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"Porgy & Bess: An American Voice"

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"Porgy & Bess: An American Voice"

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Black and white photograph from 1935. A handsome, solidly built gentleman wears his hat cocked at an angle. Snugly packed into a custom-made suit, with silk tie; what a mensch. There is a small handkerchief peering neatly out of his breast pocket. The eyes are relaxed, and on closer inspection convey a beautiful depth under the large, arching eyebrows. He has a wide smile, with dimples over the musculature. Looks like he's just finished making some sort of a remark to the person holding the camera. Appears to be standing in front of a new automobile--a Lincoln, perhaps. The photo has this inscription: "To Eva with best wishes for everything swell. From your friend and pal, Thomas 'Fats' Waller."

I'm holding this relic in my hands, sitting in a tiny office with William Shea, who staffs a multimedia archive which deserves to be nationally celebrated and supported. Shea is explaining the various collections which live together in 106 West Hall, at the southeast corner of the U-M Diag. Tucked away underneath CAAS (Center for Afro-American Studies), Professor James Standifer and William Shea maintain a small goldmine of cultural artifacts and documentation.

The Exhibit Hall of the Eva Jesse Afro-American Music Collection has photos, posters, programs, letters, paintings, African musical instruments, and sculpture, including a beautiful painted bust of Othello. A glass display case houses sheet music, record albums and a baritone saxophone which belonged to time-honored Kansas City bandleader Andy Kirk, who hired pianist Mary Lou Williams to write arrangements for his Clouds of Joy Orchestra during the 1930s. Bill let me stick my hand in there and touch the bell of the horn! I felt like I was being admitted into a reliquary for a special blessing - and this is one hip sanctum. Sacred space, as far as I'm concerned.

Eva Jesse, who lived in Ann Arbor from 1972 until she passed in the early '90s, was the original choral director for "Porgy and Bess" back in 1935. And she was involved in all subsequent major productions up through the 1960s. The archive she left includes some 300 panels of mounted memorabilia. Her collection vividly illustrates the lives of many of the greatest American performers and composers.

The Maxwell Reed 78 rpm phonograph record collection (3,0004,000 platters, many in near-mint condition), represents one view of the evolution of Afro-American music on record from the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s. Reed is a really interesting character--an Emeritus Professor of Mathematics who always liked to call me up when I was playing old Jazz on the radio--and his contribution is only beginning to be properly studied (by the Hon. James Dapogny and myself, among others). The possibility exists that I might air some of these sides on the Sunday Best program, (WEMU 89.1 FM), in the not-too-distant future. I'm as curious as you are.

James Standifer's Video Archive grew out of a suggestion made by master pianist and composer Eubie Blake during the late 1970s: Get in touch with all surviving Afro-American performers and musicians, especially the elderly, and interview them for posterity. Standifer did just that; he videotaped them backstage, in elevators, in nightclubs, in his own home. After many years of what must have been fascinating labor, the walls of the office are lined with video and audio tapes, clearly labeled and numbered. "An important archive in itself," says Shea, "and nothing quite like it exists that we've been able to find anywhere in the country."

The fourth major and most active element at this time is the "Porgy and Bess" project. "Porgy and Bess: An American Voice," a 90-minute documentary celebrating the evolution of George and Ira Gershwin's masterpiece, is the result of many years' research and production. It will be screened at the Michigan Theater on Sunday, January 25th, and will be televised on PBS (Channel 56) Wednesday, February 4th at 10 pm.

Now those Gershwin brothers left us quite a legacy in their own right; George's "I Got Rhythm" is literally the chordal infrastructure for much of the Swing music of the 1930s and early '40s. George hung out with the greatest musicians in Harlem; Fats Waller often had him over for dinner. "Porgy and Bess," as an operatic stage show, provides an interesting view of social evolution throughout six decades of American history. Shea points out: "In essence, the music hardly changed at all over the years, while the mannerisms, the characterizations, the language itself went through many transitions. The use of the word 'nigger' was thrown out during the 1940s. It was part of the libretto in '35, and quite commonly in use at that time. The cast members refused to sing it--got in touch with Ira Gershwin in the early '40s and told him so. He changed it at once. It has been expunged, and rightfully so.

