This group portrait by Life magazine photographer Gjon Mili pictures Count Basie (lower right, in front of the piano) and other members of his band, including celebrated saxophonist Lester Young (center, with black hat). Influenced by the piano styles of Willie "the Lion" Smith and Fats Waller, Basie formed his first group in 1935. For the next forty years, Basie performed and recorded with a frequency unmatched by any other big band. In addition to routinely crisscrossing the United States, he led thirty European tours and traveled eight times across the Pacific Ocean to entertain audiences. In 1961 he gave a memorable performance at President John F. Kennedy's inauguration, solidifying his national reputation. Basie's ability to adapt to changing musical tastes, while maintaining the group's artistic integrity, was a hallmark of this extraordinary jazz orchestra.
A gifted pianist and singer who moved easily between jazz and the classics, Hazel Scott dazzled audiences with her witty, daring, and sophisticated performances. Her prodigious talent was evident at an early age. Only fifteen when she appeared as soloist with Count Basie and his orchestra in 1935, Scott made her Broadway debut just three years later. In 1940 her Carnegie Hall performance of a "swing" version of Liszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody created a sensation, delighting her fans and confounding the critics. From 1939 to 1945 (the year in which she married Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr.), Scott not only enjoyed star status as a nightclub performer in New York, but also appeared in several films and toured extensively. A staunch proponent of equal rights, she maintained a professional contract enabling her to refuse to perform before racially segregated audiences.
Mary Lou Williams began playing the piano at an early age, and by the time she reached her teens, she was performing on the road. Although many jazz musicians disliked working with female musicians, Williams persevered. As part of the Clouds of Joy Orchestra in the 1930s, she was billed as "The Lady Who Swings the Band," and she supplied arrangements to such top musicians as Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. An early convert to the bebop revolution of the 1940s, Williams also composed symphonic jazz. She retired briefly from her music career in the 1950s, converting to Catholicism and using profits from her record company to support her work helping troubled musicians. Religious themes inspired much of her later work, including the "Music for Peace" mass, which Alvin Ailey choreographed as "Mary Lou's Mass" in 1971.
Mary Lou Williams: Female
Mary Lou Williams: Performing Arts\Performer\Musician
Mary Lou Williams: Performing Arts\Performer\Musician\Composer
Mary Lou Williams: Society and Social Change\Reformer\Humanitarian
Mary Lou Williams: Performing Arts\Performer\Musician\Pianist
Mary Lou Williams: Performing Arts\Performer\Musician\Arranger
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Opening Night Party of "The Member of the Wedding"
Ruth Orkin, 3 Sep 1921 - Jan 1985
Ethel Waters, 31 Oct 1896 - 1 Sep 1977
Carson Smith McCullers, 1917 - 1967
Julie Harris, 2 Dec 1925 - 24 Aug 2013
Gelatin silver print
Image/Sheet: 18.3 x 23.9cm (7 3/16 x 9 7/16")
Mat: 35.6 x 45.7cm (14 x 18")
Ethel Waters: American\African American
This photograph was taken for Life magazine in the wee morning hours of January 6, 1950, and despite its sense of letdown, the picture is really all about triumph. Earlier that evening, Ethel Waters (far left) and Julie Harris (far right) had opened on Broadway in Carson McCullers's own adaptation of her novel The Member of the Wedding. By the time of the photograph, it had become clear that the play was a smash. McCullers's adaptation, wrote one reviewer, was "masterly," and Waters's performance had been "rich and eloquent." But perhaps the plaudits that meant the most went to young Harris. At first Harris could not grasp the meaning of what was happening to her as she took curtain call after curtain call for her poignant portrayal of a motherless tomboy. But as the reviews flooded in, it was clear that she had become the theater's newest star.
Playing his signature twelve-string guitar, Huddie Ledbetter was instrumental in introducing African American traditional music to national audiences. Known popularly as Lead Belly, a nickname given to him by a prison chaplain, he amassed a vast song repertory that ranged from the blues to early jazz and ragtime. Ironically, although a series of arrests in Louisiana and Texas almost cut short his career, they gave Ledbetter the break that transformed his life while he was in prison. In 1933, Ledbetter met folklorist John Lomax, who was traveling through the South recording folk songs from inmates-among others-for a music archive at the Library of Congress. Lomax helped to secure his parole and then accompanied him to New York. There, Ledbetter became a star, performing and recording for large audiences, many of whom had never encountered such music before.
United States\California\Los Angeles\Los Angeles\Hollywood
Nat "King" Cole first made his name in pop music primarily as a pianist with the King Cole jazz trio that he formed in 1939, and some experts think that his most significant contribution to music was a keyboard technique that influenced a number of other noted musicians. But by 1950, the public at large was coming to know Cole as the crooner whose relaxed manner went hand-in-glove with his caressing voice. As hits such as "Mona Lisa" and "Unforgettable" followed one another, he became one of America's favorite entertainers, and in the fall of 1956, he was the first African American to host a network television show. Cole was sometimes faulted for not being more outspoken in the civil rights cause, but his broad popular appeal was in itself a contribution to the struggle against racism.
Renowned for making songs her own, Billie Holiday once explained, "I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That's all I know." This attitude characterized not only her singing style but her life as well. Having endured a difficult childhood, Holiday moved to New York City in 1927. Although intent on fashioning a musical career, she began performing to supplement her meager income as a housemaid. Success onstage led to recording opportunities and, beginning in 1937, a close working relationship with Count Basie's band. Holiday later joined the Artie Shaw Orchestra, becoming one of the first African American singers to headline an all-white band. Despite the stardom she achieved, Holiday suffered various personal crises during the last two decades of her life, several of which were the result of drug and alcohol abuse.