Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

a playwright's journey, creating, connecting, and conversing.

Posts Tagged ‘Duke Ellington

Another step of Blues..

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..beyond the averages; Blues has had three important iterations in a twelve month period, and for a ‘new work’, that is remarkable.

Such a swift journey has also afforded opportunity for me to whittle in on specific changes that I feel the need to engage in with this piece, as it is new, and as every time there is the chance to see it ‘standing’, I get to view a further shading in its stance.

Blues has a very far reach into a layered presentation of narrative; it requires fierce musicians – fearless actors – and visual artists of a unique coalition -all of whom play in a rhythm of words and music, through image and a prism of history.

With this last iteration of the work, presented for Stanford in Washington’s winter Arts Track students and guests, I was able to excise a ‘full thought’ of exchange, creating fodder for a potential Education plank, in that much of the material in the back half of Blues resonates with racial, social, and ideological conflicts that were manifesting in the late 60’s.

Clearly etching this, is the opportunity presented for characters of the play, at the time of Billy Strayhorn’s death, which occurred in 1967 – two years after the assassination  of Malcolm X, and a year before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr...

This specific moment in time is the ledge separating activism from rage; a breath, at the fulcrum, where civil disobedience was tenuously balanced against the unthinkable of chaos; that breath, shortly venting in confrontation and violence that would not only engulf U Street in flames, but would inform a new dynamic to the cry of “Black Power”.

..this is the texture that articulates in the play’s timeline and is resonant in every moment of exchange in Act II.

With Greg Watkins, Scott Patterson, and Bina Malhotra reprising their roles of BILLY STRAYHORN, DUKE ELLINGTON and LENA HORNE, respectively, and Joy Jones – who was originally ELLA in Act I – now informing the character of the REPORTER – rehearsals began with a base line of familiarity that allowed for deeper investigations into the ‘temperature’ of the dialogue and exchanges between the characters.

..this is the fullest measure of the gift – not only being able to have successive iterations of the work in a short amount of time, but also to have a troupe of professionals who bring with each iteration the discoveries of content and character, and commit to the endeavor which allows for deeper mining of nuance.

This particular presentation was given in the Langston Hughes Room, in the 14th Street Busboys & Poets – whose location, just beyond U Street, NW, is literally less than a block from the very history that is epilogue of the play; it was at 14th & U streets NW, in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on April 4th 1968, that flames, ignited by members of its own community, ravaged the area.

But DC was not the isolated event; between 1965 and 1967, endemic frustrations had already lit firebombs, leaving engulfing beacons of outrage to cross the states (Los Angeles; Chicago; Newark; Detroit) ..

-and it is in each edifying chance of presentation, that Blues For A Royal Flush gains its fluency to speak to context; it strides into a fissure of opportunities that were exceptional, significant, and as dynamic as any seismic shift of chord.


Bina Malhotra as LENA, Scott Patterson as DUKE, Greg Watkins as BILLY and Joy Jones as REPORTER/BLUES at Busboys and Poets - Feb 9, 2015/Kristenn Stipanov, photographer

Bina Malhotra as LENA, Scott Patterson as DUKE, Greg Watkins as BILLY and Joy Jones as REPORTER/BLUES at Busboys and Poets – Feb 9, 2015/Kristenn Stipanov, photographer

Greg Watkins as BILLY/BLUES at Busboys and Poets - Feb 9, 2015/Kristen Stipanov, photographer

Greg Watkins as BILLY/BLUES at Busboys and Poets – Feb 9, 2015/Kristen Stipanov, photographer

Bina Malhotra as LENA, and Joy Jones as REPORTER/BLUES at Busboys and Poets -  Feb 9, 2015/Kristen Stipanov, photographer

Bina Malhotra as LENA, and Joy Jones as REPORTER/BLUES at Busboys and Poets – Feb 9, 2015/Kristen Stipanov, photographer

Scott Patterson as DUKE, and Bina Malhotra as LENA/BLUES at Busboys and Poets - Feb 9, 2015/Kristen Stipanov, photographer

Scott Patterson as DUKE, and Bina Malhotra as LENA/BLUES at Busboys and Poets – Feb 9, 2015/Kristen Stipanov, photographer

Scott Patterson as DUKE, and Joy Jones as REPORTER/BLUES at Busboys and Poets - Feb 9, 2015/Kristen Stipanov, photographer

Scott Patterson as DUKE, and Joy Jones as REPORTER/BLUES at Busboys and Poets – Feb 9, 2015/Kristen Stipanov, photographer


A talk on the past, touches the present

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When the pieces of a puzzle suddenly fit in place, it’s inevitably a wonderful feeling. But when the piece fits into a puzzle of family history, it can be the ‘ah-ha’ for resonating emotion and pride.

Stanford in Washington’s winter session had its Orientation this week, and it included a trip to the National Portrait Gallery, and the opportunity for a talk on the history of DC – the city, apart from the government.

I started the talk on the 2nd floor of the museum at the exhibition of Mr. Lincoln’s Washington: A Civil War Portfolio, which is a photographic presentation of DC, and the President, in the latter part of the Civil War.

