If Your Kisses Can’t Hold…

Where does pianist Ethan Uslan find these gems? Another goody from our evening in the WGBH Fraser Performance Studio called “Downton Abbey Meets The Jazz Age.” exploring some music of the era, and featuring soprano Melinda Whittington.

His is a great – and surprinsingly risque! –  tune from 1925 by MR. Vivian Ellis, a beloved Brit composer of the musical stage who’s barely known stateside.   Save for this tune, thanks to it being in the repertoire of the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas” Sophie Tucker

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.”

Hallelujah Handel!

A 329th birthday nod to Georg Friedrich from our WGBH Fraser Performance Studio, featuring the baroque ensembles Sarasa  and Les Sirènes performing “Per abbattere il rigore,” from the two-soprano cantata Aminta e Fillide, HWV 83. Be amazed at the matched voices of sopranos Kristen Watson and Kathryn Mueller!

Other performers:
Beth Wenstrom – violin
Adriane Post – violin
Timothy Merton – cello
Charles Sherman — harpsichord

The whole – excellent – studio session with Cathy Fuller can be found here. Or just click on the link below:

Drive Time Live

Saras and Les Sirenes

Play in Subway, Win Pulitzer…

Joshua Bell in the DC metro Not quite one year to the day it was published, funnyman writer Gene Weingarten‘s celebrated story about Joshua Bell busking in the Washington Metro wound up as one of six Pulitzer Prizes won by the Washington Post today – an impressive and near-record haul. Even though the little social experiment was in itself something of a failure (hardly anyone recognized who it was playing underneath that Curly W cap, and even fewer chucked in any change); the story itself was a PR bonanza for Bell — and now, it seems, for the author.    BTW, you can hear Bell’s entire subway performance  here.

And if the past is prologue, I’ll bet that the “Joshua Bell Pulitzer” will get a lot more attention than the “official” Classical Music Pulitzer for 2007: The Little Match Girl Passion, by David Lang, commissioned and premiered at Carnegie Hall by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices ensemble.

My piece is called The Little Match Girl Passion and it sets Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Little Match Girl in the format of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, interspersing Andersen’s narrative with my versions of the crowd and character responses from Bach’s Passion. The text is by me, after texts by Han Christian Andersen, H. P. Paulli (the first translator of the story into English, in 1872), Picander (the nom de plume of Christian Friedrich Henrici, the librettist of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion), and the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. The word “passion” comes from the Latin word for suffering. There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus—rather the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been substituted for Jesus’s, elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane

Nothing against Lang or his work, which sounds interesting enough, t’s just that invariably these Pulitzers go to pieces that have been played once in often out-of-the way locations.  Back in my NPR days, tracking down the actual *recording* of a Pulitzer-winning-composition – and doing it in time for the morning news! – invariably involved a combination of detective work, browbeating, and more than a little luck.

Not so in the Internet age, however.  Want to hear Lang’s piece – or even download it?  Get it here– direct from the Carnegie website.     For that matter, this may be the most information-rich Pulitzer ever — you can even hear an interview with Lang about the creation of the work.

Oh, yeah, and there’s one more musical Pulitzer today – a Special Citation for Bob Dylan – for his “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”

See the complete list of Pulitzer winners here.

PS – nice to see another Hans Christian Andersen piece set to music to some acclaim.   Throughtout his career the Danish writer/poet/playwright collaborated with and was inspired by a number of notable composers – including Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Wagner.     And Lang is just the latest of a long line of musicians who have in turn found inspiration in Andersen’s words.