Hear Langston Hughes Read His Poetry Over Original Compositions by Charles Mingus & Leonard Feather: A Classic Collaboration from 1958

Have you looked up Charles Mingus lately? You should. Mingus, who died in 1979, has a “lost” album coming out—live recordings made in ‘73, aired on the radio once, then disappeared into obscurity until now. Seems there’s always something new to learn about our favorite jazz musicians—and our favorite jazz poets. Newly-discovered poems from Langston Hughes, for example, appeared a few years back, written in “depths of the crisis” of the Great Depression.

These poems are dark and bitter, “some of the harshest political verse ever penned by an American,” writes Hughes scholar Arnold Rampersad. They are not the celebratory Hughes we read in school. While angry conservatives and McCarthyism may have forced this side of him into hiding, in Hughes’ view, poetry, like jazz, had room for everything, whether it be love or rage.




“Jazz is a great big sea,” he wrote in his 1956 essay “Jazz as Communication.” The music “washes up all kinds of fish and shells and spume and waves with a steady old beat, or off-beat.” His task, in poems like “The Weary Blues” had been to put “jazz into words,” with all of its wild mood swings, lovers' quarrels, rapid-fire conversations, and heated arguments.

Throughout his career, Mingus had been moving in the other direction, taking storms of ideas—angry, melancholy, joyful, etc.—and turning them into sounds. But his music, always “supremely vocal,” notes The Nation’s Adam Shatz, spoke in one way or another. Mingus “collaborated with poets in East Village Coffeehouses” and won his only Grammy for a piece of writing, the liner notes for his 1971 album Let My Children Hear Music.

For Mingus, critic Whitney Balliett remarked, jazz “was another way of talking.” For another composer, pianist and journalist Leonard Feather, language and music played equal roles. Feather, notes Jason Ankeny, was known both as “the acknowledged dean of American jazz critics” and author of “perennial” standards “Evil Gal Blues,” “Blowtop Blues,” and “How Blue Can You Get?”

Two years after Hughes read “Jazz as Communication” at the Newport Jazz Festival, he collaborated with Feather’s All-Star Sextet and Mingus and the Horace Parlan Quintet on an album first released as The Weary Blues. It has recently been re-released by Fingertips as Harlem in Vogue—22 tracks of Hughes reading poems like “The Weary Blues,” “Blues at Dawn,” and “Same in Blues/Comment on Curb” (top) over original compositions by Feather and Mingus, with six additional tracks of Hughes reading solo and two original songs by Bob Dorough with the Bob Dorough Quintet. (Mingus plays bass on tracks 11-18.)

You can stream the album in full above (and buy it here). Here, listen to the Poetry Foundation’s Curtis Fox, jazz musician Charley Gerard, and poet Holly Bass discuss the record and Hughes’ relationship to jazz and blues. Hughes’ poems, notes Gerard, are “structured just like blues,” their meters, rhymes, and rhythms always invoking the sounds of Harlem’s musical scene. In these recordings, Feather and Mingus transpose Hughes’ language into music, just as he had turned jazz into words.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Legendary Studio Musician Carol Kaye Presents 150 Free Tips for Practicing & Playing the Bass

The work required to become an accomplished singer or instrumentalist can seem burdensome. Many an aspiring musician may seek to avoid years of apprenticeship, especially now that getting famous for being famous has become a real career ambition, soon to appear in a course catalog at your local college. But there are still plenty of hard-working players hacking away at building up their chops. Next to a good in-person music teacher, their best resources are materials put out by a rare breed of musicians’ musicians, expert players who also teach—not only for a paycheck but also from a desire to share their enthusiasm for their art.

When it comes to playing electric bass, there are lessons online aplenty, some of them from big names like Jaco Pastorius and Marcus Miller, both of whom have recorded solid advice on video. But if you really want to dig deep into the fine nuances of bass playing, and learn from a world-renowned player who is also a master teacher, you cannot miss Carol Kaye’s Playing Tips. Packaged in a charming Web 1.0 format on her website, these tips--150 in total--preserve her responses to message board questions from the 90s. The format may be dated, but her discussions of technique are timeless.




Some of the tips tackle very specific issues, and others, like the essential #40 below, describe musical wisdom of the ages in encouraging, succinct, accessible writing.

