Celebrating Black Lives, Music & Excellence

I don’t have many words of wisdom or comfort in these trying times we find ourselves in. Mainly I’m filled with questions: How do we enact lasting change so that we don’t have to confront these egregious racist actions on a daily basis, even during a national lockdown? How do we heal? How do we talk to kids about this so that we can build a future in which this kind of violence and social breakdown doesn’t happen? There are numerous resources being shared on social media, many of which have been rounded up by “Your Kids Aren’t Too Young to Talk About Race,” which includes a list of children’s (and adult) books that deal with race. This opinion article in Yes! Magazine, “Antiracist Parenting during COVID-19 and Beyond,” discusses modeling antiracist, activist behaviors for your kids, including creating community action networks and volunteering for and donating to important social justice organizations (your local chapter of Black Lives Matter, the NAACP, The Sentencing Project, United Negro College Fund, to name a few). And definitely check out this article, “Race-Conscious Reading for Preschool,” by educator, writer, and performer Marisa Lark Wallin, in which Wallin breaks down how to select books that promote inclusivity and representation. Her intended audience is fellow teachers, but these are lessons parents need to take home, too.

Do all these things. Read all these articles. Go deeper. Question all the seemingly innocuous things you say or ways you deal with information and the world. Examine how you are transmitting these behaviors to your kids. And one more thing you can do: celebrate black life and excellence. What better way to do that than to celebrate black musicians? Personally speaking, as a white musician, I have benefitted in incalculable ways from the culture of black music. I find myself, now more than ever, deeply humbled by and forever grateful to the musical path black musicians have cut for me. And I want to honor that. There is really no way to write a comprehensive list of black musicians as I might as well embark on a history of music in general, but I’ve selected a few of my personal favorites to highlight, including those that we’ve recently lost within the past year.

Little Richard: Little Richard, born Richard Wayne penman, was born in 1932 and died just a few weeks ago on May 9, 2020. He hit the top 20 on the Billboard charts with “Tutti Frutti” (here is a very young Little Richard performing that song and “Long Tall Sally” in the film Don’t Knock the Rock). Little Richard started out humbly, washing dishes at a Greyhound bus station in Macon, Georgia–which is actually where he came up with the famed chorus to “Tutti Frutti,” according to Rolling Stone. But even when he hit it big, he never strayed far from his gospel roots, becoming an ordained minister and releasing a gospel album in 1959. What most people today know Little Richard for are his hits and his utterly unique style: his pompadours, mustache, gender-fluid style, and his energy, without all of which we might never have gotten Prince, James Brown, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding. “I never accepted the idea that I had to be guided by some patter or blueprint,” he famously said. Indeed.

Bill Withers: Another recent loss, Bill Withers was a vocalist and soul legend with the eternal hits “Lean on Me,” “Lovely Day,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which, if you’ve never heard, you’ve definitely been in quarantine your whole life. Withers was born in West Virginia in 1938, forced to endure incredible racism in the Jim Crowe South. He escaped however, and after seeing Lou Rawls play at a nightclub in Oakland, CA, Withers bought a cheap guitar, taught himself to play, and got some demo tracks to an executive at Sussex Records, which led him to record a number of tracks in the studio, including “Ain’t No Sunshine“—listen to this song and revel in Withers’ clear, mellifluous voice. He not only taught himself to play guitar, but also piano, after which he wrote “Lean On Me.” Easy, right?

Whitney Houston: Whitney Houston was only 48 when she died, but she will live on forever through songs such as “I Will Always Love You”—which, admittedly, Dolly Parton wrote, but let’s be honest, Whitney made great—”I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “How Will I Know,” “I’m Every Woman,” and literally dozens more hits. She had a turbulent marriage with Bobby Brown and struggled with drug addiction for most of her life. And through her music and her public persona, we can sense someone who is always fighting, who doesn’t give up: “I crashed down and I tumbled, but I did not crumble/I got through all the pain,” Houston sang in “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength.” Let’s look to Whitney in these trying times, crash down and tumble, and find our way through all the pain.

Jimmy Cobb: Jimmy Cobb was a jazz drummer who has personally inspired me immensely. He died only a week ago on May 24, 2020. Cobb played with Miles Davis in 1958 for The First Great Sextet, a series of jazz sets that Davis held from 1955-1958. Cobb recorded with Davis on a number of his albums, including Kind of BlueSketches of SpainPorgy and Bess, and Sorcerer, among many others. He also performed with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and extensively with pianist Wynton Kelly, with whom he formed a trio with bassist Paul Chambers. Check out this video of Cobb performing with John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1960 for a taste of Cobb’s masterful playing, characterized by “delicate washes of cymbals and brush-stroked snare,” according to npr.org.

Nina Simone: Dubbed “The High Priestess of Soul,” Nina Simone used her music to effect change in the Civil Rights Movement. With “Mississippi Goddam,” which she performed at Carnegie Hall in 1964 to a mostly white audience, she secured her role as someone who speaks up and out. The song was adopted by protestors all over the country as a rallying cry, and Simone sang it again in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 at a concert organized by Harry Belafonte, as marchers were making their way to Selma. According to The New Yorker, Simone’s activism was sparked early: at age eleven, she performed piano at a recital at the local library. She reportedly “saw her parents being removed from their front-row seats to make room for a white couple. She…stood up and announced that if people wanted to hear her play they’d better let her parents sit back down in the front row…The next day, she remembered, she felt ‘as if I had been flayed, and every slight, real or imagined, cut me raw. But, the skin grew back a little tougher, a little less innocent, and a little more black.'”

Harold Mabern: Harold Mabern was actually a drummer before he switched to piano in high school. He was pretty much entirely self-taught, moving to Chicago from his hometown of Memphis in order to attend the American Conservatory of Music, but ultimately not going as his parents couldn’t afford it. He started playing professionally with George Coleman and Frank Strozier, and hit his stride when he finally moved to New York City in 1959. He performed on many others’ albums and in their performances, for musicians such as Lee Morgan, Betty Carter and Wes Montgomery, but he was also a bandleader himself and recorded more than two dozen of his own albums. The New York Times described Mabern’s “signature composite of harmonic sophistication, blues feeling and sharply punctuated swing rhythm” in his obituary in September 2019. He was a professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey. “I’m never going to stop being a blues pianist,” he said. Pop on his album Straight Street and enjoy Harold “Big Hands” Mabern’s complete mastery.

This is obviously a less-than-exhaustive list. But hopefully it will remind you of just a few of the truly remarkable black musicians whose art we can still enjoy and gain inspiration and guidance from—and, importantly, share that enjoyment with our kids.