"New Orleans had a great tradition of celebration. Opera, military marching bands, folk music, the blues, different types of church music, ragtime, echoes of traditional African drumming, and all of the dance styles that went with this music could be heard and seen throughout the city. When all of these kinds of music blended into one, jazz was born." —Wynton Marsalis
When coming over to America we had to change a lot of things (Badu live C.D.), so eloquently put, a lot of things were taken away from us; our language, our family, our entire culture, what we have here in America is our own new creation. They were met with resistance. Although death seemed to had been our fate, the millions that died along the Ivory Coast, the ten million in the Congo, the fifteen million along the middle passage, the million that died at the hands of slave masters and mistress, the thousands that were lynched in the Americas our souls still sung, we still produced art, our feet made music and language, our minds did improve; although some of us fled and flew death did not take us all and certainly they could not take or kill the negro spirit. Out of the sun baked bellies and sun baked minds probably fresh with the negro spirituals from our faith services and the folktales and stories the oral tradition in the fields of Mississippi, the blues was born. It may have been the men of blues that brought it out of the fields but it was the women of blues that grace it first on albums and were the main attraction on the minstrel circuit. Over across in Louisiana the Negros, mulattos, quadroons had another kind of song pumping in their veins and it was as much improv as trained notes. These are our music, our creation birth of and from the children of the Diaspora.
When visiting the “Scholarly Perspectives” Drawing Exhibition at the Brown and Juanita C. Ford Gallery at Wayne County Community College District’s Downriver Campus (encourage to participate by my Professor of Performing Arts Professor L. Davis) I was totally blown away at the talents of Patricia Candor, Gil Ashby, Chuck Gillies and Clifford Harris. It is Artist Clifford Harris pieces that I experience with Professor Davis that spark this paper. I believe these five images of great Jazz and Blues Artist were the smallest pieces in the exhibit, yet they were my favorite, done in black and white (chalk I believe) strong. The five greats were Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr., Billie Holiday and John Coltrane. Even on canvas these great artists captivated me, Harris caught the essence of them in performance Duke blowing his horn, Sammy in a “Bo jangles” pose. Ella standing strong looking powerful, John “cool” kicked back with his horn and Lady Day glowin’ one of the women of the blues.
Although jazz was Billie Holiday’s staple, her life and her achingly-painful voice made it (her songs), her music the blues to me (check out Buzzy Jackson’s book Bad Women Feeling Good on the Women of the Blues). Billie Holiday story has been told over and a movies starring Diana Ross still to this day is one of my favorites Lady Sings the Blues, tells her story. Going up in Baltimore 1920 were she sung along with Bessie Smith albums as her form of training, she eventually moved to New York to meet up with her mother and became swept-up in the jazz scene of New York. In the 1930s mind you there were still limits to what a negro/black person was allowed to do. This is still in America Jim Crow, Civil Rights, still a lot of civil unrest Billie put her all into the songs she sung and like a lot of our performers of the time especially jazz musicians, Billie became “a part of the club”, I believe it was John Coltrane who said that back in those times the 30s- 60s, that you weren’t a part of the club in jazz unless you were doing heroin. Heroin was so easily available to our Jazz musician and our people, there are reports of Hoover and his lynch men providing it, flooding our neighborhoods with heroin. There was a F.B.I. agent who had bragged about supplying heroin personally to Billie Holiday. About the same thing happen during the Black Power Movement sparked by the assignation of Malcolm X, the F. B. I. was able to penetrate the black community with heroin, giving some black men the opportunity to make some money for themselves. Although a lot of our greats fell victim to this, it never stopped them completely of achieving. Billie Holiday was the first black woman to work with a white orchestra, she was also somewhat of an activist in putting her own spin on a poem about lynching. I am leaving Billie with two of my favorite quotes from her; "Sometimes it's worse to win a fight than to lose." And "Somebody once said we never know what is enough until we know what's more than enough." However Billie Holiday did or whomever she was she still today is and has been one of the most influential black woman performers of all time and in the top ten of best women of rock, jazz, blues and performers of all time and that got to mean something.
