Looking through the history of American music, it’s easy to see African American influences in art forms that include the traditional spiritual and gospel music, the syncopating rhythms of jazz, and numerous other sound innovations through the generations: ragtime, blues, boogie-woogie, R&B, rock and roll, hip hop, rap, and many more. It’s not too much to say that American music is African American music.
The uniquely American form of the popular stage and film musical has also given us works by or about African Americans that are extraordinary in terms of their historical value, artistic quality, or both. Here are summaries of a few of the most outstanding ones from the first half of the 20th century:
Treemonisha (1911) was ragtime composer and lyricist Scott Joplin’s third (and final) work for the stage. The story focuses on the character of Treemonisha, who was found beneath a tree as an infant and adopted as the daughter of a formerly enslaved couple. Joplin’s score blends traditional European opera with his signature ragtime rhythms.
Treemonisha also highlights the struggles of the Black culture of its time, including the desire to assimilate into white society while still feeling the pull of African American traditions. The opera was also pioneering for its time in underlining the importance of education.
Joplin was never able to stage a full production of Treemonisha. In 1972, an ensemble at Atlanta’s Morehouse College presented Treemonisha, and it received a true full premiere for the general public in 1975 at the Houston Grand Opera.
2. Shuffle Along
Shuffle Along (1921) was Broadway’s first full-fledged musical by a Black librettist (the duo of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles), composer (Eubie Blake), and lyricist (Noble Sissle), featuring an all-Black cast. The production broke records by running for some 500 nights on Broadway, and its “I’m Just Wild About Harry” remains a well-known song today. Poet and historian James Weldon Johnson commented that the show offered a sophisticated portrayal of the love story between the African American leads.
The show was revived in 2016 in a completely fresh way. Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed offered new choreography by Savion Glover, a new wrap-around book by George C. Wolfe and Audra McDonald in the starring roles. The new work honored the value of the original’s status as a groundbreaking moment in African American cultural history and tackled its complex aspects head-on.
3. Cabin in the Sky
Cabin in the Sky (1943), featuring the legendary Lena Horne in her only starring role for MGM, was the first film produced by a major studio with an entirely African American cast. The movie also starred renowned performers like Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Directed by Vincente Minelli, it was based on the 1940 Broadway show of the same title with music by Vernon Duke, lyrics by John Latouche, and book by Lynn Root. The creators gave voice to a rare work of fantasy and imagination centered on the rich African American folkloric tradition and portrayed by an all-Black cast.
“Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” as sung by Waters, is among the most memorable and lyrically beautiful songs in Cabin in the Sky. “Taking a Chance on Love” is one of the other still-beloved songs from this classic musical.
4. Carmen Jones
Carmen Jones (1954), based on Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen and with new lyrics in colloquial American speech by Oscar Hammerstein II to Bizet’s music, gave a Technicolor folk operatic treatment to the French classic. While the composer and lyricist were not African American, the entire cast was, including iconic movie star Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen, who works in a parachute factory during World War II in an update of Bizet’s Seville cigarette factory setting.
Carmen charms soldier Joe (portrayed by the equally iconic singer Harry Belafonte), with this role also modernized from Bizet’s character of Don José. Dandridge earned the first Oscar nomination ever for an African American performer in the category of Best Actress in a Leading Role. Otto Preminger directed, with Pearl Bailey in another strong performance as factory worker Frankie.
Hammerstein’s original 1943 Broadway version of the show was notably revived off-Broadway in 2018 with Anika Noni Rose in the title role.
5. Porgy and Bess
The 1935 opera by George Gershwin, Dubose Heyward, Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin was based on a novel by Dubose Heyward, and was revolutionary for its time, not only for being the first Broadway production with an all-Black cast, but for the incandescent blues-meets-jazz lyricism of George Gershwin’s score. The hits from the musical, and the movie, remain among the most frequently performed in the American musical repertoire: “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’” are among the most well-remembered.
The poignant story focuses on Bess’ conflicted love for her man, the suffering but proud Porgy, whose disability has driven him to survive by panhandling among the other downtrodden residents of Charleston’s Catfish Row. Porgy’s disability likely reflects that of the author, DuBose Heyward. Bess is also involved with Sportin’ Life and with the possessive Crown. Ultimately, Bess finds sanctuary with Porgy before the two are separated by the connivance of Sportin’ Life and the whims of character and fate.
James Robinson directed a notable production of Porgy and Bess as the opening show of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2019-2020 season, with acclaimed operatic performers Eric Owens and Angel Blue in the leading roles.
The year 2020 was one of economic and social upheaval, principled protest, and deep loss. But 2020 also brought new music that has uplifted the spirits of people all over the world. New masterpieces of world music, although derived from cultures that may have intriguing superficial differences, serve to remind us of the bonds that unite all of humanity.
As critics have pointed out, the term world music can be misinterpreted as simply referring to some “exotic” quality in music that comes from outside Anglophone regions. A better definition might be that world music indicates that a work is the result of creative collaboration and thoughtful artistic choices born in the intimacy of one particular place and culture but resonates with all people, everywhere.
Here is a glimpse at just a few of the world music albums that brought a greater sense of connection amid the challenges and triumphs of 2020:
Keleketla! (Ahead of Our Time) by Keleketla!
Keleketla! (Ahead of Our Time) is a South African album whose title derives from the storytelling tradition in the Sepedi language. “Keleketla” is the standard response to a storyteller’s opening question (“E Ileng Nonwane?”) at the beginning of a story. Keleketla! as an album brings the same type of craftsmanship inherent in storytelling to depict the conflicts and struggles in our changing contemporary world.
The album is the first collaboration between Keleketla! Library, a community media project based in Johannesburg, and the nonprofit organization In Place of War, based in the United Kingdom. Founded in 2008, Keleketla! Library has created a wealth of multi-artist, multimedia music and arts projects all over Johannesburg.
The album brings together an array of South African musicians with the British electronic duo Coldcut, and includes contributions from other artists such as Yugen Blakrok, Tony Allen, Shabaka Hutchings, and many more.
