In the United States, African American and Italian cultures have been intertwined for more than a hundred years. From as early as nineteenth-century African American opera star Thomas Bowers—“The Colored Mario”—all the way to hip-hop entrepreneur Puff Daddy dubbing himself “the Black Sinatra,” the affinity between black and Italian cultures runs deep and wide. Once you start looking, you’ll find these connections everywhere. Sinatra croons bel canto over the limousine swing of the Count Basie band. Snoop Dogg deftly tosses off the line “I’m Lucky Luciano ’bout to sing soprano.” Like the Brooklyn pizzeria and candy store in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever, or the basketball sidelines where Italian American coaches Rick Pitino and John Calipari mix it up with their African American players, black/Italian connections are a thing to behold—and to investigate. In Flavor and Soul, John Gennari spotlights this affinity, calling it “the edge”—now smooth, sometimes serrated—between Italian American and African American culture. He argues that the edge is a space of mutual emulation and suspicion, a joyous cultural meeting sometimes darkened by violent collision. Through studies of music and sound, film and media, sports and foodways, Gennari shows how an Afro-Italian sensibility has nourished and vitalized American culture writ large, even as Italian Americans and African Americans have fought each other for urban space, recognition of overlapping histories of suffering and exclusion, and political and personal rispetto. Thus, Flavor and Soul is a cultural contact zone—a piazza where people express deep feelings of joy and pleasure, wariness and distrust, amity and enmity. And it is only at such cultural edges, Gennari argues, that America can come to truly understand its racial and ethnic dynamics.
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About the Author
John Gennari is associate professor of English and critical race and ethnic studies at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics, also published by the University of Chicago Press. He lives in South Burlington, Vermont, with his wife and their twin daughters.
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Flavor and Soul
Italian America at Its African American Edge
By John Gennari
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Italian Hot, Italian Cool
Frank Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1915, six years before the murder convictions — twelve years before the executions — of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Sacco and Vanzetti, a shoemaker and a fishmonger, Italian-born anarchists who believed fervently in a coming revolution on behalf of exploited workers, had been tried for the murders of a guard and paymaster at a factory in Braintree, Massachusetts. The 1921 trial and the long interval before their executions in 1927 took place in an atmosphere of intense hostility toward immigrants, especially those who held radical political views — this being the moment of the Russian Revolution and, in the United States, of a countervailing Red Scare. In 1924 a new federal law, the Johnson-Reed Act, imposed severe restrictions on US immigration, helping slow to a trickle the historic "great wave" in which, from 1880 to 1924, four million Italians, including Frank Sinatra's parents and many of their Hoboken neighbors, left Italy for America.
The vast majority of these immigrants were fleeing the grinding poverty (la miseria) of Sicily and the Italian South (mezzogiorno). Many had worked on large landed estates (latifundia) under conditions the African American former slaves Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington appraised as more brutal than those found on the plantations of the American South. In fact, after the Civil War ended in 1865, it was largely Italian immigrant laborers, especially Sicilians, who replaced freed black slaves on sugar and cotton plantations in Louisiana, Mississippi, and eastern Texas. Many of these Italian immigrants found themselves subject to Jim Crow segregation laws and customs recently enacted by former slaveholders in an effort to preserve and augment white supremacy behind a rigorously maintained color line. In New Orleans, after the murder of a popular police chief in 1890, the acquittal of nineteen Italian men accused of the killing triggered an act of brutal mob vengeance in which eleven of the acquitted men were lynched and left hanging from lampposts and trees on Canal Street.
In the North, where segregation prevailed in a less fully entrenched and legally institutionalized mode, Italian immigrants were — in historian Thomas Guglielmo's crisp phrase — "white on arrival." This did not guarantee anything even remotely approaching meaningful freedom and economic security. "If the southern Italian peasant once had imagined that America's streets were paved with gold," Maria Laurino writes, "soon he learned, as the old story goes, that one, they weren't paved, and two, he was expected to pave them." Italians predominated in the backbreaking labor that produced much of the infrastructure (subway systems, streets, water and electrical lines, bridges and tunnels, residential, civic, and commercial buildings) of the newly modernizing cities of the Northeast and Midwest. In 1911, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in lower Manhattan, 146 employees, most of them young Italian and Jewish immigrant girls, were killed in a fire that destroyed the building; many of the factory's seamstresses and tailors, trapped inside because the owners kept the doors locked to prevent the workers from taking breaks, leaped to their deaths from the upper floors.
