December 4, 2012
It’s that time of year again when the airwaves jingle with a potpourri of holiday music, performances and mashups, featuring songs and artists with jazz, pop culture, film, classical and sacred music roots. Some of the chestnut classics are playing 24/7 on radio stations (for those of you who still listen to radio) across the land.
Speaking of chestnut classics, during his 29-year career, jazz vocalist and pianist Nat King Cole recorded four versions of his chestnuts roasting by open fire “The Christmas Song” before arriving at the 1961 version that became the perennial favorite. Surprisingly, the tune was composed on a hot summer day in 1944 by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells. Whitney Houston released her stellar version in 2003. Two years later, the music licensing organization ASCAP noted that the song was number one among the ten most performed holiday tunes during the first five years of the 21st century. Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, were two and three, respectively.
I always keep my ear out for Eartha Kitt. The original Cat Woman purrs for holiday furs, cars and jewels in Santa Baby, a satirical tune co-written in 1953 by Philip Springer and Joan Javits, niece of U.S. Senator Jacob Javits.
Whether your tastes veer towards the traditional or something a little funkier, here’s an eclectic mix of jazz and other music by seasoned and emerging artists to explore this season, along with some interesting bedtime stories you probably didn’t know. So curl up with your hot cocoa and click through some of my holiday favorites.
Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s Nutcracker Suite. Tchaikovysky swings in the hands of these classically trained jazz masters. In 1960 the duo reinvented the ballet classic, mixing rhythms and musical styles. These two selections bring sass to the Nutcracker Overture and make the Sugar Plum Fairies sound like they’re hung over from too much partying at the Sugar Rum Cherry Dance.
Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. At four foot nine, country music-rock star Brenda Lee was known as Little Miss Dynamite. She was 13 when she recorded this classic in 1958. Her version became a chart buster in 1960 and reigns as the all time favorite, played by radio formats from Top 40 to Country Music to Adult Contemporary and Adult Standards. Nielsen Sound Scan rated digital track sales at 679,000 downloads. Miley Cyrus also had fun with the song .
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Composed by Hugh Martin Jr., who also wrote “The Trolley Song” and “The Boy Next Door” for the film Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland. This song from the film might have become the most depressing holiday song ever written. Luckily studio executives and Garland intervened, requesting rewrites to give the public a more hopeful classic. Compare the original lyrics to the holiday friendly versions sung by Frank Sinatra and Luther Vandross.
The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late). What more can I say? Gotta love Alvin and the Chipmunks in this song composed by Rostom Sipan “Ross” Bagdasarian, who had a knack with novelty music. The son of Armenian immigrants, Bagdasarian was a bit stage and film actor whose first musical success, ”Come-on-a-My House,” was a dialect song that became a hit for Rosemary Clooney, the aunt of actor George Clooney. The song was co-written with Bagdasarian’s cousin, the famous writer William Saroyan. Go ahead, do your best impersonation. ALLLLLVIN!
Oh Chanukah. This traditional song commemorating the Jewish Festival of Lights was standard fare in the New York City school programs when music appreciation and performances were used to explore cultural diversity and heritage. Enjoy the traditional song by this young choir and an offering of Klezmer holiday music by a high school sax quartet. Klezmer Jazz a fusion of the rhythms and traditional music of the Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe with American jazz, evolved in the U.S. in the 1880s.
Carol of the Bells. One rarely hears jazz played on the Hawaiian ukelele or such performances compared with Miles Davis, unless you’re Jake Shimabukuro — a largely self-taught virtuoso who was introduced to the instrument by his mother. Listen to his take of the classic Carol of the Bells, a song based on a traditional Ukranian folk chant, followed by a rocking jazz performance .
Yagibushi. Okay it’s not a holiday carol but if music by jazz performer Chichiro Yamanaka, a standout at the 2012 Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival, doesn’t rouse you for the holidays, nothing will.
Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is observed from December 26 to January 1 in Canada and the U.S. to honor African and African American cultural traditions that teach valuable life principles.
