Maya Angelou: Phenomenal Woman

May 28, 2014 at 6:56 pm (black culture, civil rights, culture, Jackie Mcdonough, literature, poetry, RIP, song, women)

By Maya Angelou 1928–2014

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Share this text …?

From And Still I Rise, by Maya Angelou ,1978.

Source: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (Random House Inc., 1994)

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What Albert Murray taught us…

September 9, 2013 at 3:11 pm (Anti-Racism, black culture, civil rights, culture, intellectuals, jazz, literature, philosophy, posted by JD, RIP, The blues, United States)

…about jazz and much else…

Above: Murray (left) and friend Ralph Ellison

By Eugene Holley (at npr’s a blog supreme)

An essayist, cultural theorist, novelist, educator and biographer who died on August 18 at 97, Albert Murray spent more than five decades developing his thesis that America is a culturally miscegenated nation. His contention was that blacks are part white, and vice versa: that both races, in spite of slavery and racism, have borrowed from and created each other. In all of his writing, jazz music — derived from the blues idiom of African-Americans — was the soundtrack at the center of his aesthetic conception.

For the Alabama-bred, Tuskegee Institute-educated, New York-based Murray — and his Tuskegee classmate and aesthetic fellow traveler Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man — jazz was “the embodiment of the American experience, the American spirit, the American ideal,” he is quoted as saying in Jazz: A History of America’s Music, the companion book to the PBS documentary series for which he served as commentator and artistic consultant. It was the creation of a sepia panorama of black, brown and beige people, partially descended from Africa but fully Euro-American in outlook, character and aspiration.

“The omni-Americans are the Americans. My conception makes Americans identify with all their ancestors.” —interview in American Heritage, September 1996

To fully understand Albert Murray’s jazz aesthetic, a vital part of the worldview he called “Cosmos Murray,” you have to read his first book, The Omni-Americans (1970). The collection of essays counter-states “the folklore of white supremacy and the fakelore of black pathology” as social-science fictions that dehumanize black people as inferior. “American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite,” he writes.

In The Omni-Americans, Murray critiques black authors Richard Wright and James Baldwin for creating clichéd views of black life; Afrocentric romanticism and the separatist tendencies of Black Nationalism; and well-meaning but paternalizing U.S. inner city social programs. Murray’s answer to such folly is the blues: home-grown black music that acknowledges the “essentially tenuous nature of all human existence … through the full, sharp and inescapable awareness of them.” In the subsequent essay collection The Hero and the Blues (1973), Murray celebrates the bluesman as an epic hero who, in his tragicomic lyricism, confronts the difficulties of life through the creation of a resilient art.

“We invented the blues; Europeans invented psychoanalysis. You invent what you need.” —interview in American Heritage, September 1996

Musically speaking, all this leads up to Stomping the Blues (1976). Beautifully illustrated with vivid period photos, LP covers and broadsides of black jazz icons, Stomping represents the zenith of his writing on the subject. Eschewing a bleak sociological approach for affirmative, literary prose, Murray celebrates jazz as the most advanced and comprehensive blues-derived art form, one which ritualistically provides people with “equipment for living.” The music serves as a “stylistic code for representing the most difficult conditions, but also provides a strategy for living with and triumphing over those conditions with dignity, grace, and elegance.” In other words, one does not kill the blues, but one can, by what he called “the velocity of celebration,” stomp the blues to keep them at bay.

In Stomping, Murray portrays African-American musicians like bandleader Duke Ellington, singers Jimmy Rushing and Ella Fitzgerald, and saxophonists Lester Young and Johnny Hodges as courageous blues stompers. Their artistry is “a synthesis of African and European elements, the product of an African sensibility in an American mainland situation.” Musicologically, Murray also examines jazz in its myriad locales, inventions and dimensions, from New Orleans and Chicago to Kansas City and Harlem, and how it grew from a folk art to a fine art, “stylized into aesthetic statement.”

Murray also co-wrote Good Morning Blues (1985), the intimate autobiography of the pianist and bandleader Count Basie. It covers the halcyon days of Kansas City in the ’30s, where Negro territory bands reigned supreme and where Basie — who hailed from the East Coast — transformed his stride-style piano into the rugged, 4/4 swing that characterized the driving Kansas City sound. The Blue Devils of Nada (1996) features more impassioned essays on Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and his friend, collage artist Romare Bearden. Jazz and the blues also color his quartet of semi-autobiographical novels, starting with Train Whistle Guitar (1974), a coming-of-age chronicle of a boy named Scooter who hails from Alabama, grows up to be a college-educated bassist and leaves home to find fame in Harlem-like Philamayork.

