The attack on jazz

Sam Smith – A strange thing is going on about jazz, of which John Halle, director of music theory at Bard College, makes an interesting FB comment:

John Oliver last night: “Congress is like jazz in that most people hate it and anyone who says they don’t is lying.” Someone needs to get to the bottom of all this. My provisional take: jazz is a proxy for Obama buyers’ remorse. All the smart people (often the same people) told us we should wave the pom-poms. But just as Obama turned out to be just another politician so too is jazz just another form of music. Some of it great, some of it appalling, most of it mediocre. Lord knows I wish we got the political backlash instead of the musical one, but that’s the way things roll right now-for reasons which should be discussed and better understood.

My own thinking is that music and culture are so intertwined that music outside of a contemporary culture can sometimes be as alien as fashion that doesn’t reflect the times. And there is a tie with politics, too,  i have, for example, long listed the disco drum machine, along with the Harvard Business School and Yale Law School, as major causes of the collapse of the First American Republic.

There have been times when the popular taste in music has been far more eclectic.When I had a radio jazz show in college back in the 1950s, for example, the tension between the classical, jazz and folk DJs mainly consisted of bad jokes. This is clearly not such a time, due in no small part to the way the monopolistic music industry currently runs the show and controls what we hear.

But it is the duty of any artist is not to be cowed by the tyranny of the present. And about the time that we start to get out of our current cultural disasters we will undoubtedly be aided by new sounds many would not tolerate today. As Louis Armstorng put it once, “If they act too hip, you know they can’t play shit.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How much do we learn from evil?

Sam Smith
2005

The 60th anniversary observance of Auschwitz brings back a question that periodically lurks in the corner: how much do we really learn from evil?

It is widely assumed in this country that humanity is significantly improved by such things as Holocaust studies, international war crimes, and showing teens scary films about driving. There is, however, far more faith than evidence about all this.

This is not to say that such matters should not be an part of the human curriculum, only that in American culture they are approached with a zeal that borders on moral pornography and, in the process, overwhelms the far more important matter of learning and practicing alternatives to that which we are meant to avoid. It is almost as though we were constantly being given directions by naming all the streets we shouldn’t use without ever being told the ones we should.

I learned about Auschwitz in 1956, on the eleventh anniversary of its liberation. It was at the tail end of Soc Sci 2, taught by intense, red-headed liberal Samuel Beer, who covered six revolutions — including the French, industrial and Nazi — with enthusiasm for real people and events. Each revolution required a two thousand word paper. The climax of the course led us from Nietzsche to Hitler to an evening of Nazi propaganda films and footage of concentration camps liberated just a decade earlier. The concentration camps were gruesome, but the movies the Nazis had made to celebrate themselves were in some ways even more horrific, depicting as they did millions of Germans voluntarily surrendering their souls as millions of others were involuntarily losing their lives. In one of the films, the frame was almost entirely filled with an overhead shot of Nazi soldiers. One thin corridor cut through the dark mass and down it walked three tiny figures — Adolph Hitler and two aides.

What we saw had been placed in history’s context; we had been taught not just brutal endings but far more instructive beginnings, and we got to see not just evil’s horror but its accompanying banality.

What I didn’t realize, however, was that college students all over America weren’t learning the same thing and that when they did, it would have acquired a name, and a politics, and a semiotics, and it would have become multiple worlds inhabited by victims, philosophers, journalists, politicians, leaches, symbol snatchers, propagandists, self-servers and deniers. And that people like Sharon and Bush would do new evil in the name of exorcising the old. I had learned about the Holocaust before it became whatever anyone wanted it to be.

By the time I graduated, I had read William Shirer’s new book, The Rise and the Fall of the Third Reich, and found myself absorbed not so much in what the Nazis had become but how they had begun – how normal, how ordinary so much of it had been, with that frighteningly familiar mix of opportunism, lust, incompetence, and failure of courage at a time when something still could be done. If they had let me build the Holocaust museum that would have been its prime exhibit: not what had happened, but how.

Years later I read Martin Mayer’s book, They Thought They Were Free, based on interviews with ordinary Nazis before and after the war. In it, this Chicago Jewish reporter summed up:

“Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany. . . It was what most Germans wanted — or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it. I came back home a little afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under pressure of combined reality and illusions. I felt — and feel — that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man. He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions. He might be here, under certain conditions. He might, under certain conditions, be I.”

