Jazz Operas

What follows is my commentary on Dave Peyton’s commentary on the Jazz Opera, a relatively new idea which sought to combine aspects of music considered polar opposites at the time: Opera, a very white genre, with jazz, which is generally considered a black genre. At this time in 1926, Dave Peyton’s “The Musical Bunch,” a weekly column for the Chicago Defender, was only in its first year of the five that it lasted in the 1920s. Sources generally mention 1924 as the beginnings of the jazz opera, which makes the concept “nearly as old as jazz itself.”1
Therefore, Dave Peyton is writing a very early commentary on what in his time was a very new idea.

An interesting remark about this post is that in writing this article, Peyton is acting as a journalist in talking about what is currently happening. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, however, he is writing about the future of both jazz and opera. Peyton is very clear in saying that wants the call for a jazz opera answered by an African American. Peyton not only characterizes this idea well through interesting writing, he also supports it with evidence, listing the gap in talent in Tin Pan Alley. And while he doesn’t believe that George Gershwin, a famous jazz pianist at the time, is an unfit composer, Peyton mentions that his music “is not what the people wanted.” So who should write the first jazz opera hit? Peyton strongly believes that an African American should take this call. He lists spirituals being used by whites, and even gives an idea for the operas, saying that the opera could be about “before and after the reconstruction period, depicting the hardships that were heaped upon our group.”2

Dave Peyton smartly uses his influence as an author on the Chicago Defender to not only give a brief overview of the musical happenings in the broader jazz community, but also as a call for jazz musicians, especially African American jazz musicians to act. Peyton’s opinions shown here in this column can be easily compared to the opinions that he was known for. One example of this is the controversial opinion that white orchestra groups were superior to black groups.3
While Peyton actively worked against this, he may have fallen to popular opinion at the time.

1 “When Opera Meets Jazz” Boston Lyric Theater, https://blo.org/when-opera-meets-jazz-a-brief-history/

2 “Peyton, Dave. “The Musical Bunch: Jazz Opera” Chicago Defender. 16 January 1926.

3 Peyton, Dave, and Walser, Robert. “Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History” “A Black Journalist Criticizes Jazz”

Antonin Dvorak’s Relationship with Johannes Brahms

Every composer has a beginning and time where they are relatively unknown. This was the case for Antonin Dvorak, who ended up being both a European and American influencer in music. Up until his thirties, Dvorak, who was born and raised in a small Czech town, was relatively unknown in musical circles. In 1877, however, Johannes Brahms recommended one of Dvorak’s works to his own publisher.1
The piece was one from the grants Dvorak had applied for, which were focused on helping poorer composers get their start as composers. Remarkably, Antonin Dvorak clearly benefited indirectly from the grants he received.

Below is Dvorak’s response to hearing about Brahms’ recommendation.2
The letter is very thankful throughout, as one would think Dvorak might be at this time in his life. This letter, in fact, is the beginning of a relationship between two great composers, as Brahms continued to help Dvorak find his voice and eventually become the Dvorak that is well known in Europe and the US, and likely other parts of the world. This letter is remarkable to have been kept considering its historical significance. If not for this relationship, Dvorak’s music might not have impacted American music to the extent that it did. 

Commentary on this letter contextualizes it well, but that can also be a lazy excuse to not read this letter critically and follow a primary source reading guide. While the pages surrounding this letter talk much about Dvorak’s and Brahms’ relationship, they don’t mention American music, which Dvorak later came to know and influence. Many books and articles mention that Dvorak’s New World Symphony transformed American music, but a certain New York Times article debunks this theory.3
While Dvorak’s symphony surely had its influence, this article especially discredits the idea that Dvorak was the first to say that American music would have its unique characteristic in African American melodies. While there are many other details on composers who pioneered this view before Dvorak, a singular message can be taken away by the reader: the way music developed was not due to one person, but rather through a complicated journey. It just so happens that Brahms’ recommendation of Dvorak to his publisher was one piece of a large puzzle of the slow transformation of American music.