“Jazz is only possible in a culture of freedom.” —from Jazz: A History of America’s Music

Though Murray was not as well-known as his contemporaries Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, his work not only lives on in his books, but also in well-known Murray-ites. Writer and cultural critic Stanley Crouch, whose long-awaited biography of Charlie Parker will be published in September, is a prominent one. Another is Wynton Marsalis, the celebrated musician and artistic and managing director of Jazz at Lincoln Center; the well-known jazz performance venue was largely built on Murray’s philosophical and musicological ethos. “He’s my mentor, but it’s more than that,” Marsalis told Newsweek. “Stomping the Blues had a profound impact on me in terms of understanding the context of the art form and the society.”

In the 21st century, Murray’s omni-American idea — that the U.S. is a composite nation of culturally multiracial people — still deeply resonates in today’s browning, globally connected world. He used jazz to shine a light upon these lesser-seen pockets of American culture — the ones that he believed unite us all.
Guardian obit, here
Fascinating interview with Murray at The Ralph Ellison Project, here

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Civil rights music

August 23, 2013 at 7:55 pm (Anti-Racism, black culture, civil rights, democracy, history, jazz, Jim D, protest, Racism, solidarity, song, Soul, The blues, United States)

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and that “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King, it seems right to bring you some of the music that sustained the civil rights movement in the sixties – and beyond.

This selection is by Nick Morrison of NPR, as are the brief comments:

I Wish I knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free) – Nina Simone

Of the many musicians who used their music to advance the cause of civil rights, Nina Simone was one of the most passionate, most outspoken and most gifted. Although many of her civil rights era songs had their origins earlier in the 20th century, this song was written in 1967 by noted jazz pianist and educator Dr Billy Taylor (along with Dick Dallas), and was recorded by Simone that same year. It quickly became one of the musical mainstays of the movement.

Selma March – Grant Green

The march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., took place in March 1965. Today, some people tend to forget that there were two failed attempts to make the journey earlier that month. The first march ended in bloodshed, while the second was met with a restraining order. That ruling was quickly overturned and, on March 21, Dr King began the historic four-day march. Five months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This jubilant instrumental by jazz guitarist Grant Green seems to reflect the jubilation surrounding the Selma march’s completion. A 1965 recording, it also features Harold Vick (sax), Larry Young (organ), Ben Dixon (drums) and Candido Camero (congas).

We Shall Overcome – Larry Goldings

Many people, when asked to name a song that encapsulates the civil rights movement, will pick “We Shall Overcome.” It was, indeed, the movement’s theme song, sung by countless people all over the world. That’s how we often think of the song: large groups of people gathered together, singing it as they struggle against mighty odds. Pianist Larry Goldings, however, gives us a different view of this classic. Accompanied only by trumpeter (actually, he’s on cornet – JD) John Sneider, Goldings turns “We Shall Overcome” into a wistful, intimate and moving meditation.

This Little Light of Mine – Sam Cooke

Folklorist and activist Zilphia Horton did a wonderful thing when she introduced this children’s gospel song to the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Vocalist Sam Cooke did something equally wonderful, and much more amazing. He took this song that people were singing at sit-ins and marches and brought it into America’s toniest nightclubs, putting the music of The Movement in front of an audience that probably didn’t spend much time at sit-ins and marches. Cooke performed this joyful and uplifting version of “the Little Light Of Mine” in 1964 in New York’s Copacabana.

Lift Every Voice And Sing – Hank Crawford and Jimmy McGriff

Picture of Hank Crawford & Jimmy McGriff

[No Youtube clip available, so click here]

In 1919, this song (by James and John Johnson) was adopted by the NAACP as “The Negro National Anthem.” Its resonance in the civil rights movement is indisputable and, like all of the songs in this brief overview, it remains an incredibly moving piece of music today. This soulful instrumental version by alto saxophonist Hank Crawford, with his long-time musical partner and organist Jimmy McGriff, is one of the best. Prepare to be taken to the river.

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Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland

June 25, 2013 at 2:22 pm (black culture, culture, Jim D, music, RIP, song, Soul, The blues)

 Bobby Bland (Robert Calvin Brooks), blues and soul singer, born 27 January 1930; died 23 June 2013

Above: ‘Stormy Monday’ (1962) with Wayne Bennett on guitar

Tony Russell writes (in the Graun):

Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, who has died aged 83, was among the great storytellers of blues and soul music. In songs such as I Pity the Fool, Cry Cry Cry and Who Will the Next Fool Be, he created tempestuous arias of love, betrayal and resignation, set against roiling, dramatic orchestrations, and left the listener drained but awed.

