Apr 18, 2016

Billie Holiday's Strange, Beautiful Fruit

by Kael Moffat

William P. Gottlieb's iconic portrait of Billie Holiday, taken at the famous Downbeat Club in New York, 1947  (image from the Library of Congress, Public Domain)
Billie Holiday's 1959 New York Times obituary claimed that the Baltimore native was "more influential than...almost any other jazz singer, except the two who inspired her, Louis Armstrong and the late Bessie Smith." (1)  In the decades since her passing, this evaluation of her career still holds true.  Holiday's career spanned just thirty years (1930-1959), a relatively short period for jazz artists, but her impact is still felt today. (2)  Cassandra Wilson, herself a living jazz legend, claimed that Holiday's approach to singing was "the beginning of the jazz vocal age." (3)  

Cassandra Wilson (image by Scott Penner from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA)
Holiday was born April 7, 1915 and moved to New York with her mother in 1929.  She was never formally trained, so her voice always had a kind of plainness and innocence that connected with members of the audience so deeply that many of her admirers almost felt as if she were singing just to them.  In a very real sense, her bluesy, sometimes slightly off-pitch voice was more expressive than more polished singers of her time.  I'm thinking, for example, of a famous contemporary act, the Andrews Sisters, who were known for their peppy, tight arrangements that were "hits," but meant to take audiences minds off the struggles of their lives.  (4)  Holiday's approach, on the other hand, was to confront the messiness of life and find dignity in the struggle.  Her music was not an escape, but an acknowledgment and a wrestling with the scramble of everyday living.

What made Holiday such an influential artist is the fact that she approached singing in the same way that great soloists like trumpeter Louis Armstrong, pianist Count Basie, and saxophonist Lester Young (one of Holiday's closest friends until they had a falling out just a couple years before both of them passed away).  Though she stayed true to the lyrics of the song, she regarded the notes and the rhythms of the lyrics open to interpretation, subject to the particular mood of the performance and her emotional state.  Sometimes, she would sing on the beat, but she often sang slightly behind the beat to create and release tension, the way an instrumentalist stretches time and snaps it back for effect.  By taking this approach, her performances offered an incredibly intimate expression of her deepest sense of self as an artist, as an African American, and as a woman.  Even now (even especially now), she is most admired for her emotional honesty.  

One of Holiday's greatest songs was "Strange Fruit," an incredibly rich and understated protest about the unbearably cruel treatment of African Americans in the South.  In the Thirties, Fourties, and Fifties lynching was still an every-day fact of life in a region that had not been able to let go of it's violently racial heritage.  The song was originally written by Abel Merropol, a Jewish New York school teacher who was appalled by the racial violence in America.  He published the lyrics as a poem and later set it to music with the help of his wife.  Holiday was introduced to the song two years after its publication and recorded it in 1939 and again in 1944. (5)

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop. (6)
Here's a clip of Holiday's version of the song:

Cassandra Wilson, has also recorded a rather haunting version of the song:

Holiday's impact on her listeners was memorialized in John O'Hara's poem on her death, "The Day Lady Died," which is a play on her nickname, Lady Day:
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday 
three days after Bastille day, yes 
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine 
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton   
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner 
and I don’t know the people who will feed me 

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun   
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy 
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets   
in Ghana are doing these days 
                                                        I go on to the bank 
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)   
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life   
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine   
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do   
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or   
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine 
after practically going to sleep with quandariness 

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and   
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue   
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and   
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton 
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it 

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of 
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard 
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing (7)

1. http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0407.html
2. Ellis Marsalis, pianist and father of world-renowned Wynton and Branford Marsalis, has an active career that spans all the way back to the 1940s.  Wynton Marsalis, by the way, is still the only person to have ever won Grammy Awards for best classical and jazz albums in the same year (1989).
3.  http://www.npr.org/2015/04/05/397321378/cassandra-wilson-couldnt-wait-to-reinvent-the-billie-holiday-songbook
4.  This is not to entirely dismiss the Andrews Sisters.  They were fantastic vocalists and high-caliber musicians and their recordings still hold up very well.  In fact, contemporary vocal groups could still learn a thing or two from them.
5.  In the jazz and blues world, re-recording songs is not all that unusual.  Some contemporary rock/pop singers do it as well.  Sting, for example, has recorded "Shadows in the Rain" as a member of The Police (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FR2TAdDiOC) and as a solo artist (https://youtu.be/H2h8ZqMe0TY).
6. http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/fruitholiday.html
7. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/42657

Apr 11, 2016

Congo Square, New Orleans

Video clips from a drum circle in Congo Square, New Orleans from 2015, including shots of Mardi Gras Indians around 2:30 (video from DanieleCreole from Youtube)

As tragic and inhumane as slavery was, it played a key role in the development of jazz through introducing African elements into the American musical vocabulary.  Wynton Marsalis, a trumpeter and one of the greatest living jazz musicians, characterized jazz as a music that “broke the rules of European conventions and created rules of its own that were so specific, so thorough and so demanding that a great art resulted” (1).

Wynton Marsalis  (image by music 2020 from Flickr, CC BY)

The acknowledged birthplace of jazz, New Orleans, had a unique social structure that allowed the music to develop.  Being a former French colony, there developed a bit more lax attitude about slaves (though it was still a brutal place to be a slave).  On Sundays, slaves were allowed to gather in what became known as Congo Square to play drums and African stringed instruments called bolons and ngonis, similar to banjos and acoustic guitars and dance in ways that hearkened back to their homelands.  


