The Mother Of Us All

Ethel Waters was an innovative and terrifically influential singer, and she broke through racial barriers in movies, theater, nightclubs, radio, film, and television, opening doors for everyone who came after her. She deserves to be much better remembered.

The greatest nostalgia of all is that which we feel for what we have never known,” an elderly English journalist told me when I wondered aloud why I, a 1960s rock ’n’ roll child, had become obsessed with 1930s jazz. I first discovered old Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith records as a student in Paris in the early 1970s, and I listened to each song over and over before going on to the next. I camped out with sandwiches in art cinemas there, sitting through repeated showings of Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley musicals, scribbling down lyrics and memorizing tunes.Read more »

Oklahoma!

It opened fifty years ago and changed Broadway forever

Only in retrospect does it seem surprising that there were empty seats in the St. James Theatre the night Oklahoma! opened, on March 31, 1943. Read more »

Dvořák In America

The great Czech composer arrived on these shores a century ago and wrote some of his most enduring masterpieces here. Perhaps more important, he understood better than any American of the day where our musical destiny lay.

I did not come to America to interpret Beethoven or Wagner for the public. That is not my work and I would not waste any time on it. I came to discover what young Americans had in them and to help them express it.”

Antonín Dvořák was very clear about his mission in the New World. He never wanted to be an ambassador representing the music of the Old World but rather a discoverer of what the New had to offer. Read more »

The Diamond Jubilee Of Jazz

Seventy-five years ago this month, a not especially good band cut a record that transformed our culture

About 325,000 jazz performances have been recorded for commercial release in the twentieth century, according to the Institute for Jazz Studies, at Rutgers University. Plus thousands more have been taken from radio and concert events. Unknown billions of jazz records have been sold. But it was the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) that made and sold the first jazz records seventy-five years ago this month (now reissued in a diamond-jubilee edition by RCA Bluebird). Read more »

Seeking The Greatest Bluesman

Robert Johnson died in obscurity in 1938; since then he has gradually gained recognition as a genius of American music. Only recently have the facts of his short, tragic life become known.

Who was Robert Johnson? For so many years that question haunted all of us who loved the blues. Certainly we knew about Robert Johnson’s music. He had time to make only a handful of recordings before he died at the age of twenty-seven in 1938, and outside of the small towns of the Mississippi Delta country where he had grown up he was almost completely unknown.Read more »

Day of the Player Piano

It didn’t last long. But we never got over it.

The player piano came of age in America ninety years ago, and it caused an almighty stir. Within four decades it appeared to be dead. The craze dwindled, and in 1932 not a single player was shipped from the factories. But although player pianos have been manufactured only desultorily since, the machine established itself so firmly during its brief lifetime that it is impossible to find someone today who doesn’t know what a player piano is, who doesn’t remember what fun they were.Read more »

The Man Who Knew Mozart

Lorenzo Da Ponte, New York bookseller and Pennsylvania grocer, was a charming ne’er-do-well in the eyes of his fellow Americans. He happened, also, to have written the words for Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro .

It was to be a historic moment, the opening of the very first authentic production of an Italian opera in America, in November 1825. A tall, gaunt old man, with dark eyes, a hawklike nose, and sunken cheeks, nervously approached the New York hotel room of the Spanish tenor who would lead the performance, Manuel García.Read more »

The Sound Of Silents

The men and women who labored in the ghostly light of the great screen to make the music that accompanied silent movies were as much a part of the show as Lillian Gish or Douglas Fairbanks

If I ever kill anyone,” D. W. Griffith once exclaimed, “it won’t be an actor but a musician.” He had been arguing with Joseph Carl Breil, his collaborator on the score for The Birth of a Nation. Griffith wanted to change some of the notes in the music they were planning to borrow, and Breil was outraged. “You can’t tamper with Wagner!” he cried.Read more »

Bravo Caruso!

The great tenor came to America in 1903, and it was love at first sight—a love that survived an earthquake and some trouble with the police about a woman at the zoo

WHEN, ON COLUMBUS DAY OF 1980 , the operatic superstar, Luciano Pavarotti, sitting on a bay horse, his massive bulk arrayed in fancy dress, jounced up New York’s Fifth Avenue at the head of the annual parade celebrating the discovery of America, some elitist opera patrons were dismayed. A primo tenore , they believed, should stand aloof from the common run, should maintain an inaccessibility, a certain mystery.Read more »

Lullaby Of Tin Pan Alley

The ceaseless clatter of cheap pianos from a mid-Manhattan side street was once music to all America

ONE DAY IN 1922 a young would-be composer named Richard Rodgers paid a call on Max Dreyfus, head of the publishing firm of T. B. Harms and dean of Tin Pan Alley. Rodgers had been there before; three years earlier, Max’s brother Louis had shown him the door, saying, “Keep going to high school and come back some other time.” This time, however, Max himself granted him an audience. “This ascetic-looking titan of the music business sat with eyes half-closed as I played my songs,” wrote Rodgers in his autobiography.Read more »