TMAC: Hello I'm Terrance McKnight, and today, as we approach the centennial of his birth, we're talking about Leonard Bernstein.
Bernstein was a great conductor, educator, he was a great composer and pianist.
But he was also a lifelong activist of civil rights and social justice…
He worked tirelessly to incorporate that universality directly into his music—including, the sound of Black America.
CHARLES IVES - THE UNANSWERED QUESTION
Charles Ives - The Unanswered Question
TMAC: So in the '70s Leonard Bernstein gave a series of lectures at Harvard called "The Unanswered Question." It was really based on a composition by Charles Ives.
TMAC: And, the most fascinating thing to come out of these lectures, for me ... I think the thing that really caught my ear, was just his tenacity, his determination to find a way to get us all on the same page, us as human beings, regardless of our walk of life. You got the sense that he was trying to get us all on the same page.
TMAC: He’s building a case, in this lecture, to show that we’re more alike than different. If there’s a universal speech, then perhaps there’s a universal sound that we all respond to. Because you have to keep in mind, man, that when Bernstein was born there was scientific research trying to state that some people were inferior to others. And I think he wanted his music to just do a little something to change that, to fix that, to make that right. That's what I took away from those lectures.
The Berlin Celebration Concert: Beethoven Symphony No 9 - Bernstein 1989
TMAC: So I was listening today, to one of the Harvard lectures, and he was talking about the universality of music, he was like, we always hear that music is universal, but let’s like, really dig into it.
LB: Music is supposed to be a metaphorical phenomenon, some kind of mysterious symbolization of our innermost affective existence. Even so great a scientist as Einstein said that the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.
TMAC: And so he's started talking about how sounds were universal, like ...
LB: I tried to imagine myself a hominid, and tried to feel what a very, very ancient ancestor of mine might have felt and might have been impelled to express verbally.
TMAC: That like, you know, if you're a baby, you may make the sound—
LB: And then I got hungry. Mmm. Mmm! Calling my mother's attention to my hunger. And as I opened my mouth to receive the nipple—"Mmah!"—lo' I had invented a primal word: "Mah," "mother."
LB: Now this has got to be one of the first proto-words ever uttered by man. Still to do this day most languages have a word for mother that employs that root, "mah," or some phonetic variant of it: [foreign language], the Germanic "mutter," "[foreign language]," the Slavic "[foreign language]," and the Hebrew "[Hebrew]"—even Navajo: "[Navajo]."
So, the reason I took this on was because, for me personally ... I grew up taking trumpet lessons in fourth or fifth grade. My siblings were taking clarinet, guitar. And so I probably showed some talent when I was about 9 years old. Bernstein was doing these pieces on Young People's Concerts that would come on television.
From Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center, home of the world's greatest musical events, the Shell Oil Company brings you the New York Philharmonic Young People's Concerts under the musical direction of Leonard Bernstein.
TMAC: And I just remember my mother would always call me to the television: "Come watch this man talking about music." And I would watch this guy talking about whatever he was talking about on television. And, "Look at these instruments." She would ask me to identify the instruments and stuff like that.
TMAC: Bernstein had this interesting kind of way about him. He had an interesting accent.
LB: My dear young friends, as you may know, we devote one Young People's program every year to presenting young performers to you, young people who are so gifted and so well-developed [crosstalk] real artist-
TMAC: But I do remember feeling a little ostracized from that program, and I felt ostracized because I didn't see a bunch of brown people in the audience, so it seemed like it was something that may not be for me. And it terrified me a little bit because I thought if I become good at this trumpet thing then that becomes my world—and I don't really know people in this world, I don't know that world is like. It's a little bit different. So as I grew up and learned more about him by staying in music I wanted to see what made him tick.
LB: And now we come to a young man who is so remarkable that I am tempted to give him a tremendous buildup, but I'd almost rather not so that you may have the same unexpected shock of pleasure and wonderment that I had when I first heard him play. He was just another in a long procession of pianists who were auditioning for us one afternoon, and out he came, a sensitive-faced 16-year old boy from Philadelphia, looking rather like a young Persian prince, who sat down at the piano and tore into the opening bars of a Liszt concerto in such a way that we simply flipped.
