Darius de Haas: Keeping Traditions Alive
Darius de Haas has a deep appreciation of musical history. His family has been rooted in jazz for generations, and his Bistro award-winning solo album Day Dream was a celebration of Duke Ellington's frequent collaborator Billy Strayhorn. But when he performs at tonight's New York Festival of Song Lost Tribes of Vaudeville concert celebrating Black and Jewish contributions to Vaudeville, he will be delving back into the very heart of the Jazz Age, and bringing it into the present. "What [NYFOS artistic director] Stephen Blier has put together," de Haas says of the project, "is a cross-section of songs associated with Black performers and... Jewish performers from the very specific traditions of Black vaudeville and Yiddish theatre."
De Haas eagerly explains that the concert, a revival of the 2003 concert of the same name, will celebrate "the great performers [who] came out of that period; people ranging from Sophie Tucker to Eddie Cantor to Bert Williams to Ethel Waters." Because of the racist attitudes of the day, these artists could never have performed on the same stage together during their lifetimes. However, de Haas says with great excitement, even if they were socially prohibited from doing so, they were still able to artistically influence each others' work. "It's interesting how those traditions do borrow from one another and compliment one another," he says. For example, George Gershwin, a white Tin Pan Alley composer, would sneak into Harlem clubs to hear the latest jazz innovations that he would use in his own music. "So it wouldn't be unusual for someone like George Gershwin to go to hear the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, which was an all-Black band, to see what that style of jazz was, and interpolate it into his writing. And thus you get such great jazz-influenced classic pieces like An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue and of course, Porgy and Bess." Such influences were not left only to the writers: singers also borrowed from other singers to develop new vocal styles and sounds, regardless of race. For example, de Haas says, "Sophie Tucker... was the [Jewish] parallel to Bessie Smith, who was the most popular blues singer of that time... It wouldn't surprise me [if] maybe Sophie Tucker would have caught Bessie Smith, or at least have heard her on recording... Or Bessie Smith [might have heard] Sophie Tucker, because it's that same spirit."
That spirit has, of course, changed and evolved over the years, but has never died. It is what keeps music alive and growing. "The tradition of performing communicating the lyric, communicating the melody, interpreting a great song has not changed," de Haas says with great passion. "Music changes, styles evolve, but look at the performers like Harry Connick or Diana Krall or Liz Wright or Jane Monheit or Peter Cincotti! They're singing a lot of music of yesteryear." Modern artists, he says, do best when they learn from the past. "People today in cabaret and in concert halls and in jazz and in theatre study those people... They set the standard. To this day, people talk about Billie Holiday being their biggest influence." The musical traditions created and perfected on Vaudeville stages, then, directly influence modern music and modern artists, and will continue to do so for the subsequent generations.
The Golden Age of Vaudeville took place concurrently with the Harlem Renaissance, and the two artistic booms undoubtedly influenced each other. Many Black artists of all genres finally were able to find benefactors, and came into their own as respected creators. "It was a very high point in Black artistry," de Haas says. "Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle wrote... the first great Black show on Broadway called Shuffle Along." In the chorus of The Chocolate Dandies, Blake and Sissle's second outing, was a young unknown named Josephine Baker. "It was a great, fertile period," de Haas says, "and then the Great Depression hit. It knocked the wind out of the sails for people being as supported [as they had been], but not necessarily stunting their growth. They had to improvise to find ways to get their art out there." For example, Bert Williams, one of the preeminent composers and actors of his day, could only find work performing in blackface... despite the fact that Williams himself was Black. But by the time he became one of the most popular cast members of the Ziegfeld Follies, his work had been seen and appreciated by countless audiences. De Haas has great respect for Williams' legacy, and indeed, Williams will be featured in tonight's concert. "He really did pave the way for many of the great performers today," de Haas muses. "He is probably considered one of the greatest not just Black performers but one of the greatest performers. He influenced everybody from Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor to... Ben Vereen."
In celebrating the careers of these legendary performers and composers of the Vaudeville stages, NYFOS is keeping their songs, and the creative spirit that inspired them, alive, and passing the torch to the next generation of artists. The great legacies of Fanny Brice, Bert Williams, Bessie Smith, Sophie Tucker, and the many other Black and Jewish Vaudevillians have influenced countless other musicians, and will continue to do so as long as groups like NYFOS keep the songs alive. "It doesn't really change," musician and historian Darius de Haas says with pride. "That tradition lives on."