The African American artist Norman Lewis’s artistic background was similar to those of the abstract expressionists; but with abstract expressionism defined chiefly by white male artists and critics, Lewis’s contributions to the movement were ignored.
Abstract expressionism valued originality apart from European influence, yet Lewis borrowed ideas from Picasso, Mondrian, Klee, and Kandinsky to recontextualize into his work. Lewis also changed styles frequently. From Musicians (1945), through Jazz musicians (1948, above), to Jazz band (1948, below), a development can be traced—from depicting overt human forms merging with musical instruments, through human forms gradually more abstracted, to emphasis on visual interpretation of musical lines, sound, embellishments, and rhythms (called “pure eye music” by the critic Henry McBride).
While Lewis’s blending and recombining of many artistic influences may have run against the abstract expressionism aesthetic, his recontextualizing of styles parallels the innovative borrowing from standard tunes and chord substitution that were characteristics of bebop.
This according to “‘Pure eye music’: Norman Lewis, abstract expressionism, and bebop” by Sara K. Wood, an essay included in The hearing eye: Jazz & blues influences in African American visual art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 95–119).
Today would have been Lewis’s 110th birthday! Below, a brief documentary chronicles his artistic development, including references to his jazz-influenced works.
André Previn may well have been the last of the great 20th-century American musical eclectics. He had it all, making a mark on Broadway and in Hollywood, on classical concert stages and in jazz clubs, in pop songs and violin concertos.
He was not a mere dabbler: In every context, he was always plausible, and often inspired. He was also a great popularizer, a figure who, like his idol Leonard Bernstein, suggested that it was possible to know about, and even love, all kinds of music.
When a young Mr. Previn conducted symphony orchestras, he typified the verve and boyish enthusiasm of a pop star; performing lighter fare on television, he carried himself with a rarefied swagger. Even Dizzy Gillespie was a fan. “He has the flow, you know, which a lot of guys don’t have and won’t ever get,” Gillespie said.
This according to “André Previn: Hear the many facets of a musical polymath” by Zachary Woolfe, et al. (The New York times [online only] 1 March 2019).
Today would have been Previn’s 90th birthday! Above, conducting from the piano in 1965; below, performing Jule Styne’s Just in time in 1961.
Launched in 2018 by the University of Illinois Press, Jazz & culture is an annual publication devoted to publishing cutting-edge research on jazz from multiple perspectives.
Founded on the principle that both scholars and musicians offer invaluable contributions, the journal juxtaposes groundbreaking work by researchers alongside oral histories and articles written by master artists in the field. All methodological approaches are welcome, including ethnomusicology, music theory, and critical and cultural studies. The journal particularly encourages work relating to jazz’s international scope.
Below, Mandino Reinhardt, the subject of an article in the inaugural issue.
The jazz singer Jeanne Lee engaged in acts of reclamation of her identity, itself part of a greater project undertaken by creative black women.
Jazz standards with lyrics, written overwhelmingly by men, often reveal male constructions of female identity, even if sometimes seemingly from the narrative position of a woman. They therefore form a culturally important and influential way in which women have been defined by others, usually by men. Lee’s acts of redefinition—the ways in which she altered the ontologies of womanhood presented in standards—opened a possibility of subverting these externally imposed identities in subtle or overt ways.
This according to “This ain’t a hate thing: Jeanne Lee and the subversion of the jazz standard” by Eric Lewis (Jazz & culture I  pp. 49–76).
Today would have been Lee’s 80th birthday! Above, Lee in 1984; below, singing “All about Ronnie” in 1963.
When Michael Taft of the American Folklife Center received a call asking if the Center would be interested in an old Lead Belly disc, it seemed impossible that there could be one that wasn’t already in their collection; but when Taft asked what was printed on the label and heard “Presto” he was intrigued. Presto was not a record company—it was a brand of recording blank that the Library of Congress had used for field recordings in the 1930s and 1940s.
The disc included a song never heard elsewhere, and it provided the key for identifying the recording session. Titled Todd blues, the song was an improvisation that referred to “Mister Todd” and “Mister Sonkin”—Charles Todd (left) and Robert Sonkin (below left), who collaborated on several field recording trips for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and 1940s.
