Saturday, February 4, 2017
Black History Month, Part One
Let's be frank; it's an expression of the institutionalized racism in our society/culture/nation that we have to even have a "Black History Month." Why the need to specify a month for Black history if there isn't the unacknowledged racist assumption that American history is generally White/European? This is made even more galling by the fact that Black men and women have made perhaps the largest and most influential contribution to American culture, especially music, which is the focus of this blog.
So, with that said, I wish to spotlight some of the Black singers, song-writers, musicians and music-critics that have had the biggest influence on my life. Throughout my life, music has had a central place in my development: my thinking, my emotional and intellectual understanding and my survival (not to sound overly dramatic, but following Nietzsche, I truly believe life withouyt music would be impossible).
This week, I'd like to share about those Black musicians who had the earliest impact on me, from when I was a child listening to Billy Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Abby Lincoln, Della Reese and others that my mother listened to.
Sarah Vaughn's nicknames were "Sassy" and "The Divine One" and indeed her voice could be both sassy and divine -- often in the same song. She may have been my mother's favorite singer, but that may have had something to do with the fact that mom actually sounded a bit like Sarah when she sang "Tenderly" (Vaughan was proud of the fact that she was the first to sing this song, making it a jazz classic forever more) or "My Funny Valentine."
The singer who made the biggest impression on me was, no doubt, Billie Holiday. I was entranced the first time I heard "Strange Fruit," and when my mom explained what the song was about, I cried and then got really angry. I was no more than four or five years old and could not begin to grasp how people could hate anyone just because their skin color was different. Today, writing this post, listening to this song, the tears and anger are still fresh. How is it that we're still fighting against such ignorance and hatred?
I could link to every song Billie sang; she made every song hers when she sang, but just check out the sweet-bitter of "The Very Thought of You."
Mom grew up a "jazzbo," hanging out in jazz clubs, dancing and befriending the musicians. The most famous she befriended was Count Basie, and I can remember her telling me about the parties she attended. She would put on some swing records and attempt to teach me how to dance (she had been a dance instructor for Arthur Murray).
Finally, a very early influence on me was the "Duke of Ellington." I loved him and his music. My mom even supported me in staying home from school to honor him at his funeral in 1974. Here's "Satin Doll" and "Mood Indigo." There is no way I can mention the Duke and not share something from Ivy Anderson, perhaps the singer best associated with him. This was a song mom would often sing as well: "I've Got It Bad and That Ain't Good." Just listen to the amazing alto sax work of the incomparable Johnny Hodges. The smooth glissando, a "trademark" technique of Hodges is sensual, sweet and sexy.
These are just some of the Black musicians who made an indelible mark on my 'soul' during my earliest formative years. I owe them a deep debt of gratitude -- as do we all.