LB: He is named Andre Watts.
TMAC: When I really got serious about music in college I identified with this guy, a pianist named Andre Watts. He's the one pianist of African descent that you see out there concertizing, and he's been doing it since the year I was born.
TMAC: He got an opportunity to play on the Young People's Concert. Bernstein brought him in to play. He was 16 years old.
TMAC: So that catapulted him into a career that I was able to follow as a young pianist, looking at Andre Watts as sort of a model, as sort of a mentor for me as a young pianist, and thanks to Leonard Bernstein, who gave him that opportunity back in 1963.
LB: I love that kind of story. Because I admire his playing so much I am going to be selfish and take the pleasure of conducting for him myself.
LB: Let us welcome with warmth and pride Andre Watts.
TMAC: Here's a taste of Andre Watts playing the first piano concerto by Franz Liszt, and this is Bernstein conducting.
[Leonard Bernstein Conducting Andre Watts live on TV - Young People’s Concerts Vol 2. Young Performers No. 4] [in clear 2:00]
TMAC: So, Bernstein was born in '18, man, so this was like ... first jazz records, first blues records were made around this period, around 1918, 1920.
TV: Let's go, Duke!
TMAC: When he's 10 years old, Duke Ellington is on the radio on CBS being heard every Friday night or Saturday night. There are these big bands.
He was very influenced by that music.
TMAC: And he really talked about jazz being authentically American, and the goal of the composer was to absorb that authentic American sound.
REPORTER: Mr. Ellington, how do you feel on the same point?
TMAC: Here’s Duke Ellington and Bernstein meeting together in Wisconsin, in 1966.
Duke: It's American music, I would say—the stuff that we're in, anyway. And it's getting to the point now where the modern contemporary composer and the guy who's supposedly a modern jazz composer, they all come out of the same conservatories.
Duke: And it's very difficult to find a place to draw the line.
LB: Well, you are certainly one of the pioneers in that.
Duke: Oh, yeah, but I didn't come out of the conservatory.
LB: No, but you were one of the first people who wrote so-called "symphonic jazz."
Duke: I had a conservatory in the Capitol Theater.
LB: That's right. Exactly.
Duke: Sit there and listen to the symphony before the picture.
LB: Well maybe that's really the difference between us, that you wrote symphonic jazz and I wrote jazz symphonies.
LB: Something like that.
TMAC: Listening to those guys man, two strong personalities, who now we see as two of the most influential American composers of the 20th century, standing side by side, drinking coffee, at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in this country—powerful.
Duke Ellington - Symphony in Black continues [in clear 0:15]
Aaron Copland - Copland playing Piano Concerto [0:10]
TMAC: Bernstein had a sister who was very musical—she was into theater—and so they would just make up music and improvise on what they heard on the radio. And he would play parties, and by the time he got to Harvard that music was still a part of his consciousness.
TMAC: He was going to concerts. His father was taking him to concerts as a young man.
TMAC: But when he got to college and became aware of Aaron Copland,
STUDS: Aaron Copland, so many facets to your musical life. In the early days were you interested in jazz elements going way back?
Aaron Copland: I was very interested in jazz in the '20s, mostly as an easy way, you might say, or an obvious way, of using materials which everybody would recognize as being American in origin.
TMAC: Bernstein wrote a paper in 1939, his senior thesis, called "The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music.” And so I think what turned him on about Copland was that Copland was doing that. When I listen to his Piano Concerto, there are sections where I think, "Oh, if my grandfather walked in the concert hall he would feel like, 'Oh, they're talking about me.'"
TMAC: Here’s Aaron Copland again.
