We Shall Overcome

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At the March on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech, Joan Baez (above with Bob Dylan) led the masses in singing the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Baez, of Scottish and Mexican ancestry, was the daughter of a nuclear physicist, and had become a folk-music sensation while still in her teens.

As the Library of Congress describes “We Shall Overcome,”

It was the most powerful song of the 20th century. It started out in church pews and picket lines, inspired one of the greatest freedom movements in U.S. history, and went on to topple governments and bring about reform all over the world. Word for word, the short, simple lyrics of “We Shall Overcome” might be some of the most influential words in the English language.

“We Shall Overcome” has it roots in African American hymns from the early 20th century, and was first used as a protest song in 1945, when striking tobacco workers in Charleston, S.C., sang it on their picket line. By the 1950s, the song had been discovered by the young activists of the African American civil rights movement, and it quickly became the movement’s unofficial anthem. Its verses were sung on protest marches and in sit-ins, through clouds of tear gas and under rows of police batons, and it brought courage and comfort to bruised, frightened activists as they waited in jail cells, wondering if they would survive the night. When the long years of struggle ended and President Lyndon Johnson vowed to fight for voting rights for all Americans, he included a final promise: “We shall overcome.”

In a 1965 speech, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. also referred to the song:

Yes, we were singing about it just a few minutes ago: “We shall overcome; we shall overcome, deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome.”

And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet, that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”

“We Shall Overcome” is a song derived from multiple sources, including the slave song “I’ll Be All Right Someday”:

The slave song “No More Auction Block for Me (Many Thousands Gone)”:

The hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday,” (which was composed by pastor of the East Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Charles Albert Tindley, the son of a slave):

and a Catholic hymn to the Virgin Mary from the eighteenth century, “O Sanctissima.”

The song in its best-known version was sung by striking tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina in 1945. It spread to other states where workers were involved in union organizing, and Pete Seeger, one of the leaders of the folk music revival, who was also a musical presence at many union rallies, heard it, made a few changes, and began performing and teaching it to audiences around the country.

Bernice Johnson-Reagon, one of the founders of the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, said about Seeger’s changes:

The left, dominated by whites, believed that in order to express the group, you should say ‘we,’ . . . In the black community, if you want to express the group, you have to say ‘I,’ because if you say ‘we,’ I have no idea who’s gonna be there. Have you ever been in a meeting, people say, ‘We’re gonna bring some food tomorrow to feed the people.’ And you sit there on the bench and say, ‘Hmm. I have no idea.’ It is when I say, ‘I’m gonna bring cake,’ and somebody else says, ‘I’ll bring chicken,’ that you actually know you’re gonna get a dinner. So there are many black traditional collective-expression songs where it’s ‘I,’ because in order for you to get a group, you have to have I’s. . . And, you know, we’d been singing the song all our lives, and here’s this guy [Seeger] who just learned the song and he’s telling us how to sing it, . . And you know what I said to myself? ‘If you need it, you got it.’ What that statement does for me is document the presence of black and white people in this country, fighting against injustice. And you have black people accepting that need because they were also accepting that support and that help.

Johnson-Reagon led an all-star ensemble, including Joan Baez, in the song many years later on Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday:

What do you think about Pete Seeger changing “We Shall Overcome,” and teaching his version to black civil rights activists?

What do you think about Joan Baez leading the March on Washington in singing it? Could this happen today? Should it?

How Billie Sang

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Billie Holiday began singing in Harlem jazz clubs at sixteen, and made her first recordings in 1933, at the age of eighteen.

By the time she returned to the studio in 1935, she was a revelation — neither the white balladeers who dominated the Hit Parade nor the black blues queens from whose ranks she emerged provided a precedent for her.

“I’ll Be Seeing You,” sung by Jo Stafford.

Sung by Billie Holiday.

“Falling in Love Again,” sung by Marlene Dietrich.

Sung by Billie Holiday.

“Gimme a Pigfoot,” as sung by Bessie Smith.

Sung by Billie Holiday.

“I Cover the Waterfront,” as sung by Frank Sinatra. Sinatra credited Holiday as “the greatest single musical influence on me,” but Holiday downplayed the compliment, and admitted only to having told Sinatra

that he didn’t phrase right. He should bend certain notes. He says, “Lady, you aren’t commercial.” But I told him certain note at the end he could bend, and later he said I inspired him. Bending those notes — that’s all I helped Franke with.