PRACTICING. Set aside a quiet time, about 1 hour day if you can… Try going over a difficult pattern at slow tempos, and put a "loop" on it, play it over and over and over... until it feels comfortable for you. Make your practice time a fun time by mixing up the various things you have to do, and do them first before allowing yourself some "jam" time.... Tho' you might not feel like practicing, not in the mood, have tensions of many things on your mind, tell yourself: "this is my time away from everyone and everything, I deserve this time to myself" and make yourself get on the instrument. By focusing in on the music and practicing, your fingers will thank you, your brain will relax and you'll get some good work done to help you play better -- no better feeling than this, even if it's just 45 min. a day, it's "your time," a little of this, a little of that, and you're playing better and better....

Not only does Kaye answer questions about practice and theory, but she also addresses important issues of tone. Her advice below in #100 on techniques for muting the strings may come as a revelation to many players who have relied on using their palm.

The way I mute the strings is by folding over a piece of felt muting (buy at the sewing section at Target, Walmart etc.) so it's doubled to a width of about 1-1/2". Take it and tape it (I use masking tape) to on top of the bridge area, but laying slightly ahead of the bridges.... Thus, it lays on top of the strings and kills the over- and under-tones, making your bass sounds more defined....

“You'll notice an immediate difference in sound,” she assures her readers/students, “and your band will too as well as the audience.... In recording, it's a must.” Kaye advises on “chordal thinking," soloing, playing jazz patterns, and, of course, “groove,” in tip #1:

A good way to get your groove-sense together is to take a piece of music (a chord chart of some kind), put an electric metronome on, and have it beat on every beat (at first) while you pat your left foot. Now, with the metronome beating 1-2-3-4, count the bars while patting your left foot 1-2-3-4. Count: 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4, 4-2-3-4, then start over on the next 4 bars…. Now start over and reduce the speed of the metronome to 1/2 that speed… try to place it on beats 2 and 4 by counting 1-1234... so you can feel its beats as off-beats 1 and 3 while it beats on 2 and 4 (like a drummer's snare drum beat). This is critical that you leave the holes of 1 and 3, those are your spots to play (no pun intended)….  I guarantee it that you will start to feel a groove and be able to find your place in the music a lot better as you aim for the downbeats in the bars.

It's important to note that Kaye’s tips are not meant as standalone lessons but were generally supplementary to her many books, teaching CDs, and DVD courses, which you can purchase here. Kaye also offers private Skype lessons for $65 each (note: “no punk or heavy metal players”), a fairly modest price given the stature of the instructor.

If somehow you haven’t heard the name Carol Kaye, you have definitely heard the playing of this most prolific of session musicians, on classic albums from the Beach Boys to Neil Young to Ike & Tina Turner to Ray Charles to… too many classic artists to list. Part of the legendary L.A. group of musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, Kaye brought to rock and R&B a prodigious talent for playing jazz, her first love, and even her simplest bass lines shine with perfect timing and unforgettable hooks. Learn more about Kaye in the short documentary at the top, at her site’s biography, and at the links below.

You can find Kaye's 150 bass playing tips on three separate pages: here, here and here.

via Tina Weymouth

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Stream Online the Complete “Lost” John Coltrane Album, Both Directions at Once

Expectations ran high when it was announced last month that a lost (!) John Coltrane album, Both Directions at Once, had been discovered by the family of his ex-wife Naima, and would finally be released for fans to hear. Would it prove worthy of Sonny Rollin’s comparison to “finding a new room in the Great Pyramid”? Such discoveries can lead to dead ends and disappointments as often as to revelations. In this case, the album yields neither, which is not to say it isn’t, as Chris Morris writes at Variety, “a godsend.”

The album lives up to its title, chosen by Coltrane’s son Ravi, as a transitional document, stunning, but not particularly surprising. Hear all 7 cuts on the single-disc version of the release on this page, with typically excellent playing by Coltrane’s classic quartet (bassist Jimmy Garrison, drummer Elvin Jones, and pianist McCoy Tyner) and an early take on “one of the warhorses of the Coltrane catalog”—“Impressions”—including three additional takes on the Deluxe Version, which you can stream on Spotify here or purchase here. (Tyner sits out the take on the single disc version, turning it into a “hard-edged, percolating showcase for Coltrane in trio format.”)




