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 – Taborian Hall and Dreamland Ballroom

The new Arkansas Civil Rights History Audio Tour was launched in November 2015. Produced by the City of Little Rock and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock allows the many places and stories of the City’s Civil Rights history to come to life an interactive tour.  This month, during Black History Month, the Culture Vulture looks at some of the stops on this tour which focus on African American history.

Completed in 1918, Taborian Hall stands as one of the last reminders of the once-prosperous West Ninth Street African-American business and cultural district. West Ninth Street buildings included offices for black professionals, businesses, hotels, and entertainment venues. In 1916, the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, a fraternal insurance organization, hired local black contractor Simeon Johnson to enlarge an existing building to accommodate their activities, other offices and a ballroom.

During World War I, black soldiers from Camp Pike came to the Negro Soldiers Service Center here. In World War II, Taborian Hall was home to the Ninth Street USO, catering to black soldiers from Camp Robinson. By 1936, Dreamland Ballroom hosted basketball games, boxing matches, concerts and dances.

A regular stop for popular black entertainers on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” Dreamland hosted Cab Callaway, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, Earl “Fatha” Hines and Ray Charles. Arkansas’s own Louis Jordan also performed here. Between the 1960s and 1980s, West Ninth Street declined, and many buildings were demolished. In 1991, Taborian Hall was renovated to house Arkansas Flag and Banner. Once again, Dreamland Ballroom hosts concerts and social events.

The app, funded by a generous grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council, was a collaboration among UALR’s Institute on Race and Ethnicity, the City of Little Rock, the Mayor’s Tourism Commission, and KUAR, UALR’s public radio station, with assistance from the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau.