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.

Mapping Philadelphia’s Jazz History

15 Mar

All That Philly Jazz was launched in March 2015. A place-based public history project, we are mapping Philadelphia’s lost jazz shrines from A to Z, from the Aqua Lounge to Zanzibar Blue.

All That Philly Jazz - Wordle - Aqua Lounge to Zanzibar Blue

I was recently interviewed on National Public Radio’s newsmagazine, “Here & Now.” The interview touched on the legacy of McCoy Tyner, Philadelphia’s jazz ecosystem that nurtured young musicians and exposed them to jazz musicians (here and here), and the campaign to save the John Coltrane House, a National Historic Landmark.

Faye Anderson - NPR's Here & Now - March 9, 2020

The podcast is available here.

Harriet Tubman Day 2020

8 Mar

Like most enslaved African Americans, Harriet Tubman did not know her date of her birth. So we remember the “Moses of Her People” on the date of her death, March 10, 1913.

In 1990, President George W. Bush proclaimed March 10 “Harriet Tubman Day”:

In celebrating Harriet Tubman’s life, we remember her commitment to freedom and rededicate ourselves to the timeless principles she struggled to uphold. Her story is one of extraordinary courage and effectiveness in the movement to abolish slavery and to advance the noble ideals enshrined in our Nation’s Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

After escaping from slavery herself in 1849, Harriet Tubman led hundreds of slaves to freedom by making a reported 19 trips through the network of hiding places known as the Underground Railroad. For her efforts to help ensure that our Nation always honors its promise of liberty and opportunity for all, she became known as the “Moses of her People.”

Serving as a nurse, scout, cook, and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, Harriet Tubman often risked her own freedom and safety to protect that of others. After the war, she continued working for justice and for the cause of human dignity. Today we are deeply thankful for the efforts of this brave and selfless woman – they have been a source of inspiration to generations of Americans.

In recognition of Harriet Tubman’s special place in the hearts of all who cherish freedom, the Congress has passed Senate Joint Resolution 257 in observance of “Harriet Tubman Day,” March 10, 1990, the 77th anniversary of her death.

Cynthia Erivo starred in Harriet, the biopic for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Erivo also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song for “Stand Up” which she co-wrote with Joshuah Brian Campbell.

I will stand up for Harriet Tubman at the Harriet Ross Tubman Monument in Bristol, Pennsylvania.

Harriet Tubman Memorial Monument, Bristol, PA

Sadly, partisan politics has delayed release of the Harriet Tubman $20 bill until 2028. Meanwhile, sections of Dixie Highway in Florida will be renamed in tribute to the iconic freedom fighter.

Memphis Club

1 Mar

March is Women in Jazz Month. Let’s get the celebration started at Philadelphia’s Memphis Club which opened in December 1934.

Memphis Club - Gladys Bentley - 913 N. Warnock Street

Gender-bender blues singer and pianist Gladys Bentley opened the fall season. This photo is on view at the National Museum of African American History and Culture “Musical Crossroads” exhibition.

Gladys Bentley - NMAAHC

The drag king pioneer was featured in The New York Times series, “Overlooked”:

When it comes to loosening social mores, progress that isn’t made in private has often taken place onstage.

That was certainly the case at the Clam House, a Prohibition-era speakeasy in Harlem, where Gladys Bentley, one of the boldest performers of her era, held court.

In her top hat and tuxedo, Bentley belted gender-bending original blues numbers and lewd parodies of popular songs, eventually becoming Harlem royalty. When not accompanying herself with a dazzling piano, the mightily built singer often swept through the audience, flirting with women in the crowd and soliciting dirty lyrics from them as she sang.

By the early 1930s, Bentley was Harlem’s most famous lesbian figure — a significant distinction, given that gay, lesbian and gender-defying writers and performers were flourishing during the Harlem Renaissance. For a time, she was among the best-known black entertainers in the United States.

Bentley sang her bawdy, bossy songs in a thunderous voice, dipping down into a froglike growl or curling upward into a wail. In his 1940 autobiography, Langston Hughes called her “an amazing exhibition of musical energy — a large, dark, masculine lady, whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard — a perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm.”

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