Bowers Museum Recognizes Early Greats
By Dianne Anderson
Musical iconoclasts, such as the likes of Armstrong, Ellington, and the Nicholas Brothers, pioneered some of the first beats of the nation’s foundation that the world continues to jam on today.
Coming up, the Bowers Museum will bring ragtime fans through the tumultuous rise of jazz, and great performers with their quality of works that have transcended time.
On February 27, the community is invited to “Timeless Melodies: African American Contribution” to enjoy rare footage, and revisit how the past has reinvented popular music. The event is free, and runs from 1:30 to 3:00 p.m. at the Bowers Museum, located at 2002 North Main Street in Santa Ana.
It is jam-packed with history.
From the start of ragtime, many powerful songs reflect the Black American experience, but more so the deep discrimination that reverberated through the lyrics and tones.
Larry Maurer presents footage and songs from some of the unknown singers of the southern plantations, some who were African American minstrel singers, that by most modern standards seem cringe-worthy. In that day, he said whites also rejected African American music and the dance, which they deemed coming from plantations.
As time went on, the perceptions shifted. White audiences and musicians not only got with the rhythm, they adapted it as their own.
It’s been constant poaching of the African American music into the white community, he said.
“You have to feel compassion and respect for the lost singers and lost souls that kept this music going, despite slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings,” said Maurer, historian of the Timeless Melodies Foundation for Education, Inc. “The fact that it survived is worthy of a gold medal.”
If not for that level of Black musical infusion, he said the national tone might still resonate with the first white popular singer, Stephen Foster’s “I Dream of Jeannie with the light brown hair.”
By 1933, “Supper Time,” a song written by Jewish immigrant Irving Berlin was released at a time when lynchings were common. The song describes a mother singing to her children about a father who was not coming home.
Berlin, who owned the theater and wrote the score, asked Ethel Waters to sing it, which she later described as one of the single most songs that spoke the plight of Black people. The song, and Waters raised an uproar among everyone on the theater staff.
In that show, the three top white performers refused to do a curtain call with Waters.
“Irving Berlin said alright, no curtain calls. If you’re an actor, you live for that. Ethel waters was allowed because Irving said it’s all or nothing,” he said.
As time went on, many early great white rockers, from Mick Jagger to Jimmy Page give credit for “borrowing” the likes of James Brown for the funky feel to aid their genre.
“So did Buddy Holly, and all the British performers were listening in Liverpool to what was happening to Fats Domino and Chuck Berry in the United States,” he said.
Sadly, in America, depictions of Blacks in the old movies gave little or no recognition of their talent, which sometimes resurfaced in other genres or forms.
By the 1950s and early 60s, Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack took an integrated turn that the nation hadn’t seen before. Sinatra refused to go in places where Sammy Davis Jr. wasn’t invited through the front door, and Sinatra refused to perform wherever segregation existed. It was a pivotal point.
“Just putting his arm around Sammy Davis in public was big news,” Maurer said.
Eventually, the blues, ragtime, and jazz slowly developed cross-cultural appeal. It inspired Gershwin and Rhapsody in Blue notes, with contemporary compositions that reflected his Yiddish childhood and elements of African American jazz.
In other words, Black music is as American as apple pie, or more succinctly, is American music at its core.
“At the same time, you have to deal with the early turn of the century [music that] had the n-word, you had one Black performer in the vaudeville shows, that’s it,” he said.
Of all the performers, he said the Nicholas Brothers are his favorite. They also had a number of films at 20th Century Fox and MGM, but they never got a starring role.
“That’s part of the discrimination. They were always a kind of sidelight and they could be cut out in the South,” he said.
He said they will show footage of them, and their mesmerizing moves.
“Fred Astaire was in awe,” he said. “I always advise the audience, if you have a hip replacement, don’t watch them.”