The American Sound: The Evolution of Jazz

Friday, February 5, 2016

By Cecilia Padilla
There is nothing so uniquely American as jazz music. In its simplest form, jazz embodies the essence of the American people: bold and inventive. The improvisation of the jazz ensemble can even be seen as a metaphor for the American democratic ideal: musicians playing solos have the liberty to express themselves as long as they adhere to the overall structure of the tune—individual freedom but with responsibility to the group. The evolution of jazz music also carries with it the social development of our nation from slavery to the swinging songs of World War II. Musically, jazz contributed immensely to the way contemporary musicians approach instrumentation, composition, and vocal arrangements. It is difficult to find a popular tune today that does not derive from such jazz icons as Joe Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk. Jazz is the great equalizer; for more than a hundred years, it has been the common ground between blacks and whites, men and women, radicals and conservatives.

African American man sitting outside playing a banjo.
Photo by V.G. Schreck, 1902. Courtesy Library of Congress. 
The early origins of jazz trace back to two sources in New Orleans history: African slaves and Creole descendants. By 1808, the Atlantic slave trade had brought half a million Africans to the United States, where they were forced to work on southern plantations. While working in the fields, slaves sang work songs that combined African tribal chants with Christian hymns incorporated from the Southern Baptist Church. Together, these influences created Negro spirituals that had strong, percussive beats and were accompanied by intense physical dancing. White slave owners felt that this music and dance distracted slaves from their work, and in New Orleans, slaves’ participation in Negro spirituals was confined by law to Congo Square in 1817. The strong, rhythmic music played in Congo Square remains a distinctive tone in jazz today. 
After the abolition of slavery in 1865, the United States was confronted with the need to rebuild the nation out of the wreckage of the Civil War. The Reconstruction Era was a period of revitalization of the U.S. economy and government, as well as the redefinition of race relations between blacks and whites. In New Orleans, this racial reconsideration influenced the sound of jazz. Creoles, the light-skinned descendants of white French and Spanish colonists who had had sex with their black female slaves, identified more with their European roots than with their African ancestry. They often looked down on their dark-skinned counterparts and avoided association with slave stereotypes. Many Creoles were classically trained in music and played with the elegance of European orchestras, which became a means of distancing themselves from “crude” slave music. The blending of Negro spirituals and Creole classical music, along with Civil War military marches, would contribute to a new genre: ragtime.
In the 1890s, pianists in New Orleans took to playing this new style of music set to syncopated rhythms—previously unaccented beats were now strongly accented. This gave the tunes ragged rhythms, hence the term “ragtime.” First circulated by itinerant musicians, ragtime songs were eventually printed as sheet music, something that had not been done for Negro spirituals. Ragtime was popularized by Scott Joplin, who composed the iconic tune “The Entertainer.” The genre’s syncopated musical meter remains one of jazz’s defining characteristics. 
*To read more about the evolution of jazz, click here to purchase a hard or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

Bilingual Play Illuminates the Stories of Women from La Colectiva

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

By Ariella Wolfe 

In mid January, A.C.T. Studio 8G was filled with stories, Spanish and English translation, songs, laughter, and even some BeyoncĂ©. Sky Festival, the annual three-week period during which the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) Program explores and develops student-originated new material, provided an opportunity for M.F.A. students, staff from the Education & Community Programs Department’s Stage Coach initiative, and members of the San Francisco community to create theater together, build relationships, and share their work with the rest of the A.C.T. community.

Part of the ensemble of Mariposas de Papel. Photo by Ariella Wolfe. 

Following last year’s Sky Festival/Stage Coach production of Stories from the ’Loin (humanizing stories of homelessness in the Tenderloin), M.F.A. second-year student Diana Gonzalez-Morett and Community Producer Rebecca Struch proposed a community-devised theater project that would feature the stories of women from San Francisco who have immigrated from Latin America and are employed as domestic workers. Allowing space for these stories is crucial, as the narratives of women of color, immigrants, and the working class have often been overlooked or silenced in traditional theater spaces. In the New Year, Struch and Gonzalez-Morett connected with Guillermina Castellanos, the co-founder of La Colectiva de Mujeres, “a worker-run collective that helps empower immigrant women and connect them with jobs.” The newly formed ensemble began sharing stories and developing creative content that eventually became the play Mariposas de Papel.

