.
A few years later I wandered the same streets as steel girders rose everywhere. Rather than music, I remember the incessant pile drivers. From the South Mall construction site, I’d walk downtown, past the Dewitt Clinton and Ten Eyck hotels. Back then, I knew nothing about the Francis Murphy Orchestra’s summer-long gigs at the Roof Garden Restaurant atop the Ten Eyck. My father played with that orchestra as well.
My father lived in the vicinity of what would become the South Mall area until the late 1940s. Jimmy lived on Jefferson until 1962, when the neighborhood began tumbling down.
Despite the disappearance of big bands in the 1940s, Jimmy continued to make a career as a professional musician through most of his life. He formed a trio and began playing multiple venues, most further from his home than the downtown clubs that had once been popular.
Pianist Joey Emma, better known for playing the Carillon at noontime from Albany City Hall, was a member of the Jimmy D’Angelo Trio. Along with my father, he was also part of a different trio. On September 7, 1957, they played a gig at the Petit Paris Restaurant (where the Madison Ave. Price Chopper is now) three days before my father’s death. Thirty-four years later, in 1991, he told about that evening and got me started on this path.