These events underscored the acute vulnerability and precarious existence of men and women who were not only poor and physically abused, but also subject to a racial discourse that portrayed them as dark-skinned, intellectually inferior, oversexed primitives with a predisposition toward violence and criminality. This racist discourse originated in the work of northern Italian anthropologists and other intellectuals during the period of Italian unification, part of an effort to resist the national citizenship of southern Italians (derogated as "Africans" in much of this literature) deemed unworthy of affiliation with the glorious cultural histories of Rome, Florence, Bologna, Siena, Venice, and other northern urban centers. As American WASPs increasingly came to equate true whiteness with Anglo and northern European culture — "Nordic" was the term that circulated popularly in the 1920s — they swiftly adopted northern Italian racism for their own purposes. Throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, American newspapers, magazines, and other organs of popular culture brimmed with caricatures of Italian "dagos," "wops," "spaghetti benders," and mafiosi. In the popular imagination, if an Italian man was not a knife-wielding rogue, he was a physically robust but simple-minded ditchdigger or some other downtrodden worker. In a cartoon of the period captioned "A Wop," a husky bootblack with animalistic features services a thin white dandy wearing a bowler hat and a cravat and sporting a fancy cigarette holder. The caption uses dialect to further racialize the "wop": "A pound of spaghett' and a red-a-bandan' / A stilet' and corduroy suit / Add garlic wat' make for him stronga da mus' / And a talent for black-a da boot!"
In the American popular imagination, an Italian man was a bootblack, a ditchdigger, a dago, a wop, a stiletto-wielding bandit. Or a lover like Rudolph Valentino, whose film roles as a fantasy Mediterranean lover made him Hollywood's first male sex symbol. Or a singer — like Enrico Caruso, the product of a Naples slum, who became a household name, a global media celebrity, the first international pop star of the twentieth century. Italian men, like black men, were feared, reviled, denigrated, and subjected to ritual violence; they were also, like Bert Williams, Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, and other black entertainers, progenitors of a new and exciting modern culture, a culture of physical expressiveness, fleshly desire, motion, and emotion that changed American middle-class culture by overturning the country's Puritan and Victorian mores. In 1920s New York, middle-class Anglo slummers went to Harlem for the racy cabaret culture; white bohemians settled in Greenwich Village, meanwhile, where their rebellion against Victorian asceticism included their intimacy with Italian immigrants, who were seen as the most exotic of the European ethnic groups: dark-haired, olive-skinned descendants of a Mediterranean culture steeped in mystery and sensuality.
In 1904 Caruso made the first million-selling record in history, "Vesti la giubba," the tenor aria from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Photographs of his fleshy visage appeared in newspapers and magazines the world over alongside articles detailing his fastidious attention to dress and his insatiable appetite for the foods of Naples, his native city. During a time of sharpening cultural hierarchy, Caruso was a force of Whitmanesque cultural democracy, a bridge between the elite and the popular, as comfortable onstage in an ornate concert hall as chatting and backslapping with his fans on city streets. In a culture rife with anti-immigrant fear and prejudice, Caruso's amiable, generous spirit contradicted widespread stereotypes of southern Italians as sullen and antisocial. Caruso instead became an exemplar of other, relatively benign Anglo/Nordic notions of Italians (and of blacks and other "darker" peoples): the Italian as innately musical, physically emotive, sensual, primitive in the sense of retaining a healthy animal vitality against modernity's bloodless rationalism. Asked what made a great singer, Caruso quipped, "A big chest, a big mouth, ninety percent memory, ten percent intelligence, lots of hard work, and something in the heart." It was said that Caruso sang from his heart: his voice, the image suggests, was a blood-pumping artery. A thrilling belter whose records brought the impassioned verismo style of Italian opera to the masses, Caruso consolidated a shift in popular taste for opera away from a Germanic text-centered approach to an emphasis on the spectacle of vocal display. Voice and performance became more important than text, sound more important than sense. This aesthetic shift was perfectly in tune with the conditions of an early twentieth-century American popular culture whose burgeoning mass audience consisted of immigrant working classes speaking in a multitude of tongues but often remaining illiterate in their native and adopted languages. Caruso's phonogenic voice, the vocal blood he pumped through the acoustic technology of early recording, became a universal sound of desire and longing.
