Charleston Embraces “Porgy & Bess” … 81 Years Later

Stephen Sondheim in Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation But Missed the History Books, wrote:

DuBose Heyward has gone largely unrecognized as the author of the finest set of lyrics in the history of the American musical theater – namely, those of Porgy and Bess. There are two reasons for this, and they are connected. First, he was primarily a poet and novelist, and his only song lyrics were those that he wrote for Porgy. Second, some of them were written in collaboration with Ira Gershwin, a full-time lyricist, whose reputation in the musical theater was firmly established before the opera was written. But most of the lyrics in Porgy – and all of the distinguished ones – are by Heyward. I admire his theater songs for their deeply felt poetic style and their insight into character. It’s a pity he didn’t write any others. His work is sung, but he is unsung.


In 1922 a petition was sent to Charleston City Council, signed by thirty-seven white residents of Church Street and St. Michael’s Alley, which called for the immediate eviction of all the black residents of Cabbage Row. The petition detailed their unsavory behavior which included fornication between of black women and white sailors, knife and gun fights, unsanitary conditions and “the most vile, filthy and offensive language.”

During the spring of 1924, DuBose Heyward, founding member of the Poetry Society of South Carolina, began to work on “a novel of contemporary Charleston.” Heyward was the descendant of Thomas Heyward Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was part of Charleston’s aristocratic heritage where family bloodlines were more important than bank accounts.

During the early 1920s DuBose Heyward gained a reputation in American literary circles as a talented, serious poet. Charleston society was rightly proud of his success and reputation. The perception at Charleston tea parties was that his forthcoming novel of “contemporary Charleston” would, of course, be a drawing room drama, or a comedy of manners. Everyone was anxious to read it, assuming it would be about “them.” They could have never imagined what Heyward actually wrote, a lyrical folk novel about the Gullahs of Charleston.

For many white Charlestonians, the ubiquitous presence of Gullahs was as common as the humidity, present but rarely acknowledged. Heyward lived on Church Street, a dignified colonial-era neighborhood that had become quite ungentrified after Emancipation. Whites descended from the elite families of Charleston society now lived in close quarters, side-by-side, with descendants of their former slaves. The once pristine houses and gardens were now covered in shabbiness, the result of decades of dwindling fortunes and cultural depression.

Heyward became fascinated by the odd story of Samuel Smalls. The Charleston News and Courier featured a small item on the police blotter:

Samuel Smalls, who is a cripple and is familiar to King Street, with his goat and cart, was held for the June term of Court of Sessions on an aggravated assault charge. It is alleged that on Saturday night he attempted to shoot Maggie Barnes at number four Romney Street. His shots went wide of the mark. Smalls was up on a similar charge some months ago and was given a suspended sentence. Smalls had attempted to escape in his wagon and was run down and captured by the police guard.

Heyward finished the first draft of a novel based on Smalls’s life. He gave the manuscript to his friend John Bennett to read. Bennett was astonished by the story. “There had never been anything like it,” he said.

The story was set in a location Heyward called “Catfish Row,” two run-down tenement buildings one block from his home on Church Street. Nestled between the two tenements was 87 Church Street, a classic brick Georgian double house that had been the home of his ancestor, Thomas Heyward, Jr. As previously noted, by the turn of the 20th century both tenements were notorious as dens of crime and violence.

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85-91 Church Street, circa 1910. These pre-Revolutionary structures had deteriorated into slums by the turn of the 20th century. (L-R) Cabbage Row; Thomas Heyward House; Catfish Row. Courtesy of the Library of Congress 

DuBose Heyward’s novel, published in September 1925, was titled Porgy. It was the story of a crippled beggar on the streets of Charleston. During a dice game, Porgy witnesses a murder committed by a rough, sadistic black man named Crown, who runs away from the police. During the next weeks, Porgy shelters the murderer’s woman, the haunted Bess, in the rear courtyard of Catfish Row, a rundown tenement on the Charleston waterfront. Porgy and Bess fall in love. However, when Crown arrives to take Bess back Porgy kills him. He is taken in by police for questioning. After ten days he is released, because the police do not believe a crippled beggar could have killed the powerful Crown. When Porgy returns to the Row, he discovers that Bess had fallen under the spell of the drug dealer Sportin’ Life and his “happy dus’.” She has followed Sportin’ Life to a new future in Savannah and Porgy is left alone, brokenhearted.

The novel became a national best-seller, and received rave reviews. DuBose Heyward was praised for portraying “Negro life more colorful and spirited and vital than that of the white community” and for creating a character that is “a real Negro, not a black-faced white man,” who “thinks as a Negro, feels as a Negro, lives as a Negro.”

In Charleston, the reaction was polite but less positive. Some acknowledged the truth: it was a powerful book. Others claimed “the paper was wasted on which it was writ.” Most people were disappointed and shocked, when they discovered Porgy’s main characters were black, not white. The white characters were little more than poorly drawn caricatures. 

Lost amidst the initial praise and criticism, that, at its heart, Porgy, is a reminiscence of the old way of life in Charleston. Blacks are second class citizens, living lives of limited freedom and still expected to be subservient to whites. Porgy, however, examines this world from a black viewpoint. Portrayed with realism, these Charleston blacks were far removed from the “new Negro,” who could be seen daily on the streets of Harlem, and appearing in the literature of New York writers. In Charleston blacks and whites suffered from the same malaise.

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In 1924 George Gershwin’s musical, Lady Be Good! ran for 330 performances on Broadway, establishing him as one of the most popular songwriters in America. While his second hit show, Tip-Toes, was on Broadway, Gershwin read Porgy in one sitting. He immediately wrote to Heyward proposing the two men collaborate together on an opera based on the story.

Heyward was astonished, and then excited. Gershwin was one of the most powerful, successful and talented artists in the New York musical world. He contacted Gershwin and was told that, although the composer wanted to create an opera his work schedule was booked solid for the next several years. Heyward decided to go ahead and write a nonmusical stage version of Porgy.

