Thursday, February 22, 2018

Selena Jones: Virginia's Lost Jazz Diva

For many across the globe, the clearly phrased, softly soulful jazz of singer Salena Jones is shorthand for class, sophistication, romance. The active octogenarian still sells out venues and jazz festivals from Japan to the U.K. But she is virtually unknown in her own country, and her hometown of Newport News, Virginia.

More than a decade ago, Virginia Living Magazine flew me to London to interview Virginia's great lost jazz diva, and to tell her story for the first time. The feature article is now (finally) online, and designed to complement my current Feb. 2018 cover feature in the magazine on the history of Jazz in Virginia.

I'm ecstatic that it is finally online because this  feature profile on Salena Jones is one of my personal favorites, and Ms. Jones was one of the most fascinating people I've ever had the pleasure to profile. You'll understand why when you read the piece.

Saxophone legend Richie Cole has called Salena Jones “one of the greatest singers alive,” and she’s toured and sung with Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Ray, Tom Jones, Antonio Carlos Jobim; been backed by ace sessioneers such as Steve Gadd, Kenny Burrell; was responsible for giving “King” Curtis—a.k.a. Curtis Ousley—his nickname. Formerly known as Joan Shaw (her given name) she's also a genuine female R&B pioneer—her early recordings on labels like Savoy, Gem and Jaguar, leading revved-up “orchestras” like Paul Williams’, Russ Case’, Luther Henderson’s and Danny Small’s, didn't spawn big hits, but they showed her undeniable vitality as a creative pre-rock innovator.

In the mid '60's, after releasing two major label albums as Joan Shaw, she would boldly change her act, her whole persona, and say goodbye to her country, transforming herself completely into Salena Jones. “Before I went, the march to Washington had just happened," she told me. "Kennedy had just been shot. I looked at myself and said, ‘What am I going to do here—with my career? I’m only one person, what can I do?’ The best thing to do is to go to another world.”

Read my profile of Salena Jones here.

And for more on her music, go here.

Doubling Down: The 2nd Street Festival

Richmond, Virginia's 2nd Street Festival will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year.

Held on the first weekend in October, this vibrant, two-day neighborhood tradition in the Jackson Ward area boasts musical performers, dance showcases, gospel choirs, food and merchandise vendors, and a whole lot of happy people in the streets greeting each other with loud, joyous squeals. It also honors the area's formidable musical history.

My new Richmond magazine feature takes a look, step-by-step, at how planners pull the big show together each year.

Read "Doubling Down" by clicking here.

And for more on the 2nd Street Festival, go here.

(Photo by the mighty Sandra Sellers/Richmond Free Press!)

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Bonus Level: Devonne Harris

Some have likened the 29-year-old Devonne Harris (only half-jokingly) to Prince.

Producer, solo artist, DJ, engineer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, sideman—the Petersburg, Virginia native wears many hats, and has been a prime mover in Virginia’s jazz and hip-hop scenes for years while dabbling in blues, rock and other styles. Now the world is noticing. Harris—aka DJ Harrison— had his solo debut, "Hazy Moods," released last year by the Los Angeles-based Stones Throw label, winning raves and establishing him as a hip-hop beat master.

Virginia Living Magazine has now posted my Virginia Music column profile of Harris at the VL website. Read "Bonus Level" by going right here.

And for more on the work of Devonne Harris, in all his many guises, go here.

Awareness Art Ensemble: Pollak Prize

Awareness Art Ensemble -- or AAE -- didn’t just introduce reggae to Virginia, it made us love it.

Formed in 1979, AAE helped to spur a vibrant Rastafarian scene in Richmond, popularizing a colorful (and aromatic) club at Harrison and Broad streets, New Horizon’s Cafe, which was like Jamaica in miniature. Serving as reggae ambassadors,. in its ’80s heyday, the unit popularized island sounds across the East Coast, and integrated itself into the city’s burgeoning new wave/punk scene at clubs like Hard Times and the Flood Zone.

AAE recently copped a much-deserved Pollak Prize for Excellence in the Arts from Richmond Magazine. Click here to read "Coming Home," my inducting feature on this pioneering American reggae band, 

Rediscovering Margaret Sullavan

Chances are, if you know Margaret Sullavan's name, it is because of the films she made with her longtime pal James Stewart -- like The Shop Around the Corner. Or perhaps you know the actress through the devastating book that her daughter Brooke wrote, a bestseller called "Haywire" that chronicled her later mental illness and suspected suicide.

But Margaret Sullavan once meant much more. At the height of her fame—the 1930s and early '40s—this Virginia tomboy was a mark of quality in American motion pictures, and a bracingly independent presence in a changing entertainment industry. Sullavan was not easy to miss, with a trademark husky voice and a chameleonic look that could be dowdy one moment and tinseltown glamour the next.

She preferred the stage, refused long contracts, chose her own co-stars, and made moguls (and Henry Fonda) cry. Her personal story is ripe for bio-pic plundering, and her relatively small body of work deserves rediscovery. Today, of all the actresses from Hollywood's golden era, Margaret Sullvan seems the most modern, the least stilted, the one player unlikely to succumb to a false moment even when everything else seems unnatural or dated.

Her own story unfolded in the best neighborhoods of Norfolk, Virginia.  My Coastal Virginia Magazine retrospective on Sullavan's life and career includes unpublished photographs from the archives of Chatham Hall, the Virginia school for girls that she attended, and a sidebar list of her best movies. Many of these gems -- The Mortal Storm,  The Good Fairy, Three Comrades, The Moon's Our Home, The Shopworn Angel  and more -- are currently available on Turner Classic Movies and through streaming services like Warner Archives and Universal Vault.

Learn all about "Sullavan's Travels" by going here. 

Unavailable on video or streaming, here's Sullavan's stunning film debut in "Only Yesterday" (1933)

(Bottom photo: Chatham Hall Archive)

The Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel

“With this bridge tunnel we have destroyed distance and conquered time.”

After years of studies, plans, commissions and community angst, the congested Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel —nicknamed “Hampton Roads No. 1” by appreciative engineers worldwide—is about to get some much-needed relief. A $4 billion overhaul will see this key coastal Virginia passage expanded with another underwater tube.

But how did we get here? And how did this incredible submerged roadway ever get built in the first place?

On the 60th anniversary of it’s opening, my feature article in CoVaBiz Magazine reveals how the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel made history, changed the region, and continues to inspire and innovate. It's not just any ol' bridge-tunnel.

Connect with "Hampton Roads No. 1" by going right here. 

(Photo: The Virginia Department of Transportation)

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Smoke 'em If You've Got 'em: Copper Fox Distillery

In another life, he was an insurance agent who had a light bulb moment at a malted whiskey tasting.

Now Rick Wasmund is known as the "Doc Brown of distilling," experimenting with single-malt whiskey by flavoring it with smoked fruit trees and malting his own Virginia-grown barley.

Now online: My Coastal Virginia Magazine profile of Wasmund and his thriving Copper Fox Distillery, which recently opened a new location in Williamsburg Virginia at the former Lord Paget Hotel.

Read it here.

And for more on Copper Fox Distillery, visit

(Photo by the mighty Jim Pile!)