And Now for Something Completely Different. Jazz pianist/composer and NEA Jazz Master Randy Weston has made African and world culture the core of his creative process. Blue Moses is a composition influenced by time Weston spent in Morocco learning the traditions and musical culture of the Gnawa people—West Africans taken to North Africa as slaves and soldiers around the 16th century. In an interview with Jo Reed, Weston said that within the Gnawa music ”I heard the blues, I heard Black jazz, I heard the music of the Caribbean, I heard the foundation which proved to me that the rhythms of Africa, they remained alive, but disguised in different forms, whether in Honduras, or Haiti, or Jamaica, or Trinidad, or Brazil, or Mississippi. ”
Happy Musical Holidays!
Joann Stevens is program manager of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), an initiative to advance appreciation and recognition of jazz as America’s original music, a global cultural treasure. JAM is celebrated in every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia and some 40 countries every April. Recent posts include Danilo Pérez: Creator of Musical Guardians of Peace and Jason Moran: Making Jazz Personal.
Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here
November 23, 2012
The days may be getting shorter, and the nights longer, but thanks to the National Zoo, that’s a good thing! ZooLights, the seasonal favorite that lights up the Zoo with colorful lights displays, has returned. The season officially kicks off November 23, when the Zoo will once again be full of larger-than-life representations of some of your favorite animals. And this year, in addition to the models train and snowless sledding, the Zoo will also be unveiling its Conservation Carousel, an old-timey carousel crafted with care that features more of the Zoo’s animal icons.
So bundle up and enjoy the long nights with a cup of apple cider and some new creature friends.
November 20, 2012
If you think your house is going to be packed for Thanksgiving, imagine the crowds at a Smithsonian museum. According to the Washington Post, the museums had 418, 000 visitors over the holiday weekend in 2010. Though that number dipped in 2011, the institution is still gearing up for a full house.
To help visitors navigate their way through the 19 museums and National Zoo, Smithsonian will be fielding questions before and during the holiday on its Twitter page. Just follow @smithsonian and use the hashtag “#TgivingVisitTips” to stay up to date. Veteran visitors will also post their own tips with the hashtag, including, “1) eat at
@SmithsonianNMAI 2) take a pic at @NMAAHC site for posterity 3) comfy shoes” by Erin Blasco.
Here are some of our own insider tips, from our Greatest Hits guide (now available on your smart phone!):
Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle: Your first stop for all things Smithsonian, the Castle is home to the information center where you can scope out all the current exhibits around the Mall, including the Castle’s own exhibit, “Experience Civil War Photography: From the Home Front to the Battlefront.” You can also pay your respects to the founder, James Smithson, who lies at rest in the crypt in the building’s foyer.
National Portrait Gallery: With several new exhibits and a host of permanent favorites, there’s plenty to take in at the gallery (like Alexander Gardner’s famous cracked glass plate portrait of Abraham Lincoln), including the building itself. On the third floor in the Great Hall, is an architectural gem that shouldn’t be missed. The yellow, blue and red stained-glass windows in the octagonal dome, dating to 1885, cast lush hues on sunny days.
American Art Museum: Housed in the same building as NPG, is the American Art Museum, which just opened its splendid new exhibit “The Civil War and American Art,” which is sure to draw crowds. The museum even had its own role in the Civil War: On the third floor near the Woman Eating sculpture, the initials C.H.F. are scrawled on the wall. The work of some hipster tagger? No, the graffiti artist also put a date: “Aug. 8, 1864.” Likely it was left by a patient; the building was a Civil War infirmary.
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center: Not quite on the Mall, the Udvar-Hazy Center (in Chantilly, Virginia—near Dulles Airport) is home to a world-famous collection of aircraft a space vehicles, including the Air France Concorde and the space shuttle Discovery. After seeing those beauties, tell the kids to check this out. Look for seven hidden oddities in the model of the mother ship made from the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These were internal Hollywood jokes that weren’t part of the script. Hint: One is R2-D2 from the movie Star Wars.
Air and Space Museum: The world’s most-visited museum, Air and Space has everything from moon rocks to the Wright flyer. But how did they get it all in there? Look closely at the large window on the west side of the building. The glass slide away like giant garage doors.
American History Museum: Next up from the big three, American History, where even celebrities like Parks and Rec‘s Councilwoman Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) like to hang out. In addition to the brand new exhibit “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000″ with Julia Child’s kitchen, you’ll also want to stop by the first floor for the Dolls’ House. Inside the house, inhabited by Peter Doll and his family, Christmas decorations are kept in the attic. Each holiday season, curators retrieve the tiny tree and wreaths and decorate the house.