As an album, Keleketla! has received praise from critics for the dynamism of its beats and its rich fusion of jazz-funk, hip-hop, and electronic music. The opening song, “Future Toyi-Toyi,” offering the stomp-based rhythms of a dance performed in protest of the former system of apartheid, instantly draws listeners in. Other songs go in completely different musical directions, but the overarching themes are those of personal and societal transformation.
Lindé, Afel Bocoum
In his album Lindé, legendary Malian artist Afel Bocoum continues his explorations in the blues tradition. He is known to fans as one of the last of the great late-20th century generation of African composers and performers who blended their culture’s sound with new ones from throughout the world. And as a native of Niafunké in Mali, Bocoum comes from a region positioned to draw on the sounds and traditions of both the northern and southern parts of the country.
Lindé draws its title from the name of the wilderness lands near Bocoum’s childhood home that he loved exploring. The music seamlessly mixes in guitars and traditional instruments while making use of stunning innovative techniques and bringing in texturally enriching contributions from noted guest performers.
The album opens with a gentle percussion-and-strings piece in which the voice of the artist walks us through the landscapes that shaped his early years. Afel Bocoum’s lyrics acknowledge but look beyond Mali’s civil wars and political strife, speaking of unity and common purpose among the world’s peoples.
Famous Fados on Portuguese Guitar by Custódio Castelo
On Famous Fados, Castelo, one of the most distinguished performers of the traditional art of Portuguese fado guitar, plays classic Portuguese fados of his own arrangement.
The fado musical genre is a part of UNESCO’s list of World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage, and Castelo is one of its leading proponents. Alongside other masters such as Carlos Paredes, he has given new depth and flexibility to the traditional fado guitar, making it an instrument capable of a range of concert and solo performances. This particular collection offers us some of history’s best-known and best-loved fados.
The fado genre’s rich history dates back to the 1820s, although music historians believe that its ultimate origins go back much farther. The word fado refers to a melancholy style filled with a sense of “fate,” destiny, and moody reflectiveness amid a sense of loss. Fado songs typically feature a solo vocalist accompanied by guitar, and they are traditionally performed in coffee houses and other intimate venues.
Castelo’s reinterpretations of these classic pieces are amplified by his instrument—he uses his own specially made guitar, fashioned from an oak tree root by Oscar Cardoso, as respected an instrument-maker as Castelo is an artist. From this 12-string, tear-shaped guitar, Castelo is able to evoke all the beauty, sadness, and power of the highly expressive fado form.
Sketches of China by Xuefei Yang
Sketches of China features Yang, a well-known classical guitarist, in pieces that paint a picture of her homeland. The double album incorporates Chinese folk songs whose original motifs date back as far as the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), as well as many contemporary pieces. Yang’s goal is to highlight the entire tapestry of Chinese music through ages, traditions, and styles.
Yang uses several of her own arrangements, notably on “Silver Clouds Chasing the Moon” and “Flower Drum,” as well as work from noted contemporary composers such as the world-renowned Tan Dun. In his “Seven Desires for Guitar,” she masters a challenging modernist piece into which Dun incorporated rhythms of traditional Spanish flamenco and the notes of the lute-like ancient Chinese instrument known as the pipa.
Yang’s range and versatility as a soloist are highlighted by a rich orchestral background as well as a minimal accompaniment. It is her artistry that sets this album apart, delivering one crystalline moment of sound after another.
The common language of music brings people of diverse backgrounds together throughout the world, while also opening new doors to appreciation for the musical sounds and styles that distinguish individual regions and cultures.
Even a quick glance at the music of Africa, the world’s second-largest continent, will reveal a diverse set of traditions and expressions. Musicologists note a constantly diversifying blossoming of genres across the continent, with each culture producing notable musicians and distinctive forms of music.
Here are summaries of only a few of the African musical genres that are today both highly influential and particularly notable. All are worth taking the time to get to know and enjoy.
Afrobeat and Afrobeats
Afrobeat fuses the sounds of Western jazz and nightclub life into the centuries-old traditions of Nigerian music. Now often heard around the world, Afrobeat often incorporates beats common to other, non-African styles, such as hip-hop. The style is typically marked by strong vocal melodies backed by bass percussion, making it one of the world’s most danceable music genres.
Afrobeat’s ultimate origins can be traced to Ghana in the 1920s. In those days, local Ghanaian musicians seasoned their songs with calypso beats and even the popular Western foxtrot. Then in the late 1960s, a musician who would earn the nickname of the “Father of Afrobeat,” Fela Kuti—strongly influenced by American artist James Brown—put his own spin on the style. By the mid-1970s, it had become widely popular in Nigeria.
Fela, who died in 1997 at only 58 years of age, remains a legend among Nigerian music-lovers in particular. He has also influenced later generations of younger musicians worldwide, including Mos Def and Erykah Badu.
Afrobeats—a linear descendent of Fela’s 1960s and ‘70s Afrobeat—features heavily in Beyoncé’s 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift. She collaborated extensively with young musicians from Nigeria, Cameroon, and other parts of Africa, showcasing their talents in a way that brought many of them to the attention of a global audience for the first time.
The Sahara Desert region is the homeland of Gnawa music, which also goes by the names of Gnawi Blues and Ethno-Pop. Its beats are anchored in the traditions of the Gnawa community, which derives from groups of sub-Saharan peoples who were enslaved and first brought to Morocco in about the 11th century CE.
Over centuries of enslavement, during which they were typically forced to serve as soldiers, the Gnawa assembled themselves as a distinct people out of several previously unconnected sub-Saharan groups. They formed their own cultural traditions in the process and gradually gained their freedom.
Gnawa music originated in religious ceremonies—blending music, dance, and poetry—that resulted from a blend of the group’s highly spiritualized version of Islam and the local traditions of West Africa. In recent years, the tone of this music became more secularized even as it has gained popularity across Moroccan society.
Knowledgeable listeners often find parallels between Gnawa musical styles and the blues in the United States. Gnawa is especially distinctive in its use of drumming, metallic castanets, and the guembri, a bass lute with three strings. Gnawa music has gained so much popularity that the Moroccan government has established an annual festival in the city of Essaouira, dedicated to the style as one of the country’s prominent cultural heritage products.
Mali has gained a worldwide reputation as a focal point for blues music. As music scholars have pointed out, the blues is a uniquely African American art form, but one with deep roots in West Africa, deriving as it does from the spirituals and work songs brought to the New World by enslaved people centuries ago.
