Category Archives: North America

Musical expressions of the Harlem Renaissance: An annotated bibliography

Emerging from a New York neighborhood in the early 20th century, the Harlem Renaissance was a period of vibrant intellectual and artistic development in the African American community. Considered a turning point in Black history, the Harlem Renaissance offered African American writers and artists the chance to express their cultures and experiences during a time when they continued to face racism and discrimination. The end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865 brought many African Americans in the South newfound freedoms and hopes for inclusion economically, politically, and socially within society. Unfortunately, these hopes were dashed by white supremacy and the rise of Jim Crow Laws that legalized racial segregation on state and local levels. Such laws existed for nearly the next 100 years, making African Americans second class citizens while denying them the right to vote, hold jobs, and become educated.

Many Southern Black people were denied ownership of land and were exploited in a system of sharecropping, a form of farming where families rented small plots of land from a landowner in exchange for a portion of the crops they had grown. Hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan also terrorized Black communities through murder and intimidation, discouraging Black communities from exercising their newly won rights. Conversely, Northern cities offered industrial jobs in fast growing economies to people of all races. Many African Americans left the South in search of such opportunities, leading to what was termed the “Great Migration” in the 20th century.

The Cotton Club in New York City

The Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan during this period drew more the 175,000 African Americans and quickly became one of the largest concentrations of Black people in the United States. African Americans of all social backgrounds congregated in Harlem based on their shared experiences of racial oppression, slavery, emancipation, and future aspirations as a free people. Harlem also served as a cultural node where artists and writers lived and creatively shared their ideas of modernity, folk culture, and religion. In this sense, the Harlem Renaissance represented a rebirth not only for intellectuals and artists but for all Black people, providing a cultural space to reshape the existing predominant narratives on Blackness.

In this context, it is nearly impossible to explore the Harlem Renaissance without considering its music. Despite being known as a genuinely American art form today, jazz emerged from small urban bars, clubs, and halls to the national stage during the Harlem Renaissance, announcing the arrival of renowned musicians such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Bessie Smith. These early jazz artists reconfigured African American folk musical elements into expressions that were more distilled and elegant, and ready for mass consumption.

Duke Ellington and his orchestra

Like other Harlem Renaissance writers and visual artists, musicians such as Josephine Baker (pictured at the beginning of this piece) were in continuous conversation with audiences beyond Harlem and the United States. In Europe, Baker became an icon of the early jazz age as many European audiences had never seen such a visually striking Black chanteuse who could sing fluently in French and perform such suggestive dance moves. In this context, the Harlem Renaissance sounded in the rhythms of jazz and swing a radically new and modern Black subject that was central to the development of international modern art. It also made Harlem (and venues like the Cotton Club) the place to be modern in the early 20th century.

The selected texts below taken from RILM Abstracts of Music Literature reflect the diverse expressions of the Harlem Renaissance and its lasting impact on music, theater, visual art, poetry, and other fields in the arts. The bibliography foregrounds the significant contributions of jazz women, including Florence Mills and Melba Liston, as well as themes of voice, community values, modernism, migration, and the paradoxical qualities of Blackness.

–Written and compiled by Russ Skelchy, Editor, RILM

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Newton, Elizabeth. “Ethnic irony in Melvin B. Tolson’s Dark symphony”, Journal of the Society for American Music 15/2 (May 2021), 224–245. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2021-2157]

Abstract: Historicizes musical symbolism in Melvin B. Tolson’s poem Dark symphony. In a time when Black writers and musicians alike were encouraged to aspire to European standards of greatness, Tolson’s Afro-Modernist poem establishes an ambivalent critical stance toward the genre in its title. In pursuit of a richer understanding of the poet’s attitude, the poem is situated within histories of Black music, racial uplift, and white supremacy, exploring its relation to other media from the Harlem Renaissance. The changing language across the poem’s sections is analyzed and informed by Houston A. Baker Jr.’s study of mastery and deformation, the poet’s tone is theorized. While prior critics have read the poem’s lofty conclusion as sincerely aspirational toward assimilation, here the ambiguity, or irony, that Tolson develops is emphasized: he embraces the symphony’s capacity as a symbol to encompass multiple meanings, using the genre metaphorically as a mark of achievement, even as he implicates such usage as a practice rooted in conservative thought. The symphony, celebrated as a symbol of pluralistic democracy and liberal progress, meanwhile functions to reinforce racialized difference and inequality–a duality that becomes apparent when this poem is read alongside Tolson’s concurrent poems, notes, and criticism. Such analysis demonstrates that Dark symphony functions as a site for heightened consciousness of racialized musical language, giving shape to Tolson’s ideas as a critic, educator, and advocate for public health.

