Black Music Month, Day #27
Before MTV videos, You Tube, digital downloads, nickelodeons, and television variety shows, fans of American popular music had to go to live music venues to enjoy their favorite artists. From the stages of these spaces, both large and small, audiences experienced the larger-than-life talents behind the
recorded music that had enthralled them as they listened intently at home. As much as the technology of recording had changed the musical experience, for many Americans, it could never replace the excitement of a live show. Glamour, drama, comedy, dancing, and, most important, a good song combined to make these events erupt with pleasures and delights as well as brim with social and cultural significance. A stellar example that towers above all others in its singularity is the Apollo Theater.
When it opened the Apollo was a quintessentially American institution, drawing on several important strands of the country’s history. The cultural force of these strands coalesced at the nexus of the Apollo and contributed to its significance. Throughout the nineteenth century, our musical culture gradually lost its European pedigree and became more “American” in its style, tenor, and goals. As the focus of music making became less centered on home parlors and more on public entertainment, venues were built to accommodate this shifting sensibility. Part of this appeal could be attributed to the allure of the specific musical culture of black citizens, who had since the days of blackface minstrelsy provided a foundational aesthetic for what was considered the “popular.”
The loose network of varied and sundry popular entertainments gradually coalesced into an integrated system of songwriters, performers, agents, managers, attorneys, publishers, theater owners, and recording labels—a modern industry that challenged the preciously held notion that art and commerce were irreconcilable forces. Indeed, before its latest status as a foundation, the success of the Apollo’s formula had always rested on resolving this complicated, wholly American, assumption about artistry and its presentation and dissemination. Thus, the Apollo’s legacy was built, on the one hand, by harnessing the variety show format familiar to American audiences, and on the other, by challenging the notion that art and economics could not be reconciled easily. It is perhaps only in the context of Jim Crow separatism, indeed, within an environment in which black bodies were policed by law and custom that such an experiment could succeed. Black artists were making brilliant artistic worlds within an environment that tried to contain them to status quo, second-class social positions. As they turned the world on its ear, their work became true commodities, turning profits for all involved. The dam burst at the Apollo, and the flood is still flowing.
Since its inception seventy years ago, Harlem’s Apollo Theater has been America’s premiere venue for the showcasing of black entertainment. Situated in the center of one of the nation’s largest and most diverse black communities, the theater has existed as the “spiritual heartbeat” of New York’s live entertainment in the music industry. From its inauspicious beginning as a burlesque theater in 1913 with a “whites only” policy, the Apollo opened its doors to black patrons in 1934, and quickly thereafter rose to become the most respected presenter of American popular culture for decades.
As an institution that was instrumental in launching and promoting numerous show business careers, the Apollo is singular. As such the exhibition celebrates many of the great entertainers who have rocked this house for seven decades. Through compelling artifacts, photographs, and audio/visual presentations, visitors experience the complex of outsize talent, glamour, and charisma that form the bedrock of American-styled celebrity. The riff and rumble of a stunning number of genres of American music have been featured at the Apollo as each has moved in and out of vogue.
The jumping beats of swing, the avant-garde sounds of bebop, the infectious rhythms of rhythm and blues, soul and rock n roll, and even the scintillating strains of Latin music have all graced the Apollo’s roster. And although many know the Apollo as a music venue, it also featured other expressive forms—comedy, boxing, spoken-word, and dance are part of the its history.
The myriad themes running through this story are fascinating. A biography of the theater tells us much about the communities of Americans who developed the country’s culture industry into one of the most influential entities in the world. As a social space, the industry was one of the arenas in which African Americans and Jews labored in tandem to further each groups’ push for a piece of the American pie. Black New Yorkers migrated to Harlem in the early twentieth century, and the conditions there created a need for entertainment and respite from their generally harsh existence behind the walls of segregation. Businessmen like Frank Schiffman understood this and used his expertise to develop a venue that catered to the specific yet varied tastes of the black community. In other cities with large black communities such as Chicago, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia, we see similar developments: migration patterns of racial segregation created the need for black entertainment and white entrepreneurs positioned themselves to supply the demand successfully.
These theaters became important to an emerging black star system; they provided black artists and their audiences with the space to enjoy prestige, income, and visibility separate and apart from their white counterparts with whom they were not considered social equals. As such, the Apollo and her sister venues throughout the black archipelago provided an incubator for the showcasing and development of black talent—indeed, they became pinnacles of achievement beyond the less prestigious “chittlin’ circuit” venues in which they were forced to perform. Behind the curtain of segregated performance spaces, black artists honed their respective crafts, created their own artistic standards, tutored one another, competed, thrilled audiences, earned living wages, and ultimately created art that became the musical lingua franca of the world.
Embedded in this story, too, is how women performers emerged as a central force in black music. Artists such as Lena Horne, Dinah Washington, the Supremes, Billie Holiday, Nancy Wilson, Celia Cruz, among many others, forwarded their own brand and standards of beauty, femininity, and expertise that countered prevailing notions of black women’s “natural” suitability for domestic and service work. Latin musicians from throughout the African Diaspora have contributed significantly to the Apollo’s lore, demonstrating that the Apollo audiences were not only diverse but also “equal-opportunity” minded. Notoriously vocal and devastatingly discerning, these audiences held whites, blacks, men, and women performers to the same standards of excellence and they were better for it.
James Brown performing “There Was A Time” how he used to do it at the Apollo. Fire and Ice!