Black Genius: Inspirational Portraits of African-American Leaders

Black Genius: Inspirational Portraits of African-American Leaders

by Dick Russell


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Intimate, in-depth portraits, interviews, and essays of America's black leaders—from the founding of the nation and Frederick Douglass to the 2008 presidential race and Barack Obama. Each figure is interconnected with the next, exploring themes of family and intergenerational community, spirituality, and diligence, activism, and struggle. These remarkable portraits reveal the true spirit of the American pioneers who forged much of the heart of this nation, but whose achievements have been largely overlooked.

New York Times bestselling author Dick Russell examines the lives of musicians, civil rights leaders, philosophers, writers, and actors including Duke Ellington, Will Marion Cook, Louis Armstrong, Wynton Marsalis, Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Romare Bearden. Concluding with a list of sources and suggested reading, this fascinating and vibrant look at American history is a must for any collection.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781510767850
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 03/15/2022
Pages: 552
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 6.00(d)

About the Author

Dick Russell is the author of thirteen books, including four New York Times best-sellers with former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura. A veteran investigative journalist, his Eye of the Whale was named a "Best Book of the Year" by three major newspapers. Splitting his time between Boston, Massachusetts, and Los Angeles, California, Russell's most recent published work is Climate In Crisis with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

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Ancestors — Ellington's Mentor: Will Marion Cook

Go out and up! Our souls and eyes Shall follow thy continuous rise Our ears shall list thy story From bards who from thy root shall spring And proudly tune their lyres to sing Of Ethiopia's glory.

— Paul Laurence Dunbar, "An Ode to Ethiopia"

It was 1893, thirty years since Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. The World's Columbian Exposition, a celebration to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America, was being held in Chicago. Before it was over that summer, nearly twenty-eight million people would attend. Among them was Frederick Douglass, the onetime escaped slave whose great oratory had inspired the Abolitionist movement. Now, at seventy-five, he was a gray eminence.

Accompanying Douglass was his twenty-two-year-old grandson Joseph. While both his father and grandfather played amateur violin, Joseph was well on his way to classical mastery of the instrument. Also at the Exposition was another violin prodigy, twenty-four-year-old Will Marion Cook. He and Joseph were close friends. Born on January 27, 1869, Cook had displayed early musical talent and begun studying violin at Ohio's Oberlin College when he was only fifteen. Frederick Douglass, Cook's hero, had later sponsored him at a church concert in their mutual hometown of Washington, D.C. The affair had generated enough funds for Cook to complete his schooling. For two years he had studied in Berlin under the world-renowned violinist Josef Joachim. Then he had directed a chamber orchestra which toured the Eastern seaboard.

Something appeared to be stirring in the country since the Civil War. True, black minstrel troupes remained the vogue for white audiences. But the nation's most popular railroad song was a ballad about a black, 220-pound, "steel driving" man named John Henry. The Fisk and Hampton Jubilee Singers, groups of black university students, had been acclaimed on American and European tours that introduced the spirituals and folksongs of their people. Black concert singers and instrumentalists were beginning to appear on numerous stages. At the Chicago World's Fair, there would be something else: a lively new syncopated piano music called ragtime.

Still, the hopes that came with the post-Civil War constitutional amendments granting African-Americans full equality of citizenship and voting rights had been dashed. The Compromise of 1877 withdrew federal troops from the South and returned power to the states. By the time of the 1893 exposition, "Jim Crow" laws in the South enforced segregation in the areas of education, housing, transportation, and recreation.

So Frederick Douglass had considerable misgivings about the "Colored American Day" that Will Marion Cook had successfully convinced the Chicago fair to promote as a showcase for young African-American talent. Still, Douglass agreed to preside at a formal program. While his grandson Joseph and Cook stood alongside another of their friends, the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, Douglass began reading from a prepared text on "The Race Problem in America." A sizeable crowd was gathered in Festival Hall. When some white men in the back began interrupting Douglass with derisive comments, he finally tossed his papers aside and launched into an impromptu speech.

"Men talk of the Negro problem," Douglass told the assembled. "There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution. ... We Negroes love our country. We fought for it. We ask only that we be treated as well as those who fought against it."

When Douglass concluded his hour-long oration, his grandson and Cook performed a duet of Cook's first composition. Their friend Dunbar read from his poetry. The event was a success. Joseph Douglass would go on to tour for over three decades around the country and, in 1914, become the first violinist to make recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Paul Laurence Dunbar would be lauded by scholar/activist W. E. B. Du Bois as "the undoubted laureate of the race."

Fate had something else in mind for Will Marion Cook. In 1895, he was invited to play a concert at New York's Carnegie Hall. One press review described him as "the greatest colored violinist in the world." Cook took offense.

Author and music historian Albert Murray recounts what happened: "The story that Duke Ellington heard, and told me, was that Cook went down to the newspaper and said, 'Who's the music critic? You say I'm the greatest colored violinist. I'm the greatest violinist.' Cook figured, if that's how they're going to label him, he'd put his violin away. He just wouldn't play anymore."

Instead, Cook turned to composing and later conducting. He would soon fuse his classical training with a whole new sound that reverberates to this day. After the Chicago exposition, Cook had studied for two years at New York's National Conservatory of Music, the Juilliard School of its time. The Conservatory's Director during that period was the famed Bohemian composer Anton Dvorák. Through Cook and another student, Harry T. Burleigh, Dvorák was introduced to African-American music. His next three symphonies would employ themes based upon Negro spirituals and folksongs.

"These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil," Dvorák stated. "They are American. They are the folksongs of America, and your composers must turn to them. In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music."

Dvorák's influence extended to a Jewish student, Rubin Goldmark, who later headed the department of composition at Juilliard between 1924 and 1936. Goldmark's best-known composition was A Negro Rhapsody. His own students included George Gershwin. Among other works, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess bear clear derivations from black folk music.

Cook later wrote of these pivotal years with Dvorák in the 1890s: "A few earnest Negro music students felt as did Dvorák. They studied the man, so broad, genial and human, carefully and thoroughly." The challenge taken up by Cook and Harry T. Burleigh was to propel Dvorák's counsel a step further.

Burleigh set out to preserve the spirituals, as he put it, "in harmonies that belong to modern methods of tonal progression without robbing the melodies of their racial flavor." He became the first arranger of spirituals as art songs for the solo voice. These included Deep River, My Lord What a Morning, There's a Balm in Gilead, Were You There When They Crucified My Lord, Every Time I Feel the Spirit, and Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho. Blessed with a marvelous voice himself, Burleigh was a renowned church soloist for fifty years.

Meanwhile, Will Marion Cook became passionate about exploring and developing the possibilities of the African-American vernacular sound. He would write: "There was a good reason for the instantaneous hit made by 'ragtime.' The public was tired of sing-song, samey, monotonous, mother, sister, father sentimental songs. 'Ragtime' offered unique rhythms, curious groupings of words and melodies which gave the zest of unexpectedness. Many Negroes ... wrote some of the most celebrated songs of the day."

Inspired by Dvorák and ragtime's ascendancy, Cook got together with Paul Laurence Dunbar. They teamed to tell the story of how a dance craze called the Cakewalk — as popular in its day as the Charleston or the Twist would later be — had originated in Louisiana during the 1880s.

Cook remembered: "We had two dozen bottles of beer, a quart of whiskey, and we took my brother's porterhouse steak, cut it up with onions and red peppers and ate it raw. Without a piano or anything but the kitchen table, we finished all the songs, all the libretto and all but a few bars of the ensembles by four o'clock the next morning."

Their musical comedy, Clorindy, or the Origin of the Cakewalk, was ready for the stage in 1898. They were told by New York promoters that audiences wouldn't listen to "Negroes singing Negro opera." Finally they got a spot at Broadway's Casino Roof Garden as an afterpiece for the main show. "When I entered the orchestra pit, there were only about fifty people on the Roof," Cook recalled. "When we finished the opening chorus, the house was packed to suffocation. What had happened was that the show downstairs in the Casino Theatre was just letting out. The big audience heard those heavenly Negro voices and took to the elevators. At the finish of the opening chorus, the applause and cheering were so tumultuous that I simply stood there transfixed."

With the final chorus, the crowd cheered the twenty-six participants for more than ten minutes. Cook rejoiced: "Negroes were at last on Broadway, and there to stay. Gone was the uff-dah of the minstrel! Gone the Massa Linkum stuff! We were artists and we were going a long, long way...."

