Lush Life

[This post was written by student Zerin Jamal as her final project for this class in Spring 2020. All text (c) Zerin Jamal.]

Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane’s rendition of Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”

William (referred to as Billy) Thomas Strayhorn was best recognized for being Duke Ellington’s collaborator and for working with Ellington to produce many classics, such as “Take The ‘A’ Train,” “Chelsea Bridge” and “Isfahan.” Although he had an aptitude for penning timeless pieces, by which he set some of the world’s most distinct jazz standards, and was a musical genius, Strayhorn spent most of his career in the shadow of Ellington. Ellington even encapsulated Strayhorn’s genius with, “Billy Strayhorn successfully married melody, words and harmony, equating the fitting with happiness.” Albeit primarily being recognized on pieces he collaborated with Ellington on, Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” was possibly his most soul-stirring and famous independent song. The song was impressibly composed by Strayhorn while he was in his teens. When he released it to the public, the song was instantaneously a hit as critics marveled at his capacity to compose a song of such caliber, one that also demonstrates maturity and a complex range of emotions that was explored by many after its release, at such a young age.

Duke Ellington was highly regarded as “the great jazz composer” and bandleader of all time as he wrote several of jazz’s biggest standards. His music often incorporated a mastered fusion of “Afro-American sounds and more modern influences including Latin, Oriental, and expressionist sounds” and he aspired to “lengthen current jazz songs, bring new forms to the hitherto malnourished and largely ignored genre that was jazz music.” This must be noted as Billy Strayhorn not only made an absolute assimilation of Ellington’s form and technique but he also integrated his own distinct talent in musical composition; thus, Strayhorn, too, established several jazz standards. While commending Strayhorn, Ellington once declared, “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine.

“Lush Life” was widely acclaimed for good reason as it had numerous valuable qualities. The song illustrates Strayhorn’s ability to interlink the elegant harmonies of classical music into the vibrant and strong swing of jazz. It also demonstrates his musical inclination as the lyrics and the melody of the song both simultaneously work together to evoke great emotional responses from the audience. The song ‘moves’ and amazes the listeners by communicating the level of depth and maturity Strayhorn possessed as a teenager. Strayhorn’s composition of this piece was also groundbreaking due to the time it was written in.

“Lush Life” was written during the Harlem Renaissance but was released after the renaissance began to fade away. The Harlem Renaissance was a critical period in black history; it was a time in which African Americans obtained jurisdiction over the depiction of black culture and experience, all while bestowing them a position in Western high culture. During this time, Harlem flourished with cultural and artistic expression; artists and writers strengthened the African American spirit by developing phenomenal literature and works of art that showcased the resilience, intelligence, and fortitude of their people. One of the defining arts of the Harlem Renaissance was jazz as it dominated the musical genre, enabling African Americans to communicate their difficulties, frustrations, pleasure, and pride — all of which came with being black in America. “Lush Life” was particularly valuable since Harlem provided a haven for gay African-Americans despite it being frowned upon. Although homophobia was prevalent, artists, such as Billy Strayhorn, were inspirational since they were uncloseted and extremely successful. Harlem as a community granted refuge for gay African Americans due to artists like Strayhorn having a massive influence; hence, their successes created a safe space for other gay African Americans.

“Lush Life” lyrics

The song opens with “I used to visit all the very gay places.” Although the word “gay” was commonly used to refer to “happy” during this period and did not signify homosexuality, jazz music, and especially the Harlem Renaissance, largely consisted of maintaining a sense of individuality and granted sexual freedom. Seeing as Strayhorn was publicly out-closeted and was in a long-term relationship with Aaron Bridgers, it is plausible that Strayhorn was aware of the both meanings of the term and intentionally incorporated it. Most likely, however, Strayhorn utilized the word to note places in which he felt cheerful, relaxed, carefree, and especially gay as well. “Lush Life” reflects Strayhorn’s ability to freely and openly be gay as a result of Harlem acting as a sanctuary for homosexuals.At this time, it would have been difficult to have sexual freedom and to openly display one’s sexual orientation if they were not straight. However, due to some blues singers already implying their homosexuality and his off-stage part in Ellington’s orchestra, it was possible for Strayhorn to openly display their sexual orientation due to both his absence in the limelight and Harlem’s tight-knit community looking out for one another.

