THE LATE GREAT LADIES OF BLUES AND JAZZ
Music is an integral part of daily life. It surrounds us everywhere...at home, in stores, even on the street. Ask your students to list how many places they hear it. Does its all-pervasive presence make it important? Unimportant? Most young people would agree that it is important...at least the music they enjoy. Music captures their imagination and attention. (Just think what would happen if Janet Jackson showed up in your classroom!) THE LATE GREAT LADIES OF BLUES AND JAZZ (in fact, the music of the blues and jazz) may be new to them so making the connection between the popular music they like and where it comes from - namely blues and jazz - may convince them that these musical stars are not strangers. The Student Guide provides a background into the women portrayed in the show. Whatever the style or era, music can be a powerful tool. It can work as a springboard for study and discussion of many topics, musical and otherwise.
1. Ask your students to interview their parents about the kind of music they listened to when they were young. What about a grandparent or elderly friend? They might even discover someone lucky enough to have actually heard Billie Holiday or Dinah Washington.
2. Compare some of todayís stars with the "Late Great Ladies". What do they have in common? What makes a star?
3. Bring some recordings to class and discuss the lyrics. For instance:
Billie Holiday: "God Bless the Child"
Bessie Smith: "Nobody Knows You When Youíre Down and Out"
Ethel Waters: "St. Louis Blues"
Dinah Washington: "What a Difference a Day Makes"
Mahalia Jackson: "Down by the Riverside"
All of these examples are ísignature songsí of the artist available on record or cassette at larger stores such as Tower Records or J & R Music World (both in Manhattan). The Public Library (particularly the branch at Lincoln Center) is likely to have them as well. You may want to ask your students about the music: What do the words mean? How do they make you feel? Do they have relevance today?
1. To learn about jazz and blues is to learn about African-American history. Where does this music come from? What function did music serve in the lives of slaves? For that matter, what function did music serve in African life?
2. Ask your students to research New Orleans as the "Birthplace of Jazz." How did this city obtain such a rich musical heritage?
3, What can students discover about cultural life in Africa, in the American south?
1. What is a tradition? How many can your students think of? Do they have family traditions? Have they changed at all and if so, how?
But back to music. If your students ask you to define jazz and blues, good luck! Tell them what the great jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong said, "If you gotta ask, youíll never know." Then ask them to define the music they like. (They know it when they hear it, right?) If itís so hard to put into words, why is music so important? Music is, in a fundamental way, something we know best of all through experience and feelings, things that are just as important as that which can be easily expressed in words. Through studying music, you can help your students discover their own powers of creative self-expression.
Here is some suggested reading for teachers:
ALBERTSON, Chris, Bessie: Stein and Day, 1972
DAHL, Linda, Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen: Pantheon books.
GOURSE, Leslie, Louisí Children: American Jazz Singers: Quill Press, 1984.
HOLIDAY, Billie with William Dufty, Lady Sings the Blues: Penquin Books, 1984.
And for your students:
Cobblestone Magazine, Cobblestone Publishing, Inc. 28 Main Street, Peterborough, NH 03458. Bruce Calhoun, Chairman. The October 1983 issue focuses on jazz and blues.
You may also want to look at:
Educational Materials Fall/Winter Catalogue 89-90, Learning Arts, PO Box 179, Wichita, KS 67201. Pages 100-103 list a variety of musical resources including films, filmstrips and records.
Also, ask your school librarian what she/he might recommend.
THE LATE, GREAT LADIES OF BLUES AND JAZZ
HOW TO HAVE THE BLUES - AND LOVE IT!
Student Guide 1
A Few Notes On The Blues- And All That Jazz
Maybe youíve seen a movie called Crossroads, which stars Ralph Maccio of Karate Kid fame. In it, he plays a teenager from Long Island with just one wish: He wants to be a great blues guitarist.
He meets up with an old, black "blues: man, and together they travel to New Orleans, Louisiana- the birthplace of jazz and blues music. Itís there the old man decides to let Macchioís character in on what jazz and blues are all about. Braced for a lengthy, detailed explanation, heís pretty stunned when the blues man says only: "The blues ainít nothiní but a good man feeliní bad."
But the fact is, thatís a more detailed explanation than most real-life jazz and blues musicians are willing to give. The legendary Louis "Louie" Armstrong-called "the epitome of jazz" by a fellow musician-put it this way: "If you gotta ask, youíll never know."
The great Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller-who once described himself as "Mrs. Wallerís 285 pounds of jam, jive, and everythin"" - put it even more bluntly. Fats said, "If you donít know-donít mess with it."