Here is the part of the Holocaust that is most frequently denied. Not that millions were slaughtered but that those who did the deed might under certain conditions be either you or I. And we would do it, as Adolph Eichmann had suggested, simply by finding the right words for it, what he called ‘office talk.’

It is this unrecognized, undiscussed denial, especially at moments of solemn observance, that most frightens me. And our recovery does not lie in still more talk, ceremonies, and professions of horror. It lies instead in the study, honor, and practice of the good and the decent.

If you watch good people closely, their good comes as naturally as evil came to Eichmann. It does not have to be propped up with memories of great wrongs; it is just the everyday unconscious behavior of those graced with honor: the banality of decency.

We need perhaps a museum of the good, curricula in decency studies, and practice in their skills and rhythms. We need peace experts instead of military experts talking about Iraq on Fox TV. We need mediators instead of just lawyers on Court TV. We need movies, and heroes, and moving stories that win Academy Awards and models for our children that lead them to the contentment of cooperation and fairness rather than to brutal examples drawn from the play-by-play of violence and wrong that appears with every other click of the zapper.

Even our memories and mourning of the wrong can be directed toward the better. Do we only regret or do we reconstitute ourselves and our community, creating a soul and a place where we don’t even have to imagine something like that happening again? Too often, confronted with past great horror, we not only mourn the victims, we join them in unconscious capitulation to the presumed inevitability of the evil.

The frightening thing about Auschwitz is not that some would deny it but how real it still seems. The frightening thing about Auschwitz is that our leaders go to honor it while still denying Guantanamo and Al Graib and Palestine. We will know that we have finally learned the Holocaust’s lessons when we no longer hear new echoes of it.

Where the music went

Sam Smith, Progressive Review – A striking chart accompanying Charles Blow’s NY Times recent column on music sales raises questions about how important unpaid downloads actually are. For example, in 2008 paid downloads of singles brought in about one billion dollars. The best year for CDs was 1999 when there were roughly $15 billion of sales. Since then CD sales have collapsed.

But let’s imagine that everyone who had downloaded a single in 2008 had bought a CD instead; the gross sales would be greater than the record year for CDs a decade ago.

NPD has estimated that there were 5 billion songs downloaded for free in 2006, suggesting a loss of one third of the value brought in by CDs in their peak year.

But is this accurate? Even if the estimate is correct, it ignores the fact that people do things for free that they would never pay for. Imagine you are at a party, and the host suddenly announces that there will be a charge for the drinks and the snacks. What effect would this have on your thirst and desire for tortilla chips?

In 2006, NPD estimated that there were only 15 million free downloaders. For them to have driven gross sales to what they were back in 1999, each free downloader would have to had spent about $150. This is the dream world in which the RIAA lives.

The recording industry – whether because it has been badly misled by its lawyers or because of innate incompetence – has been trying to justify its collapse on free downloads. The evidence suggests that the shift from CDs to singles has been immensely more important, but it’s more comforting to blame it all on others. Interestingly, as America’s newspapers go in a similar collapse, their publishers are doing much the same thing: blaming web aggregators, even though for many years reporters at the NY Times, Washington Post and elsewhere were tipping off Matt Drudge about their forthcoming scoops because – unlike their bosses – they knew it would drive readers to them.

Further, I suspect technology explains only a portion of the story. Culture changes as well as does technology, yet because it is not as easy to quantify, it doesn’t get anywhere near the attention.

Still, people’s willingness to buy music is based on a number of non-technological considerations such as;

What role does music play in our culture? Do we sing as much as we used to? Is music – outside of concerts and other performances – a community matter or is it highly atomized like other aspects of our culture?

Much of music traditionally came out of communities – work songs, gospel music and expressions of nationalism, regionalism and other values. This side of music has faded, replaced by sounds imposed on society by wealthy corporations. What does this do to sales?

What if these sounds – once the effect of intensive marketing has worn itself out – don’t have much lasting intrinsic appeal? What if they leave an aura that actually drains music of some of its excitement and cultural importance? What if RIAA is killing music?

Some years back, I wrote about jazz this way:

“The essence of jazz is the same as that of democracy: the greatest amount of individual freedom consistent with a healthy community. Each musician is allowed extraordinary liberty during a solo and then is expected to conscientiously back up the other musicians in turn. The two most exciting moments in jazz are during flights of individual virtuosity and when the entire musical group seems to become one. The genius of jazz (and democracy) is that the same people are willing and able to do both. Here’s how Wynton Marsalis describes it: ‘Jazz is a music of conversation, and that’s what you need in a democracy. You have to be willing to hear another person’s point of view.'”