Doktor, Stephanie. “Finding Florence Mills: The voice of the Harlem Jazz Queen in the compositions of William Grant Still and Edmund Thornton Jenkins.” Journal of the Society for American Music 14/4 (November 2020) 451–479. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2020-12258]

Abstract: After her performances in Shuffle along (1921) on Broadway and in Dover Street to Dixie (1923) in London, Florence Mills became one of the most famous jazz and vaudeville singers. Known as the “Harlem Jazz Queen”, Mills was revered by Black Americans for her international breakthrough and because she used her commercial success as a platform to speak out against racial inequality. Extensive descriptions of her performance style and voice exist in writing, but there are no recordings of her singing. The sound of Mills’s voice is considered in two compositions written for her: William Grant Still’s Levee land (1925) and Edmund Thornton Jenkins’s Afram (1924). It is shown that Still and Jenkins imagined a much more musically complicated and politically powerful voice than that found in the racialized and gendered stereotypes permeating both her vaudeville and Broadway repertoire and the language of her reception. While scholars have written about how Mills’ outspokenness regarding issues of race and omission of sexually explicit roles made her central to 1920s Black political and artistic life, the sonic properties of her voice positioned her as a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

Banfield, William C. “Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1935: Artistry, aesthetics, politics, and popular culture”, Ethnomusicologizing: Essays on music in the new paradigms, by William C. Banfield (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) 223–232. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-11893]

Abstract: The Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Arts Movement (1920-1935), was a period in U.S. cultural history where preserving the life and culture of community was simultaneously an investment into cultural relevancy at all levels through music, literature, arts, dance, education, and business, and social-cultural engagement. People from New York’s Harlem community–extending across the national, artistic, entrepreneurial, and educational lines–were asking: What do we value now, and why? What and how are the best ways forward to create, project, and live in those values? What are we investing in, and what do we believe in for our future? In addition, for the first time in U.S. history, artists and thinkers worked to address needs, projections, and outcomes. The interests in these questions and arts movement as critical historical cultural markers, the artists and artistry from this period, and with that, the processes that led to the creation of progressive U.S. culture. A secondary theme is the impact those art questions and results have had on commercial political and cultural currency and relevancy on at least two other musical arts periods: the civil rights/social protest/soul period (1960-1975) and hip-hop, X, and millennium generation music (1980-2010s).

Lassiter, Fran L. “From toasts to raps: New approaches for teaching the Harlem Renaissance”, Pedagogy: Critical approaches to teaching literature, language, composition, and culture 15/2 (2015) 374–377. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-85442]

Abstract: Outlines the use of contemporary hip hop lyrics to access the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. A strategy is outlined for tracing the progression and evolution of African American political and social resistance in literature and music, introducing students to forgotten or overlooked texts of the Harlem Renaissance by exploring the connection between sociopolitical protest and artistic expression.

Colbert, Soyica Diggs. “Harlem Renaissance theater and performance”, A companion to the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Cherene Sherrard-Johnson (Malden: Blackwell, 2015) 285–300. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-84653]

Abstract: Explores how theater and performance of the Harlem Renaissance depicts paradoxes at the heart of modern Black cultural production. Theater and performance emerge in response to competing generational, artistic, aesthetic, and market demands and desires. Blackness appears here as a paradoxical category in the themes, characterizations, and formal attributes of the work. Social practices such as lynching and the separation of public space due to Jim Crow defined Blackness as an easily decipherable physical category. At the same time cultural practices including passing, the cakewalk, and signifying demonstrated the slipperiness of Blackness. Harlem Renaissance theater and performance changes the optics of Blackness from a biological category able to be regulated in the social sphere to a contingent category that emerges in distinctive forms of embodiment.

Melba Liston

Price, Emmett G., III. “Melba Liston: Renaissance woman”, Black music research journal 34/1 (Spring 2014) 159–168. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2014-5983]

We might better understand Melba Liston’s (pictured above) achievements, importance, and influence, as well as her artistic and political motivations by viewing her and her work through the lens of the Harlem Renaissance. The movement’s terms and cultural politics provide insight into Liston’s personal experiences and professional realities. Melba Liston is revealed here as a renaissance woman as defined by an expanded reading of the intellectual zeitgeist of the New Negro, gleaning historiographical insight about Liston (and other jazz women) through the experiences of better-, but still under-documented Renaissance women writers.