Upon further analysis of the lyrics, Strayhorn describes night life as enervating after being unsuccessful at romance. He refers to a bar as a place, “where one relaxes… to get the feel of life from jazz and cocktails,” and narrates that he was familiar with dispirited women who had “been washed away by too many through the day twelve o’clock tales.” He details finding a lover that he believed was going to be a “great love” for him before unfolding,

Ah yes! I was wrong

Again, I was wrong. Life is lonely again,

And only last year everything seemed so sure.

Now life is awful again.

The piece reflects how night life was and still is part of American culture. Strayhorn describes women feeling dejected as a result of their failed romances which led them to indulge in alcohol, just as the Strayhorn, for relief. The song describes how many live luxurious and lavish lives to mask their true loneliness. Oftentimes, many turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with their feelings of grief and sorrow. These social values still hold for our time seeing as many turn to substances as they believe it will help them better cope; however, they, ultimately, suffer more as a result of substance abuse. This song also highlights the dangers of the overly glorified nightlife scene as it can lead to individuals falling subject to peer pressure, resulting in many drinking and trying drugs they initially were against. 

“Lush Life” reflects the contributions of Black Americans to national culture since jazz was heavily influenced by several African American musical forms. Jazz evolved from slave work songs, African American spirituals, blues, and also ragtime. When listened to carefully, one can hear the mixed influences of ragtime, blues, and the piano which was part of band music. People should listen to this piece of music as Billy Strayhorn was also responsible for making great contributions to jazz, alongside Ellington, with pieces of such caliber. When listening to “Lush Life,” people should attempt to hear the syncopated rhythm (influenced by ragtime), Strayhorn’s distinct musical structure, and his moving lyrics.

Billy Strayhorn singing his own masterpiece “Lush Life” live in 1964.

Gratuitous Coronavirus Music Post

Warning: explicit language.

You may have seen Cardi B’s recent Instagram posts about coronavirus.

Enterprising musicians immediately started mixing, chopping, screwing, and otherwise riffing on her rant.

Some Kenyan teens made a dance video to this:

Some jazz musicians improvising based on the pitch patterns of her vocalization:

How would you remix this?

Pinned Post, Spring 2020

This post will stay pinned to the top of the blog for the duration of our coronavirus course readjustments.

April 10: Broome County Executive Jason Garnar asks that, in order to limit the spread of coronavirus, residents should go out to do necessary shopping and exercise only on days that correspond to their birth year. So: if you were born in an even-numbered year, go out on even-numbered days; if you were born in an odd-numbered year, go out on odd-numbered days.

A message from President Kevin Drumm and Student Assembly President Daniel Todd.

Free internet access during the coronavirus crisis: for more, read here.

Read SUNY-Broome’s daily coronavirus updates here.

When all this is over, Ima be like:

A little levity: “Welcome to Your Hastily-Prepared Online College Course.”

Update 3/26: These are good tips if you can work them.

UPDATED 3/21: At this point, it appears that all students who can go home are being urged to do so. If you cannot go home, please let me know if you need supplies.

  1. As you know the school, per the governor’s request, will be moving to mostly distance learning after Thursday, March 19.
  2. The school is NOT closing, and all buildings will remain open, including the library, computer labs, Mac Lab and practice rooms, and Student Village and the Cafeteria. You are NOT required to move out of the dorms.
  3. If students choose to move back home for the semester, they will NOT be able to return to the Student Village for the remainder of the semester.  They must turn in their key to the front desk.   
  4. Only current students may visit the Student Village.  All other visitors, including family must remain outside of the building.       
  5. The fees to stay in the Student Village for spring break are waived. Students are encouraged students to stay in the area. Also, the Cafeteria will remain open for spring break.
  6. At this time, students are strongly encouraged NOT to travel outside of the immediate area.
  7. All gatherings over 50 people will need to be cancelled. This does not prevent you from meeting in small groups, for instance to work on your midterm project, but instructors have been encouraged to move online if at all possible, so we will be moving online.
  8. We’re building the plane as we’re flying it, so expect things to be unclear and possibly less-than-ideal at first.
  9. We are going to stick with the blog. For most assignments, I will be adding questions to blog posts that you will answer in the comments: you know the drill.
  10. We will be non-synchronous, but your work will be due on a deadline each week.
  11. PLEASE let me know if there’s anything you think I can do better as we move to an online format.

Please use the comments on this post to ask ANYTHING about music, assignments, online learning, student resources, and/or any other concerns you might have about this course, our scholarly community, and the big picture. Ask at any time. I will answer as soon as possible. If you have a question you would rather not ask in a forum that others can see, email it to me at oconnelljr@sunybroome.edu.

Follow updates on the steps SUNY-Broome is taking to address coronavirus here.

SUNY-Broome student resources can be found here.

Good COVID-19 infographics here:

https://informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/covid-19-coronavirus-infographic-datapack/

The Blues Mode and 12-Bar Form (examples)

A collection of some of the musical examples referred to by Peter van der Merwe in your reading.

As you listen, think about the similarities in these musics from across cultures. What makes them blues or blues-like?

  1. Charley Patton, “Tom Rushen Blues”.

You’ll be reading more about Charley Patton later. For the moment, pay attention not only to what van der Merwe calls his “shake” on the third scale degree, but also on his technique of doubling the vocal line with the guitar.

2. Bessie Smith, “Poor Man’s Blues”:

3. Traditional Mossi music from Burkina Faso, west Africa. Pay attention to the long, unmetered, chant-like vocal lines.

4. “Goin’ Home,” recorded by the Lomaxes at Parchman Farm, a notorious segregated prison in Mississippi. Note the chant-like, repetitive vocal line and the reverse-dotted rhythm.

4. “Show Pity, Lord,” a Protestant hymn by 18th-century English composer Isaac Watts. Why does van der Merwe include this example?

6. “Gwineter Harness in de Mornin’ Soon,” another song John Lomax collected from Dink on the banks of the Brazos River in Texas.

7. “Dance in the Place Congo” by 20th-century composer Henry Gilbert: it’s in 5/4 and is meant to evoke the dancing on Sunday in Congo Square, New Orleans, prior to Emancipation.

8. “The Maid Freed From the Gallows,” a traditional English ballad.

Led Zeppelin’s version of this ballad, “Gallows Pole”:

9. “Way over in the New Buryin’ Groun'”:

10. “Pretty Polly,” an Appalachian ballad:

11. “Go to Sleep”:

12. “Freight Train Blues.”

Gullah/Geechee Resources

The coast of South Carolina was the port of entry for more than two-thirds of the Africans brought to America as slaves. The wealth of the state, and of its capitol city, Charleston, was built on slavery. Charleston was known as the “Cradle of the Confederacy,” and the first shots in the Civil War were fired there, at Fort Sumter.

The Sea Islands bordering the coast became a place of refuge for former slaves, and were able to maintain a unique culture. A brief history:

Current cultural conflicts and land disputes in the Sea Islands:

A ring shout:

The trailer for the 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, about Gullah culture:

Read this long article about black land loss in the Mississippi Delta (the problem of black land loss in the Sea Islands and throughout the South stems from many of the same causes).

https://features.propublica.org/black-land-loss/heirs-property-rights-why-black-families-lose-land-south/

Alan Lomax’s sister, Bess Lomax Hawes, made these films of the Georgia Sea Island Singers in the 1960s. You’ll notice elements of west African music and dance that you’ve seen in other contexts and cultures.

George Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess is set in a Gullah neighborhood in Charleston called Catfish Row. To research the music and customs of the Gullah people, Gershwin, a Russian Jewish immigrant, traveled to the Sea Islands to observe the traditions of ring shouting and polyrhythmic clapping (legend has it that he was the only white man ever seen in a Gullah church who was able to duplicate Gullah clapping and stomping rhythms).

