For Black History Month, each weekday, we feature American and Haitian contributions to the advancement of people of African descent. Each feature pairs two leading figures from similar professional backgrounds.
The Empress Who Sang the Blues
The short-lived life of Bessie Smith evokes the lyrics of Michael Jackson’s Gone Too Soon, as she her ”shiny and sparkly” star was had indeed gone too soon. Though she passed in her early 40′s, Smith left behind 160 records that have influenced countless artists, including Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin.
“She showed me the air and taught me how to fill it,” Joplin said.
In 1912, Bessie Smith’s professional career began as a dancer and singer in the Moses Stokes minstrel show. Smith later joined the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, which included Gertrude “Ma Rainey” Pridgett, considered to be the “Mother of the Blues.” Over the next decade, Smith continued to perform on the vaudeville circuit. After signing a recording contract with Columbia Records in 1923, Smith became headliner of the black-owned Theater Owners Booking Association circuit. Selling an estimated 800,000 copies, her first release, Downhearted Blues propelled Smith’s career to the top. She began touring extensively, and to avoid the racial prejudices often experienced by touring black artists, Smith bought a custom railroad car for her troupe to travel and sleep in.
As the highest-paid black entertainer of her day, Smith collaborated with many legendary jazz performers, such as pianist Fletcher Henderson, tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, and trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong. With Armstrong, Smith recorded several songs, including Cold in Hand Blues and I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle.
Nicknamed the “Empress of the Blues,” Smith’s once brilliant career faced setbacks due to the Great Depression’s financial impact on the recording industry, and her battle with alcohol. Undeterred, Smith continued to tour, and revised her repertoire attempting to transition from the Blues into the Swing Era.
Before Smith could recapture her earlier success, she died on September 27, 1937, from severe injuries suffered from an automobile accident. Smith’s funeral was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 4, 1937 — it was attended by more than 7,000 mourners.
In 1989, Smith was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and inducted into the Rock and Hall of Fame. In 2001, her first recording, Downhearted Blues, was named one of the “Songs of the Century” by the National Endowment for the Arts. It was later placed on the National Recording Preservation Board by the Library of Congress in 2002, and in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2006.
Haiti’s Songs of Protest Captured Within a ‘Grand Dame’
Martha Jean-Claude was a cultural force, using her legendary voice in songs of protest against injustice. Though she lived in exile most of her adult life, her music and activism influenced generations in Haiti. It earned Jean-Claude worldwide acclaim, and at home, she remained the “Grand Dame of Haitian Song.”
Jean-Claude was born on March 21, 1919, in Haiti’s capital. She spent her childhood singing as a soloist at the Port-au-Prince Cathedral and in 1942 made her professional debut in a series of folkloric concerts at the downtown Rex Theater, where she would often be accompanied by singer and dancer Emerante de Pradines. She rose to prominence in the 1940′s and 1950′s, along with de Pradines, and a musical tradition that embraced folklore and patriotic songs.
In 1952, President Paul Magloire had her imprisoned after the publication of Anriette, a play which officials found subversive to his government. Soon thereafter, she was released because she was pregnant — just two days after her release, she gave birth to her first child. Jean-Claude fled from Haiti to join her husband, Victor Mirabal, a Cuban journalist with whom she would go on to have four children.
Her life in exile began in Venezuela, until she settled in Cuba, where she developed an influential music career in Havana. Jean-Claude became a household name in Cuba — she performed in numerous concerts and appeared frequently on radio and television.
While in Cuba, Jean-Claude released some of her most influential work including, Yo soy la cancion de Haiti (I am Haiti’s song), Canciones de Haiti (Songs of Haiti) and Mujer de dos islas (Woman of Two Islands). Over the years, she performed with many Cuban musicians, like the legendary Celia Cruz, with whom she performed the Haitian classic, Choucoune. Jean-Claude also starred in Humberto Solás’ 1974 film Simparele, a short, interpretive documentary about Haitian history. Jean-Claude was not only a singer and actress, but also an accomplished composer and writer. She was a member of the notable Cuban Union of Writers and Artists and composed C’est la vie mon cher, part of Orquesta Aragon’s repertoire that became one of her most acclaimed compositions.
Jean-Claude traveled around the world and worked with many renowned artists and performed on the world’s most famous stages. In 1957, she visited Mexico to star in a movie alongside the famed Cuban actress, Ninon Sevilla. Within a year she became a producer at a Mexican TV station. She went on to tour Europe, playing at Palais des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the US, playing Madison Square Garden in New York City and many African countries, including Angola, during the resource-rich country’s dangerous civil war.
Finally, in 1986, after the fall of the Duvalier regime, like so many other exiles, Jean-Claude returned for a visit to her native homeland. After more than 30 years, she would perform in Haiti, for thousands of her eager compatriots. In 1996, President René Preval honored her with the government’s highest accolade — a national medal of honor.
On November 14, 2001, Jean-Claude lost her longtime battle with diabetes at age 82. She died in a Cuban hospital, surrounded by her family.
Jean-Claude will long be remembered for her massive contributions to Haitian and Cuban culture through the Martha Jean-Claude Foundation — and the songs of resistance she sang in solidarity with those in Haiti who for too long, had been rendered voiceless.
“To sing the song of the peasants, that’s what is in my heart. I lean toward these people. My songs are what one calls protest ballads.”
Editors’ Note: Several scholars contributed their insights and expertise to the research for these profiles — Millery Polyne of New York University, Mark Schuller of Northern Illinois University, Patrick Sylvain of Brown University and Gina Athena Ulysse of Wesleyan University.