Aaron Copland: In the '20s, several composers—not only myself—had a very strong preoccupation about the writing of a music that everybody could identify with our country. I, after all, was studying in Paris and I realized that Debussy and Ravel were very typically French, and so one wondered, "Couldn't we do that same thing in America? Why couldn't we write a serious music that perhaps related to jazz which everyone would immediately recognize as American?" And I think we did.
TMAC: You hear the absorption of those race elements in music.
TMAC: For example, he sets it up with these two big chords.
TMAC: Interesting harmony.
TMAC: Then he goes into this little stride kind of feel.
TMAC: It almost sounds very Gershwin-esque.
[Piano segues into orchestral recording]
TMAC: —So there, when you hear it in context, you really feel like you're right in the center of American culture, New York City, New Orleans, wherever, Chicago. You just sense it. It couldn't be anywhere else. It's not Vienna. You know, it's not Prague. It's not, you know, Palestine. It is the heart of American culture.
TMAC: Copland put it into this music and I think ... and I know that's what attracted Bernstein to him. They were up to the same thing, bringing all the people, all the sounds of the people, into the concert hall.
LB: A man called Aaron Copland was experimenting with jazz in the concert hall and churning out some pretty marvelous pieces.
LB: At the time he wrote this jazzy piano concerto in 1926, he was only 26 years old. He was a young pioneer of American music, and when that piano concerto was first heard a year later in 1927, there was a good deal of shock in the air. The Bostonians just couldn't accept the idea of a Third Stream way back then, and I want you to realize that the kind of jazz you'll be hearing is from another time. It's jazz of the '20s. It's full of Charleston rhythms and boop-boop-ba-doops, and a certain Gershwin-like sentimentality.
LB: And the wonderful thing is that, old as it is, it still sounds as fresh and charming and full of zip as it did in 1927.
LB: And our piano soloist, I am proud and happy to say, is none other than the original soloist from 1927, the one and only Aaron Copland.
Aaron Copland - Copland playing Piano Concerto [0:15]
TMAC: This is the second movement of Aaron Copland's Piano Concerto.
TMAC: Typically a second movement is slow and lyrical, but he does something interesting. It's almost like a drunk stumbling down the street.
TMAC: I mean, he asks for a moderate tempo, but very rubato. So if I play it straight ... In straight time it's in three.
TMAC: Right? But that's not what he asked for. He wants something just a little more belligerent, and to me it's like somebody had a little too much to drink last night.
TMAC: Whatever these notes are, but the feeling is ...
TMAC: And that's very Prokofiev, or is very New York City, Saturday night, you know.
Copland Piano Variations
LB: Every bar I ever wrote I would bring to Aaron Copland. He would say, well, that’s sort of warmed over Scriabin or that’s second hand something, throw it away. These two bars are fresh, they’re you. Work on those, develop those. That sort of criticism. I revere and worship Aaron Copland for what he taught me.
TMAC: And then ... when he was in school—he was at Harvard—he wrote Aaron Copland a letter-
LB: I had just turned 19. I was a junior at Harvard.
TMAC: ... saying, "Why are we playing Chopin? Why are we even playing your music? Why are we playing your Variations when this music doesn't seem to be moving the hearts of the people?"
LB: [crosstalk] and, "Wait till you hear this."
TMAC: Like, "We're playing all this elevated music and people are acting like animals."
CBS: The applause reached the Fuhrer, who had just arrived in the Court Opera House to address the Reichstag, which has been called an extraordinary session. They are expecting [crosstalk]-
TMAC: They're letting this moron march across borders. This is when Hitler invaded Austria.
Adolf Hitler: [German]
Translator: "From now on, bomb will be met by bomb."
TMAC: And Bernstein was just like ... He starts the letter like, "God damn it, Aaron! Why are we playing Chopin? Why are we even playing your Variations? Because the music apparently isn't making people more humane."
TMAC: So then he started questioning ... like, what kind of music ... what is the purpose of art if it's not changing the hearts of people?
