Tag Archives: Birthdays

Béla Fleck’s Africa Project

In early 2005 Béla Fleck traveled to Tanzania, Uganda, Gambia, and Mali to meet, jam, and record with an impressive array of musicians, bringing along a recording engineer, a film crew, and enough gear to ensure that no encounter would go unrecorded. He accompanied the player of a massive marimba in Uganda, played with kalimba masters and harpists in Tanzania, and encountered a possible banjo ancestor—the akonting—in Gambia.

In an interview, Fleck explained that his aggressive travel agenda was part of a strategy to circumvent his inner control freak. “By putting myself in a situation where I couldn’t really be completely prepared, I was forced to dig deep into things that I do that I can’t tell you where they come from. I have been pegged as a complicated guy, and so it’s funny that I feel freer not being complicated in this setting.”

This according to “Béla Fleck’s Africa Project” by Banning Eyre (Guitar player August 2009).

Today is Fleck’s 60th birthday! Above and below, excerpts from his award-winning film Throw down your heart.

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Filed under Africa, Instruments, Performers

Louis Jordan and “Caldonia”

In an interview, Louis Jordan recalled the background of his 1945 hit Caldonia:

Caldonia started a long time before I came to New York. There used to be a long, lean, lanky girl in Memphis, Tennessee, where Jim Cannon used to have a gambling place where people used to come to shoot a bale of cotton because they didn’t have too much money to gamble.”

“This long, lean, lanky gal used to hang out in this place and she wouldn’t do anything you asked her to do. That’s why they said ‘Your head was so hard,’ and…Hot Lips Page was very young then and I met him and he said ‘You should make a tune out of that, just a plain old blues.’”

Quoted in Let the good times roll: The story of Louis Jordan and his music by John Chilton (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, p. 112).

Today is Jordan’s 110th birthday! Below, a 1946 performance of the song.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Cathy Berberian’s humor

Irony and humor were inseparable parts of Cathy Berberian’s musical life; they permeated and guided her musical choices, her works, and her interpretations and stage performances. A key feature of her artistic personality was her love of laughter, derision, and amusement, her skill at combining seriousness and mockery, professionalism and frivolity, respect and irony.

The little girl playing with her voice, imitating what she heard—animals, sounds, singers—became the young woman who married Luciano Berio without abandoning her free spirit, which inspired John Cage and many others. Later, in her works and those composed for her, she gave free rein to parody, pastiche, diversion, and an array of peaceful weapons for fighting fixed ideas and shaking up certainties.

Berberian’s deep desire to question tradition and express an inventive concept of music—an open concept, anchoring music and singing in life—could not be fulfilled without destroying idols and wringing the neck of popular belief in a burst of laughter. She wielded irony as a corrective to dogmatism, parochialism, and obscurantism.

A daughter of exiles, always a foreigner in a host country, a woman among famous men, and intelligent far beyond what was expected from a performer and a singer, Berberian triumphed by defending humor, the wealth of the oppressed.

This according to “L’errance infitie de l’humor: L’humor de Cathy Berberian” by Marie-Christine Vila (Itamar: Revista de investigación musical–Territorios para el arte III [2010] pp. 311–21).

Today is Berberian’s birthday! Above and below, performing her own Stripsody (1966), which uses a graphic score to indicate comic strip sounds.

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

Rubén Blades and tango

During his service from 2004 to 2009 as the Minister of Tourism for his native Panama, the singer-songwriter, actor, and political activist Rubén Blades largely refrained from his many pursuits in the entertainment world.

But before diving headlong back into his salsa career, Blades finished a project several years in the making: a collection of 11 of his original salsa compositions re-imagined as tangos. Carlos Franzetti, a Grammy-winning pianist from Argentina, arranged and produced Tangos, which was recorded in Buenos Aires using the veteran tango musicians of Leopoldo Federico’s orchestra.

This according to “Rubén Blades: Tango storyteller” by Thomas Staudter (DownBeat LXXXI/9 [September 2014] p. 16).

Today is Blades’s 70th birthday! Above, performing at the 2014 Latin Grammy Awards, where Tangos won the award for Best Tango Album; below, an excerpt from the record.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Prince’s personae

Few musicians have been as acutely conscious of their images as Prince, or as dedicated to presenting themselves with such teasing complexity.

Prince transformed his visual identity with each album he released. The pompadoured rock god of Purple rain was followed by the beatific flower child of Around the world in a day and the louche sensualist of Parade. Each record carefully maintained its own distinctive palette, most obviously with Purple rain, but also with the peach-and-black color scheme of Sign o’ the times and the black, white, and red of Lovesexy.

The cover of one of his earliest albums, Dirty mind (1980), depicted a sexually charged, ambiguously gendered Prince, complete with a thong and thigh-high boots. He continued to blur boundaries between male and female, straight and gay, chaste and libidinous, through much of his career.

This according to “How Prince invented himself. Over and over.” by Ekow Eshun (The New York times 3 November 2017).

Today would have been Prince’s 60th birthday! Above, his 2016 Piano & a Microphone Tour, shortly before his death; below, performing in 1984.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Gustav Leonhardt in the 1960s

In the 1960s Gustav Leonhardt found himself transformed from a locally successful Dutch harpsichordist into a global phenomenon. Ironically, Leonhardt, an advocate for historical performance and building preservation, achieved critical and commercial success during an era marked by the rhetoric of social protest, renewal, and technological progress.

