In recounting the first time I heard Erykah Badu, I wish I could say that “it was a stormy night. You know the kind where the lightning strikes? And I was hanging out with some of my artsy friends.” but unfortunately, that was not the case at all. I was at home in bed recovering from a terrible car accident that totaled my car after broadsiding a telephone pole. My neck felt as if someone had attached a bag of 100 pound bricks to it. I had never been in that much pain in my life. Regardless, I decided that if I was going to be in that room for however long, I needed to start cleaning it up. Somehow I managed to roll my way out of bed to make it towards the television to turn on Video Soul for some background noise.
Erykah Badu was the featured live performance guest on Video Soul that afternoon. Now technically, this isn’t the first time I had seen Erykah Badu. I remember being in a rush and seeing her video for “On and On” and thinking about how clever the Color Purple theme was. Still, I hadn’t quite heard her yet, if you know what I mean. As I watched her perform on Video Soul, I could not get over how mesmerizing she was. First of all, that was the very first time I had ever seen incense burned on BET. She had turned that studio into her living room, weaving stories and melodies through her music and inviting us all into her world of Baduizm. I was converted quickly. In fact, I got up, cut up my favorite fabric and made my very first headwrap that day!
I don’t think we had seen anyone like before her debut album Baduizm, which turns 20 years old this month.Sure her voice is sometimes reminiscent of Billie Holiday, her style can be as daring as Grace Jones and her lyrics can be as honest and socially relevant as Nina Simone. But, she is truly an original. Baduizm catapulted her into the ranks right alongside these consummate artists who used their art to convey messages and tell stories that are heartfelt and relatable to so many of us. Ranging from the what ifs of a love interest (“Next Lifetime”) to the contradictions and complications that can hamper relationships (“Sometimes”), Baduizm would become the first of the many masterpieces in her catalog.
If ever asked why I’ve been a consistent fan of Erykah Badu’s since that first performance I saw on Video Soul, I’d have to say this: There’s something both majestic and yet very familiar about her all at the same time- like an around the way unicorn (what, you don’t have unicorns around your way?). It’s like you “know” her because she’s your auntie in your head who tells you to pull it together (“Bag Lady”) but you couldn’t possibly know her because you have never been to her New Amerykah. She’s celestial and yet down to earth (“Me”). She knows your secrets and sings your tears (“Green Eyes”) and she’s a “Q.U.E.E.N.” in a seven dollar dress (“Cleva”). Most of all, she is a torch bearer in keeping the authenticity and artistry alive and well within Africa n American music. Here’s to twenty years of Baduizm. May the cypher forever keep rolling like a rolling stone.
Check out my absolute favorite Erykah Badu (AKA Lowdown Loretta Brown) songs on this month’s Spotify playlist.
I wasn’t around for the rock ‘n roll British invasion of the sixties but I sure do remember the impact that British acts had in the eighties. The Police, Culture Club, and Duran Duran, were as much a part of American culture as their American born and bred counterparts. It was during this time that MTV actually stood for Music Television back then (and not Miscellaneous Television as it unofficially does now) so there was music 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The popularity of this round the clock music channel birthed video shows like Music Jukebox, Night Tracks, and even locally produced video shows right after Saturday morning cartoons. It was on one of those local Saturday morning shows that I first saw George Michael in his group Wham! with their video “Bad Boys”, the second single off of their first album Fantastic.
I loved George Michael’s voice upon the very first note. I vividly remember having to do chores but standing in the entrance way of our family room waiting for the video to end. I was instantly drawn in by the soulfulness of his voice. Wham! looked so tough to me in their leather jackets yet they were model type pretty (don’t laugh at me, I was in the fifth grade.) I soon found out that my neighbor across the street had Fantastic on cassette so I borrowed it and wore it out for about a week after school every day. It was sugary pop goodness straight from the UK and I loved it. Yes,even the songs like “Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do?)” where George Michael was rapping (again, I was in the fifth grade.I didn’t know any better). Gratefully, George Michael recognized that he was a much above average singer and didn’t attempt to rap much after that first album.
