Origin of the Blues

The King of the Blues B.B. King famously told us why he sang the blues.

Legendary blues singer and guitarist John Lee Hooker contemplated an Origin of the Blues flow chart.

The Queen of the Blues Dinah Washington said “the blues ain’t nothin’ but a woman cryin’ for her man.”

Whatever the origin, all I want to hear is some down home blues.

Props to Pops

For years I could not get pass the optics of Louis Armstrong, mainly the broad grin and ever-present handkerchief. Fast forward to today, my love and respect for Pops’ musical genius and civil rights activism is immeasurable. At the dawn of the modern Civil Rights Movement, Armstrong cancelled a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union in support of the Little Rock Nine. Pops blasted Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, a staunch segregationist, and President Eisenhower.

As a preservationist, I am in awe of Pops and Lucille Armstrong’s dedication to preserving his legacy in public memory. The Louis Armstrong House Museum, a National Historic Landmark, and the new Louis Armstrong Center provide a blueprint for historic preservation, as well as cultural heritage preservation.

Pops once said, “I don’t get involved in politics. I just blow my horn.” Behind closed tours, he had a lot to say about politics and racism. Decades after his death, the public will hear the full story of Louis Armstrong in the documentary, “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues.”

The legendary trumpeter got his flowers while he was alive. Pops is now getting overdue props for his resilience and resistance to white supremacy. “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” premieres October 28 on Apple TV.

Eyes on Pulitzer Prize for Duke Ellington

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” It’s past time for the Pulitzer Prize Board to do right by Duke Ellington and grant him the award he was denied in 1965. The New York Times reported on May 5, 1965.

Jazz historian and author Ted Gioia has launched an online petition for Duke Ellington to be granted the Pulitzer Prize in Music:

In 1965, the jury for the Pulitzer Prize in Music recommended that jazz composer Duke Ellington receive the award in honor of his lifetime legacy of excellence. The Pulitzer Board denied the request, and decided to give no award in music that year rather than honor an African-American jazz composer. In the aftermath, two of the three jury members resigned in protest.

The time has come to rectify this unfortunate decision, and name Duke Ellington as the winner of the 1965 Pulitzer Prize in Music. The recent precedent of Jim Thorpe’s reinstatement as sole winner of the 1912 Olympic gold medals, taken from him 110 years ago, makes clear that even after many decades these wrongs can still be righted. Ellington was a deserving candidate back in 1965, and the significance of his legacy has become all the clearer with the passage of time. Giving him the 1965 prize is the right thing for Duke Ellington, the right thing for the Pulitzer, and the right thing for American music.

It’s never too late to right an egregious wrong. If you love Duke Ellington madly, keep your eyes on the Pulitzer Prize and sign the petition.

Black Music Appreciation Month 2022

President Jimmy Carter designated June as Black Music Appreciation Month in 1979.

In a proclamation, President Joe Biden said:

 For generations, Black music has conveyed the hopes and struggles of a resilient people — spirituals mourning the original sin of slavery and later heralding freedom from bondage, hard truths told through jazz and the sounds of Motown during the Civil Rights movement, and hip-hop and rhythm and blues that remind us of the work that still lies ahead.  The music created by Black artists continues to influence musicians of all persuasions, entertain people of all backgrounds, and shape the story of our Nation.

As noted in the 1971 documentary “Black Music in America: From Then Till Now,” Black music is “one of the great artistic contributions to American culture. Black music in America began as the African drum beat and plantation song ignored and then suppressed by white culture.”

To explore the history of Black American music, check out the Black Music Project.

The Untold History of Memorial Day

Originally called Decoration Day, Memorial Day was first observed on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina. Thousands of African Americans, including the formerly enslaved, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, were led by children as they gathered to honor 257 Union soldiers who were buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand of the city’s Washington Race Course.

The ancestors paid tribute to those who gave their lives by decorating their graves, hence Declaration Day.

Parisian Tailors’ Colored Kiddies of the Air

Sam and Harry Kessler opened Parisian Tailoring Company on South Street, the-then heart of the Black community, in 1923. Better known as Parisian Tailors, the company made uniforms – sports jackets and slacks – for Black orchestras. Chief cutter Eddie Lieberman promoted musical acts on the side. Business was booming so as a way to give back to the Black community, Lieberman proposed a children’s radio show to compete with predominantly white The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour.

The weekly radio show, Parisian Tailors’ Colored Kiddies of the Air, was broadcast from the stage of the Lincoln Theater. Colored Kiddies of the Air debuted on Sunday, March 27, 1932 on WPEN. The live broadcasts featured young Black musicians backed by all-star big bands.

Regular child performers included future jazz legends and National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Percy Heath Jr. (bassist) and Joe Wilder (trumpeter). Wilder went on to become the first African American to play a principal chair in a Broadway pit orchestra. He also integrated broadcast radio and television network orchestras.

In Softly, With Feeling: Joe Wilder and the Breaking of Barriers in American Music, biographer Edgar Berger wrote:

The Colored Kiddies radio show emanated from the stage of the Lincoln Theatre, on Broad and Lombard Streets, Philadelphia’s main venue for leading black performers. Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, and Fats Waller were just some of regular headliners at the Lincoln in the mid-1930s. What was most extraordinary about the radio show is that the children were backed by members of these legendary orchestras. Because of Pennsylvania’s blue laws, there could be no regular performances in clubs or theaters on Sunday. As Joe put it, “We could go out and shoot each other on Sunday, but we weren’t allowed to play jazz!” So as part of their contracts with the theater, the visiting bands were obligated to play behind the youngsters during the one-hour broadcasts on Sunday mornings. “We had the joy of having every name band—Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson, Earl Hines, Count Basie, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band— play for us on their day off,” Joe said. “They would improvise backgrounds for whatever we played, and they encouraged us. It was unbelievable!” Although the bandleaders themselves didn’t usually play, they did come to the rehearsals to make sure that their musicians fulfilled the terms of their contracts.

2022 National Recording Registry

The Library of Congress has announced the 2022 National Recording Registry, an annual list of audio recordings that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said:

The National Recording Registry reflects the diverse music and voices that have shaped our nation’s history and culture through recorded sound. The national library is proud to help preserve these recordings, and we welcome the public’s input. We received about 1,000 public nominations this year for recordings to add to the registry.

The list includes “We Insist!  Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite,” the legendary drummer’s still resonant 1960 social protest album.

Duke Ellington’s 1956 album “Ellington at Newport” is on the list.

Soul music and R&B recordings include The Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” and Alicia Keys’ debut album “Songs in A Minor.”

For the complete list of recordings, go here.