It’s Easter Sunday, it’s spring, and April is also Jazz Appreciation Month! Lots of things are going on at the same time, so there’s a real mix of music swirling around in my head.
Though I no longer believe in bunnies who bring chocolate eggs, I do think fondly of the sweets-filled baskets I received as a kid. As soon as I think about the word “basket,” related to Easter or not, I immediately hear Ella Fitzgerald’s voice in my head, singing her 1938 hit tune “A Tisket, A Tasket,” so that’s where I’m starting today, before I let her lead us to the other music in today’s gift basket.
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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.
Before we dig in, my editor insists it’s worth noting that this is the 155th edition of Black Music Sunday, which originated as a one-off Jazz Appreciation Month post to break up our COVID-19 anxieties during the early days of the pandemic.
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Now, back to Ella. Alyssa Walder wrote a cleverly titled story for the American Museum of Natural History in 2017: “A-tisket, a-tasket, a hit song in her basket: Ella's rise to fame.”
They're swingin' everything else—why not nursery rhymes?" stated Ella Fitzgerald while dancing around the room showcasing some new dance moves. This and other charming anecdotes are documented in Earl Wilson's 1938 New York Post article, "A Tisket, A Tasket, The Wrong Colored Basket," which spotlighted Ella's new hit single, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." Arguably one of the catchiest tunes in jazz, this piece of music recorded on May 2, 1938, single-handedly launched Ella Fitzgerald, "The First Lady of Song," into fame and traveled with her throughout an extremely successful career.
Originally from a 19th-century nursery rhyme, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" may have been a somewhat unlikely fit for Decca Records. The song's lyrics were an element of the beloved children's rhyming game Drop the Glove, brought to the United States by English colonists. While singing the catchy tune, children would dance in a circle while one child ran around them and dropped a handkerchief. The closest one to the dropped handkerchief then picked it up and tried to catch the child who dropped it. If the child is caught, they are kissed and then obligated to tell the name of their love.
Recording the song "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" was Ella's own idea, as she often played the game in the orphanage where she lived in Yonkers, New York. The lyrics are slightly different from the original nursery rhyme, as they are the words Ella remembered singing as a child. Because of this, the color of the basket in the original rhyme and Ella's rendition are different. In the original, the color of the basket is green and yellow, compared to Ella's words recalling the colors as brown and yellow. As arranger Al Feldman (whose name also appears on the original score) claimed, "Who are we to go around remembering the colors of baskets?
Smithsonian Music historian John Hasse talks briefly about the genesis of the tune in this very short video, which also includes a great performance clip from the 1942 film Ride ‘Em Cowboy (more on that in a moment).
Here’s the full original 1938 recording, with Chick Webb’s band, with a great little slideshow.
The success of “A Tisket, A Tasket” led Fitzgerald to reprise the song in her film debut in Abbott and Costello’s Ride ’Em Cowboy.
In other basket-related history, Fitzgerald would join Louis Armstrong for one of their many duets to sing “I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket,” an Irving Berlin tune from the 1936 film Follow The Fleet.
For me, Easter also evokes memories of parades and folks getting dressed up to go to church in fancy hats. Irving Berlin’s 1933 classic “Easter Parade” offers a salute to those “bonnets” in the chorus.
In your Easter bonnet
With all the frills upon it
You'll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade
I'll be all in clover
And when they look you over
I'll be the proudest fellow in the Easter parade
Here’s a 1957 duet of “Easter Parade” from Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan.
Here’s a very different rendition by rock-and-roll pioneer Fats Domino. The tune was recorded in 1959, and released on the album I Miss You So in January 1961.
Zooming back in time just a bit to 1951, when Delta Blues singer and guitarist Willie Brown recorded “Easter Bunny Boogie.”
These are very secular Easter tunes; however, jazz artists have also visited the more “sacred” aspects of the season, including Duke Ellington.
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There’s also legendary Canadian jazz pianist and composer Oscar Peterson's Easter Suite For Jazz Trio In Nine Movements. The movements track the story of Jesus Christ’s final days and ascension, as is clear from their titles:
“The Last Supper”
“The Garden Of Gethsemane”
“Why Have You Betrayed Me”
“Are You Really King Of The Jews”
“Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me”
“Jesus Christ Lies Here Tonight”
“He Has Risen”
Bruce Ezell’s 2012 review for Pop Matters touts the Suite’s brilliance and in a testament to the time period bemoans that a particularly stunning 1984 performance is not available on CD, just DVD.
Unsurprisingly, since Peterson’s death in 2007, there has been a wealth of re-releases of his material. Many of these releases give a snapshot of highly overlooked performances of the man, whose prolific nature makes it hard to isolate his finest works. One such release is Arthaus Musik’s DVD recording of Peterson’s 1984 recording Easter Suite, written for the piano trio, no doubt where Peterson’s mastery is most evident. For this performance, Peterson plays with Niels-Henning Ørstedt Pedersen (upright bass) and Martin Drew (drums), who match Peterson’s command of the ivories with appropriate aplomb. All three musicians are at the top of their game in this recording, which nevertheless remains a very intimate and approachable watch, balancing virtuosity with a welcoming air.
For this reason, Easter Suite Jazz is a highly inspired piece of music, and a fantastic representation of Peterson’s command of music for the jazz trio. Much music has been written about the Crucifixion of Jesus, but Peterson puts a wholly unique spin on it with his brand of jazz. In the suite’s nine movements, the trio grooves effortlessly between jaunty (“Denial”) to smooth (highlight movement “The Trial”) and joyous (“He Has Risen”, which should from now on be an essential Easter track). Just as he always has, Peterson here emulates all of the essential traits of jazz: powerful musicianship, restraint, and that ever-important element of improvisation.
But despite the brilliance of the music, the standalone DVD release of this recording seems largely unnecessary. A better option would have been to release a CD/DVD set, since watching the performance doesn’t add terribly much to the music.
From the program notes for the DVD, via medici.tv:
It was the South Bank show, a BBC jazz institution during the 70s and 80s, that commissioned Oscar Peterson to create a nine-piece suite for the passion of Jesus. Works like this had been part of the jazz canon before, courtesy of the likes of Duke Ellington and Mary Lou Williams, yet Peterson's has gone down in history as an instrumental masterwork, though it was never recorded and placed on record.
Joined by Niels Pedersen on bass and Martin Drew on drums, he leads the trio through the nine pieces in a 35-minute recording that was only shown once in 1984 (and repeated on Good Friday for a couple of years afterwards). Outside of the UK viewers watching at the right time, Peterson's telling of the Resurrection story remained largely unknown to the public, save for those who had the pleasure of hearing it live.
Here are two drastically different clips from that 1984 performance.
First, the sorrowful “Why Have You Betrayed Me?”
Now, the joyful “He Is Risen.”
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The last, but not least, genre in my Easter basket to you is gospel. There are thousands of gospel groups and solo artists to choose from, and no way can I post them all here. [Editor’s note: It’s true.]
And so I’m going to close with my favorite gospel group performance, which I likely have posted in the past, but no matter; I’m sharing it again.
From songwriter, producer, composer, and choir director Donald Lawrence, performing here as “Donald Lawrence & the Tri-City Singers,” I offer this undated performance of “Matthew 28,” from the group’s 2006 Finalé Act Two album.
Find the lyrics here.
I can’t help but get up and on my feet every time I watch it. Join me if you’re able!
Happy Easter for those of you who celebrate. Whether or not you do, please join me in the comments for more music, and to share your own favorites.