Fast forward sometime later, I’m watching Solid Gold with my parents (boy am I really dating myself with this one), and Wham! reappears with their first video off of their second album Make It Big, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” They shed the bad boy image of tight jeans and leather jackets for neon clothes and beachwear. I was confused a bit but I liked it. It was so…happy! Much like a lot of Wham! songs, it had that infectious bop reminiscent of sixties music and Motown’s popular uptempos. And there was that voice I fell in love with upon the first note who could sing just about anything.
The album title Make It Big was indeed a self prophecy because it was this album that put George Michael and Andrew Ridgley’s group Wham! on the map. The album went multi-platinum and had three huge crossover singles: “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go”, “Everything She Wants”, and the classic ballad “Careless Whisper” which was written by Michael and Ridgeley when they were just seventeen years old.
Wham! would go on to put out two more records before George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley would part ways. Andrew Ridgeley went on to pursue endeavors outside of the music industry while George Michael reinvented himself into becoming one of the biggest successes in pop and R&B music. I really don’t think there are too many debut albums from a newly solo artist that have made a more long lasting impact than George Michael’s debut solo album Faith has. Wham!’s success was nothing to scoff at but Faith is what launched George Michael into the stratosphere of iconic pop stars with major hits including “Faith”, “Father Figure”, and “One More Try”.
We live in an era now where there is a lot of talk about white artists and cultural appropriation. While George Michael did raise a few eyebrows when he won Favorite R&B Male Artist and Favorite R&B Album at the American Music Awards in 1989, he never seemed any less than authentic. He had a respect for soul music and its architects that was very evident not just in his original music and covers of R&B classics but also in his collaborations. During the course of his career, he created duets with some of soul music’s greatest artists such as Ray Charles, Mary J. Blige, Whitney Houston, and Aretha Franklin.
I am not quite sure how the impact of the huge success of Faith affected George Michael. All I know is that when he returned with his album Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1, he seemed to want to make it abundantly clear that he would not be bullied by the industry to compromise his art for the sake of image. In the video for the second single “Freedom ‘90”, he was nowhere to be found. His lyrics declaring his freedom from the box that fame sometimes puts one in were lip synced by top supermodels. The most notable items from his “Faith” video, his leather jacket, a jukebox, and acoustic guitar, were all destroyed in various scenes throughout the video. It was as if to say that he was no longer interested in being forever tied to an image of himself that he was most recognized for. He could have tried to rehash the success of Faith over and over again but he refused. From then on he took charge of his own evolution as every artist should. I have tremendous respect for him for that.
George Michael should go down in history as one of the most talented singers and songwriters in popular music, regardless of any pitfalls that have marked his legacy. It’s unfortunate that in this day and age when a celebrity passes that they are sometimes viewed as being only as great as their last hit or only as relevant as their last scandal. Those of us that have been longtime George Michael fans aren’t mourning the loss of a star from the 80’s. We are mourning the loss of a consummate performer whose musical influence has and always will stand the test of time.
For more on George Michael and his influence on African American music, check out his page on NMAAM’s Rivers of Rhythm digital exhibit here.
And then check out this month’s Spotify playlist featuring my favorite songs and collaborations by George Michael.
Black music has been a cornerstone of American life since before this country was founded.
In just a short while, music lovers around the world will get to explore the many ways in which African Americans contributed to our country’s rich musical history. Opening in 2019, the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) is designed to encourage visitors to discover the many connections and influences music creators have had on all genres of music from classical to country to jazz to hip hop.
What’s the best part?
The exploration and discovery will take place in a beautiful, 56,000 square foot facility set in the heart of Music City. NMAAM will be an anchor tenant within the new Fifth + Broad development in downtown Nashville. I am fortunate to have managed the construction process up to this point, and I’ll continue to do so until completion. I’ll be there with everyone else who is invested in this process to celebrate when the Museum opens its doors.