Reid, Grant Harper. Rhythm for sale. (North Charleston: CreateSpace Books, 2013) [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2013-37077]

Abstract: Ventures into the beating heart of the Harlem Renaissance through the life of the author’s grandfather Leonard Harper. Born the son of a poor singer in Birmingham, Alabama, Harper performed on the street for pennies as a child. He became a talented performer, and after his father died, he studied soft-shoe to provide for his family. Young Harper traveled with vaudeville shows until he found his way to New York, where he went solo at 16. By his early 20s, he found himself at the center of the Harlem Renaissance, and he worked with such legends as Duke Ellington, Florence Mills, Fats Waller, and Louis Armstrong. An account of the era’s racial tensions is provided, with white producers often swindling Harper and his fellow African American theater professionals out of the rights to their works. However, Harper was resourceful enough to successfully stage dozens of shows. His barrier-breaking achievements are chronicled, including his 1929 debut of Hot chocolates, an African American production that received great acclaim on Broadway. Though the book is full of praise for Harper, it also recounts his extramarital affairs and some of the more colorful stories of gangsters and burlesque dancers in the Harlem nightclub scene. Through this biographical profile, a revealing profile is drawn of early 20th century Black American music, dance, culture, and the racial politics surrounding all of it.

Young, Kevin. “It don’t mean a thing: The blues mask of modernism”, The poetics of American song lyrics, ed. by Charlotte Pence (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2012) 43–74. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2012-13801]

Abstract: The rise of modernism coincided with the emergence and reach of the blues. The influence of blues music on modernism is explored here, focusing on the importance, intricacies, and intimacies of the Harlem or “New Negro” Renaissance. It is argued that the achievement of African American writers, sculptors, and artists should be considered one of the high points of modernism. The recent disregard heaped upon the notion of Africa as a popular theme in the Harlem Renaissance is also discussed, along with how this attitude denies the power of place in the Black imagination.

Jones, Meta DuEwa. The muse is music: Jazz poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to spoken word. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011) [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2011-6634]

An interdisciplinary study that traces jazz’s influence on African American poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to contemporary spoken word poetry. Examining established poets such as Langston Hughes, Ntozake Shange, and Nathaniel Mackey as well as a generation of up-and-coming contemporary writers and performers, it highlights the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality within the jazz tradition and its representation in poetry. The prosodic analysis to emphasize the musicality of African American poetic performance examines the gendered meanings evident in collaborative performances and in the criticism, images, and sounds circulating within jazz cultures. Some of the poets who participated in contemporary venues for Black writing such as the Dark Room Collective and the Cave Canem Foundation, including Harryette Mullen, Elizabeth Alexander, and Carl Phillips are also key in this discussion. The Black Arts Movement, the poetry-jazz fusion of the late 1950s, and slam and spoken word performance milieus such as Def Poetry Jam, exemplify how jazz and hip hop influenced performance artists. The attention to cadence, rhythm, and structure fills a gap in literary scholarship by attending to issues of gender in jazz and poetry. The analysis includes exploring the formal innovation and queer performance of Langston Hughes’s recorded collaboration with jazz musicians, delineating the relationship between punctuation and performance in the post-soul John Coltrane poem, and closely examining jazz improvisation and hip hop stylization. This elaborate articulation of the connections between jazz, poetry and spoken word, and gender offers valuable criticism of specific texts and performances and a convincing argument about the shape of jazz and African American poetic performance in the contemporary era.

Patterson, Jody. “It don’t mean a thing…: Jazz, modernism, and murals in New Deal New York”, Music and modernism, c. 1849-1950, edited by Charlotte De Mille. (Newcastle upon Tyme: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011) 229–254. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2011-2812]

Abstract: Examines the ways in which jazz was taken up by the U.S. painters Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) and Stuart Davis (1892–1964), who both sought to achieve a rapprochement between modernist aesthetics and leftist politics within the context of the New Deal arts projects. Douglas painted a four-panel cycle of murals, collectively entitled Aspects of Negro life (1939), under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP; 1933–34), which were commissioned for the Assembly Hall of the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library (now the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). Douglas’s use of abbreviated forms and his repetition of schematized motifs within each composition not only demonstrate his understanding of the lessons of cubist composition but represent a self-conscious effort to engage the compositional strategies of jazz. Davis, one of the political left’s most vociferous and visible artist-activists, connected his paintings to swing, a musical form that was decidedly modern and which attracted a mass audience. Through the unexpected placement of accents on beats where they would not conventionally occur, swing musicians deliberately interrupt the regular flow of rhythm. This approach to abstraction is amply demonstrated in Davis’s 1939 mural for the New York Municipal Broadcasting Company’s Radio Station WNYC and the mural Swing landscape (1938), also executed under the auspices of the Federal Art Project, for the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn.

