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Agnes De Mille

Arts Days: September 18, 1905: Dance Queen of Broadway
Her father William and her uncle Cecil were both big-shot Hollywood directors, so perhaps it was genetic that Agnes de Mille sought a life in the arts. She studied piano, considered acting and took dance lessons, and choreographed big dance sequences for movies like Cleopatra and ballets including the sensational Rodeo (which received 22 curtain calls). Yet it was as a choreographer for the theatrical stage that de Mille really found her calling.

The dance routines she created were anything but routine. Musicals like Carousel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and especially Oklahoma! revolutionized musical theater by the way de Mille incorporated her choreography right into the plot, further rounding out characters’ personalities, and blending folk dance with ballet.
Backstage, Broadway, Choreographers, Dance, Dance Legends, Musicals, Theater

Ed Sullivan

Arts Days: September 28, 1901: Talent Scout
Hard to believe but for more than three decades, Ed Sullivan's television variety show kept Americans entertained. Sullivan, a former sports reporter and radio announcer, became an emcee to vaudeville revues and charity events. Despite his famously wooden persona and uncomfortable on-camera appearance, Sullivan knew how to choose and showcase talent.

Until 1971, The Ed Sullivan Show provided a staging arena for entertainers of all stripes. Elvis made his hip-shaking debut in 1956; the Beatles’ 1964 appearances were some of television’s highest rated programs. The show was as likely to feature opera performances as it was rock and roll bands, and hosted many black performers, including Pearl Bailey, Diana Ross, and Louis Armstrong.
Art Venues, America, Television, Young Artists, Rock & Roll, Comedy, Dance, Theater, Music

Gene Autry playing guitar

Arts Days: September 29, 1907: The Singing Cowboy
The five stars bearing Gene Autry’s name on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame are a testament to his versatility as a performer. The “Singing Cowboy,” as he was commonly known, earned stars for his work in radio, recording, television, movies, and theater. Autry is the only person to have been awarded five stars.

As a very popular public figure, Autry felt a personal responsibility to live by a creed he called the Cowboy Code, rules to live by that he hoped his young radio fans would emulate. Over the course of his multi-faceted life, Autry also served in the military, bought the Los Angeles Angels baseball team, and gave money to create a museum about the West, now known as the Autry National Center.
America, Movies & Movie Stars, Music, Music Legends

A Chorus Line

Arts Days: September 27, 1983: One Singular Sensation
There are 17 of them up on the bare stage—chorus dancers, known as “gypsies” in musical theater lingo. They audition, then wait, wait some more…most are sent home empty-handed. This trying experience was captured by a young dancer/choreographer (and former gypsy) named Michael Bennett. Bennett took the audition process and added a slew of talented singer/dancer hopefuls and a fabulous score by Marvin Hamlisch.

The show’s minimal sets and costumes kept the audience’s focus right where it should be: on the singing and the dancing as each character sings and shares his or her story about how they wound up at the audition. Sometimes funny, always moving, the show’s cinema-like staging includes jumps from one character to another, stage dissolves, and close-ups.
Broadway, Musicals, Art Venues, Theater

Will Smith

Arts Days: September 25, 1968: Will Power
Will Smith’s many talents, from rapping to acting and producing, have enabled his rise as one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. As part of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Smith and childhood pal Jeff Townes hit big with the song “Parents Just Don’t Understand” in the 1980s. They even won the very first Grammy® awarded to a rap act.

The folks at NBC liked Smith’s appealing persona enough to build a TV show around him; The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ran from 1990–96 and cemented Smith’s reputation as a natural comic. The show served as Smith’s platform to transform himself from hip-hop artist to accredited actor with starring roles in Hollywood blockbusters like Men in Black and Independence Day.
America, Hip-Hop, Music, Popular Culture, Movies & Movie Stars, Young Artists

West Side Story

Arts Days: September 26, 1957: Tonight, Tonight
Behind the hit musical about the rival white “Jets” and the Puerto Rican “Sharks” is an updated, urban retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The inspiration and innovation was provided by a boatload of talent; Stephen Sondheim wrote the sophisticated lyrics, Leonard Bernstein the historic music.