DuBose Heyward’s wife, Dorothy, was an award-winning playwright. The two had met in 1922 at the MacDowell Colony, an artist retreat in New Hampshire, and Heyward was immediately smitten. In 1923 they married in New York where Dorothy’s play, Nancy Ann, won Harvard’s Belmont Prize, beating out Thomas Wolfe’s Welcome to My City. First prize was $500 and a Broadway production of the play. Meanwhile, MacMillan Publishing had accepted a volume of Heyward’s poetry for publication.  The young couple spent the first months of their marriage living apart, Dorothy in New York working on the play production and Heyward on a speaking tour across the South.

Heyward’s decision to go ahead with a dramatic stage version of Porgy, instead of waiting for Gershwin, was an important one. After all, he already had the perfect collaborator living under the same roof. Together the Heywards turned the novel into a stage play. Gershwin was fully supportive of the effort. He told Heyward that a stage script of the story could more easily be transformed into a libretto for the proposed opera.

Dorothy wrote most of the dialogue for the play, smoothing the Gullah dialect from the novel into more recognizable English. By the summer of 1926 the play was written and submitted to three professional production companies in New York. One week later, it was accepted by the Theatre Guild, but the Heywards were pessimistic that the play would ever be produced. They had one unshakable demand, which could easily have been the death knell of the production; they wanted black actors to play the black roles, not white actors in blackface, still common at the time. The original director resigned due to their demands and the play was set aside.

In early 1927 a young Armenian director named Rouben Mamoulian decided he would direct Porgy, with a black cast. Trained as a lawyer, Mamoulian and his sister had fled Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution, moved to London and began working in West End theaters. Mamoulian arrived in America at the invitation of George Eastman (of Eastman-Kodak) to work for the American Opera Company. It was there that he attracted the attention of the Theatre Guild, who asked him to stage Porgy.

Over the next thirty years, Mamoulian came to be known as “the mad Armenian” due to his frenetic energy. He directed more than twenty Hollywood movies and several successful Broadway plays, including the original Oklahoma (1943) and Carousel (1945). Porgy, however, was to be his first opportunity in charge of a Broadway production.

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Rouben Mamoulian

 To prepare, Mamoulian traveled to Charleston to soak up the atmosphere and learn about the Gullah culture. On his second day in Charleston, he was taken to the Jenkins Orphanage for an after-dinner private concert. Several women sang spirituals and then members of the Jenkins Band performed. Mamoulian was amazed by the band’s “melodious discordance” and the “infinitesimally small darkey boy who led the band.” Before leaving Charleston the next day, he persuaded Rev. Daniel Jenkins to allow the band to appear in the Porgy production.

Opening night for Porgy was October 10, 1927. At the beginning of the second act, when the cast travels to Kittawah Island for the picnic, they were led onstage by the Jenkins Band playing “Sons and Daughters Repent Ye Saith the Lord.”

Within a week, Porgy was playing to standing-room-only audiences. When it closed after 367 performances it was viewed as an overwhelming success, with a higher box office than its main competitor, Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings. During its run Porgy employed more than sixty black performers in a serious drama, unheard of on Broadway at that time.

Five years later, George Gershwin’s heavy work schedule finally lightened enough to allow him to devote his energies to the opera. In late February 1934 he reported to Heyward that “I have begun composing music for the first act, and I am starting with the songs and spirituals first.” He then asked Heyward to join him in New York so the work could be expedited. Over the next two months, while living in a guest suite at Gershwin’s famous fourteen-room house at 132 East Seventy-second Street, Heyward wrote the lyrics for almost a dozen Gershwin compositions, including “Summertime,” “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” “Buzzard Song,” “It Take A Long Pull to Get There,” “My Man’s Gone,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’.” The opera was beginning to take shape.

In June 1934, George Gershwin arrived by train in Charleston with his cousin, artist Henry Botkin. They drove out to Folly Beach, where Heyward had rented a cottage at 708 West Arctic Avenue.

Folly Beach was a remote, sparsely developed barrier island ten miles from Charleston. It was a vastly different world from Gershwin’s New York neighborhood, in the middle of rollicking night life and luxurious accommodations. Life at Folly Beach was at best simple and at worst primitive. The surrounding marshes were filled with gators and other wild, exotic creatures. Crabs and snakes entered houses freely. Heat and humidity often reached equatorial proportions. In his letters Gershwin complained that the heat “brought out the flys, and knats, and mosquitos,” leaving “nothing to do but scratch.” Two weeks later, the Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, S.C.) filed this story:

GERSHWIN, GONE NATIVE, BASKS AT FOLLY BEACH
Charleston, June 30.

Bare and black above the waist, an inch of hair bristling from his face, and with a pair of tattered knickers furnishing a sole connected link with civilization, George Gershwin, composer of jazz music, had gone native. He is staying at the Charles T. Tamsberg cottage at Folly Beach, South Carolina.

“I have become acclimated,” he said yesterday as he ran his hand experimentally through a crop of dark, matted hair which had not had the benefit of being combed for many, many days. “You know, it’s so pleasant here that it’s really a shame to work.”

Two weeks at Folly have made a different Gershwin from the almost sleek creator of “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Concerto in F” who arrived from New York City on June 16. Naturally brown, he is now black. Naturally sturdy, he is now sturdier. Gershwin, it would seem intends to play the part of Crown, the tremendous buck in “Porgy” who lunges a knife into the throat of a friend too lucky at craps and who makes women love him by placing huge black hands about their throats and tensing their muscles.

The opera “Porgy” which Gershwin is writing from the book and play by DuBose Heyward, is to be a serious musical work to be presented by the Guild Theater early next year, is an interpretation in sound of the life in Charleston’ “Catfish Row”; an impressionistic dissertation on the philosophy of negro life and the relationship between the negro and the white. Mr. Heyward, who is staying at Lester Karow’s cottage at the beach, spends every afternoon with the composer, cutting the score, rewriting and whipping the now-completed first act into final form.

“We are attempting to have an opera that is serious and dramatic,” Mr. Gershwin said.  “The whites will speak their lines, but the negroes will sing throughout. I hope the audience will get the idea. With the colored people there is always a song, see? They always find something to sing about somewhere. The whites are dull and drab.”

