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Do you want to know who Dizzy Gillespie  idolized? Did you ever wonder who inspired Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey? Who was the pianist that mentored Monk, Bud Powell, Tad Dameron, Elmo Hope, Sarah Vaughan and Mel Torme? Who was Art Tatum’s idol and Nat Cole’s mentor? What musical quartet pioneered the concept adopted later by the Modern Jazz Quartet? Were you ever curious to know who taught saxophone to Stanley Turrentine or who taught piano to Ahmad Jamal? What community music school trained Robert McFerrin, Sr. for his history-making debut with the Metropolitan Opera? What virtually unknown pianist was a significant influence on young John Coltrane, Shirley Scott, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Timmons and Ray Bryant when he moved to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh in the 1940s?  Would you be surprised to know that Erroll Garner attended classes at the Julliard School of Music in New York and was at the top of his class in writing and arranging proficiency?

 

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Duke Ellington is first African-American and the first musician to solo on U.S. circulating coin

    MARY LOU WILLIAMS     

            INTERVIEW

       In Her Own Words

Melvin Van Peebles obituary

Influential film-maker whose 1971 hit Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is credited with launching the blaxploitation genre
Melvin Van Peebles in New York City, 1971, outside a cinema showing his hugely successful film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.
Melvin Van Peebles in New York City, 1971, outside a cinema showing his hugely successful film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In his own words, the film-maker Melvin Van Peebles, who has died aged 89, was “the Rosa Parks of the industry”. He was one of the few African-American directors to have moved within the Hollywood studio system when, in 1970, Columbia gave him a three-picture contract. But Columbia balked at the incendiary plot of his next project, about a black hustler who kills white police officers and escapes scot-free, so Van Peebles borrowed $50,000 from the actor Bill Cosby, raised an additional $150,000, and launched an independent production as writer, director, producer, editor, composer and lead actor.

Shot guerrilla-style over 19 days, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) was a huge commercial success and effectively launched the blaxploitation genre, which gave black actors an unprecedented array of leading roles. However, Van Peebles was ambivalent about the genre, as he believed it often sidelined the political motives of his own film. It was a retaliation against Hollywood’s default modes of black characterisation: silent subservience or the stately Sidney Poitier mould. The opening sequence lists the main stars as “the black community”.

In the first scene, a boy loses his virginity to a sex worker. The child is Sweetback – played in adulthood in the rest of the film by Van Peebles, and in this prelude by Van Peebles’s 13-year-old son, Mario. (More than 30 years later, Mario directed Baadasssss!, about the making of his father’s classic, with Mario playing Melvin.) Melvin took the role of Sweetback in his own film because he claimed that no actors were interested in a character who speaks barely a dozen words (mostly expletives) and makes a living performing sexual acts.


Melvin Van Peebles at the Deauville American film festival, 2012, in Deauville, France.
Melvin Van Peebles at the Deauville American film festival, 2012, in Deauville, France. Photograph: François Durand/WireImage

When Sweetback witnesses the assault of a black man by racist white police officers, he attacks them and flees. The film’s most enduring images are of Van Peebles running, sporting golden flares, a billowing black shirt and a droopy moustache. The sequences are visually and sonically inventive: there are freeze-frames, psychedelic colours, superimposed images and a throbbing jazz-funk undercurrent.

When Van Peebles came to promote the film, he supplied radio stations with his own infectious musical composition. The film’s score, performed by Earth, Wind and Fire, was released by Stax Records. When the film was assigned a prohibitive X rating, Van Peebles printed T-shirts stating “Rated X by an all-white jury”, drummed up local support, had the film screened in community halls and makeshift venues, and virtually hustled it into cinemas.

He had learned the art of the hustle from his father, a tailor who ran a shop on the South Side of Chicago, where Melvin was born, the son of Marion and Edwin Peebles. (Melvin added “Van” to his name when he moved to Holland in his late 20s.) By the age of 10, he was working on the cash register in his father’s shop, and selling old clothes on the streets. He attended Thornton Township high school in Harvey, Illinois, and graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1953 with a degree in English.