Many recent Malian blues artists, including the late Ali Farka Touré, have grounded their style in the music of their own cultures, rather than in that of the United States. Others are influenced to one degree or another by Western pop music. African American blues, traditional Malian sounds, and world beats all continue to play off against each other throughout this genre.
Other Malian blues artists include Afel Bocoum, who mixes musical traditions from the north and south of his country with the sounds of Western and Malian instruments.
One of the world’s premier annual blues events, Festival in the Desert, has taken place outside Timbuktu since 2001, highlighting the work of Tuareg musicians, blues artists, and others. With the festival suspended indefinitely due to recent unrest in Mali, organizers hope to showcase the talents of Malian blues musicians by promoting tours elsewhere.
Also known as Ethiopian jazz, Ethio-Jazz offers a one-of-a-kind melding of Western-inflected jazz, soul, Latin stylings, and Afro-funk with the often-haunting sounds of ancient Ethiopian music. Today recognized as one of Ethiopia’s most sought-after cultural exports, Ethio-Jazz dates back to the 1950s.
As it has developed over the decades since, this sound has expanded Africa’s—and the world’s—musical vocabulary. Its melodious sounds are anchored in ages-old Ethiopian ballads often evoking a sense of love, yearning, and nostalgia.
In the 1950s, Nerses Nalbandian, whose family had settled in Ethiopia as refugees from the 1915 genocide against Armenians, laid the groundwork for the development of the genre. Nalbandian’s uncle had led Ethiopia’s National Opera, and Nalbandian himself took up the baton after his uncle’s retirement.
He composed music for the country’s National Theatre, working out ways to preserve authenticity while incorporating local musical traditions in arrangements for big bands. His solution to this problem centered on adapting Western instrumentation while acknowledging the distinctive musical scales indigenous to Ethiopia.
Bandleader and composer Mulatu Astatke—also renowned as a keyboardist and vibraphonist—is another monumental figure in the history of Ethio-Jazz. Astatke, often credited as the “Godfather” of the genre who fully brought American jazz rhythms into traditional Ethiopian forms, is largely responsible for the recent popularity of Ethio-Jazz on the world stage.
In Ken Burns’ Jazz, a documentary film series on the history of jazz music, we learn how this music form is truly “an improvisational art.” It is “America’s music,” as restless and yearning as the country itself since its beginnings and as much a multicultural melting pot.
Jazz is filled with contradictions: both self-expressive and collaborative, anchored deep in the blues of the 19th century but always changing, steeped in its own particular traditions but reborn as something different every night, on every stage. Simple and complex, dressing up or dressing down depending on the moment, losing everything but still reveling in the power of love.
Jazz also gave America its own collection of royalty: a king (Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing”), a duke (Duke Ellington), a count (Count Basie), a lady (Billie Holiday, “Lady Day”), a prince (Miles Davis, the “Prince of Darkness”), and many more. The new sound produced by these distinct personalities caused the entire world to get up and dance.
Jazz remains one of the few uniting commonalities among Americans across multiple ages, backgrounds, and points of view.
Telling the story of an American art
From the ragtime tunes played at the turn of the 20th century, through the “hot” jazz of a generation later, to the cool fusion of recent years, jazz is truly, as the documentary’s trailer says, “America’s soundtrack.”
Exploring Burns’ beloved 10-episode documentary series Jazz is one of the best ways to get acquainted with the rich and varied history, the sheer artistry, and the moving human stories of this uniquely American musical form. As the New York Times’ review of the documentary noted at its debut, it is not too far-fetched to claim that, through its ability to mingle and blend a diverse group of people and cultures over the past century and more, jazz has given us a way of “mirroring the ideals of democracy.”
Now, Burns and PBS have made full-length episodes of Jazz available for free on the PBS website, bringing the documentary within reach of home educators everywhere. Fans can also purchase the DVD or Blu-ray set or the accompanying richly illustrated book Jazz: A History of America’s Music, by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns.
A rich mixture of everything good
The first episode of Jazz, “Gumbo,” introduces us to jazz’s origins. With deep roots in the African American spirituals and work songs dating from the days of slavery, amplified by soul-stirring New Orleans blues, jazz came into its own as a distinct musical voice in the 1890s. In this chapter, we meet the Black musicians who took these elements, mixed in the vibrant local sounds of marching bands, Caribbean beats, Italian opera masterpieces, and minstrel show tunes, and set it all to the quick-time syncopation of ragtime—this was a gumbo unlike anything American had seen.
They named a decade after it
Episode 2, “The Gift,” tells the story of the 1920s Jazz Age as jazz spreads far beyond New Orleans. Paul Whiteman develops a symphonic style of jazz, slower and sweeter, with a new appeal to “mainstream” white listeners. Louis Armstrong comes out of the streets of New Orleans to Chicago and assembles a powerhouse band of both Black and white musicians whose swing style electrifies a new generation, as Duke Ellington sets up his ensembles in New York’s Harlem and introduces his smooth blue style.
Episode 3, “Our Language,” takes us through the rest of the Jazz Age when voices of solo singers like Bessie Smith take the spotlight, and as jazz proves to be the ticket out of limited circumstances for clarinetists Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, both sons of Jewish immigrants, while Duke Ellington begins his storied tenure at the Cotton Club.
Swing tunes and roadhouse stomp
In “The True Welcome,” Episode 4, we learn how jazz proves one of the few joys left to a nation sunk in the depths of the Great Depression. Swing music and dance take center stage in Episode 5, “Swing: Pure Pleasure.”
Episode 6 shows us “The Velocity of Celebration,” as the 1930s move into the ‘40s, bringing with it a new sound: the pounding, stomping, blues-laden sound that starts in Black American juke joints and roundhouses, soon wildly popular as played by Lester Young and Count Basie. Benny Goodman delivers a legendary performance at Carnegie Hall, Billie Holiday makes the grim lyricism of the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” her signature, and a young unknown singer named Ella Fitzgerald steps in front of a mike for the first time. Plus, Duke Ellington takes a triumphant tour of Europe as the events unfold that will soon ignite World War II.