It is the crap game scene and subsequent murder by Crown which may make the first act the most dramatic of the production. A strange rhythm and an acid, biting quality in the music create the sensation of conflict and strife between men and strife caused by the rolling bones of luck.

“You won’t hear the dice click and roll,” he said. “It is impressionism, not realism. When you want to get a great painting of nature you don’t take a camera with you.”

Jazz will rear its hotcha head at intervals through the more serious music. Sporting Life, the negro who peddles “joy powder” or dope, to the residents of Catfish Row, will be represented by ragtime.

“Even though we are cutting as much as possible, it is going to be a very long opera,” Mr. Gershwin said. “It takes three times as long to sing a line as it does to say it. In the first act, scene one is 94 pages of music long and scene two is 74.”

There is only one thing about Charleston and Folly that Mr. Gershwin does not like. “Your amateur composers bring me their pieces for me to play. I am very busy and most of them are very bad – very, very bad,” he said.

Heyward took Gershwin on forays to neighboring James Island, which had a large Gullah population. They visited schools and especially churches. Gershwin was particularly fascinated by a dance technique called “shouting,” which entailed beating out a complicated rhythm with the feet and hands to accompany the spiritual singing. Heyward wrote:

The most interesting discovery to me, as we sat listening to their spirituals …was that to George it was more like a homecoming than an exploration. The quality in him which had produced the “Rhapsody in Blue” in the most sophisticated city in America, found its counterpart in the impulse behind the music and bodily rhythms of the simple Negro peasant of the South.

I shall never forget the night when at a Negro meeting on a remote sea-island George started ‘shouting’ with them. And eventually to their huge delight stole the show from their champion ‘shouter.’ I think he is probably the only white man in America who could have done it.

The first version of the opera ran four hours, with two intermissions, and was performed privately in a concert version at Carnegie Hall in 1935. The world premiere took place at the Colonial Theatre in Boston on September 30, 1935, the traditional out-of-town performance for any show headed for Broadway. The New York opening took place at the Alvin Theatre on October 10, 1935 and ran for 124 performances, impressive for an opera but woefully short for a musical. The reviews were decidedly mixed.

Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times, October 9, 1935:

After eight years of savory memories, Porgy has acquired a score, a band, a choir of singers and a new title, Porgy and Bess, which the Theatre Guild put on at the Alvin last evening … Although Mr. Heyward is the author of the libretto and shares with Ira Gershwin the credit for the lyrics, and although Mr. Mamoulian has again mounted the director’s box, the evening is unmistakably George Gershwin’s personal holiday … Let it be said at once that Mr. Gershwin has contributed something glorious to the spirit of the Heywards’ community legend.

It was called “crooked folklore and halfway opera” by Virgil Thomson. Whereas, Lawrence Levine stated: “Porgy and Bess reflects the odyssey of the African American in American culture.” Most critics complained about the form of the show – was it opera or musical?

Gershwin himself anticipated those reactions. In the New York Times in 1935 he said:

Because Porgy and Bess deals with Negro Life in America it brings to the operatic form elements that have never before appeared in the opera and I have adapted my method to utilize the drama, the humor, the superstition, the religious fervor, the dancing and the irrepressible high spirits of the race. If doing this, I have created a new form, which combines opera with theater, this new form has come quite naturally out of the material.

The argument still rages.

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George Gershwin and Dubose Heyward on Chalmers Street, Charleston.

People in Charleston, however, wasted little time in taking advantage of Porgy and Bess for profit. As the first American folk opera, composed by one of America’s greatest composers and based on a story written by a native son, the opera was a boon for Charleston marketing. Loutrel Briggs, landscape architect, who had moved to Charleston, became the driving force behind a movement to clean up Cabbage Row. He wanted to save the Row. He wrote:

DuBose Heyward, with an artistry to which my unskilled pen cannot do justice, has preserved for posterity the picturesque life of “Catfish Row,” and I have attempted to reclaim, with as little external change as possible, this building and restore it to something of its original state in revolutionary time.

The Chamber of Commerce paid for the placement of historical markers on structures throughout the city. The 1929 opening of the Cooper River Bridge had given motorists direct access to the city via Route 40 and the Atlantic Coast Highway. There was already an increase of tourists visiting in the city.  

The Chicago Tribune wrote:

In a world of change, Charleston changes less than anything …. Serene and aloof, and above all permanent, it remains a wistful reminder of a civilization that elsewhere has vanished from earth.

With the Great Depression gripping America, Charleston was in no financial position to turn away money. The pre-Revolutionary residential area of Heyward’s former neighborhood – Church and Tradd Streets – became a haven for tourist shops, catering to the much-disdained but much-needed Yankee dollar. Ladies of “quality” from Charleston’s “first families” opened coffee houses and tea shops and served as “lady guides” on walking tours down the cobblestone streets and back alleys. Their version of Charleston was completely focused on the glory days of the past, discussing “servants” not slaves, architecture not secession, George Washington not Jim Crow. They were trying to preserve, or more realistically, resurrect what Rhett Butler described in Gone With The Wind: “the calm dignity life can have when it’s lived by gentle folks, the genial grace of days that are gone.”

Led by two community-boosting-mayors John P. Grace and Thomas Stoney, this refocusing of history transformed Charleston in the 20st century. The 1930s preservation and tourism campaign solidified Charleston’s image as “America’s Most Historic City,” making it the darling of upscale tourists. In 2012, readers of the international travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler voted Charleston the #1 Tourism City in the World.

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Broadway production of Porgy & Bess. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Kendra Hamilton wrote:

The ironies of the situation are compelling. Charleston becomes daily more segregated, the chasm between rich and poor ever deeper and wider, as in the salad days before the war. The tourist-minded city fathers become daily more ingenious at smoothing down the ugly truths of the city’s history so as to increase its appeal to people whose impressions of the South owe more to Scarlett O’Hara than Shelby Foote. And yet, the city’s most readily identifiable cultural emblems – from Porgy to “the Charleston” – have African-American roots.

During the 1930s and ‘40s, DuBose Heyward’s former home at 76 Church Street became the Porgy Shop. This store sold antiques, china curios and other fine furnishings that had nothing to do with the opera, the play or the novel. It certainly had nothing in common with its namesake, a poor, violent, black beggar turned folk hero.

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Porgy House. Dubose Heyward’s home on Church Street where he wrote the novel Porgy, was turned into a gift shop.

In another ironic twist, the “first families” of Charleston, who made money from this skewed, picturesque version of history, did not even allow a version of their most famous commodity to be performed in its home setting until 1970, thirty-four years after its debut. Indeed, Charleston often goes out of its way to soften its African history. In the 1991 video, Charleston, S.C.: A Magical History Tour, Mrs. Betty Hamilton, daughter of artist Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, discusses her mother’s 1920s-era paintings as capturing “the Gullah South Carolina niggra with their simplicity and their sweetness.”

In 1952 a new international production of Porgy and Bess was mounted, featuring twenty-four year old newcomer Leontyne Price as Bess and the veteran Cotton Club song-and-dance man Cab Calloway as Sportin’ Life.  This production was a theatrical triumph in Vienna, Berlin and London and also a hit when it returned to New York’s Ziegfeld Theater. The black press, however, launched a furious attack on the opera. James Hicks, a reporter with the Baltimore Afro-American, called the opera:

the most insulting, the most libelous, the most degrading act that could possibly be perpetrated against colored Americans of modern times.

Critic William Warfield noted:

In 1952 the black community wasn’t listening to anything about plenty of nothing being good enough for me. Blacks began talking about being black and proud.

In 1954 there was an effort to produce Porgy in Charleston, but it ran into trouble. South Carolina law at the time forbade the “mixing of the two races in places of amusement” for “historic reasons of incompatibility.” Local black performers refused to perform in front of a segregated audience and the show was canceled. It wasn’t until 1970, during South Carolina’s tri-centennial festivities that an amateur production of Porgy and Bess was approved and subsequently performed in Charleston before an integrated audience. It was the first amateur production of the opera allowed by the Gershwin estate, but by that time, the opera had acquired a problematic legacy.

During the 1960s the Civil Rights and black power movements transformed America. Porgy and Bess became an embarrassment to many black activists. Harold Cruse wrote that:

Porgy and Bess belongs in a museum and no self-respecting African American should want to see it, or be seen in it.

Such is the love-hate relationship associated with Porgy and Bess, and the ebb-and-flow of cultural acceptance that endures to this day. However, in 2011 the story was reborn for Broadway. Titled The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and starring four-time, Tony-award winner Audra MacDonald, the new show was not without its own controversy. The producers changed some of the story and music to make it more appealing to modern audiences. The operatic-styled recitatives were replaced by spoken dialogue.

Nonetheless, the production was a runaway hit. It received ten nominations at the 2012 Tony Awards, winning Best Revival of a Musical and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for McDonald. It played for 322 performances, seventeen more than the 1953 revival, making it the longest-running production of Porgy and Bess on Broadway.

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This year, 2016, Porgy & Bess  is being performed during the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, and is accompanied by an all-out effusive campaign that encompasses the entire city and every media outlet – 81 years later. 

First Performance of “Rhapsody in Blue”

Rhapsody in Blue is to jazz what Sgt. Pepper’s Lonley Hearts Club Band is to rock and roll. 

It premiered in an afternoon concert on February 12, 1924, held by Paul Whiteman and his band at Aeolian Hall in New York City before a packed house. . The version performed that afternoon was for a 24-piece jazz band, not for full orchestra.

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George Gershwin at the piano.Library of Congress

Billed as an “Experiment In Modern Music”  the concert’s purpose was to demonstrate that the relatively new form of music called jazz deserved to be regarded as a serious and sophisticated art form.  A young man named George Gershwin, then known only as a composer of Broadway songs, seated himself at the piano to accompany the orchestra in the performance of a brand new piece of his own composition. 

New York Times critic Olin Downes wrote:

It starts with an outrageous cadenza of the clarinet. It has subsidiary phrases, logically growing out of it…often metamorphosed by devices of rhythm and instrumentation. This is no mere dance-tune set for piano and other instruments. This composition shows extraordinary talent, just as it also shows a young composer with aims that go far beyond those of his ilk.

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For all its mastery and subsequent acclaim, Rhapsody in Blue was put together very hastily. Just five weeks prior to the concert, Gershwin had not yet committed to writing a piece for it. His brother Ira read a report in the New York Tribune stating that George was “at work on a jazz concerto” for the program. Thus, in some desperation, Gershwin pieced Rhapsody In Blue together as best he could in the time available. On the day of the concert his own piano part had yet to written; it was improvised by Gershwin during the world premiere.

Rhapsody is important  because it helped change people’s perception of jazz from “low dance (and race) music, and it opened the door for a whole generation of “serious” composers, like Copland and Brech, to draw on jazz elements in their own important works. 

Black History Month: Freddie Green – “Mr. Rhythm.”

Frederick “Freddie” William Green (guitar, banjo, vocals,) 1911-1987

“Rhythm guitar is like vanilla extract in cake. You can’t taste it when it’s there, but you know when it’s left out.” – Irving Ashby

Freddie Green had the longest job in jazz history – guitar player in the Count Basie band from 1937 until his death fifty years later. In a Downbeat article in 1939 Billie Holiday was asked about marriage and she said:

I’ve loved three men. One was a Marion Scott, when I was a kid. He works for the post office now. The other was Freddie Green, Basie’s guitar man. But Freddie’s first wife is dead and he has two children and somehow it didn’t work out. The third was Sonny White, the pianist, but like me, he lives with his mother and our plans for marriage didn’t jell. That’s all.

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Freddie Green, cover of Jazz Podium

Freddie was born Charleston, South Carolina in 1911. He lived at 7 Dalts Court near Rutledge Avenue. Freddie’s first musical memories were at home. His father played the pump organ and his mother sang in the AME Church choir. He played the ukulele and sang baritone in barbershop quartets as a kid. They performed Irish songs on the street corners of Charleston for nickels and dimes. He was also a good dancer. That’s how he first ran into the Jenkins Orphanage Band. Green recalled: 

They used to come into my neighborhood. The minute I heard that brass I used to stop whatever I was doing and follow them all over the city … There was a group called the Nighthawks in Charleston and the trumpet player’s father was one of the teachers at the Jenkins Orphanage. His son was Samuel Walker. He was a terrific trumpet player so he had this group. I think it was trumpet, drums, saxophone, and piano … Most of the bands back in those days had banjos.

Freddie Green’s father died and at the age of twelve Freddie moved to New York City to live with his maternal aunt. They had an apartment in Harlem, on 141st Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, close to The Rhythm Club. That was where Freddie heard Jelly Roll Morton for the first time.  He attended PS-5l, located near 141st Street and Edgecombe Avenue, but left school at age sixteen. He remembered:

My aunt used to give house rent parties in Harlem. And she used to hire a guy to come in and play the piano. His name was Rock. He was a stride piano player. I really enjoyed the way he played. My aunt would keep drinks on the piano for him.

I made a friend with one of the guys in the neighborhood who was supposedly the baddest guy in the neighborhood. I think we had a fight one day. And after a while, I think I kind of knocked him down. And everybody was amazed that I did that to the bad guy. So then he and I were real close friends. And he was the leader of the gang on the block. We used to go around on different corners, that’s when the Charleston was out and I could always dance.  So he had a ukulele and we used to go on corners and dance.

Freddie Green returned home to Charleston for his mother’s funeral. His former neighbor from Dalts Court, Leotha Elmo, met him at the train station. She became Freddie’s girlfriend and later, his wife. He recalled how he became a professional musician:

There was a professor of brass instruments at Jenkins. Professor Blake was his name. We became good friends. I used to go to his house. He was a graduate of Howard University. He was a tuba player. On Sundays we would go through his library where his music books would be, and he’d help me. We would use a blackboard. We would go through the routine of scales, and what not.

My father-in-law was a contractor [in Charleston] and I used to help him quite a bit doing odd jobs and what-not … I tried all kinds of jobs and I was never pleased with whatever I did until music came.

We had our first kid. Then I left Charleston. The Jenkins [Orphanage] group had a show. They were going to tour the state of Maine. I left with them [as a non-resident of the orphanage and a grown man] and went up to Maine with this show they had. Went on the road with them with my banjo. We toured the state of Maine playing in Grange Halls, whatever they had up there in order to accommodate this traveling show. It was something! I don’t think we got paid. We played for contributions and the like.

The band had two alto saxes, one tenor sax, two trumpets, two trombones, one tuba, one banjo [Freddie] and drums. We used to have to get up around noon and play all through the streets … a parade, you  know. We were in the small towns of Maine. And we had dress uniforms that we wore.

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Freddie Green, 1940s

The Jenkins Band stopped in New York and Freddie decided to stay. He sent for Leotha and their son to join him.

During the early 1930s Freddie had two jobs in New York, working at a factory upholstering chairs during the daytime, and playing in a dance trio at night.

I was working in a club called the Yeah Man Club. I knew how to play the ukulele. And the banjo, well, I could tune it, you know what I mean (laughs). Then I got a few books on banjo chords. As soon as I picked up the banjo, the guitar came in (laughs).

At the Yeah Man I was playing banjo. And the manager of the club said “Well, everybody’s playing guitar now. You have to get a guitar, okay?” I got one from a music store on 47th Street. King’s Music Store. I bought it on time.

In 1937 Freddie was hired at the Black Cat Club in Greenwich Village for eleven dollars a week. Record producer and talent scout, John Hammond was a regular customer at the Black Cat. Hammond later achieved mythical status for his keen eye of spotting talent. Through the years he was given credit for “discovering” Billie Holiday, Pete Seeger, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughn. In his autobiography John Hammond on Record he discussed his first impressions of Green:

One of my favorite clubs was the Black Cat, a mob-owned joint. The band included two cousins, the drummer Kenny Clarke and the bass player Frank Clarke, but it was the guitarist that interested me the most. His name was Freddie Green, and I thought he was the greatest I had ever heard. He had unusually long fingers, a steady stroke, and unobtrusively held the whole rhythm section together. He was the antithesis of the sort of stiff, chugging guitarist Benny Goodman liked. Freddie was closer to the incomparable Eddie Lang than any guitar player I’d ever heard. He was perhaps not the soloist that Lang was, but he had a beat.

john hammond, 1939

John Hammond, 1939

Hammond had brought the Basie Band from Kansas City to New York and he thought a good rhythm guitar was the missing piece for the band’s sound. Green auditioned in Basie’s dressing room at Roseland. When the Basie Band left for Pittsburgh the next day, Freddie Green was on the bus and he stayed on it for the next five decades.

In 1938 the Count Basie Orchestra became one of the leading dance bands in America, due in part to what has been called “the All-American Rhythm Section”: Count Basie, piano; Jo Jones, drums; Walter Page, bass and Freddie Green, guitar.

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The All-American Rhythm Section, (L-R): Freddie Green, Jo Jones, Walter Page, Count Basie.

As the years passed, Freddie Green’s importance to the Count Basie Band increased. The numerous nicknames he acquired are good illustration of his musical stature: “Esquire” – because he was such a cool gentleman; “Pepper” or just “Pep” short for “Pepperhead”, because his head was shaped like a pepper; “The Fourth Wheel”, short for “the fourth wheel on the Basie band wagon”, “Quiet Fire” and “Mr. Rhythm.” Count Basie called Freddie Green “my left hand.”

Buck Clayton, trumpet player with Basie explained, “Basie never did play much with his left hand, so Freddie substituted for it.” Basie’s adopted son, Aaron Woodward III said, “… everyone knew Freddie’s position was of equal importance to Dad’s.”

Quincy Jones, who arranged for Basie as a young man before becoming more famous as Michael Jackson’s musical mentor and producer, said about Freddie:

That man is a sort of spirit. He doesn’t talk loud and he doesn’t play loud. But man! You sure know he’s there.