Anacostia Community Museum: After an extensive research process, the museum recently opened its exhibit “Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement” as part of its efforts to reach out to the community. Comparing waterways in L.A., Pittsburgh, Louisville, London, Shanghai and here in D.C., the exhibit is full of artworks and informative displays. Check out the playful piece Talking Trash, kinetic sculpture of fish made from plastic water bottles.
Natural History Museum: The grand dame of the big three museum, Natural History is famous partly for housing the “cursed” Hope Diamond. But it’s not all sparkle and shine. Heard of donating your body to science? Professor Grover Krantz volunteered to be put on display at the Smithsonian–with his dog. “I’ve been a teacher all my life, and I think I might as well be a teacher after I’m dead,” he said. Find the pair on the second floor.
American Indian Museum: What better time to visit the American Indian Museum than November, American Indian Heritage Month? In addition to its award-winning cafe and engaging exhibits, it has a treat for those who know where and when to look. Watch for the lovely play of light in the Potomac Atrium. Eight prisms on the south wall project refractions on the floor. See them at the peak of their brilliance between 11 and 2. On the summer and winter solstice, the light lines up precisely.
Freer Gallery: Amid the jades and bronzes from Asia, a fierce fight is playing out. The two birds depicted squawking in battle on the back wall of Whistler’s Peacock Room represent a real-life contretemps between the artist and his patron over a disputed fee for the artwork.
Sackler Gallery: With a new blockbuster exhibit, “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the Sackler is as busy as ever. This year, the Sackler celebrates its 25th anniversary of the 1987 gift of some 1,000 works of Asian art from Arthur M. Sackler (1913-1987), a New York City physician.
Hirshhorn Museum: Contemporary art lovers will be filling the circular gallery space to check out Barbara Kruger’s installation and the new exhibit, “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” But you’ll be headed outside. Ready for a little covert operation? Check out the sculpture Antipodes just outside the front door. The piece has two encoded texts, one related to C.I.A. operations and the other in Cyrillic related to the K.G.B.
Museum of African Art: The current exhibit, “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts” is out of this world, combining science and the arts over time. Our insider tips combines its own bit of science and art. Check out the sculpture of Toussaint Louverture. It is made of a mysterious substance that the artist also used to waterproof his house.
Renwick Gallery: Just a few steps from the White House, the Renwick is a must-see in its own right, listed as a National Historic Landmark. Up the stairs is one of the city’s premier galleries, the Grand Salon, modeled in the French Second Empire style.
National Postal Museum: A stamp collection that can’t be beat, including the first ever U.S. government-issued stamp from 1847, is just the start of the Postal Museum. This building was designed by Daniel Burnham, the protagonist of the best-seller Devil in the White City.
National Zoo: In addition to the cuddly cuties on display, the Zoo is also launching this year’s seasonal display, ZooLights, Friday, November 23. As you wander through the animals, listen for the morning songs of the white-cheeked gibbons. They can be heard up to one mile away.
Don’t forget to download our Visitors Guide and Tours app. We’ve packed it with specialty tours, must-see exhibitions, museum floor plans and custom postcards. Get it on Google Play and in the Apple Store for just 99 cents.
June 19, 2009
The Fourth of July isn’t the only Independence Day in America.
On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived at Galveston, Texas, bringing news to the town that the Civil War had ended and that all slaves were free. This was nearly two and a half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Before long, the former slaves in southeastern Texas began to celebrate June 19th as Emancipation Day. Eventually, they shortened the name to Juneteenth.
An exhibit at the Anacostia Community Museum entitled Jubilee: African American Celebration features information and artifacts related to Emancipation Day festivities like Juneteenth and other African-American traditions.
“People can learn about different celebrations. It’s like looking at African-American history through the lens of these special celebrations, including Juneteenth,” said Robert Hall, associate director for education at the museum.
But Juneteenth isn’t just a historical holiday; modern celebrations are increasing throughout the country, said Cliff Robinson, founder of Juneteenth.com, a Web site that allows individuals or groups to post information and photos from Juneteenth celebrations.