Cook's composition from the show, Darktown Is Out Tonight, swept the country. The doors to all the music publishers opened. When two young brothers from Florida showed up in the city, Cook helped get published their Under the Bamboo Tree. They were James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson. Among their many accomplishments together, they would produce two successful operettas with all-black casts on Broadway and edit the first anthologies of Negro spirituals. They were but the first of many discoveries made by Will Marion Cook.

For several years, Cook served as composer-in-chief and musical director for the George Walker and Bert Williams vaudeville comedy team. Their performance of Cook's piece In Dahomey made King Edward VII laugh so hard that they became overnight the most popular comedians ever to tour the British Isles. Some years later, a Broadway producer told Cook that the public wouldn't stand for seeing Bert Williams appear in a play alongside the white actress Fanny Brice. Cook persisted. A year later, it was standing-room-only when the pair appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies.

In 1905, Cook started his own band, originally known as the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. It became the first of its kind ever to tour the country. "His ambition," says Albert Murray, "was to use the music indigenous to him as a basis for the nation's music. Cook was processing folk-level idiomatic expression to a more sophisticated level. Doing what Dvorák said to do. What Dvorák did not point out was the possibility that Americans would develop their own vocabulary, grammar and syntax for stylizing everyday raw experience into aesthetic musical statement. When Cook's orchestra came up with a syncopated sound, some called it jazz."

Where did the word come from? One legend tells of a wandering black musician in the Mississippi River Valley, whose name was Jasbo Brown. He made his trombone "talk" by putting a derby hat and later a tin can at its mouth. Whenever he played the honky-tonk cafés, the crowd would shout: "More, Jasbo! More, Jas, more!"

As James A. Rogers wrote in 1925 in an anthology called The New Negro: "In its elementals, jazz has always existed. It is in the Indian war-dance, the Highland fling, the Irish jig, the Cossack dance, the Spanish fandango, the Brazilian maxixe, the dance of the whirling dervish, the hula hula of the South Seas, the danse du ventre of the Orient, the carmagnole of the French Revolution, the strains of Gypsy music, and the ragtime of the Negro. Jazz proper, however, is something more than all these. It is a release of all the suppressed emotions at once, a blowing off of the lid, as it were....

"The true spirit of jazz is a joyous revolt from convention, custom, authority, boredom, even sorrow — from everything that would confine the soul of man and hinder its riding free on the air. The Negroes who invented it called their songs the 'Blues,' and they weren't capable of satire or deception. Jazz was their explosive attempt to cast off the blues and be happy, carefree happy, even in the midst of sordidness and sorrow. And that is why it has been such a balm for modern ennui, and has become a safety valve for modern machine-ridden and convention-bound society...."

In the autumn of 1918, Cook organized the New York Syncopated Orchestra. He had made a scouting tour in search of the finest possible musicians. Cook found one member in a restaurant in Chicago. This was Sidney Bechet, who would soon be acclaimed as jazz's greatest soprano saxophone player.

"Developed Negro music has just begun in America," Cook wrote in 1918. "The colored American is finding himself. He has thrown aside puerile imitations of the white man. He has learned that a thorough study of the masters gives knowledge of what is good and how to create. From the Russian he has learned to get his inspiration from within; that his inexhaustible wealth of folklore legends and songs furnish him with material for compositions that will establish a great school of music and enrich musical literature."

Nobody had ever before combined so many varieties of instruments, singers and styles. Cook's orchestra toured some of the biggest concert halls in America for four months. Then it took Europe by storm, doing a command performance at Buckingham Palace for England's King George V. Everywhere the forty-piece ensemble went, Cook combined standard concert pieces with music by black composers and spirituals sung a cappella. They did everything from Brahms to W. C. Handy's new St. Louis Blues and Memphis Blues.

Back in New York, in 1922 Cook created a new Clef Club Orchestra. It showcased Cook's arrangements on some of the earliest live broadcasts on the new medium of radio. The orchestra also formed the basis of a touring musical-show company. Two of its young members — Paul Robeson and Richard B. Harrison — would go on to become world-famous. In later years, Robeson recorded several numbers that he first performed with Cook.

