The history of African-American music is long and complex. Coming out of the dark days of the slavery era, music by African-American musicians and composers in the twentieth century has been joyful, innovative and emotionally charged. In 2016, Barack Obama stated that African-American musicians have helped the United States “to dance, to express our faith through song, to march against injustice, and to defend our country’s enduring promise of freedom and opportunity for all.” Read more about Obama’s love for music in this post from Vibe.
In this blog post, we’ve drawn together five of our favourite musicians in celebration of African-American Music Appreciation Month.
1. Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong, known as “Satchmo” or “Satchelmouth”, really is the king of jazz. Multi-talented as both a solo trumpet performer and a scat singer, Armstrong changed the direction of jazz, developing group improvisation into a more performer-centric style, allowing for virtuosic solos.
In this scene from the 1956 film High Society, Bing Crosby introduces Louis Armstrong and his band to the members of upper-class white society at a ball, inviting him to show off his trumpet skills and scat singing. Although there’s still a very clear divide between the black and white characters, the clip shows how Armstrong had become such a household name by 1956 that he was invited to play himself in one of the most popular movies of the decade.
Find “Now You Has Jazz” and more songs from the Hollywood movies in Puttin’ on the Ritz
2. Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald is known as the “First Lady of Song”, and for good reason. Hers are the definitive versions of some of the most famous songs written between the 1920s and 1950s. Known for her incredible scat singing, her renditions of quick numbers are as impressive as her emotional slow songs. She won thirteen Grammy awards, plus a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1957.
In Lullaby of Birdland, Ella shows off some of her most impressive scat singing. The title refers to Charlie Parker, also known as “Bird” or “Yardbird”, another highly influential African-American jazz composer and saxophonist.
Find “Lullaby of Birdland” and more of Ella’s classics in Anything Goes
3. Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole has a voice that is truly unforgettable. He first came fame as a jazz pianist, but it was his soft baritone voice that won over the hearts of so many of his fans. In 1956, he began hosting The Nat King Cole Show on American TV channel NBC, making him one of the first ever African-Americans to host a variety show on television.
A little inappropriate for June, but Nat King Cole is surely best-known for his Christmas songs. Who can go through the festive season without turning to Nat singing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”?
Find “The Christmas Song” and other festive classics in Christmas Jazz
4. Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday was both a talented performer and a singer-songwriter. From very humble and troubled beginnings in Harlem and Baltimore, where she became a prostitute as a young girl, Holiday turned to singing and began to make a name for herself in night clubs. Her big break came in 1935 when she was 20 years old: she was invited to do a series of recordings with African-American jazz pianist Teddy Wilson, where she was given free rein to improvise. From there she became on the most popular performers around, but she sadly became addicted to drugs and died when she was only 44 years old.
“You Go To My Head” is one of Billie Holiday’s classic songs, the slow, swaying style perfectly pitched for her voice. “You go to my head, / And you linger like a haunting refrain / And I find you spinning round in my brain / Like the bubbles in a glass of champagne.”
Find “You Go To My Head” and other sultry jazz classics in Late Night Jazz
5. Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin lived from 1868/9 to 1917, and in that time he became one of the most famous ragtime composers ever. Born into a family of railroad workers (his father was an ex-slave), Joplin left to become an itinerant musician in the American South. In 1893, he found himself in Chicago at the time of the World Fair. Although the fair tried to exclude African-Americans, many visitors to the city discovered black culture in the saloons and institutions outside the fair, and Joplin found that music by him and his friends was very popular. The Chicago World Fair is generally credited as being fundamental to the spread of ragtime, and Joplin was at the heart of this.
In 1899, he published his “Maple Leaf Rag”, bringing him both fame and success. The piece would be influential for a whole generation of ragtime composers, and remains one of the most loved ragtime works to this day.
Find “Maple Leaf Rag” and other works by Joplin in Ragtime Classics