TMAC: So as fascism is on the march across Europe, at the same time here in New York’s Greenwich Village this new club opens at the end of 1938. Cafe Society was America's’ first integrated night club. And it was known as the wrong place for the right people, and all the right people showed up there. Including Bernstein.
You know, the black intellectuals, the white progressives, and these people were commingling. White folks didn’t get first billing at tables, and that was radical.
So Bernstein is going here, he’s a young man, and Hazel Scott is playing there. She used to call him Skinny Lenny.
Man: Just a minute, who do you wanna see?
Hazel: I’m Hazel Scott.
Man: Oh Miss Scott! Yes, they’re waiting for you, go right in…
TMAC: He would hang out with Hazel, and Adam Clayton Powell,
Adam Clayton Powell:
After all I’m a negro baptist preacher, you know? [Laughter] Nobody can control a negro baptist preacher, even God sometimes can’t!
TMAC: Langston Hughes was there, all of these black intellectuals—so a lot of the black thought that became prevalent in the 20th century came out of cafe society and the folks who were coming there. And so this is what influenced Bernstein.
Some nights you might see Art Tatum playing Dvorak.
And Bernstein would go there late at night, 4am. And what made it special, was the talent, and the fact that it was integrated, a unique experience. It didn't matter who you were, you just came, got a table and enjoyed the show.
Art Tatum plays Dvorak [in clear 0:24]
ON THE TOWN
TMAC: And so if we fast forward a little bit, in On the Town, that Broadway musical,
Bernstein and Jerome Robbins.
I think they were really trying to paint a picture of what America could be, certainly what our armed forces could be, because at the time, it was segregated.
So, In On the Town, the cast was integrated. So you’ve got black men dancing with white women on stage, holding hands, dude that was scandalous!
Bernstein conducts Bernstein - On the Town (Ballet Music) [in clear 1:00]
TMAC: Another thing in On the Town was the hiring of Everett Lee. Everett Lee was a black conductor who was from Cleveland, and he was a violinist as well, so he was playing in the string section for On the Town. And during the production Bernstein brought him up to conduct. So he became the first black man to conduct an integrated orchestra on Broadway. But that was something, that was a big deal to have a black man leading an integrated orchestra on Broadway in 1944. It was a huge deal for Everett Lee and for our country.
TMAC: And then I think in ... He wrote Billie Holiday into something. I think it was Fancy Free. He wrote a song for her. It's a song called Big Stuff.
Big Stuff [in clear 2:30]
Paul Robeson: Now I was born on the edge of Robeson County.
TMAC: Okay. Paul Robeson was-
Paul Robeson: ... a negro boy born in Princeton, New Jersey, in a college town where the students mainly came from the Deep South, you know, Princeton -
TMAC: Now here's a man whose father, similar to Bernstein-
Paul Robeson: ... so, and my father was a minister -
TMAC: ... and was very religious.
Paul Robeson: I was shaped against that background.
TMAC: But he had a great voice.
Music: “Purest kind of a guy”
TMAC: His connection to Bernstein was—he was all about trying to uplift the working class around the world. And, like Bernstein, he encountered resistance to his political beliefs.
CBS: Paul Robeson, the Negro baritone, was scheduled to give a concert near Peekskill, New York. That concert was canceled. Canceled by fists, by a passion, by the conflict between those who thought Paul Robeson ought not to be heard because of his outspoken Communist sympathies, and those who insisted on hearing him regardless or because of his political leanings.
TMAC: Robeson became controversial because of his connection to Communism, because of his connections outside of the state, because of his travel to Russia. People were rioting, people were actually cheering him on, because they knew that he couldn't travel because of his passport issue.
Reporter: Here's a group of young boys here, yelling at the people, stopping their cars.
Crowd: [crosstalk] Go back to Russia! [crosstalk]!
TMAC: The whole McCarthy era put a lot of pressure on those guys in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
HUAC: Are you a member of the Communist Party or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?
HUAC: It's unfortunate and tragic that I have to teach this committee the basic principles of Americanism.
