David Bruce: Practice. Prejudice, Problem-Solving

Practice

• Reality can be fabulous — you never know what you will see. World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma once got a flat tire while traveling on Germany’s speedy Autobahn. After calling for help, he practiced his cello along the side of the Autobahn to help get ready for a concert that night in Frankfurt. Mr. Ma says about the passing motorists, “People couldn’t believe what they were seeing!”

Prejudice

• Good musicians can do some very bad things. Early in his career, Elvis Costello performed at the Agora Club in Columbus, Ohio. Following the performance, he drank with rock veteran Stephen Stills and promptly made an *ss out of himself, infuriating Mr. Stills. Mr. Costello called James Brown a “jive-ass n*gger” and Ray Charles “nothing but an ignorant blind singer.” Lots of bad publicity resulted, of course, but the great Ray Charles was forgiving although he still made his opinion of Mr. Costello’s remarks known, saying, “Anyone could get drunk at least once in his life. Drunken talk isn’t meant to be printed in the paper, and people should judge Mr. Costello by his songs rather than his stupid bar talk.” Ironically, Mr. Costello had a few months earlier sung at a Rock Against Racism concert.

• When soprano Beverly Sills married Peter Greenough, she faced prejudice because of her religion. Her new relatives shunned her because she was Jewish, and her Jewish relatives shunned her because she had married someone who was not Jewish. Ms. Sills decided to have a party for an old friend, and she sent out invitations for 40 people, most of whom accepted. She then hired a caterer and musicians and bought flowers. On the evening of the party, only two of the 40 people whom she had invited showed up.

• When Gustav Mahler was conductor of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, anti-Semites made fun of his prominent nose, which they called Jewish. Tiring of the anti-Semitism, Mr. Mahler eventually left Berlin and began working in Vienna. Because of Mr. Mahler’s talent as a conductor and as a composer, Berlin music lovers wanted him back, and they soon wrote him that conditions in Berlin had changed. Mr. Mahler wrote back, “Conditions may have changed, but my nose is still the same.”

• In 1942, music researcher Alan Lomax became very aware of prejudice in the South. Mr. Lomax, in a conversation with another white man who happened to be the Sheriff of Tunica County, referred to African-American blues musician Man House as “Mister.” The sheriff was not amused. A little later, Mr. Lomax, who was now suspected of being an “outside agitator,” was informed that it would be a very good idea for him to leave Tunica County. He did.

• Jazz singer Billie Holiday was light skinned. During the Jim Crow days, while she was performing with the Count Basie Orchestra at the Fox Theater in Detroit, the theater’s management worried that patrons might think that Ms. Holiday was white and that the Count Basie Orchestra was integrated, so they insisted that she wear dark makeup.

Problem-Solving

• Mahalia Jackson knew what was right for her kind of music, and she knew how to get what was right for her kind of music. Ed Sullivan often had African-American entertainers on his TV variety show, even at a time when some businesses were leery about advertising on shows with African-Americans. That makes him one of the good guys. However, he wanted Ms. Jackson to sing a gospel song with accompaniment by a choir and an orchestra. Ms. Jackson wanted to be accompanied by only a piano and an organ. Therefore, she barged into Mr. Sullivan’s dressing room before the show started. Mr. Sullivan was in his underpants, but she told him, “Don’t worry about your shorts. I’m Mahalia Jackson, and I just came to tell you I don’t want all those horns blowin’ behind me when I sing. All I want is my piano and my organ and my own way of singing.” Ms. Jackson got what she wanted.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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