In the jazz age of the 1920s, local crowds thrilled to the “crazy music” of Sally Kaye Rosemont. She was billed as “Boop-boop-a-doo Girl” at the Chicago Theatre in 1929–two years before the first Betty Boop cartoon. Now, at 83, she’s holding an exhibit of her artwork and jazz memorabilia.
Born in Chicago to Polish immigrants and raised in Bucktown, Salomea Janiak mastered piano and accordion by the time she was 11. In 1925, at the age of 13, she was the chief support of her family, winning cash prizes at amateur nights. Soon she was a hit at speakeasies all over town. Many of these joints were run by gangsters, a couple were hangouts for the Cubs, and all served liquor, which of course was illegal. This may not have been the nicest environment for a teenage girl, but she recalls that mobsters and ballplayers tended to be big tippers.
Rosemont says she fell in love with jazz, the “new music” of the day. “A lot of what we played was pretty ersatz,” she admits. “We did plenty of pop and traditional stuff–club owners demanded it–but we played jazz every chance we got.” While in her teens she was featured during intermissions at the Cotton Club in Cicero, and for a time she provided the same relief for Tommy Dorsey’s band. Once, at the lounge of the Brevoort Hotel, the celebrated Jack Teagarden sat in with her for five numbers. “That may have been a first: a jazz accordion and trombone duet. It was great,” she says. “But where are those people with tape recorders when you need them?”
Somehow Rosemont also found time to be a radio comedian. Around 1926 she hosted a variety show with ventriloquist Chester LeRoy and a few years later costarred on the Pabst Blue Ribbon Comedy Hour on WBBM. Humor eventually played a big part in her music too. In the 40s she teamed up with Koko the Clown (Joe Coyle) and also worked with another clown, named Karl Marx, whose shtick-in-trade was a cop uniform and a red-lightbulb nose. “The music wasn’t the greatest,” Rosemont recalls. “But it was fun, and a lot better than playing “Ain’t She Sweet?’ over and over for a crowd of silly hoodlums or drunken bank executives.”
After performing under the stage names Sally Jane, Sally Jayne, and Sally Kay, Rosemont officially settled on Sally Kaye, “personality girl with an accordion.” Theater owner Barney Balaban got her into the musicians’ union, and she went on to play every Balaban & Katz theater in the Chicago area. Her popularity soared. Schmaltz king Sammy Kaye called from New York and petulantly asked, “Don’t you think people will get us confused?” Rosemont, whose own jazz was largely inspired by Art Tatum, Fats Waller, and Mary Lou Williams, replied simply, “No, I don’t think so.”
For three decades the all-female Sally Kaye Trio performed at countless venues around Chicago. Even in the depths of the Great Depression Rosemont often worked two or three gigs a day. The trio played its last job on New Year’s Eve 1964 at the Ivanhoe. Rosemont’s career as a wage-earning musician was over, but in 1965 she was elected president of Organized Women Musicians. As the Vietnam war escalated, Rosemont and her OWM sisters initiated a campaign urging that war toys be replaced with musical toys at department stores. “Our success really amazed us,” she laughs. “At Sears and several other big stores they actually took down displays of toy missiles and bombers during the holidays and put plastic saxophones and toy pianos in their place. It shows what a few determined women can do.”
An exhibit of Rosemont’s wide-ranging artwork–realistic paintings, Dada-like collages, and a five-foot cloth carrot–is being shown with vintage photos, cartoons, and other memorabilia at the Heartland Cafe, 7000 N. Glenwood, through November 5. Call 465-8005.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph, Maurice Seymour.