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Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Literature, North America, Performers, Politics, Popular music

The corrido and Cesar Chavez

The corrido is a Mexican folk music that narrates a story or series of events in verse. The genre has developed in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States over the past 200 years. Similar to how the jarabe genre is closely linked historically to Mexican Independence (1810-1821), the corrido is linked with the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917). Unlike the former, the corrido is not typically danceable. It was one of the most popular song manifestations of the early 20th century, although its origin dates back to the Spanish colonial era. In the 18th century, the corrido was a popular type of country song found primarily in the states of Chihuahua, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Oaxaca, and Guerrero. A significant difference between the corrido and other forms of Mexican narrative song is that corrido verses tend to feature many syllables with narration usually in the second or third person.

Toward the end of the 20th century, drug trafficking or illegal trafficking of narcotics, especially between Mexico and the U.S. southern border, became a popular theme of contemporary corrido songs with the term “narcocorrido” attributed to such songs. According to Rafael Acosta, a professor at the University of Kansas who has studied narcocorridos, the genre narrates the stories of “people who feel, many times justifiably, that they are neglected by state and economic apparatuses and look for possibilities of rebellion and socioeconomic advancement”. Acosta compares the stories in narcocorridos to films and songs about Italian gangsters of the early 20th century or outlaws trafficking moonshine in the era of 1920s prohibition.

Corrido musicians, however, have primarily sung about oppression, history, the daily life of peasants, and other socially relevant topics. For instance, listen below to the song El corrido de César Chávez written by Felipe Cantu and first performed in 1965 at the California state capitol in Sacramento, the endpoint of a three-week march led by Chávez and the United Farm Workers union from Delano to protest unfair practices against farmworkers.

Celebrate the civil rights and labor movement activist César Chávez on 31 March (César Chávez Day) by reading more about the history of the corrido genre in Diccionario enciclopédico de música en México. Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

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Filed under Labor, North America, Politics, Popular music, World music

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, composer and conductor

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the son of a doctor from Sierra Leone and an English woman, was born in Croydon, England on 15 August 1875. At the age of 15, he was accepted into a violin class at the Royal College of Music in London and studied composition before being awarded a composition scholarship in March 1893. As a composer he progressed far more quickly than his fellow students. At a young age, Coleridge-Taylor became familiar with the works of the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who had a strong influence on Coleridge-Taylor, especially on his compositions Seven African romances op. 17 (1897), A corn song (1897), African suite op. 35 (1897) and the opera Dream lovers op. 25 (1898). He was also familiar with the writings of Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois, whose collection of essays, The souls of Black folk, he called “the finest book I have ever read by a colored man, and one of the best by any author, White or Black”.

At the age of 23, Coleridge-Taylor was commissioned to write his Ballade in A minor for Britain’s Three Choirs Festival; although he is best known for Hiawatha’s wedding feast, based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The overture Coleridge-Taylor wrote for the piece was inspired by the African American spiritual Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. In 1904, he made the first of three trips to the United States where he toured during the post-Reconstruction era and met notable African American figures such as the poet James Weldon Johnson and the statesman Booker T. Washington. During this period, he also conducted performances of his works at the Washington Festival and Litchfield Festival on the East Coast. Later, Coleridge-Taylor became a professor of composition at Trinity College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music. In addition to cantatas, chamber music, and orchestral works, he also wrote popular songs and incidental music. Coleridge-Taylor passed away at the age of 37 from pneumonia.

Read the full entry on Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in MGG Online.

Listen to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha overture below.