It shows a city rummaged up from dust into white stone and masonry; carriages and top hats; Union uniforms, rifles; thoroughfares of tamped dirt and ranks of pedestrians; parasols, horses and buggies; prestigious edifices, such as the Patent Office, forts, hospitals, and the Navy Yard; images grabbed in action, set in panoramic still life; sunlight of the 1860’s: on sweat; brightness bleeds earnest and palpable emotions out of death numbed survival; some glances are filled with apprehension, others are looks full of expectation.

My talk initiated in speaking about Congress’ 1790 Residence Act, appropriating land from Virginia and Maryland to establish a residence for the nation’s government – imbuing this District, from the outset, with specific purpose of opportunity.

By 1865 this area, the District of Columbia, war weary, ravaged and burnt, still gleamed as the embodiment of freedom, being the place from which slavery had been abolished by Proclamation, and further enshrined in government.

Touching the very soil of this city could be supposed a religious experience, and worth pilgrimage to former slaves, suddenly vested as a “population” of this country, wishing to be established as true citizens.

In 1860 the national census identified 3,953,760 slaves in this country, and 488,070 Freed Blacks. In 1870 it identified 0 slaves in this country, and 4,880,009 Freed Blacks..

With the knowledge of those numbers, and sight of Mr. Lincoln’s Washington before us, my talk moved into the mandate for education that became the paean of further enfranchisement, exhorted by such black men of stature as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Carter Woodson, who comprehended the vast challenge ahead of establishing an African American existence after slavery that would faithfully support a new legacy of permanent application and advancement in American society.

The opportunity, to define African American beyond property or domestic, demanded a context for an emerging culture; it required apparatus for educating a sudden population of over four million souls.

We moved into the exhibition of The Struggle For Justice, where my talk broadened into the establishment of the initial network of black colleges, such as Fisk University, established in 1866, Morehouse College, established in 1867, Hampton College, established in 1868, and Tuskegee University, established in 1881 – each of which were to determine the quality of opportunity a new society of educated people of color could have.

Standing in front of the images of George Washington Carver, and W.E.B. Du Bois, I spoke of the reach of higher education, and brought into sequence the through line of the impact on Washington City, and, in its Jim Crow laws of segregation, the paradox of it inculcating within its environs a territory of black endeavor and merchant success, codified as the ‘city within a city’, and the place of one of the most important institutions of education, Howard University, established in 1867, which became the hotbed for philosophical debate in giving definition to a “New Negro”, as well as approbation in creating the art, music, and essence of literature upon which to stand this prototype.

The dynamism of this city within a city, drew talent, and thought, and enterprise, advancement, entrepreneurship, commerce, banking, and society, all –of color. It became an unspoken template of a way of enriching culture, while under the very stone of inequity which the nation at large had set to cap and contain such endeavor..

And the footpath to come up within this environ were the high schools, for color, one of which, Armstrong Manual Training High School, had its very corner stone laid by the hands of Booker T. Washington.

The philosophy of this school looked to make its students self sufficient; able to make their own bricks, build their own homes, grow their own grain, farm their own livestock, master their own accounts, and invent to their own science.

The direct line, out of slavery, and through such as Booker T. Washington, into higher education, established schools as another place of sanctity and benefit. It also meant that they held a position in black culture where “opportunity” encompassed everything to be found in any relevant society.

In this, commitment to the Arts was profound, and a place for nascent artists of color to be identified, sustained, embraced, applauded, supported and presented for all to see.

My intention was to speak to two specific portraits housed in the collection of the NPG; as it turned out, I was only able to speak in front of one of them, and reference the other.

The two people, who for me are linked in the circumstances of opportunity specifically offered in the history of the District, and specifically connected with Armstrong Manual Training High School, are Marian Anderson, and Duke Ellington.

The portrait of Marian Anderson is part of the exhibition of The Struggle For Justice. Though she is usually identified with DC in reference to the concert in the Mall, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which occurred in 1939, my talk went to the roots Ms. Anderson had earlier established in the District, and, specifically, in the city within a city.

Ms Anderson’s presence in the District formalized through her engagement by Howard University, in 1933, through their Lyceum Concert Series, which offered opportunity as a recital and song series held in the Andrew Rankin Chapel, on campus.

Though Ms Anderson was already establishing herself in opportunities abroad, she would remain faithful to being available for the Series, and always make her way back to DC to participate.

By 1934 her notoriety was such that the crowds who came to hear her were too great to be held within the intimate space of the Chapel, and Howard University moved the series to the auditorium of Armstrong.

In 1935, after a sensational European tour, culminating in her debut onstage at the Paris Opera, Ms. Anderson returned to an America of Jim Crow limitations and a culture reticent to embrace an artist of color.

After a Town Hall recital, in New York, Ms. Anderson received an invitation to sing at the White House, extended by the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.

The White House visit coincided with Ms Anderson’s presence in the 1935 concert series, and there was an expectation that the crowd would be too large for any auditorium.

It was at this point that Ms. Anderson’s manager, Sol Hurok, first reached out to see if he could book Constitution Hall.

But the Hall’s policy of denying its stage to anyone of color could not be challenged at this point in time, and so Mr. Hurok and Howard University continued to utilize Armstrong’s auditorium, and, in subsequent years, utilized opportunity of the auditorium at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.

