Meet Me at Paul Robeson Boulevard
And Count Basie Place!
It’s About Time!!!
Well Alright Now!!
Erecting monuments and naming streets is a time honored way of paying homage to those whose contributions to society have made our lives better. By having lived the lives they lived during their time on earth our lives today are richer, and fuller, because of their deeds. Sometimes that contribution is obvious, because they are material, as in the case of scientists who cure diseases; or generals who are triumphant in war; or philanthropic businessmen who pay for buildings that bear their name. Yet there are others whose contributions are immaterial, though richer still, because they enrich our inner life through their contributions to art, literature, music, philosophy, social activism and political leadership.
In west African societies, from whence came the ancestors that shaped some fundamental aspects the American cultural heritage of the two men we are honoring here today, there are ceremonies known as ancestor veneration rituals. On such occasions there is music and dance and feasting and the recitation of praise poems extolling the deeds of the great spirits who are being honored. That is how I view our task today. Both Bill Basie and Big Paul Robeson were sons of our neighboring state of New Jersey – the former from Red Bank the latter from Princeton – and their deeds are of such a magnitude that, if properly understood, could end all the dirty jokes about that much maligned state.
Paul Robeson from was one of my earliest heroes. Having grown up in St. Augustine Florida and enjoying the benefit of an education in a school system designed by James Weldon Johnson, our teachers told us of the legendary scholar athlete from Rutgers, who became a great Shakespearian actor, world renowned concert singer who elevated the songs of slaves to great art, lawyer, and fearless freedom fighter. Although in the 1950’s when I was in high school they had to virtually whisper his name in the racist apartheid south, because of persecution by a white supremacists government and school board to whom Paul Robeson represented a menace to the social order. And indeed he was!
It was in the nature of things that this greatly gifted and proud black man would find it impossible to accept the proposition that white men who were demonstrably his inferiors would dare to deem him their inferior and kick him, and all who looked like him, to the curb where they would watch the parade of history but never join the procession as an equal partner in shaping the grand saga that is American history.
Since Paul Robeson was as near to human perfection as we are ever likely to see – the personification of the ancient Greek Ideal of mind body perfection – he was superior to all the white men of his generation…and although he never said it, he had to know it! We would be a better nation today had he served as our President during the period when Franklin Delanor Roosevelt sat in the Oval Office. For Robeson, a hero of militant freedom fighters all over the world, was fighting fascism in Spain while Roosevelt fiddled and IBM built machines that made the NAZI genocide against European Jews more efficient!
At one point Paul Robeson was the most famous of all Americans – singing the sacred songs of his enslaved ancestors on the stages of the great concert halls of the world – and marching with struggling workers everywhere in the advanced industrial world. His work in behalf of world peace and universal brotherhood inspired the Russians to name a mountain after him even as his own government tried to extinguish any memory of his noble deeds.
Yet even the vicious American government, with its inhumane racial caste system, could not contain Robeson’s genius nor extinguish his memory. As an artist and engaged intellectual blessed with the physical stature and magnificent voice of a Frederick Douglass; the intellect of a DuBois; the militant fighting spirit of Nat turner; and splendid artistic and athletic gifts, Big Paul Robeson was the tallest tree in our forest. And not all the power of the American government could cut him down.
Through years of relentless persecution from the US government and the entertainment industry, intended to silence his unrelenting advocacy for the freedom of his people from a fascist like racial oppression, even then centuries old, while championing the struggles of the workers of the world, Robeson’s head was bloodied but unbowed until the day he danced and joined his ancestors. And as Shakespeare said of Othello – a role Paul played in the longest running production of a Shakespeare play on Broadway – “the elements so blended in him that all the world could say …there was a man!”
When I was in the tenth grade we got a young hip bandmaster at my high school, Mr. Chuck McClendon, who was a fabulous saxophonist. This was at a time when many of the big bands were breaking up and the great musicians who had filled their chairs were seeking work as music teachers in the black public schools of the south; it was one of the unintended positive consequences of the evil system of racial segregation.
At the time most black highs-school bands were playing the jingoistic marches of John Phillip Sousa, founder of the United states Marine core band, but Mr. McClendon told us right off: “I want our band to be so swinging that when people hear the name Murray high they will start patting their feet.” So our theme song became “Jumping at the Woodside,” by Count Basie. Because, as Duke Ellington said “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”…and Bill Basie was the real King Of Swing!
Although others have tried to expropriate this form, the big swing band was an invention of Afro-American musicians, the most original incarnation of the orchestra in western music since the European Symphony. Like Jazz itself, it reflects the most cherished values of American civilization and swings to the up-tempo rhythms of a modern industrial machine age society, where the miraculous is routine. The artistic imagination of Bill Basie was shaped by the ragtime rhythms of the east, with its complex syncopation and love of melody, and the rough and tumble blues sensibility of the south-western territory bands.
To the casual observer with an untutored ear, Count Basie simply used the piano to punctuate orchestral statements. But the Count was a formidable pianist, a master of the Stride and Boogie Woogie styles. In his memoir “Music Is My Mistress” the great Duke Ellington, himself a master of the keyboard, talks about how one of his favorite things to do was go out and watch Count Basie play solo piano. Of course the evidence is on record, and it’s irrefutable.
I refer you to Basie’s playing on the records “House for Rent” and “St. Louise Boogie,” from the album “Battle Of the Bands,” featuring the Duke Ellington and Count Basie Orchestras as exhibit A. There you will hear splendid examples of Basie’s playing in both styles, as well as the unique and ingenious way he both conversed with the Orchestra and controlled the music from the keyboard. The rhythmic demands of Stride and Boogie Woogie requires a facility in the left hand that is as technically demanding as playing the score of Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude,” which is one of the most difficult compositions in the European classical piano literature.
Bill Basie’s style is an authentically American classical piano form in which virtuosity is assumed, and the emphasis is on musical invention, in a performance where the score is being created at the speed of thought. Embodied in his sound and technique one can hear echoes of Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Willie the Lion Smith, Dorothy Donegan and especially Thomas “Fats” Waller – who inspired him to play the organ.
Perhaps Basie’s greatest artistic achievement is that he managed to project his personality through a musical aggregation of independent minded virtuosos who could improvise on their own musical ideas ad infinitum. But yet in the sound of the Basie Orchestra one hears both the triumphant spirit of twentieth century America, as well as the bubbly, buoyant, gracious, elegant personality of the Count. And during the golden age of the Basie band when it was powered by “The All American Rhythm Section” – Poppa Joe Jones, Freddie Green, Walter Page and Basie – they were the hardest swinging band in the land!
While Ellington’s great orchestra was certainly a vehicle for his musical imagination, he was, after all, a great composer who produced endless written scores. But in the formative years of the Basie sound the orchestra played without any written music at all…It is a miracle I continue to marvel at. It remains a mystery as to how he could produce such precision and improvisational freedom in a big band without any musical notations.
The Basie band was playing from head arrangements with polyrhymic rifts from the brass and reed sections punctuating and driving the soloists. And through it all the careful listener can hear The Count striding through the wailing horns, grooving to the rhythm he heard, yet always in the corner pocket. The best guide to understanding how the count developed his band and his unique sound one must read “Good Morning Blues,” Basie’s autobiography, written with Albert Murray.
In the great age of American big bands, extending from the early twentieth century to the 1950’s, two orchestras came to define the best of the genre: The Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands. Ellington represented the sophisticated elegance of the Harlem Renissiance and the golden age of black Washington society. It was an exemplar of what the Harlem sage and preeminent philosopher of the blues, Albert Murray, calls “the fully orchestrated blues statement.”
Count Basie’s band, on the other hand, embodyied the raucous freedom, inventiveness, and earthy blues sensibility of the South-West territory as expressed in the Afro-American culture of Oklahoma City and especially Kansas City, where Basie cut his teeth as the pianist with the famous Blue Devils. Of all the definitions I’ve heard of music my favorite is: “Music is a poignant sound portrait painted on a canvas of silence.”
The sound portraits painted by the Basie band captures the grandeur of the American spirit as filtered through the sensibility of the Afro-American artist, who was imbued with a heroic optimism that alone can account for the rise of the African American people from the slave quarters to the White House, the miracle of Jazz, and the rare gift that was Bill Basie.
Inside The building where The Great Men Lived
Interiors By Versailles
Scenes From An Ancestor Veneration Ritual
The Culturati Joins The Politicos in Celebration
Grand Daughter Susan Robeson Spoke On Behalf Of Family
As Matt Jacobs Oh Harlem Historical Society Listens
Neighborhood Resident Eddie Kirkpatrick
Representin for the Activist community
State Assemblyman Bill Perkins
And The President of the Count Basie foundation
Internationally Renown Concert Pianist Filipe Hall Paying His Respects
Professor Hall Performs the music Robeson sang
The Celebrants Retire To Fete At Jumel Mansion
The Stately Country House where George Washington Encamped
A Portrait Of General Washington
Hangs in the Hallway
Even In The 18th Century
The Rich lived Large!
Jumel Mansion Is…
A Fine House Built By A Hooker!
But On this Glorious Day
It Was A Refuge for the Righteous Revelers
Who Feasted Royally!
On Fruits and Salads
And Was Serenaded By Margie Elliot
Virtuoso Pianist and Jazz Impresario
Denny Farrell And Robert Jackson and Bill Perkins
Commiserated with the Mansion’s Director
There Were Ladies of High Style!
Who Were No Slaves To Fashion!
A Bride And Groom Dropped By!
Some Hip Hoppers Paid Homage!
Spittin Rhymes Praising Their Ancestors!
Men Of Vision Brought Their Little Daughters
And Stimulated Their Senses!!
Cats Of All Ages
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Represented
Peter N. Carroll told Us How Robeson Sang For the Soldiers In Spain
“Freedom Eddie” And Susan Robeson
Discuss The Great One’s Legacy
June And Jane Pay Their Respects
The Man Of The Hour!
Mark Jacobs (center) Director HHS
He Made It all Happen!!