“My goal is to live the truly religious life, and express it in my music. If you live it, when you play there’s no problem because the music in part of the whole thing. To be a musician is really something, it goes very, very deep. My music is the spiritual expression of what I am – my faith, my knowledge, my being.” John Coltrane. My first known introduction to Coltrane’s music was through Spike Lee’s movie “Mo Better Blues” which also happens to be one of my favorites as well. The music in that movie was dope so I search for the cd and did a little research and that was it, I started listening to Coltrane and then Miles and Monk, I was already listening to Billie but Coltrane opened-up the world of Jazz to me I started looking into the lives of jazz musicians and when I found Nina Simone, it was over I was/am a fan for live. On John Coltrane web site his biography starts, “Merely mention the name John Coltrane and you’re likely to evoke a deeply emotional, often spiritual response from even the most casual jazz fan” and that is so true Coltrane, Miles and Monk music takes you to an entirely different level. Coltrane came from a musical family, his father played different instruments, Coltrane himself played different instrument but fell in love with the saxophone.
Coltrane was influenced by Lester Young and Charlie (Bird) Parker, which he said “the first time I saw Bird play it hit me right between the eyes”, Coltrane also introduced another top performer Eric Dolphy. I again listen to Coltrane with my class at WC3D, in Introduction to African American Art, where Professor M. Chapman played Love Supreme for the class, Coltrane thanks Davis for his improve and free music and it was after playing with Miles that Coltrane dominated the scene. Several years back I went to a concert at University of Michigan where I saw Alice and Ravi Coltrane perform together (John Coltrane’s second wife a pianist and his son a sax player) and the love that was in the audience was just amazing the performance was amazing, they did a couple of Coltrane songs and the silence in that hall, the concentration of the crowd was thick, it was a wonderful and classical evening. Coltrane was in the forefront for changing or creating a new form of jazz, his quick finger plays called “sheets of sound” shown in songs like “Giant Steps”, but interesting enough the other of my personal John Coltrane favorites was in the movie Love Jones and he was accompanied or joined Duke Ellington and the piece is named “In A Sentimental Mood”.
Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald were before my time (I mean really before my time), he played with Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and he did several duets’ with Ella Fitzgerald. What I mainly remember or knew of Duke Ellington was he and his group “The Washingtonians” was the house band for the famous Cotton Club, were all the performers were black, all having to enter through the back door and none were allowed in as a patron. There he played with some of his idols such as: Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Eubie Blakes. Before the Cotton Club Ellington played at a club in the Bahamas and there he played for entertainers such as Sidney Poiter and Harry Belafonte. Wynton Marsalis says it best when he said, “The combination of African, Spanish, and native cultures in Latin America created a unique body of music and dance. Jazz musicians from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington to Dizzy Gillespie combined their music with this Latin sound to create a powerful blend. In the 1940s and 50s, when musicians from Cuba began to play with jazz musicians in New York, the circle was complete. By combining the musical traditions of North, South, and Central America, Latin jazz celebrates our musical differences and helps us to find a common ground.” It was said that Duke Ellington brought this level of sophistication to jazz that had never been seen before. Again to have such a style and grace in the face of racism that performers had to face, was simply amazing. Duke Ellington was one of the first Jazz musicians to span decades, change in eras and still be amongst the popular and famous performers. Ellington consider himself to be a composer and arranger rather than a musician and he held all his band members up to a certain esteem, her fired a band member for being an alcoholic, he ran a clean tight show and most of his members were members up until either they died and/or he passed away and even after Ellington’s death his son took over the reign and most of the members stayed (the ones that were still alive). Another experience with myself and Ellington was through musicals which he played in like “Black n’ Tan” sort-of like “Ma’Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Stormy Weather”. Ellington played with some many diverse musicians; he played with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. He sat in with both Louis Armstrong All- Stars and John Coltrane Quartet and had a double big-band date with Count Bassie. He was around for a long time in the Jazz world and managed to stay away from being in the club staying true to himself.
