Black History Month – Ella Fitzgerald and Robinson Auditorium

ellaElla Fitzgerald appeared at Robinson Auditorium in the 1940s.  She made the stops as she crisscrossed the US performing her hit songs.

Born in Virginia in 1917, she was raised in Yonkers. At 17 she won a contest at the Apollo Theatre which launched her career.  Saxophonist Benny Carter and bandleader Chick Webb were both instrumental in helping her establish her career.  She would tour with Webb until his death, and then took over as bandleader.

In 1938, at the age of 21, Ella recorded a playful version of the nursery rhyme, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” The album sold 1 million copies, hit number one, and stayed on the pop charts for 17 weeks.

She later toured with Dizzy Gillespie’s band and there met Ray Brown. The two would marry and adopt a son, Ray Jr.  Though they divorced in 1952, they remained friends.

In the late 1940s through the 1960s, Ella joined the Philharmonic tour, worked with Louis Armstrong on several albums and began producing her songbook series. From 1956-1964, she recorded covers of other musicians’ albums, including those by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart.

As she moved into the 1970s, Ella kept performing. She also started receiving honors and honorary degrees.  She was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1979.  In 1987, President Reagan bestowed upon her the National Medal of the Arts.  Her final concert was in 1991 at Carnegie Hall.  She died in June 1996 in California.

Black History Month Spotlight: Art Porter Jr.

bhm art jr.Just like his father and namesake, Art Porter Jr. was a talented musician on a variety of instruments and in a variety of musical genres.

Arthur Lee (Art) Porter Jr. was born in Little Rock on August 3, 1961. Porter began his music career under the tutelage of his father, legendary jazz musician, Arthur Porter, Sr. who surrounded him with everything musical. He performed proficiently on drums, saxophone and piano. He was classically trained but his performances ranged across jazz, rhythm and blues, funk, and ballads.

During high school, under the supervision of Sterling Ingram, private teacher and band director at Parkview High School, Art Jr. was selected to be a member of the Arkansas All-State Band for three consecutive years.  At age 16, he was awarded the “Most Talented Young Jazz Artist in America” by the National Association for Jazz Education.

During Porter’s youth, his playing while underage in venues where liquor was sold proved controversial. Bill Clinton, then attorney general, established a framework for the legislature that would allow minors to work in such venues with parental supervision. Act 321 known as The “Art Porter Bill” became Arkansas law.

Porter graduated from Northeastern University in Chicago, Illinois, in 1986 with a BA degree in music education and performance. While in college, he won two certificates for excellence in jazz at the Notre Dame University Festival of Music in South Bend, Indiana. He later earned graduate hours at Roosevelt University studying music education and performance, and at Virginia Commonwealth University where he studied under the tutelage of Ellis Marsalis, patriarch of the Marsalis jazz family. Jack McDuff, a renowned jazz organist, heard Porter’s performances and asked him to join his band. His first performance while on tour with McDuff was in a New Orleans jazz club.

Porter started the Art Porter Quartet in Chicago and developed a loyal following in the area. He continued to write his own music and in 1991 was offered a contract to record on the Verve label, a division of Polygram Classics and Jazz.

Art burst on the music scene with his debut album, Pocket City (1992), followed by Straight to the Point (1993). In 1994, his third album, Undercover, placed Porter solidly on the “wave” radio charts with R&B artists as well as “cool jazz” artists. During this same year, he performed at Carnegie Hall for the Polygram Anniversary Celebration. His final album, Lay Your Hands on Me (1996), contained the radio favorite “Lake Shore Drive.”

Many of his compositions were expressions of his spirituality, such as the song “Lay Your Hands on Me.” Porter performed at the inaugural ceremonies of President Bill Clinton in 1993. During the inaugural prayer service, in collaboration with his father, he received a standing ovation for his solo renditions of “Amazing Grace” and “My Tribute.”

Porter traveled the world with performances but no matter where his music would carry him, he always returned to his beloved hometown of Little Rock. He conducted workshops for music students at his alma maters, Dunbar Magnet Junior High School and Parkview Arts and Science Magnet School. He was a founder of the Art Porter Sr. Music Education, Inc. (now the Art Porter Music Education, Inc. in memory of Art Sr. and Art Jr.), a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships to musically talented Arkansas students who need financial assistance to pursue their dream of obtaining a musical degree.

Porter died on November 23, 1996, in a boating accident in Thailand. He had just completed a performance at the Thailand International Golden Jubilee Jazz Festival commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s reign.  In 2013, he was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.  For more on Art Porter Jr. and other inductees into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, visit the permanent exhibit at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. That museum is an agency of the Department of Arkansas Heritage.

Black History Month Spotlight: Amina Claudine Myers

bhm aminaAmina Claudine Myers was born in Conway County and grew up in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.  She started singing and playing the piano and organ as a child in church choirs.  Returning to Arkansas, she graduated in concert music and music education from Philander Smith College in the early 1960s. After graduation, Myers moved to Chicago where she taught music, attended classes at Roosevelt University and worked with musicians such as Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons. In 1966 she joined the AACM in Chicago, focusing on vocal compositions and arrangements, and recording her first jazz album with Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre in 1969.

In 1976 Myers relocated to New York City, where she intensified her compositional work and expanded it into the realm of Off-Broadway productions. She also continued performing and recording as a pianist and organist. In 1985 she joined Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. Notable collaborations also include recordings with Bill Laswell, Marian McPartland, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Archie Shepp, David Murray, Arthur Blythe, Frank Lowe, Leroy Jenkins, Jim Pepper and Ray Anderson.

In 1976 Amina moved to NY and became involved with the creative musicians that had migrated from Chicago and St. Louis, playing music in the lofts of NYC.  For a year she became a teacher at SUNY ((State Univ. of NY) developing the gospel chorus there.  Myers received several grants from the National Endowments for the Arts, Meet the Composer and NY Foundation for the Arts.                                                                           .

Myers began touring Europe with The Lester Bowie Quintet and The NY Organ Ensemble around 1978.  This began her European (all of Western Europe, Hungary, Turkey and Poland), Japanese, Canadian and U.S. performances of concerts, festivals and clubs as a soloist, with her trio, quartet, sextet and voice choir. This included workshops, seminars and residencies in universities and schools in the U.S. as well as Europe. Myers had the opportunity to perform in Cape Town, South Africa at The North Sea Jazz Festival with saxaphonist/composer Archie Shepp and to Accra, Ghana (West Africa) with composer/ vibraphonist Cecilia Smith during their jazz festival.

Myers’ works of blues, jazz, gospel and extended forms continues.  She teaches privately, giving lessons in theory, composition, piano, voice, organ, classical piano and assisting clients interested in stage/ performances. Amina  has  performed at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, The Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Iridium Club, Birdland and other sites with her groups and with other artists and still continues to perform nationally and internationally.

She is a 2001 inductee into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.  For more on Amina Claudine Myers and other inductees into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, visit the permanent exhibit at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. That museum is an agency of the Department of Arkansas Heritage.