The National Museum of African American Music is designed to invite and inspire visitors to learn more about how music legends of the past influenced today’s megastars. The state-of-the-art facility is to boast interactive galleries and integrated technology to showcase how Black people have inspired people around the world as it relates to creating and performing music.
Over the past several months, I’ve met many people who have been anticipating the museum’s opening. Many have asked about the grand opening date. Some have inquired about its location. And all have learned more about the dynamic programs and events NMAAM offers ahead of moving into its physical space. Throughout all of the interactions, one thing is clear: everyone is excited to have a national museum of this caliber set in Nashville.
These are exciting times, indeed.
This museum is the only one of its kind. It will be the best place to experience American music through the filtered lens of how African Americans influenced it. As a native Nashvillian, it is energizing to see so many people rallying around such a worthy cause.
I am honored to be a part of this process, and I cannot wait for all to experience what is in store for the National Museum of African American Music.
In 1984, breakdancing was all the rage. (If you missed out on this period of parachute pants, neon clothes and glow in the dark bracelets, I feel sorry for you. Maybe these things will make their way back around again). At the height of this craze, a movie called Breakin’ came out about three street dancers in California. I was obsessed with this movie when I was a kid. So when Chaka Khan’s video for “I Feel for You” came out featuring dancers from the movie, I was glued to the screen. I had no idea this was a Prince cover, or a cover at all for that matter, because it sounded so current: Turntable scratching, synthesizers and of course Melle Mel’s voice going “Chaka Khan? Chaka Khan, Chaka Khan?” (Fun fact: That’s Stevie Wonder on harmonica.) I also didn’t put two and two together that this Chaka Khan was also “Sweet Thing” Chaka Khan.
Charge it to my youth but for some reason I had a really hard time distinguishing R&B legends that made huge comebacks in the 80’s when I was a kid. “Ain’t That Peculiar” Marvin Gaye and the man who sang that song I was too young to know the words to, “Sexual Healing” Marvin Gaye”? Two different people. It just took a while for my adolescent mind to connect the dots. Although I grew up watching Soul Train, there was something about music videos that reintroduced a lot of the artists my parents enjoyed to me. Now of course I was familiar with Chaka Khan’s earlier hits. My parents raised my right. But to me, this was a new Chaka Khan. This was MY Chaka Khan.
Once I was able to connect the dots, it was clear. My favorite new song was by THE Chaka Khan; the same Chaka Khan that began her career around the mid 70’s with the band Rufus. Together they created some of the greatest songs in history with hits like “Tell Me Something Good”, “Do You Love What You Feel?” and of course the classic ballad with notes we’ve all strained to hit, “Sweet Thing”. With Chaka setting fireworks to every song with her explosive vocals, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan racked up five gold and platinum albums and two Grammys.
The hits didn’t stop when Chaka went solo in 1978. Her solo career brought us classics like “I’m Every Woman” and “Papillon”. The legendary Miles Davis often said that she sang like his horn so it’s no surprise that Chaka later ventured into jazz. She released Echoes of an Era, an album of jazz standards in 1982.
In the 90’s she came out with the Grammy award winning The Woman I Am which featured the single “Love You All My Lifetime” and not to mention, one of my favorite all time album covers. Studio albums, Come Into My House, which was produced by longtime friend Prince for Paisley Park, and another album of jazz standards, ClassiKhan, followed.
In 2008, she officially had hits spread out over four decades when she returned with yet another Grammy award winning album Funk This, produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The album features collaborations Michael McDonald (“You Belong to Me”) and Mary J. Blige on “Disrespectful” which also won a Grammy.
Chaka Khan is an international musical treasure and icon that continues to blow audiences away with her immense talent. While her influence on countless singers is absolutely undeniable, one thing is for sure: “ain’t nobody” like Chaka.
Also, check out one of the most difficult playlists I have ever had to narrow down, this month’s “The First Time I Heard” featuring my favorite Chaka Khan songs. I even threw a Christmas song in there for you all. Happy Holidays!
