Monday Morning Post–Epilogue

It is good to occasionally take stock of where we have been so that we can better understand where we are (musically speaking) and where we are going; and we have just finished an entire week of major posts about the effect of African-American music on Broadway. So, what did we learn? Let me start with an example of what does not have staying power as a musical form.

Let’s take a brief look at British Ballads and Broadsides, an early form of folk music that had its day and then fell into an historical niche. Every now and then someone remembers an old tune like Barbara Allen; but, for the most part, no one remembers this music.

Compare this old English folk music to early African-American laments that eventually took on an advanced musical form as the blues. English folk music is a relic of the past; the blues are very much alive, although not as popular as 100 years ago.

Or take the magical combination of marching band music and syncopation in ragtime music. Practitioners (piano players) will tell you about the physical pain inflicted trying to play this kind of music; but it has never died and sometimes returns in new orchestrations that simply overwhelm us with its beauty, such as the soundtrack for the movie, The Sting.

As ragtime music became less popular, piano players such as James Johnson and Willie “the Lion” Smith moved on from ragtime to stride piano.

Minstrel music came and went, but Paul Robeson’s recording of “Gone Are the Days” will live forever.

Spirituals and then gospel music came from the same race but sprang up in their churches and expressed the type of uplifting hope that comes only from an unfettered soul. In many ways, “Go Down, Moses” led to “Ol’ Man River,” the closest Broadway has ever come to a spiritual hymn.

Blues turned into hot jazz bands but also led to the classical concert hall via George Gershwin’s instrumental (classical) music. To this day, Rhapsody in Blue retains its popularity with both conductors and the public. The same thing can be said about Richard Rodgers’ Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and Victory at Sea suite.

We think it is fair to say that since 1920, the sound of African-American music has dominated American music. What was it about African-American musical innovations that cause them to evolve instead of wither and die?

Everyone has an opinion, and we are no different. We think the music lasts because it has a philosophical foundation that gives this music eternal freshness. If we can borrow from Emma Lazarus, we think the key is the soul of African-Americans “yearning to be free.” In many ways, the philosophy of great African-American thinkers, whether it is Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X, keeps hammering home one constant reminder: this country ought to live up to its philosophical foundations, laid down by Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we eventually get it right…after we have tried everything else first.

To the extent that Broadway composers were able to understand and tap into this music, especially spirituals, they were able to write some of their best music for the stage, such as Kern’s “Ol’ Man River” and Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess. White composers learned of this music from many sources; however, theatrical performances must be counted as a likely source. While we think the following quote may overstate the effect Al Jolson had on Broadway, certainly there is some truth in it. According to the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture: “Almost single-handedly, Jolson helped to introduce African-American musical innovations like jazz, ragtime, and the blues to white audiences…. [and] paved the way for African-American performers like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Ethel Waters… to bridge the cultural gap between black and white America.”

Jazz historian Amiri Baraka wrote, “the entrance of the white man into jazz…did at least bring him much closer to the Negro.” He points out that “the acceptance of jazz by whites marks a crucial moment when an aspect of black culture had become an essential part of American culture.”

We have a question about segregation on Broadway. If Actors Equity went on strike in 1919 to get better working conditions for its members, did they do this on behalf of all members or just white members?

Let’s take another shot at this subject. Noble Sissle was the President of the Negro Actors Guild. Why did black performers need this guild if Actors Equity was out there fighting against racial prejudice?

Why was Jolson friends with Bill Robinson, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle? Why did Jolson earn their respect? Did he actually do anything to erase the barrier erected against black performers? Consider the following questions:

Why did Jolson fight to promote the play by black playwright Garland Anderson which became the first production with an all-black cast produced on Broadway?

Why did Jolson fight to bring an all-black dance team from San Francisco to New York that he tried to feature in one of his Broadway shows?

Why did Jolson fight Hollywood and demand equal treatment for Cab Calloway, with whom he performed a number of duets in his movie, The Singing Kid?

Let’s make one thing clear: we are not a proponents of the use of blackface, even as the means to accomplish noble ends. On the other hand, when we compare gnats and camels, we ought to ask ourselves which practice was worse: using blackface during performances by white performers or refusing to hire black performers on the basis of race?

It wasn’t just the refusal to hire black performers in Broadway musicals. To make matters worse, as America moved away from vaudeville, black performers and black acts were left without a home. Musical comedies mostly cast white faces; and even when blacks were cast, they were segregated until 1947. Show Boat had segregated choruses in 1927; it wasn’t until 1947 that Finian’s Rainbow had a fully integrated cast.

The dream that one day African-American performers would be able to play their music for white audiences was never fully realized; Gershwin’s syncopated music filled his Broadway shows in the 1920’s, but the songs were sung by Fred Astaire. Certainly, some of Irving Berlin’s ragtime tunes, like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” were added to movie scores, but Alice Faye sang them. Of course, there were exceptions, but they tended to be all-black musicals, such as Porgy and Bess, Cabin the Sky or Carmen Jones.

Any hope that blackface would lead to work on Broadway for black performers, singing jazz songs, was extinguished when Ethel Merman, not Ethel Waters, sang “I’ve Got Rhythm” in 1930’s Girl Crazy; just as the hope that black musicians would play in the pit orchestra for Girl Crazy never materialized. Red Nichols’ band was in the pit; and its members were white.

Benny Goodman broke the color barrier with his small groups (trios up to sextets) when he teamed up with Teddy Wilson on piano and Lionel Hampton on vibes.  The irony was that by the time jazz bands were integrated, the popular tastes in music had changed.

We have spent a lot of time in the last week on just two songs, “Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” and “Swanee” because they mark the entrance of African-American rhythms into the American mainstream. We didn’t intend to take this long to make our original point, but here it is.

The release of “Swanee” in Jolson’s recording and in Gershwin’s sheet music marked the beginning of jazz idioms on Broadway and in the concert hall; and its main proponent was George Gershwin. As we move forward in future posts, we will still hear all kinds of music; but African-American music, in the form of spirituals and jazz, will play an increasingly important role over time. This music will affect both white composers and orchestrators, and it will be disruptive.

Tomorrow we return to Jerome Kern with a song from his 1919s show, She’s a Good Fellow.