As sung by Billie Holiday.

 

 

 

Swinging at the Savoy

Big band jazz was also known as swing. Swing dance developed in the segregated dance halls and ballrooms of New York City, such as the famous Savoy Ballroom on Lenox Avenue and 140th Street. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, who you see in the film below, were the professional dance team at the Savoy. Note that the dancers are dressed in the uniforms of black workers of the 1930s: the men are cooks, maintenance workers, delivery men, while the women are dressed as domestic servants.

The Savoy Ballroom was a popular, self-referential theme in several songs of the era:

More about the Savoy:

 

 

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Miles Davis: Kind of Blue, the biggest-selling jazz record in history.

Pay special attention to the spaciousness in the sound, and the minimalist approach to the solos.

Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um.

Pay special attention to the virtuosity of the solos and to Mingus’s compositional and arranging genius.

Ornette Coleman: playlist of all the tracks on The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Pay special attention to the balance between absolute freedom and “controlled chaos.”

Ornette Coleman’s style would come to be called “free jazz.” Some critics linked his sound with the struggle for civil rights. Nevertheless, as one critic put it:

The free jazz movement sprang from musical sources, not social forces. . .were there free jazz players who made music to express anger over civil rights struggles? Yes. . . Did [all of them] abandon [traditional jazz] chord changes because of the civil rights-related anger? No. The free-form approach came first. Were there avant-garde musicians who protested via music without abandoning preset chord changes? Yes. Charles Mingus was one (for instance, “Original Fables of Faubus,” with lyrics about Orville Faubus, the segregationist governor of Arkansas.

Nevertheless, pianist Mal Waldron, who played with Mingus

was . . . eager to embrace the new freedoms [of free jazz]. As [Waldron] saw it, they went hand in hand with being a black musician in the era of civil rights. The bar lines in a song were, he recalled, like “going to jail for us.” “We were talking about freedom, and getting out of jails…. So everyone wanted to escape from that.”

What is Hip?

A playlist/watchlist/reading list to accompany your reading by Scott Saul from his book Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties.

  1. Oscar Brown, Jr.: “But I Was Cool”
  2. Lenny Bruce:
  3. Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro,” published in Dissent in 1957.
  4. One of the “jazz” excerpts from Jack Kerouac’s beat novel, On the Road:

    Boom, kick, that drummer was kicking his drums down the cellar, and rolling the beat upstairs with his murderous sticks, rattlety-boom! The pianist was only pounding the keys with spreadeagled fingers, chords, at intervals when the great tenorman was drawing breath for another blast – Chinese chords, shuddering the piano in every timber, chink and wire, boing! The tenorman jumped down from the platform and stood in the crowd, blowing around; his hat was over his eyes, somebody pushed it back for him. He just hauled back and stamped his foot and blew down a hoarse, laughing blast, and drew breath, and raised the horn, and blew high, wide, and screaming in the air.

    Dean was directly in front of him, with his face lowered to the bell of the horn, clapping his hands, pouring sweat on the man’s keys, and the man noticed, and laughed in his horn a long, quivering, crazy laugh, and everybody else laughed and they rocked and rocked; and finally the tenorman decided to blow his top and crouched down and held a note in high C for a long time as everything else crashed along and the cries increased and I thought the cops would come swarming from the nearest precinct.

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    (Kerouac in 1959.)

  5. A cinematic portrayal of the same scene from the 2012 film On the Road:
  6. A Youtube playlist of all the music mentioned in the book.
  7. Cab Calloway singing “Minnie the Moocher’:
  8. Mezz Mezzrow, “Blues in Disguise”:
  9. More on Mezzrow: “The Original Rachel Dolezal was a Jew Named Mezz Mezzrow.”
  10. Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool complete album:

Beneath the Underdog

Trigger/content warning: disturbing video imagery, offensive language.

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When I was working on my doctorate and teaching a writing class for music majors, I wanted to assign my students a passage from the great jazz bass player, composer, and bandleader Charles Mingus’s 1971 memoir, Beneath the Underdog. The fiftieth anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High was coming up, and I wanted to talk about Mingus’s famous tune “Fables of Faubus,” from his 1959 album Mingus Ah Um. “Fables of Faubus” is an anti-tribute to Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, who had sent the state National Guard to Little Rock to prevent nine black students from entering the school (Louis Armstrong had called Faubus, in the press, an “uneducated plow boy”).

