Added Notes--Music and Black Colleges

Concerning Jazz, Music and Performance:

1. Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, Jazz: A History of America’s Music. Knopf 2000.

2. Charles Graham, The Great Jazz Day. Woodford Publishing 1999.

The second book tells the story of the great jazz photograph featured in Esquire in 1959. There is also a documentary about it. The advantage of this particular book and packaging of Jazz photography is that it composes an anthology of jazz remembrances and jazz photography: Milt Hinton, Ralph Ellison, Art Kane, Sonny Rollins etcetera.

I am not an avid fan of the Ken Burns series but the book has extraordinary performance photographs, some of which I haven’t seen before. If memory serves, much of this material would be accessible at reasonable prices. If it isn’t, whatever is expensive, we can avoid because there really is so much wonderful performance photography which hasn’t been much seen except by those of us who are completely obsessed with the subject.

Of the things I particularly would want to include (aside from anything involving either Louis Armstrong or Billie Holiday both of whom have been seen more than anybody else although I think not by the average black audience for books), I like all those wonderful orchestras and bands my parents grew up listening to and dancing to. The ones who are all dressed to death in matching suits and so forth. This image is really so much in conflict with what our children are currently learning about black history and culture, unimaginable really.

I liked that whole style of being dressed up and doing things in unison, which I saw so much of at the Apollo still in the sixties, and don’t feel as though it is adequately documented in terms of discussions of photography. It would be good, as well, to emphasize the more unusual photos of black female performers, in particular instrumentalists.

Many of our singers have been given short shrift especially in the looks department on the idea that they weren’t good looking (which probably means too dark) but these women are often exquisite looking: different and stunning if nothing else. Neither Bessie Smith nor Ma Rainey ever took an uninteresting picture. Not to mention the beauty of Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn—all of whom I saw perform many times and who provided much of the musical background of my life growing up. This is perhaps true for most black women my age.

Of course, I feel as though Josephine Baker, who has been so under appreciated and misunderstood by Afro-Americans, should have her own chapter in which we can finally reclaim her as part of the African American performance tradition (along with Florence Mills and Ethel Waters) which traveled all over the world trying to escape from racism at home.

I would love us to emphasize the rare but extraordinary female instrumentalists, in particular Mary Lou Williams (about which there are two recent books that are highly informative: Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams by Mary Dahl, University of California Press 2001 and Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams by Tammy Kernodie, Northeastern University Press 2004). As it turns out, Mary Lou was a major midwive for the whole bebop scene, a nurturer as well as a genius as a performer and a composer so she is a real role model that young black women know little about. I knew her in her later years. 

There was this priest who was very connected to the jazz scene who was after me to write about her for The Village Voice so I got to see her, meet her, so forth but it was way over my head to comprehend her contribution, particularly given that there was so little written about her then. She performed frequently at the Cookery, as did Alberta Hunter whom I also met. She was a central figure too. The other woman I want to point out is somebody I’ve noticed in a lot of the pictures but know little about: Melba Liston.  Maybe she plays trombone.  

She is very very cool looking, obviously an important instrumentalist on a lot of recording sessions. 

Speaking of which there is a film of Big Momma Thornton singing Hound Dog at a Blues Festival in London which is just incredible. There's also some great footage of Sister Rosetta Tharpe performing in England.  There are entire films such as St. Louis Blues, Stormy Weather, Cabin in the Sky and New Orleans which have been hidden away and forgotten collectively by black and white coalitions of high brow opinion (on the grounds that they are somehow unflattering) in which there are contained wonderful performances and real clues as to what became of African American contributions to American popular culture. 

There is a book about film, which I am planning to pursue under "Movie Talk" as a separate blog, that I am planning to do eventually, maybe next year or the year after (if somebody else doesn’t write it first) and I think we should probably use only so much of this movie material as serves to offset the more sociological and less entertaining or pleasurable materials. In another words, to achieve the sense of a multi-disciplinary and representative mixture of the depths which lie in the archives.

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I am a writer and a professor of English at the City College of New York, and the CUNY Graduate Center. My books include Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979), Invisibility Blues (1990), Black Popular Culture (1992), and Dark Designs and Visual Culture (2005). I write cultural criticism frequently and am currently working on a project on creativity and feminism among the women in my family, some of which is posted on the Soul Pictures blog.