Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Jillian Armsbury (1962-2009): Pioneer of Charanga R&B

It's with sadness that I join the coro of voices grieving the passing of Jillian, vibrant, soulful singer of Los Jovenes del Barrio who brought R&B attitude to charanga.

It was a super savory mix. At the time, Jillian was married to LJB founder and timbalero Johnny Almendra. The two collaborated on crossover hits that have proved durable, and were a high point of late '90s productions on the RMM label. Their 1996 debut Evolucionando yielded "Telephone" and "Stop Slow Down," which the group performed live (introduced by Lou Rawls) on the BET network.

The following year, she sang in Spanish on the LJB single "Hechicera." She reportedly recorded a demo for a solo funk project which has never been released. Besides three studio releases and a live album with Los Jovenes del Barrio, her discography includes "Every Day I Have the Blues" with the RMM Tropijazz All Stars, and Cole Porter's "From This Moment On," which she sang as guest vocalist on Giovanni Hidalgo's Time Shifter.

Johnny Almendra, an alumnus of Orchestra Dicupe, Conjunto Melao, Fajardo, Johnny Colón, Willie Colón, Orquesta Broadway, Charanga 76 and Mongo Santamaria among others, taught at the Boys Harbor School Conservatory in El Barrio, where the idea for Los Jovenes came to life. The group included students and friends, such as flutist Karen Joseph, now with Eddie Palmieri's La Perfecta, violinists Regina Carter and Ali Bello, bassist Victor Venegas, Cuban producer and trombonist Juan Pablo Torres, pianist Kimson Plaut, conguero John Berdeguer and corista Marco Bermudez, now a lead voice with Spanish Harlem Orchestra.

According to friends, Jillian came from the Northwest and met Almendra while working as a waitress at Seattle's Jazz Alley. According to the webpage of New York production and management company Fretless Productions/Management LLC, in recent years she did commercial vocal work in English and Spanish for clients such as eBay, the Connecticut Lottery and HBO. Judging by the vibe among Latin musicians who knew her, she was much loved and admired. In videos it's easy to see she was a funloving, free spirit and a natural performer.

I think this clip of "Telephone" is from a PBS documentary on Latin New York. I like these dancers too, light and elegant, the essence of charanga. Everybody loves that line Jillian speaks, in round urban sass, "se acabó, baby."

It merits mention that this song is told from an empowering and humorous woman's point of view, making reference to social technology and slang...just another way she effectively spoke to the modern cultural moment, while melding with this very traditional, tipica-based rhythm language.

Though the window of influence was a slender one, her impact on that timeless, yet strangely malleable genre of charanga is unique and indelible. I wanted to introduce her to Latin music fans who may not know her work. It deserves to be remembered.

Jillian lost her own battle with cancer, but in life she raised money for breast cancer prevention and was an activist for various causes. She is survived by husband Leon Pendarvis, keyboardist and musical director of the Saturday Night Live Band, whom she married in 2003. The family requests that any donations be made in her name (Jillian M. Armsbury-Pendarvis) to the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation.

With condolences to those who loved her best. If anyone would like me to correct or add anything to this appreciation, please leave a comment, or email me by clicking on my Blogger profile link.

Here are some links to more information about Jillian, Los Jovenes del Barrio and charanga generally:

--Salsaholic Klaus Reiter's Los Jovenes del Barrio page
--George Rivera's 2001 interview with Jillian and Johnny Alendra
--John Child's comprehensive article on Charanga on Descarga.com
--Recent news story mentioning Jillian (2/26/09)
--Herencia Latina tribute by Eric E. González (Spanish)
--...and Eric González' 2000 interview with Jillian (English)

Updated 5/10: In Jillian's own words, I found this account of a children's choir she led at the 2000 Shadow Convention in Philadelphia. It offers touching insights as well into the circumstances of her own childhood and her early determination to be a musician.


Sylvia P. said...

"Memorial service and concert for Jillian Armsbury will be held at Saint Peter's Lutheran Church, 619 Lexington Ave in New York City on Monday, March 30th at 7:30 PM. Jillian's dear friend, and fellow alumna from Los Jovenes del Barrio, Karen Joseph is organizing the event. A Tribute Wall has been established at http://www.curemeso.org/. To access, input Jillian's full name: Jill M. Armsbury-Pendarvis. Donations may be made online or mailed to Meso Foundation, PO Box 91840, Santa Barbara, CA 93190." --Willie Martinez

Felix Sola said...

I believe it was the summer of 1998when I first heard Jillian and LJdB. I was a DJ at Eastern Washington University which is 30 minutes from Cour de Laine, Idaho. It was Saturday morning and I was playing World Music. Jillian and the boys were schedule to play In Cour de Alene that evening. I interviewed her and Johnny for about 30 minutes cutting in some of their music. I concluded the interview and dedicated the rest of my World Music set to Jilliand and the boys. Their music was so groovy I just didn't want to listen to anything else that day.

During that era Cour de Alene was a hotbed for white hatred groups. I remember thingking I would never go there because of that. But in typical style the band was about knocking down stereotypes and showing all people the beauty of our musical Latino heritage and they were going to be enjoyed! I sat next to Jillian's dad selling Cd's throughout the show and just enjoying the music and watching all sorts of different folks dancing... It turned out to be a beautiful evening under the stars as the audience watched the stars... and you were the most brilliant star onstage that evening Jillian.