Jerome Robbins directed and choreographed the revolutionary dance sequences like the Shark Girls’ exuberant “America” and the Jets’ “Cool.” Audiences saw how violent gang warfare shattered the dreams of star-crossed lovers Maria and Tony. The musical drew big crowds, shocking them all with the death of two young men at the end of Act One and of Tony at the close of the play. As stunned viewers exited the theater, few doubted the universality of Shakespeare’s love story.
Broadway, Musicals, America, Choreographers, Composers, Controversial, Playwrights & Plays, Shakespeare, Popular Culture

John Cage

Arts Days: September 05, 1912: Pushing Music’s Boundaries
You might be confused the first time you hear an orchestra perform John Cage’s famous 1952 composition, 4’33” which refers to the length of time the piece lasts: four minutes, 33 seconds. During this time, no one will play their instrument; the concert hall will be completely silent.

Or will it? Cage, one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, believed in “found sound.” He thought that a whole other kind of music could be heard in the hundreds of small noises of a concert hall: someone shifting in her chair, someone coughing, someone else turning the page of a program. His experimental ideas about music and composition are still considered controversial by many.
America, Composers, Controversial, Innovators & Pioneers, Music, Music Legends

Jimmy Reed

Arts Days: September 06, 1925: Bluesman Jimmy

With his harmonica slung around his neck and his electric guitar in his grip, Jimmy Reed sang the blues like nobody else had before. Like the words he typically sang in his distinctive singing style, his music kind of loped along, even as it set listeners’ toes tapping.

Writing songs covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Reed captured everyday people’s joy and pain in songs like “Ain’t That Loving You Baby” and “Bright Lights, Big City.” These tunes, simple at first listen, hooked you with their melodies and with the emotion with which Reed delivered them. His music, honest and catchy, brought the blues to a whole new audience.


America, Blues, Music, Music Legends

Buddy Holly

Arts Days: September 07, 1937: Rock’s Best Buddy
Buddy Holly started singing and playing instruments as a child. At 18, he heard Elvis Presley perform; later that year, he was opening for Elvis and generating buzz for his rockabilly music, which combined elements of bop, country, and rock.

Though his life ended at age 22 in a plane crash, he had an outsized influence on early rock and roll. For example, along with his band, the Crickets, Holly helped make the standard rock band lineup that has stuck to this day: two guitars, one bass, and drums. He also was one of the first rock-and-rollers to write, produce, sing, AND play on his own songs. And oh boy, did he crank out a lot of rock standards: “Every Day,” “That’ll Be The Day,” and “Peggy Sue” are just a few.
America, Innovators & Pioneers, Music, Music Legends, Popular Culture, Rock & Roll

Kelly Clarkson

Arts Days: September 04, 2002: Idol Maker
Something like 50 million people were watching the night Kelly Clarkson was chosen the winner of the first season of American Idol. This wildly successful, interactive singing competition counts on viewers calling or texting in votes for their favorite singers to help determine who will make it to the next round.

The popular show helped launch Clarkson’s career, just as it has with other winners in subsequent years. The show’s judges—originally Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, and Paula Abdul—helped shape viewers’ voting with their blunt feedback on the performances, which can range from pathetic to magnificent.
Television, Popular Culture, Young Artists, Music, America

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

Arts Days: September 02, 1995: Rock Solid
With exhibits looking at, say, the life and music of Elvis Presley or the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame aims to celebrate rock music in all its forms. Founded by Jann Wenner, longtime editor of Rolling Stone magazine, the site also collects and preserves rock music through its educational programs and archives.

For years before the actual museum existed, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation nominated musicians to be part of the Hall of Fame. One qualification: artists are only eligible for induction 26 years after their first recording. Those fortunate enough to be inducted have their names added to a spire inside the spectacular glass pyramid designed by architect I.M. Pei.
Art Venues, Rock & Roll, Popular Culture, Music, Architecture

The John F. Kennedy Center

Arts Days: September 08, 1971: America’s Home for the Arts
In 1958, President Eisenhower signed legislation to build a national cultural center in Washington, D.C. Yet in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Congress decided that the center would be a “living memorial” to our 35th president, who had worked tirelessly to elevate the role of the arts in America.

Opening night saw the debut performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, written in memory of the fallen president; other performers included the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Berkshire Boys Choir. Since that night, the Center has welcomed and entertained millions as the finest performers from around the globe have graced its multiple stages. In addition, its Education Department touches more than 11 million young people, teachers, and parents each year.
Architecture, Art Venues, Backstage, Ballet, Choreographers, Composers, Dance, Dance Legends, America, Innovators & Pioneers, Music, Music Legends, Musicals, Opera, Theater

Francis Scott Key standing on ship

Arts Days: September 14, 1814: O Say Can You Sing?
Key was watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore by the British when he wrote a poem he called “Defence of Fort McHenry.” An important battle in the War of 1812 was raging, and Key was among those aboard American ships in the Chesapeake Bay. Rockets rained down all night on the fort, and Key wondered whose flag would be flying in the morning light.