1. Beverage, David R., “antonin Dvorak”, Dvorak American Heritage Association, https://www.dvoraknyc.org/bio#:~:text=In%20December%201877%20Brahms%20took,to%20texts%20of%20Moravian%20folk

2.  Geiringer, Karl. “On Brahms and His Circle.” Harmonie Park Press, 2006, p. 351. 

3 Shadle, Douglas W., “Did Dvorak’s ‘New World’ Symphony Transform American Music?” 14 December 2018. The New York Times

Are Musicals Inherently American?

There are certain musical genres that are considered to be inherently American, and one often overlooked one is musical theater. While the musical is a broad concept, the first modern musical is usually attributed to The Black Crook, which opened in New York in 1866.1 Therefore, America was at the heart of the beginnings of the musical, many would say. But is that the case? 

As is common with history, giving a topic a second glance usually sheds new light and much more meaning is discovered. This is also the case with musicals, as a quick search will bring up information related to the first musicals in New York City. David Armstrong, a musical theater ‘legend’ who teaches at the University of Washington, talks about how “musical theater got its start following a huge wave of Irish immigration in the late 1800s.”2 So musical theater is some form that could be thought of as Irish. But aren’t Irish in America considered Americans? This is where debating the origin of a particular genre gets muddled, and complexities are often shown with a simplistic cover. 

One particular musical named “Belle of New York” has an interesting story. While it was successful in the US, British audiences (London, in particular) enjoyed this musical as well. A picture of this musical from 1898 is shown below.3

Compared to a mere 64 performances in New York (perhaps ironically), the “Belle of New York” ran “for an almost unprecedented 674 performances” in Britain.4 An 1898 New York Times newspaper describes this fact as an “experiment of transplanting American burlesque to London”.5 While typically thought of as distinct regions, the British Isles and the US become tightly interrelated by musical theater. While Irish immigrants in New York were possibly large influencers and founders of musical theater, this musical art eventually found its way back to the British Isles, especially London. Because the majority of Americans are immigrants, it makes sense that this type of American music is essentially the music of immigrants. Musical theater, especially in its early days, is an especially good example of this multi-regional origin and spread.

1 Stewart, James. “Timeline: American Musicals.” 13 February 2017. Vermont Public. https://www.vermontpublic.org/programs/2017-02-13/timeline-american-musicals

2 “The Surprising History of Musical Theater.” University of Washington. https://www.washington.edu/storycentral/story/the-surprising-history-of-musical-theater/

3 Byron Company, Plays, “The Belle of New York.” 1898. Museum of the City of New York.

4 The Belle of New York [Musical Comedy].” Josef Lebovic Gallery. https://www.joseflebovicgallery.com/pages/books/CL200-5/the-belle-of-new-york-musical-comedy

5 Lederer’s London Effort, The New York Times. 12 April 1898. https://www.proquest.com/hnpnewyorktimes/docview/95619956/CC62D1F7E093472EPQ/4?accountid=351

Ballet and Minstrelsy

As someone who is not very familiar with both ballet or minstrelsy, I didn’t think there was any relation between them. But more research led to clear connections between ballet and minstrelsy, primarily abroad in the current world. Closer to home but further in the past, it turns out that a minstrel themed ballet called Blackface was created by Lew Christensen, a choreographer who was the ballet master of several major ballet societies in the US.1 While described as a failure2 (perhaps rightly so given its content), this ballet could say something about the connection between minstrelsy and ballet. 

Talley Beatty and Betty Nichols are pictured below in Christensen’s Blackface.3 Both encountered racism in ballet, especially early in their careers in the 1940s. In fact, Betty Nichols was the first black student at the school of American Ballet.4 Interestingly enough, another picture by American Photographer Larry Colwell listed a similar picture (with clearly Talley’s same dance partner, Betty) in the Library of Congress as “Beatty, Talley, with unidentified partner.”5 This ‘unidentified partner’ is clearly Betty Nichols.

Searching up Lew Christensen’s ballet Blackface brought nothing up online. Was this censored, or taken down because of its content? Searching through sources, I could not find any that had detailed information on this ballet. This instance brings up a question for discussion: Are we to take down and forget a history of racism in our country, in order to get rid of it? While it is hard to generalize, in almost all cases the answer is the opposite. Instead of hiding a past history, it should be known so that we can realize the mistakes humans have made in the past, and learn from them. And if you didn’t know, there is actually a whole career path devoted to that: being a historian.


