Sep 19, 2011 Russ Tarby Uncategorized
The world knew him as Jimmy Van Heusen, songwriter for the stars.
But in Cazenovia he was Chet Babcock, the guy who played the piano in Williams Hall.
This weekend the 10th Annual Jazz’N Caz festival will pay homage to Jimmy Van Heusen, who attended Cazenovia Seminary before rising to stardom composing for films and Frank Sinatra.
The festival kicks off with Albany vocalist Colleen Pratt & Friends at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22, at the Brae Loch, and continues Friday and Saturday evenings at the Catherine Cummings Theatre, 16 Lincklaen St., with headline sets by New Orleans pianist Henry Butler and the Gap Mangione Big Band, respectively.
The Brubeck Brothers will appear at 7:30 p.m. Friday, and on Saturday, early sets at 4 p.m. will be performed by Cazenovia High School Vocal Ensemble, the Cazenovia High School Jazz Ensemble and the Cazenovia College Singers. Admission is free, but donations are accepted; cazenovia.edu/jazz; 655-7238.
Gap Mangione and his New Big Band will present the Van Heusen tribute at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. After the end of their first set, theatre manager and producer, Colleen Prossner, will be joined by Eric Cohen, of WAER FM-88, to recognize the late Syracuse native, Jimmy Van Heusen.
Members of the Cazenovia College Chorale, along with Prossner and David Lowenstein, Cazenovia College’s artist in residence, will sing a few Van Heusen favorites. Mangione’s second set will include several more Van Heusen tunes.
One of the most prolific melody men of the 20th century, Van Heusen was born Edward Chester Babcock on Jan. 26, 1913, in Syracuse, to Ida and Arthur Babcock. His friends called him “Chester” or “Chet.”
From early on, he’d entertain people with his mirthful musicality, though not everyone always dug his act. He was expelled from Central High in Syracuse after performing the satire song “My Canary has Circles under His Eyes.”
“The student body loved the song, but the teachers thought otherwise,” said Sylvia Needel, a writer for the Cazenovia College Office of Communications. Needel researched Van Heusen’s life and learned the story behind his pseudonym.
About 1928, when Babcock worked as a radio disc jockey, his friend Ralph Harris helped him create a stage name so that Chet’s father, a Syracuse building contractor, wouldn’t learn about his radio program.
Ralph glanced out a Hotel Syracuse window and saw a billboard advertising Van Heusen collars. Great last name! “Well, how about my first name?” Chet asked. Ralph’s favorite cousin was named James, and the rest is pop music history.
Following multiple expulsions from Central High, Jimmy’s staunch Methodist parents sent him to Cazenovia Seminary in 1928 and’29, but he remained focused on music.
Williams Hall piano
A Cazenovia classmate, Maurice Golden, who later joined the college’s board of trustees, said Van Heusen spent plenty of time at the piano in the Lyceum fraternity meeting room in Williams Hall. “Many of his most famous songs were developed from ideas that had their beginning right there,” Golden said.
Van Heusen broke into the big time in 1938 by collaborating with bandleader Jimmy Dorsey on a song called “It’s the Dreamer in Me.” The hits flowed as he wrote for stage and screen, composing melodies for tunes such as “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” “It Could Happen to You,” “Personality” and “My Kind of Town.”
In 1963, as co-chair of the Cazenovia College Alumni Fund Drive, Van Heusen lent his song, “High Hopes,” to the campaign, with lyrics supplied by Development Director Ralph Larsen vocalized by Bing Crosby. The song was pressed as a 45 RPM record and sent to alumni, who responded enthusiastically with donations.
Civic Center’s 1986 tribute
In January 1986, 73 years after his birth, Van Heusen was honored in Syracuse with an SRO variety show culminating the Civic Center’s 10th Anniversary Celebration Week.
Among the entertainers who flew here to perform were Tony Bennett, Maxine Sullivan, Sammy Cahn, Margaret Whiting, Jack Jones and emcee Tony Randall.
Van Heusen died on Feb. 6, 1990, in Rancho Mirage, Calif., at age 77. His headstone is engraved with the title of his 1944 Academy Award-winning song, “Swinging on a Star.”
Jazz’N Caz is free and open to the public. A $10 donation is suggested. For additional information, contact festival director Colleen Prossner at 655-7238.
Russ Tarby is a freelance writer for Eagle Newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.