Leonhardt’s recordings demonstrate an authenticist stance, contrasting with the Romantic subjectivity of earlier Bach interpreters and the flamboyant showmanship of competing harpsichordists. Complementing this positioning were Leonhardt’s austere performance in Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (above), his advocacy for historical instruments, and his uncompromising repertoire choices.

To a conservative older generation, Leonhardt represented sobriety and a link to the past. Nonetheless, Leonhardt’s staid persona had broader appeal: an unlikely guru, he attracted flocks of devotees. Younger musicians, inspired by his speech-like harpsichord articulation and use of reduced performing forces, viewed his performances as anti-mainstream protest music—despite Leonhardt’s own self-consciously apolitical stance.

Moreover, the antiquity of the harpsichord and historical instruments complemented concurrent interests in craftsmanship, whole foods, and authenticity; yet early music’s popularity was dependent upon technological mediation, especially high-fidelity recordings. Leonhardt thus emerges as a complex figure whose appeal transcended generational boundaries and bridged technological mediums.

This according to “The grand guru of Baroque music: Leonhardt’s antiquarianism in the progressivist 1960s” by Kailan Ruth Rubinoff (Early music XLII/1 [February 2014] pp. 23–35).

Today would have been Gustav Leonhardt’s 90th birthday! Below, performing in 1966.

BONUS: The official trailer for Chronik:

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Filed under Baroque era, Performers

Bill Robinson taps past Jim Crow

During the Great Depression Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple made a number of films together in which narratives depict an America where black people are happy slaves or docile servants, Civil War (even southern) soldiers are noble Americans, and voracious capitalists are kindly old men. But within these minstrel tropes and origin stories designed for uplift, the films challenge regressive ideologies through Robinson and Temple’s incendiary dance partnership.

For example, while the stair dance in The little colonel is part of the story, it is bracketed as a time outside the movie’s narrative flow. This thrusts the dance through the fixity of Jim Crow social constructs to reveal them as constructs, demonstrating the layered and molten nature of race and gender, and offering moviegoers a vision of the sociological and existential structures of U.S. society reimagined.

This according to “Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple tap past Jim Crow” by Anne Murphy, an essay included in The Oxford handbook of screendance studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 731–47).

Today is Robinson’s 140th birthday! Above and below, the celebrated stair dance.

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Filed under Black studies, Dance, Performers

Balasaraswati and bharata nāṭyam

T. Balasaraswati (1918–84), a dancer and musician from southern India, became recognized worldwide as one of the great performing artists of the twentieth century. In India she was a legend in her own time, acclaimed before she was 30 years old as the greatest living dancer of traditional bharata nāṭyam.

Balasaraswati was a passionate revolutionary, an entirely modern artist whose impact was proclaimed by some of the most prominent figures in contemporary dance in India and the West. Her art and life defined the heart of a tradition, and her life story offers an extraordinary view of the enigmatic matrilineal devadāsī community and traditional artistic practice from which modern South Indian dance styles have emerged.

This according to Balasaraswati: Her art and life by Douglas M. Knight (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2010).

Today is Balasaraswati’s 100th birthday! Below, a 30-minute film about her by Satyajit Ray.

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Filed under Asia, Dance, Performers

Irving Berlin and jazz

In his four Music box revues (1921–24), Irving Berlin introduced a series of songs that were widely construed as jazz. That view has not prevailed, but the jazz label becomes more intelligible through efforts to restore its original milieu, including the songs’ distinctive musical and linguistic elements, their theatrical context, and the cultural commentary surrounding Berlin and his work in that period.

At a time when the term jazz had only recently entered public discourse, and when its meaning, content, and value remained in flux, Berlin deployed a variety of ragtime and blues figures and combined them in such a way as to produce a jazz trope, a musical construct created by juxtaposing disparate or even contradictory topics. When repeatedly set to lyrics that celebrate illicit behavior, the music gained further associations with things that jazz was thought to abet.

Theatrical setting further reinforced the songs’ links to jazz. Berlin wrote many of the numbers for a flapper-style sister act, often placed them in a climactic program position, and juxtaposed them with sentimental and nostalgic songs that lacked jazz flavor and whose lyrics, in some cases, pointedly denied jazz’s attractions.

Beyond the stage, the songs and their theatrical presentation flourished within an emerging perspective that identified Jewish Americans, such as Berlin and George Gershwin, as the key figures in jazz and musical theater. Berlin’s Broadway jazz stands as an influential and revealing intersection of musical, linguistic, theatrical, and social elements in the early 1920s.

This according to “Everybody step: Irving Berlin, jazz, and Broadway in the 1920s” by Jeffrey Magee (Journal of the American Musicological Society LIX/3 [fall 2006] pp. 697–732).

Today is Berlin’s 130th birthday! Below, Alice Faye sings his Everybody step, an example from the article.

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Filed under Popular music, Reception

Blind Willie McTell’s legacy

The Atlanta bluesman William Samuel McTier, who performed and recorded as Blind Willie McTell, is known today for his iconic songs and Piedmont fingerpicking 12-string guitar playing.

When he died in 1959 he passed like a vague shadow, missed only by a few friends, family members, and some scattered blues fans, his music consigned to one of the dustier back shelves of Southern Americana. But that same year the renowned folklorist Samuel Charters published his Country blues, with passages that raised McTell to the status of blues master. In the years since he has risen from his obscurity in stunning profile, as enduring as the vibrant music he left behind.

This according to “Blind Willie McTell: Atlanta’s 12-string minstrel for all seasons” by David Fulmer (Blues access 11 [fall 1992] pp. 30–35).

Today is Blind Willie McTell’s 120th birthday! Below, his much-covered Statesboro blues.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers