U.S. Black History Month

By John Hertz: (reprinted from Vanamonde 1289) Lena Horne (1917-2010) was in the Cotton Club chorus line at sixteen; she replaced Dinah Shore (1916-1994) as the featured vocalist on NBC Radio’s Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street — which was jazz, and a spoof – and had made Shore’s career – but after six months was hired away for a club on Sunset Strip.  She sang the title song in Stormy Weather (A. Stine dir. 1943) in a role invented for her.  Back in nightclubs she sang at the Sands(Las Vegas), the Cocoanut Grove (L.A.), the Waldorf Astoria (New York); her 1957 live Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria was RCA Victor’s best-selling record by a woman artist up to that time (LOC 1028; now e.g. Hallmark B00DI4HSPK 2013); see its fine review in W. Friedwald, The Great Jazz & Pop Vocal Albums pp. 184-89 (2017).  During World War II she wouldn’t sing for segregated audiences, famously leaving a stage for the row where the black troops were.  She was in the 1963 March on Washington. Tom Lehrer put her in “National Brotherhood Week” (1965) – which, incidentally, it is, just now.  In 1980 she said she was retiring, then mounted a one-woman show The Lady and Her Music that ran three hundred performances on Broadway, toured the United States and Canada, played a month in London, and ended in Stockholm.  She won four Grammys (two for The Lady and Her Music, one for Lifetime Achievement), a Tony, and the Spingarn Medal. She was on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show; she was Glinda in The Wiz (S. Lumet dir. 1978) – in case you were waiting to hear what particular interest all this had for us.  She is on the 2018 U.S. Postal Service Black  Heritage stamp. In fact she never was retiring.

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5 thoughts on “U.S. Black History Month

  1. Lena was someone special. My mom was a fan of Basin Street and had two sets of 78s, so when a friend in high school showed up with a Basin Street LP, I borrowed it for a long time and when I finally brought it back to him, he gave it to me. Lena and Dinah were the two vocalists. I was a bigger fan of Dinah in high school, but my appreciation for Lena grows whenever I see her in anything (including the movies mentioned above).

    Side note: I brought a Basin Street tape of mine to voc-tech one time to play for my jazz-loving electronics teacher. He said he knew I meant well, but he couldn’t abide Dinah because ‘she sued her parents when she learned she was part black.’ This teacher has dropped off the globe in the decades since then, but thanks to Wikipedia, I can see that her mom died when she was sixteen, and other searches tell me there were rumors about her, apparently started by jealous competitors (and nourished by racism that couldn’t just say “so what?”).

    The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, for which some broadcasts are preserved online in lo-fi but are available in better sound on CDs, held blues and jazz pioneers in high reverence, and strove for a degree of authenticity. I don’t know that their bands were integrated, but they welcomed guests like Sidney Bechet and W.C. Handy, and performed with them.

  2. On a further Black History note, I was just looking up Pearl Bailey, for whom a branch library in her native Newport News was named in the time I lived there. She was from the Bloodfield neighborhood, a name I’d never heard, so I looked it up and learned about a riot that burned part of the town and the history of stubborn discrimination that led up to it. We came there just as Jessie Rattley became the first Mayor of color in the town. I had theorized that the neighborhood was one of the sections of town swallowed up by the shipyard and its parking, but it turns out that it’s more likely to be an area I passed most days on my way in to work in Hampton, populated at least in part by shipyard workers (what wasn’t?). I remember seeing a man coming home from his shift as I was heading for mine, and he was greeted by a porch full of cats with their tails straight up and twitching: “food? food? food?”

  3. Reading through that, I followed the link on National Brotherhood Week — and was struck by what I found there.

    National Brotherhood Week was organized in the late 30s by the National Conference for Community and Justice to call attention to its fight against bias — “The NCCJ’s platform centered on the acceptance of the essential contributions of every racial, ethnic, and religious group” — “to arouse Americans against persons or groups fomenting racial or religious hatred, and to promote friendship and cooperation among racial and religious groups.” “Diversity means strength — and adaptability to new and changing conditions. Diversity is stimulating to progress and growth.”

    The more things change, the more they stay the same!

  4. I bought a sheet of the Lena Horne stamps this morning – and a sheet of Jimi Hendrix stamps. I’d consider some of his songs to have elements of sf and fantasy.

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