The 25 Most Important Events in Black Music History

Ebony, June 2000 | Go to article overview

The 25 Most Important Events in Black Music History


FOR four centuries, from the arrival of the first Blacks in English America in 1619 to the hip-hops of the Millennium, African-Americans have dominated American music and dance. Black music, in fact, is America's only original music, and the Spirituals-Blues-Jazz-Gospel-Charleston-Twist-Hip Hop gift is the foundation not only of rhythm and blues but also of Broadway, the Grammys and Elvis et al. And we can say of this gift what Virgil Thomson said of jazz: It is "the most astounding spontaneous musical event to take place anywhere since the Reformation." Here, then, in honor of Black (American) Music Month are 25--we could have listed 1,000--of the greatest moments of a creative process that started more than 300 years ago and that is--miraculously--still going on in the Harlems and South Sides of our mind.

1 1660-1860. In the most stupendously creative act in American cultural history, the "Black and unknown bards" of slavery created the Spirituals and the foundations of the blues and American dance. Everything that followed--Broadway, the Grammys, Gershwin, the Cakewalk, the Moonwalk, the Electric Slide--is an elaboration on the original.

2 1870s-1920s. Creation of blues by post-slavery Blacks in Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, everywhere, led to the first written blues, "The Memphis Blues," published in 1912, and great blues singers like MA RAINEY and BESSIE SMITH.

3 1890s-1920s. Invention of jazz music, a collective creation by Blacks in Louisiana, Texas, Missouri and other places, followed by creative syntheses by great individual performers like BUDDY BOLDEN, JELLY ROLL MORTON, LOUIS ARMSTRONG and others. On November 11, 1925, Louis Armstrong recorded the first of the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings that defined the rhythmic and improvisational foundation of jazz.

4 1900. JAMES WELDON JOHNSON and J. ROSAMOND JOHNSON composed "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," the African-American National Anthem, for a high school pageant in Jacksonville, Fla.

5 February 14, 1920. MAMIE SMITH recorded the first major "race record," "That Thing Called Love" and "A Good Man is Hard to Find," for Okeh Records. BESSIE SMITH and other artists sold a phenomenal number of records and ensured the survival of Columbia and other recording companies.

6 May 23, 1921. Shuffle Along, first of a series of popular musicals featuring Black talent, opened at the 63rd Street Musical Hall in New York and Blacks began to invent Broadway or, at a minimum, Broadway musical culture. Two years later, on October 29, 1923, Runnin' Wild opened at Colonial Theatre on Broadway, introducing America's first dance hit, the Charleston, to the world.

7 1925. PAUL ROBESON made his debut as a bass-baritone in the Greenwich Village Theatre (Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians), "singing the first concert consisting solely of Negro spirituals."

8 December 4, 1927. DUKE ELLINGTON opened at the Cotton Club, Harlem's Jim Crow musical magnet, marking the formal beginning of the Swing Age and the Age of the Big Bands of COUNT BASIE, ERKSKINE HAWKINS, JIMMY LUNCEFORD and, later, BILLY ECKSTINE. Ellington, who was arguably America's greatest composer, extended the harmonic and structural dimensions of jazz, which has been called America's classical music.

9 1930s. New Black urban migrants redefined church music, giving it a rhythm and passion that THOMAS DORSEY, the "Father of Gospel Music," put down on paper and SALLIE MARTIN and, later, MAHALIA JACKSON sang. Black music expert Eileen Southern said, "In addition to inventing a name for the new sacred music of black Americans, organizing its first chorus, its first annual convention, and founding its first publishing house, [Dorsey] is credited with establishing the tradition of the gospel music concert."

10 Easter Sunday Morning, 1939. MARIAN ANDERSON, denied permission to sing in Constitution Hall because of her race, gave an open-air concert endorsed by the White House on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 75,000 persons. …

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