Friday, March 06, 2009

Music: black, Jewish and American

I'm ashamed I've never heard of James Reese Europe, who Eubie Blake described as "the Martin Luther King of music". Locust Avenue, up to 1914 in his vinyl history of the world, features this great man here.

The post also features the pianist Felix Arndt, possibly George Gershwin's teacher, whose story exemplifies something that has been a sub-text of the series: the complex interaction between black musical culture and European (including Eastern European) musical culture in forging what we now know as American popular music.
His "Desecration Rag"'s title is an in-joke, as the piece performs "ragtime perversions" (as Victor Records called them) on Dvorak's "Humoresque," Lizst's "2nd Hungarian Rhapsody," Sinding's "Rustle of Spring" and Chopin's "Impromptu," "Militaire Polonaise" and "Funeral March."

As Arndt was a New York-based piano player, his recordings may show the influence of the undocumented generation of regional pianists who were turning ragtime into stride jazz playing, such as New York's Richard "Abba Labba" McLean, Baltimore's "One Leg" Willie Joseph and John "Jack the Bear" Wilson, who played in Baltimore and NYC, and whose piano playing was a sideshow to his main interests of pimping, gambling and, later, opium.
Moving forward a generation or so, I have posted a few times on this blog on the great Jewish contributors to African-American music, such as Jerry Wexler (born 1917) and Doc Pomus (born in the 1920s). Soul Sides features another of these great men, Philly's Jerry Ragovoy (born 1935), who wrote many of the most-loved songs of soul music, including "Time Is on My Side" (made famous by the The Rolling Stones*), Garnet Mimms' "Cry Baby" (with a speoken word sequence that pefigured rap), Erma Franklin's "Piece of My Heart" (more famous for Janis Joplin), Howard Tate's "Get It While You Can". He frequently collaborated with also-Jewish Bronx-born Bert Berns (born 1929), who is responsible for a lot of the Latin influences in R&B music.

While I'm here, another underrated musical genious: Jabbo Smith. I remember when I was a kid getting into early jazz (Jabbo's rival Louis Armstrong was my first musical hero, and the first album I bought was by him), I was intrigued by the word "Jabbo" and longed to hear what he sounded like. If I'd been a kid now, I'd just have to click to YouTube...


Previous: Jerry Wexler, Who owns soul music?, Jewface 1908, The devil and the backbeat, Oriental Ellingtonia, Lattimore Brown and citizen scholarship.

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