W. C. Handy, known as "The Father of the Blues," said of Cook: "I had emulated our greatest conductors in the use of the baton, but when I saw Cook conducting the Clef Club of a hundred musicians and singers with no baton, when I saw him set the tempo with the sway of his body and develop perfect crescendos without a baton by the use of his opened and extended palms, he again was my ideal."

It is astonishing how many artists, white and black, received their baptism under Will Marion Cook. He took under his wing Harold Arlen, later the composer of Stormy Weather, Over the Rainbow, and many more popular standards. Cook so believed in the artistry of Ethel Waters that he persuaded stage producer Otto Kahn to back her show Africana. When a woman came looking to cast a "Negro revue" for a European tour, Cook insisted that she take on an unknown chorus girl. Within two months, all of Paris was at the feet of Josephine Baker.

Cook's son Mercer told this story in a memorial piece published shortly after his father's death:

"He found [Al] Jolson one evening playing in a third-rate vaudeville house.

"'What are you doing here, boy?' Dad asked. 'You're great! You belong on Broadway.'

"Then, according to Dad, Jolson's eyes filled with tears as he said, 'They won't give me a chance.'

"The next day, Dad had raved so much about his 'find,' that the Shuberts [theatrical producers in New York] looked Jolson over and signed him up, thus beginning a successful association which lasted more than a decade."

In 1927, The Jazz Singer, featuring Al Jolson in blackface, became the first sound motion picture.

Sitting in the Harlem apartment where he wrote such works as Stomping the Blues and Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie, Albert Murray is looking back on his early years on the outskirts of Mobile, Alabama. "I grew up singing Cook's songs," he says. "Our glee club used to do his Swing Along in assembly. It was a part of the high school education in the South. That's probably the first time I ever heard anything about swing."

Murray, now in his early eighties, reflects and continues: "A hundred years after Cook's time with Dvorák, Wynton [Marsalis] and I are sitting up in Avery Fisher Hall setting up this first lecture about 'What Is Jazz.' I'm reading to Wynton what Dvorák said, and we're talking about Cook. Of course, Wynton had started out making a name for himself as a European concert hall-type musician. From the day we met, I had the impression he could relate to what I was saying. He could see the actual dynamics of extension, elaboration, and refinement — and see how Duke [Ellington] had done it.

"Duke was a guy who was always searching. You can see the transition in some of his pieces, from pop to fine art. Depends on how they play it. He could do Sophisticated Lady as a magnificent pop vocal, or take it as an instrumental to another level of artistic subtlety and profundity. That's what Cook was interested in. He took the time to tell Duke about that. And Duke was very responsive."


Excerpted from "Black Genius"
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Copyright © 2009 Skyhorse Publishing, Inc..
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Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Page,
1 - Ancestors — Ellington's Mentor: Will Marion Cook,
2 - Albert Murray and Louis Armstrong,
3 - The Craft of Ralph Ellison,
4 - From Duke Ellington to Wynton Marsalis,
5 - Variations on a Theme: Romare Bearden, Artist,
6 - Ancestors — Meta Warrick Fuller, Sculptor,
7 - The Painters: Loïs Mailou Jones and Jacob Lawrence,
8 - All the World's Their Stage: Paul Robeson and Ira Aldridge,
9 - Gordon Parks: A Lens on Humanity,
10 - Ancestors — Mary McLeod Bethune, Educator,
11 - A Teacher's Mission: Elma Lewis,
12 - The Philosophers: Cornel West and the Du Bois/Locke Legacy,
13 - Toni Morrison: Nobel Prize for Literature,
14 - Timeless Voices, Parallel Realities: James Baldwin and Frederick Douglass,
15 - Ancestors — Lewis Latimer and the Early Black Inventors,
16 - The Laser Physicist and the Computer Wizard: Earl and Alan Shaw,
17 - Bob Moses and the Algebra Project,
18 - Ancestors — The Astronomer/Surveyor: Benjamin Banneker,
19 - The Architects: Charles and Cheryl McAfee,
20 - Ancestors — The Physicians: Louis Tompkins Wright and Jane Cooke Wright,
21 - Byllye Avery and the National Black Women's Health Project,
22 - Ancestors — Sojourner Truth and the Nineteenth-Century Visionaries,
23 - Howard Thurman, Benjamin Mays, and the Martin Luther King Legacy,
Notes on Sources,
Selected Bibliography,

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