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The Jazz Singer

The Becky Davis trio pays tribute to local jazz legend Peggy Farrell

Ever since The Tonight Show aired in 1954 with host Steve Allen (long before Johnny Carson), it was jazz vocalist Peggy Farrell’s dream to sing on the nation’s most popular entertainment show. Coming from a large and deeply Irish-Catholic family in South Buffalo, she grew up in a household where everybody sang. “When I was five I started singing on the radio,” said Farrell. “One time I actually won a pair of shoes and a savings bond.” And as a teenager, Peggy had already appeared on, and won, a local television talent show.

“I was about 18 and was working as an elevator operator at the Statler Hotel,” she said. “There was a renowned pianist who was on the 18th floor—Anne Fadale. I was always singing in my elevator, so one time she said to me, ‘When you go on your break, park your elevator on the 18th floor and come into my studio, I’d like to hear you sing.’ That was my first audition, of sorts. She put me on her television show, and she also gave me my first job, singing at some club in Williamsville. I think I made $5, which I went out and spent on a black taffeta dress.”

More than 60 years have gone by since then and Peggy Farrell has never stopped singing. She left both Buffalo and her fresh-out-of-high-school-husband in the 1950s. She was a single mother chasing a dream, and over the next 15 years sang in clubs from New York City to Cleveland to San Francisco and parts in between.

Someone as charming, good-looking, and talented as Peggy Farrell wasn’t going to stay single long. Soon after leaving Buffalo she hooked up with painter Jim Von Kohler, with whom she had three more children. Von Kohler, a peripheral member of the 1950s Beat Generation, had the good looks of Elvis Presley, was a prolific watercolorist, an equally prolific beer drinker, and rarely held a job. He was also a committed nonconformist, and Peggy soon discovered a world far different than Buffalo. They settled in the beatnik capitals of North Beach in San Francisco and for many years in New York’s Greenwich Village. During that time a parade of famous names came in and out of their lives, and Peggy was familiar with everyone from Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg to Bob Dylan, whom she would occasionally feed when he was a young, starving folk singer in the Village.

To support the family Peggy would sing in jazz clubs, including holding a steady gig for years at a club on Bleecker Street right next door to the famous The Bitter End. She also worked relentlessly, and successfully, at selling Von Kohler’s artwork. While in San Francisco, to make ends meet, she baked pies, too, and sold them to local restaurants. Peggy still bakes delicious pies today and frequently gives them as gifts to loved ones or to people who do something nice for her.

Unfortunately, Von Kohler’s beer drinking got the better of him, and during a drunken stunt he fell four stories and became a paraplegic. The family moved back to the much less stressful Buffalo, where Von Kohler eventually passed away after a heart attack and Peggy took to working as a nurse at Millard Fillmore Hospital. That’s about where part two of Peggy Farrell’s jazz career kicks in.

There was an exceptionally talented jazz pianist living in Buffalo by the name of Al Tinney. Al had been the house piano player at Monroe’s jazz club in Harlem during the late 1930s and early 1940s. He played at the advent of bebop jazz with legends like Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Miles Davis, and many more. Before that, at only 14, Tinney was assistant to George Gershwin, playing piano for rehearsals and appearing in the cast of the original Porgy and Bess.

“I met Al at the Cloisters restaurant in 1983,” said Farrell. “He was the house pianist for the Cloisters’ Sunday jazz jam. The first time I heard him, I thought he was totally amazing. So, I’d put my name on the list of people wanting to sit in with the band—there were always a lot of people waiting to sing. I’d go every week.

“One day, I asked Al, ‘Would you mind coming over sometime and play the piano for me—I’d like to get something on my tape recorder and save it for my children…for posterity.’ Being the kind of guy he was, Al agreed. We rehearsed a couple of times, and then I said, ‘This is pretty good. Do you think we could bring the bass player over?’ Then I fixed them a nice dinner. And then I asked, ‘Could we take this to a recording studio?’ And so it went.”

And so it went, indeed. Peggy and Al became a well known couple and remained so until Tinney’s death in December 2002. They played together at just about every live music venue in town, including a five-year weekly stint at Fanny’s in Amherst, and in 2000 recorded a CD of jazz standards titled Peggy & Al. Peggy also traveled to Europe a few times and thrilled audiences while sitting in with bands in clubs in Paris and Dublin.

Peggy continues to sing, even after Al’s passing, and in addition to area jazz gigs she sings every week in the St. Louis Cathedral choir under the direction of Frank Scinta and was in the chorus of Dave Brubeck’s performance of his mass, To Hope! A Celebration.

Asked what her other passions were beyond singing, Peggy was very clear:

“Spending time with my grandchildren, cooking, reading, visiting my daughter in Dunkirk—anything to do with family I love. And, I garden and go to concerts and all the plays I can possibly get to.” Pretty busy for a gal in her mid-80s!

Farrell and Becky Davis.

Peggy Farrell Tribute

Pan Am Room at the Lafayette Hotel

Wednesday, September 18, 6pm

In addition to her own performances, Peggy tries to encourage others. One recipient of her encouragement is veteran jazz singer Becky Davis.

“In 1993,” said Davis, “I was singing at the historic Colored Musicians Club when Peggy and her partner, the legendary pianist Al Tinney, were listening at the bar. Although I’d been a singer for years, I was new to the jazz scene. Peggy called me over and said, ‘Hey, you need to be singing, girl. No one else in Buffalo sounds like you. We all sound the same but you—you have your own voice.’ Peg invited me to sit in at her gigs and told me where to get my own gigs. She saw something in me that I didn’t see. She coached me on how to put a set list together, when to sing, when to only have the band play, and how to get over the jitters.”

Becky Davis, along with her trio—Jimmy Calabrese on piano, Greg Piontek on bass, and Tommy Kasparek on drums—will honor her mentor and friend Peggy Farrell on Wednesday, September 18, at 6pm at the Pan Am Room in the Lafayette Hotel. Peggy, Becky, and a few select others will perform.

Although Peggy never did get to sing on The Tonight Show, she has hundreds of fans who adore her and family and friends continue to come out to hear her sing, including those lucky enough to receive one of her delicious pies.

The bottom line is, if you want to hear jazz sung the way it’s supposed to be sung, come to the Pan Am Room for Becky Davis’s Tribute to Peggy Farrell on September 18.

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