1) “Simple and Sweet: Reassessing the Role of Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five in Modern Jazz Scholarship”—Alexandre Abdoulalev
Throughout his career, Artie Shaw was known for his outspoken opinions about the state of contemporary jazz as well as his active efforts to revolutionize “America’s classical music.” Chief among Shaw’s contributions to the progressive development of jazz during the 1940s and 1950s was the Gramercy Five, a combo which, along with launching the solo careers of Roy Eldridge and Tal Farlow, was intended to unite the aesthetic of pre-bop with the finer sensibilities of swing and art music. The Gramercy Five enjoyed considerable popular and critical success during its active years, yet largely eluded scholarly scrutiny in favor of more high-profile bop combos while its original repertoire was chiefly left ignored by both jazz critics and performers. In this paper, I posit that lack of scholarly interest in the Gramercy Five both before and after its dissolution stems an excess of its cross-genre appeal. Shaw’s introduction of aspects of art music into an art form deemed antithetical to Classical music in modern criticism placed the Gramercy Five into a niche which made its contributions carry less impact than those of its contemporaries. This paper will also provide an overview of critical responses and scholarly evaluations of the various contributions made by the Gramercy Five, and reassess the ensemble’s relevance in the field of modern jazz scholarship.
2) “The Birthing of the “Cool”: Jazz Criticism and Historiography”—Eunmi Shim
Jazz criticism has played a significant role in shaping concepts and methods employed in jazz historiography, specifically the periodization of jazz history based on categorization of jazz styles. The tendency toward periodization was especially manifest in the 1940s and the 1950s in the context of growing historical consciousness in jazz criticism; the underlying idea was the linear evolution of jazz styles. One of the problems inherent in periodizing and categorizing jazz styles is canonization. The concept of “jazz tradition,” which underlies the phenomenon of canonization in jazz history, reifies the music by simplifying its divergent and complicated nature. This paper will focus on the stylistic category of “cool” jazz and examine the role jazz criticism played in constructing jazz style categories. “Cool” jazz is a blanket term designed to refer to the music of a diverse group of jazz musicians in the late 1940s and the 1950s, whose styles did not conform to the paradigmatic manner of bebop typified by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
An important part of the discussion is the reception of the seminal recordings of “cool” jazz from 1949, for example, recordings by Miles Davis’ Nonet and Lennie Tristano’s Sextet, which did not become associated with the label until later; the now-celebrated title Birth of the Cool was not attached to the Nonet recordings until 1957. This paper will also address the issue of racial politics in the sense that the term, “cool,” posed a dichotomy between black musicians representing “hot” jazz and white musicians “cool” jazz, the latter with the negative connotation of being cold and unemotional.
“Jazz and ‘Politics,’ in the Broader Sense”— Lewis Porter
Dr. Porter will discuss how jazz is influenced by and involved in the politics of
imperialism, of academia, of relationships among critics, and other political considerations.
1) “Musical Phrasing in Billie Holiday’s Recordings of ‘Strange Fruit’”— Kelsey Klotz
Of the works in Billie Holiday’s repertoire, there is none like “Strange Fruit.” The song was not only a personal message to her audience, but also a professional triumph—Holiday cites her 1939 Commodore recording as her best-selling record. The original poet and composer, Abel Meeropol, wrote the song under the penname of Lewis Allan after viewing a photograph of a lynching. The lyric juxtaposes pastoral scenes with stark images of hanging bodies as the inextricable contradictions of life in the American South. Meeropol’s political statement regarding racial inequality, echoed in his other poems, is further enhanced by Holiday’s performances of “Strange Fruit.” Although Holiday did not compose the song, she made it her own, recording it five times over the course of her career. Though her 1939 recording is widely considered to be quintessential, Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit” four other times, including live recordings in 1945 and 1951, a studio session in 1956, and a video recording in 1959.
This paper examines one way in which Holiday made the song her own in each of these recordings, namely, her distinctive musical phrasing. To do so, I borrow an analytical methodology put forth by Dai Griffiths to analyze the lyrics of rock songs. My approach differs from that of Griffiths, however, in that my analyses privilege musical events over verbal density, ultimately revealing not only how Holiday recomposed the original song by Allan, but also how her musical phrasing changed over the five recordings. These often subtle changes in musical phrasing suggest multiple readings of the lyrics, emphasizing different images of brutality through Holiday’s performances of the poetry. A consideration of musical phrase clarifies the more nuanced ways in which the music supports Meeropol’s text throughout Holiday’s recording history of “Strange Fruit,” further reflecting Holiday’s struggle with the portrayal of racial violence to her audiences.