What current popular musical genre is similarly integrated into the culture?

Here’s another interesting question: could recording industry lawyers be killing music?

When I started as a musician the most illegal thing you could do was to make a fake book under the counter at a music store for $25. The fake book contained the melody lines and chords of hundreds of tunes and the music publishers didn’t like it. But once you had the music you could pretty well do with it what you wished. Worries about licensing, copyrights and royalties were at a low level. Short of making a record – not a common opportunity – the music was out there in a kind of de facto public domain.

The current emphasis on individually composed music as opposed to cover versions – i.e. playing a tune someone else made popular – may in some way reflect the change that has occurred. When I hear people talking about cover versions, it still seems odd since I come from a time when 99% of the music played by ordinary musicians were cover versions of one sort or another.

It’s hard to get a handle on all this because of the way the marketers and media have manipulated music. In 2002, I wrestled with this in an essay:

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Michael Jackson sold 47 million copies of “Thriller,” which sounds like a lot until one realizes that Dunkin’ Donuts sells more cups of coffee than that in one month. In fact, more people have a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee than watch Bill O’Reilly on the same day. But note where Dunkin’ Donuts stands in the media cultural hierarchy compared to Jackson and O’Reilly.

It’s actually far worse than that. An ABC News poll last year found that 38% of Americans considered Elvis Presley the greatest rock star ever. Jimi Hendrix came in second at four percent and Michael Jackson tied Lennon, Jagger, Springsteen, McCartney, and Clapton at 2%. In all, pollees list 128 different names. Even among 18-34 year olds, Presley beat Hendrix 2 to 1, albeit getting only 19% of the votes.

The matter is further complicated by the fact that we do not know how the over 200 million Americans who did not buy a copy of ‘Thriller’ felt about Jackson. Some were married to a purchaser, some have downloaded it, some picked it up second hand or from a sibling. But is it not possible that among this vast pool we might not actually find a many people who disliked Jackson’s music as liked it?

Yes it is. And although I have not been able to find an American study that deals with this issue, a fascinating examination of Japanese adolescent tastes in western music suggests what we might discover.

Here are the percentages of Japanese adolescents who liked very much a genre of music followed by the percentages of those that didn’t like it at all:

Rock: 45, 28

Rap: 26, 43

Top Forty: 25, 43

Classical: 23, 48

Jazz: 23, 45

Techno: 22, 47

Soul: 17, 53

Country: 15, 53

Heavy Metal: 12, 48

Punk: 11, 66

Easy Listening: 10, 60

Note that rock is the only category in which the percentage of those not liking it at all does not near 50%. Note also that one of the most disliked genres is something the media has labeled “easy listening.”

So if you can’t stand Jackson or his music, don’t feel bad. You are just part of the silenced majority. Go down to Dunkin’ Donuts have a cup of coffee like a real American.

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Music has become the property of a small number of corporations, advised by some extremely bad lawyers, producing material that is often of marginal virtue and promoted by a media that doesn’t care what it sounds like as long as the visuals and the story line are good You will know this has changed when a song about the second great depression hits the charts.

Charles S. Blow, NY Times – According to data from the Recording Industry Association of America, since music sales peaked in 1999, the value of those sales, after adjusting for inflation, has dropped by more than half. At that rate, the industry could be decimated before Madonna’s 60th birthday. The speed at which this industry is coming undone is utterly breathtaking.

First, piracy punched a big hole in it. Now music streaming – music available on demand over the Internet, free and legal – is poised to seal the deal.

The problem is that if people can get the music they want for free, why would they ever buy it, or even steal it? They won’t. According to a March study by the NPD Group, a market research group for the entertainment industry, 13- to 17-year-olds “acquired 19 percent less music in 2008 than they did in 2007.” CD sales among these teenagers were down 26 percent and digital purchases were down 13 percent.

And a survey of British music fans, conducted by the Leading Question – Music Ally and released last month, found that the percentage of 14- to 18-year-olds who regularly share files dropped by nearly a third from December 2007 to January 2009. On the other hand, two-thirds of those teens now listen to streaming music “regularly” and nearly a third listen to it every day.

Even if they choose to buy the music, the industry has handicapped its ability to capitalize on that purchase by allowing all songs to be bought individually, apart from their albums. This once seemed like a blessing. Now it looks more like a curse.

In previous forms, you had to take the bad with the good. You may have only wanted two or three songs, but you had to buy the whole 8-track, cassette or CD to get them. So in a sense, these bad songs help finance the good ones. The resulting revenue provided a cushion for the artists and record companies to take chances and make mistakes. Single song downloads helped to kill that.

A study last year conducted by members of PRS for Music, a nonprofit royalty collection agency, found that of the 13 million songs for sale online last year, 10 million never got a single buyer and 80 percent of all revenue came from about 52,000 songs. That’s less than one percent of the songs.

NPD –According to The NPD Group, a leader in market research for the entertainment industry, teens (age 13 to 17) acquired 19 percent less music in 2008 than they did in 2007. CD purchasing declined 26 percent and paid digital downloads fell 13 percent compared with the prior year. In the case of paid digital downloads, 32 percent of teens purchasing less digital music expressed discontent with the music that was available for purchase, while 23 percent claimed to already have a suitable collection of digital music. Twenty-four percent of teens also cited cutbacks in overall entertainment spending as a reason for buying fewer downloads.

The downturn in paid music acquisition was matched by a downturn in the quantity of tracks downloaded from peer-to-peer networks, which fell 6 percent in 2008. The number of teens borrowing music, either to rip to a computer or burn to a CD, fell by 28 percent.

“While we expected to see the continued decline in CD purchasing among teens in NPD’s music tracking surveys, it was surprising to see that fewer teens downloaded music from P2P sites or borrowed them from friends,” said Russ Crupnick, entertainment industry analyst for The NPD Group. “These declines could be happening due to a lack of excitement among teens about the music available, but it could also reflect a larger shift in the ways teens interact with music, given that so much music is now available whenever and wherever they want it.”

NPD’s music tracking surveys noted sharp jumps in teen’s usage of online listening sources and satellite radio in 2008. More than half of teens (52 percent) listened to online radio in 2008, compared to just 34 percent in 2007. Downloading or listening to music on social networks also saw a large increase – from 26 percent in 2007 to 46 percent in 2008; satellite radio listening among teens increased from 19 percent in 2007 to 31 percent in 2008. . .

According to NPD’s Digital Music Monitor, 70 percent of Web-using teens actively used a portable music player in the fourth quarter of 2008, which is virtually unchanged from the same quarter the year prior.

“The music industry still hasn’t recovered from declining CD sales, and now they are being challenged anew by slowing digital sales among teens,” Crupnick continued.

Guardian, UK –According to a new study, of the 13m songs available for sale on the internet last year, more than 10m failed to find a single buyer. The research, conducted by the MCPS-PRS’s Will Page and Andrew Bud, brings us that much closer to proving Sturgeon’s Law – that 90% of everything is crap. It also provides evidence for the famous old rock critic adage – your favorite band sucks. . .

Page is the chief economist at the MCPS-PRS Alliance, a not-for-profit royalty collection agency. According to his and Bud’s research, 80% of all revenue came from about 52,000 tracks – the “hits” that powered the music industry. Broken down by album, only 173,000 of the 1.23m available albums were ever purchased – leaving 85% without a single copy sold.

SWAMPOODLE REPORT: BUMPS & HUGS

Sam Smith
Having been an anthropology major, I am easily distracted from the business at hand by cultural idiosyncrasies. Take, for example, Barack and Michelle Obama doing the fist bump.
The incident brought back what was, for me, a long unresolved matter: when and why did athletes stop expressing joy and enthusiasm when they won something, replacing it with rigid, aggressive fist motions, arms raised as in the military salute of some exotic fascist land and an overall sense that what had happened was not cause for happiness but a triumph of vengeance. The losers, the victors seem to say with their hands and expressions, deserved to die. 
Much the same shift has taken place in the more modest expressions used in greeting someone. In the 1960s, a typical greeting might involve hands meeting and then gently meeting again at the place where the thumb meets the palm, a motion both cool and warm. It is the shake I still prefer, despite it being considered grossly out of date. But then I come from a time when hip meant doing something a bit differently than the crowd, and when you have Baltimore Bullets guard Fred Carter, Barack Obama and Diane Feinstein all using the bump, it’s time, like Miles Davis, to turn one’s back on the audience.
The act of greeting evolved. For a while, many used a two stage shake followed by the hands reaching to the elbow and then slowly sliding back towards the wrist. A bit more complex, but still gentle and friendly.
And there were lots of other daps, as Wikipedia explains:
“Dap is a form of handshake that became popularized in the white mainstream society in the 1960s originating among African Americans. The term dap may have originated as an acronym for Dignity and Pride, (or may have been backronymed) and was popularly used by African American soldiers during the Vietnam War even though as a tradition it has existed in the African-American community for centuries. Though it can refer to many kinds of greeting involving hand contact, dap is best known as a complicated routine of shakes, slaps, snaps, and other contact that must be known completely by both parties involved, otherwise, an awkward but friendly improvisation occurs as the participants essentially mirror the jazz culture with creative forms of ordering the various moves of the hands with snaps, slaps, mutual knuckle bumps and finger waves (jazz hands).. . . It is a ritualized but common form of agreement between two or more people who offer this casual physical contact as an affirmation, congratulations or other type of agreement with an action, clever phrase, sports event or when admiring an attractive female or male”
Though including aggressive moves such as slaps and bumps, note that traditional dap was a complex greeting requiring time, attention and an affirmation of a relationship or understanding.
Then things began to change, most notably with the rise of the high five. Now, instead of a warm greeting requiring some lingering contact, we had instantaneous and somewhat aggressive slaps with the person being greeted. We had moved from affection to assertion.
Mind you, I write this as observation, not condemnation. I can’t tell you how many babies I have attempted to teach high fives too. And to ‘gimme five’ well can also take a bit of doing, as Wikipedia explains: 
“Several variations on the standard high five exist in order to add uniqueness to the experience and to maximize satisfaction. One such variation is the ‘flipside,’ also called the ‘windmill;’ this method begins like a regular high five, however upon meeting up top, both high-fivers continue to swing their arms downwards until they meet again in a “low five”. This method is depicted in the feature film Top Gun repeatedly. . . David Putty of Seinfeld is prone to giving strangers the high five, usually as a greeting, when it is not suitable nor appropriate. If one initiates a high five by raising a hand into the air and no one consummates the celebration by slapping the raised hand, the initiator is said to be ‘left hanging.’ This is considered to be a somewhat embarrassing.”
Which brings us to the first bump, which some think was invented by Frank Carter in the 1970s. According to another account, “Deal or No Deal host Howie Mandel reportedly adopted the gesture as a friendly way to avoid his contestants’ germs.” But, in any case, like the high five, the act is brief, devoid of contact and somewhat aggressive. One interpretation might be that the bumpers are gently defining each other’s territory and strength. It was no accident that George Bush’s first chest bump was at a military academy.
But the personal always enters the equation. Lyndon Johnson used to have a greeting in which the non-shaking hand would reach up the forearm of the greeter, applying gentle pressure, a trick that prevented the latter from squeezing LBJ’s own hand too tightly, a matter of no little concern to politicians. One of my favorite hand greetings is the apocryphal one of the Maine driver passing a friend on the road, the rule being, one finger raised above the steering wheel means, “How you doin’?; two fingers: “How you and the Missus?” and three fingers, “How’s the family?”
Body language expert Janine Driver reports that “My husband and I, if we’re walking down the street and he’s proud of me, we have our own little method. He squeezes my hand three times, which means, ‘I love you,’ and I squeeze his four times, saying, ‘I love you, too.'”
Driver continued, “You know, the mistake that a lot of body language experts make, is they say, ‘OK, arms are crossed, so it means you’re bored and disinterested.’ They pigeonhole one gesture into a certain meaning. . . It’s unscientific. The best thing to say is, ‘Obama, is there any reason why you guys did that? What did it mean?’ And he’ll tell you . . . “And he did, to NBC’s Brian Williams: “It captures what I love about my wife. That for all the hoopla I’m her husband and sometimes we’ll do silly things.”

Fair enough. Gimme five, dude. We are all children of our culture. But if someone whom others like to imitate wanted to do our land a big favor, we could also use a greeting in which our fists, hands or chests don’t collide as though in conflict, and in which victory could express the joy in one’s own heart rather than the vengeance achieved over others. Something between a hug and a handshake that would not be one more superfluous symbol of our isolation but a warm reminder of how much we need each other.

RECOVERED HISTORY: THE FIRST MAJOR BLACK THEATER GETS A NEW LIFE

SAM SMITH – In 1910 the largest theater catering to a black audience, built with black capital, opened in Washington DC nearly two decades before the Apollo began offering black entertainment. For decades, the Howard would feature such acts as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan and Lionel Hampton.

So important was this institution to a community isolated in segregation that students from nearby high schools would periodically cut class to attend an afternoon performance. “After recess, there wasn’t anybody at the school,” recalls Lillian Gordon, once a dancer at the Howard. On at least two occasions, a principal or assistant principal showed up at the Howard, halted the show, turned up the lights and ordered their charges back to class – one without saying a word, just pointing to the exit.

But as Elissa Silverman reported in the Washington Post, “The 1968 riots spurred a decline in the U Street corridor known as Black Broadway, and the Howard Theatre closed its doors two years later. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Comedian Redd Foxx and others attempted revivals but, for years, the building has remained vacant and crumbling. Now that the area around the Howard has been revitalized with condominiums, restaurants, and retail shops, developer Chip Ellis wants the Howard to come back to life, too.” Ellis, a black Washingtonian, has enlisted the programming aid of Blues Alley, one of America’s clubs that musicians like the most.

Last weekend your editor enjoyed an event pulled together by his social historian wife – Kathryn Smith, who co-chairs the Historical Society of Washington – at which more than 200 people gathered to hear anecdotes from the Howard’s past.

While many of the names and some of the stories were familiar to one who had been among the young white guys who also went there in the fifties, I was reminded again of the theater’s role in holding the community together. The Howard was part of a self-sufficiency the U Street area developed that moved the neighborhood beyond survival towards pride and growth. The theater also provided a shared story that cut across class in the community. Once when the Mill Brothers performed, the crowds were so large, they had to make T Street one way. Decades later, it still is.

Bertell Knox – a longtime drummer in the house band and later backup for Charlie Byrd – recalled how important the Howard band’s leader had considered dress. If you weren’t in ‘full tux’ you would have to provide a bottle of whiskey for the other members of the band. The players would look around to see which of the group had left on their brown socks as they rushed to get dress. The musicians were also role models for the young; Saxophonist George Botts remembered that it was how well the performers were dressed that made him think as a young man that this was the path he should follow. He did and would evetnually accompany Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Jimmy Witherspoon, Etta Jones, Redd Foxx, Betty Carter, T-Bone Walker, Benny Goodman, Anita O’Day, and John Coltrane, just to mention a few.

In a revealing way, the program became somewhat anarchistic towards the end. As some members of the audience were telling their stories, other spectators got up and started socializing in the back. A nice confirmation not only of the importance of this story, but of the importance of people having a place to tell their stories. Everyone owned a piece of the history.

One of the reasons that history feels dull to many is because it is so often confined to the past. Among the prices of literacy has been to imprison history in a timeline. In cultures dependent upon oral tradition, however, the past often become a partner of the present just as it did last weekend. It occurred to me while headed to the event that we are all history; it’s just that some people got a head start on us. And as I watched the young members of a jazz quartet that played for the event talking with the panelists, I wondered what stories they would tell a few decades down the road.

SLIDE SHOW OF THE HOWARD TODAY

POST STORY

SAM SMITH, WHY BOTHER? – In the wake of the Civil War, this area north of Washington’s downtown — originally occupied by both whites and blacks — experienced a building boom. With Jim Crow and the coming of the streetcar, whites moved beyond the center city and blacks increasingly found themselves isolated. Until the modern civil rights movement and desegregation, this African-American community was shut out without a vote, without economic power, without access, and without any real hope that any of this would change.

Its response was remarkable. For example, in 1886 there were only about 15 black businesses in the area. By 1920, with segregation in full fury, there were more than 300.

Every aspect of the community followed suit. Among the institutions created within these few square miles was a building and loan association, a savings bank, the only good hotel in the Washington where blacks could stay, the first full-service black YMCA in the country, the Howard Theatre and two first rate movie palaces.

There were the Odd Fellows, the True Reformers, and the Prince Hall Lodge. There were churches and religious organizations, a summer camp, a photography club that produced a number of professional photographers, settlement houses, and the Washington Urban League.

Denied access to white schools, the community created a self-sufficient educational system good enough to attract suburban African-Americans students as well as teachers from all over the country. And just to the north, Howard University became the intellectual center of black America. You might have run into Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, or Duke Ellington, all of whom made the U Street area their home before moving to New York.

