David Bruce: The Coolest People in the Arts — Prejudice, Problem-Solving


• When African-American jazz musician Louis Armstrong was a little boy, he learned about the Jim Crow laws in New Orleans. One day, he got on a streetcar, and he sat in a front seat, not knowing that the streetcar was segregated and that black passengers were supposed to sit in the back. A white woman told him to sit in the back, but young Louis simply made faces at her. Angry, the white woman stood up, grabbed Louis, and hauled him to one of the seats in the back of the bus. By the way, early in his career, Mr. Armstrong was riding in a car through New York City’s Central Park when the radiator cap blew off. Immediately, police officers surrounded the automobile and searched its African-American passengers to see if they were carrying firearms. Of course, not everyone is prejudiced. Mr. Armstrong was friends with white jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden, who once told him in the slang of the time, “You a spade and I’m an ofay. We got the same soul. Let’s blow.” By the way, as a very young boy, Louis wanted to learn to play the cornet, but he didn’t have enough money to buy one. Fortunately, a Russian Jewish immigrant family he worked for, the Karnofskys, loaned him the money to buy a cornet. This is fortunate because Mr. Armstrong was very influential; he blazed a path for so many other jazz musicians. Dizzy Gillespie once said about Mr. Armstrong, “No him, no me.”

• The great black dancer Bill Robinson, aka Mr. Bojangles, once was in an all-night diner at 4 a.m. He ordered a meal, but the server told him, “We don’t serve your kind.” Mr. Bojangles took out his gun, laid it on the table, then gave his order again. This time he was served, but after eating he was arrested by a rookie deputy. However, he was immediately released because he was a friend of the sheriff. Mr. Bojangles always took steps to become friendly with police officers in every town he played. His wife was also very good at public relations, writing the chief of police in each town her husband played to give warm wishes to the chief’s wife and to give them free tickets to the show. By the way, Mr. Bojangles had a serious weakness for vanilla ice cream, and reportedly ate four to eight quarts per day.

• Benny Goodman, a white, Jewish jazz musician, formed the Benny Goodman Trio. The group consisted of himself, drummer Gene Krupa, and pianist Teddy Wilson. In addition to creating excellent jazz, the group represented a major step forward in race relations because Mr. Wilson was black. Previously, white and black musicians had not played together in public. At the time the group was formed, the 1930s, racism was prevalent in the United States. For example, in 1931, Earl Hines and the members of his jazz band were not allowed to walk on the sidewalks in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, because they were black. They had no choice but to walk in the streets.


• Arturo Toscanini had poor eyesight — he memorized his scores so that he didn’t need to refer to them during performances or rehearsals. He once wanted perfection in the tinkling of some very small antique cymbals to be used in Berlioz’ “Queen Mab” scherzo. Several musicians failed to meet Toscanini’s standards, so Sam Borodkin — who played such instruments as the bass drum, glockenspiel, tam-tam, and gong — said that he would try to do it. Mr. Borodkin succeeded brilliantly — but through the use of a trick. Instead of using two antique cymbals and hitting them against each other, he used a metal triangle stick and hit it against one antique cymbal. Because Toscanini had such poor eyesight, and because Mr. Borodkin was bent over his music stand, hiding the metal triangle stick, the trick succeeded in fooling Maestro Toscanini. By the way, someone was amazed at Maestro Toscanini’s phenomenal memory — as demonstrated by his conducting without a score in front of him — and asked, “Tell me, maestro, how do you learn all those scores from memory?” Toscanini replied brusquely, “I learn them.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved






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