2) “Song for a Dark Lady: Billie Holiday and the Performance of ‘Strange Fruit’”— Sarah Perkins
For a protest poem, ostensibly intended to give voice to an explicit political agenda, “Strange Fruit” oddly provides no identifiable perspective. As if the corrupt pastoral scene speaks for itself, the poem simply presents its subject “here.” Written by Abel Meeropol in 1937 and first published under the title “Bitter Fruit”, the poem was initially intended as a harsh indictment of racial violence and as propaganda for the passage of an anti-lynching bill. “Strange Fruit” is often considered Meeropol’s most famous and influential piece; with music composed by Meeropol himself in 1939, his words would eventually have their greatest impact in the recording studio and on stage. Considered the poem’s “Great Communicator,” Billie Holiday, a young black jazz singer, would become the voice and perspective so seemingly absent in the original poem. Holiday’s 1939 recording and performances at the Café Society throughout the early 1940s ultimately brought “Strange Fruit” unprecedented commercial success and popularity. Despite a ban by radio stations who labeled the song as too subversive, “Strange Fruit” reached the sixteenth position on the pop music charts just months after its release and is often considered one of the first and most influential protest songs ever written.
My paper, focused on the dramatic transformation of “Strange Fruit” from white poem to black song, investigates the difficult process of recording, remembering and protesting lynching in the United States. At the center of my project is the question of how and why Holiday specifically became the poem’s “Great Communicator.” In first focusing on Meeropol’s politics and poetics, I interrogate the nature of the poem itself and the ambiguity in poetic voice that led to its political power as a song. I then consider the poem’s early musical adaptation, culminating in Holiday’s renditions of the song at the Café Society in the late 1930s. I argue that as much as Holiday’s involvement brought the poem’s message into the public eye, these performances also changed the form of Meeropol’s protest in troubling ways, particularly given the spectacle and entertainment tradition of lynching. Ultimately, however, I show how Holiday came to posses and transcend these overwhelming challenges of representation and memorial. Nowhere is Holiday’s own protest more apparent than in a haunting 1959 recording of “Strange Fruit” just before her death, a recording I analyze in depth. As I hope to show, the story of “Strange Fruit” provides us with profound insight into the struggle, but also the triumph, of finding a political voice for a history without one.
3) “Whose Song is It, Anyway? Reconciling ‘Strange Fruit,’ Abel Meeropol, and Billie Holiday”—Maya C. Gibson
This paper explores the tensions between two accounts of “Strange Fruit”: Abel Meeropol’s authorship of the song and Billie Holiday’s ownership of it. Meeropol, who wrote “Strange Fruit” c. 1938 under the pseudonym Lewis Allan, garners minimal attention as the song’s creator, while Holiday, whose 1939 recording of the song cemented its significance as a civil rights plaint, earns the lion’s share of recognition. Throughout her career, Holiday never hesitated to claim “Strange Fruit” as her own, stating alternately either that she had written it or that it had been written for her, two frequently repeated untruths. Even as Meeropol is the clear author of “Strange Fruit,” it was Holiday who embraced the song as a signature tune and made it famous; it is she to whom the world looks in gratitude for the contribution. By examining more closely the song’s rich provenance, I provide context for Meeropol’s twenty-five-year-long crusade to establish authorial ownership while simultaneously validating Holiday’s interpretive ownership of “Strange Fruit” as its signature performer.
Before Holiday’s first encounter with the song, “Strange Fruit” had enjoyed a broad but brief performance history. But the song did not significantly resonate with audiences until Meeropol introduced it to Holiday via Barney Josephson, proprietor of New York’s Café Society. Holiday launched “Strange Fruit,” and “Strange Fruit” launched Holiday, catalyzing her subsequent stylistic and artistic development. Exploring who “owns” “Strange Fruit” raises important questions about the broader tensions between authorial and interpretive ownership, tensions centering around issues of voice, appropriation, collaboration, and agency.
1) “Doing Jazz, Criticism, and American Politics”—Mark Harvey
This presentation will explore the role that jazz musicians play in effecting criticism of American politics, focusing on my original compositions as performed my Aardvark Jazz Orchestra. For more than two decades, we have been engaged in direct critique of and commentary on events from the Iran Contra scandal to the invasion of Iraq, presenting an election special performance on each occasion of the biennial national election cycle.
My presentation will survey the themes and ideas set forth below with reference to some of the musicians mentioned, culminating in the playing of segments from the Leo CD, American Agonistes, including selections from the Fallen Truth suite, addressing the politics that have followed in the wake of 9/11. Central questions to be addressed will be the ways in which and the extent to which jazz engages with American politics.
Chief Justice Warren famously said that law floats in a sea of ethics. It might be also said that politics floats in a sea of attitudes and alliances, interests and issues, perceptions and prejudices, and much more. In a similar manner, jazz rests upon the African American folk music tradition wherein a tradition of satire and protest songs provides the foundation for much of the social and political critique by jazz artists. Billie Holiday’s performances of Strange Fruit, Duke Ellington’s musical Jump for Joy, Charles Mingus’ Fables of Faubus, and works by Anthony Brown, Fred Ho, and Max Roach are examples of this. My presentation will address the themes outlined above with reference to some of the key musicians mentioned as well as my own compositions that engage with specific aspects of contemporary politics.
2) “’Just Who Do You Think I Am?’ The Politics of Categorizing Nina Simone’s Protest Music”— Heather Buffington Anderson
Following the recent body of scholarship with aims to recuperate multiple narratives of Black Nationalism during the civil rights movement, this essay examines the protest music of Nina Simone, which is largely associated with radical black activism. Nina Simone is often described as an artist who defied musical categorization with performances ranging from folk, to gospel, to French popular songs. Despite the array of musical genres that Simone performed, critics often labeled her as a jazz musician. This label would remain attached to Simone’s musical output throughout her career and was emphasized during the early-1960s when the pianist/vocalist began composing and performing protest songs. Nina Simone was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement, and her songs such as “Mississippi Goddamn!” and “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” served as anthems for the movement. Her lyrics criticized the nonviolent protests for being “too slow” in yielding results and called for immediate self-defense. While Simone shared similar political ideologies with various jazz musicians, her music did not correspond with the shift in aesthetics of jazz during the 1960s.
This essay focuses on reviews by jazz critics John S. Wilson and Nat Hentoff of Simone’s performances, highlighting the ways in which both critics suggest the label “jazz” was attached to Simone as music producers were challenged to promote the eclectic artist. With the arrival of Simone’s first political song in 1964, Wilson and Hentoff suggest that the artist’s protest songs – which were largely written in blues and folk idioms – legitimize her as a true jazz musician. The political ideologies that Nina Simone shared with various jazz musicians and her association with activists such as Stokley Carmichael afforded the musician inclusion in the jazz community. In an effort to recuperate Simone’s own narrative, I suggest that jazz criticism during the l960s can serve as a lens to examine the ways in which the need to categorize an array of political music written and performed during the civil rights movement mirrors the rigid division of political ideologies into liberal interracial activism and radical black activism.
1) “Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allan): Political Commentator and Social Conscience”— Nancy Kovaleff Baker
Abel Meeropol (1903-86) was a white, Jewish writer, composer, and New York City public school English teacher, with Communist sympathies. He deplored injustice in any form, and in his writings decried racial intolerance, class discrimination, anti-Semitism, and political witch hunts. He and his wife Anne adopted the orphaned sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage for the Soviet Union. I will give an overview of Meeropol’s most significant works, including: “You Have to Appease with a Striptease” (in which Shelley Winters got her start) and “The Chamberlain Crawl,” negative commentaries on appeasement; versions of “Strange Fruit,” an eloquent condemnation of lynching; “The House I Live In,” a praise of democracy; and songs protesting our involvement in Viet Nam. He wrote plays, libretti, songs, advertisements and poetry. Save for the advertisements, his works reveal a strong social conscience and a desire to improve society. He was a tireless commentator who followed closely the major issues and events of his time, from the Depression and Jim Crow laws up through Watergate and the possibility of nuclear annihilation. His papers are in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.
2) “Ella Fitzgerald and the Critics in the African American Press, ca. 1936-1950”—Judith Tick
As a music historian, engaged in the project of writing a cultural biography of Ella Fitzgerald, I document and critically discuss representative significant examples of jazz criticism and coverage of Fitzgerald I have found in the mainstream black press, ca. 1936-through 1950. By “criticism” I mean not the typical reviews of recordings or concerts written by an emerging set of experts in the trade press, dominated by white male writers, but rather a community-based criticism among African American writers who disseminated reports of success and musical achievement with commentary.
On the one hand, the black press dutifully printed the public relations “features” put out by management. On the other hand, some independent journalists, such as the nationally prominent Dan Burley (New York Amsterdam News) and Billy Rowe (Pittsburgh Courier) tracked Fitzgerald’s career. They occasionally served as conduits in which her complaints and frustrations with her management (Moe Gale) and her record company (Decca) could find safe yet public expression.
One of the few female theatre critics Lillian Johnson (Baltimore Afro-American) not only ran features on Ella in the “women’s pages” of the Baltimore Afro-American but later wrote a blistering story about her problems with the Gale Agency and Decca. Among the few black magazines, most of which started in the 1940s, Our World (the African American parallel to Life Magazine) published the first extensive feature article on Fitzgerald published in the United States in 1949. These articles belong to a communally based populist jazz journalism, which I believe is a crucial part of the biography of Fitzgerald and deepens our understanding of her importance as an African American celebrity. I use these articles to raise questions about Fitzgerald’s aesthetic priorities and “agency.” Indirectly, I also intend this presentation to underscore the potential for revisionist perspectives made possible by digitization of African American newspapers in the last several years.