“Fables of Faubus” begins with a snide, insinuating riff, a sonic reference to Faubus’s destructive bigotry, which nevertheless manages to portray him as weak and ineffective, a cartoon villain. Mingus had written lyrics for the song, but his record label, Columbia, would not let him include them on the recording, so the tune was first recorded as an instrumental number. A year later, however, Mingus re-released the song, with lyrics, on a smaller label as “Original Faubus Fables.”

Note the mocking, satirical call-and-response between Mingus and drummer Dannie Richmond, and the wild, swirling trumpet and saxophone solos (Ted Curson and Eric Dolphy, respectively) in between verses, creating an eerie and malignant atmosphere.

Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em shoot us
Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em stab us
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas
Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em tar and feather us!

[Chorus]
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan
Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie
Governor Faubus!
Why is he so sick and ridiculous?
He won’t permit integrated schools
Then he’s a fool!

Boo! Nazi Fascist supremists!
Boo! Ku Klux Klan (With your Jim Crow plan)

[Chorus]
Name me a handful that’s ridiculous, Dannie Richmond
Bilbo, Thomas, Faubus, Russel, Rockefeller, Byrd, Eisenhower
Why are they so sick and ridiculous?
Two, four, six, eight:
They brainwash and teach you hate

In my writing class, it was hard to find an appropriate passage from Beneath the Underdog to read in class. The book, though it’s written with tremendous energy, is almost indescribably obscene. It’s full of exaggerations and outright lies about Mingus’s sex life, such as his claim that he pimped his wives and girlfriends. As one critic writes:

The book is . . . written in faux-difficult stream of consciousness – many chapters consist of only dialogue between Mingus and musicians, Mingus and pimps, Mingus and psychiatrists or Mingus and women. Who are almost constantly referred to as “bitches.” And ALL (except his stepmother, who he extensively verbally abuses) fuck him.

And this is the reason why the book is awful. Mingus can write BEAUTIFULLY about jazz: about the energy, the freneticism of live performance, about the thrill of composition, the joy of musical development, the excitement of learning, creativity, a shared language of artistic expression… But his autobiography is not about jazz. His musical career seems almost incidental, referred to occasionally . . . The reader learns nothing interesting or new about Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie whoever, other than the fact that they KNEW CHARLES MINGUS. Because this is not a book about jazz. This is a book about the continual, priapic, misogynistic and possibly fictional sex life of the author.

In fact, the only passage in Beneath the Underdog where Mingus bothers to give his music serious mention is near the end of the book, in a scene where he’s just been released from Bellevue and is playing a club date. Mingus uses the foil of a British interviewer coming over to his table between sets, while he’s flirting with the woman who will become his third or fourth wife, to expound for a page or so on his musical philosophy:

“Do excuse me, Mr. Mingus, I can see you’re awfully busy, but may I ask a question or two for my paper? For instance, what do you feel about jazz?”

“Man, just listen, it’s all there.”

“. . . They’d like to know what you think in England, just a few words?”

“Well . . . I can tell you how I feel tonight anyway. Up to now, I don’t think nobody has given nothing important since Bird [Charlie Parker] died except his contemporaries who were overlooked at the time — [Thelonius] Monk, Max [Roach], [Sonny] Rollins, Bud [Powell], others, maybe even me. Bird was playing then what they’re calling avant-garde today — putting major sevenths with minor sevenths, playing a fourth away from the key . . . All this free-form business isn’t new . . . I was doing it and Duke [Ellington] before me and Jelly Roll [Morton] before that. . . 

There was once a word used — swing. Swing went to one direction, it was linear, and everything had to be played with an obvious pulse and that’s very restrictive. But I use the term ‘rotary perception.’ If you get a mental picture of the beat existing with a circle you’re more free to improvise. People used to think the notes had to fall on the center of the beats in the bar at intervals like a metronome . . . That’s like parade music or dance music. But imagine a circle surrounding each beat — each guy can play his notes anywhere in that circle and it gives him a feeling he has more space . . . the original feeling for the beat isn’t changed . . . the pulse is inside you . . . It’s called strolling.”

