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OP-ED: Gladys Knight Has the Right to Be Wrong

WASHINGTON INFORMER — Gladys Knight is poised to board that “Midnight Train to Georgia,” returning to her hometown of Atlanta.

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By D. Kevin McNeir

Gladys Knight is poised to board that “Midnight Train to Georgia,” returning to her hometown of Atlanta where she’ll perform the national anthem prior to Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3.

And despite the many Grammy and Soul Train Music Awards, the #1 or Top Ten hits, or decades of success first with the Pips and then as a solo artist that go back to the 1960s, many of her fans have expressed disappointment and anger because of the decision made by the “Empress of Soul” to participate at the event.

The NFL, more correctly its all-white “team” of owners, in response to the controversy over “kneeling players,” as represented by the since unemployed poster boy quarterback Colin Kaepernick, recently adopted a new policy, with the boisterous support of Donald Trump no less, which fines players who do not stand during America’s so-called song of freedom. Sure, players can remain in the locker room but kneeling silently on the sidelines, even if, as Kaepernick and others believed, it’s done as a means of expressing their right as American citizens to protest racial discrimination and police brutality, has no place in the multi-billion-dollar industry of professional football.

Maybe Colin should have cracked open his history books, looking back at 1968, when, just months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., two African-American U.S. Olympic runners, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their fists in a Black power salute during their medal ceremony – before being ostracized and repeatedly attacked with racist slurs upon their return home. [Incidentally, there was no such backlash during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin when white athletes gave the Nazi salute].

Forget the racist lyrics in the third verse of Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” which children never learn in elementary school, which performers never sing and which some interpreters of these lyrics contend that Key was taking pleasure in the deaths of freed black slaves who had fought with the British against the U.S. [Yes, Key owned slaves, was an anti-abolitionist and even referred to Blacks as “a distinct and inferior race of people.”]

Forget the complicated relationship Black athletes have expressed with the anthem and the flag for which the song is played, including baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson who said in his 1972 autobiography “I Never Had it Made:” “I cannot stand and sing the anthem, I cannot salute the flag, I know that I am a black man in a white world.’

Forget the potential upheaval that Black athletes could cause if every Black player (70.3 percent) in the NFL and every NCAA Division 1 Black college football player (46.9 percent) stood in solidarity with Kaepernick, along with hundreds of thousands of other Americans, Black and white, and boycotted the NFL, refusing to put on their uniforms and take to the field.

What if the millions of fans, just in the U.S. turned off their TVs on Sundays, withdrew their memberships from fantasy football betting pools, put their favorite team jerseys and caps in mothballs and cancelled plans to purchase season tickets?

There have been some unforgettable renderings of the national anthem during previous Super Bowls, from Whitney Houston, Neil Diamond, and Billy Joel, to Aretha Franklin, Jose Feliciano and Marvin Gaye – even Ray Charles whose recording of “America the Beautiful” has yet to be equaled by any singer of any race.

So why can’t Gladys get paid like everyone else?

How do folks feel justified in blasting her for performing at the Super Bowl while making side bets in the office, the barbershop or in Vegas hoping to choose correctly as to which team will win or lose in their efforts to secure a big pay day of their own?

Gladys Knight has said she’s been fighting for civil rights for the majority of her life. I have no doubt that she’s done her share for the cause. But that hasn’t stopped the Twitter feed from exploding with all kinds of accusations and criticism. Ah, the beauty of free speech!

Still, if you really don’t like Gladys singing this Sunday, then don’t watch the game. Don’t read the scores in the paper the next day. Don’t bother checking the highlights or conversations on social media. Just read a good book.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Informer.

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Black History

Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie: First Black Grammy’ Winners

Two Black performers left the event that night with Grammys in hand: Ella Jane Fitzgerald (1917–1996) for Best Vocal Performance, Female, and Best Jazz Performance, Individual; and William James “Count” Basie (1904–1984), for Best Performance by a Dance Band and Best Jazz Performance, Group. Recognition for the pair was well overdue as their roads to the Grammy were storied.