A scene from a rehearsal for the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Porgy:


The Society for the Preservation of Spirituals is a group of white amateur folklorists who have tried to keep the traditions of the ring shout and other Gullah musical forms alive.

What makes this a complicated endeavour?

Blood Memory in Porgy and Bess

Alfred Walker as Crown in Porgy and Bess

Over the weekend, I saw the Metropolitan Opera’s wonderful new production of George Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess.

Choreographer Camille A. Brown, below, was interviewed backstage about the dances she created for the production. She spoke about drawing on the performers’ “blood memory.”

In a recent TED talk, Brown explained that:

Movement has always been a part of the African tradition. So, when you look at the Middle Passage and how the culture of the African people, they attempted to strip them of their culture, but somehow it was still living in their body and we call that a blood memory. That idea of movement being a way of expressing ourselves is something that is traditional and it’s a heritage that continues to be passed down. It’s just something that is innate, in black people specifically. So, you’re tapping into something when you’re moving your body that I believe is very spiritual. 

Here, Brown rehearses the chorus and dancers of Porgy. Are the movements expressive of blood memory?

Do you think blood memory is a real phenomenon? or is Brown using the term as a metaphor for something else? What?

If blood memory is a real phenomenon, to what extent does it govern the choices we make and the actions we take? Are our “blood memories” mutable? Can they be changed? Or are they permanent and inexorable, something to which we must submit?

Brown suggests that blood memory is dormant in all people of African heritage, and can help them to access traditional ways of movement. Are there other blood memories particular to other groups of people? Give an example.

Is soprano Latonia Moore drawing on blood memory here, in her performance of Serena’s Act I aria “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy?

What about here, singing “Un bel dì,” Cio-Cio-San’s Act II aria from Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San is a Japanese woman)?

The Gershwins’ estate stipulates that only singers of African heritage can perform the Porgy and Bess, but that hasn’t stopped the melanin-challenged from singing excerpts for years:

The opera begins with the aria “Summertime,” the most covered piece of music of all time. Here it is sung by South African soprano Golda Schultz.

A few of the countless cover versions:

As one critic noted, Porgy and Bess is

a story of “black life” penned by a white Southerner [Dubose Heyward], scored by a New York Jewish composer [George Gershwin], written in dialect (cartoonish, by today’s standards) and containing strong whiffs of well-intentioned paternalism, tourism, and exoticism.

These charges complicate the notion of “blood memory.” Could there be a kind of American “blood memory,” the product and the basis of our mixed cultural origins as a nation — a memory that made it possible for a Russian-Jewish immigrant and a white Southern aristocrat to write a great American opera on one aspect of the black experience?

Read more about the historic controversies surrounding the opera here:

The folk/bluegrass musician Rhiannon Giddens hosts a Metropolitan Opera podcast called “Aria Code,” designed to introduce opera to new audiences. Here, she looks at Porgy and Bess from multiple perspectives, including roots both in minstrelsy and Charleston’s Gullah Geechee culture.

Video of a symposium on the opera at the University of Michigan, including a diversity of viewpoints.

Intersectionality: Gay Harlem

A playlist of some of the “songs of gay Harlem” mentioned by Steven Blier.

“The Happy Heaven of Harlem” (Cole Porter), a place where “all lovin’ is free.”

“Lush Life,” perhaps Billy Strayhorn’s most famous song, with its clever and beautiful lyrics that are so expressive of what the Harlem nightclub scene might have been like; here it is inimitably performed by Johnny Hartman with the John Coltrane Quartet.

“Lotus Blossom,” performed by Duke Ellington and his orchestra.

Ethel Waters, in a show-within-a-show in the 1929 movie musical On With the Show. Note that she is gotten up in stereotypical Southern black field-hand garb, which she slyly dismisses in the number below, “Underneath the Harlem Moon.”

Underneath the Harlem moon, picking cotton may be taboo, but not, apparently, “the kind of love that satisfies.”

“Dinah,” which Blier calls “a love song to a woman”:

“Witness,” one of the many spirituals Hall Johnson arranged, sung by Marti Newland:

Alberta Hunter singing “My Castle’s Rockin’,” which Blier notes “sounds like a lesbian anthem.”