The point is, jazz and blues arenít something you really learn though people telling you about it. Itís something you need to experience yourself in order to understand it.
And thatís not really so strange, if you think about it. Itís a lot easier for your to have a friend listen to your new Bon Jovi album than it is trying to explain it. And speaking of Bon Jovi, history shows that if it werenít for blues and jazz, there wouldnít be a Bon Jovi, or a Van Halen, or Cinderella or Poison.
Thatís because to-dayís music has its roots in jazz and blues. And as for the roots of jazz and blues...they come from somewhere a little farther away than New Orleans, Louisiana. In fact, they come from a whole different continent: Africa.
So howíd they Wind Up Here?
Most musicologists (a very big word that simply means a person who studies music) believe it was brought over from Africa by the black people who themselves were brought over to the United States to work as slaves. Most also agree it first became popular in New Orleans, around the time of World War 1.
Back in those days, there was no such thing as M-TV-probably because there was no such thing as television , period! So this next fact leaves even the musicologists scratching their heads: Jazz and blues caught on quicker than heavy metal-and without benefit or radio or television.
To give you an idea of how quickly it caught on, during World War 1, jazz and blues were popular among about 50,000 poor blacks around the New Orleans area, and there were maybe a couple hundred musicians.
By 1920, it was popular throughout the whole country. Ten years later, it had performing musicians and fans in Europe as well, and by the time the 1940ís rolled around, jazz and blues were known throughout the world.
20 years later-in 1960-jazz and blues were being hailed as both serious music and art forms. And in 1988, living blues legends like B.B. King-known best for a song youíve probably heard, "The Thrill is Gone"- is still doing sell-out concerts and proving the thrill isnít gone when it comes to jazz and blues.
Well, itís like Fats Waller said, "If you donít know-donít mess with it." The only way to know is to experience it-and you will embark on the ultimate, jazz/blues experience through Sandra Reaves-Phillips "The Late, Great Ladies of Blues and Jazz."
Itís guaranteed that once you meet Ma Rainey (whose outrageous costumes make Madonna look like a n amateur), Ethel Waters (who could out-sing Joan Jett), and Mahalia Jackson (you think Tina Turner wails a tune? Wait), youíll be a member of the jazz/blues fan club.
Donít feel bad (if you canít put the experience into words. But if youíre pushed to, just remember seven simple words: "If you gotta ask, youíll never know."
And tell Ďem Louie Armstrong sent ya.
Introducing...Those Late, Great Ladies
"Queen of the Blues"
Nobody ever said the girl born Gertrude Malissa Prodgett in Columbus, Georgia was pretty. In fact, blues singer and pianist Champion Jack Dupree described her as "a really ugly woman."
"But when she opened her mouth, "he continued, "that was it. You forgot everything. What a personality she had!"
She became known as "Ma Rainey" when, at age 18, she married comedian, dancer and singer William "Pa" Rainey. The newlyweds put together an act- and literally took it on the road.
It was in a small Missouri town that Ma discovered the blues-and from the way it happened, sheíd most likely agree with the blues man in Crossroads that "the blues ainít nothing but a good man feeliní bad."
With one minor exception. It was a good woman feeliní bad that caught Maís ear. The way the story goes, a woman showed up outside Ma Raineyís show tent, and started singing a song about a man whoíd left her. Ma was so impressed with that song, she used it as an encore.
To put it simply. ..it knocked the audienceís socks off.
Ma continued to listen for such songs, and when she heard them she incorporated them into her act. She was the first woman to introduce blues to the public - and she did it with such outrageous style and flair that no one has ever disputed her title of "Mother of the Blues."
"Sweet Mama Stringbean"(1900-1977)
"Flair" and "style: were about the last things Ethel Waters figured she had. Growing up as a skinny kid in Chester, Pennsylvania, she dreamed of seeing the world by becoming a wealthy white womanís maid.
Ethel Waters saw the world, all right. But she didnít need a wealthy white woman to show her.
From the minute she stepped on stage in Baltimore- and at age 17, became the first woman ever sing the popular "St. Louis Blues" - to sing the popular "St. Louis Blues"-it was obvious "Sweet Mama Stringbeanís" voice was her ticket to the world. She went from Baltimore to Broadway to Hollywood, starring in classic movies such as The Member of the Wedding, On With the Show, and the film version of her successful Broadway hit, Cabin in the Sky.
Aside from "St. Louis Blues", sheís best remembered for classic blues songs such as "Am I Blue," "Stormy Weather," and "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe."