The brass and reeds can be up there shouting away, but there’s Freddie, coming right through it all, steady as a rock and clear as a bell. He’s something special. What he represents is the only one of its kind in existence.

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Freddie Green’s 1955 solo swing classic LP. Author’s collection

Saxophonist Paul Quinichette once observed of Green:

He’s got it right there, in his wrist. What he has is the key to a musical era, an unmatched mastery of big band rhythms.

Green did not live the stereotypical life of jazz musicians. He ate smartly, rarely drank or smoked. Even while on the road with the Basie band, he rose at 7 or 8 a.m. each morning to take a long walk or play golf. Singer Joe Williams, recalling his own philandering youth, says:

At a critical time, Freddie took me aside and advised, “Take some and leave some. Don’t try to get it all. You’ll enjoy it more and you’ll last much longer, no matter what it is.” Since it came from Freddie Green, who doesn’t say that much, he only had to say it once, and I’ve never forgotten it.

When Charlie Christian introduced the electric guitar with the Benny Goodman in 1939, the jazz world changed dramatically. Freddie, however, continued to use his acoustic guitar on stage. Harry Edison recalls:

Charlie Christian and he [Freddie] were very close friends, and Christian gave him an amplifier. But whenever Freddie would lay out of the band to take his solo, the whole rhythm section used to fall apart. It got to the point where we had to do something about it. So one night I would remove the plug from Freddie’s amplifier wire and it wouldn’t work. Next night Herschel Evans would break a wire in it so it wouldn’t play, and Freddie would have it fixed … So finally we took all the guts out of the amplifier. Freddie got ready to play one night and there was nothing but a box. Naturally he got furious but nobody paid him any attention. So he reached a point where he said, “Well, to hell with it. I won’t play anymore solos.” So that’s the reason he’s not a soloist today. He probably could have been one of the best at that time, but we had to sacrifice him for the good of the band.

One of the greatest Freddie Green stories was how Freddie re-hired himself to play with Basie in 1950. After World War II most of the big bands were struggling to make money. So, Basie, like other top bands, was forced to downsize. He put together a small group that included Clark Terry, Buddy DeFranco, Bob Graf, Jimmy Lewis, and Gus Johnson. They worked a month at the Brass Rail in Chicago. Everyone in the audience was surprised that Freddie Green was not with the group.

When the sextet met in New York for their next gig, Green was sitting on the bandstand with his guitar. Clark Terry recalled the dialogue between Basie and Green:

Basie: “Say, Pep, you’re not on this gig, are you?”

Green: “You’re workin’, aren’t you? After I gave you the best years of my life, you think you’re going to leave me now?”

basie, chairman board

So the sextet became a septet and Freddie Green remained the anchor of the rhythm section until his death. During his career Freddie Green performed worldwide, made over 1,000 recordings with the Basie band, and appeared as a sideman on over 700 recordings by other jazz artists.  The list of artists he recorded with are a Who’s Who of the 20th century: Mildred Bailey, Emmett Berry, Ruby Braff, Kenny Burrell, Benny Carter, Buck Clayton, Al Cohn, Harry Edison, Duke Ellington, Herb Ellis, Karl George, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, Billie Holiday, Illinois Jacquet, Jo Jones, Joe Newman,  Paul Quinichette, Jimmy Rushing, Pee Wee Russell, John Sellers, Sonny Stitt, Joe Sullivan, Jack Teagarden, Joe Turner, Earl Warren, Dicky Wells, Teddy Wilson, and Lester Young.

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Duke Ellington, Freddie Green, Count Basie

Through the years Freddie Green also became the gauge of quality. Byron Stripling, trumpet player with Basie said, “If an arranger comes in and his work is jive, Freddie just shakes his head and it’s all over.”

According to Dennis Wilson (trombone), all new Basie Band members had to deal with:

… the intimidation of Freddie Green. You never know if Freddie likes you. It worries you until that mystical, magical day when he finally says a couple of words to you. Then you know you’re okay, and you realize he hasn’t been testing you; he’s been allowing you to test yourself.

When Count Basie died in 1984 almost every publication in the world offered a eulogy. Freddie Green simply said: “I’ve been with the band since 1937, what am I to do now?”

Thad Jones, the popular trumpeter and Basie sideman, was chosen to take up the reins of the Basie Band after the Count’s death. He commented:

I don’t think it’s possible to speak of the Basie band without Freddie Green. He’s the link that keeps the tradition alive. He’s the dean, the guy we look to for that spiritual thing.

In the May 1983 issue of Guitar Player, Jim Hall wrote:

If you pruned the tree of jazz, Freddie Green would be the only person left. If you have to listen to only one guitarist, study the way he plays rhythm with Count Basie.

One of the longest and quietest careers in musical history came to a conclusion on March 1, 1987.  Freddie Green died of a heart attack after playing a Basie show in Las Vegas. Tributes and obituaries poured in from all over the world. Several days later, what was intended to be a surprise tribute to Green in Los Angeles organized by jazz critic Leonard Feather was turned into a memorial featuring the Basie band, vocalist Sarah Vaughan, and guitarist Kenny Burrell. Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley declared March 19 Freddie Green Day.

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Freddie Green, “Mr.Rhythm”

Sonny Cohn said, “The most important part of your body is your heart. It keeps everything else going. That’s what Freddie does.”

Dennis Wilson, a trombonist and composer-arranger with Count Basie said, “It’s as if in the Bible they said, ‘Let there be time’, and Freddie started playing.”

Freddie’s son, Al Green, eulogized his father:

Dad had a quiet dignity about him, with a demeanor of an elder statesman, unassuming, diplomatic, and fair. I spent three days with Dad to celebrate his Grammy nomination as a member of The Swing Reunion album. As we got dressed for the affair that evening, he asked if I would help him with his bow tie, a kind of reversal of roles that we both acknowledged warmly. After the Grammys when we were departing, we kissed and embraced, (not knowing that it would be for the last time), he said, “I really enjoyed this time we got to spend together. It was special.”

You’ve lost Mr. Rhythm. We’ve lost our Dad. I’ve lost my hero.