…but by 1939 Ms Anderson’s fame was such that the size of the expected crowd pre-condition that the Concert Series had to be held in a larger environment.

It was at this time that Mr. Hurok made the determination to petition for use of Constitution Hall once again, which was denied, after which, history clasped the reins –the denial became the lit fuse to a series of unprecedented acts of civil remonstration, furthered by the resignation by Eleanor Roosevelt of her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), the officiating body who held ownership of Constitution Hall.

Ultimately Ms. Anderson presented herself in consummate artistry to a crowd of over 5,000 people in the Mall, at the steps to the Lincoln Memorial.

…at this point in my talk I’d intended to lead a tour to the 3rd floor, and into the Bravo showcase, where the portrait of Duke Ellington is situated –but time had grown slim, and, swiftly concluding my lecture, I mentioned Duke, and the fact that he had gone to Armstrong as a high school student – a school which, to this day, still serves its community; a school whose linage contained the lit embers of endeavor, laid in its cornerstone by Booker T. Washington, and at one point in the nineteen-teens was held in stewardship of culture overseen by Carter Woodson, the 2nd man of color to receive his PhD from Harvard University, who would go on to be Dean of Philosophy at Howard University.

All of this history is a powerful legacy that is resident in the U Street corridor, in the city within a city and remains pertinent. A fact that made itself explicitly clear at a post lecture lunch..

At my table, intermittently during the meal, a guest to the day’s orientation was holding a discrete exchange on her mobile. Just as lunch was being served, she looked up at the group of us round the table beaming and said, “I was meant to be at that talk today.”

-she continued: When I was growing up my grandmother would tell me about the time she gave up her membership with the DAR. It was something very important to her, the position she took, but, to be honest, it didn’t have context for me was just something my grandmother had done, which had made her proud. Listening to the talk about Marian Anderson, I wondered if this was the situation that had made her choose to give up her membership. So I txt’d her-“

And she read from the response.

Her grandmother, now in her eighties, and reaching through an immediacy of technology, fully shared the story and identified that it was, indeed, connected to Marian Anderson.

..though it was an amazing moment be in the weave at this coming together of a living context for conversation, review, and definition, to further continue the connection of personal journey in this family’s oral history –I have to admit to enjoying the laugh at the end of the exchange, as the grandmother concluded her txt by saying –“If you want to know more about Marian Anderson, use the internet.”

..and in that spoke to a life, not only of keeping her personal context with history alive, but also being fully engaged with her present and the advance of technology and social media ..all to encourage and share with her granddaughter, a personal sense of pride and Witness.

..affirming that the past is always present.

Blues For A Royal Flush/at the National Portrait Gallery/at 7PM, September 22, 2014

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No road is perfectly straight; neither is the progression of a new work.

But Blues For A Royal Flush has certainly been fixed to a fortunate star. From the beginning, this work has had benefit of support and community.

That embrace continues, and lifts an opportunity for this work to be part of a larger engagement.


At 7PM Monday evening, September 22nd, Blues For A Royal Flush will be presented without cover charge, and performed as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Audience Programming’, in the museum’s Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium.

This will be a co-production between the NPG and SIW (Stanford In Washington), who are the commissioning agent of Blues.


The cast will be the same troupe of incredible talents who premiered their roles, this past January, at the first performance, held at the Duke Ellington School For Arts.


Blues For A Royal Flush, weaves the music of an earlier era of jazz, through resonant experiences of Ethel Waters, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Strayhorn and Lena Horne, all in the orbit of DC native son Duke Ellington, not only presenting their artistry, but exploring their different routes to platform, during a unique epoch of racial and cultural change.

This journey also speaks to family, and a crucible of class and social challenges met by these artists; the chords of which still vibrate.


The NPG is located at 8th & G Streets, NW; The Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium is located through entering at this G Street entrance.

The event will be posted by September on the NPG/McEvoy Auditorium calendar.


But let this entry suffice to mark the date!

Weaving the Bridge notes

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Actors need lines to read, or scenes to enact; musicians need notes to play, or parameters within which to riff.

Blues For A Royal Flush requires a group of artists, diverse in their expertise, to come together to put notes, words, and details ahead of the actions of actors, musicians, and technicians, so that this theatre piece can step onto its unique platform, and be experienced.

In exploring further, resonant interactions, I have found my way to envelope a stream of Billy Strayhorn into this narrative. The suggestive “Royal Flush” seems now to have further flesh; Duke, Ethel, Ella and Billy.

The work of Strayhorn is seminal to understanding Duke’s genius; a knack for finding talent, and construing it into a mantle of his own. The artists who worked, played, or wrote for Duke, came to know his way of ‘momentum’; making himself the light of the thunderclap.

..this paradigm of collaboration cost everyone involved utter commitment and a meshing of ego beyond a known map of partnership.

But the bargain was never really about obliterating the diversity of the individual voices, but of melding the sound into the distinct texture and tones of Ellington’s mystique.

It is easy to mark this journey through Witness of the exhaust trail. And this is well done in too many other places.

