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The Passing of Peggy Cone
By Joe Wood

Photo © Julie Brimberg
New York’s jazz community has just lost a dear friend and consummate performer. Charismatic chanteuse Peggy Cone died Monday, February 5, 2001, at age 50 after losing her battle with cancer. She was truly one of the shining stars of the neo-swing scene, and her talent and unique sense of style will be greatly missed.

Cone started her professional singing career ten years ago and eventually went on to lead one of the best known bands in the Big Apple. As a child growing up in Long Island, she became fascinated with the world of show business. She often worked on stage with her mother, who was an actress. Peggy learned to play the piano and studied with bebop pianists Barry Harris and Jackie Paris. But music would have to wait. Cone first put her creative talents to use studying fashion design and working as a fashion stylist for ten years at Atlantic Records, where she dressed other performers.

At the age of 40, Peggy decided to pursue music as a fulltime career. In 1993, she took to the stage with her own jazz trio. The following year, she shone even brighter when she assembled her swing band, The Central Park Stompers. Performing with the Stompers, Peggy was finally able to combine her fashion flair with her wonderful voice. Her live performances took on a vaudeville flavor, influenced by her deep appreciation of Busby Berkeley.  It was not uncommon for Cone to change costumes several times throughout a show, wearing extravagant gowns from the 1940s and ’50s, and colorful feather boas. She was quite possibly the queen of vintage shopping.  Fans would report sighting Peggy and her trademark pompadour-esque hairdo at vintage fairs up and down the East Cost. She became a total fashion maven whose picture often ended up in the Style section of the New York Times or in Timeout NY.

Photo © Julie Brimberg
With a voice that was smooth and at times sultry, Peggy Cone wowed the jazz reviewers as well as the Lindy dancers.  Her first release, Peggy Cone Sings (1993), was a soft torchlight style performance.  But in 1999, when Peggy and her band released their self-titled CD, Peggy Cone and The Central Park Stompers, she’d caught the swing bug. Wasting no time, Peggy and the Stompers released their next CD, Bad Girl Shoes, in early 2000. Cone reportedly had a fourth CD, Take Note, in production, which was slated to be completed last year.

Peggy appeared to be in perpetual promotion mode when it came to her band.  She was always turning up at swing-related parties and events on the East Coast and would contact everyone she met to be sure that they had heard her music.  All of her hard work paid off.  Peggy Cone performed at the rededication ceremony for Grand Central Station in 2000, as well as at New York’s premier jazz venue, Birdland; Tavern on the Green; the Brooklyn Museum for the opening of its Monet Exhibition; and countless clubs and halls around the country.

Possibly the best-known female performer in the East coast swing scene, Peggy Cone will be remembered for the personal attention that she paid to her fans and peers. Very few people knew that she was ailing for the past several months. She hadn’t told many friends that she was battling cancer; I’m not sure how I knew. I think she was determined not to let it get her down.

Photo © Julie Brimberg

Last fall, Peggy sent me a copy of Bad Girl Shoes.  Listening to her music, I realized that her masterful voice harkened back to the styles of Billie Holliday and Josephine Baker.  It was confident and smooth.  I sent her a letter thanking her for recording such a beautiful rendition of “World on a String.”  Peggy responded immediately, telling me how Barbara Streisand was one of her favorite singers, and how she had so much fun recording Bad Girl Shoes.  She was especially proud of the fact that all the shoes on the album cover belonged to her and was amazed at how large her vintage clothing collection had become. I know that Peggy was truly happy with her work.  She would tell me repeatedly how much she appreciated the outpouring of support from her fans.  Now I am left to wonder if “World on a String” was closer to her philosophy of life than I first realized.  Maybe my recognition of how much she loved that song is what sparked our brief friendship.

Life is a beautiful thing,
as long as I hold a string,
I'd be a silly so and so,
if I should ever let you go...

I got the world on a string,
sittin' on the rainbow,
Got a string around my finger,
what a life, what a world, I'm in love...

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