Caruso's trademark was the soaring crescendo, the dramatization of intense emotion, the feeling of passionate love, and even more, of love's betrayal and loss. In this the famous tenor gave the world something fundamental to the tradition of canzone napoletana, something that became a cliché of Italianness writ large: the Italian as acutely sensitive, hyperbolically emotional in matters of the heart. With male singers this entailed a masculine affect quite distinct from the Anglo-Victorian model of stoical, stiff upper lip restraint. In "Core 'ngrato" ("Ungrateful Heart"), recorded by Caruso in 1911, the singer addresses the lover who has spurned him, pleading for recognition of his pain and suffering ("Traitor, you don't know how much I love you / Traitor, you don't know how much you hurt me"). The male protagonist in this drama of amorous rapture assumes the more conventionally feminine, abject position — not just spurned but forgotten — while the female is figured as heartless, bereft of sentiment, able to carelessly move on ("You've taken my life, and it's over, and you don't think about it anymore").
Pellegrino D'Acierno writes of Neapolitan song as a "music of passione" (the Italian equivalent of "soul") and exacerbated melancolía (the Italian equivalent of "the blues"). We find a similarly explicit analogy between African American and southern Italian music in some of the responses to the film Passione (2010), John Turturro's ode to the music and people of Naples. "The music in Passione," wrote New York Times film critic A. O. Scott, "combines sensual suavity with raw emotion, mixes heartbreak with ecstasy, acknowledges the hard realities of poverty and injustice and soars above them. I suspect that if artists like Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin were to see this film, they would recognize their own art within it." Songs of yearning, of fleshly pleasure, of love and love lost, bilateral aggression and derision, betrayal and revenge; songs that speak frankly about the intrigue and anguish of personal intimacy — this is the domain of the blues, soul, and Neapolitan music alike. The art in each of these idioms is a ritual of confrontation and catharsis, a sharing of feelings so deep they exceed the capacity of verbal language — hence the power of this music even among listeners who may not understand the lyrics. The Neapolitan term of art is la comunicativa, an act of communication that is contagiously expressive.
The history of Afro-Italian intersection in popular music from jazz to doo-wop, soul to hip-hop, is a deep and fascinating one rooted in analogous and sometimes shared vernacular cultural practices of orality and aurality, sounding and listening. A voluminous scholarly literature on African American music, religion, literature, social history, and even politics has taught us to recognize spaces of sounding and listening such as family social events, Baptist and Pentecostal church services, street corners, and barbershops as a central — some would say defining — feature of black vernacular culture. Italian American culture has a similar claim to soundfulness not simply as a valued ethnic trait and badge of communal solidarity, but as a foundational dimension of group discourse and sociality. Much as in African American culture, the canonical spaces of Italian American life are fundamentally audible and aural spaces. Dinner tables, kitchens, delis, cafés, pizzerias, social clubs, barbershops, schoolyards, candy stores, street corners, front stoops — what Joseph Sciorra calls "a beguiling realm" of "landmarks on the mythic topography of the Italian imaginary," all of them scaled adaptations of the Italian piazza–are spaces where Italian Americans literally create themselves as a social body through practices of sounding and listening. What makes this acoustic terrain so vivid and richly layered is the performativity that marks it. D'Acierno describes Italians and Italian Americans as a people with a feeling for scenes and spectacle: not just a deep appreciation for the visual, musical, and performing arts, but a disposition to dramatize and aestheticize interpersonal and public encounters, to make the everyday world a "work of total art."