Freddie once discussed about his role in the Basie band:

The main thing is the Basie band. I get a joy out of keeping the band together and supplying the soloists with a foundation. That’s more soloing to me than soloing. I’ve played rhythm so long that it’s just the same as playing solos as far as I’m concerned. The rhythm guitar is very important. A performance has what I call a “rhythm wave”, and the rhythm guitar can help to keep that wave smooth and accurate. I have to concentrate on the beat, listening for how smooth it is. If the band is moving smoothly, then I can play whatever comes to mind, but that doesn’t happen too often.

      I feel responsible for keeping my part in the structure going, as from the original band. I do what I do. That’s enough.  It’s given me a whole lot of joy, pleasure, good feeling. And some bad feeling which goes with everything – you’ve got to take the bitter with the sweet. I’m part of it, and I’m doing a job, and that’s it. I realize that the public likes the band. And I appreciate it. And I think that’s what keeps us going. I go along. After all, you have to live.

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The rhythm section at work. 


FREDDY GREEN DISCOGRAPHY

Selected Count Basie Recordings:

  • The Complete Decca Recordings, 1937-39. Verve, 1992
  • Count Basie Live – 1938 At The Famous Door, NYC. Jazz Hour Records, 1997
  • April In Paris. Polygram Records, 1956
  • The Complete Atomic Basie. Blue Note Records, 1958
  • Chairman of the Board. Blue Note Records, 1958

Other Recommended Recordings:

  • Rhythm – Freddie Green. Fresh Sound Records.

These are the only recording sessions available with Green as band leader. As one would expect, its filled with sharp, tight arrangements of swinging songs, all propelled by Freddie’s steady rhythm guitar playing.

  • Billie Holiday – The Legacy. AMG, 1991.

This three-boxed set offers more than 50 songs that cover Lady Day’s career. Twenty-three of the songs feature Freddie’s very audible guitar strumming.

From the book Doin’ the Charleston (2013)

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Today In Charleston History: March 21

1917 – Music

From the Musical News, London: 

A song, “How Sweet Is Life” by a student, Mr. Edmund T. Jenkins, showed the composer to be possessed of a vein of melody, not original as yet, and of a style which needs unifying, but his effort was full of promise, especially in the matter of orchestration. The song was well rendered by Miss Marjorie Perkins.

Edmund Thorton Jenkins

Edmund Thorton Jenkins

Edmund Jenkins (who was called “Jenks”) was the son of Rev. Daniel Jenkins, founder of the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston. He grew up playing with the Jenkins Orphanage Band, but longed to play “serious music.” He took piano lessons in Charleston and attended Morehouse College in Atlanta.

In 1914 the Jenkins Band was invited to perform at the Anglo-American Expo in London and Jenks performed with the band until the outbreak of World War I closed down the Expo. Jenks was admitted to the Royal Academy of Music in London where he studied composition.     

1921 – Music

Ethel Waters had her first recording session for the Pace & Handy Music Company. She recorded two songs –  “Down Home Blues” and “At The Jump Steady Ball.” The songs were were composed by her Charleston friend, Tom Delaney, formerly a member of the Jenkins Orphanage Band. 

A twenty-three year old former chemistry student named Fletcher Henderson played the piano for the session. “Down Home Blues” became a hit so Pace & Handy paired Waters and Delaney together and sent them out on tour, Waters on vocals and Delaney on piano.   

To learn more about Charleston’s role in American music … read Doin’ the Charleston. 

doin' the charleston

Today In History: October 29

1717 -Bloodless Revolution

Governor Robert Johnson met with the Assembly for the first time. As the representative of the Proprietors, he was not warmly received. The lack of assistance the Proprietors offered during the Yemassee War had soured the people’s opinion. Judge NicholasTrott and Col. William Rhett, Speak of the Assembly, were the two most powerful men in colony, more respected than the Proprietors.  Johnson, however, knew that former Governor Craven was in London seeking a path to make South Carolina a Royal Colony. During his address to the Assembly Johnson said:

I am obliged for your sakes to give you my opinion touching the disrespectful behavior that has of late been shown to the Lords Proprietors … very unjustifiable and impolitic. If it be supposed their character is a bar to your relief, it is a mistake. His Majesty and his Parliament are too just to divest their Lordships of their properties without a valuable consideration.

1824 – Deaths

Charles Pinckney

Charles Pinckney died. In his will Pinckney stated that his body be laid out until decomposition began – a common practice to avoid the possibility of being buried alive. However, against his wishes, the funeral was held the next day and he was buried at St. Philip’s graveyard.

His will also freed eight slaves, Primus, Cate, Betty and Dinah, as well as Dinah’s children –Anthony, John, Peneta and Carlos. He directed that the four children be “suitably maintained and bound out for trades.” Dinah was a “washerwoman” whom seemed special to Pinckney. It was openly speculated that the freed children were Pinckney’s own with Dinah. Particularly in the light of Pinckney’s service in Spain and two of the children having Spanish names, including one named Carlos, the Spanish version of Charles, that speculation seems likely. 

1924 – The “Charleston” Debuts on Broadway

16. charleston (runnin' wild)_edited-1Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles introduced their second Broadway show Runnin’ Wild with songs by James P. Johnson and Cecil Mack. The choreographer, Elida Webb, later falsely claimed to have invented the “Charleston” dance. Yet, the first act of Runnin’ Wild ended with the “Charleston” performed by Elizabeth Welsh, backed by a group of chorus boys called the “Dancing Redcaps.”

James Weldon Johnson wrote when the dance was introduced in Runnin’ Wild:

They did not wholly depend upon the orchestra – an extraordinary jazz band – but had the major part of the chorus supplement it with hand and foot patting. The effect was electrical and contagious. It was the best demonstrating of beating out complex rhythms I have ever witnessed; and, I do not believe New York ever before witnessed anything of just its sort.

