“Boss, this girl has something,” drummer Chick Webb’s male singer (seated on the left) told him. “You must hear her.” Webb couldn’t see the need for that. Though he cut one of the strangest sights in jazz – a drummer bent over by spinal tuberculosis, with partially paralysed legs – Webb was one of the earliest legends of swing. In 1931, by the time he was 26, he was leading the house band at the famous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem and was, in the words of his contemporaries, “the daddy of them all”. He simply couldn’t see why he needed a girl singer.
But his front man was persistent and brought over a singer he’d heard at the Harlem Opera House. The drummer was, of course, bowled over by the 16-year-old Ella Fitzgerald and she spurred the Chick Webb band on to even greater success. Young Bardu Ali, who had discovered Fitzgerald, didn’t do badly either. He would go on to lead his own band, the Bardu Ali Orchestra, and eventually open a rhythm and blues club in Los Angeles. No one could quite have predicted this for the boy who had been born Bahadour Ali, the son of an adventurous embroidery trader from the Hoogly region in India.
I discovered the existence of Bardu Ali last month as I devoured Vivek Bald’s fascinating Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asia, a rigorous, captivating study of early Indian immigrants to the US [more about it here]. Using ship records, census details and a range of other materials, Bald’s book opens with the journeys of a group of Muslim peddlers who began to visit the US in the closing years of the nineteenth century, making their way from Calcutta to American summer resorts to sell holidaymakers embroidery and other fancy items from India. Some eventually landed up in New Orleans and there, in the cradle of jazz, started families with African-American and Creole women.
Bahadour Ali, Bald discovered, was born to a Bengali-Muslim man named Moksad Ali and his African-American wife, Ella Blackman. Bahadour was the sixth of their nine children. By the time Bahadour was in his teens, the family had moved north to Harlem. Thanks to Bald, I dug out a clip from the Afro-American from 1926, which noted that Ali was appearing at the Regent Theatre as part of a dance team called Baby and Ali. It added that his brother, Abdeen, “is also well-known in theatrical circles”.
By the 1930s, Bardu Ali was the front man of the Chick Webb band, a job that seemed to involve keeping the crowd in a state of constant excitement. According to Dizzy Gillespie, Ali’s job was to be a “showman” and in his autobiography, the trumpet player explained exactly what the role entailed: “They had a whole group of these guys, Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway…and Bardu Ali, who was in front of Chick Webb’s band. They’d have someone out in front to wave a baton and jump around and dance and maybe sing a song.”
Bardu Ali keeps popping up in the news clips for decades after this. In 1935, the Chicago Defender reported that he had returned from London, where he had been in the cast of the popular revue, Blackbirds. He complained that it was impossible for Americans to make much money in the UK because of “the 25 per cent tax extraction demanded by the king”. He resumed his job as the director of the Webb orchestra.
After Webb died 1939, Ella Fitzgerald took over the drummer’s band, so Ali started his own outfit. “I want my boys to feel like they are part of an integrated unit and not just playing for a salary,” he told one reporter. The Ali band’s debut in April, 1940, at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem was a hit. The Chicago Defender declared that it “clicked right from the opener”. He seems to have recorded at least three tunes, including Bardu’s Boogie (listen to a snatch here) and this one, Boogie Rebob.
Bardu Ali was evidently a man of great passions. In 1936, he attempted to commit suicide by drinking a bottle of Lysol because his wife of the time, who isn’t named in the newspaper that reported the incident, refused to give him a divorce. The paper said the Ali wanted to marry a woman named Vivan Harris. In 1941, he was back in the gossip columns because he’d eloped with Billie French, “the ex-Savoy hostess and Jimmy Mitchell’s main queen”. (When the couple called it quits in 1943, French told the press, “We are best of friends.”)
In the 1940s, Ali moved to the US West Coast, where he opened a music club with the blues singer Johnny Otis. He would go on to become the manager of the comedian Red Foxx. Vivek Bald notes, “By the time he died in 1982, Bardu Ali, one of the first children born of the migration of Bengali peddlers to New Orleans, had been involved in multiple phases in the development of twentieth-century black entertainment, from the 1920s vaudeville to swing-era jazz to rhythm and blues.” Get Bald’s excellent book here.
There’s a brief glimpse of Bardu Ali, at 2:01, conducting the band on this episode of the Johnny Otis show.