The month of April closes with UNESCO’s International Jazz Day, but Black Music Sunday would be remiss if we didn’t pay tribute to a man who crossed multiple music genres, including jazz, in his decades-long career. He achieved international fame while also introducing his fans to artists from around the world. He was a great humanitarian, human and civil rights activist, and actor; however it’s important to remember that the world’s first introduction to him was via his music.
I am talking, of course, about Harry Belafonte, who joined the ancestors on April 25 at the age of 96.
Rest in power, beloved Belafonte.
Black Music Sunday is a weekly series highlighting all things Black music. With over 150 stories (and counting) covering performers, genres, history, and more, each featuring its own vibrant soundtrack, I hope you’ll find some familiar tunes and perhaps an introduction to something new.
My introduction to Belafonte was when I was a youngster, growing up with parents whose circles were filled with leftist actors and musicians, Black and white, who were also engaged in the growing civil rights movement. I met the man himself in the home of folk singer Leon Bibb, along with other grownups like Paul Robeson.
RELATED STORY: Black folk musicians created the soundtrack for a movement—and helped Bob Dylan find his sound
All can remember from that time in the late 1950s is that, like children all over the world,I absolutely loved “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).”
It wasn’t till I grew a bit older that Belafonte became one of my musical and political heroes.
Born in Harlem to West Indian parents on March 1, 1927, Harold George Belafonte, Jr. would spend some of his early years in his mother’s native Jamaica. Isaac Rosen’s biography of Belafonte for Musicians Guide covers the details of his early life, and his transition into the world of entertainment.
In the five years he spent on the island he not only absorbed the music that was such a vital part of the culture but also observed the effects of colonialism, the political oppression that native Jamaicans had to endure under British rule. "That environment gave me much of my sense of the world at large and what I wanted to do with it," Belafonte was quoted as saying in the Paul Masson Summer Series. "It helped me carve out a tremendous link to other nations that reflect a similar temperament or character."
Once back in Harlem, another culturally and artistically rich environment, Belafonte became street smart, learning the hard lessons of survival in the big city. When the United States entered World War II, he ended his high school education and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After an honorable discharge he returned to New York City, where he bounced between odd jobs. His first foray into the world of entertainment came in the late 1940s when he was given two tickets to a production of the American Negro Theater. He was hooked after one performance. "I was absolutely mesmerized by that experience," he told the Ottawa Citizen in 1990. "It was really a spiritual, mystical feeling I had that night. I went backstage to see if there was anything I could do." His first leading role with the company was in Irish playwright Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock. Impressed by the power and message of O'Casey's words, and by the promise of theater in general, Belafonte enrolled in the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research, studying under famous German director Erwin Piscator, whose other students included Rod Steiger and Bea Arthur.
Belafonte was concerned about the scarcity of work for black actors but got a break when, as a class project, he sang an original composition called "Recognition." His audience was spellbound. Among the listeners was the owner of the Royal Roost Nightclub, a well-known Broadway jazz center. Belafonte was offered a two-week stint that, due to such positive reception, blossomed into a twenty-week engagement.
Christopher Loudon explored Belafonte’s early jazz history for JazzTimes in 2011.
Before the folk years, the future icon crooned standards
The setting was postwar Manhattan and Belafonte, newly married to first wife Marguerite, was struggling to establish himself as a stage actor, barely making ends meet by pushing racks of clothes in the garment district. One of his favorite places to hang out was the Royal Roost, nursing a single beer at the end of the bar while watching Ella, Miles and other greats. He was a frequent enough visitor to become friendly with the Roost’s resident promoter and booking agent, Monte Kay, and several musicians, forming a particularly close bond with Lester Young.
One night, when Belafonte expressed frustration with his acting career’s lack of momentum, one of Young’s sidemen suggested he ask Kay for a gig. Though Belafonte had sung in stage productions, he didn’t think of himself as a singer. But Kay agreed to the experiment, suggesting that Belafonte perform at the Roost during intermissions, offering him scale at $70 per week (a fortune compared to the pittance he was earning on Eighth Avenue). Kay also asked Young’s pianist, Al Haig, to help the neophyte vocalist work up a reasonable playlist of standards. Belafonte added one original, “Recognition,” about the struggles of black veterans recently returned home, that presaged his commitment to social activism.
