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The Roots of Jazz and Blues

12 Apr

Is jazz black music? Is the Pope Catholic?

A 1959 documentary, Cry of Jazz, sparked controversy when one of the characters asserted that “jazz is merely the Negro’s cry of joy and suffering.” The character, Alex, explained that “the Negro was the only one with the necessary musical and human history to create jazz.”

In 1979, jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams drew a picture of the history of jazz for the slow learners.

Mary Lou Williams HistoryTree

The roots of the blues were planted in 1619 when Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia on a slave ship. Jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron observed:

America provided the atmosphere for the blues and the blues was born
The blues was born on the American wilderness
The blues was born on the beaches where the slave ships docked
Born on the slave man’s auction block

If your ancestors didn’t pick cotton from “cain’t see in the morning till cain’t see at night,” Benny Turner wants you to know who sang the blues first.

Jubilee Singers

17 Nov

Fisk University was founded in January 1866 to educate newly freed blacks. Between 1871 and 1880, the Fisk Jubilee Singers staged a series of fundraising concerts that introduced slave songs to the world.

Original Jubilee Singers

From Fisk University History:

The tradition of excellence at Fisk has developed out of a history marked by struggle and uncertainty. Fisk’s world-famous Jubilee Singers originated as a group of traveling students who set out from Nashville on October 6, 1871, taking the entire contents of the University treasury with them for travel expenses, praying that through their music they could somehow raise enough money to keep open the doors of their debt-ridden school.

The singers struggled at first, but before long, their performances so electrified audiences that they traveled throughout the United States and Europe, moving to tears audiences that included William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Ulysses S. Grant, William Gladstone, Mark Twain, Johann Strauss, and Queen Victoria.

On November 19, 2019, American Experience PBS will air “Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory.”

AMEX_JubileeSingers_2800x1576-resize-1400x0-50

An Opry Salute to Ray Charles

23 Sep

Ken Burns’ latest film, “Country Music,” makes clear that African American music is at the root of the genre. Long before Lil Nas X, there was DeFord Bailey, Rufus “Tee Top” Payne, Charley Pride – and Ray Charles. Brother Ray’s 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, topped the charts in the U.S. and Britain. The album and its lead single, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” were certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Country Music Hall of Famer Willie Nelson observed:

When Ray did “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” that was probably the time when country music was heard by more people than ever before. He kicked country music forward 50 years. Before him, a lot of people had probably never heard of songs by Don Gibson or Hank Williams.

In his autobiography, Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story, the country music pioneer wrote:

I just wanted to try my hand at hillbilly music. After all, the Grand Ole Opry had been performing inside my head since I was a kid in the country.

The Grand Ole Opry “celebrates the songs of Ray Charles and the influence the revolutionary artist had on country music” in a television special, “An Opry Salute to Ray Charles.”

An Opry Salute to Ray Charles

Hosted by Opry member Darius Rucker, the star-studded salute features Boyz II Men, Cam, Brett Eldredge, Leela James, Jessie Key, Ronnie Milsap, Lukas Nelson, LeAnn Rimes, Allen Stone, Travis Tritt, Charlie Wilson, Trisha Yearwood and Chris Young. The program will air on PBS stations nationwide so check your local listings.

Wade in the Water

23 Jun

In 1994, National Public Radio, in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution, produced a 26-part series, Wade in the Water. As Black Music Month winds down, the radio documentary is a refresher course on the history of gospel music and its impact on soul, jazz, and R&B.

Wade in the Water - NPR

From the NPR Music blog:

In 1994, when Wade in the Water first aired on NPR member stations, the world was different. Many of the voices featured in the series were alive, and were generous with their support. Today, some of those voices have been stilled. But this series, documenting African American sacred music traditions spanning more than 200 years, remains vital because of them.

Wade was an experiment in recording music and musical events, amassing scholarship and conducting interviews in order to make all of those elements accessible to a wider audience. As a first-time partnership between NPR and the Smithsonian Institution, it featured a wide range of styles and subcultures and documented the cultural impact of music on real lives and diverse communities.

Over a five-year production period, Wadewas guided by the steady hand, artistic integrity and groundbreaking scholarship of Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon — historian, musician, MacArthur “genius” and the series’ creator and narrator. And Wade’s production team members brought our personal and professional best to the series, trekking throughout the country to gather relevant material.

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Jump for Joy: Duke Ellington and Social Change

9 Jun

Legendary composer, bandleader and pianist Duke Ellington was not an outspoken activist. His activism was expressed in benefit concerts, non-segregation clause in his contract and his music. In the 1960s, Ellington was asked when he was going to compose a civil rights piece. His reply, “I did my piece more than 20 years ago when I wrote Jump for Joy.”

Duke Ellington-Jump-For-Joy

Debuted on July 10, 1941, at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles, the musical addressed African American identity and representation. For Ellington, showcasing black excellence was an act of resistance to racial caricatures. Although Jump for Joy received rave reviews, it ran for only 122 performances. The musical never made it to Broadway. The “Great White Way” was not ready for Ellington’s unapologetic blackness.

Nearly 80 years later, audiences still jump for joy when they hear songs from the musical, including “I’ve Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good) and “Rocks in My Bed.”

Black Music Month 2019

2 Jun

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Black Music Month, the brainchild of music mogul and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Kenny Gamble and broadcast executive Ed Wright. Radio personality Dyana Williams, the “Mother of Black Music Month,” breaks down the origin of the celebration.

2019 also marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in British North America. Music helped the ancestors survive the dehumanization and barbarity of slavery. This mandolin was crafted by a slave circa 1800s. It is on display at the National Constitution Center.

Mandolin4

The ancestors used music to express their grief and sorrow. In 25 Black Gospel Songs that Have their Roots in Slavery, BlackExcellence.com wrote:

This traditional Negro spiritual dates back to the slavery era. Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child expresses despair and pain. Furthermore, it conveys the lack of hope of a child who’s been torn from the parents. The word sometimes is repeated several times, which can be interpreted as a measure of hope, as it suggests that occasionally this child doesn’t feel motherless. This child can represent a slave who, in the trafficking process, has been separated from something dear to his or her heart (such as a spouse, home country, parents, children, siblings, and so on) and is yearning for it.

Music was a form of resistance. Again, from BlackExcellence.com:

Wade in the Water is a Negro spiritual song that teaches slaves to hide and make it through by getting into the water. It’s a perfect map song example with lyrics that offer precious coded directions.

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