By Lawrence “Larry” Watson
An Open Letter to Rob Lester, Stephen Hanks and Alix Cohen Revisionism, Cultural Illiteracy and Music Appropriation
November 14th 2017
Vivian Reed, like the late Shirley Chisolm in politics, Wilma Rudolf in track and field and Henrietta Lacks, the ultimate black guinea pig in medical labs around the world, are all bold trailblazers taking down the last walls of cultural, political and scientific racism.
Vivian Reed is “the Voice” and keeps mugging her way through antiquated barriers, vitalizing what is left of a dwindling cabaret scene in New York City. She is the most deserving of the 2017 Mabel Mercer award. It was unfortunate that this celebratory awards event was sullied by some reviewers who used their writing platform as a soap box to yearn for a return to the “good ole days”. This backwardness and revisionist take on the Cabaret music scene in New York City is nothing short of a return to racial segregation in the arts, cultural illiteracy and appropriation of Black artistic expression.
Kudos go to KT Sullivan who fervently works to create space for continued diversity and expansion of the American cabaret movement. Her work allows more of our great contemporary composers and vocal artists to preserve this great tradition of live and vibrant music by women, African American, gay and immigrant musicians.
Mabel Mercer was a woman of color who knew the consequences of being born with Black blood running through her veins. Unfortunately, Stevie Wonder had not yet written the lyric, “You Can’t Cash in Your Face.” Thus, she and other artists of color were always encumbered by an antiquated standard. They knew the threat of being shut down if they performed any music that was not palatable to a powerful group of mostly White male critics and their “Uncle woman.”
Rob Lester, Stephen Hanks and Alix Cohen chose to chastise MS Reed for her opening night performance at the 28th New York Cabaret Convention. She showcased musical material popularized by the late Jackie Wilson and Joe Cocker. These critics are ignorant of the impact Wilson, Sam Cooke, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye (who idolized Doris Day), Stevie Wonder had on the world cabaret scene. Many of us were introduced to the works of Rodgers and Hart, Mercer, Cole Porter by listening to the recordings of these contemporary Black Artists that ruled music and helped usher in a more diverse society.
I continue to train the next generation of young singers to meet the demands of the New York stage and to respect the changing demographics that compel all cabaret singers to revere diversity on all levels. The successes of Hamilton, RENT, The Wiz, The Lion King, Dreamgirls, Bubblin’ Brown Sugar and the original Hello Dolly made popular by two Black women: Carol Channing and Pearl Bailey makes it clear what the audience is willing to pay to see and hear. I don’t think Bette Midler would mind me including her as an “honorary” sista for the sake of this rebuttal to your very unfair critique. Your remarks against the musical choices Ms. Reed made are a passive aggressive attempt to castrate the genius of contemporary Black composers and re-segregate cabaret music.
Cabaret in its most scaled down definition describes a place where music is played, people are dining and there may be vocal entertainment. Its origins in America include vaudeville, minstrelsy, strip tease and early piano bar-speakeasies. These clubs were in existence long before the Cotton Club which allowed Black Cabaret singers to perform on stage but their friends and relatives of color could not sit in the audience. The foundational talent of these clubs was heavily composed of people of African Descent who integrated the American songbook to include the likes of Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters. Lena Horne, Cab Calloway and Bobby Short. You will not take us back to the good ole days when the saying “I am free, WHITE AND 21” reigned “Supreme” in America. You have a responsibility as journalists and should never allow your own bias to override sound judgment that would have acknowledged the audiences overwhelmingly favorable response to Ms. Reed’s musical selections.
Vivian Reed, Leslie Uggams, Diahann Carroll, Ben Vereen, Gregory Hines, Jennifer Holiday, Melba Moore, Billie Holiday, Shirley Bassey, and a host of other legendary singers have made a profoundly important contribution to the American cabaret scene. All of them include in their very successful national and international touring acts songs by great contemporary composers. Your baseless critique was a temper tantrum demonstrating your inability to embrace the inevitable inclusion of new musical standards in the book of Cabaret Music.
You are no longer the center of the universe and neither is the limited list of songs you deem to be “civilized music.” Carol King, Ashford and Simpson and the Beatles now represent America’s classical contemporary music. Black people matter, R&B and Soul Music matters, Black Music matters, and Black Lives matter. Get with the program.
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Lawrence “Larry” Watson is a vocalist and historian. He specializes in what has been described by some as “edutainment. He made his formal vocal debut with the late jazz legend Dorothy Donegan and the 1996 Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. He was one of the vocal artists featured in 1990 when Nelson Mandela visited the United States after his 27 years of incarceration in a South African prison. He has been the special musical guest and opened for Little Richard, Al Green and produced the Berklee College of Music honorary doctorate concert for Mr. Harry Belafonte. Watson spent two seasons as a vocal coach-judge on the WGBH (Public Television show ‘Sing that Thing.”
His latest CD “Prescriptions” features new and exciting arrangements of many of the American songs sung at Jazz clubs and cabarets throughout the world. Currently he is a professor at Berklee College of Music and Founder of SaveOurSelves Productions. As the former Resident Artist for the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute at the Harvard Law School he performed for three Supreme Court Justices and President Barack Obama. He has also been a soloist for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State Colin Powell.