Friday, January 20, 2023

When Broadway took on its characteristic sepia glow – Brother John hits one outa' the park

John McWhorter nails it: The Black Musical That May Have Inspired Gershwin, NYTimes, Jan. 19, 2023.

He’s writing about Shuffle Along, an all-Black musical that stunned and entranced the Great White Way, as it was known (in reference to the lights, not the people), in 1921. “Before this,” McWhorter writes, “Broadway’s music was, for the most part, quite white in a sense similar to what one might mean today. It toodled, it cooed, it marched. Sometimes it had a touch of ragtime in its step. But little of it stood out in an artistic sense.” And then came Shuffle Along:

Only after “Shuffle Along” did Broadway music start consistently sounding like what we now know as show music.

Broadway theatergoers in 1921 likely didn’t know what it was to “jam.” Tapping their feet a little bit here and there, sure. But not in a sweaty, truly-into-the-moment way. “Shuffle Along” songs such as “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” “I’m Craving for That Kind of Love” and “If You Haven’t Been Vamped by a Brownskin, You Haven’t Been Vamped at All” were new to Broadway. (This was less true uptown, where Black Harlemites had been enjoying such numbers for some years before.) These proto-jazz songs and lively dance numbers were, in a word, hot. In its dances, “Shuffle Along” took a page from the way Black people beyond the bourgeoisie actually moved. The choreography gave audiences a blazing compliment to Sissle and Blake’s songs.

To be sure, jazz and Broadway subsequently got even hotter — 102 years later, the roots of the songs from “Shuffle Along” in the prim skip-and-prance of ragtime are obvious. But it wasn’t just ragtime, and white theatergoers were blown away by the new feel. And if, like me, you are someone who has spent decades cursed by the obsession that leads to playing your way through the Broadway literature of the old days on the piano, you notice something important about the music of two composers associated with infusing jazz into the Broadway sound. Let’s first take George Gershwin.


George and his brother Ira wrote musical after musical – this is me talking now, not Brother John – and one of them, Girl Crazy, came out in 1930, and it had a tune, “I Got Rhythm,” that became a jazz standard and, over time, gave rise to what jazz musicians call “Rhythm Changes.” By which we simply mean the chord changes on which Gershwin’s tune was based. Any number of bebop tunes are based on it – “Anthropology,” “Dexterity” (I learned that one from Frank Foster), “Rhythm-a-Ning” – and two well-known cartoon-show theme songs, for The Woody Woodpecker Show, and The Flintstones.

But I digress. Back to Brother John, the final word:

This jazz feel settled in for good. It is fundamental to what we now think of as the vintage show tune. Would white composers have picked up on jazz by themselves given that it was so much in the air in general? Likely. But “Shuffle Along” did it first and showed the way. “Anything Goes,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Funny Girl” — all of these classics have “Shuffle Along” in their musical DNA, as one of many channels through which jazz permeated the American musical landscape. The Broadway sound, despite how “white” we may classify it as today, represents one of many Black contributions to what America is.

There's more at the link. 

Bonus: Wynton and Branford jamming on Rhythm Changes.

Addendum: Love Will Find a Way (From "Shuffle Along"), performed by Eubie Blake, piano, Ivan Harold Browning, vocal, who sang it it the original musical. Recorded in 1971. H/t Ethan Iverson.

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