It was a skill that came gradually. His husky voice was gorgeous from the start, but as a young man he followed BB King – for a while literally, as his valet and chauffeur – and his singing took on a special character only after he began to study the recorded sermons of the Detroit preacher CL Franklin, Aretha’s father. “That’s where I got my squall from,” he recalled. That alchemy of blues and gospel cadences would create one of the most affecting voices in black music

Read the rest, here

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Remembering CLR James

March 26, 2013 at 11:46 am (black culture, history, intellectuals, internationalism, liberation, London, Marxism, socialism, solidarity, trotskyism)

From the CLR James Legacy Project:


The CLR James Legacy Project will be hosting our first conference in London on Saturday April 13 and we would love to see you there. The event will be preceded the evening before with the CLR James Annual Lecture (‘The Importance of the Black Vote’) at the Dalston CLR James Library. Details of this and other CLR James-related events, here.

As ever, please get in touch if you have articles/news for our website or want to offer your services to keep the legacy of CLR James thriving. We are at present working on very limited resources – both human and financial – so could do with the active help of supporters. Please email if you feel you can help.

The Life & Legacy of CLR James – London Legacy Conference

Saturday April 13 11am-6pm

Venue: WEA, 96-100 Clifton Street EC2A 4TP

This free conference is organised by the CLR James Legacy Project in partnership with the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA).

The conference will involve a day of discussions, workshops and performance around CLR James’ life and his relevance today. Confirmed speakers include Darcus Howe (broadcaster, writer and activist), Mike Dibb (film maker) and Selwyn Cudjoe (Wellesley College and co-editor of ‘CLR James: His Intellectual Legacies’). There will also be contributions from Ngoma Bishop (BEMA) and Andrea Enisuoh (Hackney Unites) who led the campaign to keep the name of CLR James on the Dalston Library when the local council threatened to drop it. Friends and comrades of CLR will also be presenting and contributing to the discussions on the day.

Bookings: click here

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Louis Armstrong’s greetings to the Irish

March 17, 2013 at 4:49 pm (black culture, comedy, culture, good people, humanism, internationalism, Ireland, jazz, Jim D, multiculturalism, music, surrealism)

On St Patrick’s Day, we bring you perhaps the most bizarre lyric ever sung by Louis Armstrong: “I was born in Ireland (Ha, Ha)”…

Louis Armstrong And His Hot Five, November 1926: Irish Black Bottom

Louis’s tireless biographer Ricky Riccardi writes:

Admittedly, this is not songwriting as its finest but as a novelty, it’s good fun. The “black bottom” was a popular dance of the 1920s so this tune humorously pretends that it’s also taken Ireland by storm.  If Louis had to record something so silly in the 1950s, critics would scream at the producers for forcing it on him.  But “Irish Black Bottom” was written by the aforementioned Percy Venable so more than likely, it was a staple of Louis’s act at the Sunset.  And can’t you imagine Louis bringing down the house with that vocal?  That “ha, ha” he gives after singing “And I was born in Ireland,” breaks me up every time.  I can only imagine what it did to the audiences who heard him do it live. 

The song begins with the funny sound of Louis and his Hot Five swinging through a sample of the Irish classic “Where the River Shannon Flows” before Louis swings out with the main melody, which is predominantly in a minor mode until the end. Louis’s lead sounds great and Dodds is bouncing around as usual but trombonist Hy Clark, a substitute for Kid Ory, sounds hesitant and doesn’t add much.  After a chorus and an interlude by pianist Lil Armstrong, Louis takes the vocal.  If you can’t make it out, here’s what he says:

All you heard for years in Ireland,
was the “Wearin’ Of The Green”,
but the biggest change that’s come in Ireland
I have ever seen.
All the laddies and the cooies
laid aside their Irish reels,
and I was born in Ireland
(Ha, Ha), so imagine how I feels.

