Is the Harlem Shake racist? I don't know, but it's an interesting question to ponder about the odd dance and video sensation that started earlier this year. And if what happened on Frontier Airlines a few weeks ago is any indication, the craze still has legs.
If you're not quite sure what the fuss is about, let me bring you up to speed. The Harlem Shake in its current incarnation began in May 2012 as a techno dance single recorded by Baauer, a New York producer and dee-jay whose real name is Harry Rodrigues. It was offered as a free download.
Then, in the wake of Gangnam Style, came the Harlem Shake viral video craze this past February, which has now mushroomed to about 100,000 YouTube versions of the dance. For the most part, all of the videos are variations on the same theme—people dressed like aliens or wearing motorcycle helmets doing a robotic dance akin to what Olympic swimmers do to loosen up.
On the surface, all of this might seem fairly benign and dopey. Except that most videos feature white people dancing in a fashion that seems to imagine cartoonishly how Harlemites might get down. This isn't to say that the white people in these videos intentionally set out to mock Harlem or black culture. But there's something a tad offensive about it nonetheless—like whites performing in blackface or having too much fun with stereotypes while insisting they don't mean anything by it.
Yes, the song and its title preceded the jerky dance, and no one in the videos openly ridicules blacks. But things that are offensive don't always have to be overt or obvious. To me, the Harlem Shake is a little creepy—like those novelty dances from the 1920s or cartoons from the '30s that equated Harlem with the jungle.
Which brings us to what happened on Frontier Airlines on February 15. Colorado College's white ultimate-frisbee team managed to convince the plane's crew to let them take over the PA system and do the Harlem Shake in the aisles. When video of the exhibition went viral, an FAA investigation was launched.
Harmless fun? Perhaps. Subtle racism? Hard to say. I just wonder whether all of this would have been as cute or even tolerated if black students decided to use the closed confines of a plane to shimmy and carry on loudly.
Here's the original, with more than 26 million views...
Here's the Frontier Airlines incident...
And here's what people in Harlem are saying...
For more on this subject, see Deanna Ogle's comments here.
Lunch Break. On Friday I was Wendy Bounds's guest on her live streaming Wall Street Journal show Lunch Break to talk about my article for the newspaper's Mansion section on Mike Stoller's home. Go here to watch.
Dame Shirley Bassey. When most Americans heard Dame Shirley sing Goldfinger at the Oscars last week, they probably assumed that the British singer is an all-business belter. Which is true. But Dame Shirley also has always had a playful side, as JazzWax reader Philip Andrews in the U.K. illustrated with a link to this video...
Photographer Herb Snitzer has a new photo studio. To celebrate, he's offering a "grand opening" sale—70% off on all size photographs. Price for an 11 x 14-inch print is now $300 while a 16 x 20-inch print is $600. Visit his site and email Herb here.
Sax, meet fiddle. Last week I posted about a TV broadcast of I've Got a Secret, featuring Hal McKusick and two other musicians from the show playing the world's largest saxophone. Jim Eigo of Jazz Promo Services sent along the image above of a giant violin, with the following line: "Now if we can just pair these gals with that sax section, that would be something…"
Colony Music, RIP. I was in Midtown Manhattan a week or so ago when I captured this painful image above. I knew the Colony had closed, but seeing the famed record and music store in its coffin at the base of the Brill Building was heartbreaking.
Jazz blog. Thought you'd want to know that my Wall Street Journal colleague Larry Blumenfeld blogs about jazz regularly at Blu Notes here.
Pearlie Mae. For those who know singer Pearl Bailey only from her recordings, you'll be interested to know that she was quite a stage presence. Plenty of sass, charm and talent. Here she is on What's My Line...
CD discoveries of the week. Trumpeter-composer Gabriel Alegria's new album Ciudad de Los Reyes (Saponegro) has a Latin heart but it moves around too much to be pegged as one style of music or another. Billed as Gabriel Alegria's Afro-Peruvian Sextet, there are throbbing touches and jazz integrations here that aren't found on most Latin-jazz albums. The secret is the drum takes a back seat to the intricacies of lighter percussive instruments, the acoustic guitar and Alegria's trumpet—giving the listener plenty of room to listen to the layers and feel the delicate nature of this unusual Latin-jazz style. Here's a taste.
Last year, alto saxophonist Dmitry Baevsky released an album called The Composers (Sharp Nine). Regrettably, I overlooked the CD the first time around, so I was gratified last week when I was urged to revisit. I'm glad I did. Dmitry has an Art Peppery tone and weaves and soars through off-beat songs by Cedar Walton, Tadd Dameron, Duke Pearson, Horace Silver and others. Dig Walton's Ojos de Rojo, Wayne Shorter's Mister Chairman and a furious version of Gigi Gryce's Smoke Signal. Dmitry is an important new voice, distilling the jazz tradition to produce a thoughtful, probing here-and-now feel.
Swedish jazz singer-pianist Alexandra Ravald reached out last week to inform me of her new album, Time to Learn (ETgohome). I half-expected an album of songbook standards but instead found all originals—and a voice with late-'60s femme-folk urgency backed by her smart piano accompaniment. She's joined by Alfred Götesson on drums, Jim Kaneko on guitar, Göran Lundberg on bass and Robert Nordmark on sax. Sample Time to Learn, Ordinary, Breezy Morning and Nobody Knows. Jazz colored by vocal shades of Laura Nyro and Carole King.
Speaking of songbook standards, singer Monica Ramey has a neat one out: Monica Ramey and the Beegie Adair Trio (Adair Music). Ramey has her work cut out for her, since Adair is one of the finest and most tasteful accompanists on the scene today. And a well-kept secret. Both artists tug at your ear. Fortunately for Ramey, Adair knows how to frame and support without stepping on toes. And Ramey never succumbs to mawkish cliches—she's always all in but never over-doing what's been done. There are peppy and penetrating renditions of Witchcraft, This Could Be the Start of Something Big and Will You Still Be Mine. Ramey is grace all the way. But this one is worth grabbing just for Adair's piano—a favorite of Marian McPartland. Quite the chord-voicing minx. Unfamiliar with Adair? Go here.
Just as jazz is going through a transition period—incorporating hip-hop with '70s soul touches—country is undergoing a similar upheaval. A prime example is John Murry's The Graceless Age (Bucketfull of Brains), a rural-classical electronica experiment with bales of edge. Murry, who hails from Tupelo, Miss., has a deep, strong Springsteenish voice, and his original compositions are moving and haunting. You can listen to the entire album on SoundCloud here. Country for those who like their sad story-tellin' with a bit of bite.
Oddball album cover of the week.