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Black America on Stage at Carnegie Hall

Throughout its history as one of the world’s most distinguished music venues, Carnegie Hall has frequently positioned itself at the forefront of advocacy for performers of diverse backgrounds. This beautiful Google Culture exhibit, entitled “Black History at Carnegie Hall”, draws from the hall’s own extensive archives to illuminate the rich heritage of courage and activism it has demonstrated within arts presenting.

According to the archives, the story of performers of color at Carnegie begins with Madame Sissirietta Jones, known as the Black Patti—a sobriquet referencing Adelina Patti, a popular Italian soprano of the time. In February of 1893, Sissirietta performed a selection of operatic favorites in Carnegie’s main hall, concluding with Charles Gounod’s classic, Bach-flavored setting of the Ave Maria. She was joined by several other soloists of color, as well as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an a cappella choir that remains active today at Fisk University. Here’s a 1909 recording and a 2016 recording for comparison.

Roland Hayes, a Fisk graduate and the first classical singer of color to record on a major label, performed at Carnegie Hall twice in 1924. In addition to a solo recital in February of that year, he sang Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Serge Koussevitsky. Hayes’ tenor garnered superb reviews and, in short order, began to fill concert halls up and down the East Coast. He performed at Carnegie nearly 40 times over the course of his career. Baritone Paul Robeson would also become a Carnegie fixture and appeared there for the first time shortly after Hayes, in 1929. His farewell concert, in 1958, was recorded and released on the Vanguard label. Listen to a selection from that record here, J.S. Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden.

Though many associate the first jazz at Carnegie Hall with clarinetist Benny Goodman’s sensational feature appearance there in 1938, earlier iterations of swing had already made it to that stage. As early as 1912, James Reese Europe and his Europe Clef Club Orchestra presented “A Concert of Negro Music” which included only selections by black composers, including Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Harry T. Burleigh. Violinist and composer Will Marion Cook played with the Clef Club group, but it wasn’t his first time at Carnegie Hall—he gave a solo recital there in 1895 while he was still studying with Antonin Dvorak at the National Conservatory.

W.C. Handy, widely labeled the “Father of the Blues”—really, the father of collecting and notating the formerly oral tradition of the blues—also preceded Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall. His Orchestra and huge cadre of Jubilee Singers performed there in April of 1928, featuring Fats Waller on organ. That momentous concert was recreated in its entirety near its 50th anniversary in 1978, featuring W.C.’s 78-year old daughter Katherine Handy, who sang her father’s famous “St. Louis Blues” on both the original program and its semicentennial version.

By the time Benny Goodman led his big band and quintet in “The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert”, black music was no stranger to that hallowed stage. The concert, by all accounts, was a huge success—during “Sing, Sing, Sing” alone, that iconic tune’s first ever performance, famous solos by drummer Gene Krupa (timestamp 3:01), trumpeter Harry James (5:30), Goodman (7:30), and pianist Jess Stacy (9:28) all demonstrate prodigious musicality and a remarkable rapport with the seated audience.

However, the troubled history of the improvised swing music of the ‘30s is mirrored by Goodman’s role, as a white bandleader, in bringing it to the concert hall. Though vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s appearance with Goodman’s quintet marks likely the first mixed-race ensemble appearance at Carnegie Hall, the way in which critics described this historic cameo is telling. The Saturday Evening Post reported that “Benny found an unknown Negro musician, brought him across the color line into the big time. Lionel Hampton went on to the top, but he’s never forgotten his debt.” Benny Goodman was positioned as the white champion of a music that should have been the domain of black musicians, like Hampton, to present and benefit from. Understandably impartial to such thorny issues of cultural appropriation, it was still a bold cultural step for Carnegie Hall, home of serious music, to host Goodman’s popular dance hall ensembles that night.

Carnegie Hall’s pioneering legacy of advocacy reinforces its reputation as both a concert stage and a public forum. None other than Frederick Douglass, the distinguished abolitionist, gave the introduction for Sissirietta Jones and the Fisk Singers’ engagement. Another post-Reconstruction orator, Booker T. Washington, spoke at the hall no fewer than 17 times around the turn of the 20th century. Marcus Garvey also made several appearances in the early 1920s.

In short, the venue whose Google Maps directions should just read “Practice!” has honored that edict across the board for more than a century, prioritizing discipline and verve among performers and speakers alike above issues of petty discrimination and intolerance.

Tuskegee Institute faculty with Andrew Carnegie, Tuskegee, Alabama Shown from left to right, seated in front row: R.C. Ogden; Mrs. Booker T. Washington (Margaret James Murray Washington); Booker T. Washington; Andrew Carnegie; and an unidentified person.  1906 Frances Benjamin Johnston- Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a10455.

Josh Davidoff, 2017 media intern at WFMT, and senior at Wesleyan University.

Please visit our Carnegie Hall features again, there are more posts to come!


One Response to Black America on Stage at Carnegie Hall

  1. Ken Deveney says:

    You asked for our Carnegie Hall stories. I lived in NY in 1960-62 and sang with the Canby Singers. I wrote the following Higgeldy-piggeldy:
    Edward T. Canby and
    Group are perorming at
    Carnegie Hall–
    Well, the Recital Hall,
    Music by josquin and
    Barber et al.

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