Louis Armstrong Back in the Day

Louis Armstrong Back in the Day
With His Signature White Handkerchief and Smile

The significance of the blues aesthetic for those who are not professionally conversant in musical notation or the academic discipline of music or jazz history.

Wednesday, April 1

Treemonisha by Scott Joplin

In Dahomey (1901) by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Will Marion Cook and Jesse Shipp and Treemonisha (1911) by Scott Joplin belong in the pre-history of African American jazz and blues.

Generally they are not included in the credits for the early blues, particularly since this material is clearly influenced by European musical precedents.  Both are considered more of a bow to our blackface minstrelsy tradition, a history we would rather not contemplate although so much of our performance practices were filtered through blackface and its ancillary performance practices.

Treemonisha has rarely been performed for the public.  I am just learning about it thanks to a student in my class at the grad center who reported on this undeservedly forgotten American opera, perhaps the first in 1911.  I really like the music and I like the story, particularly as performed by Obba Babatunde with the Houston Grand Opera in the mid 1970s.

As for In Dahomey written by Paul Lawrence Dunbar and performed by Bert Williams, David Walker, both of their wives and Abbie Mitchell, it was one of the first successful black musicals on Broadway.  It travelled abroad as well.   Others to followed, including perhaps most notably Porgy and Bess, which was not written by anybody black but George Gershwin. The international success of Porgy and Bess since its first production in the mid 30s was and is unprecedented.  I am told it is always being performed somewhere and it holds the spot as the key African American opera as opposed to Treemonisha.  

Not sure why except that Gershwin is Gershwin and his songs have been so widely and expertly performed by so many great African American artists.  I really don't know why the lag in producing Treemonisha except black folk are still trying to get their due on the cultural front in music.  Nevermind stage, screen and the visual arts.

Often there hangs over African American efforts in the performing arts, particularly where music is involved, a funky shroud of shame and prejudice based upon the constant worry that the blacks who came before us didn't always conduct themselves with dignity.  Always the question that is asked is, was it too European?  Then, perhaps it wasn't European enough?  How can African Americans performer artists ever win a place for themselves in the history of American culture with criteria like these.  

Music is music.  American music is American music.  

To see more information concerning links to sheet music of Scott Joplin, see http://blackandbluespeople.blogspot.com/2009/03/treemonisha-by-scott-joplin.html.

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