June 19 marked the 135th annual Juneteenth – historically called Jubilee Day or Emancipation Day, which celebrates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. The date commemorates the anniversary of Union Army Gen. Gordon Grainger’s proclamation, which announced the freedom of enslaved people in the state of Texas, the final remaining state of the Confederacy with institutional slavery.
Until recent years, Juneteenth was recognized by only Black communities in America. Last year, when Americans had no choice but to quarantine to contain the spread of COVID-19, people outside of marginalized communities bore witness to the horrific killing of George Floyd, and the weeks-long chaos that would unfold as a consequence, on their televisions, computers and cellphones. The significance of Juneteenth became evident, as the dominant culture makes way for Black American stories of struggle and overcoming to be brought forward. In this way, the successes made in spite of challenges and tragedies can be celebrated, and progress can continue to be strived for.
Once President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law last week, this year became Juneteenth’s first year recognized as a federal U.S. holiday.
In light of the historical event, it is only appropriate to highlight some of our nation’s unsung or lesser-known pioneers in music.
COMPOSED: Scott Joplin was a prolific composer and pianist, known for his ragtime compositions, bridging European classical music with that of early African American folk. (Photographer unknown)
King of Ragtime
Scott Joplin, born in Arkansas just two years following the American Civil War, swiftly sprang to fame as the “King of Ragtime,” writing over 100 original ragtime pieces, two operas and a ragtime ballet.
Joplin was born into a family of musicians who made a living in railway labor. After years of self teaching and being mentored for free by music professor Julius Weiss, a German-American Jew who empathized with the Joplin family’s poverty, Joplin left the railroad to tour as a musician. The multi-instrumentalist played cornet, piano, guitar and mandolin.
His “Maple Leaf Rag” served as ragtime’s first and most influential hit, informing all ragtime to follow. His compositions elevated American pop music, integrating a variety of European disciplines, such as classical, tango, bolero and even polka, with the energy and rhythm of the African American South, which included work songs, gospel hymns and dance music.
Joplin’s 1911 opera Treemonisha is a poignant ode to the African American South, with a moral offering that suggests education, persistence and community harmony are keys to progress.
Unfortunately, Joplin struggled to maintain success and fought financial problems until his early death in 1917. The 48-year-old, who was buried in an unmarked grave, failed to receive proper recognition until nearly five decades following his death. He was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, awarded a special Pulitzer Prize and received a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
FUNERAL MUSIC: Drummers at the funeral of jazz musician Danny Barker in 1994. (Photo courtesy of Infrogmation of New Orleans)
Birth of Jazz
Bandleader Isidore Jean Barbarin was born in New Orleans in 1871, just a few years after the end of the American Civil War. Like many other musicians of his time who were unknowingly laying down the foundations of jazz (or “jass,” as it was then called), the cornet and alto horn player garnered experience playing in funeral parades and festive processions of nearly every occasion. He performed with numerous celebrated brass bands including the Onward Brass Band, the Excelsior Brass Band and Papa Celestin’s Tuxedo Brass Band. The next few generations to follow would become major players in the jazz movement, including his grandson Danny Barker, who became an accomplished jazz musician and historian.
Edward “Dee Dee” Chandler was a New Orleans drummer during the turn of the 20th century who revolutionized the idea of the drum kit, which of course became the linchpin of the brass band and the coming era of jazz.
Brass bands initially employed any number of percussionists, whose instruments had to be portable. Obviously, bandleaders had to be creative, working with limited funds as well as a limited amount of stage real estate. This is where Chandler’s innovative spirit gave him the distinction as being a forefather to the drum kit. He became one of the first to invent his own kick pedal, which gave him the freedom to play snare, cymbals and bass drum simultaneously.
Unfortunately, not much else is known about Chandler, except that he was a unique and respected drummer who did not discriminate against any stage, nor did the stage discriminate against him. He played everywhere from the Storyville brothels to upper-class venues off Canal Street, which typically did not allow entry to Black or mixed-race people. He was known to be a graceful and charismatic showman.
Father of Stride
JOYOUS NOISE: (From front) James P. Johnson, Fess Williams, Freddie Moore and Joe Thomas collaborating. (Photo courtesy of William P. Gottlieb)
Meanwhile, right here in Jersey, James Price Johnson was pioneering the stride piano, taking huge inspiration from Joplin’s ragtime and unknowingly creating a bridge by which ragtime would evolve into jazz music. Stride was characterized by a similar left-hand technique as was employed by ragtime, adding sophisticated harmonies, a swinging beat, and often employing the entire range (or “full stride,” as it were) of the piano. Mentees of Johnson, known as the “Father of Stride,” include Thomas “Fats” Waller and Willie “The Lion” Smith.
New Orleans cornetist Buddy Bolden was known to jazz as “King” Bolden for his improvisational style, which ushered in the jazz movement. Bolden fused then-popular ragtime with marching music, African American Baptist gospel and rural blues. He utilized a much looser form, leaving room for big, audacious improvisations. One of his biggest hits was “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” as recorded by Jelly Roll Morton. The recording is among the little remaining evidence of Bolden’s legacy.
Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, famously known as Jelly Roll Morton, was another New Orleans bandleader, best recognized for his work as a ragtime and jazz pianist and composer. In fact, he is credited as the first arranger in jazz, a genre that relies heavily on improvisation. He got his start as a young teenager, playing jazz in bordellos. When his great-grandmother discovered where he had been working, she forbade him from returning home. He thus developed his risqué nom de guerre in order to protect his family name. His 1915 hit “Jelly Roll Blues” became one of the first published jazz compositions.
HANDY DANDY: W.C. Handy was forbidden to play instruments, and in defying the religious orders of his father, he became the Father of Blues. (Photo by Carl Van Vechten)
Father of Blues
One of the most recognized and celebrated of his time was musician and composer William Christian “W.C.” Handy, who made a name for himself as one of America’s most prominent songwriters, and the first to publish a song in the blues style.
Handy was born and raised in rural Alabama, where both his father and his grandfather were ministers. His father thought of most musical instruments as the devil’s tools, and forbade Handy from owning any. When Handy’s father learned his son had defied him, secretly purchasing and bringing home a guitar, he demanded the guitar be taken back, and arranged for W.C. to have organ lessons instead. Handy proceeded to learn and play the cornet in secret, and even played in a local band, unbeknownst to his parents.
Despite his defiance of his parents’ rules against instruments, Handy was also profoundly religious. His own music was directly influenced by the songs of his church, as well as the work songs he spiritedly engaged in while doing manual labor, such as when he worked on a shovel brigade. Moreover, he took inspiration from his surrounding nature, such as the sounds of a running creek, and a variety of songbirds and other native creatures to the area.
During Handy’s travels throughout the South, he was particularly impacted by the Black folk music he heard coming out of cotton plantations along the Mississippi Delta. Deeply cultural, the music impressed him such that he was able to transcribe much of it by memory. Thus came the development of what is called “Delta Blues.”
Handy, a couple of whose greatest hits include “Memphis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues,” has been named in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame.
Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll
HALLELUJAH! Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the ‘Godmother of? Rock ’n’ Roll,’ was one of the first of her time, especially among Black women, to push the envelope. She sang gospel songs with suggestive undertones appealing to secular audiences. (Photo by James J. Kriegsmann)
Sister Rosetta Tharpe set the stage for rock ’n’ roll way ahead of its time, back in the 1930s, when she captivated audiences with her tremendous spiritual energy, a booming voice that conveyed both gospel and sexually suggestive secular lyricism, and an electric guitar. Her sound was a melodic melding of gritty, urban blues, traditional folk hymns and swing.
Tharpe was a musical prodigy who at the age of 4 began singing and playing the guitar for her church, Church of God in Christ, an African American Pentecostal congregation.
At the age of 23, Tharpe became one of the first commercially successful gospel recording artists, although churchgoers took issue with her controversial lyricism in hits such as “Rock Me.” Just six years later, her hit “Strange Things Happening Every Day” became the first gospel song to appear on the Billboard magazine Harlem Hit Parade.
Performing gospel tunes in dimly lit nightclubs before big jazz bands, Tharpe held her own, especially on the guitar. It was a rarity to see a woman – never mind a Black woman – playing electric guitar, and Tharpe carried a masculinity about her, especially in her playing. (It has since been speculated that Tharpe was a queer woman.) She was among the first recording artists to push the distortion on her guitar, a style that prophesied an incoming era of electric blues.