Now Ireland’s gone Black Bottom crazy,
see them dance,
you ought to see them dance.
Folks supposed to be related, even dance,
I mean they dance.
They play that strain,
works right on their brain.
Now it goes Black Bottom,
a new rhythm’s drivin’ the folks insane.
I hand you no Blarney, when I say
that song really goes,
and they put it over with a wow,
I mean now.
All over Ireland
you can see the people dancin’ it,
’cause Ireland’s gone Black Bottom crazy now

I don’t know how you can’t get swept up in that offering. Armstrong doesn’t so much sing it as shout it, or talk it, but his spirit sure gets the message across (though sometimes, he’s so far from the written melody, it sounds like he’s singing a different song on top of Lil’s chording on the piano). After the vocal, Clark and Dodds take forgettable short solos and breaks before Louis carries the troops home with brio.  Louis’s lip trill towards the end is particularly violent and right before his closing breaks, he dips into his bag for a favorite phrases, one that ended both “You’re Next” and “Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa.”  The concluding break is so perfect in its phrasing and choice of notes that I believe it might have already been set in stone by Pops during his live performances of the tune at the Sunset.  Either way, that’s no reason to criticize him; it’s a perfect ending and puts an emphatic stamp on a very entertaining record.

That’s all for now. Have a happy St. Patrick’s day and don’t forget to mix in a little Louis with your Guiness.  I hand you no blarney, it’s a great combination…

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Duke Ellington in London, 1933

February 4, 2013 at 8:29 pm (BBC, black culture, celebrity, history, jazz, Jim D, London, Monarchy, music, strange situations)

Tonight’s opening episode (9pm, BBC 2) of Stephen Poliakoff’s Dancing On The Edge promises to usher in a great series, with a cast including John Goodman, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jacqueline Bissett. Apparently, it’s about the tribulations of a black jazz band feted by the upper class in 1933 London and very loosely “inspired” by what happened to the Duke Ellington band when they visited Britain that year.

Here’s what the Duke himself (always rather impressed by royalty and the the British upper classes) wrote about that visit in his book Music is My Mistress (published in the UK in 1974):

We were absolutely amazed at how well informed people were in Britain about us and our records. They had magazines and reviews far ahead  of what we had here and everywhere we went we were confronted with facts we had forgotten and questions we couldn’t always answer. Nevertheless, the esteem our music was held in was very gratifying. A broadcast we did for the BBC provoked a lot of comment, most of it favourable. Constant Lambert, the most distinguished British composer of that period, had written an appeciation of our early records years before.

Lord Beaverbrook, who owned one of the most important London newspapers, threw a big party to which the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Kent were invited. We were invited too and Jack Hylton’s Empress Club band played until we got through at the Palladium. It was all very colourful and splendid. Members of the nobility, Members of Parliament and delegates to the imperial conferences, all in informal dress, mingled happily. There was a generous buffet and the champagne flowed freely.

Prince George, the Duke of Kent, requested ‘Swampy River’, a piano solo I had a hard time remembering, but I was flattered, especially to have him leaning over the piano as I played it.

Later, the Prince of Wales had some kind words to say to us. When he suggested we had a drink together I was surprised to find he was drinking gin. I had always thought gin as rather a low kind of drink, but from that time on I decided it was rather grand. He liked to play drums, so he paid Sonny Greer a lot of attention, too. This is how Sonny remembers the evening:

‘As soon as we got the band set up, the Prince of Wales came over and sat down beside me Indian fashion. He said he knew how to play drums, so I said “Go ahead!” he played a simple Charleston beat, and he stayed right by me and the drums throughout most of the evening. People kept coming up and calling him “Your Highness” but he wouldn’t move. We both began to get high on whatever it was we were drinking. He was calling me “Sonny” and I was calling him “The Wale”.’

I think the Prince of Wales really did like us, because he came to hear us again at Liverpool, when he was up in that area for the races at Aintree. He was loved by the day people and the night people, rich and poor, the celebrities and the nonentities. He was truly the Billy Strayhorn of the Crown princes.

Here’s the band slightly earlier (1930, to be precise), playing ‘Old Man Blues’:

Incidentally, does anyone recognise the chord sequence?

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Frank Newton: Eric Hobsbawm’s favourite jazz musician?

October 4, 2012 at 11:11 pm (black culture, Civil liberties, good people, history, intellectuals, jazz, Jim D, Marxism, music, politics, socialism, stalinism)

The late Eric Hobsbawm wrote about Jazz under the name ‘Francis Newton.’ The use of a pseudonym may have been because he wished to keep his academic work separate from his jazz criticism, and may also have been to do with the Communist Party’s hostility towards jazz in the 1940s and ’50s. But in any case, the choice of that particular name cannot have been a co-incidence: Frank (sometimes “Frankie”) Newton was a fine but neglected black US trumpet player of the 1930’s and 40’s, who was unusual amongst professional jazz musicians of that generation in being politically active. Newton was at the very least, a ‘fellow-traveller’ of the US Communist Party, and was probably a member. The occasion of Hobsbawm’s death seems an appropriate moment to remind (actually, to tell) the world about Frank Newton.

