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Benny Carter

Arts Days: August 08, 1907: They Call Him “King”
What aspect of jazz did the great Benny Carter not master? This 1996 Kennedy Center Honoree played alto sax, clarinet, and trumpet. He composed and arranged songs, some of which, like “When Lights are Low,” are now considered jazz standards. And he was an in-demand bandleader for much of his career.

Largely self-taught, Carter began playing in Harlem nightspots in his teens. At 21, he made his first recordings with Charlie Johnson’s Orchestra, and in the 1930s, he lived in and toured Europe, spreading the gospel of this uniquely American music form.

This jazz legend shaped the big-band jazz sound more than just about any other musician before or since. As jazz great Miles Davis once said, "Everyone should listen to Benny Carter. He's a whole musical education."
America, Music, Music Legends, Jazz

Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz

Arts Days: August 15, 1939: The Great and Powerful Oz
The Wizard of Oz, based on a book by L. Frank Baum, is one of the most spectacular fantasy musicals Hollywood ever generated. Surely the audience gasped in delight when Dorothy opened the door of her twister-flung farmhouse for her first peek at Oz and the black-and-white image erupted into glorious Technicolor.

Between the antics of the Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man; the green fury of the Wicked Witch of the West; and the bluster of the Wizard himself before he is revealed as a fake, there is much to savor about this gem of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The film went on to be nominated for six Academy Awards.®
Movies & Movie Stars, Musicals, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Popular Culture

Giacomo Puccini

Arts Days: December 22, 1858: For the Love of Opera
Are you surprised to learn that Giacomo Puccini was the latest in a long line of musicians in his family? For a while, he served as a church organist and choirmaster, but then he happened to enjoy a night at the opera: Verdi’s opera, Aida. Puccini was so inspired by what he heard and saw that he decided he, too, would compose operas.

He went on to create some of the world’s best-known ones, from La Boheme to Turandot. Over the next decade or so, Puccini composed what were arguably his three most successful operas in a row—Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and La Boheme. Influenced by composers from Verdi to Richard Wagner, Puccini’s operas contain scores of passionate beauty and intensity.
Composers, Opera, Music Legends, Music, Musicals, Europe

Scene from Aida

Arts Days: December 24, 1871: Love on the Nile
One of Giuseppe Verdi’s greatest operas, Aida, made its debut in Cairo, Egypt at the Khedivial Opera House. Why there? Well, an Egyptian prince named Ismail Pasha had commissioned Verdi to write the opera in the first place, paying him 150,000 francs to do so—equivalent to about $32,000 today.

Verdi composed the music for the story of Aida, an Ethiopian princess who is enslaved in Egypt, and her star-crossed relationship with Radames, an Egyptian soldier. Interestingly, Verdi was miffed that no members of the general public were in attendance at this premiere, so he considered the performance in Milan, Italy, the following year to be its true debut.
Musicals, Opera, Africa, Composers, Music, Folklore

Loretta Lynn

Arts Days: December 28, 1970: Honky Tonk Woman
No kidding, Loretta Lynn really was the daughter of a coal miner. She grew up in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, the second of eight kids. The family was poor in cash but rich in love, and Lynn’s childhood provided the material she needed to write several of the songs on this record.

Her honesty and emotional delivery delighted her many admirers and converted lots of other people into country music fans. Over the years, this 2003 Kennedy Center Honoree has penned many more songs, often written with a strong feminist perspective, which had been pretty much unheard of in country music until she came around. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” was also the name of Lynn’s autobiography and the movie about her life that stars Sissy Spacek.
Innovators & Pioneers, Music Legends, Family, Folklore, Music, Popular Culture

Carollers

Arts Days: December 25, 1818: Shhh!
Two Austrians collaborated on the words and music to “Silent Night,” which has become one of the best-loved Christmas carols, sung in churches and by roving carolers the world over. Father Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics, while an organist named Franz Gruber composed the melody.