Several critics have suggested that this “lost album” isn’t a proper album at all, but rather, as Ravi Coltrane put it, “a kicking-the-tires kind of session,” and perhaps that’s so. Nonetheless, it works as “a portrait of an artist and a band on the brink of a historic explosion,” Morris writes.

"The bracing, probing, self-questioning and keenly played music on this collection is the missing link between the provisional work heard on 1962’s ‘Coltrane’ and the quartet’s epochal studio albums – ‘Crescent,’ the devout ‘A Love Supreme’ and (with additional personnel) the free jazz magnum opus ‘Ascension.’”

Others echo this assessment. Drowned in Sound’s Joe Goggins calls Both Directions at Once “hard evidence that he was still looking for new sounds within old structures,” and The New Yorker’s Richard Brody describes the session as “something of a stocktaking” that balances the experiments of the band’s live sets with the reigned-in discipline of its early 60s studio work. Brody also laments that “little on the album matches the music that Coltrane was making at the time in concert.” Winston Cook-Wilson at Spin describes the music as “sometimes at war with itself…. The contrasts of their catalogue are pushed against each other, sometimes within the same song.”

All of this internal tension makes for an exciting listen, especially in its two new originals, known only as “Untitled Original 11383” and “Untitled Original 11386,” and the 11-minute “Slow Blues,” which Morris aptly describes as “a geared-down, encyclopedic workout on blues changes” that builds, after its tempo doubles, to a “full-cry conclusion.”

In all, the new lost album shows Coltrane just about to break new ground, but not quite yet, which perhaps makes it a newly essential document for the Coltrane completist. For most lovers of the great innovator, it’s just a damn fine "new" Coltrane record, both daring and accessible at once.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Stream a 144-Hour Discography of Classic Jazz Recordings from Blue Note Records: Miles Davis, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman & More

There have been many influential jazz record labels throughout the previous century and into the current one, but there is no more recognizable label than Blue Note Records. Blue Note is “unquestionably the most iconic jazz label there has ever been,” claims the site Udiscover Music in a post on the “50 Greatest” Blue Note albums. Indeed, “it may well be the most iconic record label of all time… a brand recognized the world over for the ‘finest in jazz.’”

Outside of the label identities in certain subcultures like punk and electronic music, no other name so instantly conjures up a fully-formed, distinctive look and sound. It is the monochrome look of dapper, too-cool musical giants in tailored suits and skinny ties, and the sound, primarily, of the Hard Bop era—of Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Bud Powell, McCoy Tyner, and, of course, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane, artists who totally enlarged the boundaries of jazz. (See the trailer above for the Sophie Huber documentary Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes.)

By design, Blue Note’s unforgettable 50s and 60s album covers—most created by artist Reid Miles and photographer Francis Wolff—suggest brimfuls of possibility. “Right from the beginning,” says producer and writer Michael Cuscuna in the video above, “they really took their covers seriously.”




But this would have meant little if they hadn’t taken the music just as seriously as the stylish artwork that adorns it. Founded in 1939 by Alfred Lion and Max Margulis, the label first served as a home for more traditional big band and swing, but in the late forties, Blue Note seemed to realize better than any other commercial entity that the future of jazz had arrived, thanks in part to saxophonist and talent scout Ike Quebec.

“Not really in the pantheon of Blue Note players of the 1960s,” writes Burning Ambulance (he died in early ’63), Quebec is still central to the label’s success. As an A&R man, he signed Monk and Bud Powell, and “it’s been said that he did a lot of uncredited arranging on other musicians’ sessions, too.” His later recordings fit right in with his more famous peers (check out his “Blue and Sentimental”). Quebec’s own work doesn’t come up in many Blue Note retrospectives, including the Spotify discography above, and that’s too bad. But it’s hard to complain when you’ve got so many incredible, iconic Blue Note recordings in one place.

