Tag Archives: Birthdays

Billy Taylor, jazz advocate

“There’s no question that being an advocate eclipsed my reputation as a musician” Billy Taylor said in a 2007 interview. “It was my doing. I wanted to prove to people that jazz has an audience. I had to do that for me.”

Taylor’s career spanned nearly 70 years and included collaborations with almost every significant performer in jazz, from Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker to Wynton Marsalis; but he had an even rarer gift for explaining his music and drawing people to it.

With a doctorate in education, Taylor was considered perhaps the foremost jazz educator of his time. He taught in colleges, lectured widely, served on panels, traveled the world as a jazz ambassador, and organized events that took renowned jazz musicians directly to the streets.

Fully conversant as a performer in the complexities of bebop, he was among the few musicians who were comfortable with explaining it to the uninitiated. “It bothered me when Diz and Bird would start talking bebop and giving nonsensical answers to what they were intelligent enough to know was a seriously meant question” he said in 1971. “It bothered me so much that every chance I got, I tried to set the record straight.”

This according to “Billy Taylor, revered musician, broadcaster and spokesman for jazz, dies at 89” by Matt Schudel (The Washington post 30 December 2010; RILM Abstracts 2010-50027).

Today would have been Taylor’s 100th birthday! Above, Billy Taylor in 2000  by John Mathew Smith is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0; below, Taylor plays Ellington’s In a sentimental mood.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

Herrmann-induced vertigo

For his main title music for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Bernard Herrmann used alternately ascending and descending arpeggiated chords in contrary motion in the treble and bass voices; no clear direction, up or down, is established, nor is a harmonic center confirmed.

With its almost uninterrupted, destabilizing undulation, the music provides a musical evocation of vertigo that is reinforced by Hitchcock’s spiraling geometric images.

This according to “The language of music: A brief analysis of Vertigo” by Kathryn Kalinak, an essay included in her Settling the score: Music and the classical Hollywood film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992) and reprinted in Movie music: The film reader (London: Routledge, 2003).

Today is Bernard Herrmann’s 110th birthday! Below, the virtiginous title sequence in question.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Film music

Ora Watson, buck dancing fiddler

“I was born a-dancing” Ora Watson used to say, and indeed when she was barely old enough to stand she would try dancing on her mother’s lap at church when the music started. Watson’s father, an expert old-time musician, was also a great buck dancer, and she recalled picking up steps from him.

A farmer, mother of four, and veteran of several old-time and bluegrass bands, Watson could raise the energy on any stage by playing fiddle and dancing at the same time, often to her favorite fiddle tune, “Ragtime Annie”. In her youth she won several dance competitions, including at least one Charleston competition, and old-time buck dancing aficionados could spot the Charleston’s influence on her footwork.

This according to “Ora Watson, Watauga County’s senior musician: ‘Music keeps me young!’” by Mark Freed (The old-time herald XI/1 [October-November 2007] 16–21; RILM Abstracts 2007-29464).

Today would have been Ora Watson’s 110th birthday! Above and below, holding forth in 1993, when she was 82.

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance

Erroll Garner and “Misty”

When Clint Eastwood was asked to “play Misty for me” in the classic movie of the same name, the song was played by its composer Erroll Garner, one of jazz’s most popular and prolific artists.

A completely self-taught pianist who never learned to read music, Garner created a unique and idiosyncratic but always accessible style. His musical approach was based on elements of swing and bop, while being harmonically reminiscent of French impressionistic composers such as Debussy and Ravel. This style, combined with a winning stage persona, made him arguably the most successful jazz artist of the 1950s.

Garner composed several songs that went on to become jazz standards, but the one with which he will be linked forever is “Misty” (1954). With lyrics by Johnny Burke, the song became a hit for such artists as Johnny Mathis and Sarah Vaughan

The critic Leonard Feather eulogized him as a pianist who played “cascades of jubilant chords that seemed to tell you, ‘Boy, am I having a ball!’”

This according to “Garner, Erroll” by Michael R. Ross (Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century [New York: Routledge, 2013] p. 641); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is Garner’s 10oth birthday! Below, the composer holds forth.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers, Popular music

Maguy Marin’s posthuman “Cendrillion”

Grotesque masks replace powdered noses, blushed cheekbones, and false eyelashes. Padded suits expand thin body lines. The doll costumes in Maguy Marin’s Cendrillion (Cinderella) push the boundaries of late 20th-century Western ballet aesthetics. Simultaneously, they raise questions about the ballet dancer’s role as subject and object onstage.

Combined with Prokof’ev’s Zoluška score, Marin’s characters, movement, and costumes expose and challenge multiple layers of dancer objectification. Situating the choreographer’s tactics within a feminist framework illuminates how Marin’s radical strategy centers on posthuman philosophy, paradoxically suggesting that a ballerina, through her thingness and cyborgian relations, can function outside of object-subject constraints.

This according to “Maguy Marin’s posthuman Cinderella: Thingness, grotesquerie, and cyborgs” by Mara Mandradjieff (Dance chronicle XL/3 [2017] 374–92; RILM Abstracts 2017-56181).

Today is Marin’s 70th birthday! Above and below, excerpts from productions of Cendrillion.

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Filed under Dance

Melissa Etheridge’s creative process

In a 2020 interview, Melissa Etheridge recalled the genesis of her Grammy Award-winning Come to my window.

“I almost didn’t put it on the album. I thought it was a little too ambiguous of a song, that maybe people wouldn’t quite know what I’m talking about.”

“The chorus came first. Actually, I wanted to write a chorus that had a lifting melody, that kind of went up.”