In the first decades of the twentieth century, the music of southern Italy circulated in a Mediterranean/Atlantic orbit connecting the peninsula and its islands to Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and both South and North America. Naples and Palermo were cultural crossroads where European, African, and Arab music had intermixed for centuries; the migrants who passed through these port cities on their way to the New World participated in the intercultural synthesis that produced jazz, the tango, the rumba, and other new song forms and dance styles that in turn traveled from New Orleans, Buenos Aries, Havana, and other cities back across the Atlantic. The growing phonograph record and music publishing industries commercialized this process and quickened its cultural impact. "Core 'ngrato" was composed and recorded in New York, then returned to Italy to enter the canzone napoletana canon and serve over the next century as a symbol of authentic italianità. In New Orleans a teenager named Louis Armstrong went to work in Henry Matranga's honky-tonk; there, among Sicilians and blacks, he first heard Caruso on record. This helps account for the operatic bravura of Armstrong's trumpet style, his red-hot high-register pyrotechnics, and his cagey habit of sneaking opera sound bites into his solos (the "Rigoletto break" in his 1927 recording "New Orleans Stomp," the quotation of "Vesti la giubba" in his 1930 and 1932 recordings of "Tiger Rag"). Armstrong knew a lot of opera aside from his Caruso favorites, but it was from Caruso above all, Ben Ratliff provocatively suggests, that Armstrong absorbed the "long tones and flowing annunciatory statements" that the trumpeter used "to change the jerky, staccato nature of early jazz."
In New Orleans, Sicilian open-air festa bands, funeral corteges, and Catholic saint's day processions joined US military bands, wagon advertisements, Mardi Gras revelers, and African American "second line" parades to make that city's street soundscape the most polyphonic and polyrhythmic in the Western Hemisphere. The Jim Crow color line that had taken hold in New Orleans in the 1890s flew in the face of the city's long history of racial mixing, but musicians of all backgrounds continued to listen to and learn from each other. As Bruce Boyd Raeburn has observed, "Perceptions that Sicilians, Jews, Creoles, and light-skinned African-Americans inhabited the penumbra between whiteness and blackness sometimes allowed them to manipulate racial boundaries to their own advantage, swinging in both directions." Raeburn has coined the phrase "bel canto meets the funk" to characterize the New Orleans–based synthesis of an Italian vocal aesthetic of melodic beauty with a black vernacular emphasis on earthy, sensual vitality. This joining of lyricism and rhythmic groove — characteristic of the alto basso dynamics of Italian culture writ large — would become an essential feature of jazz, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, and soul.
The most famous jazz musician to hail from New Orleans's "Little Palermo" neighborhood was Louis Prima, a fiery trumpeter, flamboyant singer, and dynamic showman. Like his idol Louis Armstrong, Prima embraced his role as an entertainer with an infectious joy and an intuitive gift for humor. Ethnicity is a concept with many meanings (heritage, culture, identity, and more), but in the context of American entertainment it is perhaps best understood as an act, a performance, and very often a performance meant to induce laughter. Prima worked at the intersection of music, comedy, and theater, in the expressive territory of minstrelsy and vaudeville where Irish, Italians, blacks, Jews, and other "ethnics" built the nation's formidable tradition of popular live entertainment. A key part of Prima's repertoire was material that drew on Italian folk music and riffed on Italian American nomenclature, slang, and accent. With songs like "Angelina" ("the waitress at the pizzeria"), "Please No Squeeza da Banana," "Felicia No Capicia," and "Baciagaloop," Prima helped Italian Americans laugh and sing during hard times and, through the wide commercial appeal of this material, hear and see themselves represented in the nation's multiethnic popular culture. Like the Brooklyn-born Italian American vaudevillian Jimmy Durante — "the Great Schnozzola," an ample-nosed, gravel-voiced, language-butchering wisecracker who started as a ragtime pianist with the Original New Orleans Jazz Band, one of the first New York-based bands to identify with the new music — Prima was largely ignored by critics and historians bent on canonizing jazz as a high art.
Excerpted from Flavor and Soul by John Gennari. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: “Who Put the Wop in Doo-Wop?” 1 Top Wop 2 Everybody Eats 3 Spike and His Goombahs 4 Sideline Shtick 5 Tutti Acknowledgments Notes Index