A related Bibliolore post:

A new Coleridge-Taylor edition

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Filed under Black studies, Europe, Musicology, North America, Opera, Performers

MC5 and the American ruse

Rolling Stone magazine put the MC5 (short for Motor City Five) on their January 1969 cover before the world ever heard a note of their music. Considered the missing link between free jazz and punk, the MC5 were a raw and primal band, considered to be unstoppable when they were clicking. A generation of bands, including The Clash, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Motorhead, and Rage Against the Machine, would be inspired by their sonic and political blueprint. Led by guitarist Wayne Kramer, the MC5 reflected their times: exciting, sexy, violent, chaotic, and seemingly out of control–characteristics that ensured their time in the spotlight would be short-lived. Members of the band were galvanized by the racial and class politics of the 1967 Detroit riots, which left many of the local neighborhoods Kramer knew decimated. He and the MC5 toured the world, played with a number of music legends, and garnered a rabid following, their music acting as the blistering soundtrack to blue-collar youth movements springing up across the United States and elsewhere. Their vehement antiauthoritarian stance found especially fertile ground in the 1960s antiwar movement. The lyrics of their 1970 song The American ruse (from the album Back in the U.S.A.) perfectly captured the sentiment of the movement during that political moment.

“69 America in terminal stasis
The air’s so thick, it’s like drowning in molasses
I’m sick and tired of paying these dues
And I’m finally getting hip to the American ruse.”

Listen to American ruse below.

Kramer wanted to redefine what a rock ‘n’ roll group was capable of, and although there was power in that cause, it also was also a recipe for disaster, both personally and professionally. The band recorded three major label albums, but by 1972, it was all over. Kramer’s story is literally a revolutionary one, but it’s also one of deep personal struggle as an addict and an artist, as well as a survivor and rebel. From Kramer’s early days in Detroit to becoming a junkie on the streets of the East Village, from Key West to Nashville and Los Angeles, in and out of prison and on and off drugs, his life was that of a classic journeyman, only with a twist.

By 2009, Kramer had cleaned up and established Jail Guitar Doors U.S.A., a nonprofit organization that offers songwriting workshops in prisons and donates musical instruments to inmates. As Kramer described in a 2015 interview, “The guitar can be the key that unlocks the cell. It can be the key that unlocks the prison gate, and it could be the key that unlocks the rest of your life to give you an alternative way to deal with things.” Possibilities that Kramer understood well from personal experience.

Wayne Kramer passed away on 2 February 2024.

Read more in The hard stuff: Dope, crime, the MC5 & my life of impossibilities by Wayne Kramer (New York: Da Capo Books, 2018). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2018-4720].

Below is a video of the MC5 performing live and outdoors at Wayne State University in Detroit, July 1970 (Kramer is on vocals and guitar for the first song Rambin’ Rose).

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Filed under North America, Performers, Politics, Popular music

Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in blue” premieres

At its premiere 100 years ago, on 12 February 1924, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in blue was received with a standing ovation after it was performed. At the time, the conductor Paul Whitehead requested that Gershwin write a “jazz concerto” for an event to be held at the Aeolian Hall, a renowned Manhattan concert venue located in the Aeolian Building–coincidentally, this building was also RILM’s original home before the CUNY Graduate Center. Given the centennial of Rhapsody’s premiere in 2024, it is likely to be heard in many different settings and contexts.

Since the piece premiered in early 1924, however, debates have arisen about how much Gershwin knew about writing music. Because his musical language was an unconventional blend of U.S. popular music and European art music, some of his critics assumed that he knew little about writing serious music. This premise has been confirmed somewhat by statements made in early Gershwin biographies, which alleged that he was self-taught.

The inherent complexity of Rhapsody in blue and other subsequent concert works written by Gershwin, however, suggest he knew a great deal about writing music. It is also known that Gershwin received training from the versatile composer and musician Charles Hambitzer as early as 1912, where he discovered the music of Irving Berlin and J.D. Kern, and later received special theory lessons from the composer and conductor Edward Kilenyi. Rhapsody was composed in only five weeks, in spare moments while Gershwin was otherwise occupied with the premiere of a Broadway show. On that time schedule, he had no alternative other than to put what he already knew about writing music into that work.

Celebrate the centennial of the premiere of Rhapsody in blue today by reading the entry on George Gershwin in MGG Online and “Rhapsody in blue: A culmination of George Gershwin’s early musical education”, a dissertation by Susan E. Neimoyer (2003, University of Washington, Seattle); find it in RILM Abstracts.