On this Christmas night, the two played the song in the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria. Surprisingly, while today it’s usually sung at a pace akin to that of a lullaby, the song had a more up-tempo rhythm back then. If you celebrate Christmas with your family, think about offering a round of caroling for your neighbors.
Music, Popular Culture, Europe

Beethoven

Arts Days: December 16, 1770: Music’s Master
Young Ludwig van Beethoven was first given music lessons by his dad, performing his first concert at age seven. He stunned listeners with his technical abilities on the piano and organ, impressing them even more when he produced his first composition at nine. The father of this child who would become one of the greatest classical composers in history hoped his son would follow in the steps of Mozart himself, who died when Beethoven was 21.

Beethoven went on to write symphonies, like No. 9 in D Minor, the first symphony written by a prominent composer to include a choral portion. Though he eventually went completely deaf, Beethoven’s genius was such that he still composed and conducted even when he could not hear a single note. Beethoven was a brilliant improviser, rule-breaker, and master of dramatic music.
Composers, Innovators & Pioneers, Music Legends, Europe, Music, Orchestra

James Brown

Arts Days: December 07, 2003: The Godfather of Soul
Rhythm and blues, funk, gospel, jazz, rock and roll—James Brown took all of these genres and melded them together into an unmistakable blend of music all his own. Dubbing himself “The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business” along the way, he certainly earned that title for his incredibly demanding performances.

During his legendary shows, he did splits, yowled, danced, fell to his knees—and oh yeah, he sang the whole time, too. Brown’s classics include “Papa’s Got a Brand-New Bag” and “Living in America,” to name just two; over the course of his 30-year career, he racked up 98 singles on Billboard’s R&B charts. Of those, 17 of them went to number one.
Innovators & Pioneers, Music Legends, Rock & Roll, Blues, Music, Popular Culture

The Cotton Club

Arts Days: December 04, 1927: Setting Up Shop in Harlem
Go back to the corner of Lenox Avenue and 142nd Street in Harlem and the very night Duke Ellington and his orchestra first played for an adoring crowd at New York City’s Cotton Club. This evening marked the beginning of a tremendous four-year residency. Ellington and his musicians provided dance music for the club's performers, African American dancers in incredible costumes who performed songs, dances, and comedy routines for all-white, high-society audiences.

Ellington’s trumpet players, trombonists, and saxophonists—from Bubber Miley to Harry Carney—were each amazingly gifted in their own right; under Ellington’s direction, the orchestra melded into a rock-solid, jazz-playing unit. Soon enough, Ellington, his band, and their music were exposed to a national audience when these shows were broadcast weekly on WHN radio.
Art Venues, Jazz, Music, Composers, Music Legends, America

Thriller

Arts Days: December 02, 1982: A Monster Hit
Clocking in at almost 14 minutes, the mini-movie that accompanied Michael Jackson’s hit song “Thriller” was like no music video that had ever come before. Directed by film director John Landis and featuring voiceovers by famed actor Vincent Price, the video starred Michael Jackson as a young man on a date with his sweetie.

A cast of dancing zombies and a teenage werewolf with hideous yellow eyes are just a couple of the surprises filmed by Landis, who co-wrote the video with Michael himself. In December 2009, “Thriller” was selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, which referred to it as “the most famous music video of all time."
Innovators & Pioneers, Music Legends, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Television, Music, Popular Culture, Rock & Roll

Sammy Davis, Jr.

Arts Days: December 08, 1925: The Ultimate Entertainer
Whether singing, acting, playing instruments, or tap-dancing, Sammy Davis, Jr. always performed with style and elegance. A Kennedy Center Honoree in 1987, Davis was just three years old when he made his vaudeville debut. In young adulthood, he played clubs, landed movie roles (including one in the original Ocean’s Eleven from 1960), starred on the Broadway stage, and even got his own TV program, The Sammy Davis Jr. Show.

Signed to Capitol, Reprise and several other record companies over the decades, Davis’ hit songs include “Mr. Bojangles” and “What Kind of Fool Am I.” His friendships with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and other big stars of the day earned him a place in the Rat Pack, a crew of Hollywood hotshots who partied and performed together.
Movies & Movie Stars, Innovators & Pioneers, Music Legends, Music, Dance, Dance Legends

Pérez Prado

Arts Days: December 11, 1916: Mambo King
Of Mexican and Cuban heritage, Pérez Prado helped bring Latin music to whole new crowds of listeners around the globe. The “King of the Mambo” played piano and led bands throughout his career, including the Pérez Prado Orchestra—today led by his son, Perez Prado, Jr. in Mexico City. And, he wrote music for people to dance the mambo, better known today as salsa dancing.