1  “Betty Nichols and Lew Christensen.” MoBBallet.org, https://mobballet.org/index.php/2022/02/21/betty-nichols-orbit-lew-christensen/

2 “Larry Colwell Dance Photographs.” Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/collections/larry-colwell-dance-photographs-1944-to-1966/about-this-collection/

3 “Talley Beatty and Betty Nichols”. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Jerome Robins Dance Division souvenir program files, 1947. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/b804aee0-cf3c-0136-0af7-5dc327e0d399

4 Macaulay, Alastair. “Betty Nichols – Black History Month in Dance, 14.” 15 February. https://www.alastairmacaulay.com/all-essays/6csitm8yle894tttza30umd8vqsyyl

5 “Larry Colwell dance photographs: Studio or publicity photos: Beatty, Talley, with unidentified partner”. Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/muscolwell-200224941/

The Ethical Question of being a ‘Jazz Ambassador’

Jazz came out of enslaved Africans brought to America against their will, where a combination of many factors led to the creation of a particular music. African music became a single identity, since many were stripped of their previous and distinct African cultures.1 Jazz in Europe, then, could be thought of as a music out of its homeland.

After WWII, however, jazz flourished throughout Europe especially after many toured as ‘Jazz Ambassadors.’2 Louis Armstrong himself (shown the newspaper article below) faced a dilemma in the midst of the Cold War: Should he work for the US in making allies with the Soviet Union? Should he be proud of the US, a country which did unbelievable harm to his people? Armstrong struggled with this publicly and likely because of it, never went to tour Europe under the US State Department.3 However, others like him did.4 

Duke Ellington was one of those who did go to Europe in 1963 under the State Department. The attached recording5
shows Alice Babs, a Swedish singer, soloing during one of  Ellington’s shows. Shows like this were what the US wanted other countries to see: Equality and desegregation, especially when many different types of segregation were in play in areas like East Germany at the time. Even in an era of segregation, the US wanted to show (perhaps falsely) that they were more or less an ideal society compared to Russia and other Eastern European countries. Because of this show and many more like this, Europe got a biased view of racial identity and music in the US, and it is possibly a reason that jazz flourished in Europe after World War II.6

It’s particularly interesting that jazz was formed through a certain set of very sad and unique circumstances, yet, it was never broadcasted in that way. When brought over to a land where there still are acts of racist inequalities, although perhaps less talked about, an interesting case is set up to analyze the music’s development. The spread of jazz under US government support is another question for thought in a world of complexities.

1. Jones, Leroy. “Blues People.” William Morrow and Company, New York. 1963

2. Beliar, Felix. “United States has a Secret Weapon–Jazz”. The New York Times https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1955/11/06/93808557.pdf?pdf_redirect=true&ip=0

3. “Sathmo Tells us off Ike, US! Armstrong Blasts Bias in America”. Pittsburgh Courier, 28 September, 1957

4.  Jenks, J.P. Jazz dIplomacy: Then and Now. US Department of State. 30 April 2021 https://www.state.gov/dipnote-u-s-department-of-state-official-blog/jazz-diplomacy-then-and-now#:~:text=Jazz%20Ambassador%20heroes%20included%20Quincy,just%20to%20name%20a%20few.

5 PJJ. “Take it Easy – ALice Babs – Duke Ellington – 1963”, Youtube, 2:45 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXm1SawjacI

6.  Liebman, David. “Europe and its Role in Jazz” https://davidliebman.com/home/ed_articles/europe-and-its-role-in-jazz/

Diverse Roots of Country Music

Country music has been typically shown to be stemming from white artists throughout history, but is that really true? While modern scholars have picked this stereotype apart,1 these types of cultural and ethnic separations have made making a living and gaining popularity hard for certain performers and composers. Browsing for primary sources, I first found what many would call a ‘stereotypical’ country band, named the Stoney and Wilma Lee Cooper Band. What made this even more traditional and supposedly characteristic of this type of music was that this was a married couple. Many artists at this time had some sort of family aspect to them like the Cooper Band. 2 In addition to advertising for the ‘Women in Country Music Series,’ this mid-1970s Smithsonian announcement made it clear that they wanted to showcase country music talent from women. I found that very interesting, and it’s possible that country music was patriarchal like many facets of society in the mid-1900s. This, however, is a separate research topic.

