Delivering the Message

Vallejo Music Theatre is taking its turn at presenting the music of Fats Waller with their production of Aint? Misbehavin? which will run through May 4th at the Fetterly Playhouse for the Arts, 3467 Sonoma Blvd. Suite 10. You can call 707-649-2787 for more information, and check this newspaper next week for a review of the show. Perhaps the most meaningful lyrics from the original show Ain?t Misbehavin? are from the song ?What Did I Do (To Be So Black and Blue)??

??Cause you?re black, Folks think you lack
They laugh at you, And scorn you too,
What did I do, to be so Black And Blue?
When you are near, they laugh and sneer,
Set you aside and you?re denied,
What did I do, to be so Black And Blue?
How sad I am, each day I feel worse,
My mark of Ham seems to be a curse!
How will it end? Ain?t got a friend,
My only sin Is my skin.
What did I do, to be so Black And Blue?

from ?What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue?, Words by Andy Razaf and Music by Thomas ?Fats? Waller and Harry Brooks, Copyright ?1929 Santly Brothers, Inc. and renewed by Chappell & Co., Inc.

A song made famous by Louis Armstrong, it is a counterpoint to arguments made by some that both Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller were comic entertainers pandering to a white audience. While it is true that they both excelled at projecting an exuberant quality that was responsible for catapulting them each to super stardom, they will be remembered as time goes by, as true geniuses and innovators who labored under cruel conditions.

Louis Armstrong extended the range of the trumpet beyond anything anyone had imagined up to that point. Fats Waller, in his short lifetime, created a jazz style at the organ while playing for the silent movies, (his first professional gig while still in his teens). His mature music combined blues, ragtime and stride piano, played at dizzying tempos. A student of James P. Johnson, his early concert stage was most often a Harlem rent party. He rose to stardom after he started singing while he played piano. It is unfortunate that even though he was recorded hundreds of times, he only recorded three solo piano sessions before he died in 1943, on a train near Kansas City, Missouri, at the age of 39.

It is interesting to me that Fats Waller did not read or write music. People around the world present concerts of Fats Waller?s music, but he wasn?t the one who wrote it all down. Not all of his recorded piano solos have even been transcribed. It would be a mistake, I think, to call him illiterate, and actually points to a shortcoming in the European concept that if it isn?t on paper it?s not for real. I don?t think a Fats Waller composition ever could be contained by a piece of paper the way he played it. Conversely, if he had written any of it down, I don?t think his music would have been any better for it. If he hadn?t been a natural genius, his music might have even suffered from the effort to learn to read and write music. Many of today?s professional musicians do themselves a disservice by learning first to read music with their eyes, instead of their ears.

Turn on Black Entertainment Television today, and you will find that a white owned station is still propagating an image of the black artist as slightly ridiculous, and less than genius. It is perhaps an even worse situation today, because the music presented is as bad as the image put forward. Although black American musicians have traditionally been in the vanguard, singlehandedly creating the modern music that has delighted and captured the imagination of the entire world, those days appear to be over. The real musicians out there are not getting any chance to be heard. The present situation is bemoaned by Martha Redbone. A singer from New York City, she recently dropped into Listen & Be Heard Poetry Caf? accompanied by Dennis Banks and Wounded Knee, on the morning of February 10th, before heading in to San Francisco for the kick-off concert for Sacred Run 2006.

A songwriter by trade, Redbone started singing professionally about five years ago because she wanted to ?put a positive message out there.? Of mixed Native American and Black American heritage she bemoaned the fact that her favorite music was also the favorite music of her parents. While she was growing up in New York City she listened to Sam Cooke and other R&B and Soul artists of the time, who delivered the music and the message to a generation eager to move on. ?We should have our own favorite music? she said, referring to a new generation. Certainly there is a multiplicity of messages to be delivered today, and perhaps none more immediate and pressing than the one being delivered from one end of this country to the other on the Sacred Run. Now in its 27th year, the run will go through the southern states for the first time. Included in the route will be a special stop at the United Houma Nation reservation, just outside of New Orleans, who Redbone claims were ?ignored by the Red Cross and FEMA.? Having performed a concert there just before Katrina hit, Redbone has taken a special interest in assisting the Houma Nation. She managed to convince Synthia Saint James to paint a Pow Wow drum that will be auctioned off to raise funds. (More information about the artist at http://synthiasaintjames.com.)

While entertainers of the past were regarded as less than civilized by the dominant society, today the question of what is civilized is paramount to our very existence, and those of us who might still be stuck on the words-on-paper concept of civilization, could well benefit by opening our minds and hearts to a message that is being delivered not in a document, but with direct immediacy, and a spiritual backbone. I asked Dennis Banks, one of the founding members of the American Indian Movement, what he hoped to accomplish by running a relay across the country. ?Our job is to deliver the message and move on? he responded. ?Our hope is that the message will be heard.? Certainly, after struggling for decades to improve relations between the many nations and the U. S. Government, he has familiarity with the ability of ?civilized? people to dishonor their own treaties. But the message today goes beyond any group or individual. ?We have to start looking at what we?re doing to the air. We?re not buying air yet, but we are buying water, because it?s unsafe. But if we buy water but don?t address what?s going on, then pretty soon we?ll be buying clean air.? Picture a society of people walking around with air masks and guns, stepping over those without masks and guns and walking over the graves of all of our ancestors without respect or even recognition. Will we hear the message, or are we waiting for it to be handed down from heaven and written in stone?

Listen & Be Heard Weekly will be following the progress of Sacred Run 2006 in these pages. You can learn more at http://sacredrun.org. Wishing each of you Peace and Poetry.

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