The interviewer goes on to ask Mingus whether he thinks Englishmen can play jazz. Mingus responds:

If you’re talking about technique, musicianship, I guess the British can be as good as anybody else. But what do they need to play jazz for? It’s the American Negro’s tradition, it’s his music. White people don’t have a right to play it, it’s colored folk music. . . white society has its own traditions, let ’em leave ours to us. You had your Shakespeare and Marx and Freud and Einstein and Jesus Christ and Guy Lombardo but we came up with jazz, and don’t forget it, and all the pop music in the world today is from that primary cause.

In 1966, the filmmaker Thomas Reichmann followed Mingus and his five-year-old daughter through their daily lives as they were about to be evicted from their New York apartment. The film, Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968, intersperses Mingus’s free-form soliloquizing with the scenes of the stress of his domestic situation and shots of live performance.

Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968 from BPows on Vimeo.

Was Mingus a victim of his own genius? Or of the internalization of racism? Did jazz devour its young?

The image Mingus chose for the record cover of Mingus Ah Um is a painting by Japanese-American artist S. Neil Fujita, who, like Mingus, was both a victim and survivor of racism as an internee during World War II. I like to think of his painting as expressive of Mingus’s ideas about rotary perception.

Mood Indigo

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In addition to improvisation, virtuosity, freedom in melodic phrasing, propulsive rhythm, and harmonic complexity, one of the defining characteristic of jazz is the way the standard jazz ensembles — the particular mix of instruments — sound together. This sound is called timbre. The distinctive timbre of early jazz comes from the use of brass instruments like the trumpet, cornet, and trombone. The rhythm was laid down either by an upright bass or by a tuba. The Dixieland ensembles also included clarinet, drums, piano, and banjo or mandolin.

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In the 1920s and 1930s, musically-literate jazz musicians put bands together and wrote out arrangements for them — a separate piece of sheet music, or “part,” for every instrumental section.  These arrangements were made to mimic the sound of Dixieland improvisation, but they were in fact written out.

In this way, composers and bandleaders like Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington created the “big band” sound. Ellington, a classically-trained pianist and composer, was especially interested in the different timbres/sounds he could get from various instrumental sections. For instance, the opening of “Mood Indigo” — a piece that Ellington claims he wrote in 15 minutes while waiting for his mother to finish cooking dinner — features Ellington on piano, followed by a muted trumpet-trombone-saxophone trio and then a clarinet solo, all of which lend different sounds to the piece. Ellington flips the standard practice of instrumental arranging by having the trombone — an instrument with a very low timbre — play high in its register, and the clarinet play in the lowest part of its register.

Notice also that, while the orchestra is playing written-out parts, the clarinetist (Barney Bigard) takes a semi-improvised solo against the muted but lush and complex sonic background. This would become a hallmark of the big band sound.

What do you think the overall atmosphere of the piece is? What did Ellington mean by “Mood Indigo,” and how does he use instruments to convey that?

Lyricist Irving Mills later added lyrics, and the song became a jazz standard.

Bass player Charles Mingus’s arrangement. How is it different from Ellington’s?

Ella Fitzgerald sings it as a contemplative ballad:

Nina Simone plays and sings it as a gospel-inspired up-tempo:

 

The Spread of Jazz

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Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five. Armstrong’s wife, pianist Lil Hardin, is at far right, next to Armstrong.

The rise of recording and broadcasting technologies led to the spread of jazz from New Orleans to the urban centers of the North in the 1920s.

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Panel 1 of The Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), showing Southern blacks boarding trains for the North.

What’s more, the Great Migration — the movement of millions of African-Americans from the rural South (where 90% of black Americans lived prior to 1915) to the urban centers of the North, which lasted roughly from 1916-1970 — further spread the jazz aesthetic. Chicago became a center of black American life following World War I, and an important  location for jazz recording.

In November 1925, trumpeter Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five made their first recordings for Okeh Records in Chicago. Armstrong’s ensemble was made up of New Orleans jazz musicians like himself; Armstrong had come to Chicago to play with Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.

The 1925 recording session resulted in “My Heart” and “Yes! I’m in the Barrel.” You can hear the transformation of Armstrong’s style as a player from his work with King Oliver’s band, where essentially all the musicians “soloed” their improvised melodic lines at the same time. In the Okeh recordings, Armstrong emerges as a soloist who bases his ornate improvisation figures on the harmonic progression of the music.

