Gottschalk Encore: The Banjo on….The Banjo!

Suddenly you have a whole new understanding / appreciation of Gottschalk’s piece when you hear it “reverse engineered,” as it is here by musician / instrument builder Paul Ely Smith.

Marvel at this! And then go the “Press” section of his website to read his article in the journal Current MusicologyC titled  “Gottschalk’s “The Banjo” and the Banjo in the 19th Century.”

Fascinating stuff.

 

Polar Prize Pickin’ Berry

Chuck Berry, along with opera director Peter Sellars announced today as winners of the Polar Music Prize.   Why?

In its citation for Mr. Berry the award committee wrote that “‘Nuff said.   Now, do you suppose the esteemed Mr. Berry will he hiring a Swedish bar band to back him up when he comes to Stockholm to accept his prize from King Carl Gustaf himself?

I do love the eclectic nature of this Swedish prize.  As the Times puts it,

Last year’s winners were Kaija Saariaho and Yossou N’Dour; in 2006, they were Valery Gergiev and Led Zeppelin; and in 2004 they were B.B. King and Gyorgy Ligeti. (In 2003, Keith Jarrett – who works in both  classical  music and jazz, became the first and so far only musician to win the prize on his own.)

Now, back to Chuck Berry:  The album pictured above is from his second LP, released in 1958, and one of my prized vinyl collections.   Sure, it’s got the hits “Sweet Little Sixteen,”  “Rock & Roll Music,” and “Reelin’ and a Rockin'”….but have you ever heard this classic before: “Rockin’ At the Philharmonic?”  I tend to agree with the All Music Guide characterization:   “Rocking at the Philharmonic” is a rippling guitar/piano workout, a compendium of the sounds that lay beneath those hit singles, and a killer showcase not only for Berry, but also for Lafayette Leake at the ivories, and also a decent showcase for Willie Dixon‘s bass playing.”

Joy For J.S.: Simone Dinnerstein & Xuefei Yang

Revisiting one of our special evenings in the WGBH Fraser Performance Studio we called “Sonatas and Partitas” featuring pianist Simone Dinnerstein and Xuefei Yang, one of the first Chinese guitarists to play in the West….

 

 

 

 

Happy

It’s the first day of Spring on the Calendar, and time to celebrate with some shades of happiness.  First up, the brilliant opening credits to Portlandia, the wacky ode to The City of Roses from the off-center minds of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, set to “Feel it all around” by the singer-songwriter Washed Out.  Beautiful mix of music and imagery that gets me every time.  Hey Mr. Mayor! Can we make this the new official City Song?   (And if you haven’t seen Portlandia…what are you waiting for?)

How about some long-delayed happiness captured on camera, as Stanford University scientist Andrei Dmitriyevich Linde— one of the main authors of the “inflationary cosmology” – e.g., what happened after the Big Bang – gets his entire life’s work validated?  “Happy” seems too mild a word for the powerful, deep sensation….but it makes me want to watch it again.

And finally, the Detroit Academy of the Arts and Sciences kids getting all “Happy.” with Pharrell’s hit.  Sure, it’s gone viral…and why not?  How can you not see this and smile?

Belafonte II: The Long Road to Freedom

Seeing Belafonte @ Berklee yesterday couldn’t help but make me think back to the time when he came to our NPR studios in 2001 to record a couple of programs around a project that was near and dear to him….but took nearly 4 decades to produce!

Harry Belafonte at NPR in October 2001  (Photo: David Banks, NPR)

Harry Belafonte at NPR in October 2001 (Photo: David Banks, NPR)

It was called “The Long Road to Freedom,” and aspired to be nothing less than an authoritative anthology of black music in America…from the earliest war crys, work songs and shouts, imported from Africa, to Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” and a musical setting of a speech by MLK called “I’ll Never Turn Back No Mo.”   Once completed, it contained no fewer than 80 tracks across 5 CDs, as well as a beautifully-produced 140-page hardbound book of photos, essays, and commentary about the black musical experience in America.

It was an amazing, lavishly packaged, and carefully produced set, which Belafonte had undertaken at the height of his popularity in the early 1960’s.  Belafonte had the run of RCA’s thoroughly “modern” studio facility, and as a Music Director the legendary (and now shamefully forgotten)  arranger and choral director Leonard De Paur, famed at the time for his work with the pioneering De Paur Infantry Chorus, an all-male black chorus that became a top-drawing attraction for Columbia Artists in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

Leonard De Paur, Joe Williams, and Harry Belafonte reviewing a take, C. 1961

Leonard De Paur, Joe Williams, and Harry Belafonte reviewing a take, C. 1961

And, at the start, Belafonte and De Paur had a budget big enough to bring in some big names to the exercise into chronicling what the singer called “African-matrixed music,” Bessie Jones, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Joe Williams.

And Belafonte was deeply invested in the project: “We in America know very little about the history of our nation, especially as applied to the black experience,”  he said in an interview.  “So I always felt that my mission was to use music as a way in which to impart ideas and thoughts that would awaken curiosity.”

But whether is was for reasons of budget, time, or interest, the journey of the Long Road project got a lot longer.  The sessions came to a halt around 1971, and the entire project languished in the vaults of RCA – and its ever-evolving corporate ownership – without a single note from any of the sessions making its way to the public.  My guess is that at some point, the bean-counters at RCA decided that the ROI would never be realized; the project got put on the shelf, and then institutional amnesia took over.