This was a proud community. “We had everything we needed,” recalls one older resident. “And we felt good about it. Our churches, our schools, banks, department stores, food stores. And we did very well.”

The community shared responsibility for its children. A typical story went like this: “There was no family my family didn’t know or that didn’t know me. I couldn’t go three blocks without people knowing exactly where I had been and everything I did on the way. It wasn’t just the schools. We learned from everyone. We learned as much from Aunt So-and-So down the street, who was not even related to us.”

All this occurred while black Washingtonians were being subjected to extraordinary economic obstacles and being socially and politically ostracized. If there ever was a culture entitled to despair and apathy it was black America under segregation.

Yet not only did these African-Americans develop self-sufficiency, they did so without taking their eyes off the prize. Among the other people you might have found on U Street were Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston, laying the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement.

Years later, while serving on a NAACP task force on police and justice, I would go to a large hall in the organization’s headquarters on U Street — at the same address that was on the 1940s flyers calling for civil rights protests. In that hall, except for the addition of a few plaques, nothing much has changed over the decades. We only needed two tables pushed together so there was plenty of room for the ghosts of those who once sat around such tables asking the same questions, seeking the same solutions, striving for some way for decency to get a foothold. Basic legal strategies for the civil rights movement were planned along this street. Did perhaps Thurgood Marshall or Clarence Mitchell once sit at one end of this hall and also wonder what to do next? Just the question lent courage.

With the end of segregation, as free choice replaced a community of necessity, the area around U Street began to change. The black residents dispersed. Eventually the street would become better known for its crime, drugs, and as the birthplace of the 1968 riots. The older residents would remember the former neighborhood with a mixture of pain and pride — not unlike the ambivalence found in veterans recalling a war. None would voluntarily return to either segregation or the battlefield but many would know that some of their own best moments of courage, skill, and heart had come when the times were at their worst. Some of the people in this community were only a couple of generations away from slavery, some had come from Washington’s early free black community. But whatever their provenance, they had learned to become self-sufficient in fact and spirit even as they battled to end the injustices that required them to be so.

RECOVERED HISTORY: THE FIRST MAJOR BLACK THEATER GETS A NEW LIFE

SAM SMITH – In 1910 the largest theater catering to a black audience, built with black capital, opened in Washington DC nearly two decades before the Apollo began offering black entertainment. For decades, the Howard would feature such acts as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan and Lionel Hampton.

So important was this institution to a community isolated in segregation that students from nearby high schools would periodically cut class to attend an afternoon performance. “After recess, there wasn’t anybody at the school,” recalls Lillian Gordon, once a dancer at the Howard. On at least two occasions, a principal or assistant principal showed up at the Howard, halted the show, turned up the lights and ordered their charges back to class – one without saying a word, just pointing to the exit.

But as Elissa Silverman reported in the Washington Post, “The 1968 riots spurred a decline in the U Street corridor known as Black Broadway, and the Howard Theatre closed its doors two years later. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Comedian Redd Foxx and others attempted revivals but, for years, the building has remained vacant and crumbling. Now that the area around the Howard has been revitalized with condominiums, restaurants, and retail shops, developer Chip Ellis wants the Howard to come back to life, too.” Ellis, a black Washingtonian, has enlisted the programming aid of Blues Alley, one of America’s clubs that musicians like the most.

Last weekend your editor enjoyed an event pulled together by his social historian wife – Kathryn Smith, who co-chairs the Historical Society of Washington – at which more than 200 people gathered to hear anecdotes from the Howard’s past.

While many of the names and some of the stories were familiar to one who had been among the young white guys who also went there in the fifties, I was reminded again of the theater’s role in holding the community together. The Howard was part of a self-sufficiency the U Street area developed that moved the neighborhood beyond survival towards pride and growth. The theater also provided a shared story that cut across class in the community. Once when the Mill Brothers performed, the crowds were so large, they had to make T Street one way. Decades later, it still is.

Bertell Knox – a longtime drummer in the house band and later backup for Charlie Byrd – recalled how important the Howard band’s leader had considered dress. If you weren’t in ‘full tux’ you would have to provide a bottle of whiskey for the other members of the band. The players would look around to see which of the group had left on their brown socks as they rushed to get dress. The musicians were also role models for the young; Saxophonist George Botts remembered that it was how well the performers were dressed that made him think as a young man that this was the path he should follow. He did and would evetnually accompany Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Jimmy Witherspoon, Etta Jones, Redd Foxx, Betty Carter, T-Bone Walker, Benny Goodman, Anita O’Day, and John Coltrane, just to mention a few.