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Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie, the first two African Americans to win Grammy awards, 1958. Photo courtesy of 9gag.com/gag/aQREN3K

It was the late spring of 1959. The music industry’s elite converged inside the Grand Ballroom of Los Angeles’ Beverly Hilton. Others were gathering at a function held simultaneously in New York City.

That night, the Grammy Award’s first show took place, and no one knew then that it would become a historic event for African-American performers.

Two Black performers left the event that night with Grammys in hand: Ella Jane Fitzgerald (1917–1996) for Best Vocal Performance, Female, and Best Jazz Performance, Individual; and William James “Count” Basie (1904–1984), for Best Performance by a Dance Band and Best Jazz Performance, Group. Recognition for the pair was well overdue as their roads to the Grammy were storied.

Fitzgerald was a teen when her mother died. Her aunt then took young Ella from her home in Yonkers, N.Y., back to Newport News, Va. Shortly after, Ella’s stepfather died. These events brought on depression. Ella began failing school and frequently skipped classes. After getting into trouble with the police, she was sent to a reform school. There she endured beatings by the caretakers. The brutality forced her to escape.

At age 15, she was alone and struggling to make a life for herself. But things would change when she was in New York City about five years later.

In 1934, young Ella performed at the Apollo’s Amateur Night. The crowd booed her; shouted “What’s she going to do?” A frightened Ella decided to sing. She asked the band to play Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy,” one of her mother’s favorites. Her voice silenced the audience, and by the song’s end they begged for an encore.

Two years later, Ella made her first recording, “Love and Kisses,” under the Decca label. The rest was music history.
Later dubbed “The First Lady of Song,” Ella was the most popular female jazz singer in the United States for more than half a century. On June 15, 1996, she died in her Beverly Hills home. She’d taken home 14 Grammys throughout her career.

Basie, born in Red Bank, N.J., was one of the all-time great jazz band leaders. Dubbed the “King of Swing,” his career started in clubs and speakeasies in Asbury Park and Long Branch, N.J., then New York City (1924) and later Kansas City (1927).

His music served as inspiration for artists including John Lewis, Thelonious Monk, and Oscar Peterson. Along the way, he faced discrimination but overcame barriers to become one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.

“Every day, we used to say, ‘Not one drop of my self-worth depends on your acceptance of me,’” musician and producer Quincy Jones said of the racism that he and Basie experienced back then. “It was horrible. It ain’t much better now.”

Basie wrote in a letter: “I can’t remember when I did not experience discrimination … And I didn’t let it bug me.”
The Count won nine Grammy awards over the course of his career. He died on April 26, 1984, in Hollywood, Fla.

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Community

Fillmore’s Great Jazz Era Featured in Book Talk, Concert at S.F. Botanical Gardens

Authors Elizabeth Pepin Silva and Lewis Watts will talk about their book, “Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era” at the San Francisco Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park on Monday, September 20. 

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Sam Peoples Jr. in the Fillmore./ Photo Courtesy of Lewis Watts

Authors Elizabeth Pepin Silva and Lewis Watts will talk about their book, “Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era” at the San Francisco Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park on Monday, September 20.  It will be followed by a mini-concert by the Sam Peoples Trio. The event, co-sponsored by the garden, Bayview Opera House, and the San Francisco African American Historical & Cultural Society will run from 4:00-5:00 p.m. It is part of the garden’s critically acclaimed “Flower Piano” program, where 12 grand pianos are placed around the garden and musicians are invited to come and play them. 

Sam, whose father was a highly regarded, Fillmore-based musician in San Francisco back in the heyday of Harlem of the West, will be performing music that celebrates the great jazz and cultural heritage of the Fillmore District in San Francisco which is described Silva and Watts book.  

The fourth edition of the book, released by Heyday Books in 2020, will also be on sale at the garden. For more information, go to: https://www.sfbg.org/flowerpiano

The San Francisco Post’s coverage of local news in San Francisco County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support community newspapers across California.

