by Kyle Long
Last week The Guardian ran a thoughtful editorial about the New Orleans Mother's Day parade shooting. Writer David Dennis questioned why the incident had not been accorded status as a "national tragedy" in the way similar acts of violence in Boston, Newtown and Aurora have. It was a brief, alarming analysis of the role race and class play in determining what mainstream America deems as culturally important and newsworthy.
It's a paradigm one can see at work in the Indianapolis music community - - where the contributions of our city's legendary African-American musicians never seem to receive a level of recognition on par with their historic achievements.
I could fill this column every week with profiles of brilliant Indianapolis musicians who've gained worldwide recognition, yet remain virtually unknown in their hometown, both a testament to our city's extraordinary musical heritage and our deep cultural neglect.
Chief among these under-appreciated musical giants is the Indianapolis-born singer, songwriter and bandleader Noble Sissle. An important figure in the early days of jazz, Sissle's accomplishments transcended music impacting civil rights and and American pop culture.
Born in 1889 Sissle was a graduate of Shortridge High School and briefly attended both DePauw and Butler before turning his attention to music full time. Lured away from academics by a job offer from Indy's Severin Hotel, Sissle was hired to lead an orchestra for the Severin's ballroom - - a facility that catered exclusively to white patrons. It was the first of many occasions where Sissle and his music crossed Jim Crow-era segregation lines.
Sissle's prodigious talents quickly pulled him out of Indianapolis, leading him to join forces with James Reese Europe, leader of the premier African-American orchestra of the era. In 1913 Sissle took part in a historic recording session with Europe's Society Orchestra. These landmark sessions resulted in the first recordings made by an all - black band. Some jazz scholars have also credited these releases as the first jazz recordings ever issued.
As the United States entered World War I, Sissle enlisted in Europe's military band. The acclaimed group was acknowledged for introducing jazz to the European continent. "The jazz germ hit France and it spread everywhere," Sissle later said. When the war ended Sissle returned to the U.S., forming a vaudeville act with pianist Eubie Blake. The duo's decision in 1921 to transform that act into a musical revue developed into the artistic highpoint of both musician's careers.
The result was Shuffle Along, the first Broadway musical written, starring and financed by African-Americans. Shuffle Along was a smash hit, representing a milestone in African-American entrepreneurship comparable to the formation of Motown Records nearly forty years later.
The success of Shuffle Along launched the careers of several cast members, including Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson. It also helped to open the doors of mainstream acceptance for many other African-American performers.
Sissle and Blake's score produced several period hits, but today Shuffle Along is primarily remembered for one number: "I'm Just Wild About Harry." The song permanently etched its place in history when it was selected as the campaign theme for Harry Truman in the 1948 presidential elections.
Sissle and Blake produced several more Broadway reviews, but nothing came close to matching the success of Shuffle Along and the duo parted ways.
Sissle relaunched his career as a bandleader, touring extensively throughout the United States and Europe. Sissle's Broadway success endeared him to white audiences and he tailored his music to their interests. With a repertoire leaning heavily toward vaudeville-styled songs, Sissle and band were the first black orchestra booked in many American dancehalls.
Always demonstrating a keen eye for talent, Sissle's band featured many notable jazz sidemen - - from Buster Bailey to Tommy Ladnier. The group also provided a start for a few future superstars. A teenage Lena Horne made her recording debut with Sissle in 1935 and a young Charlie Parker spent several months touring with the band in 1942.
But the legacy of Sissle's band was defined by an ongoing association with master New Orleans jazz musician Sidney Bechet. The Sissle and Bechet collaboration produced a handful of classic jazz recordings, like the crazed 1938 ode to marijuana "Viper Mad" or the frenzied surrealism of the 1937's "Characteristic Blues."
As the big band era arrived, Sissle's brand of hot jazz and vaudeville became passé. But his contributions to American culture continued. Sissle played for the inauguration of President Eisenhower in 1953, served as the President of the Negro Actors Guild and received an honorary title "Mayor of Harlem."
Sissle died at his home in Florida in 1975, and 38 years later he has yet to receive serious recognition in his hometown. Let's change this.
1. Noble Sissle and his Orchestra - Characteristic Blues
2. Noble Sissle and his Orchestra - Viper Mad
3. Noble Sissle and his Orchestra - Blackstick
4. Noble Sissle and his Orchestra - Sweet Patootie
5. Noble Sissle and his Orchestra - Okie Doke
6. Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle - Waiting for the Evening Mail
7. Noble Sissle and his Orchestra - Basement Blues
8. Noble Sissle and his Orchestra - Got the Bench, Got the Park
9. Noble Sissle and his Orchestra - In a Cafe on the Road to Calais
10. Noble Sissle and his Orchestra - Roll On Mississippi Roll On
11. Noble Sissle and his Orchestra - Wha'd Ya Do to Me
12. Noble Sissle and his Orchestra - Loveless Love
13. Noble Sissle and his Orchestra - Dear Old Southland
14. Noble Sissle and his Orchestra - I Take to You