“We’ve had people from all 50 states and around the world posting on our site,” Robinson said. “I’ve seen some celebrations that try to make it historic in terms of costume, but today it can be anything: a family dinner, a backyard barbecue and everything to a concert downtown or a citywide parade. It has expanded.”
I spoke with Dr. William Wiggins Jr., professor Emeritus of Folklore at Indiana University and author of Jubilation: African-American Celebrations in the Southeast, about the history and future of Juneteenth.
Why did it take so long for word of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach Texas?
One of the popular legends associated with that is that Lincoln dispatched Union soldiers to move throughout the South to spread the word, and it took until the 19th of June.
But I think on the other end, you could perhaps say it took so long because of the resistance to emancipation itself. Texas was one of the last outposts of slavery and Galveston is sort of the epicenter. In fact, one of the last fights in the Civil War was done in Galveston and the Union forces were repelled. There had been a big resistance all along and it was because of this fact that word got slowly to east Texas. Then Gordon Granger was dispatched with a group of Union soldiers and landed at Galveston and spread the word and proceeded to go up into east Texas. He gave the executive order that slavery was no longer official and people had to compensate slaves for their labor. Texas was just sort of the outlier and took some time.
More from Dr. Wiggins after the jump.
June 18, 2009
This Sunday, we give it up to Dad (or that fatherly figure) who has always been generous with his love and guidance and the occasional back-yard barbecue. (Have you written your letter to daddy saying “I love you” yet?) In the tradition of our Mother’s Day posting, we decided to dig up a few notable dads that are hanging out in that great big den room we call the Smithsonian. Which of the following guys do you think you’d like to have as a fantasy dad? Take our poll and let’s chat in the comments area below! So, cue up some apropos competition music and take a look at the four fatherly figures contending for your affections:
George Washington: He was the first President of the United States and an accomplished military man, serving in both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. This founding father—and father of our nation—was also an adoptive parent. After marrying the widow Martha Dandridge Custis, he helped her care for her two children, John (“Jacky”) and Martha (“Patsy”), as if they were his own. Unfortunately, both Patsy and Jacky would die young, with Jacky leaving behind a wife and four children. After his wife remarried, their two youngest kids, Eleanor and George, went to live with George and Martha at Mount Vernon. Face it, George Washington has “daddy” written all over him.
Charles Darwin: Unlike most Victorian-era fathers, Charles Darwin was very attentive to his children. ”To all of us,” one of his daughters later wrote, “he was the most delightful play-fellow, and the most perfect sympathizer. Indeed, it is impossible adequately to describe how delightful a relation his was to his family, whether as children or in their later life.” He also traveled the world over and championed one of the most revolutionary—and hotly debated—scientific theories: evolution, arguing that all species have a common ancestor and, over time, genetically adapt to their environment. This is the historical pop you want if you love science, adventure and to being tucked in at night.
Frank Lloyd Wright: This is the guy who revolutionized our notions of architecture and built some of the most awe-inspiring buildings that dot the American landscape. However, based on his 1932 autobiography, Wright seems to have a perfectly ambivalent attitude toward domestic life, writing, “I hated the sound of the word papa.” John Lloyd Wright, one of Frank’s seven children, has rosier remembrances of dear ol’ dad: “He performed all the functions of fatherhood, only he performed them differently,” John wrote. “He took no personal interest in my religious or academic training. But when it came to luxuries and play, he tenderly took my hand and led the way.” (John would go on to make a landmark contribution to the world of architecture by inventing Lincoln Logs in 1916.) If you think you could get along with a brilliant—albeit spoiled and bratty—father, Wright is the way to go.
Bill Cosby: This man wrote the book on fatherhood. Literally. He also comes with a sensible assortment of sweaters and a lifetime supply of Jell-O pudding. Who could ask for anything more? A standup comedian who later lent his boundless talents to television shows like I Spy, Fat Albert and, of course, The Cosby Show, Cosby also earned a doctorate degree in education and has a host of honorary degrees to his credit. If you want someone smart, funny, talented, dessert-savvy and who has an all-around tender loving way about him, Cosby will be a perfect fit for you. Unfortunately, the collections lack any Cosby artifacts, but we just couldn’t have done this poll without including pop culture’s quintessential father figure. So please, Bill, take the hint and call the Smithsonian!