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Monday, December 5, 2011

Jazz at BAM: 1861—1955

Colgate Mandolin Club, 1911. 
Jazz at the Brooklyn Academy of Music? At one time, it was unthinkable. When BAM opened in 1861, there was already controversy over presenting dramatic productions—even Shakespeare—that might even hint at being morally dubious. Since BAM was initially considered a “highbrow” institution, jazz practically had to sneak its way in.

Minstrel shows, once the country's most popular form of entertainment, are often credited as a DNA building block of jazz, and BAM presented a few of them. In 1910, the St. Charles Borromeo Holy Name Society hosted a minstrel show and reception featuring such songs as “When the Bell in the Light House Rings Ding Dong” and “Band! Band! Band!”

The most popular rag in its time, Henry Lodge’s “Temptation Rag” was performed at least twice at BAM—once in November 1910 by the Amherst Mandolin Club and again in March 1911 by the Colgate Mandolin Club. (It was clearly also a favorite with mandolin clubs.)

The earliest evidence of "true jazz" at BAM is an undated handbill, circa 1917, for a gala concert featuring the Plantation Jazz Orchestra and many popular singers of that time. Artists included Arthur Fields ("Over There"), Dolly Connoly, the scandal-embroiled Walter Scanlan, and song and comedy writing team Kalmar and Ruby and Irving & Jack Kaufman. Possible songs performed that evening: “My Little Bimbo Down on the Bamboo Isle” or “Make the Trombone Laugh.”

It wasn’t until 1940 that the “dean of American music,” Brooklyn composer Aaron Copland, gave a lecture at BAM entitled “The Influence of Jazz.” The door for jazz cracked open a bit wider. (Listen to Copland on jazz here.)

Jazz selections would sometimes accompany dance performances. In April 1946, African Drums and Modern Rhythms featured Win Thompson (sax) and his Orchestra playing “Hey Baba Rebop” and “Atom Boogie” with the dances in the “Harlem” section of the program.

The Katherine Dunham Experimental Group presented a 1950 dance performance featuring American rhythms with precursors of jazz: the Cakewalk, Charleston, Boogie, and some Blues. Pearl Primus included music by Mary Lou Williams and Josh White in her 1951 Dark Rhythm performance, and Blues Cycle was a six-song section of a dance performance choreographed in 1955 by Bill Hooks for his dance company.

Next in Jazz at BAM: big names from the heyday of jazz visit BAM.

—Louie Fleck, BAM archivist

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