On his opening night, Belafonte sweated backstage, nervously waiting as Young finished his first set. Introduced by Kay, out he strolled, followed by Haig, who had agreed to accompany him. Before he could utter a note, Tommy Potter joined them and picked up his bass. Then Max Roach returned to the stage and settled behind his drums. Finally, Charlie Parker emerged with his sax. Four of the biggest names in jazz had, without a word to Belafonte, secretly planned to give his debut an unforgettable boost.
What an amazing story! Prez, Bird, Max Roach, and Tommy Potter backing Belafonte that night was a seal of approval extraordinaire!
Belafonte would get an extended stay at the Roost, and go on to record for Capitol Records. His early jazz and ballad releases are compiled on the album “Harry Belafonte: The Early Years at Capitol Records,” reviewed for All Music by Steve Leggett.
Harry Belafonte's influence on pop music is much more far reaching then many realize, as he was one of the first performers to bring worldbeat rhythms to the U.S. charts in the postwar era. Born in Harlem but spending a good part of his childhood in his mother's native Jamaica, Belafonte grew up straddling cultures and musical styles, and bridging perceived differences became his calling card as an entertainer. His silky smooth mixture of jazz, folk, pop, and art song, often with impossibly infectious West Indies-styled accompaniment, coupled with his charismatic good looks and easy, hip coolness and sharp racial and political sense, meant he was never reduced to being a mere commodity, even though he spent his whole career on major labels. But before he spearheaded the calypso boom in the U.S. in the late '50s with his RCA recordings, Belafonte tracked eight songs in two sessions (on July 19 and December 20) for Capitol Records in 1949. There was nothing even vaguely Caribbean about these sides, and they featured Belafonte crooning songs like Jerome Kern’s “They Didn’t Believe in Me” over lush orchestrations by Pete Rugolo.
Here are two selections from that album.
First, “Close Your Eyes”:
Next, “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child”:
Erin MacLeod, writing for The Guardian in the wake of Belafonte’s death this week, tackles his mastery of multiple genres—what she accurately calls his “astonishing range.”
The musical story of Harry Belafonte is really a story of 20th-century popular music, and how it draws on influences from multiple places and people, circulating throughout the Caribbean, over to the US and back again. Belafonte was an American of Jamaican descent but he came of age before the development of reggae, so he was influenced by other Caribbean genres popular at the time: Jamaica’s mento – a style of folk music – and calypso, which originates from Trinidad and Tobago.
Even though Belafonte’s most popular album was called Calypso, he wasn’t really a calypsonian, even if some of his most well-known songs drew from that tradition – instead, he was a lover of all music. This genre-jumping approach, combined with his gorgeous voice, is what marks him as a truly great talent.
MacLeod includes 10 songs in her tribute; this one is clearly in a Latin jazz vein. “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” was recorded with Zoot Sims in 1949.
For those of you who want to spend part (over four and a half-hours, to be specific) of your day immersed in Belafonte, this YouTube compilation from Timeless Music Box contains 80—yes, 80!—of his recordings.
Check out the playlist here.
As I mentioned earlier, Belafonte was also a great mentor and promoter of upcoming artists from Africa, most notably Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.
In 2013, Kenyan journalist and editor Msanii Kimani wrote about Makeba’s meeting with Belafonte in London.
Makeba, who had applied for a legal passport around 1957 to travel abroad, attended the Venice Film Festival. At the time married to Sonny Pillay, a ballad singer of Indian descent who Makeba both married and divorced in 1959, and concerned for her small child in South Africa, she initially intended to return home directly from Venice. But from the moment of her arrival, several American entertainers – namely Steve Allen – were so captivated by Makeba that they were determined to bring the young singer to the United States. Thus, from Venice, Makeba traveled first to London, England, where she met vocalist Harry Belafonte at a screening for Come Back, Africa. Judging her a revolutionary talent, he offered to act as Makeba’s chief sponsor and mentor.
Next, she arrived in America for an appearance on Allen’s national television show. After the program, airing on November 30, 1959, Max Gordon, owner of New York City’s Village Vanguard nightclub, booked the singer for four weeks on the recommendation of Belafonte. The already accomplished performer coached Makeba on her stage poise and hired an arranger, clothing designer, and musicians in preparation for her club debut.