“I was in a relationship that was the kind of relationship you have in your early 30s. You think you’re all in it, but it’s all complicated.  I had just hung up from a conversation where we didn’t say anything.  And I just hung up and said, ‘Why did I do this?’ Oh, well, ‘I would dial the numbers, just to listen to your breath.’  I just want to connect with you so badly.”

“It certainly wasn’t what I thought a hit song was. And then, man, it came out and it just kept going and going and going. What do I know, you know?”

This according to “Melissa Etheridge: The Rolling stone interview” by Brian Hiatt (Rolling stone 16 September 2020; RILM Abstracts 2020-57467).

Today is Etheridge’s 60th birthday! Above, a photo from 2011 by Angela George (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0); below, a live performance.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music, Women's studies

Tagore and Rabindra saṇgīt

Rabindra saṇgīt is a genre comprising the vocal works of the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote poetry and other literary works in his mother tongue, Bengali.

The music he composed for his verses drew on many sources. Well-versed in the classical Hindustani tradition of North India, Tagore was also familiar with the Karnatak tradition of South India; his compositions mix melodic and rhythmic ideas from Indian art and folk traditions, along with elements of genres from various other parts of the world.

Much of Tagore’s music is rāga-based, though not categorically bound by rāga grammar. Despite the catholicity of his approach to composition, his works bear the unmistakable and inimitable imprint of his own musical vision.

This according to Hindustani music: A tradition in transition by Deepak S. Raja (New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 2005; RILM Abstracts 2005-8174).

Today is Tagore’s 160th birthday!

Below, Amiya Tagore, one of the few recorded exponents of Rabindra saṇgīt who studied directly with the composer, sings his E parabase rabe ke, which she recorded for Satyajit Ray’s film Kanchenjungha in 1962.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music

Jack Cole’s double bind

Jack Cole is often called “the father of theatrical jazz dance”, and “Cole technique” has strongly influenced both film dance and American theatrical dance generally. In his heyday he was one of the most powerful choreographers working in Hollywood, with contractual control over the movement design, camerawork, costuming, lighting, and editing of his dance numbers.

Cole’s status as an “invisible” gay man is crucial to more than an understanding of the satiric, parodic, or camp elements of his film work; it is also a necessary precondition for his particular mode of deployment of so-called Oriental dance practices.

Cole engaged the double bind that both women and men are prisoners of gender roles. His use of the body’s physical beauty to stand for more than spiritual power combined the theatricality and spirituality of Denishawn, the voluptuousness and intensity of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and Oriental and other ethnic dance styles. His approach to dance and gender had profound effects on mid-20th-century hegemonic dance culture.

This according to “The thousand ways there are to move: Camp and Oriental dance in the Hollywood musicals of Jack Cole” by Adrienne L. McLean (Journal for the anthropological study of human movement XII/3 [spring 2003] 59–77; RILM Abstracts 2003-42184).

Today would have been Cole’s 110th birthday! Above, a portrait by Carl Van Vechten from 1937 (public domain); below, the Denishawn parody “Greek ballet” from Down to earth (1947).

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Béla Bartók, entomologist

Béla Bartók is renowned as one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers and as one of the founders of ethnomusicology. Less known is his love of animals, particularly his fascination with insects.

When he was a child he bred silkworms, and later he systematically collected insects, assembling a beautiful assortment. His son Béla Jr. recalled helping him with this hobby. “The most important instruction that he gave…was that no pain whatsoever was to be inflicted on the animals. And so he always took the appropriate drug with him on his insect-collecting expeditions. The insects, therefore, died and came into his collection without any suffering.”

This according to “The private man” by Béla Bartók, Jr. (as translated by Judit Rácz), which is included in The Bartók companion (London: Faber & Faber, 1993; RILM Abstracts 1993-4867).

Today is Bartók’s 140th birthday! Above, a watercolor caricature of him as an insect enthusiast by his cousin Ervin Voit. Below, his “Mese a kis légyrõl” (From the diary of a fly, Mikrokosmos, BB 105, Sz. 107, VI/142).

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Animals, Nature, Science

Telemann’s wit

Georg Philipp Telemann’s ability to produce high-quality works at lightning speed is well known; less remembered today is his mischievous sense of humor. He was known among his friends for writing wickedly clever satirical verses and playing musical practical jokes, as he once did with a cantor from a nearby village.

Seeking to aggrandize himself, this cantor determined that he would honor a certain festival day by performing a new sacred work by the local master. He repeatedly requested that Telemann write something for him and his choir, and, knowing that their musicianship was decidedly inferior, the composer repeatedly declined. At last the cantor made such a pest of himself that Telemann told him that he and a few friends would arrive with the new work for a rehearsal before the performance.

On the appointed day the composer handed the new work—a treacherously difficult fugue—to the cantor, whispering to his friends “Now the thieves shall confess their sins.” The singers proceeded to produce a dismal, discordant rendition as they unknowingly made fun of themselves. Telemann had set the line “Wir können nichts wider den Herrn reden” (We cannot speak against the Lord) in such a way that the hapless singers were “confessing” their ineptitude by repeating the words “Wir können nichts” (We cannot)!

The composer laughed heartily. “That certainly won’t do” he said. “Let’s see how we can remedy this.” He then took out a different composition, and he and his friends performed it—both saving the day and humiliating the presumptuous cantor.

This according to “Images of Telemann: Narratives of reception in the composer’s anecdote, 1750–1830” by Steven Zohn (The journal of musicology XXI/4 [2005] 459–486; RILM Abstracts 2004-6402).

Today is Telemann’s 340th birthday! Below, a merry bit of tone-painting—“Postillion” from his Tafelmusik.

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Filed under Baroque era, Curiosities, Humor