Tag Archives: Performers

Audra McDonald and Lady Day

 

In an interview, Audra McDonald discussed Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grille, for which she won the Best Actress in a Play Tony Award in 2014.

“It’s about a woman trying to get through a concert performance, which I know something about, and she’s doing it at a time when her liver was pickled and she was still doing heroin regularly.”

“I might have been a little judgmental about Billie Holiday early on in my life, but what I’ve come to admire most about her—and what is fascinating in this show—is that there is never any self-pity. She’s almost laughing at how horrible her life has been. I don’t think she sees herself as a victim. And she feels an incredible connection to her music—she can’t sing a song if she doesn’t have some emotional connection to it, which I really understand.”

“One wonderful thing for me is there are tons of recordings of Billie that I’ve been listening to and watching, even audio of her talking about certain songs, so I have a lot to draw on.”

Quoted in “Audra McDonald to return to Broadway as Billie Holiday” by Patrick Healey (The New York times 26 February 2014; RILM Abstracts 2014-89300).

Today is McDonald’s 50th birthday! Below, excerpts from her Tony Awards performance.

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Filed under Dramatic arts, Jazz and blues, Performers, Popular music

Howlin’ Wolf and “Back door man”

 

In June 1960, after nine years of recording and over two decades of touring and performing, Howlin’ Wolf and some trusted sidemen entered Chess Studios in Chicago to cut three sides. Wolf was 50 years old and an established act; yet everything about the session’s results, and particularly the song Back door man, seems elusive and interstitial.

Jim Crow racial segregation—at least one of the many meanings of the song’s title—was then both legally discredited and locally practiced, in the North as well as the South. Minimal, sinister, and edgy, fueled by images of violence, betrayal, and polymorphous sexual bravado, structured throughout by riddles and dialectical reversals, Back door man is a sort of historical puzzle, fusing Jim Crow sound, Jim Crow sex, and Jim Crow space; it implies as well a theory of how sound and subject formation, and subject formation through sound, arise out of Jim Crow violence.

This according to “Back door man: Howlin’ Wolf and the sound of Jim Crow” by Eric Lott (American quarterly LXIII/3 [September 2011] 697–710; RILM Abstracts 2011-27928).

Today is Howlin’ Wolf’s 110th birthday! Below, the recording in question.

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Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Performers

T-bone Walker’s legacy

 

One of the most important and enduring icons of blues history, the charismatic T-Bone Walker radically transformed the music with a combination of instrumental virtuosity and stylistic and technical innovation throughout a career of unusual longevity and legendary significance.

Walker invented both the electric blues guitar concept and the sound identified with it. Incorporating jazz changes with blues innovations of his own design, he created a new guitar sound with a horn-like richness that was emulated by guitarists everywhere, but especially in his home state. Everybody that picked up a guitar in Texas wanted to sound like T-Bone, and his onstage acrobatics, complete with signature splits, were directly responsible for similarly extroverted stage antics by later performers such as Chuck Berry, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix.

This according to “Walker, T-Bone” by Michael Point (Encyclopedia of the blues, 2006); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is T-bone Walker’s 110th birthday! Above, T-Bone Walker (1972) by Heinrich Klaffs is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Below, a performance from 1966.

BONUS: Walker’s signature hit Stormy Monday.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

Stevie Wonder’s turning point

 

Stevie Wonder’s extraordinary burst of productivity after his 21st birthday in 1971—a time now celebrated as his “classic period”—was a direct result of his contractual maneuvers with Motown Records.

On his 21st birthday, when he was no longer a minor, Wonder gained access to 10 years’ worth of royalties that had been accruing in a trust set up for him when he’d signed his first contract, at age 11.

He also allowed his Motown contract to expire at that moment, meaning that one of pop music’s hottest stars was now both financially secure and a free agent. If Motown wanted to keep him, it would require a deal unlike any the label had previously granted.

Wonder negotiated a new contract with Motown that granted him full artistic control over his music, his own publishing company, and an unprecedented royalty rate. It was a revolutionary deal that initiated one of the greatest sustained runs of creativity in the history of popular music.