He joined the US Air Force, served as a navigator and bombardier in Strategic Air Command, and married a German photographer, Maria Marx, with whom he had two sons, Mario and Max, and a daughter, Megan. A period spent working in San Francisco as a cable car operator inspired him to write the book The Big Heart (1957). He also painted and, taking inspiration from Sergei Eisenstein’s collection of essays Film Form, picked up the basics of film-making.

After making a series of short films, he relocated to Holland, where he studied astronomy at the University of Amsterdam. Then he settled in Paris and contributed cartoon strips to the satirical magazine Hara-Kiri. He wrote a handful of novels in French, including La Permission. His film-making was encouraged by Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque Française, which had screened his shorts, and Van Peebles decided to adapt La Permission for his first feature, a French production released as The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968).


Nicole Berger and Harry Baird in The Story of a Three- Day Pass, 1968, a frank account of rank and race in the army that was the first feature film made by Melvin Van Peebles.
Nicole Berger and Harry Baird in The Story of a Three- Day Pass, 1968, a frank account of rank and race in the army that was the first feature film made by Melvin Van Peebles. Photograph: PR

A frank account of rank and race in the army, the film follows a black soldier stationed in France who receives a promotion and is given some time off before starting his new position. Dogged by the thought that he has become his white captain’s “Uncle Tom”, he embarks for Paris. Van Peebles shot the cafes and stalls of the Left Bank in a freewheeling documentary style. The soldier meets and dances with a white girl and arranges to spend the next day with her by the beach. There, they are spotted by three white men from the base; shocked to see the interracial couple, they report back to the captain, who swiftly demotes the soldier.

The film, punctuated by jazzy bursts of music, has more than a frisson of the French New Wave, a touch of the absurd, and the humour and jaded irony of the blues. In one of the most powerful sequences, the couple awkwardly check in to a hotel and make love in a disarming montage incorporating images of warfare, chorus lines and race demonstrations. The film won an award at the San Francisco film festival where, Van Peebles recalled with some amusement, they were surprised to discover that the Dutch-sounding director of this French production was an African American. He was then signed up to direct Watermelon Man (1970), a provocative comedy written by Herman Raucher about a racist white salesman, Jeff, who wakes up one morning to find that his skin has turned black.

The producers wanted to cast a white actor who would then appear in blackface after the transformation, but Van Peebles won the argument to use a black star (Godfrey Cambridge) who would then be done up in “whiteface”. He also altered the original ending of the film, in which the salesman woke up to find that it had all been a bad dream; Van Peebles didn’t want to equate life as an African American with a nightmare.

Although the film was made with some of his trademark experimental flourishes – including colour filters – it is essentially a broad domestic comedy, well played by Cambridge and Estelle Parsons as his long-suffering wife, Althea.


Melvin Van Peebles, right, with his son Mario, with whom he sometimes collaborated, in 1994.
Melvin Van Peebles, right, with his son Mario, with whom he sometimes collaborated, in 1994. Photograph: Jim Wilson/New York Times/Redux/eyevine

After the transformation, Jeff is met with shrieks of fear, open suspicion and hostility. If the film played America’s inequalities for laughs, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was made in anger and defiance. Despite proving Van Peebles’s box-office clout – Sweetback made more than $10m in 1971 – it lost him his deal with Columbia and won him a reputation as a volatile talent.

By then, Van Peebles had achieved success as a musician, for his albums of original, proto-rap material including Brer Soul (1968). He then turned his attention to Broadway, writing the music, book and lyrics for a “ghetto-life” musical, Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, which opened in October 1971 and ran for more than nine months. Before it closed, he opened another musical on Broadway, Don’t Play Us Cheap! Its book received a Tony nomination and a film version came out in 1972. In 1974, he released a new album, What the … You Mean I Can’t Sing?, its title reflecting his gruff humour and a progression in his vocal delivery from the spoken lyrics on previous releases.

