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

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 Wishing each of you Peace and Poetry.

Some of Vallejo?s Black History

Last week I mentioned in my letter (and we featured on our cover) The Vallejo Observer, a bi-weekly newspaper that started in 1945, published by black people primarily for black people. While looking through the old yellow copies, I was struck by the similarity of our stated goals to the stated goals of the publishers of this paper more than sixty years ago. The following letter, published in their first issue on March 29, 1945, says a great deal about the people who labored to publish the paper while America was still at war.

?Open Letter to the Public?

The Editorial Staff of the ?Vallejo Observer? takes this opportunity to thank the merchants in Vallejo and our many friends for their cooperation in making it possible for this newspaper to be published.

It is our sole desire that a colored newspaper in Vallejo will occupy a vital position in the effort to establish and maintain friendly and harmonious racial relations. We feel that a newspaper can be of enormous assistance in developing a positive program of information, features and editorials designed to improve racial relations and inculcate a better living standard through our editorials and features.

We are endeavored not only to print unbiasedly the important happenings as we see it but also to encourage and perfect the gift of expression in all interested in journalism. There are so many young men and women who are talented and desire to prove their ability if only given a chance. Some do not have the initiative to go forward and others have been deprived of the opportunity.

Arthur W. Scott, Bus. Mgr.-Adv. Director

It is interesting to observe the patriotic attitude of the publishers reflected in headlines like Three Things To Do: 1. Stay on the job. 2. Buy war bonds regularly. 3. Read the Vallejo Observer. It?s not surprising, considering that the majority of Vallejo?s black population was employed at Mare Island?s Naval Shipyard. But, while supporting the war, and reporting on troop movements and local and national black heros in the war, they also maintained a staunchly militant attitude about the rights of black folks at home. Features about struggles for black people to get equal representation in the unionsof which they were members of, the formation of the NAACP, speeches by Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Dubois. One poignant story about a young mixed couple in Texas points to the stark differences between then and now. A seventeen year old black boy was accused of the rape of a sixteen year old white girl, who professed to love him in court and in letters to the judge. Her pleas went unacknowledged, and the boy was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

We can and should celebrate our progress, and proclaim our desire never to return to the same sort of practices that sent a young boy to prison for the crime of falling in love. But there is a bittersweet note to all progress. I don?t actually know the answer to why the paper is no longer published today, but I suspect that it went the same way as many black organizations of the time. It probably disappeared with integration. Sure it was great that Jackie Robinson opened the door to a new day in sports, but what happened to the black baseball league and the culture and society that surrounded it? On October 31, 1945 the headline of The Vallejo Observer read ?LOCAL NAACP AWAITS HOME OFFICE?S MOVE. FEDERAL TERRACE TO REMAIN WHITE.? The Vallejo Housing Authority?s move to exclude black people from this local housing project, was one good reason for a black newspaper?s existence at the time. They were much more likely to put a story like that on the cover, and follow it through to its conclusion. But what happened? It seems ironic that Federal Terrace is now Section 8 housing that is almost exclusively populated by black people. Did the civil rights movement negate the need for a black publication?

I don?t think so, but in the race to be included, perhaps the benefits of exclusively black organizations were not appreciated as much as they might have been at the time. A letter to the editor in the first issue, written by Geo S. Walker, who I suspect was white, stated that he believed ?such a publication also will be of benefit to ALL the people of this community.? I think he was getting at the idea that the more we know about each other, the less there is to fear or hate, a sentiment that is as true today as it was then. While they proclaimed on every front page ?Dedicated to the Greatest Good of the Community? we proclaim ?Fulfilling the Promise of Diversity.? Perhaps the slight difference is a reflection of the times in which we live. We recognize that the struggle for equality continues. We recognize that integrated schools haven?t necessarily provided any of our children with better educations. We struggle not to be overwhelmed or overlooked by a ?good old boy? taking-care-of-business attitude that still excludes diversity.

If anyone reading this has more information about The Vallejo Observer or a story to tell about Vallejo?s history, we would be very happy to hear from you, and and as always to publish your Letter to the Editor in our Speak Out! section. Please join our celebration of black history at Listen & Be Heard Poetry Caf? on Saturday, February 11. It will start at 11am with a free acoustic jam hosted by Mica Lee Williams. The festivities continue from 6-8pm with a free artist?s reception for O?neal Turner. You can express yourself during our free open mic from 8-9pm, and then sit back and enjoy the comedy by local comedian D.C. Ervin and others, followed by a jazz concert with The Talons. The price of admission after 9pm will be $10.

Wishing each of you Peace and Poetry.