The soundtrack of modern American life
Episode 7, “Dedicated to Chaos,” demonstrates the powerful role of jazz in lifting the morale of the troops overseas as it embodies the spirit of individual freedom and democracy in every irreverent, improvisational note. Arranger Billy Strayhorn joins Duke Ellington’s band, lifting its performances into a new level of sublimity. And Charlie Parker on saxophone and Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet join virtuoso forces on the now-iconic “Koko,” which opens the floodgates of bebop style.
In “Risk,” Episode 8, jazz changes as the world does. The Cold War brings undreamt-of peace and prosperity in the shadow of nuclear annihilation, as well as a new dissonance, broken rhythm, and sense of tension to America’s favorite musical form. In Episode 9, “The Adventure,” we see how widespread access to the trappings of popular culture and television, along with the other amenities of a comfortable suburban existence, overlay a growing sense of crisis in the music as well as in everyday life.
And in “A Masterpiece by Midnight,” the series concludes in the 1960s and early ‘70s, with jazz quickly losing ground to rock-and-roll. We lose legends John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, while numerous surviving jazz greats struggle to make ends meet. Miles Davis takes his gifts as trumpeter and composer in a new direction, creating fusion, a blend of jazz and rock, and a flurry of blended styles emerge.
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, whose commentary and reminiscences as senior creative consultant expanded and enriched Burns’ series, said in a 2001 interview that jazz is a reflection of the totality of the Black American experience in its ability to improvise, to take a theme and shape and change it, and to expand boundaries and create new possibilities in ways that no one had ever thought of before.
The precise origins of jazz as a distinct musical art form remain a matter of contention among experts and fans, and researchers learn new information about its development seemingly every day. The first documented jazz recording is one central point of entry that can help us understand its history.
That recording was made on February 26, 1917, at the Victor Talking Machine Company’s offices in New York City. That was the day the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (whose name originally used the spelling “jass”) quintet recorded the tune “Livery Stable Blues.” While the Chicago-based ensemble’s “Tiger Rag” would prove far more influential, “Livery Stable Blues” is acknowledged as the first. Among today’s listeners, the song may sound silly, with the instruments imitating barnyard animal sounds, and the recording quality is not the best. (Interested fans can hear the full recording in numerous venues online, including an uploaded Smithsonian magazine article celebrating the recording’s centenary.)
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) brand included shiny black dinner jackets over white, buttoned-collar shirts. ODJB was a publicity-seeking group, whose public cavortings received widespread media coverage. At the time they cut “Livery Stable Blues,” the group was performing to large and adoring crowds in New York at Reisenweber’s Café near Columbus Circle, not far from the current site of Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Musicologists know that this all-white band had shamelessly borrowed both style and substance from music they’d heard played by African American bands back home in New Orleans. The recording of “Livery Stable Blues” went on to become one of the first-ever hit singles, with estimates of copies sold ranging from between about 250,000 to 1 million.
From spirituals to a cosmopolitan blend of sound
The origins of jazz lie squarely in the African American experience. Its notes outline the story of Black life in America, with all the pain, sorrow, triumphs, and joy that the community has experienced since long before the founding of the country. For example, the genre’s blue notes offer a modernized take on the sounds of slave spirituals and work songs. Its fast-paced syncopation and swinging exuberance went on to drive the boogie-woogie beats of the many tenement “rent parties” popular among growing Black populations in New York and other big cities from the 1920s until after World War II.
Most scholars date the birth of jazz as an identifiable style to the honky-tonks, barrelhouses, and saloons of Storyville, the New Orleans red light district that flourished from 1897 to 1917. Tuxedo Dance Hall and other venues gave budding composers and performers the opportunity to hone their skills and improvisational ability in front of largely mixed-race audiences. The whole of the district was filled with opportunities for work for Black musicians and composers, and the likes of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Joe “King” Oliver all got their starts there.
The original New Orleans jazz sound drew from the city’s rich history and ethnic mix. Originally a French, then a Spanish colony, the city was already steeped in a distinctive musical culture by the time it was incorporated into the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. It continued to retain its cosmopolitan outlook and its love of music, dance, and spectacle.
The city’s large population of Creole people of color—with a heritage in both African and European roots—was a particularly distinguishing factor. People from a variety of backgrounds lived close together in New Orleans’ narrow streets and squares, resulting in a true blending of cultures and musical sounds.
Brass bands, ragtime, and the journey north
Beginning in about 1890, brass bands were also a big part of the music scene in New Orleans. In those days, before the city had put up the type of “Jim Crow” color barriers, these bands were often integrated. So, while the roots of jazz lie squarely in the African American tradition, its growth was nourished by numerous multicultural influences. The musical traditions developed through African American funerals and mutual aid society parades met the sounds of ragtime and dance bands and the city’s many ethnic communities’ Mardi Gras walking clubs, all establishing a uniquely New Orleans quality.
Morton, Oliver, Armstrong, and their contemporaries built distinctive personal styles, and all three were among the many Black innovators who went north to Chicago to perform in the days after World War I. It was they who formed a recognizable nexus at the core of building the sound we know today as classic jazz.
A traditional three-piece jazz band consists of a piano or organ, double bass, and drums or another type of percussion to keep the beat. Renowned San Francisco Bay Area bassist, bandleader, and music educator Marcus Shelby offers a fine example of this standard jazz configuration in the many recordings and performances of the Marcus Shelby Jazz Trio.
Shelby’s ensemble expands to accommodate different types of performances and offers excellent examples of different configurations of the jazz band. His quartet adds a trumpet, and his quintet uses all these instruments plus a tenor saxophone. A typical configuration for the full Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra features all these instruments and more, with two tenor sax players, two on alto sax, a flute, piano, and drums, along with several clarinets, trombones, and trumpets. This complement of more than a dozen performers often features vocalists, which is typical of all types of jazz.
John Brown, another widely accomplished and popular bassist, bandleader, and educator, performs throughout his home state of North Carolina and beyond with his big band orchestra. In the standard configuration of the John Brown Jazz Orchestra, the big band sound comes from five saxophones, four trombones, and four trumpets, plus drums, piano, and bass. The orchestra also sometimes brings in a vibraphone, clarinet, violin, and vocalists.
These are just two prominent examples of a universal truth: the standard jazz orchestra is a diverse group of instruments that together make beautiful music. After this tour around the full jazz orchestra, now we’ll take a look at a few of the great jazz band solos of all time:
Dizzy Gillespie (1917 - 1993), one of the greatest trumpet players the world has ever seen, and a master of bebop, delivered an especially notable trumpet solo with “Salt Peanuts.” Gillespie first performed his jazzy bebop composition (for which he shares composer credits with drummer Kenny Clarke) in 1942. He is accompanied by the great Charlie Parker playing alto saxophone.
Gillespie’s integration of bebop into a jazz composition was a major innovation for its time. The song is deceptively simple and effervescent, and it moves in a typically frenetic bebop style. Gillespie’s trumpet solo weaves against the background provided by the sax, trombone, drums, and piano. The tune includes witty vocal interpolations of the phrase “salt peanuts” as the only lyrics, repeated at musically opportune moments.
In later years, Gillespie’s inventiveness and stage presence earned him the nickname “Ambassador of Jazz.” He traveled the world on behalf of the United States Department of State to highlight his uniquely American art form.
As he performed “Salt Peanuts” over the decades, Gillespie branched out with a number of different vocal riffs on the original. Now-classic recordings from 1945 showcase Gillespie’s performance on the piece at its best, before a traffic accident a few years later sadly injured his mouth and put limits on his range.
Charlie “Bird” Parker’s (1920 - 1955) solo sax on “Ko Ko” is one of many jazz fans’ all-time favorites. One of the greatest improvisers and innovators of all time, Parker demonstrated a creative depth and range that easily places him alongside Ornette Coleman, Django Reinhardt, Louis Armstrong, and John Coltrane as the greatest of the great.
Along with Dizzy Gillespie, he is credited as a central figure in the creation and development of bebop. “Ko Ko” represents Parker’s first-ever recorded piece as a bandleader, and he took the opportunity to show the full capacity of the bebop form, evolving its rapid-fire chord changes and high-octane melodic escapades as he played. He developed “Ko Ko” as his own personal take on the popular 1930s Ray Noble dance tune “Cherokee,” and recorded it in its essential form in 1945.
On “Ko Ko,” Parker also shows off his understanding of rhythm and harmony to dazzling effect. Performing “Ko Ko” most notably accompanied by “Diz” on trumpet, Parker delivered a short tune with a simple compositional architecture. Recordings of the just-under-three-minute song give us an opening meld of sax and trumpet, followed by the two instruments exchanging eight-bar phrases to end abruptly with a final pop of sound.
Benny Goodman (1909 - 1986), one of the greatest clarinetists to ever perform, was also a noted bandleader and composer. The “King of Swing” created a wide range of now-iconic performances and developed his mastery of his instrument to a high art. One of his very early solo recordings, from 1928, offers an example of the range and power of the clarinet and Goodman’s musicianship.
This early version of “That’s a Plenty” (lyrics and music by Ray Gilbert and Lew Pollack) was recorded with piano and drum accompaniment when Goodman was not yet 20. He also recorded other performances of the song in later years. Although his playing had not yet reached its full capacity and the sound is less polished on the 1928 recording, Goodman’s raw forward drive in executing the piece is notable and exciting.
A number of fans and critics point out the influence of klezmer, traditional Eastern European Jewish band music, on Goodman, who was a child of Russian Jewish immigrants. “That’s a Plenty” and many of Goodman’s other performances certainly demonstrate echoes of the elegantly winding and infinitely danceable call of the klezmer clarinet.
Goodman kept playing “That’s a Plenty” in a variety of settings and with a variety of accompaniments well into his later years, including in a notable 1980 performance at the Aurex Jazz Festival in Tokyo.
The blues puts into music what we all feel when it seems like we just can’t go on: lost jobs, friends, love, and dreams. But the very music that was made to express the depths of despair can, by its very artistry, lift us up again. The blues is also cathartic. It’s about overcoming obstacles.
The blues was born out of African American history. It traces its origins to plantation slavery, through the toiling oppression of the Jim Crow era, and into the days of escape to a completely new world during the Great Migration. Ultimately, the blues has its roots in African American work songs and chants, spirituals, and rural “field hollers.” It came to early maturity in the Mississippi River Delta around New Orleans, growing up alongside jazz, before branching out west, east, north, and finally around the world.
Here is a look at three of the many distinctive styles of the blues that developed in the United States throughout the mid-20th century, along with portraits of three of their leading creators.
Meade “Lux” Lewis’ piano-pounding boogie-woogie
The boogie-woogie blues, heavy on rhythm and percussion and with a varied and unpredictable style, was the first and only type of piano music born directly out of the blues. In boogie-woogie, the right hand’s riffs play off against the left hand’s ostinato drive.
Boogie-woogie flourished from the beginning of the 1920s until the end of World War II in 1945. The word “boogie” referred to a house rent party among people living in tenements in big cities with large African American populations. Rent parties opened up new ways to socialize while helping to pay their rent during hard economic times.
The ultimate source of the boogie-woogie style may have been the logging camps, gin mills, and other labor groups offering some of the few means of good employment available to Black workers in the early 20th century. Just as “field hollers” and hawking shout-outs were earlier, boogie-woogie rhythms were highly personalized.
Meade “Lux” Lewis (1905-1964) was one of the driving forces behind the popularity of boogie-woogie and its rolling beat. Born in Chicago, “Lux” started out playing violin, but turned to piano in the ‘20s. In 1927, he recorded the enormously popular “Honky Tonk Train Blues,” a pull-out-all-the-stops cascade of sound, and a now-legendary piece in the blues catalog. His musically sophisticated tunes also included “Whistlin’ Blues,” “Bear Cat Crawl,” and “Low Down Dog.”
By the mid-1930s, the song had fallen into obscurity, until Lewis was rediscovered while working in a car wash. Producer John Hammond reissued the song, and Lewis gained a brief nationwide fame before boogie-woogie faded from the charts.
In the late 1930s, Lewis joined fellow boogie-woogie masters Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson in a series of star-studded “six-handed” performances, and his three film appearances include an uncredited role as a bar piano player in the 1946 Jimmy Stewart classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Lewis died tragically in a car accident in Minneapolis when he was only 58.