Imagine his relief to see that “Star-Spangled Banner” waving above the fort the next day—tattered but proud. The poem was set to an existing tune and printed in several newspapers. It became very popular and was often played at public events. In 1931, President Hoover signed a law designating the song as our national anthem.
America, History, Military, Music, Poetry

Oh Susanna

Arts Days: September 11, 1847: America’s First Pop Hit
This American folk tune starts with lines that make absolutely no sense: “The sun so hot I froze to death/Susanna don’t you cry.” Yet Stephen Foster, the songwriter, was probably most concerned with just creating a hummable tune. And that he did. The song tells the story of a man going to New Orleans to see his beloved Susanna.

Filled with desire and longing, the man sings of dreaming of his love at night. Foster intended the song to be sung in minstrel shows, during which white performers often performed in blackface makeup. Traditionally the song is sung with only the accompaniment of a guitar and harmonica.
America, Controversial, Music, Music Legends, Popular Culture

William “Count” Basie

Arts Days: August 21, 1906: The Count of Jazz
As a jazz bandleader, pianist, and composer, Count Basie had few peers. He learned to play piano as a youngster, making up music to go with the early silent films of the day.

Working in Harlem and Kansas City, Missouri, Basie absorbed the regional styles of jazz into his own signature “jumping” sound, which referred to his spare piano, pulsating rhythm section, and riffs—a series of notes that are repeated throughout a song—created by his horn players. His band was less formal than others, demonstrating a new lightness and solo originality.

This 1981 Kennedy Center Honoree made jazz history night after night in concert halls and clubs around the world.
America, Composers, Jazz, Music, Music Legends

Gene Kelly

Arts Days: August 23, 1912: Dancing Up a Storm
Dancer, actor, choreographer, boyishly handsome good guy—that was Gene Kelly, the fellow who bought a one-way ticket to New York City when he was a young man and soon landed a Broadway lead.

Kelly pushed for Hollywood to make more musicals and wound up dominating the musical revival in the 1940s and 50s. In timeless movies like Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris, Kelly’s elegant dancing stole the show.

He made it look so easy, yet his dancing demanded great strength, technical skill, and expression. In his choreography and in his performances, he melded everything from classical ballet to jazz to athletic prowess to tap dancing. And by the way, he could sing, too.
America, Choreographers, Dance, Dance Legends, Musicals, Movies & Movie Stars

Woodstock Poster

Arts Days: August 18, 1969: Give Peace a Chance
Who knew that a weekend-long, live music festival slated for a farm in upstate New York would become a cultural touchstone for untold numbers of people?

The Yasgur dairy farm north of Woodstock, N.Y., was the scene for the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, a three-day long celebration that featured acts like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, and Carlos Santana. Woodstock, as it came to be known, was attended by half a million people, by some estimates.

Some feared that such a large crowd would lead to roads shutting down from traffic or riots breaking out, but the event was remarkably peaceful, which is just what the organizers had wanted.
Music Legends, Rock & Roll, Art Venues, Music, Popular Culture

Charlie Parker

Arts Days: August 29, 1920: Rare Bird
As a musician who could improvise jazz and blues music on the fly, Charlie “Bird” Parker has few equals. With his alto saxophone and his deep reservoir of talent, Parker thrilled listeners with his playing on tunes like “Ko-Ko” and “Billie’s Bounce.”

He was one of the leading developers of bebop, a jazz form featuring four or five musicians, fast tempos, and jagged-sounding, complex melodies. He also crafted new ways of playing long solos that shattered the usual conventions. For example, he experimented with creating melodies using higher intervals of a chord than had traditionally been played.
America, Jazz, Music, Music Legends, Musical Instruments

Itzhak Perlman

Arts Days: August 31, 1945: A Violin Virtuoso
Violin superstar Itzhak Perlman’s musical genius has brought new appreciation of both the delicacy and power of the instrument to legions of listeners.

After studying violin at New York’s Julliard School, young Perlman made his Carnegie Hall debut at the tender age of 18. He often performs solo, other times in small ensembles—such as the group playing at the Inauguration of President Barack Obama in January 2009.

Either way, it is this virtuoso’s sheer love of music—be it classical, baroque, romantic, or modern—coupled with his flawless technique that caused a critic from The New Yorker to write that Perlman’s playing was “everything one wants a violin sound to be.”
Musical Instruments, Music, Music Legends

Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C.

