Lena Horne, the legendary jazz singer, icon of American popular music and award winning actress -- and as far as I’m concerned, one of the most captivating women ever to walk this planet -- died yesterday, Sunday, at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She was 92. Called "one of the incomparable performers of our time," she was best known for her plaintive signature song "Stormy Weather" from the film of the same name and her starring roles in such pictures as Cabin in the Sky, Panama Hattie, and The Wiz.
Horne had an easy, sultry singing voice, insanely beautiful, and her compelling sex appeal may have at first overshadowed her talents, but she wasn’t just another pretty face. When she signed with MGM Pictures, she was among the handful of black actors to have a contract with a major Hollywood studio, though it was never easy. Her life long battle against bigotry took its psychic toll; Horne was perpetually frustrated with the public humiliation of racism. A pivotal moment took place in 1945 as she entertained at an Army base in Europe and saw that German prisoners of war were seated up front while black American soldiers were relegated to the back. She worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws. Her involvement in various social and political organizations and her friendship with Paul Robeson, who was just as well known as a singer as for his communist leanings, had Horne’s name placed on the era’s blacklists during the red scare witch hunts of the early 1950’s and the age of Joseph McCarthy.
Born Lena Mary Calhoun Horne in Brooklyn on June 30, 1917, she dropped out of school at 16 to help support her family. She joined the chorus line at the Cotton Club, the mythical Harlem night spot where the entertainers were black and the clientele white. By the spring of 1934, she had a featured role in the Cotton Club Parade. She left the club in 1935 to tour with Noble Sissle's orchestra, then billed as Helena Horne. Horne was also one of the first black performers hired to sing with a major white band when she joined Charlie Barnet's orchestra in 1940. She was the first black performer to play the Copacabana nightclub in New York City.
In 1943, MGM Studios loaned her to 20th Century-Fox to play the role of Selina Rogers in the all-black movie musical Stormy Weather. Her rendition of the title song became a major hit and put her name center stage for the next several decades.
Horne became one of the most visible celebrities in the civil rights movement of the late 50’s and 1960’s. She made headlines for once throwing a lamp, an ashtray and several glasses at a customer who made a racial slur in a Beverly Hills restaurant, bloodying the man's forehead. In 1963 Horne joined with some 250,000 others in the March on Washington, D.C. when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. That same year Horne spoke at a NAACP rally with another civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, just the weekend before his assassination.
In the early 1970’s Horne went into seclusion. In a period of just over a year, her father, son and husband all died. She became too grief-stricken to perform or even see anyone but her closest friends. Oddly enough, comedian Alan King was the one who convinced her to return to the stage and public life.
Horne had her first big Broadway success as the star of Jamaica in 1957, but in 1981, for her one-woman Broadway show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, she won a special Tony Award and the 333 performances still hold the record for the longest-running solo performance in Broadway history. In it, she sang two versions -- one straight and the other gut-wrenching -- of "Stormy Weather" to give audiences a glimpse of the spiritual odyssey she had taken in of her five-plus decade long career. In 1984 she was Kennedy Center Honors recipient for extraordinary talent, creativity, and perseverance. And of her four Grammy Awards, the one she received in 1989 was the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
You may not know it, but you do know Ken Nordine, and you know him well. His deep resonant, baritone voice, gritty in a perfect kind of way, has sliced through television and radio ads for decades now. But you should know him for his "word jazz." He recorded his first Word Jazz album back in 1957, backed by the Chico Hamilton band. Nordine’s pieces play in the common -- words, bopping and shifting, wit pedaling to and fro in between the everyday bits of everyday life nimbly budging the predictable out of the way. Colorful is the perfect adjective, absurd is another word that should have a turn here too. Mundane is not in his vocabulary.
Anyway, today the legendary wordsmith is 90 years old -- Happy Birthday, Ken Nordine!
According to legend -- and we always print the myth around here -- while growing up in Budapest, the Hungarian born jazz legend Gabor Szabo was inspired to pick up the guitar after seeing a Roy Rogers singing cowboy feature. He started playing at about fourteen and at the age of twenty, on the eve of the anti-Communist uprising, he and his family escaped the Iron Curtain for sun saturated California.
After attending Berklee College (1958-60), he joined Chico Hamilton’s celebrated quintet featuring Charles Lloyd. Gabor Szabo would develop into one of the most original guitarists to emerge in the 1960s, crafting a singular and distinctive sound. From about 1966 on he would lead his own bands (that year alone he released four albums including the stellar Spellbinder and Jazz Raga -- with one of the coolest looking album covers ever printed!). Unlike most every jazz guitarist of the day, Szabo almost always played an acoustic guitar, specifically a Martin Dreadnought guitar, usually the D-45 or the D-285. I suspect Szabo, for the most part, was never taken as seriously as he would have liked in the jazz world, what with his mixing of jazz, commercial rock and pop, folk, Hungarian and gypsy music, it just didn’t fit the program. But Gabor Szabo was always the iconoclast. You can still hear his influence on modern guitarists today.
Szabo’s career was relatively brief. He died just short of his 46th birthday back in Budapest in 1982 from liver and kidney disease while on a visit there. Today would have been his 74th birthday. Happy birthday Gabor Szabo!
Legendary Jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt was born 100 years ago today, the 23rd of January, 1910.
From the Gypsy camps where he learned to play to his Quintette du Hot Club de France fame in the Parisian jazz scene, the man’s style has probably been ripped off more times than any other guitarist of the 20th century. His playing was joyous, often wild, always expressive and lyrical. His legend was sealed way before his early death from a brain hemorrhage at the age of 43.
The most amazing story about Reinhardt is, of course, how at the age 18 he was caught in a caravan fire that left his left hand partially paralyzed. As the story goes, one night on his way to bed he knocked over a lit candle, it hit the floor, catching some artificial flowers made off celluloid and paper on fire. Everything, caravan and all instantly burst into flames. His injuries, from trying to save his pregnant first wife, Florine "Bella" Mayer, were severe. The entire right side of his body was badly burned, especially his leg, which doctors intended to amputate. His left hand, his fretting hand, was also horribly burned. Reinhardt would spend over a year in and out of hospitals. He was never expected to play again, but his brother bought him a new guitar, urging him to give it a try. With only the index and middle fingers on his left/fret hand for soloing, and his two twisted fingers for simple chord work, he re-invented his own technique.
Happy Birthday Django Reinhardt!