Louis Jordan’s jumping sax
Jump blues was a highly danceable mix that blended blues, jazz, swing, and boogie-woogie. The style originated—just as boogie-woogie did—amid hard economic times, although jump blues was reaching widespread popularity as boogie-woogie was winding down. During and after World War II, full swing bands were too expensive, so bands scaled down to simply a rhythm section and often a single soloist. The smaller size enabled musicians to concentrate on innovating with a more fast-paced and uninhibited “jump” sound.
Louis Jordan (1908-1975), saxophonist, singer, movie performer, and bandleader of the Tympany Five, as well as an accomplished all-around entertainer known as the “King of the Jukebox,” is credited as the originator of this style. Jordan’s talent shone on numbers like “Jumpin’ at the Jubilee,” “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” and “Caledonia,” and he became one of the most popular and successful Black artists of the 1940s and ‘50s.
The vibrant, bouncy rhythms and clever lyrics of his songs—not to mention his high-energy, engaging stage presence—made the Arkansas-born Jordan wildly popular with audiences of all backgrounds. In fact, he is one of the few African American artists to gain widespread acceptance among white fans of his era. He had at least four million-selling hit songs over his career, and in earnings and name recognition ranked near Duke Ellington and Count Basie among African American musicians of his day. Numerous critics consider “Caledonia” (1945) to be the immediate ancestor of rock and roll. Jordan is also often credited as the father of rhythm and blues and rap.
The growth of Chicago blues followed right along with the growth of the Black population of major northern cities. During the Great Migration that began in the final years of World War I and that continued into the 1970s, some 6 million African Americans picked up everything and moved from the rural, segregated South to the industrial and at least nominally more accepting cities of New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago. And they took their music with them.
Alongside New Orleans and Austin, Texas, Chicago remains one of the three key cities involved in the development of the blues art form. The blues musicians who moved north continued the evolution of the sound as it played out in people’s everyday lives on street corners, in open-air markets, at rent parties, and a host of other community events.
Buddy Guy’s electrified Chicago
The rough-and-tumble action along the city’s streets was further inflected by emerging technologies that amped it up with an electric beat, forming the nexus of a new kind of club atmosphere. Chicago’s South Side saw numerous Black-focused blues clubs spring up, including big names such as Smoke Daddy, Ruby Lee Gatewood's Tavern, and Blue Chicago.
Also think Buddy Guy’s Legends. Buddy Guy, now age 84, is among Chicago’s blues greats. Born in Louisiana in 1936 as George Guy, the legendary guitarist is world-famous for his lightning electric riffs, accompanied by his deeply felt vocals. In the 1990s, Guy’s popularity soared again after an already distinguished four-decade career, and he continued touring and performing live until the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020. His hits include “Stone Crazy,” “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues,” and “Leave My Girl Alone.”
When barely into his teens, Guy made his own guitar and learned to play by listening to the radio, copying previous legends such as John Lee Hooker. After performing in New Orleans clubs, he relocated to Chicago in his early 20s and was discovered by yet another legend, Muddy Waters. Guy continued learning from the best, as he worked alongside performers like Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, and Koko Taylor. He is the recipient of multiple Grammy awards, including a 2015 Grammy for Lifetime Achievement.
Rolling Stone magazine caught up with Guy in June 2020, when he noted that he was then in the longest hiatus of his career due to the nationwide shutdowns of performing arts venues. Guy’s club also suffered damage amid rising protests against police brutality. But the bluesman remained upbeat, saying that the outpouring of people into the streets demanding justice might be just what the country needs to finally set things right.
This Is What You Need to Know about African-American Spirituals and Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony
Czech composer Antonín Dvořák is among the world’s great masters of 19th century symphonic form. His Ninth Symphony has achieved lasting popularity among the professional musicians who appreciate its technical achievements, as well as among generations of listeners who love it for its captivating melodies, grandeur of expression, and echoes of American—notably African-American—folk music themes.
Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, is specifically entitled “From the New World.” Here’s what you need to know about the composer, his Ninth Symphony, and its connection to African-American spirituals:
Dvořák’s Immigration to New York
Dvořák arrived in the United States in September 1892, wife and children accompanying him. He was taking up a position as music director of the National Conservatory of Music of America, hired away from Prague by wealthy patron of the arts Jeannette Thurber.
The salary was 25 times what Dvořák earned back home, and even came with a perk: he would have summers off. The composer remained in New York until April 1895, working on composing music that incorporated American themes.
He finished an “American” string quartet while on summer vacation in the Czech-American town of Spillville in Iowa. Dvořák also conducted a special “Bohemian Day” at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. And he composed the New World Symphony.
The “New World” Symphony
He completed the score for the “New World” Symphony in May 1893. One of the reasons Dvořák may have felt a strong connection with African-American folk music was his own Czech cultural nationalism. The Bohemian lands of what would become the Czech Republic were then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
A Czech nationalist revival gathered force throughout the 19th century, promoting Czech as an alternative to the German language, and elevating Czech folklore themes in literature, art, and music. Dvořák was among the leading exemplars of this Czech national pride.
The New York Philharmonic debuted the Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall on December 16, 1893. The now-storied venue had only been open for 18 months. Dvořák himself, who had previously conducted at Carnegie Hall on four occasions during his sojourn in the United States, was present in the audience, with the Philharmonic under the leadership of Anton Seidl.
The Influence of Harry Thacker Burleigh
The National Conservatory, in a rare decision for its time, opened its doors to talented music students regardless of ethnic background or family connections. This included many Black students. Several of the professional connections Dvořák made during his tenure brought African-American music to his attention.
One such connection was Harry Thacker Burleigh, the son of an Erie, Pennsylvania, domestic worker. Although Burleigh’s mother had a classical education and knew Greek and French, no other employment was available to her. Always musical, the young Burleigh took a number of clerical jobs, including that of librarian for the National Conservatory’s orchestra while he was studying there on scholarship.
Conductors typically work closely with an orchestra’s librarian. This was certainly true of Burleigh and Dvořák. Operetta composer Victor Herbert later noted that Burleigh provided Dvořák with a number of themes used in the Ninth Symphony. This contemporaneous evidence is particularly notable in light of the fact that, even today, some sources discount the influence of African-American musicians on the symphony.
