Saturday, January 14, 2017

Taking the Stage: Opening of the Museum of African-American History (ABC-TV, aired January 12, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago ABC-TV presented a fascinating if flawed program called Taking the Stage, a ceremony marking the opening of the Museum of African-American History in Washington, D.C. and presenting an overview of African-American culture. It’s happening at a weird juncture in American history, in which the first African-American U.S. President is about to leave office and his replacement won largely by running an openly racist campaign appealing to white resentments against “others” in general and Latinos and Muslims in particular. The show got some aspects right but screwed up on others, and if they had programmed it in a way to show the history of Black American culture instead of just throwing around bits of it seemingly at random, it would have worked better both as education and entertainment. It began with a brief segment showing some unidentified people singing bits of songs by James Brown, and then catapulted us back into the swing era as a troupe including Jean Baptiste and tap dancer Samion Glover did a nice version of Cab Calloway’s 1939 hit “The Jumpin’ Jive.” Then Glover and Patti Austin did Billy Strayhorn’s 1941 “Take the ‘A’ Train,” which became the theme song of Strayhorn’s long-time employer Duke Ellington. After that came the evening’s first miscalculation; they told the famous story of how Marian Anderson was banned from performing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. in 1939 by the Daughters of the American Revolution, and how Eleanor Roosevelt, incensed by the bigotry, not only resigned her own DAR membership but arranged for Anderson to perform on the National Mall. So how did they commemorate this event? Did they get one of the many fine African-American classical singers who have followed through the breakdown of the barriers that confronted Anderson and Leontyne Price and had major careers in opera and classical song, and have one of them perform a Schubert Lied? No-o-o-o-o, they dragged out Mary J. Blige, a perfectly fine singer but in a quite different sort of music, and had her sing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” (a.k.a. “America,” a.k.a. the British national anthem “God Save the Queen”) not the way Anderson would have done it, but in all-out “worrying” soul style.

After that they did a blues segment in which Gary Clark, Jr. did two verses of the Muddy Waters classic “Rollin’ Stone” (though not, alas, the final verse that gave the song its title and inspired an early-1960’s British blues cover band to call themselves The Rolling Stones) and the current members of the Alvin Ailey dance troupe did a portion of Revelations, Ailey’s signature dance, set to choral versions of spirituals like “Wade in the Water” and “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” I liked this better than I probably would have if I hadn’t seen a recent PBS tribute to Ailey that presented Revelations complete; at least that gave the excerpt context and let me know what I was seeing and what its artistic point was! Then Dave Grohl, the evening’s only white performer, did a James Brown song called “Love Downtown” with a Black funk ensemble called Troublefunk. The commentator identified Brown and Aretha Franklin as the people who took gospel music out of the Black church and broke it to the secular market — which had me thinking, “Excu-u-u-use me? Haven’t you people heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe? Dinah Washington? Ray Charles?” Indeed, if I had been planning this show a tribute to Rosetta Tharpe would have been mandatory — and I know exactly whom I would have invited to provide it: Brittany Howard, the heavy-set Black singer, songwriter and guitarist of the modern band Alabama Shakes. After that came Fantasia, a modern-day soul singer doing a good cover of Aretha Franklin’s early Atlantic Records hit “Dr. Feelgood,” and then Usher did a surprisingly good James Brown tribute including “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (a record I remember admiring in the 1960’s especially for how tightly Brown’s band played — at a time when so many white rock bands played sloppily and seemed unconcerned with ensemble, it was a revelation to hear Black bands like Brown’s and Ike and Tina Turner’s play tightly and with well-rehearsed ensemble precision), “I Feel Good,” “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “Sex Machine.” Usher doesn’t move as well as Brown did — who does? — but he has a good enough voice, a strong sense of rhythm and enough dance moves he was able to pull it off.

