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Happy New Year 2017

1 Jan

Summertime and the Living Ain’t Easy

20 Jun

I’m a cold weather person so today marks my countdown to the end of summer. While the living ain’t easy, I take some comfort in the cool versions of one of my favorite songs, George Gershwin’s “Summertime.”

 

 

Black Wall Street and the Blues

1 Jun

June is Black Music Month. This June marks the 95th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. For two days (May 31-June1), white vigilantes massacred black residents, looted and burned to the ground the most prosperous black community in the United States.

Tulsa Race Riot

The riot took place in the Greenwood District, known as the Black Wall Street, the heart of which was bounded by Greenwood Avenue, and Archer and Pine streets. Tulsa natives, brothers Charlie, Ronnie and Robert Wilson’s band name pays tribute to one of the worst race riots in U.S. history.

Black Wall Street, a hotbed for jazz and blues, was a stop on the famed Chitlin’ Circuit. Bandleader Walter Barnes was one of the most colorful characters on “the stroll.”

Walter Barnes and his Creolians

In his book, The Chitlin’ Circuit: and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll, Preston Lauterbach writes:

The tour [Walter Barnes and his Royal Creolians] kicked off in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the week before Thanksgiving, where Barnes found “Black Wall Street” bustling. “Greenwood is the name of the colored district of Tulsa, and one can get anything here from a shoe shine up.” Barnes highlighted the stroll’s musicians, dance promoters, dance halls, and its dentists, barbers, pharmacies, cafes, cab companies, and lodgings, always stressing the up-to-date. “I stopped with my entire orchestra at the modern and exclusive Small Hotel” in Tulsa, “one of the best equipped in the country, having newest electrical fixtures, telephone in each room, bath in every room, and modernistic furniture.” The Kings of Swing played the Crystal Palace Ballroom, “the last word in beauty,” and hung around the Goodie Goodie Club, Cotton Club, and Del Rio. “There’s plenty niteries here.”

In 1940, Barnes was killed in a fire while performing at the Rhythm Club in Natchez, Mississippi. The tragedy was memorialized in tribute songs by blues musicians, including Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker.

Hot Jazz and Cold War

2 May

In his opening remarks at the International Jazz Day global concert at the White House, President Barack Obama said:

Jazz is perhaps the most honest reflection of who we are as a nation. Because after all, has there ever been any greater improvisation than America itself? We do it in our own way. We move forward even when the road ahead is uncertain, stubbornly insistent that we’ll get to somewhere better, and confident that we’ve got all the right notes up our sleeve.

That “honest reflection of who we are as a nation” became an instrument of cultural diplomacy during the Cold War. Jazz musicians-turned-cultural ambassadors toured in more than 35 countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. Jazz diplomacy was intended to win hearts and minds and promote a positive view of America as the land of freedom.

The irony of being ambassadors of freedom was not lost on jazz musicians who were treated as second-class citizens at home and subject to Jim Crow segregation.

As part of Jazz Appreciation Month, the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, the Public Diplomacy Council and the DC Jazz Festival presented a program on jazz and public diplomacy.

Dizzy Gillespie was the first Jazz Ambassador. The legendary Adam Clayton Powell Jr.  was the catalyst behind the tour. His son, Adam Clayton Powell III, President of the Public Diplomacy Council, recently wrote:

Americans underestimate the impact of jazz on audiences around the world. And in a way that contributes to the power of international tours by U.S. jazz musicians, including and especially tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

[…]

During the Cold War, America’s most prominent “jazz ambassadors” included Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong – at a time when segregation was the law of the land in much of the U.S. and the civil rights movement was at its peak. And that created a conflict for many of musicians.

“You had people being hosed down with fire hoses and dogs sicced on them, and you had these reports going out across the world,” said [Willard] Jenkins. “So it did create a real issue for many of the African American musicians who were selected to make those tours.”

Then Jenkins read from instructions given to musicians by the State Department: “‘Remember who you are and what you represent. Always be a credit to your government.’”

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