Created by Junior Bonner, the Blue Notes Records Discography playlist is not “complete” in that it contains every album the label ever released—an impossible expectation, surely, especially since Blue Note is still going strong. But, with a run time of 144 hours, it more than sufficiently covers the roster of the label’s greatest players, including several many of us probably haven’t heard before in much depth. Hardcore audiophile record collectors should visit LondonJazzCollector and Jazzdisco.org to get the full Blue Note catalog of every Blue Note artist and release. But lovers of jazz who don’t mind digital streaming instead of precious vinyl and shellac will be thrilled with this impressive anthology.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Marjorie Eliot Has Held Free Jazz Concerts in Her Harlem Apartment Every Sunday for the Past 25 Years

I spent a good part of a decade-long sojourn through New York City in Harlem—at the neighborhood’s threshold at the top of Central Park, just a short walk from its historic main attractions: jazz haunts, famed restaurants, theaters, architectural splendor and wide, vibrant avenues. After a while, I thought I knew Harlem well enough. Then I moved to Sugar Hill, at the very edge of the island, across the water from Yankee Stadium. Usually overlooked, leafy street after street of stately brownstones and pre-World War I apartment buildings, sometimes worse for wear but always regal. A few avenue blocks from my building: St. Nick’s Pub, which I became convinced, for good reason, was the city’s true remaining heart of jazz.

Shuttered, to the neighborhood’s dismay, in 2012, the humble bar—where, on any given night, Afro-jazz, hard bop, free jazz, and classic swing ensembles of the very finest musicians performed from dusk till dawn, passing the hat to an always appreciative crowd—was, as a New York Times obituary for the deceased nightspot wrote, “simply magical… one of the few remaining jazz clubs in Harlem.”  But then, I didn’t visit Marjorie Eliot’s apartment. I remember seeing her play at St. Nick’s a time or two, but never made it over to 555 Edgecombe Avenue, Apartment 3-F. This was to my great loss.

It’s not too late. Since 1994, Ms. Eliot, a jazz pianist, has carried on a grand tradition of Harlem's from its golden ages, with weekly house concerts in her parlor, “Harlem’s secret jazz queen of Sugar Hill,” writes Angelika Pokovba, “single-handedly upholding the musical legacy of a neighborhood that nurtured legends like Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday.”




Except she isn’t single-handed, as you can see in the videos here, but always joined by a talented crew of players whom she handpicks and pays out of pocket. The hat is passed, but no one’s obligated to pay, there are no tickets, door charges, or drink minimums; all you’ve got to do is show up at 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon.

Marjorie greets each guest at the door. A full house is a crowd of up to 50 people. The atmosphere is reserved and family friendly, a far cry from the riotous rent parties of legend. But this is the place to be, say both the regulars and the musicians, like saxophonist Cedric Show Croon, who told NPR, “When you play here you have to be honest. You can only play in an honest way, you know.” You can get a small taste of the intimacy here, but to truly experience Parlor Jazz at Marjorie Eliot’s—as a Harlem culture guide notes—you’ve got to travel uptown yourself.

“Rain or shine, with no vacations,” the free concerts have gone on for 25 years now, beginning, as you’ll see in the video above, with a tragedy, the death of Eliot’s son Philip in 1992. The following year, on the anniversary of his death, she arranged an outdoor concert on the lawn of Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights. Then, the next year, the memorial moved to her apartment and became a weekly gig that carried her through more terrible loss—the death of another son and the disappearance of a third.

Eliot refused to give up on the music that kept her going, creating community in an easygoing, open-hearted way. “This idea of sharing and celebrating the music came real early,” she told NPR. “So I don’t do anything different now than when Aunt Margaret is coming over and come show what you did in your lessons.” As you’ll see in the videos here—and experience in full, no doubt, if you can make the trip: Parlor Jazz at Marjorie Eliot’s is anything but an ordinary Sunday afternoon with Aunt Margaret.

Via Messy Nessy

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

David Sedaris Creates a List of His 10 Favorite Jazz Tracks: Stream Them Online

Image by WBUR, via Wikimedia Commons

You can't read far into David Sedaris' writing without encountering his father Lou, a curmudgeonly, decades-and-decades-retired IBM engineer with a stiffly practical mind and a harsh word for everybody — especially his misfit son, dedicating his life as he has to the quasi-occupation of writing while living in far-flung places like Paris and rural England. Even now, solidly into his nineties, Sedaris père keeps on providing the sixtysomething Sedaris fils with material, all of it — once polished up just right — a source of laughter for the latter's many readers and listeners. But Lou has also given David something else: a passion for jazz.