Frankie Newton, Sidney Bechet June8, 1939

Little has been written about Newton over the years (though Michael Steinman at Jazz Lives and Ben Greenberg at Hungry Blues have posted about him), so I’m re-publishing below, a slightly edited and amended version of the late Sally-Ann Worsfold‘s booklet-notes for the Jasmine double-CD set ‘Frank Newton – The Story Of A Forgotten Jazz Trumpeter’:

“Frank Newton had a special sound…he always believed in giving the people something different,” the trombonist Dicky Wells once observed. Jazz historian Al Rose described Newton as “… an exciting, inventive trumpet player.” Despite such acclaim, the career of  one of jazz trumpet’s most individualistic, dynamic stylists has been consigned largely to the footnotes and margins of the music’s history.

During his relatively short life (he died aged 48 in 1954) in a chequered career dogged by frequent bouts of ill health, Frank Newton still managed to record some 150 titles, fifty of which appear on the Jasmine double CD set. He often played in very disinguished company, something which makes his lack of proper recognition all the more puzzling. On various recordings he is to be heard performing alongside Sidney Bechet (see photo above), Pete Brown, Don Byas, Bud Freeman, J.C. Higginbotham, Dicky Wells, James P. Johnson, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith and Teddy Wilson. He accompanied singers Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Maxine Sullivan.

The details of the trumpeter’s early life are very sparse, although it is known he was born in Emory, Virginia, in January 1906 and was christened William Frank Newton. Early professional musical experience included a spell with local band-leader Clarence Paige, then soon after leaving his home state, Newton joined an outfit lead by banjoist/guitarist Elmer Snowden. The trumpeter then joined the Cincinnati based Cecil Scott’s Bright Boys and, during the course of an engagement at New York’s presigious Savoy Ballroom in 1929, made his recording debut with them (‘Bright Boy Blues’).

Bill Coleman was the outfit’s principle trumpet soloist, but Newton held his own with what would become his trademarks: a burnished tone and an audacious bravado in the upper register, combined with a powerfully expressive, blues drenched approach. He could always create the maximum impact with just a few well chosen, judiciously placed notes.

The trombonist in the Scott band, Dicky Wells, another great jazz individualist who later came to prominence with the Count Basie Orchestra of the late 1930’s, remained a friend and occasional colleague of Newton’s over the years. After leaving Scott, they worked together in Charlie Johnson’s Orchestra at Small’s Paradise, a noted Harlem night-spot. From this point, the trumpeter’s career details are hazy, although it is known he had begun broadcasting regularly in in 1932 with the pianist Garland Wilson on the New York radio station WVED. He also participated on a Benny Carter recording session that year.

One year then elapsed before Newton returned to the recording studio in November 1933. The wealthy, influential jazz enterpreneur John Hammond, a great champion of the trumpeter’s work, selected him to play alongside the tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, trombonist Jack Teagarden and clarinettist Benny Goodman, to accompany the great Bessie Smith on what proved to be her final recording session, producing ‘Gimme A Pigfoot’ and ‘Take Me For A Buggy Ride.’

Ill health put Newton’s career on hold for a couple of years at this point, but in March 1936 he returned to the studios as part of a fine band organized by clarinettist Mezz Mezzrow, recording material intended for the jukebox. Newton provides many of the high spots of the session, notably his contribution to ‘The Panic Is On’ where his playing is forward-looking and boppish.

The trumpeter was reunited with his old friend Dicky Wells when he joined the Teddy Hill Orchestra in the spring of 1936, playing some challenging charts with distinctly “modern” overtones. Newton’s work on the band’s records shows him to be a commanding big-band lead without sounding either superficial over over the top.

But fate, it seemed, had decreed Newton to be one of jazz’s ‘nearly’ men: once again incapacity stymied his career. On  leaving the Teddy Hill Orchestra, he was succeeded by Dizzy Gillespie for whom the Hill band was, of course, the springboard to fame and fortune. The band also toured Europe where many of its members made recordings (in Paris) that established them as household names amongst European fans: but that was after Newton had departed.