In a revealing way, the program became somewhat anarchistic towards the end. As some members of the audience were telling their stories, other spectators got up and started socializing in the back. A nice confirmation not only of the importance of this story, but of the importance of people having a place to tell their stories. Everyone owned a piece of the history.

One of the reasons that history feels dull to many is because it is so often confined to the past. Among the prices of literacy has been to imprison history in a timeline. In cultures dependent upon oral tradition, however, the past often become a partner of the present just as it did last weekend. It occurred to me while headed to the event that we are all history; it’s just that some people got a head start on us. And as I watched the young members of a jazz quartet that played for the event talking with the panelists, I wondered what stories they would tell a few decades down the road.

SLIDE SHOW OF THE HOWARD TODAY

POST STORY

SAM SMITH, WHY BOTHER? – In the wake of the Civil War, this area north of Washington’s downtown — originally occupied by both whites and blacks — experienced a building boom. With Jim Crow and the coming of the streetcar, whites moved beyond the center city and blacks increasingly found themselves isolated. Until the modern civil rights movement and desegregation, this African-American community was shut out without a vote, without economic power, without access, and without any real hope that any of this would change.

Its response was remarkable. For example, in 1886 there were only about 15 black businesses in the area. By 1920, with segregation in full fury, there were more than 300.

Every aspect of the community followed suit. Among the institutions created within these few square miles was a building and loan association, a savings bank, the only good hotel in the Washington where blacks could stay, the first full-service black YMCA in the country, the Howard Theatre and two first rate movie palaces.

There were the Odd Fellows, the True Reformers, and the Prince Hall Lodge. There were churches and religious organizations, a summer camp, a photography club that produced a number of professional photographers, settlement houses, and the Washington Urban League.

Denied access to white schools, the community created a self-sufficient educational system good enough to attract suburban African-Americans students as well as teachers from all over the country. And just to the north, Howard University became the intellectual center of black America. You might have run into Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, or Duke Ellington, all of whom made the U Street area their home before moving to New York.

This was a proud community. “We had everything we needed,” recalls one older resident. “And we felt good about it. Our churches, our schools, banks, department stores, food stores. And we did very well.”

The community shared responsibility for its children. A typical story went like this: “There was no family my family didn’t know or that didn’t know me. I couldn’t go three blocks without people knowing exactly where I had been and everything I did on the way. It wasn’t just the schools. We learned from everyone. We learned as much from Aunt So-and-So down the street, who was not even related to us.”

All this occurred while black Washingtonians were being subjected to extraordinary economic obstacles and being socially and politically ostracized. If there ever was a culture entitled to despair and apathy it was black America under segregation.

Yet not only did these African-Americans develop self-sufficiency, they did so without taking their eyes off the prize. Among the other people you might have found on U Street were Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston, laying the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement.

Years later, while serving on a NAACP task force on police and justice, I would go to a large hall in the organization’s headquarters on U Street — at the same address that was on the 1940s flyers calling for civil rights protests. In that hall, except for the addition of a few plaques, nothing much has changed over the decades. We only needed two tables pushed together so there was plenty of room for the ghosts of those who once sat around such tables asking the same questions, seeking the same solutions, striving for some way for decency to get a foothold. Basic legal strategies for the civil rights movement were planned along this street. Did perhaps Thurgood Marshall or Clarence Mitchell once sit at one end of this hall and also wonder what to do next? Just the question lent courage.

With the end of segregation, as free choice replaced a community of necessity, the area around U Street began to change. The black residents dispersed. Eventually the street would become better known for its crime, drugs, and as the birthplace of the 1968 riots. The older residents would remember the former neighborhood with a mixture of pain and pride — not unlike the ambivalence found in veterans recalling a war. None would voluntarily return to either segregation or the battlefield but many would know that some of their own best moments of courage, skill, and heart had come when the times were at their worst. Some of the people in this community were only a couple of generations away from slavery, some had come from Washington’s early free black community. But whatever their provenance, they had learned to become self-sufficient in fact and spirit even as they battled to end the injustices that required them to be so.