British composer and musician Rod Temperton, passed away last month at age 66 in London. He was the first songwriter I knew by name that wasn’t also an artist during my childhood. This is because I was absolutely obsessed with liner notes as a kid. I spent countless Saturday afternoons, pouring over Michael Jackson and George Benson records recognizing his name on my most favorite songs. Now of course I knew Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Ashford and Simpson. But this Rod Temperton guy? I couldn’t put a face or a voice with this name and I’m willing to bet you couldn’t either. His ability to keep his personal life out of the limelight is what made Rod Temperton known as “The Invisible Man” throughout the music world.
Rod Temperton had one of the most understated personas for someone with such a vast and important body of work. His catalog boasts some of the greatest songs of our time ranging from the funkiest of jams like The Brothers Johnson’s “Stomp” to sensuous love ballads like Patti Austin and James Ingram’s “Baby Come to Me”. He began his career as a songwriter and keyboardist in Heatwave and wrote their biggest hits including “Groove Line”, “Boogie Nights” and the romantic classic “Always and Forever”.
It was while playing in Heatwave that he caught the attention of Quincy Jones who enlisted him to work on his album The Dude and Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall. After churning out hits like “Rock With You” and “Off the Wall” for Jackson, Jones also had him contribute to what is arguably the best pop album of all time, Thriller. Temperton wrote the title hit song “Thriller” along with “Baby Be Mine” (my personal favorite) and the album’s closing song “Lady In My Life”.
Although he is best known for his work with Michael Jackson, Temperton also worked with greats like Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock and Rufus featuring Chaka Khan. His extensive discography even includes movie soundtracks like Michael McDonald’s “Sweet Freedom” for the movie Running Scared and “Miss Celie’s Blues” for The Color Purple movie soundtrack.
I never knew as a child that one day my love for music history would one day bring me opportunities to interview some of the greatest composers of our time. Unfortunately, I will never get the chance to thank Rod Temperton for his contributions and talk to him about his love of music. I’m saddened that we weren’t able to honor him in the way that he deserved but I definitely respect him for living his life the way he chose: As The Invisible Man who let his music speak for itself; and it will, always and forever.
Check out my favorite Rod Temperton jams on my Spotify playlist .
Early to mid-80’s and the late 90’s are the eras in R&B that are dearest to my heart. There are two producers in those eras who are responsible for that: J Dilla, who I credit for one of the main reasons I love the late 90’s and Kashif for when it comes to my love for the early to mid-80’s. I truly believe that they are similar; mostly due to the fact that while both outstanding artists in their own right, they are two of the most innovative producers of our time who defined their respective eras. Both of these producers’ influences are so far reaching that it’s difficult to think of what R&B was like in my generation before they were on the scene.
To this day whenever I hear Kashif I am immediately put in the mindset of a Saturday afternoon in the early 80’s. That’s because when I was a kid, it really wasn’t difficult to get me to do chores as long as the radio was on. Whether I was doing chores or grocery shopping with my parents, the Kashif sound was everywhere and I knew it even before I knew who he was. To me he is The Master of the Smooth Up-tempo.
Hits like his solo single “I Just Gotta Have You” or his hits for George Benson (“Inside Love”) and Michael Johnson (“So Fine), just have this groove that is funky enough to make you want to dance but smooth enough to make you want to take a long drive on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Kashif’s music wasn’t just the sound of R&B in the 80’s. It set the mood for that era. He was a virtuoso when it came to the synthesizer keyboard and synth bass, which made his sound so distinct. I may not have known the man responsible for my favorite grooves at that time but I sure knew his sound.
Kashif started his musical career at just 15 years old when he joined the funk band BT Express. Later on as a producer, he added his magical touch to a number of artists such as Evelyn “Champagne” King (“Love Come Down”, “I’m In Love”) and Melis’a Morgan and Dionne Warwick who he had duets with on “Love Changes” and “Reservations for Two” respectably. Arguably most notably, Kashif is responsible for introducing the world to a young Whitney Houston with the song he originally penned for Roberta Flack, “You Give Good Love’.