HAUC: That's not the question. That's not the question.
TMAC: Bernstein never actually testified.
HUAC : The question is: have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?
TMAC: But his close friends like Aaron Copland and Paul Robeson did...
Paul Robeson: And the Negro people, in slavery in one kind or another, feudal or industrial, for the 300-odd years of our lives on this continent, forgetting their Civil War struggle, forgetting the lessons of Reconstruction, again betrayed by a coalition of industrial-finance Republican barons and Southern moribund plantation owners. And their reward? Lynching, the Trenton Six, to Peoria, to Virginia, to Georgia, to Alabama, to anywhere where a black face dares to answer back, anywhere where a brown body dares to walk in dignity.
TMAC: Robeson was very vocal about the ills of America.
I mean, at this time, during his lifetime, blacks were fighting in a war that was segregated, or they were fighting in armed forces that were segregated. You would have black soldiers who would board trains with prisoners of war, and if these prisoners of war were white, these black soldiers had to relinquish their seats and give their seats to prisoners of war.
TMAC: We’ve been listening to some of Bernstein’s first symphony written in 1942. It’s titled “Jeremiah” after the Hebrew prophet who warned that the people’s sins would lead to disaster.
Bernstein - Jeremiah Symphony #1, Prophecy [in clear 2:25]
PRELUDE FUGUE & RIFFS
TMAC: Okay, so I’ve been looking at this Bernstein composition, Prelude Fugue & Riffs.
He wrote this for Woody Herman back in the 40’s, in 1949 and he played it and talked about on this program Omnibus.
LB: In one way or another, it uses all the elements we’ve been discussing during this time.
TMAC: Right? On this program called What is Jazz.
LB: I hope you will feel in it the special beauty of jazz that I felt when i was writing the piece. We’re going to play it for you now.
SO I’m looking at this piece and I’m listening to it, and I’m hearing all these things that sound like blues and that sounds like jazz and these harmonies. And then, I’m looking the middle of the score and I see something that looks a little bit familiar.
There’s a old Hymn, O come O come Emmanuel…
[Music: O come, O come Emmanuel]
Right? The words are, o come o come emmanuel and, ransom captive israel.
Right? So it’s about some sort of salvation. Listen to what Bernstein sticks in here. He sticks this little motive...
[TMAC Music demo]
And I think he’s saying, [singing] Emmanuel… and then he changes it, changes the note.
[TMAC Music demo]
And this is the theme of his fugue, so listen to the full theme of his fugue:
Prelude, Fugue and Riffs [in clear 1:10]
TMAC: It’s a great early example of how Bernstein blended the sacred and the secular. And he’d continue to search for that universal sound the rest of his life.
WEST SIDE STORY
TMAC: You can hear some of those same characteristics from Prelude Fugue & Riffs, in Bernstein’s original Broadway score for West Side Story in 1957.
West Side Story: Prologue [in clear 0:42]
TMAC: Leonard Bernstein said, "I guess the best known musical that I have done, West Side Story, is one long protest against racial discrimination.
West Side Story: America [in clear 0:25]
TMAC: And by the time we get to west side story, he’s really deal with our own prejudices, deal with our own blind spots, you know, the folks we don’t see, the folks who we think do not matter, and he puts them on stage, he puts the spanish language on stage and it may not seem like a huge deal now, but if you think about it 60, 70 years ago, it was a huge deal.
TMAC: I mean, just saying that name, perhaps makes you think about someone who doesn’t look like you. He could have called her Mary but he didn’t.
West Side Story: Maria [in clear 1:10]
TMAC: So Bernstein here in the late 50s, early 60s is on a musical high. And his ideas about racial equality and social justice seem to be gaining traction as part of the Civil Rights movement.
But there are also dark days ahead.
That’s in a minute when we continue Leonard Bernstein’s Black America.
TMAC: Hi I’m Terrance McKnight and this is Leonard Bernstein’s Black America.
News: From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 PM Central Standard Time, two o'clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.
