Programs

Below is a list of programs that I am currently presenting throughout the metropolitan area.

Jazz and the American Spirit: Swing, the Great Depression and WWII

When the stock market took a dive on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the country was unprepared and the resulting economic devastation was a key factor in beginning the Great Depression. In 1933, at the worst point in the Depression years, unemployment rates in the United States reached almost 25%, with more than 11 million people looking for work. Americans were searching for an escape for their hardship and they found it in the music of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and others. Jazz was the antidote to the waking spirits of the American public.

Although the country was facing unprecedented hardship, Swing music elevated jazz to new heights—making it the first and only time jazz was America’s popular music. This talk will illuminate the origins of the Great Depression and the key musicians who helped revive the American spirit.

Music of the 1930s and 1940s will illustrate the importance of this uniquely American art form and the cultural significance it has played in our country’s history. From the advent of V-Discs (victory discs) and the USO, evidence will be provided on music’s ability to heal a nation through economic devastation and the turmoil of war.

 

Beyond Category: The Life and Music of Duke Ellington

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born on April 22, 1899 and was among the most prolific composers of the twentieth century in terms of both number of compositions and variety of forms. His development was one of the most spectacular in the history of music, underscored by more than fifty years of sustained achievement as an artist and entertainer. He is considered by many to be America’s greatest composer, bandleader, and recording artist.

This program will trace Ellington’s musical life from his beginnings in 1920′s Harlem and the Jazz Age to his death in 1974. Audio and video footage, in addition to musical examples, will illustrate the magnitude of Ellington’s contributions to the American aesthetic.

 

Triptych: Traversing the American Aesthetic through the Works of Duke Ellington, Jacob Lawrence, and Langston Hughes

As a country largely built by nonindigenous peoples, the United States of America may be identified more by its heterogeneity rather than by its sense of similitude; this issue has concerned scholars and prodded them to ask, “What’s American about America?” Although I concede to the syncretic nature of the United States, I assert that there lies an innately, culturally-connective principle – a blues sensibility.

This program, Triptych: Traversing the American Aesthetic through the Works of Duke Ellington, Jacob Lawrence, and Langston Hughes, draws on a decade of exploration of aesthetic devices used by jazz musicians and composers that are disparate from those of the Western European classical canon. These techniques, which have their geneses in the vernacular tradition of the blues, have transcended their musical roots and have been adopted and adapted by visual artists such as Jacob Lawrence and literary figures as Langston Hughes. The art of Jacob Lawrence, for example, evokes the same rugged individualism, experimentation, and resilience in the face of adversity as the music of the 19th century country blues man from the Mississippi Delta. Borrowing from Ralph Ellison’s perspective of a “jazz-shaped” reality, my research illustrates how the American musical form of the blues surpasses its explicit functions to serve as a wellspring for the pluralistic streams of national art and speaks to the character inherent in the American spirit.

 

Runnin’ Wild: Harlem, the Interwar Years, and the Music that Transformed a Nation

The luster of twentieth-century America was seductive. The age of modernity was ushered in by the automobile, motion picture, radio, and transatlantic flight. The mores of the Victorian era were crushed by a Prohibition-induced defiance. The 19th Amendment bestowed a new freedom upon the women of the country; all things seemed possible. And jazz, with its complex contradictions and tensions, was an aural manifestation of it all. This was most evident in a northern section of Manhattan, New York – the neighborhood of Harlem.

Life in late nineteenth-century America represented a period of pronounced transition. As Victorian society began to acquiesce to modernity, people struggled with traversing the standards and principles of the time. The period from the early 1890s to the end of World War I embodied a sizable shift that scholars have labeled a “turbulent transition,” a “fundamental transformation,” and one of “profound cultural change.” This revolution manifested itself within the economics and ethos of the country and consequently fostered myriad changes that would have weighty repercussions for the remainder of the twentieth century.

Industrialization, and its corollary of urbanization, transformed a once-agrarian nation into one of nascent cityscapes replete with factories. Millions of Americans living in the South migrated to points in the West, Midwest, and North in search of fiscal sovereignty. The southern African American population, fleeing the horrific conditions as established by Jim Crow, were among those in search of a better life. This mass exodus led to a more variegated nature of American life – out of which sprung the most American of art forms, jazz.

 

‘S Wonderful: The Life and Music of George Gerswhin

George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn in 1898, the second of four children from a close-knit immigrant family. He began his musical career as a song-plugger on Tin Pan Alley, but was soon writing his own pieces. Gershwin’s first published song, “When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em,” demonstrated innovative new techniques, but only earned him five dollars. Soon after, however, he met a young lyricist named Irving Ceaser. Together they composed a number of songs including “Swanee,” which sold more than a million copies of sheet music.

In 1924, George collaborated with his brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin, on a musical comedy Lady Be Good.  It included such standards as “Fascinating Rhythm” and “The Man I Love.” It was the beginning of a partnership that would continue for the rest of the composer’s life. Together, they wrote many more successful musicals including Oh Kay! and Funny Face, staring Fred Astaire and his sister Adele. While continuing to compose popular music for the stage, Gershwin began to lead a double life, trying to make his mark as a serious composer.

When he was 25 years old, Gershwin was commissioned by bandleader, Paul Whiteman, to compose a long-form, jazz-influenced work; the result was Rhapsody in Blue, which premiered in New York’s Aeolian Hall at the concert that was billed as, “An Experiment in Modern Music.” The audience included Leopold Stokowski, Serge Rachmaninov, and Igor Stravinsky. Gershwin followed this success with his orchestral work Piano Concerto in F, Rhapsody No. 2 and An American in Paris.

In the early thirties, Gershwin experimented with some new ideas in Broadway musicals. Strike Up The Band, Let ‘Em Eat Cake, and Of Thee I Sing, were innovative works dealing with social issues of the time. Of Thee I Sing was a major success and the first musical comedy to win the Pulitzer Prize. In 1935, he presented a folk opera Porgy and Bess in Boston with only moderate success. Now recognized as one of the seminal works of American opera, it included such memorable songs as “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “I Loves You, Porgy,” and “Summertime.”

In 1937, after many successes on Broadway, the brothers decided go to Hollywood. Again they teamed up with Fred Astaire, who was now paired with Ginger Rogers. They made the musical film, Shall We Dance, which included such hits as “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”  After becoming ill while working on a film, Gershwin had plans to return to New York to compose concert music; he planned a string quartet, a ballet and another opera, but these pieces were never written. At the age of 38, he died of a brain tumor. Today he remains one of America’s most beloved composers.

 

You may reach me at jazzhistoryprof@gmail.com to present a program to your patrons.