The Music of Freedom Deferred

Today, we remember the heroic sacrifice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his pursuit of economic and social justice. The author Richard Wright noted that songs, work chants, and spirituals took the place of freedom for African Americans. Following centuries of cultural dislocation, these songs are filled with sadness and longing for home: Sometimes I feel like a motherless child A long way from home, a long way from home These songs …

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Don Shirley: Three Historic Recordings

During the 1960s, African-American jazz pianist and composer Don Shirley (1927-2013) left the comfort of his spacious, eclectically-appointed apartment above New York’s Carnegie Hall and undertook a series of concert tours which included the segregated, Jim Crow-era south. He hoped to break down the barriers of prejudice through music. Following the hostile treatment of Nat King Cole in Alabama a few years earlier, Shirley hired New York nightclub bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga as his …

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Remembering Nancy Wilson

The legendary American jazz singer Nancy Wilson passed away earlier this month on December 13. She was 81. The three-time Grammy-winning artist, who described herself as a “song stylist,” is remembered for ballads like “Guess Who I Saw Today” (1960) and “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am” (1964). Over the course of a career that spanned six decades, she accepted occasional acting roles and frequently crossed over into the R&B and pop categories. Years ago, I had the …

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Remembering Roy Hargrove

Roy Hargrove, the elegant, Grammy-winning jazz trumpet player, passed away last week. He was 49. A protege of Wynton Marsalis, Hargrove continued and reinvigorated the bebop tradition while incorporating a variety of other styles, including hip-hop and R&B. You can hear this combination of elements in the music of his progressive band, The Rh Factor. In this 2017 interview, Hargrove stressed the importance of continuous rudimentary practice, listening to music, and becoming versed in …

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Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”: Anne Akiko Meyers

Smile, composed by Charlie Chaplin as the love theme for his 1936 film, Modern Times, was inspired by the soaring, romantic melodies of Puccini’s Tosca. Here is an excerpt from the film with the music in its original form. Lyrics were later written by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons and the song became a standard. It was first recorded in 1954 by Nat King Cole. Later, it was performed by artists including Barbra Streisand, Josh Groban, and Michael Jackson. Violinist Anne Akiko …

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Stravinsky’s Jazz-Inspired “Ebony Concerto”

Earlier in the month, we listened to Leonard Bernstein’s 1949 Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, a uniquely-American hybrid of classical music and jazz, written for Woody Herman’s big band. (Due to the band’s 1946 dissolution, Benny Goodman gave the piece’s premiere). This reminded me of the Ebony Concerto, a similarly jazz-inspired work written for Herman by Igor Stravinsky a few years earlier in 1945. Stravinsky developed a fascination with jazz as early as 1916 when he said, I …

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The Music of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”

Music was at the heart of the long-running PBS children’s television program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I was reminded of this last week as I watched the timely new documentary film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The film opens with a youthful Fred Rogers, seated at the piano, relating far-flung harmonic modulations to difficult adjustments in children’s lives. Rogers, a talented pianist, wrote all of the show’s songs. Dialogue between characters in the “Neighborhood of Make-believe” …

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