"My father loves jazz and has an extensive collection of records and reel-to-reel tapes he used to enjoy after returning home from work," writes Sedaris in one essay. "He might have entered the house in a foul mood, but once he had his Dexter Gordon and a vodka martini, the stress melted away and everything was 'Beautiful, baby, just beautiful.'" He then goes on to tell the story of how his father once attempted to train young David and his sisters into a Brubeck-style family jazz combo — a hopeless dream from the start, but one that has since entertained his fans around the world. (Not that Sedaris hasn't provided some of that entertainment by performing commercial jingles in the voice of Billie Holiday.)

Appearing on a guest DJ segment on Los Angeles public radio station KCRW, Sedaris told of how his father introduced him to jazz: "I remember seeing the movie Lady Sings the Blues, right, and thinking Diana Ross did such a good job. And my Dad saying, 'Oh boy, you've got a lot to learn,' and then him playing Billie Holiday 78s for me... and then him taking it back even further and sitting me down to listen to Mabel Mercer. He really did give me quite an education and it's the music that's stuck with me." As for the first jazz album he ever heard, he names in a recent JazzTimes interview Charles Mingus' The Clown, the one "with a close-up of a clown’s face on the cover" that still, in his estimation, "looks so modern and it sounds so modern."

When Sedaris' official Facebook page posted ten of his favorite songs, he came up with an all-jazz list including the work of Nina Simone, Antonio Carlos Jobim, John Coltrane, and other luminaries of the tradition. (He did not, of course, neglect Billie Holiday.) A fan turned it into a Spotify playlist, which you'll find embedded below (and if you don't have Spotify's free software, you can download it here):

"I used to work in complete silence," Sedaris tells JazzTimes, but "about three or four years ago I started listening to music [while I work], but not music with lyrics in it." Much of the jazz he loves fits that description, and he's also, in combination with the variety of music-streaming services available now, discovered new jazz artists while writing. Having put drinking and smoking completely behind him — and having written about both of those experiences — Sedaris retains jazz as one of the substances that keeps him going. It certainly seems to have worked for the man who brought the music into his life, whom Sedaris has imagined may yet outlive us all: "If anything happens to me," he says, "the one thing my father wants is my iPod."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Josephine Baker Went From Homeless Street Performer to International Superstar, French Resistance Fighter & Civil Rights Hero

There has maybe never been a better time to critically examine the granting of special privileges to people for their talent, personality, or wealth. Yet, for all the harm wrought by fame, there have always been celebrities who use the power for good. The twentieth century is full of such figures, men and women of conscience like Muhamad Ali, Nina Simone, and Paul Robeson—extraordinary people who lived extraordinary lives. Yet no celebrity activist, past or present, has lived a life as extraordinary as Josephine Baker’s.

Born Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906 to parents who worked as entertainers in St. Louis, Baker’s early years were marked by extreme poverty. “By the time young Freda was a teenager,” writes Joanne Griffith at the BBC, “she was living on the streets and surviving on food scraps from bins.” Like every rags-to-riches story, Baker’s turns on a chance discovery. While performing on the streets at 15, she attracted the attention of a touring St. Louis vaudeville company, and soon found enormous success in New York, in the chorus lines of a string of Broadway hits.




Baker became professionally known, her adopted son Jean-Claude Baker writes in his biography, as “the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville.” A great achievement in and of itself, but then she was discovered again at age 19 by a Parisian recruiter who offered her a lucrative spot in a French all-black revue. “Baker headed to France and never looked back,” parlaying her nearly-nude danse sauvage into international fame and fortune. Topless, or nearly so, and wearing a skirt made from fake bananas, Baker used stereotypes to her advantage—by giving audiences what they wanted, she achieved what few other black women of the time ever could: personal autonomy and independent wealth, which she consistently used to aid and empower others.

Throughout the 20s, she remained an archetypal symbol of jazz-age art and entertainment for her Folies Bergère performances (see her dance the Charleston and make comic faces in 1926 in the looped video above). In 1934, Baker made her second film Zouzou (top), and became the first black woman to star in a major motion picture. But her sly performance of a very European idea of African-ness did not go over well in the U.S., and the country she had left to escape racial animus bared its teeth in hostile receptions and nasty reviews of her star Broadway performance in the 1936 Ziegfeld Follies (a critic at Time referred to her as a “Negro wench”). Baker turned away from America and became a French citizen in 1937.