Then they flashed back to the 1930’s and 1940’s again and dragged out Christina Aguilera (Latina instead of Black, not that it mattered), Cynthia Ariola (forgive me if I’ve got some of the names garbled) and Renée Alice Goldsberry for a tribute to the Black jazz-pop singers Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne. Cynthia did “God Bless the Child” in a version that, like Mary J. Blige’s “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” threw all the intense soul vocal gimmicks into a song that not only doesn’t need them but loses when Billie’s chilling understatement is replaced by faux “intensity.” (Recently I looked over my blog post about the early-1970’s Liza Minnelli TV special Liza with a “Z” in which she did “God Bless the Child” just as wretchedly; Liza made it sound like one of her mom’s songs and Cynthia made it sound like an Aretha Franklin vehicle.) Renée did Sarah Vaughan’s big hit “Misty” (an Erroll Garner jazz instrumental for which lyrics were later added; still later Vaughan’s beautifully eloquent version was covered — and butchered — by Johnny Mathis; the modern jazz rhythms Garner had built into the song and Vaughan understood instinctively were totally beyond Mathis) and did it quite well. Christina Aguilera did Lena Horne’s (and Ethel Waters’ before her!) signature song, “Stormy Weather,” and did it well enough except for an odd truncation of the lyric (all too many of the AABA pop songs performed that night were shorn of the second “A,” with the result that Aguilera’s “Stormy Weather” had an awkward patch where she sang two lines that clearly were supposed to rhyme but didn’t because of the editing). 

Then there was a brief clip of Chuck Berry standing up in the back of a Cadillac convertible singing “Johnny B. Goode,” and then the show swerved into non-musical territory with Tom Hanks and General Colin Powell paying tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, the Black pilots in World War II, and presenting their seven surviving members. After that a modern-day singer named Neo (obviously not the one who fought the Matrix!) presented a Michael Jackson tribute consisting of “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and “Earth Song” — Neo didn’t do the kind of justice to Jackson’s dance moves that Usher had to James Brown’s but his reading of “Earth Song” was surprisingly passionate and evocative of Jackson’s original. After that came one of the most impressive parts of the show, as Dave Chappelle did a segment on Black comedy and, instead of using modern performers to impersonate the pioneers of it, actually showed film clips of Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Nipsey Russell, Dick Gregory, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy at their peaks. Using that approach to the jazz greats — showing them in actual film clips instead of misbegotten “tributes” by modern artists — would have measurably improved this show. Then came one of the few spots on the program in which one of the greats of African-American soul music got to pay tribute to herself: Gladys Knight came on and did “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Her voice isn’t what it was when she made the original records but it’s still a beautiful and powerful instrument, and it was lovely to hear her. Then John Legend came on and did a rather limp version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”

After that the show did a modern-jazz tribute that consisted of one artist, Herbie Hancock, playing his 1962 hit “Watermelon Man,” first on a Fazioli grand piano (though the name “Fazioli” makes me think that a waiter should be asking me whether I want marinara or alfredo sauce with it), then on a Kronos synthesizer and finally on an Ax-Synth, that odd instrument that puts a keyboard into something shaped like a guitar so keyboard players can come out from behind their instruments and rock out front and center the way guitarists do. I would have preferred if the entire performance had been Hancock at the piano, but the way they did it at least offered a nice capsule history of the jazz tradition as it’s been influenced by rock and electronica over the 55 years since Hancock wrote and first recorded “Watermelon Man.” Then came the inevitable hip-hop segment — which intriguingly paid tribute to people like Chuck D. of Public Enemy and Grandmaster Melle Mel, whose socially conscious rap has long since vanished and been replaced by the racist, sexist, anti-Gay, pro-criminal, pro-capitalist rap crap we’ve all become too familiar with — and it was astonishing to see the President of the United States, sitting in a box with his wife, chanting along with Chuck D. as he rapped, “Fight the power!” (Of course, within six days Barack Obama will no longer be President and he’ll be back to fighting the power instead of being it.) Then there was an ill-advised gospel tribute which for some reason focused on the slower, more hymn-like kinds of gospel until veteran Shirley Caesar came out at the end and rocked out on a modern-day variant of the old spiritual “Heav’n, Heav’n.” The finale featured Stevie Wonder first doing a rather dull ballad called “Love In Need of Love Today” but then ending the evening with a righteous finale on “Higher Ground.” Taking the Stage could have been more sensitively done and more coherent, but as it stood it had some quite good music and made at least some of the points about African-American cultural history its producers clearly intended.