This blues took the form of a humorous lament on the departure of one of the partners: “Mister Todd went away, Lord, just after Christmas Day/He’s going to California…Mister Sonkin sitting here with his head hung down.” These lines clearly place the recording on 20 January 1942, when the pair recorded Lead Belly in New York City, shortly before Todd left for a new job in California.
This according to “A new old recording by Huddie Ledbetter” by Michael Taft (Folklife Center news XXIX/3 [summer 2007] pp. 13–15).
Today is Lead Belly’s 130th birthday! Below, Pete Seeger recalls meeting and performing with the great singer-songwriter.
McCoy Tyner’s improvisation on Bessie’s blues, recorded with the John Coltrane Quartet in 1964, exemplifies the traditional Afrodiasporic performance practice of apart playing.
A formulation of the art historian Robert Farris Thompson, apart playing occurs whenever individual performers enact different, complementary roles in an ensemble setting. For interpretative purposes, the concept helps to provide a cultural context for certain pitch-based formal devices, such as substitute harmonies and playing outside an underlying chord or scale, which Tyner uses in the course of his solo.
This according to “Apart playing: McCoy Tyner and Bessie’s blues” by Benjamin Givan (Journal of the Society for American Music I/2 [May 2007] pp. 257–80).
Today is Tyner’s 80th birthday! Above, performing in 1973; below, the recording in question.
The eclecticism of Don Byron and his music reflects the decentralization of music in the U.S., where there is no single musical culture but rather mini-, micro-, and subcultures that continually mutate into new idioms.
While eclectic music seems to characterize culture in the U.S. at this moment, the discussion about it reveals certain cultural biases. Byron’s works highlight the tension between assimilation and difference and dispel prevalent assumptions regarding style politics and identity politics.
This according to “Making mischief in the melting pot: The intercultural music of Don Byron” by Barbara White, an essay included in Intercultural music. III (Richmond: MRI, 2001, pp. 15–37).
Today is Byron’s 60th birthday! Below, a track from Don Byron plays the music of Mickey Katz.
The life of the jazz trumpeter Rowland Bernard “Bunny” Berigan resembles nothing less than an ancient Greek tragedy: a heroic figure who rises from obscurity to dizzying heights, touches greatness, becomes ensnared by circumstances, and comes to a disastrous early end.
Berigan was a charismatic performer. His artistry made a deep and lasting impression on everyone who heard him play, while the body of recorded work he left continues to evoke a wide range of emotions. He played a key role in a golden age of American popular music and jazz.
This according to Mr. Trumpet: The trials, tribulations, and triumph of Bunny Berigan by Michael P. Zirpolo (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2011).
Today is Berigan’s 110th birthday! Below, his classic 1937 recording of I can’t get started, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1975.
The second-generation Japanese American Jimmy Araki (1925–91) learned to play the saxophone in a World War II internment camp in Gila, Arizona.
After the War, Araki was drafted and sent to Japan to serve as an interpreter for the Tōkyō war crimes trials. During his stay there he found time to play music, and he became the pioneering figure in the introduction of bebop to Japan. He later enjoyed a career as a scholar of Japanese literature at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
This according to スウィング・ジャパン ― 日系米軍兵ジミー・アラキと占領の記憶 (Swing Japan: Japanese-American GI Jimmy Araki and memories of the occupation) by Akio Satoko (Tōkyō: Shinchō-sha, 2012).
Below, Araki and his group play Broken rhythm (ブロークン・リズム), one of his compositions.
In a city where music traditions are held sacred, the Rebirth Brass Band, anchored by leader Philip “Tuba Phil” Frazier alongside his brother, Keith “Bass Drum Shorty” Frazier, occupies a unique place in New Orleans culture.
Over the course of three decades, the group’s R&B and funk motifs have redefined the standard for brass band music without losing sight of the music’s heritage. Rebirth’s profound influence on brass band musicians endures during second line parades and jazz funerals, and in classrooms and rehearsal spaces citywide.
This according to “Rebirth Brass Band: Keep it goin’ like a heartbeat” by Jennifer Odell (DownBeat LXXXI/9 [September 2014] pp. 44–47).
Above and below, Rebirth in action.