In 1956, a New York musician born to Caribbean immigrants “released the first million-selling LP in history,” wrote Joshua Jelly-Schapiro in a vital 2011 interview with the artist and activist. “Harry Belanfonte was bigger than Elvis”—a knowingly fraught comparison that quickly gets released: “But where Elvis built Graceland, Belafonte used the proceeds from Calypso to bankroll his friend Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement for civil rights” and propel one of the paramount marches and coalitions in American history. Belafonte is the only person “to talk to both King and Bobby Kennedy on a daily basis through those years” and secured the airlifting of a plane of Kenyan students to the United States in 1961. On that plane was Barack Obama Sr.
The many links, lineages, and threads that intersect in Belafonte’s life are traced in that interview. It’s an incredible Q&A. Returning to it now, on the week of his 94th birthday, expands the impact of the West Indian American singer and songwriter who, the interviewer pointed out, was “a critic of a president who would not have been possible without him.”
Read it here, and revisit Belafonte’s sit-in on The Tonight Show as host with guests including King, Kennedy, Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Wilt Chamberlain, and Freda Payne.
As intergenerational collaboration goes, a big new one: Jason Moran and Archie Shepp have teamed up on Let My People Go, a pitch-perfect dialogue between piano and saxophone. Shepp was active in the civil rights movement and created theater and music in response to the Attica prison uprising. As Shepp told me, “I’ve been engaged, speaking out, and raising money for radical organizations my entire life” of 83 years and counting, finding new voices onstage and off. If you’re new to Moran, start with this ballad.
Lastly for today, bassist Christian McBride joins organist Cory Henry tonight at 7 ET / 4 PT as part of Newport Jazz Fest on Instagram live.