Newton also appeared with the Charlie Barnett Orchestra spasmodically between 1935 and 1937. His presence as an Afican-American in this otherwise white aggregation drew far less attention than Benny Goodman’s employment of pianist Teddy Wilson, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and guitarist Charlie Christian in various permutations of his small groups. Nevertheless, A souvenir of the trumpeter’s tenure with Barnet is the dazzling record of ‘Emperor Jones.’

In 1937 Newton worked regularly with various small groups in Harlem, often recording with other advanced swing players like altoist Pete Brown, pianist Don Frye and clarinettist Edmond Hall. He also accompanied the vocalist Maxine Sullivan on her big hit ‘Loch Lamond.’ Maxine was married to bassist John Kirby and Newton was a founder member of his highly influential and increasingly popular sextet. But just as the John Kirby Sextet had begun to establish itself as a major 52nd Street attraction at the Onyx Club, a severe back injury forced Newton to quit. With its new trumpet player, Charlie Shavers, the Kirby outfit enjoyed widespread success. Newton’s bad luck had stuck again.

Newton was largely out of action for over a year, but he did manage to participate in a short-lived, racially integrated fifteen-piece band known as the Disciples of Swing, organised by Mezz Mezzrow. In addition to Newton, the brass section boasted fellow trumpeters Sidney de Paris and Max Kaminsky, and trombonists George Lugg and Vernon Brown. The new band was launched at the Harlem Uproar House, a prestigious 52nd Street venue but a racist attack on the premises (the joint was smashed up and daubed with swastikas), combined with bad management and legal wrangles, put paid to a promising and exciting band.

The French jazz writer Hughes Panassie arrived in New York in late 1938 to organise some recording sessions for Victor. For some reason he appointed the eccentric Mezz Mezzrow to round up the musicians. Having recorded some New Orleans-born musicians like Sidney Bechet and the trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, Panassie selected Newton to lead a pick-up group of swing style musicians. Apart from Mezzrow the others included Newton’s long-term associate, the altoist Pete Brown, pianist James P. Johnson and guitarist Al Casey.

The six titles, originally released on the Victor subsidiary Bluebird, combined jazz-friendly standards with originals. All the participants are captured on top form, most especially Newton. His performances on this session cover all facets of his style, from his fiery, trenchent open horn on the up-tempos to his sometimes almost introspective, always lyrical muted vein. Few have equalled his melodic eloquence and profoundly moving blues expression on ‘Blues My Baby Gave To Me’, with its brief nod to the ballad ‘Willow Weep For Me.‘ His exuberant, assertive presence on ‘Rompin’ inspires the others to even greater heights. Even Mezz, not always the sharpest jazz tool in the shed, picks up the momentum to produce one of his better solos.

Newton’s luck seemed to be changing when two exciting opportunities arose simultaneously in the spring of 1939, both of which promised to bring him the acclaim his talent deserved. In early April that year he first recorded for the fledgling Blue Note record company, newly established by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolf as a ‘pure’ jazz operation and already showing every sign of becoming a highly prestigeous label . The other break was perhaps the most important of his career. A former show salesman, Barney Josephson, invited Newton to form a band to launch a new venue, Cafe Society. The club boasted a radical policy: it welcomed both white and African-American patrons. That the place was not tucked away in some obscure backwater but was out and proud in the heart of New York spoke volumes. The trumpeter readily agreed to come onboard and selected altoist Tab Smith, pianist Kenny Kersey and tenorist Kenneth Hollon for the band. Although officially called ‘Frank Newton and His Cafe Society Orchestra’, the club’s handbills described him as “Trumpet tootin’ Frankie Newton” and the name Frankie seemed to stick even though he always referred to himself as Frank. Again, the music (judging by the records) was hard-swinging and forward-looking, with Kenny Kersey using dissonant harmonies of the kind later to be associated with Thelonious Monk and Newton himself frequently using boppish phrasing.

Primarily devoted to presenting jazz artists, Cafe Society became a forum to promote left-wing ideals. The choice of Frank Newton to lead the house band was no accident: rare among jazz musicians of his generation, Newton took an active interest in politics and was a committed left winger and Civil Rights campaigner. An impassioned, eloquent spokesman for his beliefs, he loved to engage in debate. A philosopher with an interest in the arts generally, he was also, by all accounts, a talented painter. According to jazz historian Al Rose, Newton’s closest friends were the authors William Sarayon and Henry Miller, who were his near neighbours in Greenwich Village, New York’s ‘bohemian’ quarter.