Ten years passed before he released another album or film, but Van Peebles kept busy in the theatre. An autobiographical picaresque musical, Waltz of the Stork, opened in New York in 1982, with him as its star, and a couple of years later he directed a revamped puppet version of the show. The material was recycled into a 2008 film, Confessions of a Ex-Doofus Itchy-Footed Mutha, and a graphic novel.

By 1983, Van Peebles had developed his most unexpected role yet, moving from Broadway to Wall Street, and becoming a trader on the floor of the American stock exchange. In 1986, he wrote a book for aspiring investors, Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market.

Meanwhile, he returned to movies. He had a role in Robert Altman’s OC and Stiggs (1985) and appeared with Mario in Jaws: The Revenge (1987), the TV series Sonny Spoon and the predominantly African-American western Posse (1993), which Mario directed.


A scene from the 1995 film Panther, adapted from a novel by Melvin Van Peebles, and directed by his son Mario.
A scene from the 1995 film Panther, adapted from a novel by Melvin Van Peebles, and directed by his son Mario. Photograph: The Kobal Collection

Back in 1971, Huey Newton had praised Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and made it mandatory viewing for the Black Panthers. In 1995, Van Peebles adapted his own novel about the formation of Newton’s radical party for the film Panther, directed by Mario. The following year, they made Gang in Blue, about racism within the police.

In 1998, Van Peebles wrote and narrated the documentary Classified X, an overview of black characters in American film. Routinely dubbed the godfather of black cinema – although he preferred “godfather of independent cinema” – he increasingly appeared in documentaries, usually wearing his trademark round glasses and beret, chewing on a cigar. His projects became riffs on past achievements: he and Mario published a book about working together, No Identity Crisis (1990), and appeared in The Hebrew Hammer (2003), an irreverent Jewish take on blaxploitation.

He made another French production, Le Conte du Ventre Plein (Bellyful, 2000), released shortly after he was named a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. He also launched a musical-theatre version of Sweetback in France in 2010.

His son Mario cast him in small roles in Redemption Road (2010), We the Party (2012) and Armed (2018), and he also appeared in Tina Gordon’s family comedy Peeples (2013).

His marriage to Maria ended in divorce in 2018. Megan died in 2006. He is survived by Mario and Max, another daughter, Marguerite, and 11 grandchildren.


 Melvin Van Peebles (Melvin Peebles), film-maker, novelist and musician, born 21 August 1932; died 21 September 2021

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Melvin Van Peebles, groundbreaking playwright and director, dies aged 89

The ‘godfather of modern Black cinema’ is best known for the film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song!

Melvin Van Peebles was a pioneering independent film-maker opening doors for Black film-makers and other independent film-makers.
Melvin Van Peebles was a pioneering independent film-maker opening doors for Black film-makers and other independent film-makers. Photograph: François Durand/WireImage

Associated Press

Melvin Van Peebles, the groundbreaking playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the Blaxploitation wave of the 1970s and influenced film-makers long after, has died. He was 89.

His family said in a statement that Van Peebles, father of the actor-director Mario Van Peebles, died Tuesday evening at his home in Manhattan.

“Dad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth?” Mario Van Peebles said in a statement Wednesday. “We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”


Mario and Melvin Van Peebles.
Blaxploitation salvation: the directors’ children rescuing their fathers’ lost movies
Read more

Sometimes called the “godfather of modern Black cinema”, the multitalented Van Peebles wrote numerous books and plays, and recorded several albums – playing multiple instruments and delivering rap-style lyrics. He later became a successful options trader on the stock market.

But he was best known for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song!, one of the most influential movies of its time. The low-budget art-house film, which he wrote, produced, directed, starred in and scored, was the frenzied, hyper-sexual and violent tale of a Black street hustler on the run from police after killing white officers who were beating a Black revolutionary.