Below is the classic scene of the Rhapsody in blue premiere in the 1945 Gershwin biopic starring Robert Alda.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, North America, Performers

Max Roach, jazz drummer and Civil Rights activist

Referred to as the “dean of modern jazz drumming,” Max Roach spent his formative years in Brooklyn and received a degree in composition from the Manhattan School. While still in his teens, Roach became one of the innovators of the bop drumming style at jazz fountainheads such as Minton’s Playhouse and Clark Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem. Among his collaborators have been Coleman Hawkins (with whom he made his first recording in 1944), Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and many others. Known for his melodic, formally structured solos, and compositional experimentation, Roach moved from bop to cool and free jazz styles, and his creative talents were recognized with commissions and awards from various sources, including the MacArthur Foundation and Down Beat magazine.

Roach’s We insist! Freedom now suite, recorded in 1960, moves from depictions of slavery to Emancipation to the Civil Rights struggle and African independence. The work draws on both long-standing symbols of African American cultural identity and a more immediate historical context. It is a modernist work as well, as Roach and his musicians used African and African American legacies in new and novel ways. In a 1987 interview, Roach commented on whether by the time he recorded the Freedom now suite, he had become a Civil Rights activist:

“Well, I guess [Black jazz musicians] always have been [activists], you know? I go back to Bessie Smith with Black mountain blues and then to Duke Ellington’s Black, brown and beige. It’s always been there. Leadbelly always spoke about the issues and the times that existed. And many of the old Black folk singers from the South to street musicians dealt with it. I’ve always been an activist. At that time [in the 1960s], my children were young. But you’re always thinking about their future as well. And if they’re going to come up and be responsible human beings, they have to have education, and the things like everyone else has. And society has to accommodate that. So, I guess I’ve always been activist because of them.”

Listen to the entire We insist! Freedom now suite recording below.

Decades after its initial release, the Freedom now suite remains fresh and significant, foregrounding the ways that jazz has been in consistent dialogue with social and cultural movements, and has been at its most inspired when engaged in social commentary.

Celebrate the beginning of Black History Month by reading the entry on Max Roach in Percussionists: A biographical dictionary (2000, RILM Music Encyclopedias) and “Revisited! The Freedom now suite” by Ingrid Monson (JazzTimes XXXI/7 [September 2001], 54–59.

Below is a performance of We insist! by Abbey Lincoln and the Max Roach group in 1964.

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Filed under Black studies, From the archives, Jazz and blues, North America, Politics, Popular music

All hail the queens: Women in rap (1984-97)

Roxanne Shante on the mic.

Women have been part of hip hop expression from its early days, primarily as part of MC crews such as the Funky Four Plus One and Sugar Hill’s female group, Sequence. For most of hip hop’s recorded history, however, women MCs were mostly seen as novelty acts, with a few exceptions. In the mid-1980s, some female artists were popularized momentarily through answer songs, which ridiculed popular songs by male acts. These answer songs included Roxanne Shante’s Roxanne’s revenge (responding to UTFO’s 1984 song Roxanne, Roxanne) and Pebblee Poo’s Fly guy (responding to the Boogie Boys’ 1985 song A fly girl).

MC Lyte strikes a pose.
The early rap group, Sequence.

Some of the most enduring female hip hop acts released premiere albums in 1986. Salt-N-Pepa was the most commercially successful hip hop group with its first album, Hot, cool and vicious. Queen Latifah emphasized strong social messages and women’s empowerment on her first album, All hail the queen. MC Lyte recorded her first album, Lyte as a feather, at this time. Many women artists who appeared or recorded during the early 1990s adopted the extant masculine-oriented hip hop images prevalent in hardcore rap music. MC Lyte, for example, recorded a hardcore album in 1993 entitled Ain’t no other–the album’s first hit single, Ruffneck, was MC Lyte’s first gold-selling single. After the decline of gangsta rap music in the mid- to late 1990s, women remained on the periphery of mainstream hip hop, apart from the occasional pop hit, such as the platinum-selling Atlanta-based artist Da Brat’s Funkdafied (1994).

Cover art for Lil’ Kim’s Hardcore and Foxy Brown’s Ill na na.
“Supa dupa fly” Missy Elliot.

By the late 1990s, artists such as Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown publicly celebrated or exploited female sexuality through explicit lyrics and widespread publicity campaigns that presented these scantily clad artists as sex symbols. For the most part, however, women artists failed to receive respect within the hip hop community as competent MCs and recording artists, although achieving mainstream success. Many of the writers and producers for the female groups were men, particularly through the late 1990s. The year 1998, however, was pivotal for women in hip hop, especially as rapper-producer-songwriter Missy Elliot began gaining notoriety with her debut album, Supa dupa fly (1997).