The illustrations above were drawn by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect who designed both the US Capital Building and the White House.  His journal entries and drawings are some of the oldest and best source documents on Congo Square (both images from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain).

These gatherings were regularly held until late in the 1800s.  While they seemed like celebrations to outsiders, these gatherings were, in fact, based on West and West Central African festivals that “[spoke] to the very real concerns” of the slaves and were part of the “resistance-focused ethos [and] expressive culture” of Africans in the New World as Daniel Walker points out (2).

An 1885 illustration of a Congo Square gathering from E.W. Kemble  (image from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
These gatherings began to draw crowds of onlookers, both whites and Native Americans like the Mardi Gras Indians.  Eventually, these native groups joined in the celebrations, adding their own musical concepts to the mix.  Among the white onlookers were a number of musicians who began to experiment with more complex rhythms in their own music, drawn primarily from European folk and classical traditions.  This synthesis of European concepts of melody and harmony combined with African and Native American rhythms, especially the central role of drums, became jazz, which has had a strong effect on American and world music for more than a hundred years.  Congo Square is now part of the Luis Armstrong Park and the site of jazz performances and drum circles that honor the place’s musical legacy.  

A brass band plays in Congo Square during the 2013 New World Rhythm Festival (image by Derek Bridges from Flickr, CC BY) 

1. Marsalis, W.  (July 31, 1988).  What jazz is-and isn’t.  The New York Times.  Retrieved 24 March 2016 from http://www.nytimes.com/1988/07/31/arts/music-what-jazz-is-and-isn-t.html?pagewanted=all

2. Walker, D. E.  (2004).  No more, no more: Slavery and cultural resistance in Havana and New Orleans.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.  Retrieved 24 March 2016 from ProQuest ebrary.

Apr 6, 2016

Jazz and American popular music

by Kael Moffat

April has been declared Jazz Appreciation Month by the Smithsonian Institution, so in conjunction with that, I thought it might be helpful to write several posts this month about what many consider to be the US's only original art form--though the blues deservedly clears its throat and raises its hand, demanding recognition.

That being said, defining what jazz “is” may be somewhat like trying to describe green to a color blind chameleon.  Louis Armstrong, one of the early masters of jazz, supposedly responded to a question of what jazz is with, “Man, if you have to ask, you must not know what it is.”  

Louis Armstrong   (image by Herbert Behrens from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA)

Roughly, jazz was birthed by the collision between African and European musical traditions, along with South American, Caribbean, and Native American elements in the violent and inhumane crucible of American slavery.  And now, I need to go to the confessional, “Forgive me padre for I have been simplistic.” 

Another way to think about jazz is in terms of dynamic equilibrium--a term from chemistry that describes how “reactants are converted to products and products are converted to reactants,” resulting in a state that is both stable and changing. (1)  Jazz balances defined form and improvisation, group playing and individual expression, focusing less on familiar/predictable reproduction of songs and more on the spirit of the moment.  Wayne Shorter, another giant in the form, pointed out that jazz is a kind of alchemy, an art that tries

...to change the negative thing to a positive thing, to make the most value out of it.  We call it changing poison to medicine.  Not avoiding the poison--you drink it--but you change it to medicine.  You face it.  (2) 

Wayne Shorter  (image by Mattia Luigi Nappi from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA)

It’s not much of a stretch to say that almost all American popular music since the late 1800s stems from jazz and the blues to some degree or another.  Gunther Schuller, a French horn player for the Metropolitan Opera and composer of both classical and jazz music, observed, “The American popular song is inextricably and profoundly linked with jazz.” (3)   In a CNN.com column, Abigail Daniels wrote about a

...music of rebellion and youth. Artists traded witty improvisations onstage chronicling the pain and the promise of being black in America, inspiring inner-city and rural Southern audiences alike in nightclubs and on street corners.  (4)
That music, she pointed out, is jazz but acknowledges that the same description could very easily apply to hip-hop.  That is actually not a coincidence.  Without jazz, genres like rock and roll, country, funk, and hip-hop would not exist--even contemporary bluegrass has been influenced by jazz.  (5)

Below is an example of an early hip-hop track that openly pulls from jazz, Us3's "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia):


"Cantaloop" is a play on "Cantaloupe Island," from contemporary jazz legend Herbie Hancock.  Below is a performance of this track by Hancock and his band at a music festival in Japan.  Hancock's band includes Wayne Shorter on saxophone, along with Stanley Clarke on bass and Omar Hakim on drums, both masters of their instruments:


In the weeks to come, I hope to introduce you to other aspects of a truly sublime and sometimes challenging art form from our own metaphorical backyard.  Ya dig?

2)  Breskin, D.  (1994).  24 Shorter solos.  In  M. Rowland & T. Scherman (Eds.) The jazz musician: 15 years of interviews: The best of Musician Magazine.  New York: St. Martin’s Press.  3-23; p. 16, italics in original.

3) Tanner, P. O. W, Megill, D. W., & Gerow, M.  (1997).  Jazz, eighth ed.  Madison, WI: Brown & Benchmark.  p. 3.

4) Daniels, A.  (2009).  Hip-hop and jazz: Sharing a similar destiny?  CNN.com  Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2008/SHOWBIZ/Music/08/15/hiphop.jazz/ 

5) Traditional bluegrass combines many different elements European folk music, relying heavily on Scottish and Irish forms, but more recent developments pull in elements that draw from jazz and jazz-influenced music.