Her career spanned some fifty years-and in her late years, she moved from singing strictly jazz and blues to more religious-oriented music. Following a concert in the mid-seventies, sheís said to have told the audience, "I want to see you all in heaven. Ill be looking for you."
She died shortly thereafter-but the high-energy legend of "Sweet Mama Stringbean" is destined to live on in jazz and blues history for ever.
(Queen of the Gospel Singers"
Mahalia Jackson had a unique sort of problem. She liked to sing gospel music as opposed to blues, explaining: "Anybody singing the blues is in a deep pit yelling for help, and Iím simply not in that position."
She saw the blues as being...well, blue. As in sad. Her gospel music, on the other hand, was full of hope and life. She started singing it as a little girl in the church her father preached at in New Orleans. But as was the case with Ethel Waters, Mahaliaís voice would prove to be her ticket to the world.
She began singing with well-known gospel groups-and before she knew it, the girl from New Orleans was performing in England, France and Denmark-and entertaining rather important folks such as the Empress of Japan, the Prime Minister of India, as well as former Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
In 1963, Mahalia sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. just prior to Rev. Martin Luther Kingís famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
And in between, Mahalia bent just enough to please jazz/blues fans by recording more "pop" oriented music with then-popular orchestras, such as Duke Ellingtonís.
But it was never at the expense of not pleasing herself. One night Mahalia might bring in as much as $10,000 for a concert promoter; the next night, she would be found in some small-town church, belting out her famous voice for free. How come?
Mahalia herself probably said it best.
"I donít sing for money," she once explained. "I sing because I love to sing."
Introducing a Current Great Lady of Blues and Jazz-
The woman who will re-create the above three legends for you-and thatís exactly what she does-has been called "The New Queen of the Blues."
And re-creating legends is a tough job-but sheís up for it.
"It is difficult to play the role of a legend," she admits. "You canít imitate. You have to reach the height of your own delivery. If I can deliver the spirits of the singers to the audience, then I am happy."
If she reads her own reviews, then Ms. Reaves-Phillips should be ecstatic. And you should make it a point to wear your best danciní sneakers when you come to see her show, because review after review says she gets her audiences seriously dancing in the aisles.
Itís interesting that her own childhood was a lot like those of the late, great ladies she portrays. She was also born in the south; came from humble beginnings; sang in the town church, and made it obvious even then that her voice was destined to take her places.
So far, its taken her from South Carolina to New York, London, Switzerland, and France- and thatís in addition to all over the United States. If you find her looking a little familiar when sheís not being one of the late, great ladies, it could be you recognize her from movie roles in "Round Midnight" and "Lean on Me" which is based on the real-life story of Paterson, NJ high school Principal Joe Clark. He became famous for whipping an out-of-control high school into shape using some unusual methods-like cruising halls wielding a baseball bat and yelling instructions through a megaphone.
Sandra Reaves-Phillips performance will show you first-hand why having the blues never felt so good. And if people look at you funny for saying that-well, just explain it to Ďem the way Fats Waller did: "If you donít know donít mess with it."
Blues For Thought
How the "blues" got started is still very much a mystery. One theory is that it came from the phrase "the blue devils," which was once a common slang expression for depression.
However it got started, songs and phrases using the word "blues" are so common, we probably hear one every day. Give yourself five minutes, and see how many songs or phrases using "the blues" you can write down. (For example: Elton Johnís "I Guess Thatís Why They Call It The Blues;" "Levi button-fly 501 blues" which uses a blues song to advertise bluejeans, etc.) (Note: Hill Street Blues...well, okay, Weíll count it.)
See if you can con your teacher into bringing in some jazz and blues albums, saying it will greatly contribute to your education (and that it might force you to miss Math has nothing to do with it.)
Also see if you can con the teacher into letting you bring in some of your albums.
Listen to both, and then try and find similarities in the music. Also, how is it different? Do you agree with Mahalia Jackson that the blues make you feel like youíre listening to someone "in a deep pit, yelling for help?" Why or why not? How does your music make you feel?
In parts of Africa, certain tribes still rely on their music as part of their language. For example, the word "oko" means everything from hoe to canoe to husband to spear, all depending on where the accent is placed. How important do you think music is to our society? Why?
After the show, compare the performances of the late, great ladies to some of todayís female singers. What things are similar? What things are different?
You have just been elected class musicologist. First-congratulations. Second, think into the future 50 years and predict what you think music will be like then. (Donít forget to include why you think what you are thinking.)