Kashif also produced other songs off of her multi-platinum debut album Whitney Houston including my personal favorite “Thinking About You”. On the jazz side, he also collaborated with Al Jarreau and helped launch the career of saxophonist Kenny G.
It is with great sadness that I report that on September 25, 2016 Kashif unexpectedly passed away in his home in California. It is reported that he was producing a 10-part series documentary entitled “The History of R&B Music and Its Influence on World Culture”. I sincerely hope that this project gets finished and distributed because our culture needs the knowledge and passion that this man had for the genre he helped create.
Check out my Spotify playlist of my favorite songs written and produced by the legendary Kashif:
“For some who don’t understand our purpose and may not understand our praise, we as a family in Jesus’ name would like to tell you the reason why we sing…” ~ “Why We Sing”
– Kirk Franklin and The Family
From what I’ve heard (and because I’m completely biased towards the East Coast, will believe to be true), it was Philadelphia urban mainstream radio station WDAS-FM that broke Kirk Franklin and The Family’s “Why We Sing”. I remember how this song just skyrocketed of nowhere and was soon being played at all times of the day on urban mainstream radio. And by all times, I mean ALL TIMES: morning, rush hour, and even during The Quiet Storm right between Silk’s “Freak Me” and The Isley Brothers “Between the Sheets” (I’d imagine that could kill a mood but hey, I’m no radio programmer so…). This mega-hit off of Kirk Franklin and The Family’s debut album paved the way for Kirk Franklin’s music becoming a permanent fixture in almost every black church choirs’ setlist. From children’s choirs to senior choirs across the country, there was simply no escaping Kirk Franklin’s influence on gospel music in the early 90’s.
But come the late 90’s, Franklin’s music became revolutionized.
I remember sitting in a hip-hop themed restaurant in Philadelphia when Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation “Revolution” video came on the screen. I stopped eating midway only to hear the person at the table in front of me say “Oh I’m not ready for this.” I couldn’t understand why really. Not too long before that we were all head bopping along to other videos that had similar formulas in the 90’s: Hype Williams directed videos with rappers in puffy jackets, and choreography we could all get down with. The only thing that was different about what Kirk was doing was the message. I guess not everyone was certain that they were ready for a revolution but I knew I was. I decided against raising my fist in solidarity in the middle of the restaurant, went back to eating my food, and then later bought the album.
To this day, I can never quite wrap my mind around some of the backlash Kirk Franklin has received from venturing into less traditional gospel music. It makes complete sense if you know anything about his background. Here is a self-proclaimed church boy from Fort Worth, Texas who grew up in the hip-hop generation. He’s a choir director but he is also a B-Boy. So yes, he’s going to take you to church one minute and then he’s going to Milly Rock the next, perhaps all in the same song. While some who hold onto more traditional gospel may have seen his revolution as rebellion, I see the way his music has evolved as a natural progression for almost any musician who grew up during that time. Don’t get it twisted: while his explosive energy on stage has deemed him the reputation of being gospel music’s greatest hype man, Kirk Franklin is without a doubt one of the most underrated musical arrangers and songwriters of our time.
I feel like nothing has displayed that more in his career than when he released the critically acclaimed Grammy award-winning album “Hero”. “Hero” to me has always been the bow wrapped around the artistry that we get from Kirk Franklin. It made a statement for what kind of artist I think he truly is: musically adept (“Hero” featuring Dorinda Clark Cole), socially conscious (“Why” featuring Stevie Wonder), and transparently poetic (“Imagine Me”). In albums to follow he’s gone from doing a song or two “for the young people” on his albums, to making music that is simply relevant and honest.
This is why, to the dismay of some, he is able to be in arenas and mainstream situations that many aren’t welcomed into, such as Saturday Night Live with Kanye West or The Breakfast Club with Charlemagne. The revolution in gospel music that Kirk Franklin declared in the nineties was not just a musical one. It has been a revolution that has brought the message of gospel music to audiences that may have never set foot in a church where his more traditional songs can still be heard every Sunday. While his music has evolved, as it should with any musician, the reason why he gets us all to sing has never changed.
For more on Kirk Franklin and his impact on African American music, check out the Rivers of Rhythm website, a new collaboration between NMAAM and Belmont University, here. This website is a sneak peek into future digital exhibits that will be in the Museum, connecting the legacies of African American artists to almost every genre of American music. Type in the name of any artists to find out more about them, their musical influences and how they are impacting music today.
Here’s this month’s The First Time I Heard Spotify playlist featuring some of Toya’s favorite Kirk Franklin songs:
THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSIC WELCOMED HONOREES, ARTISTS AND MUSIC INDUSTRY TO THE INAUGURAL CELEBRATE THE SOUL: BLACK MUSIC HONORS
New Event Honored Music Legends in Music City Through Tribute and Song
Nashville, Tenn. (August 23, 2016) – The National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) was pleased to celebrate six acclaimed honorees and a foundational music label on August 18, 2016. Celebrate the Soul: Black Music Honors, NMAAM’s first branded show of this caliber, was a television taping co-hosted by GRAMMY® award winner, Malcolm-Jamal Warner and GRAMMY® nominated R&B Singer, Ledisi.
This star-studded celebration honored the following music legends:
• Pastor Shirley Caesar
• Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis
• Big Daddy Kane
• Dionne Warwick
• Clarence Avant
• Stax Records
The night was filled with live, tribute performances featuring GRAMMY® winning recording artists Eddie Levert, Tina Campbell, Ann Nesby, Deborah Cox, and Andra Day as well as Chubb Rock, Cherelle, Gerald Alston and Stokley Williams. Legendary, GRAMMY® winning groups, The Temptations Review featuring Dennis Edwards and The SOS Band also performed. Presenters included Kirk Franklin, “Big Jim” Wright, Monie Love, Kathy Sledge, Ethiopia Habtemariam and H. Beecher Hicks, III (president and CEO of NMAAM), along with several others.
Black Music Honors will air in Nashville, on WTVF-NewsChannel 5 on Sunday, September 4, 2016 at 3:00pm (CST). The show will premiere nationally on the Bounce TV Network, Friday, September 23, 2016 at 9:00pm (EST) and will re-air on Sunday, September 25, 2016 at 11:00am (EST). The show will run in syndication on Bounce and Aspire between September 23 – October 9, 2016.
About the National Museum of African American Music
As the only museum dedicated to all dimensions of African American music, The National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM), opening in 2018, will showcase over 50 music genres created or impacted by African Americans, honor the legacy and legends of this diverse music and detail the impact music has on musicians and consumers around the world. NMAAM will draw upon a range of music and history enthusiasts to explore and celebrate American music and will tell a story never before told, until now.
“It’s ’88, time to set it straight, you know what I’m sayin’? It ain’t no half steppin’…”
In 1988, Big Daddy Kane finessed his way into the golden era of hip-hop with his debut classic album Long Live the Kane. From his early beginnings as a member of the legendary Juice Crew, Kane commanded attention like a vet in such a way that when I first saw his first video for “Ain’t No Half Steppin’”, I thought that perhaps he had been around for a minute and I was just late. 1988 was the year I really started paying attention to hip-hop. It has often been argued as being hip-hop’s best year and it’s a legitimate argument. Also dropping that year were classic albums by EMPD, Public Enemy, NWA, and MC Lyte. It was also the year that a brand new show called Yo! MTV Raps would take the world by storm and turn artists who were only seeing success underground into household names.
Big Daddy Kane (also known as Dark Gable as he goes by on Twitter), has always been one of the slickest emcees on the mic. However he’s never been too slick to the point where his flow doesn’t hit you right between the eyes. A “Smooth Operator” one minute but completely “Raw” the next, Kane hit a sweet spot pretty early in his career that doesn’t happen too easily: The fellas wanted to be like him and the ladies wanted to be with him. The fellas emulated his style by rocking high top fades and cuts in their eyebrows while trying to emulate his rapid-fire lyricism in songs like “Set It Off” and “Raw”. The women (and girls like me with posters of him in their school lockers) swooned over him when he showed his romantic Casanova side in songs like “Smooth Operator” and “I Get the Job Done”. And who can forget those dance routines he rocked with the best backup dancers ever in the game, Scoob and Scrap Lover holding him down in videos like “Lean On Me”?
Kane has always been and still is to this very day, the consummate entertainer. I should know. While ’88 was a very good year in hip hop, there are only a handful of artists from the Golden Era that have been able to still draw audiences and rock crowds with just as much energy as back in the day. Big Daddy Kane still wows his fans with the same rapid wordplay, grown man swag, and hi-energy dance moves that have made so many of us love him from the jump. He has influenced pretty much every emcee in the game like Common, Jay-Z, and too many others to name. He’s the standard for staying true to his craft, a true living legend, and in almost 30 years, has often been imitated but never, ever duplicated. Long Live the Kane indeed.
The global acceptance of African American music from classical music to popular music represents a historical journey full of challenges, adversity and political influence. Despite the impressive number of European composers that embraced Afro-American materials, many people still felt that Afro-American music, like its creators, was inferior, imitative and hardly a starting point for any art-music work.
The history of adverse race relations and hostility towards black music and black culture represents a journey that can be traced back to the beginning of the United States of America. The American founding father who was called the “Apostle of Americanism” wrote these persuasive words:
“[Negroes] astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never saw even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears fortune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved. Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar ostium of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion, indeed has produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.(Thomas Jefferson: “On Negro Ability.” In The Writings of Thomas Jefferson [ed. H. A. Washington]. Washington, D.C., 1854, pp. 380-87.)
It is important to note that while Jefferson was in France, he would witness black achievement in the arts that the American slavery institution could not produce. Jefferson witnessed the superstar black violinist, composer and conductor, Chevalier de Saint Georges, who was the musical director of the leading concert orchestra in Paris and he also attended the Paris, debut concert of the young black violin virtuoso, George Bridgetower. Jefferson would later amend his thoughts on black achievement in the arts with thoughts about the mix raced nature of the Negro genius he witnessed in France.”
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
In his 1782 book, Notes on Virginia, Jefferson made numerous observations about differences he saw or suspected in the Negro race, to the extent they were less endowed than the white race. He isn’t retracting that position now 27 years later, but he is open to that possibility. He states:
1. More than anyone else, he would be pleased to be proven wrong.
2. His observations were limited to his personal experience and only in his native state.
3. Blacks’ opportunities for education and expression in Virginia “were not favorable.”
4. He expressed those 1782 views “with great hesitation.”
5. They still possessed their measure of human rights regardless of their human talents.
6. Other nations were growing in their awareness of those rights.
7. Blacks were making “hopeful advances” toward “equal footing with the other colors of the human family.”
8. Gratitude to this letter’s recipient for:
a. the many opportunities given Jefferson to reconsider his earlier, limited opinions.
b. “hastening the day of their [blacks’] relief.”
Jefferson was always a product of the 18th century South. You can pluck some statements from his writings to make him look completely racist. Others could portray him as a near abolitionist. The issue is complicated, and the truth is between those extremes. In his autobiography, Colin Powell called Jefferson “an uneasy slaveholder.” I think that’s the best and most succinct description I’ve heard.
Are you eager to be proven wrong?
Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to the Negroes by nature, and to find that in this respect they are on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable, and those of exercising it still less so. I expressed them, therefore, with great hesitation; but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others. On this subject they are gaining daily in the opinions of nations, and hopeful advances are making towards their reestablishment on an equal footing with the other colors of the human family. I pray you, therefore, to accept my thanks for the many instances you have enabled me to observe of respectable intelligence in that race of men, which cannot fail to have effect in hastening the day of their relief.