Roger Pryor Dodge, in his book Hot Jazz and Jazz Dance says:

The famous single-step, the Charleston, suggests the rhythm 4/4 but does not explicitly state it. The Charleston rhythm … pervades all music, and for our purposes is predominant in ragtime. Nevertheless the Charleston rhythm had not, up to the time of James P. Johnson’s composition “Charleston” become unmistakably identified. While ragtime sheet music and piano rolls are records of the past, the elusive elements of the dance are lost. Whether the dancers actually used a Charleston rhythm before James P.’s piece I do not know. Since that time and with the help of a music strongly accenting this rhythm, the dancers still do not actually follow it, but give the impression that they do only because we associate the step with a music having this rhythm. Maybe James P. made point of constantly holding to this rhythm because of the impression he got from the dancers, or very likely with the music in a slower tempo some dancers did more than just give an impression of the rhythm and did accent it. Certainly the dance was not evolved to fit James P.’s composition; rather, James P. derived his music from his impression of the dancers, with the possibility that some of them actually may have followed the musical rhythm. Thus our visual impression of the step is influenced by the Charleston rhythm in the music so that whatever the dancer is doing we assume he is still following the musical rhythm.

The Charleston dance step may have a longer history than most think. The Branle of 1520 is presumed by most dance scholars to be similar to the Charleston. Dance historians speculate the Ashanti People of Africa were the originators since some of their tribal dances incorporated what could be viewed as Charleston-style steps and movements.

But Willie “the Lion” Smith in his autobiography mentions a black Charleston dancer named Russell Brown:

His dance was a Geechie step like those I had seen in “The Jungles” [a name often used in the 1910s for the San Juan Hill District of New York]. He was given a nickname by the people of Harlem . . . they would holler at him, “Hey Charleston, do your Geechie dance!” Some folks say that is how the dance known as the Charleston got its name. I’m a tough man for facts, and I say the Geechie dance had been around New York for many years before Brown showed up. The kids from the Jenkins Orphanage Band of Charleston used to do Geechie steps when they were in New York on their yearly tour.

It can safely be accepted that the origins of “the Charleston” are most likely a combination of all of the above, particularly the line that runs from the Ashanti African tribal dances directly to the southern plantations of the 18th and 19th centuries. What cannot be denied is that by the end of 1923, everybody in the country was doin’ the Charleston.

Nothing else epitomizes the spirit and joyous exuberance of one the most tumultuous decades in American history as the Charleston dance. Other dance crazes have had their fifteen minutes of fame: the Waltz, Tango, Hokey-pokey, Twist, Hustle, Macarena, and Breakdancing. None of them, however, managed to influence and infect an entire generation so thoroughly the way the Charleston did. Almost 100 years later, the image of the Jazz Age is always a Flapper doing the Charleston. No other American decade can be so neatly summed up in one simple image.

blogue-charleston - Copy

From the book Doin’ the Charleston: Black Roots of American Popular Music & the Jenkins Orphanage Legacy

doin' the charleston

Today In Charleston History: October 22

1774

Henry Middleton served as second president of the Continental Congress.

1862 – Civil War

Gus Smythe enlisted in the Signal Corps in Charleston and reported to Capt. Joseph Manigault. He wrote to his Aunt Janey:

I have not yet been assigned to any station, but trust to be kept at the Bathing House [South Battery] … As to accommodations, they are MUCH better than in camp, as we (in town) all stay in houses …

 

View of Charleston from Ft. Wagner

View of Charleston from Ft. Wagner

1925 – Doin’ the Charleston

One of the clubs that challenged the Cotton Club in popularity was Small’s Paradise. Ed Smalls was born in Charleston and moved to New York as a young man. Charleston legend claims that he was kin to the legendary Robert Smalls, an African slave who, during the Civil War, stole a steamer in Charleston harbor and delivered it to the Union navy. Robert Smalls later became one of the first black Congressmen in 1865. Another legend states that Ed Smalls was also related to the notorious Sammy Smalls, “Goat Cart Sam,” a crippled beggar who was often seen drunk on the streets of Charleston being pulled around in a goat cart. Sam usually frequented gambling saloons and whorehouses. “Goat Cart Sam” was about to become a legendary and universal character known as Porgy, the title character of Dubose Heyward’s lyrical novel of black life in Charleston. 

Both stories are untrue.

Ed Smalls opened Small’s Paradise on October 22, 1925. It was housed in a large basement at 2294½ Seventh Avenue at 135th Street and could accommodate 1500 patrons. It offered extravagant floor shows and the Charlie Johnson Orchestra played the hottest jazz music in Harlem. The Paradise also featured a slew of flamboyant, Charleston-dancing gay waiters who served Chinese food and bootleg liquor to the small tables. During those early years, the Charlie Johnson Orchestra featured two former Jenkins Orphanage trumpet players: Gus Aiken and Jabbo Smith, who had just recently “escaped” from the orphanage.

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Smalls Paradise, New York City. Author’s Collection

Today In Charleston History: October 10

1765 – Elections

The people of the back country of South Carolina decided to show their unhappiness with the Charlestown politicians during the election. Many rode more than 100 miles to vote. The voters of St. Paul’s parish (Colleton County) arrived to discover that the election had been held ten days before the announced date. They were told by Charlestown officials that was due to an error by the printer, which no one believed.

1935
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Original playbill

The New York opening of Porgy and Bess took place at the Alvin Theatre in New York City and ran for 124 performances, impressive for an opera, and but woefully short for a musical. The reviews were decidedly mixed. Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times, October 9, 1935:

After eight years of savory memories, Porgy has acquired a score, a band, a choir of singers and a new title, Porgy and Bess, which the Theatre Guild put on at the Alvin last evening … Although Mr. Heyward is the author of the libretto and shares with Ira Gershwin the credit for the lyrics, and although Mr. Mamoulian has again mounted the director’s box, the evening is unmistakably George Gershwin’s personal holiday … Let it be said at once that Mr. Gershwin has contributed something glorious to the spirit of the Heywards’ community legend.

Composer/critic Virgil Thomson, writing for the New York Herald-Tribune, was less kind, calling Gershwin’s incorporation of blues and jazz influences into a “serious” operatic score to be “falsely conceived and rather clumsily executed…crooked folklore and half-way opera.”

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Porgy and Bess, original cast