This according to “The greatest creative run in the history of popular music” by Jack Hamilton (Slate 19 December 2016; RILM Abstracts 2016-48645).

Today is Stevie Wonder’s 70th birthday! Above, in his turning point year; below, Superstition, his #1 hit from 1972.

BONUS: Tearing the roof off Sesame Street in 1973.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Willie Colón on salsa

 

Born in the South Bronx, New York, Willie Colón has been a leader in the salsa tradition for over 50 years. In an interview, he discussed the music and its background.

“A lot of people like to characterize salsa as a pastiche of Cuban son. There’s no denying that there is a Cuban influence and a Cuban base to it, but it’s so much more.”

“Salsa is not a rhythm, it’s a concept. It’s a way of making music. It’s an open concept and the reason that it became so popular is because it was able to evolve and accept all of these other musics. We put the bombas and plenas in it; we put calypso, samba, bossa, and cumbia in it. It’s definitely not even a Puerto Rican or a Cuban music. It’s a reconciliation of everything you can find.”

“I think it could have only happened here in New York, where you had so many different kinds of people living and playing together. We used to get a lot of the black jazz players. They wanted to come and play salsa so they can blow over the changes. Where are you going to find players like that other than in a big city like New York? This was not going to happen in Cuba or Puerto Rico; it had to be here.”

Quoted in “Willie Colón: Salsa is an open concept” by Frank J. Oteri (NewMusicBox 1 March 2009).

Today is Colón’s 70th birthday! Above, an iconic record cover from 1971 (right-click to enlarge); below, a 2018 performance.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Ravi Shankar and the Concert for Bangladesh

 

In 1971 the turmoil and atrocities associated with the Bangladesh Liberation War led to a massive refugee crisis, with at least seven million displaced persons facing starvation and other humanitarian catastrophes.

Appalled by the situation in his homeland, Ravi Shankar spoke with his student and friend George Harrison about fundraising possibilities, and the idea of the Concert for Bangladesh was born. The initial gate receipts raised close to $250,000 for Bangladesh relief.

Writing for the introduction to the 2005 re-release of the concert album and accompanying documentary, Shankar recalled:

“Hailing from Bengal, my heart went out to the Bengali speaking people of Bangladesh, and it was natural for me to reach out and want to help the refugees and the hundreds of thousands of little children…What happened is now history: it was one of the most moving and intense musical experiences of the century.”

“Again and again I am asked which concerts stand out in my memory, and it is very difficult to remember all the prominent ones as my career spans over seventy-five years of performances; but the Concert for Bangladesh was very significant to me as the conception of the idea came from me and the people needing aid were very close to my heart—some of them, of course, being distantly related to me.”

Quoted from “The Concert for Bangladesh” by Ravi Shankar, which is included in The Bangladesh reader: History, culture, politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013, pp. 508–09).

Today would have been Ravi Shankar’s 100th birthday! Above and below, moments from the documentary.

BONUS: The full performance, from the concert album.

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Filed under Performers

ECD’s legacy

 

The Japanese rap pioneer and activist ECD (Ishida Yoshinori, 石田義則) was neither the earliest nor most commercially successful rapper, and he would have eschewed calling himself a leader of any protest group; nonetheless, he was what Gramsci would have called an organic intellectual of the working class.

The frankness of his music, writing, and performances touched his audiences at an affective level, connecting them to the movements in which he participated. His life embodied the worlds of hip-hop, contentious politics, and the working class, and his songs convey a vivid account of his life, reflecting his personal and political concerns as well as the ambience of street protests.

ECD was a key figure in the development of the underground hip-hop scene, organizing events that allowed it to take root and to be lifted into commercial viability. He was on the front lines of several Japanese social movements—anti-Iraq War, anti-nuclear power, anti-racist, pro-democracy, and anti-militarization. He wrote protest anthems, inspired Sprechchor, performed at protests, and helped to establish a new mode of participatory performance that engaged protesters more fully. His sheer presence at demonstrations, constant and reliable, energized and reassured protesters.

This according to “‘It’s our turn to be heard’: The life and legacy of rapper-activist ECD (1960–2018)” by Noriko Manabe (The Asia-Pacific journal: Japan focus XVI/6 [March 2018]).

Today would have been ECD’s 60th birthday! Below, a live performance.

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Filed under Performers, Politics, Popular music

Bobby McFerrin and science

 

In an interview, Bobby McFerrin responded to being termed a “science guy”:

“I’m not really much of a science guy, but I’ve been privileged to work with Daniel Levitan and Elaina Mannes, scientists who are interested in how music affects people. Well, every time I give a concert I spend my whole time observing how music affects the people! So it’s very interesting to me.”

“The piece I did at the World Science Festival is called the Pentatonic romp. I’ve performed it all over the world, and people everywhere can sing that scale by ear. Doesn’t matter what language they speak or what kind of music they listen to. It’s like it’s built in. I’ve done it for decades now and I still think it’s amazing!”

Quoted in “Science, faith and improv: An interview with Bobby McFerrin” (Bandwagon 17 February 2015).

Today is McFerrin’s 70th birthday! Above, performing at !Sing: Day of Song in 2010 (photo by Michael Koschinski); below, the 2009 World Science Festival performance.

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Science

Ornette Coleman and harmolodics

 

In an interview, Ornette Coleman discussed the musical philosophy and compositional/improvisational method that he called harmolodics.

“Harmolodics is a base of expanding the melody, the harmonic structure, the rhythm, and above all the free improvised structure of a composition beyond what they would be if they were just played as a regular 2-5-1 structure, or if they were played with the concept of a melody having a certain arrangement to know when to start and stop.”

“If a word means something else in another language, and it’s spelled and sounds the same, that’s very harmolodic. So, when you’re able to play like that, it expresses what sounds could be if they weren’t programmed to represent a certain territory. It has to do with what you base a concept of unity on. Unity in Europe comes from shared territories, not like America where unity is created out of shared conditions.”

“Harmolodics doesn’t change something from its original state. It expresses the information a melody has within its structure without taking it apart to find out why its sounds that way.”

Quoted in “Dialing up Ornette” by Bill Shoemaker (JazzTimes XXV/10 [December 1995] pp. 42–44).

Today would have been Coleman’s 90th birthday! Above, performing in 2008 (photo by Frank Schindelbeck; below, a performance from Coleman’s harmolodic funk period.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers, Theory

Queering Bruce Springsteen

 

The narratives of Bruce Springsteen’s songs resonate with many queer people, who are well aware of the possibility of a life-altering freedom that presents itself as the reward for stepping into your true self (even when that freedom comes, as is often the case, at great cost).

Springsteen is far from gay; some might argue he is one of the straightest men alive. Nonetheless, some fans regard his work as, in Rosalie Zdzienicka Fanshel’s words, “homoerotic or queerly suggestive”.

There’s also Carmen Rios’s “We’re here and we’re queering Bruce Springsteen” at one of the longest-running sites for queer women, Autostraddle; the queer writer Tennessee Jones’s short story collection Deliver me from nowhere, based on the album Nebraska; and the many queer Bruce Springsteen zines, from Because the Boss belongs to us to Butt Springsteen.

What exactly is so queer about Springsteen? Is it his extreme butchness, so practiced and so precise that he might as well have learned it from the oldest lesbian at a gay bar? Is it because his hard-earned, roughly hewn version of love is recognizable to those for whom desire has often meant sacrifice? Or is it something simpler? Do many queers love Springsteen because nearly every song he has produced in his 50-year career reflects a crushing, unabiding sense of alienation and longing—and what could be more queer than that?

This according to “Things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town: The queerness of Bruce Springsteen” by Naomi Gordon-Loebl (The nation 6 November 2019).

Below, Springsteen’s Tougher than the rest, a song (and video) discussed in the article.

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Popular music