Thomas Jefferson was indeed an “Apostle of Americanism” and his ideas represented a prevailing inferiority consensus about the true nature and value of black people so that before 1900 only a very few American composers sought to use any black American music sources. The most notable composer to do so was Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who successfully used Negro folk music almost fifty years before Antonin Dvorák issued his manifesto about the central importance of Negro melodies for classical music.
It was not until after the turn of the century that significant ideas to incorporate Black American folk materials into art music would resurface. This idea again became acceptable for respectable composers in the United States only after its legitimization by the European taste and acceptance of Black American music and culture.
During the 1920’s & despite all opposition, European composers continued their enduring love affair with Black American music from negro melodies and negro spirituals to the blues and jazz and a more sophisticated, symphonic jazz style began to emerge—
The emergence of the “symphonic jazz” movement celebrated American composers such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and George Gershwin and reflected the enduring love affair between European classical music and American Jazz. In Europe, this style of composition became known as a “symphonic jazz” and the European Composers embracing this new sound were called “Jazz Symphonists.”
The Symphonic jazz movement was a continuation of the “New World Symphonists” use of black music and seemed to point to a bright new future of jazz influenced classical music… but people had different views on the matter: There were influential tastemakers who were horrified by the mixture of jazz and symphonic concert music and for them, this new jazz mixture represented a fatal blow to taste and high culture.
There were differences of opinion regarding the true jazz or the symphonic crossover. The polished trend of symphonic jazz, established a degree of esteem and respect for black music yet some, preferred the original sound of the authentic jazz. Many resented the dismissive stance that the symphonic style held for the original African-American features which were the roots of jazz. At the same time, many European composers recognized the only jazz music of technical importance in that small African American section of it that was genuinely negro music.
Many European composers felt that Americans were too “Jeffersonian” in their views about black culture and felt that Americans took their own true American music for granted. By being foreigners, these composers felt that Europe gave them the necessary aesthetic distance to embrace Black American music. The book “New World Symphonies” by Jack Sullivan on page 225 states a European composers view that…”The Americans seem to live too near Tin Pan Alley & they suffer from the immense disadvantage of being on the spot.”
Many European composers were not fully satisfied with Gershwin’s American use of black music and considered it “sophisticated trappings” …. and described it as “the hybrid child of a hybrid…ashamed of its parents and/while boasting of its French lessons.”
The book New World Symphonies states that some European “Jazz Symphonist” composers felt that “the hot negro records still have a genuine and not merely galvanic energy, while the blues have a certain austerity that places them far above the sweet nothings of George Gershwin.” Even though many composers allied themselves with the anti-Gershwin crowd, many Europeans including such unlikely composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, celebrated Gershwin’s genius.
While debates continued over the variety of contributions in the symphonic jazz movement –
The European composer Kurt Weill was happily obsessed with the darker, sexy and more dangerous aspects of jazz. He utilized sultry saxophone and percussion and slinky seductiveness in his compositions such as “The Bilbao Song” and “Surabaya-Johnny.” He composed a sexually provocative “commercial love” duet in “Mahagonny.”
Despite racial difficulties and differences of opinions, composers such as Ravel and Lambert insisted that jazz and symphonic jazz was destined to be an important wave of the future, that would endure the collapse of music into noise theories— the formula driven theories of serialism and backwards looking antique thinking of neoclassicism. For them, jazz held a bold future with rich and divergent sources of emotional resonance much broader than the rigid rules that regulated serialism or the antique romanticism of neoclassicism.
Jazz with its new rhythmic sophistication provided a new basis for the creative explorations of concert composers more so than any other folk music since the dances that inspired Bach, Mozart and Dvorak. Jazz represented an internationally comprehensible language that captured the spirit of the age and Ellington and other black artists surpassed the commercialized Tin Pan Alley jazz caricatures and became the main international inspirations
Black music and culture has outlived American slavery and racism & surpassed the low expectations of Thomas Jefferson, to become a national light house & source of inspiration, that guides a global audience to the sound of America.
In my next blog, I will continue (part 2 of my last 4 blogs) wrapping up my Classical music & Black History series.
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