But, miraculously, three decades later, The Long Road to Freedom materialized in much the form that Belafonte and De Paur imagined it — if not more so.  (Ironically, the set was released on Sept. 11, 2001, which may help to explain why it did not get more attention when it was released…).  So after a lot of back-and-forth negotiations,  one crisp autumn day Harry Belafonte was at NPR, recording a Morning Edition interview with Bob Edwards, cutting tracks for a long documentary special I was producing around the anthology, posing for photos with practically everyone in the building, and sitting down for one of the most extraordinary lunches I’ve ever had in my lifetime.

It actually started the moment we left the building on Massachusetts Ave. for our half-block-walk to the restaurant.  Harry Belafonte does not blend in to the crowd; the man oozes charisma.  Truck drivers, pedestrians, and even bike messengers all had to say hello to The King of Calypso, which meant that our half-block walk took about 40 minutes.  As for the meal itself: the food was profoundly unmemorable, but the the conversation anything but.  There is no such thing as “idle chatter” with Harry Belafonte.  It wasn’t just the fact that Belafonte has been an eyewitness to history – he had a way of describing his arguments with JFK, or his bailing MLK out of jail, or visits to Africa that were both sharply etched in a journalistic sence, but also deeply philosophical.  And he wasn’t content to just tell war stories; like many people of real greatness, he asked as much as he answered.   And when Harry Belafonte leans into you and asks you a probing question, you don’t dare give a dishonest response!  For all of his struggles for racial equality, you could tell the Belafonte remains a curious and optimistic student of the human condition.  Reminds me of how he quoted from Paul Robeson in his acceptance speech at Berklee:

“It’s a wonderful path to be in the arts, because artists are the gatekeepers of truth. Art is the radical voice of civilization.’ From that time until now, I always knew that I would have a life in the arts. My pursuit was to do what Robeson said, take advantage of this gift of art and to develop myself, and to apply it the way other people needed to be inspired.

Back to the Long Road for a moment: Over time, this collection has become an invaluable resource for schools, critics researchers, documentarians, and, yes, a radio producer or two….though the early-sixties aesthetic of the recordings and arrangements is very much a product of its era.  Some of it can sound a little quaint to our ears, but other parts are breathaking, like hearing Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers singing Kneebone Bend, or Belafonte himself doing Boll Weevil   You can listen to the interview Harry did with Bob Edwards here.

(Aviso: it’s from 2001, back when NPR was using RealAudio, and it may not play on your fancy smartphone….)

 

 

Wild About Harry: Belafonte @ Berklee

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A celebration of Harry Belafonte’s life and music at Berklee.

Great love fest and concert last night for the ever-dignified and charismatic Harry Belafonte, the “High School drop out getting an Honorary Degree from Berklee.”  At the age of 87, Belafonte stopped singing in public a few years ago,though you could spot him in the finale at least mouthing the words to “We Are the World,” the 1980s megahit for African famine relief that Belafonte brought in to being.

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Moments before awarded Harry Belafonte his honorary doctorate, Berklee President Roger Brown speaks about his remarkable career.

That’s just one of an incredible list of accomplishments recited by Berklee president Roger Brown before conferring an honorary Doctor of Music to the singer, songwriter, and activist, who noted that “Belafonte” literally translates as “fountain of beautiful things.”  The tone and feel-good vibe of the event (not to mention some incredible performances by Berklee students) is nicely summarized in today’s Boston Globe:

No artist has worked harder on behalf of truth and social justice than Belafonte. He bailed out Martin Luther King Jr. from a Birmingham, Ala., jail; was John F. Kennedy’s cultural ambassador to the Peace Corps; and helped raise more than $50 million for humanitarian aid in Africa by organizing the recording of “We Are the World.”

That is how the current generation of Berklee College of Music students knows the singer, said Larry Watson, the professor who produced the show, introducing a rousing encore of the song. But to an earlier generation — long before Michael Jackson crowned himself the King of Pop — Belafonte was the “King of Calypso.” He was the first recording artist to sell a million copies of a single album, and he had enduring hits with “Matilda” and “The Banana Boat Song” (that’s “Day O” to fans of “Beetlejuice” or “The Muppet Show”), both of which were part of the program presented by four dozen or so colorfully attired students.

When it came time for Belafonte to speak, he was his usual poignant, gripping, and humorous self,  recalling the first time he went onstage to sing at a jazz club in New York.   The great jazz pianist Al Haig had agreed to let him work up a short set of standards, beginning with “Pennies from Heaven.”   But, when the moment came, Belafonte recalled,  “Up jumped Max Roach to sit behind the drums. And then Tommy Potter picked up a bass.  Charlie Parker sat down with his sax. So I looked around at my backup band.  And I haven’t looked back since.”

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Parting shot from Belafonte: “After this, I’m going home and smoking a joint.”

Chopin’s “Knocked Urn”

Melinda & Ethan getting their Downton on...

Melinda & Ethan getting their Downton on…

Still buzzing from the terrific performance at last night’s “Evening Inspired by Downton Abbey,” featuring soprano Melinda Whittington and pianist Ethan Uslan, playing classical, “jazz,” and other standards from the 1920’s in the WGBH Fraser Performance Studio.

And for an encore, since it was, after all, Chopin’s birthday and all, Ethan had to play one of his signature compositions. I explained to the Downton fans the title was inspired by what happened when poor Moseley the bumbling butler-turned-footman backs into an object d’art in the Crawley household….

 
Episode 183: Chopin’s ‘Knocked Urn’