In contrast, I came across a Washington Post article about Cleveland Francis, a black man, who, in addition to being a cardiologist 3, was also a country music musician. In this 1996 article, Francis is described to have overcome barriers that made it harder for him to enter the country music scene, saying “Maybe the next African American coming along will not have to justify his position in country music.” 4

Francis, describing his experience as a black man in country music, clarifies and supports the writings of Jefferey Manuel’s “The Sound of Plain White Folk? 5” and Rhiannon Giddens’ “Community and Connection” Keynote Speech 6. Manuel’s position that commercialization of this genre led to a much more homogenous, ‘white’ view of this music led to Francis having a harder time getting into the genre and being successful. In addition, the fact that Giddens’ calls for diversifying country and folk music speaks indirectly to the fact that this type of music is very homogenous. While other factors may be at play, it’s clear to see that Francis would have a hard time doing well in the country music genre. Despite this, he succeeded.

  1. Manuel, Jeffery T., “The Sound of Plain White Folk?” Popular Music and Society, Vol 1, Oct 2008.
  2. “Hattie Stoneman: Raising her Children in Music.” The Birthplace of Country Music, 28 September 2017 https://birthplaceofcountrymusic.org/hattie-stoneman-raising-children-music/
  3. Yahr, Emily. Cleve Francis’s Unsung Story. 7July 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2022/07/07/cleve-francis-country-music-black-opry/
  4. Harrington, Richard. “Cleve Francis” The Washington Post, 14 April 1996. https://www.proquest.com/docview/307971804/fulltext/77A5129B774F4C3FPQ/113?accountid=351
  5.  Manuel, Jeffery T., “The Sound of Plain White Folk?” Popular Music and Society, Vol 1, Oct 2008. 
  6. Povelones, Robert. Rhiannon Giddens Keynote Address. 11 February 2018. https://ibma.org/rhiannon-giddens-keynote-address-2017/

Native American influence on American Music

Charles Wakefield Cadman was an American pianist and composer who was a so-called musical “Indian Expert.” He incorporated Native American music into many of his compositions, and gave talks based on his compositions and experiences living with Native Americans all over the US. I stumbled upon an article about him in the The Chicago Defender while looking for white and Native American musicians drawing influence from each other, primarily in the Midwest. This article, dated from 1925, talks about a new kind of American music, as one that is as “characteristic of America as the music of Spain is characteristic of that nation” (The Chicago Defender).1 The article lists Charles Wakefield Cadman as supporting and expressing this view and goes on to both identify Cadman as a man ahead of his time and describes him as an influential figure in ethnology and composing.

This article relates directly to Francis Densmore’s work and Beverly Diamond’s opinions about how to study Native American music. While what we can tell from this article is limited, the text specifically describes Cadman as “spend[ing] many years living among the Indian tribes of the West.” While ‘living among’ could have many different meanings, he likely was much more attached to Native American music and their cultural context than Francis Densmore was.2 In addition, Cadman seems to follow Beverly Diamond’s opinion more closely by living among and most likely learning about the cultures and traditions of the Native Americans.3 Instead of studying this music as an outsider, Cadman attempts (though we don’t know how successfully) to become an insider and therefore get to know the music much better than Densmore’s categorical analysis and recordings. It is possible that Densmore’s intentions were a bit different than Cadman’s in that she wanted to record these songs if they were to die out. In contrast, Cadman’s goal might have been more to get to know Native American so well to use it for his own good.

Through Cadman’s work, this article not only attempts to describe current American music based on his insights, but also tries to predict the future of American music. Not only was Cadman an ethnologist, but also a composer. According to the article, his compositions were the first of its class and the future of American music. It is best compared with other articles that outline others’ work in ethnography and ethnomusicology, and so it has direct ties to Francis Densmore’s and Beverly Diamond’s work. While it is hard to confirm, this article makes it appear as though Charles Wakefield Cadman was a man ahead of his time who pioneered views and practices that came decades later.

“Folk Songs Called Root of New Music.” The Chicago Defender, 25 April 1925. 

2. Densmore, Francis. “Pawnee Music.” New York, 1972. 

3. Diamond, Beverly. “Music and Modernity among the First Peoples of North America.Wesleyan University Press, Middletown Connecticut.