"The audience changed, too; what they would see as proper, important, powerful, politically relevant, what constituted a putdown, what was something to cheer for; all these elements changed over time. The documentary illustrates this quite well. For a long time, Black intellectuals found 'Porgy' to be completely offensive, and it was only recognized as a period piece. It's based on DuBose Heyward's novel written in 1924; the setting is around 1900. It didn't sit well. Now people use it more to showcase Black talent," says Shea, and generally speaking the historical context seems to be in place, so there's perhaps less stigma attached to the work.

As we discussed "Porgy," my mind kept drifting back to Scott Joplin 's opera "Treemonisha," dating from 1910. Joplin positively tortured himself trying to get it published, let alone performed. He died a very frustrated man, trying to break the code of racism in the opera house. The heroine of the work gets her name from the fact that as an infant she was found beneath a tree. Not long ago, the Texas Opera people did a nice job with "Treemonisha"--I recommend to you the resultant recording. Listeners should be aware that while there are Ragtime elements in "Treemonisha," with the exception of certain Preludes, the Ring Play "Dance of the Corn Huskers" and the stunning finale "A Real Slow Drag," much of Joplin' s opus sounds like traditional European-American Opera. Any way, this was part of the precedent for "Porgy."

The clearest difference lies in the fact that many of the melodies from "Porgy and Bess" have become part of the bedrock of the Jazz repertoire. "Summertime" has been turned into spine-tingling testimony by everyone from Sidney Bechet to Janis Joplin (a good comparison!), and "It Aint Necessarily So" seems to be a worthy candidate for the National Anthem.

The grossest chapter in this documentary has got to be the Otto Preminger film of 1959, which has never been re-released. Not even on video. "The Gershwin family didn't like that production at all," says Shea. Despite the inclusion of Sidney Poitier, Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis, Jr., the slick musical arrangements of Andre Previn coupled with Preminger's insensitive "bombastic" approach made for a seriously deauthenticated product. Definitely the nadir of the story.

The rarest item I encountered in this archive was a small stack of sheet music from "De Organizer," a musical by James P. Johnson and Langston Hughes depicting the struggles of southern American laborers to get themselves a Union. Almost nothing remains of this short-lived stageshow. One suspects that J. Edgar Hoover personally had the whole production offed! (The only song I've ever heard from it is the hauntingly lovely and moving "Hungry Blues" sung by Anna Robinson with James P. Johnson's Orchestra in 1939.) This little trove of yellowed musical notation paper absolutely took my breath away, and Shea tells me Jim Dapogny had a similar reaction. Maybe this capable musician will be able to reconstruct at least part of the show so we can hear more of it.

The Afro-American Music Collection, so rich and varied, deserves to be better known, and must have monetary support if it is to continue. William Shea feels it should stay together and not get dissipated into some larger more generalized collection. "It's so easy to fall into relative shortsightedness," says Shea. "No collection comes together all at once. It took leadership, guts, lots of time and devotion. It must be seen as a long-term growth potential. The opportunity is here right now. Will they take it?"

And if diversity, that much abused word, means anything, anything at all, the University of Michigan and anyone who cares should get behind this archive and treat it like the treasure it surely is. These rarities must be preserved.


Eva Jesse, who lived in Ann Arbor from 1972 until she passed in the early '90s, was the original choral director for "Porgy and Bess" back in 1935. She was involved in all subsequent major productions up through the 1960s. The archive she left U-M includes some 300 panels of mounted memorabilia.


EDITOR'S NOTE: "Porgy and Bess: An American Voice" is a 90-minute documentary celebrating the evolution of George and Ira Gershwin's masterpiece opera, "Porgy and Bess." It will be televised on Wed., Feb. 4 on PBS (Channel 56) at 10 pm. It will also be shown on Sunday, Jan. 25 at 7 pm on the big screen at the Michigan theater, 603 e. Liberty (668-8480).


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