Ella Fitzgerald, “The First Lady of Song” was known for her voice a vocal range spanning three octaves, this statutes figure was one of the first to bring “scatting” into a “horn-like" improvisational ability. My introduction to Ella other than music played around my home and grandmother’s home was again through a movie, “The Cotton Club” where Lynette McGee sung her song “Ill Winds” at a point in the movie when the Dutch was fighting with Madame Queen over the Harlem numbers racket and the song just fit. Will Friedwald, said “Unlike any other singer you could name, Fitzgerald has the most amazing asset in the very sound of her voice: it's easily one of the most beautiful and sonically perfect sounds known to man. Even if she couldn't do anything with it, the instrument that Fitzgerald starts with is dulcet and pure and breathtakingly beautiful. Even with all the pure and sweetness Ella wasn’t without her experiences with racism, on the touring circuit it was well-known that Ella's manager felt very strongly about civil rights and required equal treatment for his musicians, regardless of their color. Norman refused to accept any type of discrimination at hotels, restaurants or concert halls, even when they traveled to the Deep South. Once, while in Dallas touring for the Philharmonic, a police squad irritated by Norman's principles barged backstage to hassle the performers. They came into Ella's dressing room, where band members Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jacquet were shooting dice, and arrested everyone. "They took us down," Ella later recalled, "and then when we got there, they had the nerve to ask for an autograph"(official website).
In the mid-1950s, Fitzgerald became the first African-American to perform at the Mocambo, after Marilyn Monroe had lobbied the owner for the booking. What impressed me the most about Ella Fitzgerald was her over coming her shyness to perform on stage and overcoming the obstacles of mother dying, then being abused by her step-father and aunt, she got in trouble with the law and put in orphanages and boarding school she escaped and was alone and homeless during the great depression and she went to the famous Apollo theatre to do a dance in what would be equal to their “Amateur Night” and at the last minute performed a song that put the theatre on its feet! The two Ella quotes I’m ending with are "I sing like I feel." And "I stole everything I ever heard, but mostly I stole from the horns" (Her scats) creative and original.
The final artist from Clifford Harris collection is Sammy Davis Jr. and I saved Sammy for last because as with the other performers all faced some form of racism and hardship but Sammy Davis Jr. was one of the only ones to totally sacrifice himself so that other will be able to do what it is they do and not have to suffer as much as he had. Other than Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr. was the most recognizable figure of them all. I grew up watching him on T.V. special and when going to harmonica practice with my grandfather the men would show us shows with Sammy Davis Jr. Tap dancing and form of dance I fell in love with, and I loved to see men do it, back then I thought tap dancing was only for men. Again in later years I saw Sammy in movies with Gregory Hines and he always blew me away. Sammy was a true performer he performed for everybody and was a part of Frank Sinatra’s “Rat Pack”. Sammy life was filled with the evil beast “racism” and he took the abuse, he fought back and he kept moving. This was in part because Sammy’s father was a traveling dancer with his brother and when Sammy’s mother and father separated his father took him on the rode with, even making him a part of the group, but one important thing or big mistake was that his father shielded him from racism and he goes on to say "Overnight the world looked different. It wasn't one color any more. I could see the protection I'd gotten all my life from my father and Will. I appreciated their loving hope that I'd never need to know about prejudice and hate, but they were wrong. It was as if I'd walked through a swinging door for eighteen years, a door which they had always secretly held open. My talent was the weapon, the power, the way for me to fight. It was the one way I might hope to affect a man's thinking," And it was that kind of thinking that took Davis over and through all the up close and personal racism. When traveling and performing with his friends, the rest of the Rat Pack he couldn’t sleep in the same hotels, or dine or eat, he didn’t even have a dressing room at times, but the show must go on, and by his performances a person couldn’t tell the inner turmoil that he had to have been going through.
Sammy was the first to exchange a kiss with a white woman on national TV, he was the first African American to be invited to sleep in the White House. He married a white woman and was snub from the Kennedy’s so he changed his political party and endorsed Hoover which he took a lot of flak for from the Black community. And after a time he went back to the Democratic Party endorsing Jesse Jackson for President of the United States. Davis drunk and smoke a lot of times during his performances. In which he succumbed to throat cancer and On May 18, 1990, two days after Davis' death, the neon lights of the Las Vegas strip were darkened for ten minutes, as a tribute to him.
It never fails to surprise me when I see or hear the stories of our forefathers and mothers, what they went through, the entire above Artist was likely around for blackface, for lynching, civil disobedience, riots, marches, and speeches. Davis with others eventual fight back places that wouldn’t allow or give fare treatment to and they refused to perform at those places. Today the treatment is almost there, were performers are treated the same no matter their color. Times has advance us somewhat A black woman won an Oscar for lead actress and a black man won for lead actor, the U.S. has a Black President. These artists Billie, Coltrane, Duke, Ella and especially Sammy paved the way for so many artists and Clifford Harris honors them well.