Jamie LB: It was the day the shadow came down-
TMAC: This is Jamie, Leonard Bernstein's daughter.
Jamie B: President Kennedy was assassinated, and I watched my parents and all their friends crying.
Jamie B: And then all of a sudden Martin Luther King was assassinated, and then Bobby Kennedy—another Kennedy—was assassinated. And then this war. So there was this sense of non-stop travail, and I really do think that my father spent the rest of my life processing this grief, and through his own works.
TMAC: So Bernstein was very close to JFK. Just a few weeks after he was killed, Bernstein dedicated his new symphony to the fallen president at the world premiere. It’s based on a Jewish prayer of mourning. It’s called Kaddish.
Kaddish [in clear 1:25]
TMAC: Bernstein was a member of The Council of African Affairs and The National Negro Congress, he was on The National Council of American-Soviet Friendship.
Bernstein Symphony No. 1 - Jeremiah, Israel Philharmonic
Bobby Kennedy: Some very sad news for all of you, and I think some very sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace from all over the world. And that is, that Martin Luther King was shot, and killed tonight.
TMAC: So Leonard Bernstein, Here’s someone who had marched in Selma with Harry Belafonte. And then Dr. King died in ‘68. And so the very next year, Bernstein is hosting a party, to raise money for the Black Panthers.
Black Panther: The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense calls upon the American people in general...
TMAC: So Bernstein and his wife had invited members of the Black Panthers to their apartment. It was a fundraiser. The Black Panthers were about protecting the neighborhood, fighting against police violence, police brutality.
Black Panther: Racist police agencies throughout the country are intensifying the terror, brutality, murder and repression of Black people.
TMAC: They were armed. They were particularly armed after the death of Martin Luther King Jr.
TMAC: Bernstein went to his next concert and folks were picketing. He was booed. One of the musicians said ... He remembers it distinctly, the surprise and shock that Bernstein faced, and he said he huddled the band up, huddled the orchestra up before the show to talk about what was happening out in the hall.
Black Panther: ...Everyone who went in to exercise a constitutional right to bear arms in a public place.
TMAC: Remember the 70s Harvard lecture series we heard at the beginning? At the very first lecture, somebody called in a bomb threat.
LB: This performance of the Mozart symphony was interrupted in the middle of the first movement by a bomb scare.
And we all had to go out into the street, nobody knowing whether we were going to come back and resume or not, and wait for almost an hour until we had word that the police had cleared the whole theater.
LB: And during that wait I must say that I was sick at heart and overcome by despair, because why had I been talking my guts out for an hour and a half on human brotherhood and universality only to have this kind of despicable disproof of human brotherhood thrown in our faces?
TMAC: So, he was trying to make music that responded to that. And that's why said himself, "You know what? I'm going to take some time off from conducting because I have to write music." He felt that he needed to write.
Bernstein - Mass - Simple Song [in clear 3:48]
This is Simple Song from Bernstein’s Mass.
Beethoven 6th Symphony - Pastoral
TMAC: It seems like Lenny liked getting his way, and he liked being the center of attention, he liked being a leader. He liked being a loudmouth. He felt like he had something to say.
He could be very controversial and very contentious. I think he liked debate. He liked argument, he liked resolution. And so he had this thing where he had to be seen and had to be heard... I think that's why he was so fond of Beethoven.
LB: It's the form. No composer ever had that—even Mozart—to that degree, where everything is so unpredictable and yet so right. It all checks. It all works out. You can rely on it. You know the next note has to be the next note and the only next note that could come, and that makes him form perfect.
TMAC: Beethoven was an outsider. You know, he got to Vienna which was the capital city from a small town, Bahn.
LB: He never left his rooms, he went crazy…
TMAC: He had brown skin, very short and um, maybe had some acne issues, hair was all over the place, and so Beethoven had a terrible outsider complex, coming into a fancy city. He was a little bit rough, you know,
LB: He moved all the time, he couldn’t find a place that was right.