The Newton band proved versatile in supporting various singers at Cafe Society. Billie Holiday was the first headline act, and contemporary recordings (principally for Milt Gabler’s Commodore label) illustrate how beautifully her voice was complemented by the Newton group. One of these sides, ‘Strange Fruit,’ proved to be a significant landmark in Lady Day’s career. Originally a poem written by Lewis Allen, then set to music, the song was brought to Billie’s attention at Cafe Society, conceivably by Frank Newton himself. An anti-lynching protest song, it was unlike anything Billie had recorded before. Initially wary of the contoversy it might cause, Billie then realised its sentiments should be widely heard.

On a darkened stage, with just her face bathed in a potlight, Billie began to perform ‘Strange Fruit’ as her closing number each night at Cafe Society – to have followed it up with a ballad or lightweight love song would have been incongruous. Billie wanted to record it but her label, American Columbia, refused. Columbia did, however, permit her to record it for the small Commodore label. The recording adheres to her stage presentation: Newton’s sombre, stark introduction gives way to the plaintively sparse piano chords from Sonny White, the singer’s regular accompanist. Billie then occupies centre stage to deliver her message without any further instrumental breaks or vocal reprise. The number remained in her repertoire for the rest of her life.

Newton’s associations with both Blue Note and Cafe Society were abruptly ended after just four months, probably because of his recurring health problems. By 1940, sufficiently recuperated, he formed a band with old friend Pete Brown at the New York club Kelly’s Stables. He also worked briefly with Sidney Bechet at Camp Unity in New York State, a holiday resort devoted to promoting racial harmony. Later, Newton moved to Boston where he worked in a band with another old sidekick, Ed Hall.

Five years after his last Blue Note recording, Newton returned to the studios – Savoy, this time – with an all-star band including Teddy Wilson, Red Norvo and Don Byas in 1944. Newton was, as usual on recordings, in excellent form, but the records did little to rescue him from obscurity.

There were to be just a handful more recordings added to Newton’s discography, including some with pianist Mary Lou Williams and a date featuring singer Albinia Jones on which he was teamed with Dizzy Gillespie. In addition to failing health, a fire at Newton’s home in 1948 claimed all his possessions, including his trumpet. Sick, disenchanted and dispirited, he made his final appearance at New York’s Stuyvesant Casino in the early 1950’s.

Frank Newton died aged 48 in November 1954. Despite prolonged ill health and many bad breaks, Frank Newton firmly secured his place in the pantheon of great jazz trumpeters.

Sally-Ann Worsfold, August 2002 (adapted/edited by Jim Denham).

See also:

‘The Elusive Frank Newton’ – Jazz Lives:

‘Frankie Newton’ – Hungry Blues:

Jasmine Records double CD, ‘Frank Newton – The Story of A Forgotten Jazz Trumpeter’:

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Chick Webb: support this film

August 19, 2012 at 12:06 am (Anti-Racism, black culture, cinema, Disability, good people, history, humanism, jazz, Jim D, music, United States)


The ever-excellent Michael Steinman, over at Jazz Lives, writes:

We have all seen our share of documentaries, perhaps beginning in elementary school. The least successful are tedious although well-meaning, taking us year-by-year, serving up moral lessons. Although they strive to inform and move us, often they are unsatisfying and undramatic in their desire to present us with facts.

Jeff Kaufman’s brilliant feature-length portrait is a soaring antidote to every earnest, plodding, didactic documentary. It is full of feeling, insightful without being over-emphatic. It tells several stories in affecting, subtle ways.

Chick Webb was a great musician — a drummer other drummers still talk about with awe and love. He guided and lovingly protected the teenaged Ella Fitzgerald, helping her grow into a mature artist. Crippled from childhood — he would never grow taller than 4′; he was in constant pain; he died shortly after turning thirty — he was fiercely ambitious and ultimately triumphant in ways he did not live to see.

But this is far more than the story of one small yet great-hearted man. It is much larger than the chronicle of one jazz musician. It is the story of how Webb’s love, tenacity, and courage changed the world. That sounds hyperbolic, and I do not think that any American history textbook has yet made space for the little king from Baltimore, who deserves his place alongside Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson. This film will go a long way towards correcting that omission. For Chick, tiny yet regal behind his drum set, helped create an environment where Black and White could forget those superficial differences and become equal in the blare of the music, the thrill of the dance.

