Of late, I’ve become a bit of an enthusiast for jazz, particularly for jazz vocalists. Not an aficionado yet but someone who appreciates the beauty, the verve and the mastery required of the jazz greats. Lately I’ve been reading fascinating biographies of some of my favorite performers.
One of these singers is jazz great Nina Simone though, in her autobiography I Put A Spell On You, she denounces the designation of “jazz singer”, feeling that such a label didn’t fully describe her music. The late Simone, nee Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was possessed of prodigious piano talent from a very young age and classically trained ever after, aspiring to a career as a concert pianist. Not to disparage the genre of jazz, she viewed herself as a classical musician who, if anything else had more in common with the folk and blues musicians coming up alongside her during the 50s and 60s. In listening to her song choices, as diverse as show tunes like “I Loves You Porgy”, blues such as “Trouble In Mind” and art songs like “Pirate Jenny”, one can see that her repertoire boasts many different musical influences besides jazz.
But still a great case is made for her classification as a jazz musician in the way she describes how she arrived at her distinctive musical style. In I Put A Spell On You she describes the song-craft of her earliest musical performances.
“I knew hundreds of popular songs and dozens of classical pieces, so what I did was combine them: I arrived [at a gig] prepared with classical pieces, hymns and gospel songs and improvised on those, occasionally slipping in a part from a popular tune.”
While Nina Simone bristled a bit at being clumped casually by music critics into the same box as other great though quite different performers as Billie Holliday or Sarah Vaughan, there is no doubt in my mind that her musical style was (is) the epitome of incredible jazz.
I Put A Spell On You offers incredible insight into the life and talents of Nina Simone. Written with Stephen Cleary, Simone describes in plain-spoken detail her advent from concert-hall bound, Julliard-trained prodigy to international music sensation and all the trials and triumphs along the way. I found quite interesting the fact that she fell into pop music stardom almost by accident. She played dive bars and supper clubs by night while teaching piano by day all in an effort to earn money for continued study at Julliard (she even aspired to return to Julliard well into a successful pop career).
She was an incredibly gifted though complex woman, it would seem. Simone was confident in her craft but racked with severe stage fright. She was a woman with a disdain for pop music (and for the pop-listening public at times) but who, through pop music success, found a platform for joining the Civil Rights Movement and addressing social inequality. She loved her family, financially supporting her mother throughout her career, but a devastating falling-out with her beloved father hardened her against visiting him on her death. Her music was her battle-cry, her comfort and her gift to the world.
I wish I could do justice to the inspiration of this blog post in this blog post. There isn’t really enough space in this format, there isn’t enough time (as I’m anxious to get back to my reading on this, my inspiration), nor do I have enough words to fully express myself.
This past week or so I’ve been reading several books at once but most of them revolve around the life, the death and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The first book that I have been reading that has inspired me to learn more about Dr. King is an incredibly insightful book by Michael Eric Dyson, one of my favorite contemporary writers and thinkers, called April 4, 1968.
In this book, Dyson examines the life, the activism and, most specifically the death of Dr. King. Dyson writes that King’s understanding of his “calling”, the moral imperative to stand up against injustice, and also King’s sense of his own mortality were driving forces in his Civil Rights leadership. The spectre of suffering and death was ever-present in King’s life: from the violence that marked the Civil Rights movement to the constant threats against his own life. It was his deep belief in the righteousness of the cause and his strong faith in God and in America that sustained him throughout his life in the Movement.
In between studying his words, I’ve also seen an incredible PBS American Experience documentary Citizen King, addressing the last five years of Dr. King’s life. The film, directed by Orlando Bagwell and W. Noland Walker, is a richly-detailed, beautifully-realized exploration of the life and times of King. Citizen King tells the story of King’s work beyond the familiar images of his March on Washington and beyond the well-known words of his “I Have A Dream” speech. The film sheds light on his work in the Poor People’s Campaign, addressing economic injustice and poverty, and also addresses his vocal (and highly controversial) opposition to the Vietnam War.
The aforementioned works reminded me of the impact of Dr. King, a legacy that in my opinion shouldn’t be relegated to one day in January or to the following month of February. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. But he also had the conviction, the passion, the courage and the clarity of vision to stand for what he believed in.
Over the years I’ve become a late-blooming hip hop head. There are some folks who can give you the time, the place and the name of the sandwich they were eating when the very first rap recording in history ever came out (for the record, I’m not 100% sure where to find the answer to that query). Either way I’ve really come to develop a great love, respect and admiration for the artform…and I’ve got my public library to thank for that.
What? There’s no rapping in libraries! Wouldn’t you get kicked out if you tried to break dance on a table? That’s not exactly what I meant, but nonetheless I’ve been able to explore the music of a wide variety of artists here at DCPL (Spoil-Sport Alert: most if not all of the library’s collection of rap albums are edited…so if you listen to rap just for profanity you may be a bit let down). In addition to the Library’s quite impressive collection of hip hop music, there are also incredible books here about the history and origins of hip-hop culture, the artform of rap music, and its impact on the world at large.