Tharpe performed in Harlem with such artists as Cab Calloway and toured Europe with Muddy Waters, consequently inspiring such British guitarists as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. Stateside, it is said she paved the way for Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash and Aretha Franklin, to name a few. In 2018, Tharpe was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
HEART TO HEART: Robert Randolph launched Juneteenth Unityfest to uncover and celebrate Black history, and support social progress in America. (Photo by Shane McCauley)
Closer to Home
On Saturday, New Jersey native pedal steel player Robert Randolph, through the Robert Randolph Foundation, launched the inaugural Juneteenth Unityfest, a free multi-city livestream concert featuring a host of influential speakers and performers.
The Robert Randolph Foundation is intended as a “skill development platform for youth from all walks of life to gain knowledge that can transform their lives – regardless of their cultural, social or racial backgrounds.”
The aim of Juneteenth Unityfest is to unite Americans through awareness of the African American experience, which has been largely swept under the rug. The event aims to bring to light African American stories of struggle, to celebrate stories of success, and to highlight Black contributions to American culture. Stories, poetry, visual art and live music make up the tapestry of the event, which is sewn together by the hands of numerous grassroots organizations centered on community services.
Hosted by Amanda Seales and JB Smoove, the event featured performances by Earth, Wind & Fire, Nile Rodgers and CHIC, Black Pumas, Darius Rucker, Khruangbin, Michael Franti, India Arie, Dave Matthews and Carter Beauford, Keb’ Mo’ and Judith Hill, among others. Even 94-year-old Opal Lee, the lifelong activist who fought to make Juneteenth a national holiday, made a guest appearance on the 5?-hour stream.
Randolph hopes to see some opportunities to gather for next year’s Juneteenth Unityfest. For now, the event remains available to freely stream at robertrandolphfoundation.org.
DELIGHTED: (From left) Bernard Purdie smiles with his hosts, Will and Bill Clanton, a father-son team behind the Barnegat cafe. (Photo courtesy of Bill Clanton)
Right Around the Corner
Last Saturday, just one day after his 82nd birthday, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie performed a funky, upbeat jazz set with his ensemble, Bernard Purdie and Friends, on the patio of Delights Café in downtown Barnegat. Patrons enjoyed the nostalgic change of pace over some coffee and treats on a delightfully sunny afternoon.
The friends accompanying him were bassist Danny Boone, guitarist George Naha and keyboardist Miho Nobuzane. They played a little bit of everything, touching into every genre and riffing off each other, as they have for nearly 30 years. According to Purdie, most of them met as part of Grammy-nominated harmonica player and vocalist Rob Paparozzi’s group, Paparozzi and Friends. At its height, it was comprised of about 15 members.
JAZZED UP: Bernard Purdie and Friends are simply pleased to be reunited and playing music. (Photo courtesy of Bill Clanton)
“I joined them because I loved what they were doing, and I told them, ‘You can call me anytime, I’d be glad to work with you.’ We did a lot of work together, from trios to big band!” When Paparozzi exited the group to perform with both the Blues Brothers Band and Blood Sweat and Tears, the remaining members reassembled as Bernard Purdie and Friends.
“Overall, because of Rob, I’ve
DOWNTOWN: Patrons of Delights Coffee and Bake Shop, in Barnegat, gladly enjoy their fare on the patio to the sounds of Bernard Purdie and Friends. (Photo courtesy of Bill Clanton)
been associated with phenomenal musicians,” Purdie shared warmly. “This is like a reunion.”
However humble, Purdie, whose career spans well over half a century, has always been associated with phenomenal musicians. He has earned the reputation of being the most recorded drummer in the world. “It’s a nice feeling,” he reminisced, recounting his experiences ranging from work with original jazz cats Count Basie and Duke Ellington to folk artists Simon and Garfunkel and rock group Steely Dan. In fact, his work can be heard on over 4,000 albums.
GANG’S ALL HERE: Bernard Purdie and Friends celebrate a musical reunion in Barnegat. (From left) Danny Boone, George Naha, Bernard Purdie, Bill Clanton and Miho Nobuzane. (Photo courtesy of Bill Clanton)
“Because of that, we do so many songs from so many different albums: jazz, blues, country, rock, R&B, pop …” he explained, expressing a gratitude for the versatile proficiency of his bandmates.