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Arts and Culture

Michael Morgan, Music Director and Conductor, Dies at 63

He served three decades with the Oakland Symphony and was a passionate advocate for change

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Michael Morgan leads the Oakland Symphony in a concert curated by W. Kamau Bell; Photo Courtesy of KQED

Michael Morgan was the music director and conductor with the Oakland Symphony. He died August 20, 2021, at an Oakland hospital. He was 63.

During a career that spanned 40 years, Maestro Morgan was one of the rare Black conductors to rise to prominence. He had guest appearances with leading the top orchestras of St. Louis, Los Angeles, Baltimore, New York, and San Francisco. He served as assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony.

Maestro Morgan became music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony in 1991. He also served as artistic director of the Oakland Youth Orchestra and was the music director of the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra.

He was artistic director of Festival Opera in Walnut Creek for more than 10 seasons. He taught a graduate conducting course at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He was music director at the Bear Valley Music Festival in California. He conducted the San Francisco Ballet for several performances. He also conducted the San Francisco Symphony.

Maestro Morgan did much more than bring classical and new music to Paramount theater audiences. He brought music to thousands of underserved children in the Oakland public schools.

 “Michael Morgan was an advocate for change, both within the classical music community and also outside, in his community and beyond”, said Paul Cobb, publisher of the Post Newspaper Group.

Morgan’s “’Let Us Break Bread Together’ concert presented music from the Black Panther era that reflected back on the protest music from the 60’s and 70’s”, Cobb continued.

Morgan was always interested in providing an early education in classical music. “Talk to people of whatever color in any professional orchestra, and ask them where they started, and you’ll find that most of them started, as I did, in a public school somewhere,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1998.

“And if there’s not that possibility, then of course there’s not going to be people at the other end,” he said. “It’s impossible to maintain the respect of an orchestra if they think that the only reason you’re there is that they needed a Black conductor,” Morgan said.

Maestro Morgan started the Symphony’s MUSE program as a multi-component music education and enrichment initiative to serve young people at public schools and community sites throughout Oakland.

These programs were free to participants, ensuring that each year thousands of young people have access to a variety of music education and enrichment activities, regardless of their economic situation.

“The MUSE program is a lifeline in difficult times. It’s not just a token – it’s keeping the music program afloat in Oakland. It’s the tipping point between success and failure”, said Ted Allen, former Instrumental Director, Skyline and Oakland Technical High School.

At the onset of distance learning during the Covid-19 pandemic, all engagement visits and teaching artists adapted their work with students to an on-line format in partnership with OUSD into 2020-21.

MUSE has continued to be there for the community as programs, captivating and exciting students about music, encouraging a lifelong passion for the art of sound.

Over 2,500 students are served through the symphony’s school programs hosted by MUSE. The students work with professional musician mentors from the Symphony as part of the In-School Mentor and After School programs.

Michael created the “NOTES FROM” series, designed to welcome different elements of our community into the symphony family.

The diversity of the Bay Area is well known and was reflected in the concert hall in the NOTES FROM programming.

These programs included NOTES FROM Persia, China, the Philippines, Mexico, NOTES FROM LGBT America, and the African Diaspora.

Michael DeVard Morgan was born in Washington, DC, Sept. 17, 1957.His father, Willie DeVard Morgan, was a biologist. His mother, Mabel Morgan, was a health researcher.

When Michael was 6 years old, his father bought the family a piano. Michael began to play two years later. By the age of 12, he was leading two orchestras, one founded by Michael at MacFarland Junior High School and the other at the People’s Congregational Church.

In his teens, while a student at McKinley High School, he was named conductor of the Washington D.C. Youth Orchestra. He attended the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, originally as a composition major.

While at Oberlin, Michael worked with conductors Seiji Ozawa and Leonard Bernstein at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts. He accepted the position of apprentice conductor at the Buffalo Philharmonic in 1979.

The Oakland Post’s coverage of local news in Alameda County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support community newspapers across California.

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