Learning a dance. Photo by Jennifer Apple.
Team-building game. Photo by Jennifer Apple. 
In community collaborations, the process is a large part of the product. Throughout the week and a half of rehearsals, ensemble members shared moving experiences from their own lives, fostered trust, navigated language barriers, and supported each other in deepening their skills as performers. When the doors opened for the culminating performances, audiences shared in the joy and strength of the women’s stories. Nancy Livingston, the Chair of A.C.T.’s Board of Trustees, explained one powerful result of the production: “the woman sitting next to me . . . came because her domestic worker (who was in the play) asked her to. She was in tears by the end of it and told me that although she had been to A.C.T. before, she had never seen anything like this and was so glad she had come.” Hopefully this project will lead to a continued relationship with the women of La Colectiva, especially as it affirms A.C.T. as a space for both embracing and transcending cultural differences through theater.

Photo by Rebecca Struch 

A Hell of a Businessman: A Biography of Joe Glaser

Friday, January 29, 2016

By Simon Hodgson

Born in 1897, Joe Glaser was the son of a successful Russian Jewish physician in Chicago. He originally intended to follow a similar career and entered medical school, but after passing out in the operating room, he realized he wasn’t cut out to be a doctor. He started off in business selling used cars, but found better luck managing prizefighters.

In his biography of Al Capone, Laurence Bergreen notes, “Glaser’s power to fix fights earned him a reputation as a sage of boxing, especially among reporters.” With advanced word as to which fights were fixed, Glaser could predict the results—and even the number of rounds—of many bouts in Chicago. His connections with organized crime continued in his next career change, when he began running nightclubs and whorehouses in the South Side for the Chicago Outfit, the powerful underworld gang led by Capone.

Glaser’s tendency toward illegal action nearly ended his career. In 1928, he was sentenced to ten years in prison for the statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl, but he dodged the charge by marrying her. Although his connections with Capone were enough to help him escape a similar charge months later, the scandals forced Glaser out of the nightclub business and back to boxing.

When Louis Armstrong approached Glaser to become his manager in 1935, both men were at a crossroads in their careers. While Glaser’s rise had been stalled by his run-ins with the law, Armstrong was looking for protection. He’d been threatened by several mobsters, including notorious New York gang leader Dutch Schultz, and after a series of inadequate managers, he wanted a partner with both savvy and steel. For the trumpeter, the businessman’s link to Capone and his reputation as a tough customer only added to his appeal. “You don’t know me,” Glaser would tell new acquaintances, “but you know two things about me: I have a terrible temper, and I always keep my word.”

From the start, the partnership was profitable. Glaser gave up his prizefighters, made Armstrong his sole focus, and went on the road with the musician and his band, where he quickly learned the ropes of touring. More importantly, he took on the “bad cop” role of negotiating contracts and firing band members, leaving Armstrong free to blow his horn.

Their symbiotic relationship was not just based on business. Armstrong saw in the older man the father figure he’d been searching for all his life. Glaser felt a similar loyalty. “I’m Louis and Louis is me,” he said in an interview with TIME in 1949. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him.” Barney Bigard, a clarinetist and longtime collaborator with Armstrong, said that the relationship between the two men was genuine. “When Louis said in an interview that Joe was the greatest man he had ever met, he probably meant it. They really were plain old-fashioned friends. Louis wasn’t just saying that for business reasons.”

With the former nightclub manager handling the business and the trumpeter drawing the crowds, Glaser and Armstrong made millions. Glaser steered the musician toward mainstream audiences by securing spots on television shows, in national magazines, and in Hollywood movies, not to mention lining up his most successful single—“Hello, Dolly!” The resulting publicity helped turn Armstrong into an iconic figure in American public life.

While Glaser kept a lower media profile, he also enjoyed the rewards of their joint success, spending his time raising thoroughbred bulldogs, attending baseball games, and driving a blue Rolls-Royce convertible. The company he founded, Associated Booking Corporation (ABC), went on to represent not only Armstrong but also Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and dozens of African American musicians. “If I have Joe Glaser’s word,” said TV-show host Ed Sullivan, “I can go to sleep. And the performer he is booking can go to sleep too.” Glaser was “a hell of a businessman,” said Bigard. “I don’t think anyone else could have taken Louis as far as he did.”

Although Glaser’s career and his relationship with the musician were secure by the time of his death in 1969, his old criminal connections would sour Armstrong’s memory of him. Only after Glaser’s death did Armstrong realize the financial imbalance of their “partnership.” Control of ABC went not to him—as he had expected—but to gangland lawyer and fixer Sidney Korshak. The switch in succession had taken place seven years before; court documents from 1962 show Korshak’s acquisition of stock and voting rights. While Satchmo at the Waldorf suggests that the mob lawyer used blackmail to persuade Glaser, exactly how this transfer of corporate control happened remains
a mystery.
Welcome to the A.C.T. social community blog!
Join in the conversation, engage with fellow theater lovers, and enjoy amazing offers throughout the season.