Archive for May, 2010

Bessie, Billie, Zora…and Lena

Posted in Uncategorized on May 20, 2010 by Josslyn Luckett

Alice Walker believes that Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Zora Neale Hurston form “a sort of unholy trinity.”  In one of her essays on Zora from In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (please treat yourself to this fine collection), Walker writes:  “Zora belongs in the tradition of black women singers, rather than among ‘the literati’…her undaunted pursuit of adventure, passionate emotional and sexual experience, and her love of freedom.  Like Billie and Bessie she followed her own road, believed in her own gods, pursued her own dreams…It would have been nice if the three of them had had one another to turn to…I close my eyes and imagine them…Bessie would be in charge of all the money; Zora would keep Billie’s masochistic tendencies in check and prevent her from singing embarrassing anything-for-a-man song, thereby preventing Billie’s heroin addiction.  In return, Billie could be, along with Bessie, the family that Zora felt she never had.” I love this collection of essays by Alice even when I disagree with certain arguments.  First, I say holy trinity–what’s not holy about support, family, sound finances and protection from toxic men and habits?  Second, I hate to say, Zora wasn’t so far from Billie at times with her “Ain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do” sentiments…if you reread Their Eyes real close, you know what I mean.  Still I too love imagining Bessie, Billie, and Zora in some glorious corner of the afterlife, a nice porch, sipping cool drinks, humming whatever, relaxing, still wondering, and surely welcoming Ms. Horne home. 

Have to give love to the very complex character, Carl Van Vechten, who shot all four portraits of these women between 1936 and 1949.  Dear Lena…I was honestly so busy writing my last couple term papers for the year (including one on Zora Neale Hurston and what to make of that moment when Tea Cake whips Janie in chapter 17…) I missed much of the coverage on Ms. Horne’s passing.  I hope they remembered to talk about how much she loved Billy Strayhorn.  Horne says of  Strayhorn in  David Hajdu’s truly luscious, Lush Life:  A Biography of Billy Strayhorn:  “For me, it was as if my other self came up and spoke to me, we were that much in sync…He was the one I wanted to be with all the time.  He was my guru….I learned from him; things I would never have thought to ask a teacher about, I could ask him….He was brilliant but gentle and loving….He was the only man I really loved.”  Something tells me Strays been hanging on the holy porch too, and was right there ready to pour Lena her first cool sip…

Thank you Alice for closing out your essay like this:

We are a people.  A people do not throw their geniuses away.  And if they are thrown away, it is our duty as artists and as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children, and, if necessary, bone by bone.

Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise

Posted in Uncategorized on May 3, 2010 by Josslyn Luckett


Listening to Regina Carter and Kenny Barron this morning, I’m once again called to dig into the story behind the standard…Sigmund Rothberg…now that’s not a name I knew.  He collaborated with Oscar Hammerstein II on the 1927 operetta, The New Moon, which was set in…ah…New Orleans.  The show produced two hits, “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” and “Lover, Come back To Me” which would go on to be performed by just about every great woman and man of jazz, from Billie Holiday to Eric Dolphy to Regina Carter and Kenny Barron whose Salsa danceable version of “Softly…” on their cd, Freefall, is starting my morning so sweetly.

I keep having this feeling there is some hidden, long form, sacred concert by one of these early Jewish, American song, tin pan alley, musical theater composers…anyone reading who can give me the scoop…please holler…thank you kindly.