Burleigh often sang the spirituals he had learned from his blind grandfather—an enslaved man who later purchased his freedom—for the Czech composer. He, in turn, was a defining influence on Burleigh’s later career as a singer, teacher, and composer.
The Influence of Will Marion Cook
Will Marion Cook, a young violinist and Dvořák’s student at the conservatory, also deepened the great composer’s knowledge of the rich heritage of what were then called “Negro spirituals.” Cook, born in Washington, DC to a middle-class family, would go on to become a noted conductor, composer of Broadway musicals, and teacher of a young Duke Ellington.
The Library of Congress lists Cook among the greatest African-American musical talents before the Jazz Age. Cook himself first encountered African-American folk songs when he, at age 12, was sent to visit his grandfather in Tennessee.
Dvořák himself later wrote, using the language of the day, that any truly American music would need to draw its main inspiration from “Negro melodies or Indian chants.” He went on to say that “the most potent as well as most beautiful among them” were the “plantation melodies and slave songs,” with their “unusual and subtle harmonies.” Harry Burleigh recalled Dvořák once remarking that the spiritual “Go Down, Moses” was equal in greatness to any of the works of Beethoven.
The New World Symphony uses numerous elements that distinguish the spirituals anchored in the lives of enslaved Americans: pentatonic scales, syncopation, and flattened sevenths. While musicologists still debate whether or not Dvořák literally transported traditional spirituals into the work note-for-note, there is no doubt that it was heavily influenced by them, as the composer himself attested.
Music scholar Joseph Horowitz told NPR in 2019 that the African-American influences on classical music—on Dvořák in particular—are part of “buried history.” The Czech composer, said Horowitz, became “consumed” by a desire to show America a truer musical portrait of itself by highlighting this contribution to a renewed and more authentically American style.
In the first movement of the New World Symphony, the second theme echoes the melody of the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” In the lyrical Largo second movement, Dvořák developed what is now called the “Goin’ Home” theme, played by English horn. Beloved by generations of Americans, this theme is Dvořák’s creation, although it certainly references traditional African-American melodies and harmonies he had picked up.
The theme only acquired words in 1922. William Arms Fisher, one of Dvořák’s white students, wrote the lyrics. They referenced the beauty and power of traditional spirituals. African-American churches, along with many others, have adopted the melody into numerous hymnbooks.
Notable Performances of “Goin’ Home”
“Goin’ Home” was played in tribute by an African-American US Navy accordionist, Graham W. Jackson, in Warm Springs, Georgia, after President Franklin Roosevelt died there. In 1949, Black pianist Art Tatum composed the “Largo” swing, referencing Dvořák’s tune, and in 1958, Paul Robeson famously performed “Goin’ Home” at Carnegie Hall.
The haunting, transformative power of this piece of music has moved people all over the world. In one recent notable performance, the Silk Road Ensemble recorded it under the direction of Yo-Yo Ma. The performance featured a Chinese sheng and an American banjo, with a singer performing in both Mandarin and English.
In 1904, Dvořák died in Prague at age 63. One of his obituaries noted the sorrow of so many music lovers, saying specifically that “Afro-American musicians alone could flood his grave with tears.”
Over the decades, social and racial justice movements have produced powerful, memorable music that can be performed and enjoyed for years afterward. The enduring nature of the songs created to elevate the struggle for peace, justice, and equality, as well as those written to memorialize lives unjustly brutalized or cut short, continue to enrich American culture even years after the events that they commemorate.
Now, a new generation is adding its distinctive voice to our culture through music composed to accompany the Black Lives Matter protests, which have existed as a movement under the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag since 2013. This new music has also revitalized the already universally popular genres of traditional hip hop, rap, and R&B.
A family bears witness to loss
In 2014, Eric Garner of Staten Island, New York, was killed at the hands of police while saying, “I Can’t Breathe” 11 times in succession. Two years later, the Garner Family formed a group to release a single titled, “I Can’t Breathe.” The song is not only a tribute to Garner, but an updated R&B-style rallying cry for principled protest against police brutality. The lyrics echo the ongoing tension between local communities of color and oppressive policing tactics (“We all know the solution, but they blame you and me”), while at the same time offering a positive plea for unity and mutual support and noting with tragic finality, “A life can change as the wind blows.”
One of the Internet’s most popular anthems
In early June 2020, rapper Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” skyrocketed into first place among the most popular protest songs available on the Internet, tallying some 65 million streamed views within the space of two weeks. In his video, the singer-songwriter’s harrowing depiction of unjust death and the grinding brutality of dealing with trauma on a daily basis are complemented by images in the media chronicling the coronavirus pandemic and divisions around the nation.
Starting with its introduction that references the killing of George Floyd and his “I can’t breathe,” echoing Eric Garner, the song runs its lyrics against background footage of some of the protests in support of Black Lives Matter, and highlights both black and white faces among people fighting for positive change.
The singer zooms out to reflect on the fact that, “It's a problem with the whole way of life,” then asks listeners to understand that we need to “start here.”
Music with a message
In Usher’s “I Cry,” the Grammy-winning singer of the 2015 hit “Chains” gives us another poignant song decrying police brutality.
The raw emotion in “I Cry” is Usher’s way of letting his sons know that it’s acceptable for men to show emotion, particularly in the face of waves of overwhelming violence against Black communities. In the related music video, he sings the spare lyrics against a backdrop of newspaper headlines describing the horrific killings of innocent Black Americans. The words summarize Usher’s feelings of helplessness at what is happening in the world around him, as well as his determination to be a part of the solution: “I’ll fight for the future we’re making.”
While “I Cry” is gentler in terms of the lyrics and beats than the more raw “Chains” (featuring Nas and Bibi Bourelly), the two songs complement each other in their ability to portray the African American experience in the present moment as fraught with tension and a constant sense of being unfairly targeted, while refusing to accept the untenable status quo.
The soundtrack of our moment
With their 2020 album RTJ4, the hip hop supergroup duo Run the Jewels (Killer Mike and Jaime “El-P” Meline) released a work that the online publication Vox immediately dubbed as “required listening” for the year. The Vox reviewer wrote that the performers had put “racial unrest to music.”