As a session drummer, Purdie worked extensively with Mickey and Sylvia, an R&B duo of the 1950s and ’60s, best known for their number-one hit “Love Is Strange.” But he has drummed for any and everybody, including B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, James Brown, Nina Simone, Wilson Pickett, John Lee Hooker, King Curtis, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Hall & Oates, Richie Havens, Joe Cocker and Vulfpeck … among dozens of others.
He has also recorded a fair amount of his own compositions, such as Soul Drums, Alexander’s Ragtime Band and Purdie Good!
“Most notable to the world is my work with Aretha Franklin,” he explained coolly. “Besides being on 90% of her records, I was also her musical director.” No big deal, right?
The drummer, who has made major contributions to R&B, soul, funk and jazz, is known for his “Purdie Shuffle,” a beat now taught worldwide, characterized by the use of triplets against a half-time backbeat. “It’s on thousands of records, and it still works,” Purdie said, beaming. “I’m happy to hear how many people had to learn the Purdie Shuffle because that’s my name, and that means they’re going to have to remember me, one way or the other!” He laughed. “And I’m just pleased.”
Purdie attributed much of his success to his very first teacher, in his hometown of Elktown, Md., Leonard Haywood. “I used to sit in with the Clyde Bessicks Orchestra every Friday and Saturday night,” he explained. His job was to make sure the drums were set up correctly before every show, and then break them down and drive them – and his teacher – home, long before he had a license to drive!
“Everybody in town knew I was driving Mr. Haywood’s car because he was asleep!” He laughed. “The police would see me and wave. Sure, they knew I was underage, but they also knew I meant no harm about anything I was doing.”
Purdie started his own band by the age of 10, playing country music. They soon evolved into the blues and, later, dance music. “It didn’t matter what it was,” he affirmed. “Music! My whole life has been about dance, movement, making people feel good,” he elaborated. “That’s my legacy. I hope that’s what people will understand: that that’s all I ever tried to do.”
Soon after he relocated to New York seeking work, a plethora of his demos went on to become hit records. He was wildly successful, traveling the world as one of the most sought-after drummers. Purdie even shared a bit about working with W.C. Handy, who at the time was in his 90s. “That sure was an honor for me,” he said.
He eventually settled down in North Jersey, just far enough outside the city to “see the grass grow and the youngsters running around.” When not busy playing music, the doctor of music gives seminars at various universities.
Perhaps Purdie’s biggest strength is his humility. His passion for drumming is fed by the energy of his audience.
“I’m a time keeper. I love being a time keeper. I don’t care if I do any solos. That’s to impress everybody. My thing is to impress the band and give everybody what they want, what they need, what they ask for. That’s my job as the drummer.” He continued, “I enjoy what I do and stay out of the way. I’m a groove person. Getting people to move, that’s the joy. It’s all over my face when I’m playing the drums. I’m grinning from ear to ear.”
He took a beat, grinned, and said in a low, gruff register, “I’ll say this low. I liiike what I do!”
Delights owner Bill Clanton, who also runs community radio station WBNJ91.9 out of Barnegat, is excited to welcome Purdie back mid-summer.
TRUTH BE TOLD: A limited number of the special Record Store Day Drop edition of The Truth is now available in the Official Prince Store. It is the first time Prince’s mostly acoustic 1998 album is available as a stand-alone release.
For the Record
Saturday, June 12 saw 2021’s first “Record Store Day Drop” at local vinyl shops throughout the world.
“Normally, I’d be up and out of the house at dawn that morning, followed by a record store-hopping crusade throughout Ocean and Monmouth counties,” explained vinyl connoisseur Chris Fritz. “Sadly, this year I couldn’t make it.?That doesn’t mean I didn’t have Record Store Day releases on my list, though!”
At the top of his list? The latest release from the Prince estate titled The Truth, his 21st studio album, recorded in 1996 and released in 1998.
“It is an acoustic record and has been hyped as more Prince Greatness. Well, I’d expect nothing less from that man,” Fritz writes. “I luckily scored a copy from an online record selling site called Discogs. If you’re even a mild collector, check out their app!” With the record on its way, Fritz promises a full review of the album by the next issue.
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