With its hard-living, tough-talking depiction of life in the ghetto, underscored by a message of empowerment as told from a Black perspective, it set the tone for a genre that turned out dozens of films over the next few years and prompted a debate over whether Black people were being recognized or exploited.


Melvin Van Peebles in New York City, 1971, posing outside a cinema which is showing his action thriller Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
Melvin Van Peebles in New York City, 1971, posing outside a cinema which is showing his action thriller Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“All the films about Black people up to now have been told through the eyes of the Anglo-Saxon majority in their rhythms and speech and pace,” Van Peebles told Newsweek in 1971, the year of the film’s release.

“I could have called it The Ballad of the Indomitable Sweetback. But I wanted the core audience, the target audience, to know it’s for them,” he told the Associated Press in 2003. “So I said ‘Ba-ad Asssss’, like you really say it.”

Made for about $500,000 (including $50,000 provided by Bill Cosby), it grossed $14m at the box office despite an X-rating, limited distribution and mixed critical reviews.

The New York Times, for example, accused Van Peebles of merchandizing injustice and called the film “an outrage”.

But in the wake of the its success, Hollywood realized an untapped audience and began churning out such box office hits as Shaft and Superfly that were also known for bringing in top musicians, including Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes, to work on the soundtracks.

Many of Hollywood’s versions were exaggerated crime dramas, replete with pimps and drug dealers, which drew heavy criticism in both the white and Black press.

“What Hollywood did – they suppressed the political message, added caricature – and Blaxploitation was born,” Van Peebles said in 2002. “The colored intelligentsia were not too happy about it.”


Melvin with his son Mario Van Peebles at the Sundance film festival.
Melvin with his son Mario Van Peebles at the Sundance film festival. Photograph: Douglas C Pizac/AP

In fact, civil rights groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congress of Racial Equality coined the phrase blaxploitation and formed the Coalition Against Blaxploitation. Among the genre’s 21st century fans was Quentin Tarantino, whose Oscar-nominated Django Unchained was openly influenced by Blaxploitation films and spaghetti westerns.

After his initial success, Van Peebles was bombarded with directing offers, but he chose to maintain his independence.

“I’ll only work with them on my terms,” he said. “I’ve whipped the man’s ass on his own turf. I’m number one at the box office – which is the way America measures things – and I did it on my own. Now they want me, but I’m in no hurry.”

Van Peebles then got involved on Broadway, writing and producing several plays and musicals like the Tony-nominated Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death and Don’t Play Us Cheap. He later wrote the movie Greased Lighting starring Richard Pryor as Wendell Scott, the first Black race car driver.

In the 1980s, Van Peebles turned to Wall Street and options trading. He wrote a financial self-help guide entitled Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market.

Born Melvin Peebles in Chicago on 21 August 1932, he would later add “Van” to his name. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1953 and joined the air force, serving as a navigator for three years.

After military service, he moved to Mexico and worked as a portrait painter, followed by a move to San Francisco, where he started writing short stories and making short films.


Melvin Van Peebles at a film industry awards event in 2008.
Melvin Van Peebles at a film industry awards event in 2008. Photograph: Amanda Schwab/Starpix/REX/Shutterstock

Van Peebles soon went to Hollywood, but he was only offered a job as a studio elevator operator. Disappointed, he moved to Holland to take graduate courses in astronomy while also studying at the Dutch National Theatre.

Eventually he gave up his studies and moved to Paris, where he learned he could join the French directors’ guild if he adapted his own work written in French. He quickly taught himself the language and wrote several novels.

One he made into a feature film. La Permission/The Story of the Three Day Pass, was the story of an affair between a black US soldier and a French woman. It won the critic’s choice award at the San Francisco film festival in 1967 and gained Van Peebles Hollywood’s attention.

The following year, he was hired to direct and write the score for Watermelon Man, the tale of a white bigot (played by comic Godfrey Cambridge in white face) who wakes up one day as a Black man.