The great Bessie Smith, singing some rather racy lyrics:

“In Harlem’s Araby” by Bessie Smith’s pianist, Porter Grainger:

“Worried Blues,” sung by Gladys Bentley, cross-dressing lesbian and Harlem Renaissance royalty.

  • What historical, social, and cultural factors led to the Harlem Renaissance?
  • Describe the music of the Harlem Renaissance. What did it sound like? Did it draw strictly from African-American musical traditions, or from diverse traditions? Give an example to back up your answer.
  • Why do you think Harlem provided a refuge for gay African-Americans?

Playlist and Journal Assignment for “Race and the Embodiment of Culture”

Content warning: racist imagery.

One of your first reading assignments, “Race and the Embodiment of Culture” by John Szwed, was published in the journal Ethnicity in 1975. Szwed makes reference to many music and dance forms, as well as visual imagery, across times, places, and cultures. This post is a compendium of the forms he mentions.

Szwed believes the folk dance forms of the following cultures demonstrate a high degree of “synchronization and organization.”

Sub-Saharan African:

Polynesian:

Eastern European:

On the other hand, the folk dance forms of the following cultures have a lesser degree of synchronization and organization.

Western European:

Euro-American:

Middle Eastern:

Videos of minstrelsy (both in and out of blackface) by the artists Szwed cites (we will be studying minstrelsy in depth in a couple of weeks):

Al Jolson:

Amos N’ Andy:

Eddie Cantor:

Mick Jagger:

Some nineteenth-century racist cartoons of Irish immigrants, which Szwed mentions in his article:

3. At the close of his essay, Szwed says:

We now find ourselves becoming famished and desperate students of the discredited and displaced in a pastoral of ludicrous dimensions.

What is a “pastoral,” and what does Szwed mean when he says that “we now find ourselves” in one? Give a musical example that reflects the ways that you believe mainstream America is “famished and desperate” for authenticity in culture.

Respond to the following questions in a comment on this blog post, using your first name only.

1. Amos and Andy were black comedy artists. Why do you think John Szwed includes them in his list of practitioners of blackface minstrelsy?

2. What does Szwed mean when he calls Mick Jagger a practitioner of blackface minstrelsy — only “without blackface”?

3. On p. 30 of his article, Szwed says:

The irony of the situation is obvious: the low-status [racial/cultural] group, cut off from the sources of power and production in the larger society, is at the same time less alienated from its own cultural productions [than is the high-status group]. The twist is that the elite of society is free to draw on the lower group’s cultural pool. Were there ever more massive examples of the conversion of community life and culture into commodity than those in which black folk life has been turned into national culture in the US?

What he’s referring to here, in general, is the appropriation and consumption of black music — the “lower [socio-economic] group’s cultural pool” — by the “elite of society,” i.e. those who enjoy economic and cultural privilege. Szwed sees the irony of black music — a unique expression of a particular culture — going corporate/mainstream. The process of the commodification of black music has been going on ever since black music began to be recognized as a distinct style and genre in the nineteenth century, as we will see later.

Give an example of the process of conversion Szwed describes — of black American music or culture into national American music or culture — from your own lifetime. Name a specific song/artist/genre.

Black Girls’ Handgames

The D.C.-based arts organization Black Girls Handgames Project is dedicated to remixing and repurposing classic (pre-electronics) children’s games, many of which originated in communities of color. Cofounder OnRae LaTeal explains:

The children’s handgame “Miss Mary Mack,” for instance, played here by the great folksinger Ella Jenkins (with some assistance from . . . Barney), dates back to the 1800s.

In the book The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop, Kyra D. Gaunt suggests:

In black girls’ play, “black” may be symbolically associated at some level with one’s ethnic identity — dressing oneself in blackness, so to speak.