TMAC: Oh, and early in his career he started to lose his hearing, and so that made him even more of an outsider.
LB: That's what's so incredible. But he wrecked himself and his whole life trying to do this, trying to achieve this very inevitability. Every note that comes is inevitable.
TMAC: Bernstein’s talking about Beethoven but it sounds like he’s talking about himself. I mean, here are two guys, who had this deep spirituality, this deep faith. Staying up late, taking interest in social causes? That was Beethoven, but it’s also Bernstein.
Bernstein Mass - XIII - Lord’s Prayer [in clear 0:48]
MUSIC: Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespases, as we….
TMAC: Bernstein ... So much of his life he dealt with or wrestled with this idea of faith, and he felt like we as a country and as humanity wrestle with an idea of faith. So when he composed Mass he wanted to wrestle with that question. He wanted us to think about our faith and how we actualize that.
MUSIC: ...From Evil…
TMAC: So Jacqueline Kennedy asked Bernstein to write a piece for the opening of the Kennedy Center. Now this request was made right after Robert Kennedy was killed.
Jim Vance: The Kennedy Center is an imposing structure on the banks of the Potomac River.
Jim Vance: Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was not among the invited guests tonight but other members of the Kennedy family were.
TMAC: And so when he composed MASS, he wanted to wrestle with that question. He wanted us to think about our faith and how we actualize that.
Jim Vance: Tonight's formal opening was highlighted by Leonard Bernstein's Mass, which he composed especially for it tonight at the request of Mrs. Kennedy Onassis.
Jim Vance: Tomorrow night President Nixon will be the honored guest. He gave up his presidential box at tonight's formal opening, saying the Kennedys should not have to share the spotlight.
TMAC: And I think ... was so significant about that is this, is that he took to Washington, DC. This was like a statement to our nation. Of course Nixon ends up boycotting the thing. He wasn’t a fan of Bernstein’s politics, and you can hear him on one of the infamous White House tapes trying to come up with a cover story for why he didn’t go.
NIXON: Why don’t we get Buchannon to get on the mic saying that the President didn’t go because he thought it was a sacrilegious kind of a thing?
TMAC: Nixon was coloring it as a sacrilegious thing, a disgrace, to deter people from going to it. His aide wanted the headlines to read like “Mass seen as abuse of spirit.”
Aide: Here’s the headline: “Mass seen as abuse of spirit”, and they’re beginning that every week, warning catholics not to go to it.
TMAC: So in this composition, he requires so much of what is American culture to make this thing happen. And he says that it doesn’t have to happen in a concert hall, this piece could be played in a barn, that’s what Bernstein’s says. And he goes on to say, that this is really his first composition.
TMAC: And I saw it, man. When I first came here they did it up in the Bronx. Marin Alsop conducted.
Marin Alsop: It was a—revelation, on every level, and I become a complete convert so to speak.
TMAC And I walked in and I was like, "Damn," I was like, "All these kids, all these different peoples, you know, different-looking people." I'm like, "Where all these people come from? These brown people in the concert hall." And that was an important slice of America that he wanted to see represented.
TMAC: And I walked into that hall in the Bronx, and saw all those kids and all those young mothers with babies!
Here he is educating the nation, about our music, about our culture. He wrote them into the music—so if you write the kids into the music, their parents are going to show up, the grandparents are going to show up, their little brothers and sisters even if those parent’s can’t get a babysitter that day, they brought them into that hall to see Bernstein’s music. Every slice of America, was in the Bronx that day. Felt like a huge party. I was blown away. In that moment I understood, that Bernstein has etched us into history
Through his music.
Leonard Bernstein’s Black America was produced by Terrance McKnight and Curtis Macdonald, who also did the sound design.
Our editor was Derek John and our Executive Producer is Alex Ambrose.
Special thanks to Mike Shobe at WQXR and WNYC’s Program Director Jacquelin Cincotta.
Thank you for listening to Leonard Bernstein’s Black America.