Learn more in The Garland encyclopedia of world music. The United States and Canada (2013). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

Below are some videos from this early period of hip featuring women rappers. First up is the music video for Queen Latifah’s Ladies first, followed by Roxanne Shante performing Roxanne’s revenge (on VHS tape from around 1984!), and a 1985 recording of Pebblee Poo’s Fly guy.

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Filed under North America, Performers, Popular music, Women's studies

Joni Mitchell and 1960’s women’s sexual freedom

Born in Fort MacLeod, Alberta in Canada, a young Joni Mitchell (born Joan Anderson) moved to North Battleford, Saskatchewan with her parents shortly after World War II. Inspired by an older friend, she begged her parents at age 7 to allow her to take piano lessons which lasted for a year and a half. After moving to Saskatoon, Mitchell contracted polio, which she recovered from with the care of her family and her interest in music. As she recalled in a Rolling Stone interview with Cameron Crowe in 1979, “I guess I really started singing when I had polio. Neil [Young] and I both got polio in the same Canadian epidemic. I was nine, and they put me in a polio ward over Christmas. They said I might not walk again, and that I would not be able to go home for Christmas. I wouldn’t go for it. So I started to sing Christmas carols and I used to sing them real loud. When the nurse came into the room I would sing louder. The boy in the bed next to me, you know, used to complain. And I discovered I was a ham. That was the first time I started to sing for people.”

In her teens, Mitchell scraped together enough money to buy a ukelele and performed regularly at parties and coffeehouses in Saskatoon. Following high school, in 1964, Mitchell attended the Alberta College of Art in Calgary, but only for a year. Instead, she preferred performing at a local Calgary coffeehouse called The Depression—she moved to Toronto soon after in search of success as a folk singer. In 1966, she managed to secure a spot on the bill of the Newport Folk Festival. It was at this time that her marriage to fellow folk singer Chuck Mitchell ended, and with nothing to tie her down, Mitchell moved to New York City to be closer to venues on the U.S. eastern seaboard. With the recording of The urge for going by Tom Rush and other cover versions by a variety of artists, she was able to get bookings west to Chicago and south to Florida. New York was still elusive but with the help of manager Elliot Roberts she landed gigs in town. While performing in Coconut Grove, Florida she met David Crosby of The Byrds who was impressed enough with her talent to convince Reprise Records to record and release the Joni Mitchell album in 1968.

Mitchell’s early records mapped the sexual terrain of the mid-1960s–the period during which premarital sex lost its taboo status and became a normative part of maturation and development–from a woman’s perspective. Mitchell’s songs employed a strong storytelling component, putting into popular circulation narratives of sexual freedom that engaged with emerging social practices in a manner consistent with countercultural values while helping to legitimize the new choices available to young women of the 1960s.

Learn more in “Feeling free and female sexuality: The aesthetics of Joni Mitchell” by Marilyn Adler Papayanis (Popular music and society XXXIII/5 (December 2010) 641–656. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2010-7782] and in an entry on Joni Mitchell in The Canadian pop music encyclopedia (2020) in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

Below is Joni Mitchell’s 1969 performance of Chelsea Morning, a song addressing the moral codes governing so-called appropriate sexual conduct for women.

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Filed under North America, Performers, Politics, Popular music, Women's studies

Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq

Indigenous artists are often placed within the tidy binary of traditional vs. modern. Indigenous culture is considered frozen and incompatible with modernity. The creative and communicative outputs of Inuk avant-garde vocalist Tanya Tagaq demonstrate a larger political project of undermining mainstream representational practices regarding Indigenous identity (particularly in Canada) and presenting Indigenous-centered sounds and perspectives. While Tagaq has constructed an artistic identity that challenges the simple binaries of past/present and traditional/modern, mainstream media has relied on representational practices of a settler colonialist mindset. Tagaq makes her agency clear in both her artistic output and in her social media activity. Media coverage of Indigenous artists and Tagaq in particular, dismantle the self/other and modern/traditional binaries with reference to her albums–Animism (2014) and Retribution (2016)–and social media wars in which Tagaq’s celebrity status has incited both reactive and active critique of Indigenous (and specifically Inuit) representation in Canada. In turn, she presents her own narrative as a deliberate strategy of cultural and political self-determination.