American racism had no effect on Baker’s status as an international superstar—for a time perhaps the most famous woman of her age and “one of the most popular and highest-paid performers in Europe.” She inspired modern artists like Picasso, Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, and Alexander Calder (who sculpted her in wire). When the war broke out, she hastened to work for the Red Cross, entertaining troops in Africa and the Middle East and touring Europe and South America. During this time, she also worked as a spy for the French Resistance, transmitting messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music.

Her massive celebrity turned out to be the perfect cover, and she often “relayed information,” the Spy Museum writes, “that she gleaned from conversations she overheard between German officers attending her performances.” She became a lieutenant in the Free French Air Force and for her efforts was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of the Resistance by Charles De Gaulle and lauded by George S. Patton. Nonetheless, many in her home country continued to treat her with contempt. When she returned to the U.S. in 1951, she entertained huge crowds, and dealt with segregation “head –on,” writes Griffith, refusing “to perform in venues that would not allow a racially mixed audience, even in the deeply divided South." She became the first person to desegregate the Vegas casinos.

But she was also “refused admission to a number of hotels and restaurants.” In 1951, when employees at New York’s Stork Club refused to serve her, she charged the owner with discrimination. The Stork club incident won her the lifelong admiration and friendship of Grace Kelly, but the government decided to revoke her right to perform in the U.S., and she ended up on an FBI watch list as a suspected communist—a pejorative label applied, as you can see from this declassified 1960 FBI report, with extreme prejudice and the presumption that fighting racism was by default “un-American.” Baker returned to Europe, where she remained a superstar (see her perform a medley above in 1955).

She also began to assemble her infamous “Rainbow Tribe,” twelve children adopted from all over the world and raised in a 15th-century chateau in the South of France, an experiment to prove that racial harmony was possible. She charged tourists money to watch the children sing and play, a “little-known chapter in Baker’s life” that is also “an uncomfortable one,” Rebecca Onion notes at Slate. Her estate functioned as a “theme park,” writes scholar Matthew Pratt Guterl, a “Disneyland-in-the-Dordogne, with its castle in the center, its massive swimming pool built in the shape of a “J” for its owner, its bathrooms decorated like an Arpège perfume bottle, its hotels, its performances, and its pageantry.” These trappings, along with a menagerie of exotic pets, make us think of modern celebrity pageantry.

But for all its strange excesses, Guturl maintains, her “idiosyncratic project was in lockstep with the mainstream Civil Rights Movement." She wouldn’t return to the States until 1963, with the help of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and when she did, it was as a guest of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the organizers of the March on Washington, where, in her Free French Air Force uniform, she became the only woman to address the crowd. The visual recounting of that moment above comes from a new 600-page graphic biography that follows Baker's “trajectory from child servant in St. Louis,” PRI writes, “to her days as a vaudeville performer, a major star in France, and later, a member of the French Resistance and an American civil rights activist.”

In her speech, she directly confronted the government who had turned her into an enemy:

They thought they could smear me, and the best way to do that was to call me a communist.  And you know, too, what that meant.  Those were dreaded words in those days, and I want to tell you also that I was hounded by the government agencies in America, and there was never one ounce of proof that I was a communist.  But they were mad.  They were mad because I told the truth.  And the truth was that all I wanted was a cup of coffee.  But I wanted that cup of coffee where I wanted to drink it, and I had the money to pay for it, so why shouldn’t I have it where I wanted it?

Baker made no apologies for her wealth and fame, but she also took every opportunity, even if misguided at times, to use her social and financial capital to better the lives of others. Her plain-speaking demands opened doors not only for performers, but for ordinary people who could look to her as an example of courage and grace under pressure into the 1970s. She continued to perform until her death in 1975. Just below, you can see rehearsal footage and interviews from her final performance, a sold-out retrospective.

The opening night audience included Sophia Lauren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minelli. Four days after the show closed, Baker was found dead in her bed at age 68, surrounded by rave reviews of her performance. Her own assessment of her five-decade career was distinctly modest. Earlier that year, Baker told Ebony magazine, “I have never really been a great artist. I have been a human being that has loved art, which is not the same thing. But I have loved and believed in art and the idea of universal brotherhood so much, that I have put everything I have into them, and I have been blessed.” We might not agree with her critical self-evaluation, but her life bears out the strength and authenticity of her convictions.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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