With money earned from the project, Van Peebles went to work on Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song!

Peebles’ death came just days before the New York Film Festival is to celebrate him with a 50th anniversary of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Next week, the Criterion Collection will release the box set Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films. A revival of his play Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death is also planned to hit Broadway next year, with Mario Van Peebles serving as creative producer.

Malveaux: Melvin Van Peebles, creative genius


by Julianne Malveaux

(TriceEdneyWire.com) – One of the first Broadway plays I ever saw was Melvin Van Peeble’s Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death. A. Robert Phillips, who led the Black Talent Program at Boston College, arranged for a group of us undergraduates to attend the play, have dinner, and enjoy New York City.  I was riveted by the powerful play, a series of vignettes performed by a talented ensemble, who combined laughter, irony, pathos, and more to present a slice of Black life. 

Two things stayed with me after all these years.  One is a scene where a woman is on a ledge or balcony, and people are urging her not to jump.  Her reply, “I ain’t leaping; I’m just leanin’.  This is the coolest place in town.”  The play closed with something of a curse on White America.  “Put a curse on you. May all your kids be junkies, too.” And now, thanks to opioids, many of them are.

We lost a giant when we lost Van Peebles on September 21, a giant and a multitalented man who acted, directed, wrote, starred, produced, composed, and played music and more.  He was a man who loved Black people and was determined to present us thru Black eyes, not White ones.  

He also had an unusual sense of humor and was so deliberately provocative in his film Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song that the New York Times described the movie as “an outrage.”  But I remember seeing the film, rooting for Sweet Sweetback, on the run after he killed White police officers who were beating a Black man and standing, like the other audience members did, to applaud when the film was over.

Some credit Van Peebles with the Blaxploitation genre, but he was so much more than that.  Sweetback, to me, was about portraying a different power dynamic than one we were used to in 1971.  In Sweetback, you saw a community sticking together, cheering their anti-hero who used everything he had, including his body and his sexual prowess, to elude the oppressor.  In 1971, few Black folks were willing or able to give so-called law enforcement officers any pushback, especially on-screen (the Black Panther Party had been pushing back since its inception). Sweetback was, if nothing else, a paradigm shift.

Before Sweetback, we saw docile, humble, polite Black men, like Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, or Lilies of the Valley.  We saw exotic Black men like Harry Belafonte.  And if we go back to Paul Robeson, we saw masterful, but nonthreatening, Black men.  We never saw a man quite like Sweet Sweetback.

Melvin Van Peebles

Thanks to Van Peebles, though, we began to see a series of them.  None quite bold enough to kill a police officer, go on the run, and win, but self-assured enough to portray their truth.  So there was John (bad mother shut your mouth) Shaft, there was Sam Jackson in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained.  Denzel Washington in Training Day.  So many more.  While all of these roles are complicated, and some overflow with stereotypes, they allowed the world to look at us differently as a people.

To be sure, there is way too much sexism in Black media.  Much as I loved Sweet Sweetback, I cringed at his cavalier use of women and his disdain for us.  Too frequently, that’s the case with male director/producers, even Black ones.  Even as we tackle issues of anti Blackness, we must also confront the sexism that we see in the Black community, especially in Black film.   And we must appreciate the director Ava DuVernay for the well-rounded and positive Black men in Queen Sugar.  While these men are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, they are family and values-driven men, role models.

Van Peebles was a role model, too.  The multitalented man spent time as an options trader and wrote a book about personal finance.  He was a cable car operator in San Francisco and wrote about those experiences in a novel.  He was prolific both in English and in French and published several books in France.   Van Peebles made full use of his creative gift, and we are all so much better because he did.

Melvin Van Peebles left his footprint on Black cinema.  He will be mourned and missed, and his legacy lives on!

(Dr. Julianne Malveaux is an economist, author, and Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at Cal State LA.)

 

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