Blues For A Royal Flush is not going to attempt to speak as biography, but as instances of encounter; as ‘moments’, when the sparks struck surface, igniting an outline of personality, perseverance, preservation, performance.. and patience..

In its stride, Blues will include a cohort of its own artists, weaving their individual expertise into a bridge of grace notes to achieve a tapestry of storytelling beyond the page of a script.

The vision of this project has gained the imagination of three, very individual and unique talents: documentarian, Samantha Cheng; cultural illustrator, Nekisha Durrett; and filmmaker, Penny Hollis.

Their distinct styles will be utilized as ‘thresholds’; sequences of narrative image to resonate/’usher in’, scenes of live action.

This is not about playing with media as a ‘toy’, but about finding the right moments to work with its ability to deliver a deeper layer of the ..unspoken context, that pervade our experiences, and enhances 21st century communication – because Blues, though it speaks of the past, is a work of the present, and is a multidisciplinary endeavor.

As a commission by Stanford in Washington, Blues must also speak to a wide dynamic of audience; not only students, faculty, and alumnae, but to the larger community in which Stanford stands established.

In alignment with the ethos of its commission, this project continues to broaden into an educational opportunity; it has engaged the participation of students from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, in DC.

Interns, from DESA’s Museum Studies, and Theatre track, have joined to research archive material and images, which will be offered to the project’s visual artists as possible material to work with, or ‘re-imagine’ with. For these interns, working with established artists creates opportunity for an exchange of knowledge and ‘real life application’ that might not otherwise be available.

Additionally the students will create their own image gallery and content exhibition, elaborating on their personal discoveries while investigating lesser known details, and challenges, in the lives of the artists they’ve researched.

This component of exhibition will be part of the overall event, of Blues’ presentation, allowing the interns platform and recognition for their work.

As artist, and Teaching artist, I am very grateful for this project; as the deeper institutional partnerships that are threading, because of it, are crucial to ensuring that Arts Education is not tilted entirely off the future landscape ..

The gift of a sandbox

leave a comment » very precious.

As children I don’t believe we comprehend just how informing the opportunity is, being able to freely muck about in a specific space of imagination, sharing toys and tools with any other like minds who bumble over the sides of the box to play.

At present, the analogy of a ‘sandbox’ is particularly apt for me, and has broad parameter around music.

In bringing together a classical orchestra, the sandbox for ‘creating’ is identified as the rehearsal room; here, the music score is rendered through a certain experimentation of ‘phrasing’ and finesse, accent and ‘attack’.

Though each division of the orchestra may have some flexibility, it is the conductor who lays down the parameters – the conductor who establishes the shading of the moments of individualism, in order to keep the orchestra etching the same diagram.

Within the dimensions of this particular sandbox comes agreement that the composer has laid down the ‘word’, so to speak, and however the orchestra paints that specific, ultimately, it renders a charted course and presentation of the maestro’s intention. another kind of music -the written phrase is there to mutate, and noted merely to establish a point of entry off of which a group might riff. Here individual instruments speak their expertise, note to note across a terrain of exquisite expressions of sound, sliding through chat to, perhaps, identify some relative corner of the initial note to dialogue in.

This sandbox is jazz, where a coalition of musicians discerns a musical conversation through ‘open questions’, and ‘riffing’ is not about an answer; it is about etching a texture for further conversation.

..Let me suggest that, with my writing, I endeavor to create in a riff of ‘open questions’ – having found that an audience is tackled by this, and in consequence, will readily ransack the baggage each has carried in from their own paradigm, provoked to patch the perceived gap. Unaware that the quivering, left of the experience, is the resonance of the question, which still itches through the dark into a riff off other articles of secreted debris..

Resonance; like molecules, collide and shape trajectory to other experiences and sensations ..perhaps, in the final analysis, unanswerable; but in the journey, informing.

…I have always had a passion for large canvasses of texture and tapestry, and have always sought opportunities to riff.

In the last few years I have found myself engaged in an amazing journey with Stanford in Washington, lecturing an audience of students and guests ahead of opera performances attended at The Kennedy Center.

These lectures began as straightforward information on the opera’s they were going to see, but, over time, I enlarged the scope of presentation to weave in conversation of context, of how music defined, or was impeded in a particular political period; how composers were connected to the mapping of current, or cross-current, cultural challenges; how enlightenment or repression affected the advancement of ‘entertainment’, and the purposes of composition. Context, ultimately, that allowed me to present a more organic sense of integration of environment, political landscape, society, and endeavor, beyond the notes placed on a stave.

This past May my passion for storytelling elicited a special commission from Stanford in Washington, which is the riff I’m currently endeavoring.

The main instrument through this piece is Duke Ellington, but chords of the story of Ethel Waters and Ella Fitzgerald breech a counterpoint to genius, creating a dissonant look at privilege, race, and opportunity between the 1920’s and 1950’s.

The title of the work is Blues For A Royal Flush. hope is that it will allow me to continue an artistic reach of personal ethic, while engaging the tools of 21st century theatre. In this I mean: finding the route and balance to manipulate stage action, musical performance, and sequences of film (as visual transition; ‘resonant stepping stones’ of specific images and associations) – moving each of these components fluidly as collaborative narrative, without congestion or gimmick, while creating storytelling opportunities resonant of aural textures and ‘fuzzy logic’.

..yes, well; speaking all that out loud I know how it sounds: “..ambitious”!

But fortuitously, as I speak with colleagues, it is the very ambitious nature of the stretch that engages them, and piques their desire to collaborate in the endeavor.

And so this sandbox is a unique place of play, with a commissioned piece offering me opportunity to ask a diverse coalition of artists, talents and expertise, to bumble over boundaries and riff!

Written by tomminteroffthestoop

August 13, 2013 at 3:23 PM

Showboat! – a vehicle for confluence..

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I have been very fortunate in the last two years to be able to lecture at Stanford in Washington, giving context and synopsis ahead of the operas they see.

The closing lecture was ahead of attending Showboat, at the Kennedy Center.

..I have to admit to this particular lecture being one of the most complex and uneasy to cover comprehensively.. But there is significance to this piece of musical theatre..

I wanted to share what I came to appreciate; this is the text of the lecture.


Nothing that provokes a national consciousness to ‘inch a step forward’ happens out of nowhere; or ignites without some combustible agent.

Or ..condition.

The Revolutionary War did not just happen; it was an ongoing rub of taxation, and foreign rule.

The Civil War did not just erupt, between Tuesday and Wednesday; it gathered, incrementally, dangerous political tensions, and deepening economic discontents, that pressed our country into the corners of its geography –weighting things more, North and South.

The Civil Rights movement did not just leap out of a corner, because someone couldn’t sit where they pleased on a bus, or go to a better school than the one they were relegated to. The institutional injustices and diminishment of humanity for America’s blacks, spanned a trough of generations, and was a national calamity out of slavery, politics, and privilege.

…change, after many years of “enduring” does not come quietly; but often, it comes upon us.

1927 was a year that would provide the combustible agent for a revolutionary leap in the arts – and, in due course, provide the ‘pivot’ on which a ‘mainstream’ national consciousness would come to grips with the diversity of its musical heritage and its gilded notions of the past.

And all this.. happened on Broadway.

Before this particular watershed season, Noel Coward had hit the American theatre scene with a brilliance and panache that scintillated – unleashing a song palette that was witty and urbane. His 1925 hit, Hay fever, gained him wide recognition; and he sailed across the stage lights of Broadway, into the popular field of musical revue. He was so overtaxed –creating, writing and staring in his shows- that he collapsed onstage, in 1926, in his play, The Constant Nymph.

American composers, with any aspiration to Broadway, were used to the workload required of ‘jobbing’ musicians; many had begun their careers in Tin Pan Alley – the street where a collection of music publishing houses and song shops were situated, and where the deep stables of ‘song smiths’ churned out melodies to fit reams of lyrics that would catch the ear.

One of the greatest ‘songsmiths’ of the period was Irving Berlin. He knew the distinction between the ‘highbrow’ of a Noel Coward, and the ‘easy to reach’ “lowbrow”, which he considered to generate content that was “warped and subnormal”. “My Public,” he would say, “is the real people.”

Irving Berlin was associated with the most successful singers of the day; Al Jolson being the top of the list.

..but there were three other composers who would break the mold in 1927: George Gershwin, Richard Rogers, and Jerome Kern.


Though Broadway had its specific theatres for straight drama or comedy at this time, the greatest form for pleasure was the “Revue” – a show which sewed together song and dance numbers, interspersed with comedic moments of the broadest slapstick and humor; this kind of high energy entertainment was the first generation of musical theatre, past the traveling dusty suitcase offerings of Vaudeville, where Entertainers rustled through town on their way along the ‘circuit’.

Revues, and the Vaudeville component, were good fodder for Irving Berlin, where you needed only a songstress’ ballad to “make” a show.

But the times were high in America, and tastes were looking for entertainment of more lavish indolence.

Moving beyond the standard “Revue” emerged the Follies, personified by the immense acumen of Florenz Ziegfeld –not to mention his Ziegfeld Girls.

Ziegfeld had found a way to put class into voyeurism, draping his ‘Girls’ in outfits more opulent and more revealing than the one that preceded it. Music was the method that made the evening something for society; and when a Ziegfeld Follies debuted, all society came.

Broadway accommodated music halls as well, which were stuffed with patrons who laughed and enjoyed entertainments of the previous century; shtick, mesmerism, and the mummer strumming of ‘blackface’ entertainment.

It is in the realm of musical revue that blackface was an integral component.

Musical Revue premieres, of 1927 were:

Africana (a musical revue)

Creoles (a minstrel drama, set in New Orleans)

Off Col’uh (billed as a night at the Cotton Wood Club, in Harlem; and was a dancing & minstrel entertainment)

There also happened to be a revival of the play The Jazz Singer – which would soon be the first “talkie” of Al Jolson; in blackface.

Follies, Vaudeville, musical revue.

…what pulsed as confluence, under the beat, in each of these styles of entertainment, was a growing rhythm, a disconcerting and hypnotic undulation ..a stealth, of sass, and sway ..and rag -which was no longer a faint touch in the percussion, or a deeper dip in the dance..

Uptown of Broadway, influences pumped the heart hot; any given night, after the suave suggestiveness of Ziegfeld, society, theatre crowds, composers and lyricists, raced up into the dark beat of Harlem, and savored the Renaissance with the wild jive and jazz of Duke Ellington, and others of the Cotton Club.

Since the beginning of the 1920’s Harlem had been stepping out, not just in the area of music, but in literature; black authors were finding platform, in periodicals, in broadsheet magazines, and in publishing houses which, historically, been the province of only white authors.

The literary voice of Jean Toomer, whose novel Cain, published in 1923, spoke of a disconnected black American, and utilized a vernacular, not the stereotypical ‘southern’ lazy language of Negroes, but a colloquialism and language based on a cultural short hand; the book moved in a sequence of vignettes, utilizing prose, poetry and narrative; it was a force of nature.

Toomer is just one name out of scores who made their mark in the 1920’s in a zeitgeist movement loosely coined as the “Negro Literary Renaissance”. But the ongoing cross-pollination of writers, musicians, thinkers, artists, teachers, and citizens, coalesced into a consciousness of understanding of a deeper affliction, of bigotry and disenfranchisement.

However, that was over time. In 1927, this ‘consciousness’ was merely several years into its beginning and it touched people in different ways.

George Gershwin took in all the accents and jazz beats of Harlem and black music of the day; his lessons may not have been overly evident in his 1927 musical Funny Face –

but it was there for anyone to hear; it was explicit in his classical works, Rhapsody in Blue (1924), and the Concerto in F for piano (1925).

Richard Rogers was not unaware of the dusky perfume that was drifting down to Broadway; and though his 1927 hit, A Connecticut Yankee kept to the careful innocence of swing –

the themes he would scale, in his future works, would produce a deep throated call for investigating intolerance and discrimination.

In 1924, Edna Ferber, novelist and playwright, dismayed by the preview performances of her latest play, heard a soothing sentiment, out of the mouth of her producer at the time, which spawned one of her most significant hits.

As the story goes, the producer, Winthrop Ames, needing to cheer his cast of Mummers, told them that, next time, he wouldn’t bother with out-of-town try outs but would simply rent a showboat, and drift down the Mississippi playing the towns as they appeared. The statement was a nostalgic notion, stirring up a reminiscence of a lifestyle in the deep-south, where ‘theatricals’ were mounted on flat bottom, paddle boats, and sailed down the river, stopping in at every dock along the way. Typically the ‘theatricals’ were revues, with singers, broad skits, dancers, colorful costumes, and the musical entertainment of high stepping mummers, in blackface, who would march into the streets off the dock, regaling all and sundry with the broadest mimicry of ‘happy darkies’, celebrating the inconsequential details of their days, leaving all white folks who witnessed them entertained out of the deeper details of a defeated south, and a lost way of life..

Like any good writer worth their salt, the bare bones of this reverie sped Edna on to consider the larger opportunities for drama, in that past era of the late 1800’s, and the changes caused in a once secure way of life, through Reconstruction and the dawn of a new century.

Using the showboat as a place to establish her characters, Edna created a heartrending glimpse of the ravages of civil war, the bestiality of man, faithless love, and a heart’s desire ruined by the codes of Jim Crow, and the laws that kept the races separate in the south. For good measure, she added alcoholism, and religious zealotry and sexual predation.

Serialized, Women’s Home Companion was the launching point for Showboat.

Needless to say, it was a sensation!

 Jerome Kern had already been in the business of writing musicals, above and beyond his facility for writing ‘stand alone’ songs, since 1912. He connected with Ziegfeld in 1920, when he wrote the hit show Sally, which Ziegfeld produced.

A few more hits, and a flop (The Bunch and Judy, in which he was writing for Fred Astaire), and in 1925 came the big hit musical, Sunny, which was the first collaboration between Jerome Kern, and Oscar Hammerstein as lyricist. With this, Ziegfeld guaranteed to finance another show, one to be of Kern’s choosing.

..the tide of confluence was touching Kern; though not a denizen of Harlem, he had been to hear the ‘classical’ concerts of Roland Hayes, and Paul Robeson. He itched to reach the depths of connection that these great, singular black singers, offered their segregated audience.

Hammerstein had shown the composer that lyrics could do more than just shadow a show; they could give meat to character, and if the character had the right guts, then the music could fly in a whole new way.

The opportunity in front of him, Jerome Kern didn’t want another routine theatrical to drape; he wanted something unique, something original, something lavish, colorful, emotional, human, wrenching, and, ultimately, joyous. He understood that to satisfy his creative needs, he would have to stretch the stage, beyond the limits of the current propriety. He felt that Edna Ferber’s book would give him the right break.

Kern knew the risk; Broadway was about money –sure, “entertainment”- but in its purely profitable sense. No Broadway producer, not even the great Ziegfeld, worshipped any other rule than ‘bums in seats’, and the blackface of print, plain as day in the morning’s Variety reviews.

Kern also knew that his success couldn’t be fashioned without Hammerstein, who, in 1926, was enjoying a great success as the lyricist of Sigmund Romberg’s musical, The Desert Song.

Kern persuaded Hammerstein to adapt the book, and be the lyricist, and, further, committed Ziegfeld to keep his word, and be producer.

In November of 1926, Edna Ferber signed a contract giving Kern and Hammerstein the rights create the musical, Showboat.

Knocking the book into shape, Kern and Hammerstein were constantly dogged by an anxious Ziegfeld; composer and lyricist wanted to infuse the show with moments of depth that unsettled Ziegfeld, who was more than excited by the pure entertainment spectacle of the Showboat mummers, the dancing, and the love songs.

It was Ziegfeld who kept the pressure on to rid the show of too much ‘emotion’; he disliked Ol Man River, and, even more, the black spiritualism of M’isry’s comin. He urged that these be dropped; they were not.

The show went into try-outs in November 1927; one of the stops was at the National Theatre, here in Washington. It opened on Broadway on December 27th, 1927; Paul Robeson was initially engaged to play the character of Joe, which had been expanded from the book by Kern and Hammerstein, especially for the great baritone; but because of encroaching scheduling difficulties, Robeson was replaced by Jules Bledsoe.

The first production was staged by Hammerstein; the evening’s final curtain didn’t fall until 12:40 AM.

Though the battle seasoned Ziegfeld was terrified by the length of the piece, and the moments of silence that engulfed the audience as they digested the savagery of characters caught in circumstances none there had ever endured, or, perhaps, comprehended, he was able to grin in triumph as the next day’s press were utterly enthusiastic with the show.

It was a hit.


It’s hard, at this distance of time and political correctness, to fully grasp the shock –real, genuine, shock- of that first night audience.

There was ‘blackface’, which was a familiar device for performers – but there were also, on the same stage, black performers representing themselves; a jarring visual for suburban audiences who had no notions of seeing things that would have them experiencing the challenge of sympathy, and, for some, empathy..

Then there was witnessing the effect of a charge of miscegenation –where Julie, passing as a white woman, in the showboat troupe, is denounced as being of mixed race; audiences were brought face to face with this legacy of Jim Crow, still applicable in 1927, that made it against the law for the races to mix in marriage.

Confronted by this turn of plot, the audience was further led into the undertow of culture clash with the faithfulness of Julie’s white husband, who fulfills an earlier vow, should threat ever come, that he would cut her finger and mix her blood with his own, sealing their fate jointly as, in the south of Reconstruction, just one drop of Negro blood in a person, made them black.

Hard as that was to endure, watching it played out in front of you on stage, the audience then had to bear witness to the decline of Julie, and how each subsequent circumstance of her life, unraveled her, derailed her, demonized her.. forced her husband to abandon her, ultimately leaving her prey to alcohol…

Tough stuff. And Hammerstein guided the view into Julie’s abyss, with lyrics that were both rich, and succinct; allowing Julie to ply the path between the two worlds of her existence: white, and ‘colored’.

There had never been, even the hint of a character like this, much less on Broadway.

The insular environment of the Showboat itself was so far removed from what a Northern audience knew about the south; the black people, who seemed to be denizens of the docks, and work hands of the boat, were etched with an exactness of the novel; we may see them now as cardboard and thinly plotted, but with their presence Kern found the mood and nostalgia of a lost south, of blossoms and burden; of bondage, and etiquette.

In its original state, Showboat is an unflinching look at unjustified circumstances; it is a lyrical observation on the depth of the human soul, in unending adversity. Musically, it points the way to music drama – a step beyond what had been musical theatre of the period; the collaboration between Kern and Hammerstein brought out the best in both artists, and stamped Showboat with genius. That original genius did not evade using blackface, or racial epithets, or presenting the degrading double standards for women, or shy away from giving the musical texture a depth of characterization that matched the weight of the person.

This was not about an evening’s light entertainment; it was about struggle, and confluence, and speaking of things, culturally, unsaid.

Though over time a political correctness has obscured the brutality in the language of the script, the music remains undimmed in its ability to imbue an audience with a comprehension of a past whose reach lingers in our own time, in remaining challenges of bigotry and heartlessness.

Jerome Kern reached a pinnacle of success with this work, and though he continued to write musicals, and film scores, into the 1940’s, he never quite touched the heights of Showboat again.

Edna Ferber went on to carve her career in novels that utilized the component of presenting a grand swath of time, where characters could prove, through generations, the lessons of life, and love. Though known for Showboat, she is even better known for her novel Giant, written in 1952, and made into a film with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in 1956.

Richard Rogers, whose music in 1927 yearned for a story to compose with sweep and romantic depth, found in Oscar Hammerstein the perfect collaborator. From the grand plains of song in Oklahoma, to etching the brutal character of Nazism and the human spirit, in The Sound of Music, theirs was a partnership of mutual artistry and character.

To my mind, it is George Gershwin who most benefitted with the premiere of Showboat, and its breaking of Broadway totems; he took away the belief that real life had a place, being seen onstage. He also wanted to move a further step away from caricature, and another premiere of 1927 gave him the route to do so.

It was the play, Porgy, written by Dorothy and DuBose Heyward, performed at the Guild Theatre.

Embracing the play’s subject of life in a black community in Charleston, South Carolina, Gershwin forged a piece of music drama, that premiered in 1935 as Porgy and Bess, a work that established him as a genius of theatre, and human drama, as well as a composer who had absorbed the language of Harlem, and married its rhythms with a classicism that cast jazz into a symphonic mainstream.

Showboat, with the initial artistic reach of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, unquestionably paved the way for these future opportunities.

..just listening to the overture, which has never been performed entirely as Kern composed it, you can hear the wide styles of music he utilizes to forge the drama; 20’s rag; swing; mummer’s high steppin’ strut; the musical cadence of black spirituals; and the poignant notes of loss and love, situated in the realm of Puccini.

A chance with oportunity

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Politics aside, I found myself watching Tavis Smiley the other day, because of Jessey Norman, glowing in hot pink, looking fresh and very lively, in conversation with him regarding her upcoming concert with an emerging new orchestra, MUSE/IQUE, in Pasadena, and attesting that, despite the classical music industry’s continuing bad news with regards to the fiscal health of so many of the more established music makers, there is also a current in this country, trying to ignite new opportunities for a different generation, and a more diverse application of musical engagement.

..she then hit the subject square on, with some deprecation, succinctly putting the point that classical music has no future as an ‘elitist’ program, and that music, as a category, belongs in the embrace and social fabric of everyone.

Tavis asked her what was on her iPod. Ms Norman gleefully stated that she enjoyed carrying a CD player and shoulder bag full of selections of her favorite music. She also delighted in the disbelief of the younger members of her family, who would just look at her and shake their heads at such insistence on ‘old style’ entertainment. But breaking into full enjoyment, she asserted that an iPod did not have the bandwidth to do her voice justice; “..there isn’t enough bandwidth on an iPod to give me what I need.”

The creativity of Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, and Odette travel along with Ms Norman, always; her heart proudly embraces a full spectrum of music, and she relates to a quote of Duke Ellington: “’..there are only two kinds of music, good music and that other kind.’”

MUSE/IQUE’s initial program, with Ms Norman, covers the music of Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein, and George Gershwin.

Their ambition is to reach a new generation, and new audience pool, through music programs of exceptional breadth, aimed directly at ‘populism’, and community entertainment and engagement.

Looking at their opening concert, the eclecticism in the reach is relevant, and gives me hope that I am taking the right chance with opportunity..

Programs weaving the linkage between jazz and classical music, hip hop, rap, call and response, groove and folks song, are now the aim of music enterprises that want to make sure that they appeal to the newest, future patrons of the arts.

There is definitely no place for a ‘silo mentality’ to music; it is an embrace that has many folds in its caress. The world of music is warm, and wide, and varied, and full of enough nuance to satisfy a collection of cultures, even with everyone listening to sounds all at once.

It is time we engage in the truth that music is a healthy fabric of our existence, and adorns all the rooms of our taste.

In working with this model of wide band engagement, I am involved in creating a music series, to be presented at community resource centers.

The initial presentation at Deanwood Library, a few weeks ago, was a program called “Ragtime refined: Scott Joplin, Eubie Blake and George Gershwin”, in which I took the music of Joplin, and followed ragtime into the sweep of ‘tin pan alley’ and the saucy sway of Eubie Blake’s creativity which then moved into ‘jazz’, and through the suave technical technique of George Gershwin, flowed into American opera.

The next session, this Friday, will speak to the relationship between Opera and Broadway, moving from Puccini’s La Rondine, to Kurt Weil’s Lady In The Dark, and Street Scene, to Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, Candide and West Side Story.

The aim of these sessions, which I hope to continue and expand through diverse avenues of community resource centers, libraries and museums, is to engage conversation on the variety of sound-scapes that wallpaper our lives, and evidence our fluid tastes in music, as individuals scroll their iPods and attach, to every different moment in the day, ever changing musical landscapes.

To reach a population, and not just fill a niche, music must remain relevant, even to the point of embracing its use as accompaniment, if not accessory to every person’s life; and classical music specifically, must make peace with its integration and placement in this array of used sounds.

That does not mean that there will no longer be a need to understand where the roots of opera lay, or the trajectory of symphonic evolution; it does mean that there is a new consciousness, which connects to classical music, in general, with an internal cinemascope of diverse application.

So I move forward, in the trust that I am aligned with a growing current and change in how culture absorbs its musical dimension; classical music needs to be identified, as directly connected to people and their individual worlds.

The library music series I am working to sustain, is an initial engagement in connecting people to speaking about the thin lines which separate ‘genres’ of sounds; its larger ambition is to bring seniors and youths into the same room, and remind them of community and commonality, and get them to share conversation on their tastes, likes and dislikes, facilitating the exchange with examples of music, and acknowledging its use as emblem, and moniker in our lives.

Rolling out such an ambitious vision, as a series into community, is difficult at the best of times; arts programming initiatives are especially challenged now. But in the community outreach network that I had the opportunity to teach in, with the Washington National Opera, I have found an ongoing partnership of synergy and commonality.

The ambition of the music series has resonated with Deanwood Library, who are keen to offer such programmatic services to their community.

It is a unique moment in the arts landscape of DC, and as I find other groups, in the district and across the country, aiming for a new direction of engagement in music programming, I am encouraged to believe that this moment of challenge also affords a chance with opportunity.