Belafonte continued to mentor Makeba. Their 1965 album, “An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba,” won a Grammy. Here is one of their two duets on the album: “My Angel (Malaika).
In this video from Carnegie Hall’s YouTube channel, Hugh Masekela talks about how he met Belafonte in 1960. Belafonte convinced him to stay in New York to make a name for himself so that he would be more effective in advocating for South Africa.
No Belafonte tribute would be complete without one of his international performances and the advocacy that often came with it. “Harry Belafonte: Global Carnival” was recorded live at the National Sports Arena in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1988, as part of his work as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador—a role he held from 1987 until his death. The vibrant concert footage is sprinkled with short interview segments, where Belafonte provides narrative and cultural context for his songs and activism.
As noted above, April 30 is International Jazz Day.
Paris and New York––UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Herbie Hancock today announced the program for the 2023 celebration of International Jazz Day, with participation from more than 190 countries. The flagship Jazz Day event, a spectacular All-Star Global Concert, will feature an extraordinary selection of jazz performances from Austria to Zimbabwe, highlighting the power of jazz in bridging differences and promoting unity and peace through intercultural dialogue and collaboration.
Herbie Hancock will take viewers on an international tour of sights and sounds showcasing jazz in all its diversity. The concert will feature performances from Beijing, China; Beirut, Lebanon; Casablanca, Morocco; Johannesburg, South Africa; Marondera, Zimbabwe; Paris, France; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Vienna, Austria; and Fairbanks, Honolulu, New York, San Francisco and Washington, DC, USA.
The live-streamed concert event will feature performances by some of the world’s most accomplished jazz artists, including Cyrille Aimée (France), Ambrose Akinmusire (USA), Thana Alexa (Croatia), John Beasley (USA), Dee Dee Bridgewater (USA), Bill Charlap (USA), Emmet Cohen (USA), Tom Gansch (Austria), Melody Gardot (USA), Christian McBride (USA), Sérgio Mendes (Brazil), Marcus Miller (USA), Thandi Ntuli (South Africa), Philippe Powell (France), Dianne Reeves (USA), Antonio Sánchez (Mexico), Walter Smith III (USA), Somi (Rwanda) and Mike Stern (USA), among others. Renowned Mbira player Musekiwa Chingodza (Zimbabwe) will duet with Oran Etkin (Israel) on baritone clarinet; the Blue Note China Jazz Orchestra joins the Global Concert from Beijing; and JazzWomenAfrica celebrate from Casablanca. More information on the 2023 cast is available on jazzday.com.
The All-Star Global Concert will be webcast worldwide on April 30 at 4 pm EDT/1 pm PDT/10 pm CET on jazzday.com, unesco.org, the International Jazz Day YouTube and Facebook channels, and other outlets.
I can’t post the live stream here, since this story is filed on Friday, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find thanks to the information just above. Here’s last year’s event in Ethiopia, courtesy of the Jazbyssinia Ethio-Jazz band.
From the YouTube notes:
"JazzDay11 Ethiopia with Jazbyssinia Ethio-Jazz band and Others" organized by "Elias Mulugeta Music and Band Activities/EMMBA" was held at the Belgium embassy Addis Ababa on May 7th 2022 with a theme "Jazz for Peace". including the host band Jazbyssinia Ethio-Jazz band, different bands and individual jazz artists have performed and the reception was very impressive. International Jazz Day is the culmination of Jazz Appreciation Month, which draws public attention to jazz and its extraordinary heritage throughout April. “Elias Mulugeta Music and Band Activities Co. (EMMBA) with its band Jazbyssinia Ethio-Jazz band has been working hard to promote jazz throughout the month in Ethiopia through workshops, jazz performances, jazz music explanation on main stream medias, inspirational jazz performances to different academic institutions, hosting a jazz music TV show "Jazzic" etc.
I hope you will join me in the comments to celebrate Harry Belafonte, his life, his politics, and his music, as well as the annual international celebration of jazz—a universal language of peace and friendship, and the very genre that inspired and started this series back in April 2020.