Without Webb, would there have been a Savoy Ballroom where American men and women could have forgotten the bigotry so prevalent, lost in the joy of swing? I like to imagine someone, trained into attitudes of racism from birth, hearing HARLEM CONGO on the radio and feeling transformed as if by a bolt of lightning, not caring that the players were not Caucasian, making the shift in his / her thinking from cruel derision to admiration and love. How many people moved to an acceptance of racial equality because they were humming Ella’s recording of A TISKET, A TASKET? We will never know . . . but just as the sun (in the fable) encouraged the stubborn man to shed his heavy coat where the cold wind failed, I believe that jazz and swing did more than has ever been acknowledged to make White and Black see themselves as one.

And the film documents just how aware Webb was of the reforming power of his music. The idea of him as a subtle crusader for love, acceptance, and fairness is not something imposed on him by an ideologically-minded filmmaker: it is all there in the newspaper clippings and the words he spoke.

Here is Candace Brown’s superb essay on the film — with video clips from the film.

I must move from the larger story to a few smaller ones. Put bluntly, I think filmmaker Kaufman is a wonder-worker, his talents quiet but compelling — rather like the person in the tale who makes a delicious soup starting with only a stone. It took six years and a great deal of effort to make this film, and the result is gratifying throughout.

Making a documentary in this century about someone who died in 1939 has its own built-in difficulties. For one thing, the subject is no longer around to narrate, to sit still for hours of questions. And many of the subject’s friends and family are also gone. Chick Webb was a public figure, to be sure, but he wasn’t someone well-documented by sound film. Although his 1929 band can be heard in the rather lopsided film short AFTER SEBEN, the director of that film cut Chick out of the final product because he thought the little man looked too odd.

I don’t think so.

But back to Kaufman’s problem. Although there are many recordings of Chick’s band in the studios and even a radio broadcast or two, other figures of that period left behind more visual evidence: think of the photogenic / charismatic Ellington, Goodman, Louis. Of Webb and his band in their prime, the film footage extant lasts four seconds.

So Kaufman had to be ingenious. And he has been, far beyond even my hopes.

The film is a beautifully-crafted tapestry of sight and sound, avoiding the usual overexposed bits of stock film and (dare I say it) the expected talking heads, droning into the camera. The living people Kaufman has found to speak with love of Chick Webb are all singular: jazz musicians Roy Haynes (swaggering in his cowboy hat), Joe Wilder (a courtly knight without armor), Dr. Richard Gale (son of Moe, who ran the Savoy), dancers Frankie Manning and Norma Miller . . . their affection and enthusiasm lifts up every scene.

And Kaufman has made a virtue of necessity with an even more brilliant leap. Webb wasn’t quoted often, but his utterances were memorable — rather like rimshots. Ella, Gene Krupa, Ellington, Basie, Helen and Stanley Dance, Artie Shaw, Mezz Mezzrow, and twenty others have their words come to life — not because a serious dull voiceover reads them to us, but because Kaufman has arranged for some of the most famous people in the world to read a few passages. Do the names Bill Cosby and Janet Jackson suggest how seriously other people took this project?

THE SAVOY KING is a work of art and an act of love, and it deserves to be seen — not just by “jazz lovers” or “people who remember the Big Band Era.”

It has been selected to be shown at the 50th annual New York Film Festival, tentatively on September 29, which in itself is a great honor.

That’s the beautiful part. Now here comes four bars of gritty reality. In the ideal world, no one would ever have to ask for money, and a major studio would already have done a beautiful job of exploring Chick Webb’s heroism, generosity, and music by now. But it hasn’t happened, and we know what results when the stories we love go Hollywood.

Filmmaker Kaufman is looking for funding through INDIEGOGO to arrange a “proper launch” for this film — the goal being $5000 to cover the extra work of our PR team (media, publicity, sales, etc), and other key expenses that will help lead to a commercial release. All levels of support (ideally $75 and up) will make a real difference. Here is the link.

Think of a world made better by swing.

See and support this film.

May your happiness increase.

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Etta James 1938 – 2012

January 20, 2012 at 8:59 pm (black culture, jazz, Jim D, music, song, Soul, The blues)

Though her life had its share of troubles to the end — her husband and sons were locked in a long-running battle over control of her estate, which was resolved in her husband’s favor only weeks before her death — Ms. James said she wanted her music to transcend unhappiness rather than reflect it.       

“A lot of people think the blues is depressing,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1992, “but that’s not the blues I’m singing. When I’m singing blues, I’m singing life. People that can’t stand to listen to the blues, they’ve got to be phonies” – from the New York Times  obituary

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