One incredible glimpse into the world of hip hop music is the book Decoded by Jay-Z, one of hip-hop’s most prolific, critically-acclaimed and widely recognized artists. His book is more than a biography of his life and times but it is also a compelling and insightful tribute to a genre of music that continues to expand and evolve. Reading Decoded has inspired me to give Jay-Z’s music a second listen (and to reach into his back catalog for some of his earliest music). It’s worth noting that this is the first book that I’ve ever read in digital format—I read it on my iPhone using the Kindle app and checked it out in eBook format through the Library’s digital downloads page. It was an appropriate way to read this book—all the better to listen to Jay-Z’s music while reading about the experiences and the culture that inspired his lyrics. Reading his book has given me a greater appreciation for his talents as a lyricist and an artist. Also I’ve been inspired to check out the other great hip-hop artists name-checked by Jay in this book—as icons, contemporaries or, in some cases, as rivals.
In addition to Decoded, the Library has an extensive collection of books exploring the artform of rap music and hip hop culture. To list all that the Library has to offer would take more time and space than I’ve got here but there are a few that I’d like to mention here:
Beats, Rhymes and Life: What We Love And Hate About Hip Hop edited by Kenji Jasper and Ytasha Womack: This is a really good compilation of essays by hip hop journalists and notable writers. Like the aforementioned Dyson, the editors of Beats, Rhymes and Life are hip hop fans, writing passionately and openly about an artform that they cherish.
"Lift Every Voice and Sing" by sculptor Augusta Savage
February is Black History Month and this year the celebration’s special focus has been “Black Women in American Culture and History.” Though the month is drawing to a close, there’s still time to remember and celebrate some of the very interesting African American women who, though well known, are perhaps less often heralded than others but are, nonetheless, just as important. Here’s an admittedly small sampling:
Bessie Coleman (1893-1926) – the first African American female pilot and the first African American to hold an international pilots license.
Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) – the first widely known African American poet and the first African American woman to publish her writing.
Bridget Mason (1818- 1891) – nurse, midwife, philanthropist and real estate entrepreneur. She was one of the first African Americans, and the first female, to own land in Los Angeles.
Augusta Savage (1892- 1962) – sculptor and highly influential teacher and activist throughout the Harlem Renaissance and beyond. Her sculpture Lift Every Voice and Sing was created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
If you want to learn more about these women and others, DCPL has materials available to you.
I think history is best taught through stories. Facts and dates are fine for knowing, but it is through story that we can best come to a deeper understanding of what those facts and dates mean. I think that’s why genealogy is such an addictive hobby—the facts are easier than ever to track down with all the tools available on the Internet (sites such as Heritage Quest, Ancestry and Rootsweb) but it takes going to the place, finding the people who know the stories that go with those facts, for the facts to matter—at least that’s how it works for me. In honor of the month, I’ve pulled together a list of children’s titles that I think give heart and that deeper understanding to various points of African American history. Most of these are picture books, a few are novels. This list is by no means comprehensive, just some things I’ve loved over the years. The DCPL collection is loaded with lots of wonderful non-fiction for children, as well as for adults, so once you’ve cruised through my list, type “African americans literature” in the keyword search section of the catalog and browse the collection. Don’t forget to use the word juvenile in the keyword search to narrow the selection down to children’s materials.
We’re coming up on a three day weekend and I’m telling you, after the frenzy of the past month I’m ready for a little extra rest. As grateful as I am for the breather though, I believe that Memorial Day and Labor Day should be more than just bookends for the summer and I don’t want MLK Day to become just a rest stop after the holidays.
Perhaps the best known of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches is the one he delivered on what was surely a stifling, muggy day in Washington, D.C. in 1963. Much like a chorus singing Handel in a food court gave a gift to those around them, he delivered a gift to his country on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This speech is not the first of his writings—it may not even be considered to be his finest work by some—but for me, it best sums up not only the sacrifice and work that went into the Civil Rights movement but also the hopes I still have for us as a country. Some of it is a little painful to read, even for an adult, but I think if you track down a copy of the picture book I Have A Dream you’ll find that the best of it is easily available to a child, illustrated by 15 artists of staggering talent. If you haven’t read the entire thing, you’ll find the full text there as well.
I’m not going to make a list of the biographies, collections of his writings and the histories of the civil rights movement in the collection (the list would be long indeed) but I am going to encourage you to take a look at the catalog and pick out a few things to remind you that this isn’t just a three day weekend coming up.
This year marks the sesquicentennial, i.e. 150th anniversary, of the onset of the United States Civil War and the Stonecrest branch of DCPL will be hosting a special event to help mark this very important period in American history. On Saturday, November 5th at 12:00 pm the exhibit Forty Acres and More: African Americans and the Civil War will open at Stonecrest with a reception and the unveiling of the exhibit. The exhibit is an impressive collection of documents, pictures, newspapers, and other historic items collected by local historian and former NBA player Mike Glenn and documents the African American presence and participation in the Civil War. Documents include minutes from the Philadelphia Negro Convention of 1833 and Fredrick Douglass’ speech “Men of Color to Arms.” You’ll find more information at the Mike Glenn Foundation (www.mikeglenn.com) but be sure not to miss this important exhibit!
Are you interested in learning more about the presence and influence of African Americans in the Civil War? Check out these resources at DCPL.
Firebrand of Liberty: the story of two Black regiments that changed the course of the Civil War by Stephen V. Ash tells the story of the seizure of Jacksonville in 1863 by nine hundred African American Union soldiers. Although the mission was deemed a failure at the time, the regiments’ success in holding off the Confederate forces was part of what persuaded Lincoln to begin full-scale recruitment of Black troops, a measure which almost certainly changed the course of the war.
The well-received Like Men of War: Black troops in the Civil War by Noah Andre Trudeau uses original source material and a unique narrative style to tell the intimate stories of the thousands of brave and determined men who took up arms.
Did you know that as many as one in six Union navy sailors was African American? Slaves, Soldiers, Citizens: African Americans in the Union Navy by Steven Ramold pulls from diaries, court documents and other source material to document the enormous contribution that African Americans made to the naval effort. This book also features rare photographs of the daily lives of these sailors.
… and for a night at home with a DVD, please consider Glory starring Morgan Freeman, Cary Elwes, Denzel Washington, and Matthew Broderick. The film was nominated for many major awards and won Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Sound. As well, Denzel Washington won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his stirring performance as Private Trip. Not to be missed!
Being nonexistent in the 60’s, I had never heard of The Great Speckled Bird, Atlanta’s underground progressive newspaper published in the late 60’s and early 70’s, until I happened to hear a feature story about it on the radio a few months ago. I was fascinated by the history of the paper, the radical causes it took up, and the dedication of its members, who were often harassed for being associated with it:
Then the other day, while taking a walk in Decatur square (just a hop, skip, and jump away from the Decatur Library) I saw that the DeKalb History Center had an exhibit of The Great Speckled Bird. It’s really a sight to see. They have many of the covers and spreads hanging up, and samples of the stories grouped by causes (Racial Equality, Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, Worker’s Rights, Anti-War, etc.). The exhibit is up now, so go check it out.
And if you’re not familiar with the DeKalb History Center, it is a nonprofit organization dedicated to collecting, preserving and sharing the rich history of DeKalb County. It’s located in the historic DeKalb County Courthouse, in the “Decatur square”. They have several other interesting exhibits up right now too!
Black History Month is just around the corner, so I decided to revisit my own history. Until the age of 12, I grew up on the not-so-mean streets of Harlem (that’s NY, not the Netherlands) . Harlem then (and I won’t say when) was an exciting, noise-filled experience for a child. Just walking from one end of the legendary 125th Street to the other gave you a cultural thrill that could not be experienced anywhere else outside the marketplaces of Africa or the Caribbean. Visits to the Apollo Theater, walks along the Hudson River and Riverside Drive, field trips to Grant’s Tomb, the Cloisters and the Schomburg Library all made for powerful memories.
Yes, the negatives were there; friends I couldn’t visit because they lived in the reportedly unsafe “projects;” sad men sitting on stoops or standing on corners, whose lives seemed to be directionless and empty. But if you opened your window on a sultry summer night, on those same corners you might hear the most glorious harmony from impromptu accapella groups; groups that could but never would, make it big on stage. During the day you could listen for the arrival of the ice cream truck or the traveling merry-go-round. Although my forward thinking parents insisted we become acquainted with “downtown” and the Museum of Natural History, New York Public Library, the Empire State Building, skating at Rockefeller Center and a larger world in general, it was those brief times spent on “the block” which taught me how to jump double dutch, perform hand clapping games and play handball. The move to the suburbs may have been a step up in some ways, but there was something missing which could not be found while playing in my own backyard.
With regentrification, much of the Harlem of my childhood is gone and Starbucks has arrived. However for those who have never been and will probably never go to Harlem, there are numerous books and other materials which will allow you to see this still remarkable place, as it was .
Today is the anniversary of the birth for two famous Georgians. These two men made an impact in their respective fields. I knew the first one, Ty Cobb, was from Georgia but I was surprised that Ossie Davis was from Georgia.
Ty Cobb made his impact on the baseball world. He was born in 1886 in Narrows, Georgia. He was known as the “Georgia Peach” and was considered an outstanding offensive player of all time. He played for Augusta in the minor South Atlantic League. He set many Major League records. Several are still intact today. Ty Cobb was the first man elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame which was established in Cooperstown, Ohio in 1936.
Want to learn more about Ty Cobb? Check out these books.
Ossie Davis made an impact in films. He was born in Cogdell Georgia in 1917. He was known as one of the busiest African-American Entertainers in the 1970’s. In his career he wrote plays and books. He was a director, playwright and producer. He co-starred in a radio program with his wife in the mid-1970’s.
Want to learn more or see some of Ossie Davis’s work? Check out the following.
Want more information about these gentleman but can’t get into a library? You can use the Library’s electronic resource, Biography Resource Center. This resource along with other electronic resources can be found on our Reference Database page.