Monday, August 29, 2011

Happy History Homework

We had two Youtube sessions in my recent jazz course. The first was on the blues and I hoped to begin with Elvis singing “Hound Dog” (see Lieber-Libya-King Blues posting). Imagine my shock when something popped up blocking this clip. Until this year, Youtube was banned in the Vancouver schools and that restriction was only recently relaxed. But apparently not relaxed enough to allow young children to see Elvis’ gyrating hips on the Ed Sullivan show. Really? That clip from 1956 banned in 2011? Especially in light of what is on network television before the kids go to bed?

So we went back to Youtube on the last day to illuminate the “From Minstrelsy to Musicals” lecture and this time, several hip gyrations snuck through. How I would love to give this lecture to every American. No, not a lecture, a whole mini-series. As I mentioned back in my posting “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” such a required history could go a long way to curing the ignorance of our own past. I guarantee that it would be every bit as entertaining and engaging as The Sopranos or The Wire, and ultimately, more uplifting, inspiring, and revealing about certain truths in our history. Which, of course, is why it would never fly on mainstream TV.

So instead, here’s a virtual little lecture, but you have to do your homework. And trust me, you will be happy you did. Follow this 5-step program:

• Go to Youtube and look up "Bill Robinson Staircase Dance." (This isn't a link, you actually have to type it into the Youtube search. More work for you, but all good things require effort. :) ) One video is just him and five stairs going up and down on a bare stage. Some piano player is playing an anemic “Way Down Upon the Swanee River” and later, “There’s No Place Like Home.” The camera occasionally pans to reveal a bored and disinterested white audience. But up there is Bill Bojangles Robinson revealing the depth of his genius—what one man, a pair of feet, a dedicated practice, a few stairs and a prodigious imagination can accomplish.

• Then watch the other staircase dance with Shirley Temple and keep in mind that a man of this accomplishment was portrayed as her servant. They seem to have a very sweet relationship and to see a black man and a white little girl holding hands and dancing together affectionately perhaps was a step forward in U.S. race relations. But still.

• Now go to "Hellzapoppin’ Lindy Hop" and see a clip from a movie featuring some remarkable dancers (including Frankie Manning) and a bunch of musicians I don’t recognize playing the hell out of every instrument they touch—and with such great communication between them. The finesse, the energy, the skill, the speed, the imagination, the musicality, the sophistication, the nuances, the choreography of both the dance and music is simply a marvel to behold.

• Next go to "Swing Dancing Bill Haley and the Comets" and see what happened when the creations of black culture trickled down to white culture. The music was simplified, the dancing was tamer, the spontaneous communication replaced by formula riffs and the authenticity of the culture a bit laughable as young teens tried out their cool new language. Go back to Hellzapoppin’ and keep contrasting the two.

• And now I’ve saved the best for last. "Nicholas Brothers Stormy Weather.(Some clips start a bit further back with Bill Robinson and then Cab Calloway—worth it.) Now I’ve seen this clip over a hundred times and never get tired of it. (Though sometimes I turn away from the screen to look at the expressions on my viewer’s faces as my as the brothers do the staircase finale. It is almost as entertaining as the dance. Oddly enough, especially the women’s expressions! Now if you were thinking of cheating and not watching anything, I hope this enticed you! But back to the main subject.)

So there I was watching them yet again and this time it struck me that beside the “natural talent,” these guys really worked! And worked hard! Every gesture and step in that routine rehearsed and not a single pattern repeated. All in perfect synchronicity with the music. Like all great artists, they make it look effortless and spontaneous. But as Michelangelo said, “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”

And the joy the dancers and musicians radiated in the Hellzapoppin’ and Stormy Weather clips! What Martian visiting Earth would ever guess what these folks went through in their daily life and how their imitators would dilute their creations, yet gain so much more fame and fortune because of skin pigment.  It boggles the mind.

There. Lecture over. I hope you will honestly admit that homework has never been so fun. But it should come with a price. Take a moment’s reflection as to how it must have felt for Count Basie and Chick Webb to see Benny Goodman dubbed as The King of Swing, for Muddy Waters or Louis Jordan or Chuck Berry to watch Elvis crowned King, for the Nicholas Brothers to wonder why Fred Astaire was and is a household name and yet, so few, then or now, know about Fayard and Harold Nicholas.

So the second charge for the show?

Show it to the kids.

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