Cover art for Animism

Tagaq’s music often tackles themes of environmentalism and Indigenous rights. The Inuk throat singer uses live performance and audiovisual media to engage themes of climate change and environmental violence. Her work diversifies the discourse of environmentalism to include the voices and environmental trauma experienced by marginalized peoples, specifically North American Indigenous-centered sounds and perspectives. Songs such as Fracking and Nacreous respectively are simultaneously expressions of ecological protest and healing, as Tagaq listens with urgency and uses embodied musical practice to explore the aurality of pipeline politics and other forms of ecological imbalance and harm.

Read on in “Welcome to the tundra: Tanya Tagaq’s creative and communicative agency as political strategy” by Alexa Woloshyn (Journal of popular music studies 29/4 (2017). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2017-29128] and “The aurality of pipeline politics and listening for nacreous clouds: Voicing indigenous ecological knowledge in Tanya Tagaq’s Animism and Retribution” by Kate Galloway (Popular music XXXIX/1 (2020) 121–144. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2020-1537]

Below is an improvised throat singing performance by Tagaq, followed by the video for the song Colonizer (from her 2022 album Tongues).

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Ellis Marsalis, jazz pianist, educator, and Marsalis family patriarch

Ellis Marsalis first learned to play the clarinet and saxophone but the piano later became his main instrument. From 1951 to 1955, he completed a bachelor’s degree in music education at Dillard University in New Orleans while receiving informal jazz lessons from saxophonist Harold Battiste. Together with Battiste, Marsalis performed as a pianist in the American Jazz Quintet, which also included clarinetist Alvin Batiste and drummer Ed Blackwell. The ensemble’s first recordings were made in 1956 in Cosimo Matassa’s recording studio in New Orleans, and during his subsequent military service in the United States Marine Corps, Marsalis performed with a show band as part of the CBS television show Dress blues and the radio show Leatherneck songbook. Among the guest musicians were the already well-known drummer Chico Hamilton and bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy. After completing military service in 1959, Marsalis returned to New Orleans and married Dolores Ferdinand, with whom he had six sons; four of them achieved successful careers as jazz musicians: the saxophonist Branford, trumpeter Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo, and drummer Jason.

Marsalis played regularly in various local New Orleans clubs and recorded the 1962 album In the bag with the trumpeter Nat Adderley, alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, tenor saxophonist Nat Perriliat, bassist Sam Jones, and drummer James Black. In 1966, Marsalis appeared as a soloist with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra performing his own compositions. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s he worked with several ensembles in New Orleans, including from 1967 to 1970 with the band of trumpeter Al Hirt. In 1978, Marsalis released his first album as a solo pianist and accepted an engagement at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in New Orleans, which lasted until 1980. Ellis Marsalis can be heard as a guest musician on the recording of a concert by his son Wynton with drummer Art Blakey’s band. The album Fathers & sons, recorded in New York in 1982, features Ellis together with Wynton and Branford—the first of several collaborations with his sons.

Besides working as a musician, Ellis Marsalis also was the director of the jazz studies program at the University of New Orleans. He also taught at Xavier University, Loyola University, and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. In 2007, he spoke about why New Orleans has provided a unique musical space for jazz to flourish. According to Marsalis, “I think that New Orleans is the best learning town in the country, if not the world, as far as jazz is concerned. The nature of the economy here, as well as the laws that have been established over many years, make it conducive for musicians to work. Anyplace where you have the legal means to party to excess, the opportunities for certain types of musicians increase. Now, we don’t have Carnegie Hall; we don’t have Lincoln Center; we don’t have Alice Tully; the Metropolitan is not here–all those things which attract huge orchestras. You see, we as a city cater to people who come in with a slightly different kind of budget . . . People who want food and music and a good time will come to New Orleans because it’s rather difficult to find what you can find here if you go to Little Rock, Arkansas, or Jackson, Mississippi.”

From 1990 onwards Marsalis increasingly began to release albums under his own name on major labels with a wide international reach including Blue Note, Columbia, and Verve. He also produced recordings as a solo pianist and bandleader and took part in various productions as an ensemble member or guest musician. As part of his regular appearances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Marsalis played with his sons and a host of established guest musicians.

Read the feature on Ellis Marsalis in MGG Online.

Below, Ellis Marsalis performs with his sons in New Orleans in 2001 and performs “Twelves it” in 2018.

Related previous posts in Bibliolore:

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Filed under Jazz and blues, North America, Performers, Popular music