R&B singer Rufus Thomas remixed “Mary Mack” into “Walking the Dog” in 1963:

Black Girls Handgames Project’s version:

For more, see the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s blog, here:

https://festival.si.edu/blog/black-girls-handgames-project

And the BGHP’s Facebook page, here:

https://www.facebook.com/handgamesproject/

The DNA of American Classical Music

While driving to Target to buy a new vacuum on Black Friday (oh, the glamorous life of an adjunct!), I turned on the radio to the classical station, which was in the middle of this piece, in a new arrangement for piano quintet (piano, two violins, viola, and cello).

At first I thought it was a chamber piece by Antonin Dvorak. In fact, especially arranged as a piano quintet, it was chock-full of Dvorakian devices: long-breathed modal melodic themes that sounded derived from American folk spirituals; a slow, wide-open kind of harmonic progression; the chiming, bell-like sound of the piano being played in octaves. By the time the one-movement piece evolved into a cakewalk, though, I knew it was by Florence Price.

Florence Price was one of the greatest composers of her generation, but was neglected in her own lifetime, and essentially forgotten until ten years ago, when a couple renovating an old house — Price’s, as it turns out, in the Chicago suburbs — found boxes of her compositions in manuscript.

As Price herself wrote in a letter to conductor Serge Koussevitsky:

Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic and virility. Add to that the incident of race — I have Colored blood in my veins — and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position.

Conductor Jordan Randall Smith has collected many sources for research on Florence Price on a wonderful web page called “The Price is Right” (get it?). The site includes an excerpt from a recent documentary about her life, The Caged Bird, as well as a Spotify list and many links. It should be your first stop for any project on Florence Price’s life or work.

http://www.jordanrsmith.com/blog/2018/5/25/the-price-is-right

So why did I think, at first, that I was hearing Dvorak?

In 1891, Dvorak was invited to travel from his native Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) to lead the new (and short-lived) National Conservatory of Music in New York. The conservatory, it was hoped, would train American-born musicians and composers to create a national style of American classical music. Shortly after arriving in New York, Dvorak gave a famous interview to the New York Herald, in which he asserted that all that American musicians and composers needed to create an American style of classical music was to look to African-American folk music:

In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathétic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or purpose. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source. The American musician understands these tunes and they move sentiment in him.

This statement caused controversy on both sides of the Atlantic (read more about the controversy here). Dvorak wrote his 9th symphony in America, subtitled “From the New World,” and the second movement was explicitly influenced by African-American folk spirituals:

So much so that, in a reverse process, it became a kind of spiritual itself:

And it wasn’t long before other composers, inspired by Dvorak, who was inspired by African-American folk music, began writing their own folk-spiritual-inspired concert music, including great African-American composers like William Dawson:

And William Grant Still, whose opening theme echoes Dawson’s:

And white composers jumped on the bandwagon too:

Including John Powell, an avowed white supremacist (for more on Powell and his music, go here):

Note that, in the concert program for the premiere of Florence Price’s Symphony no. 1 by the Chicago Symphony (at the top of this post), a piece by John Powell opens the show.

The piece’s title, “In Old Virginia,” certainly evokes the idea of the antebellum South under slavery. But starting around 4:00, you can hear a deliberate evocation of African-American folk spirituals in the clarinet solo.

In spite of Powell’s noxious racial views, we can assume that the entire program was meant to reflect black contributions to the American classical sound, either through the work of black composers or through the implicit inspiration of black American sounds. Roland Hayes, the program’s tenor soloist, was a famous concert singer who had great success in Europe:

In the United States, however, he was the victim of an incident of racial violence that inspired Langston Hughes’s poem “Warning” (originally titled “Roland Hayes Beaten”):

Negroes,
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble and kind:
Beware the day
They change their mind!
Wind
In the cotton fields,
Gentle Breeze:
Beware the hour
It uproots trees!

And Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was an English composer of African ancestry, who nevertheless drew on Native American legend for his overture Hiawatha — an opera about the founder of the Iroquois Confederacy, who lived in the 16th century — from which Hayes performed the tenor aria “On-away, Awake, Beloved”:

So it seems, in a sense, that the American classical sound is like the serpent biting its own tail, moving in an endless loop from African-American folk spirituals, to Dvorak, and back again to America.


American music is so largely African-American music, and this is true also of American classical music.