The Art of Living

Back in 1945, there was a newspaper published in Vallejo called The Vallejo Observer. The first issue was published on Friday, March 30, 1945. The publisher?s pledge was on the front page. The publisher was Arthur W. Scott. The editor of the first issue was Frank S. Shipp. It was a ?black? publication, thriving on Vallejo?s relationship with Mare Island and the servicemen who worked there. The Vallejo Observer featured mostly national stories and some local society type articles. A headline about a local event was featured when someone notable came to town. Some of us might be able to look back nostalgically to when the paper was delivered by a boy you knew, on a bike. Back then the newspaper did not compete with the World Wide Web as a source for the news. But even today, the newspaper remains one of the most engaging of mediums. There is nothing quite like your morning paper. It probably becomes a little greasy from the bit of butter on your fingers. Maybe you spill a little coffee on it. You can let the radio fade to the background of your subconscious mind and just get into your newspaper. You can turn the pages without getting shuffled from one link to another in search of the information you actually want, or might not even know you want yet, until you come across it on the next page, staring back at you like a surprise.

The newspaper is really a document of the art of living. None of us really has a handle on how we are changing, but take one look at those old newspapers and it is very clear that we are indeed changing all the time. The newspaper stays in touch with the pulse of a community, making its work the documentation of how we live, and why we do the things we do over and over again.

The routines set up by deadlines contribute to the sensitivity that newspapers have to social conventions. Many of our most important events and experiences happen, for obvious reasons, after business hours. So a newspaper must become familiar with the social calendar and work within its boundaries. These are the things that make life interesting, make you want to turn the page, and see what else there is that can surprise and delight you, or inform you about something relevant to you. You didn?t know, and might have no other way of making the discovery. You can tune out the TV, keep your sticky bun fingers off your keyboard, and unfold the mystery of a fresh newspaper, one page at a time. Your friendly local reporter was there, documenting the art of living in your place and time.

The art of living in high school. The art of living with pollution. The art of living with regret. The art of living Free. The art of living for a cause. The art of living for yourself. The art of living one more day. The art of living together. The art of living single. The art of cooking for one. The art of cooking for two. The art of cooking for an extended family. The art that is your garden. The art in your garden. The art in your heart. The art of Love.

Then there is the art of living black. The art of living black has been beat into the streets of Vallejo by the heels of service men and workmen and bluesmen, and now the professionals of all sorts, and painters and sculptors and photographers and other exhibiting artists in search of the holy grail of an affordable artist?s studio.

The Richmond Arts Center has included in its Art of Living Black 2006, (now a ten year old event) two satellite exhibitions in Vallejo, at Ethnic Notions Gallery on Georgia Street, (newly transplanted from Benicia), and The Fetterly Gallery on Sonoma Boulevard in the Vallejo Shopping Plaza. You?ll find Michelle Snyder?s take on the exhibition on page five. If you venture in to the back of the shopping plaza, you?ll find the Fetterly Gallery, part of the Vallejo Community Arts Foundation, next to the Tae Kwon Do School. Take a look at the exhibition and write an old fashioned letter to the editor about your take on the art there. Then come downtown to the Ethnic Notions Gallery, across from the Georgia Street Plaza, (on your way down to the historic Vallejo/Mare Island waterfront.) Then come by Listen & Be Heard Poetry Caf?, read the paper, pen a letter to the editor about your experience while you enjoy a hot drink, and drop it in our mailbox before you leave.

The Art of Living Black 2006
Featuring artwork by over 100 artists
January 24 – March 19, 2006, Richmond Art Center
Artist?s Talks: Saturday, February 18, 2 pm
The group exhibition at RAC includes artwork by over 100 emerging and established artists, with additional work by the three Jan Hart-Schuyers Artistic Achievement Award recipients: Raymond L. Haywood, Michael Johnson and Orlonda Uffre.

Richmond Memorial Auditorium
Saturday & Sunday, March 4 & 5, 11 am – 5 pm
Richmond Center Civic Center Plaza
Macdonald Avenue and 25th Street
Various Bay Area locations
Saturday & Sunday, March 11 & 12, 11 am – 5 pm
The Art Tour will take place over two consecutive weekends. The first weekend (March 4 & 5) over 50 artists will display and sell their work at the Richmond Convention Center?s Memorial Auditorium. The second weekend (March 11 & 12) participating artists invite the public to visit their studios at locations throughout the Bay Area. Artworks for sale include paintings, sculptures, jewelry and ceramics.

Barnes & Noble Bookstore (Jack London Square, Oakland), Craft and Cultural Arts Gallery (Oakland) Ethnic Notions (Vallejo), Fetterly Gallery (Vallejo). Joyce Gordon Gallery (Oakland), San Pablo Art Gallery (San Pablo), Sargent Johnson Gallery (San Francisco), Women?s Cancer Resource Center (Oakland)