Arts Days: August 28, 1975: Rock 'n' Rap
When the rock band Aerosmith cut this single in the mid 1970s, they probably didn’t know they were setting the stage for a mash-up of rock and rap a decade down the road.

In 1986, Aerosmith worked with rap duo Run-D.M.C. to make a new version of the song. Its tempo and rapid-fire lyrics lent themselves well to the full rap treatment. Aerosmith’s singer Steven Tyler and both halves of Run-D.M.C.—Joseph “Run” Simmons and Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels—shared singing/rapping duties on the new version.

The fun video for the remake—in which Tyler feigns indignation at the interlopers rapping his song, then dances with them—only helped the song rocket up the charts. It was the first major hit featuring the melding of rock and rap music.
America, Music, Popular Culture, Rock & Roll, Hip-Hop

Leonard Bernstein

Arts Days: August 25, 1918: Bernstein’s Bold Baton
You might find it odd that Leonard Bernstein was the first American-born and trained music director of the New York Philharmonic. But historically speaking, he was also the first American classical music conductor to earn worldwide acclaim.

Bernstein, who was awarded Kennedy Center Honors in 1980, was applauded for his ability to convey all the facets of a composer’s music and its meaning when he was conducting—or when he was teaching at his Young People’s Concerts. He also wrote orchestral pieces, ballet scores, choral and chamber music, the score for the film On the Waterfront; and of course, the music for Broadway’s Candide and West Side Story.

Held in extremely high regard by musical colleagues, Bernstein’s passion and intensity for conducting, writing, and playing music never ebbed over his lengthy career.
America, Composers, Broadway, Music, Music Legends, Musicals, Orchestra

Madonna

Arts Days: August 16, 1958: Lady Madonna
Madonna Louise Ciccone was born into a large Italian-American family with a strong Catholic faith. Yet she has said that her ethnic and religious roots fed her desire to rebel. Among other things, she dropped out of college to move to New York and dressed provocatively, often mixing religious icons with her revealing stage outfits.

In songs she wrote such as “Like a Prayer” and “Papa Don’t Preach,” Madonna pushed lyrical boundaries; and in her popular videos on MTV, she made polished, sometimes controversial mini-movies to go with her songs.

A string of dance-able hits and a charismatic personality, plus her chameleon-like ability to change her look and style from one record to the next, have made Madonna one of the world’s biggest pop stars.
America, Dance, Music, Popular Culture, Rock & Roll, Fashion

The Bee Gees

Arts Days: August 07, 1971: Band of Brothers
The wistful ballad “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” topped the U.S. charts on this day. The song was cut off the Bee Gees’ ninth album, Trafalger, and is the perfect showcase of the Australian brothers’ breathy harmonies and synthesizer-heavy arrangements. Brothers Robin, Maurice, and Barry Gibb cultivated a clean-cut image, often sporting matching suits as they sang their pop-rock hits, most of which they wrote themselves.

Not long after this song was released, a producer named Arif Mardin worked with the lads to make their music more danceable. He also encouraged Barry to sing falsetto. Both of these tweaks paved the way for the Bee Gees to reach the pinnacle of their career with “Jive Talkin’,” “You Should be Dancing,” and, of course, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
Music, Popular Culture, Rock & Roll

Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet

Arts Days: August 04, 1901: Horn of Plenty
The great trumpeter Louis Armstrong soaked up all the pains and joys of a young man growing up poor and unequipped yet possessing an extraordinary musical talent. These emotions can be clearly heard in the jazz music he grew up to both play and sing.

There's little doubt that Armstrong was the most gifted and influential trumpet soloist in the history of the instrument. His innovations included playing high notes that had never been hit before, and holding these notes for long periods of time; creating vibrato or trembling sounds with his lips; and experimenting with rhythm to make music move, or "swing."

Armstrong's combination of singing and playing (both trumpet and cornet), plus his larger-than-life personality, made him one of the world's greatest and most memorable solo entertainers.
America, Jazz, Music, Music Legends, Innovators & Pioneers, Musical Instruments

MTV Logo

Arts Days: August 01, 1981: Video Kills the Radio Star
The original concept for the cable television network MTV—short for Music Television—was simple: the channel featured non-stop, around-the-clock music videos by big name pop stars like Madonna, Depeche Mode, and Michael Jackson.

Overnight, MTV was a hit sensation among young people and grownups alike. As the channel’s influence grew, it became essential for performers to produce a music video to go along with any new song release. Over time, these videos have gotten more and more elaborate, and are produced like mini-movies, complete with incredible sets, costumes, and plots.
Innovators & Pioneers, Rock & Roll, Television, Popular Culture, Music

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