Coming as it did after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick, Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and George Floyd in Minneapolis that galvanized street protests even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the entire album hit the nation where it still had a number of unhealed wounds.
“Walking in the Snow” is one of RTJ4’s central songs. “They feed you fear for free,” the lyrics go, leading listeners through the numbness and pain of seeing victims’ names unroll on the evening news. The song goes on to try to help listeners see the urgent need to replace “apathy” with “empathy” for the sake of those targeted with hate, as well as those expressing the hating.
An icon celebrates struggle and joy
In 2016, Beyoncé began using her enormous platform to come out strongly on behalf of racial justice in general and Black Lives Matter in particular. After the widely publicized police shooting deaths of Philando Castile near St. Paul, Minnesota, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that year, the superstar posted a call to action on her social media pages, pleading with fans to speak out against police brutality and demand solutions.
The video for her 2016 song “Formation” includes an image of the phrase “Stop killing us.” Another video that year, for “Freedom” (featuring Kendrick Lamar), juxtaposed the song’s moving lyrics against a visual backdrop that included images of the mothers of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin holding up photos of their slain sons. Both songs appear on the Grammy-winning album Lemonade.
To celebrate Juneteenth on June 19, 2020, Beyoncé dropped “Black Parade,” a single focused less on suffering than on the abiding resilience and solidarity of the Black community. Juneteenth is a holiday that marks the end of slavery, observed by African American communities since the end of the Civil War in 1865.
Describing the new song that aims to uplift roots, history, and the beauty of the Black communities and voices, regardless of the circumstances, Beyoncé wrote a message on her Instagram highlighting the need to focus on “joy,” while posting an authorized directory of Black-owned businesses and rallying fans to support them throughout the year.
Music and literature have met and mingled countless times, as composers have taken inspiration from poems, plays, novels, and stories to create listening experiences that bring out new dimensions of original literary works. Many of these musical pieces have become classics in their own right, part of the lasting cultural heritage of humanity.
One of the great American poets, Langston Hughes (1901 or 1902 - 1967), is today remembered as a writer who gave voice to the hopes, dreams, and common experiences of African Americans. A leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance in New York, Hughes wrote in numerous genres, but is best-remembered today for his lyrical poems that contain a sense of both the joy of living and the painful path of history within their sinuous lines.
Hughes drew enormous inspiration from music to feed his creative process throughout his life. Composer Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes developed an enduring personal friendship that began a decade after she discovered his poems as a teenage music student at Northwestern University in 1929.
Their Friendship Began with His Poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”
Born in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” shortly after his high school graduation. The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, published the poem in 1921. Hughes went on to study at Columbia University, becoming immersed in New York’s vibrant cultural scene, which he soon helped shape.
“I have known rivers,” the poem opens. Its lines wind down through history, as Hughes’ voices speaks on behalf of the millions of voiceless Black and Brown men and women over centuries who lived, loved, dreamed, and died beside the world’s great rivers, from the Nile, the Euphrates, and the Congo, to the Mississippi.
Margaret Bonds (1913 - 1972) was an accomplished musician and composer who had begun composing at age 13. According to Bonds, Northwestern University was a “terribly prejudiced place.” She had made enormous sacrifices to be able to study at a well-known school, and she won prizes in piano and composition during her time there. Yet, due to the practice of segregation, she was not even allowed to use the Northwestern swimming pool. Restaurants in the area refused to serve her.
Then one day, going through books at her neighborhood public library outside Chicago, Bonds began reading “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” from Hughes’ first poetry collection, The Weary Blues. Reading it gave her a sense of security, a belief that she, as a young, African American woman, had a rightful place in the world. “I know that poem helped save me,” she said.
After They Met, They Began a Long and Fruitful Collaboration
Bonds’ discovery of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was the touchstone that led her and Hughes to a decades-long artistic collaboration. She finally met him after she finished her university education, at the home of a mutual friend. They became inseparable, “like brother and sister,” Bonds later said, getting to know each other’s families and becoming comfortable in one another’s homes.
Bonds even often sent Hughes melodies she had composed, asking him to write lyrics for them. By the mid-1930s, she had set numerous Hughes compositions to music, including “Poème d’Automne,” “Winter Moon,” and “Joy.” Bonds’ interpretation of Hughes’ “Love’s Runnin’ Riot” went on to be performed and recorded by Duke Ellington. In 1940, Hughes and Bonds worked on the revue Tropics After Dark, collaborating with Arna Bontemps, another writer who played a key role in the Harlem Renaissance.
Bonds set “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” to music in 1941. Bonds’ music unwinds Hughes’ words at a stately and sonorous pace as it sets to music the historical events in which Black people moved through the world through deliberate or forced migrations. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” remains perhaps Bonds’ most often-performed art piece, and she always remembered it as among her favorites.
Their Collaboration Culminated with the Now-Famous Three Dream Portraits
The 1959 Three Dream Portraits is a song cycle of three Hughes poems set to music by Bonds. “Minstrel Man,” once notably recorded as a poem read by legendary African American bass-baritone Paul Robeson, is a soliloquy juxtaposing the speaker’s outward mask of frivolity with his inner pain. The irony lies in the fact that this pain went largely unnoticed by the white audiences that typically attended minstrel shows.
“Dream Variation,” the center movement, speaks of “a place in the sun.” It is filled with harmonies gathered from world cultures beyond American borders, and has a joyous sense of movement through dance.
The concluding movement, “I, Too,” uses Hughes’ poignant yet ringing words, “I, too, sing America.” Even as the speaker, the “darker brother,” is banished and forced to eat in the kitchen, he feels that when others “see how beautiful I am,” they will invite him to the table, ashamed that they ever excluded him. Critics note that Bonds’ music becomes more self-assured with each of the three movements. It reaches a crescendo of confidence toward the end of “I, Too” that winds down into wistful uncertainty by its concluding notes.
This artistic choice by Bonds in the late 1950s mirrored the world around her. The Civil Rights struggle was beginning to gain momentum, with enormous struggle and loss ahead. When Bonds wrote her music for Hughes’ words, the outcome of this struggle was still unknown. Three Dream Portraits remains a deeply meaningful work more than half a century later.