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Click on the link to view a transcription of Armstrong’s improvised solo on the 1927 recording of “Potato Head Blues.” You can hear his virtuosic improvisational style on the recording, set against the polyphonic sounds of his Hot Seven.

 

 

Origins of Jazz

Content/Trigger warning: Racist imagery and lyrics.

Among the origins of jazz are several overlapping musical genres that were popular at the end of the nineteenth century.

  1. Black musical theater, which, around the turn of the twentieth century, crossed color lines to become popular with white as well as black audiences.

Marti Newland singing “Swing Along,” a song from the musical theater show of the same name, by Will Marion Cook:

The overture to In Dahomey, also by Cook, the first full-length musical written and performed by African-Americans to play in a major Broadway theater (in 1903):

What musical styles do you recognize in these pieces?

2. “Coon songs,” written by both black and white composers, which portrayed black Americans in stereotypical and denigrating ways.

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Even Scott Joplin cashed in on the coon song craze with a song about a free black man in the North thinking fondly about his happy days as a slave in the South:

3. Ragtime, from which jazz got its emphasis on syncopation:

“Down Home Rag” by James Reese Europe, whose ensemble, James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra, were the first black band to receive a recording contract.

4. The rural blues: the semi-improvisatory way that the vocal line wanders freely over the steady rhythm of the guitar:

5. The cultural crossroads that was New Orleans, where the presence of both free and enslaved blacks and French, Spanish, Caribbean, and Creole (mixed French and African ancestry; Creoles were known as gens de couleur) populations created a unique mix of sounds. Jazz was a kind of mash-up of the orally/aurally-transmitted New Orleans black blues tradition with the classically-trained European traditions practiced by Creole musicians.

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Pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton (Ferdinand LeMothe, 1890-1941), one of the most famous and influential of the early Creole jazz musicians.

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Buddy Bolden (1877-1931), a Creole cornet player and bandleader whose skill at improvisation was legendary, and who fused blues, ragtime, gospel, and and marching-band music in his playing. He is credited with leading the first jazz (sometimes spelled “jass”) band in New Orleans.

Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (b. 1961) speaks about Bolden and plays an excerpt from one of his most famous compositions, “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” (originally known as “Funky Butt”).

Nevertheless, the New Orleans band that made the first jazz recordings, The Original Dixieland Jass Band, was all white.

Bandleader and cornetist Nick LaRocca, the son of Sicilian immigrants to New Orleans, went so far as to claim that

Jazz was strictly “white man’s music” and owed nothing to “the Negro race” or anything “coming from the jungles of Africa.” He should have known better.

 

 

 

 

 

Classically Black, part IV: Postmodernism

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When we talk about postmodernism in music, we’re generally referring to the period after World War II. Some of the hallmarks of postmodernism are an experimental approach to form, structure, and instrumental/vocal techniques, a distrust of historically-informed musical styles, and an aesthetic that borrows from and refers to popular music styles. Postmodernist music has taken on many different and sometimes-conflicting forms and philosophical narratives.

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Composer Tania León (b. 1943) draws on her Afro-Cuban heritage and its syncretic music traditions in her art and concert music.

The aria “Oh Yemanya” is from her opera Scourge of Hyancinths, whose libretto she co-authored with the Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka.

León says of this aria:

[Yemanya] is the same deity that my grandmother and my mother — if we were sick, then they would pray to this deity. If I had an exam, if I got to play in front of the public, everything was geared toward — all the sanctity and the blessing of this deity. Then this man has sent me something where this mother is praying to the same deity my family prayed to? This is the piece!

She is currently writing an opera about the Little Rock Nine, with a libretto by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

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León with Soyinka (right) and Gates.

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Anthony Davis (b. 1951) has written several operas, including X, about Malcolm X:

His operas also include Amistad, about the 1839 slave-ship uprising, and The Five, about the Central Park Five.

Is his music syncretic? Does it incorporate styles of black music outside of the classical tradition?

George Walker (1922-2018) and his son Gregory T.S. Walker (b. 1961 and also a composer) talk here about George’s work; Gregory performs his father’s violin piece Bleu:

The complete talk:

Anthony Braxton (b. 1945) incorporates elements of free jazz into his classical compositions: