Friday, September 08, 2017

In previous notes we explored the concept of a relationship between jazz and democracy, and how jazz is being used as a metaphor to teach children about the basic tenets of democracy in America. We also made reference to the contributions of African-Americans to the development of jazz and it’s correlation to the growth of democracy in America. It is now important to note that the growth of democracy was enhanced and given a qualitative leap by the civil rights movement which brought about broader participation and afforded equal opportunities to all Americans.

Jazz predicted the civil rights movement more than any other art form in America. Jazz musicians responded to the force of the movement by recording and performing their music, and the jazz community was at the forefront of the civil rights movement.

It had a massive impact on jazz, and many jazz musicians were actively involved in the movement. From the days of bebop when jazz stopped catering to popular audiences and instead became solely about the music and those who played it, jazz has been symbolically linked to the civil rights movement.

This music which appealed to whites and blacks alike, provided a culture in which the collective and the individual were inseparably linked and in which one was judged by his ability alone , and not by race, gender or any other factors. Jazz musicians took up the cause, using their celebrity and their music to promote racial equality and social justice.

The impact of the civil rights movement on jazz, and the reaction of jazz musicians to the civil rights movement were more notable among female jazz performers who used the stage to expose inequality and social injustice. The late Miriam Makeba of South Africa and Nina Simone of North Carolina, USA, were visible women in the civil rights movements of their countries while being exceptional jazz singers. Our feature this week is about another woman in the same category, she was an American jazz singer, actress, dancer and civil rights activist.

Her birth name is Lena Mary Calhoun Horne; she was born in Brooklyn N.Y. on June 30th 1917. Her mother’s name was Edna Scottron, and her grandmother was reported to be a descendant of John C. Calhoun-a former Vice President of the U.S.in the 1880’s. Both sides of Lena’s family were a mixture of Native American and European America, and each belonging to what W.E.B Dubois called the “Talented Ten” meaning the upper stratum of middle class well educated African Americans. Her mother’s maternal grandmother, Amelia Louis Ashton was said to be a slave from Senegal. At the age of sixteen, Lena started working at the Cotton Club in Harlem, first as a dancer, and later as a solo singer. In 1933 she was part of the chorus line at the Cotton Club, and it was here where she would meet actress Adelaide Hall who became fond of her and they became friends throughout her career. A few years later, Lena joined the Noble Sissle orchestra and toured with them extensively while also recording her first record release on Decca Records. During the period 1940-41, Lena played and toured with bandleader Charlie Barnet, but became disillusioned with the travelling and left the band to work at the Café Society in New York City.It was during this period that she gained more popularity and went on to perform at the Greenwich Village in New York and at Carnegie Hall. She was primarily a night club performer but in 1943, during a club engagement in Hollywood, she was approached by talent scouts to work in pictures.

Lena’s work in movies began with MGM Goldwyn Meyer and she became the first black performer to sign a long term contract with a major Hollywood studio. In 1945, she sang with Billy Eckstein’s orchestra. Her first movie with MGM was called “Panama Hattie” in which she performed the song “Stormy Weather” based on the life of her friend Adelaide Hall. She appeared in a host of musicals notable among them, “Cabin in the Sky” which was an all-black musical

By the mid-fifties, Horne was becoming disenchanted with Hollywood and began focusing more on her night club career. Her disenchantment was fueled by the problems of blacklisting within the industry.

It was a period called “McCarthyism” which targeted left leaning individuals and civil rights activists calling them disloyal and unpatriotic. After leaving Hollywood, Horne established herself as one of the best premiere night club performers of the post war era, playing at clubs and hotels all over the U.S. Canada and Europe.

In 1957, she released a live album entitled “Lena Horne at the Waldorf Astoria” Between 1950 and 1960 she appeared on a lot of TV variety shows and in 1970 she co-stared with Harry Belafonte in an hour long TV program for ABC television called “Harry and Lena”. In 1973 she again co-stared with Tony Bennett in “Tony and Lena”. She then went on to appear on a series of television programs including the Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Sanford and Son and the Cosby Show.

In 1980, Lena who was now sixty three years old and intending to retire was invited to perform with Luciano Pavarotti at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Pavarotti was unable to attend but the show went on with Lena being the main attraction. Her performance was so brilliant that she was contacted by the people of the Nederlander Theatre for an engagement that lasted for a whole year. One of her most acclaimed records “the lady and her music” was recorded during this period and she toured forty one cities in the U.S. Canada, London and Stockholm. She received a Tony Award for this release in 1981, and in 1989 she was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement award.

In the 1990’s, she became more active in the recording studio, although she was now approaching her 80”s. In 1993, after a performance in tribute to Billy Strayhom (Duke Ellington’s longtime collaborator), Lena decided to record an album of the songs made by these two gentlemen. The album was called “We’ll be together again”, and she made what would be her final concerts at the New York Super Club and Carnegie Hall to coincide with the release of the album. In 1955, a live album of her performance at the Super Club was released entitled “Being Myself”

Thereafter, Horne retired from performing and retreated from public view until the year 2000 when she contributed some vocal tracks on Simon Rattle’s “Classic Ellington album”. As we pointed earlier, Lena’s musical career was mixed and existed side by side with her activism in the civil rights movement. In 1941 she sang at the Café society in New York with Paul Robesonanother notable African American artist and civil rights activist. She was at the NAACP rally with Medga Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, the weekend before Evers was assassinated, and met President Kennedy two days before he was also assassinated. She was at the march on Washington where she spoke and performed on behalf of NAACP and SNCC.

She also worked tirelessly with Eleanor Roosevelt (President Roosevelt’s wife) to pass anti lynching laws in the southern United States.

Lena died on mother’s day May 9th 2010 in New York City due to heart failure. Her legacy is one of gifted talent, pride and resistance. Thousands gathered to mourn her at the St. Ignatus Layola Church on Park Avenue in New York City.

Among the mourners were notable personalities including singer Dionne Warwick, actress Cicely Tyson and Vanessa Williams, the first African American to win the Miss America title. In 2011, a tribute to Horne was done by actress Halle Berry at the 83rd Academy Awards ceremony held on February 27th 2011.

We hope you are continuing to enjoy reading about Jazz. We try to provide jazz education for jazz appreciation.

Author: Mahtarr E. Njai
Source: Picture: LENA HORNE