Prado described his mambo as being “an Afro-Cuban rhythm with a dash of American swing.” Makes sense. Prado’s best-known pieces, like “Mambo No. 5” and “Mambo Jambo,” had American audiences dancing in the aisles of his concerts, which often sold out.
Composers, Innovators & Pioneers, Music Legends, Dance, Music, Latin America

Rockband

Arts Days: November 20, 2007: Band Aid
First issued for Xbox and PlayStation, this video game lets players indulge in their rock and roll fantasies. Each player is rated on his or her ability to play music notes accurately using peripherals, or devices shaped like drums, guitars, and microphones. The game knows and alerts you when you’re singing off key or falling behind in tempo on the “drum kit.”

A team of players can form a band and compete together, earning points collectively against another team. Rock Band is not just a lot of fun to play, but it's helped expand people’s interest in learning to sing and play actual instruments. So, dream on because you never know, today’s Rock Band players may be tomorrow’s newest rock stars.
Inventions, Rock & Roll, Musical Instruments, Music, Popular Culture

Lillian Russell

Arts Days: November 22, 1880: Broadway’s Beauty
In the late 1870s, 18-year-old Helen Louise Leonard arrived in New York City in the hopes of becoming an opera star. After a bit role in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, the beautiful blonde singer was discovered by theatre owner Tony Pastor. He changed her name and introduced her on opening night as “Lillian Russell, the English Ballad Singer.”

Russell’s gorgeous soprano and voluptuous figure earned her the nickname “America’s Beauty,” and she kept the press busy with her penchant for living life to the fullest. Russell starred in more than 24 musical comedies, many of which were written expressly for her. While none of her musicals are performed today, Lillian Russell is still remembered as one of the early 20th century’s most important Broadway stars.
Broadway, Theater, America, Musicals, Opera, Music Legends, Music

W.C. Handy

Arts Days: November 16, 1873: Father of the Blues
William Christopher Handy, who composed “Beale Street Blues” and “St. Louis Blues,” among many others, was one of the first professional musicians to play the blues, a distinctly American musical genre. But he did more than most to elevate awareness of the blues; he helped popularize the sound beyond its traditional African American roots to a wider, commercial audience.

When Handy and his band moved to Memphis, Tennessee, his career took off, especially with the release of “Memphis Blues,” a tune he published in 1912 that many consider the first blues song. During the 1920s, Handy formed his own music publication company, a business that proved quite lucrative and also brought him great fame.
Composers, Innovators & Pioneers, Music Legends, Blues, America, Music

Le Chat Noir

Arts Days: November 18, 1881: Come to the Cabaret
Today you think of these clubs as famous nightspots where celebrities like to hang out in Hollywood or New York. But back in Paris in the late 19th century, they were referred to as cabarets, and Le Chat Noir was perhaps the most legendary. Located in Paris’ fashionable, bohemian Montmartre neighborhood, Le Chat Noir, or “The Black Cat,” was envisioned by owner Rodolphe Salis as part nightclub, part salon.

Seated at crowded tables were well-known Parisian celebrities and their artist associates from around the world. On any given night, you could rub elbows with painter Pablo Picasso, composer Claude Debussy, or perhaps Jane Avril, the can-can dancer whom Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec immortalized in several paintings. They and countless others would talk, drink, flirt, and enjoy live performances. The party lasted until 1897, when the place closed up shop.
Art Venues, Europe, Popular Culture, Musicals

Jukebox

Arts Days: November 23, 1889: Music On Demand
When patrons arrived at San Francisco’s Palais Royal Saloon, they found a curious, cabinet-like object that played music. It was built by the Pacific Phonograph Company and had tubes poking out of it; up to four listeners at a time could pick up a tube and listen to the same tune being played. Of course, they had to drop a coin into a slot near each tube to hear a thing.

The man who installed the jukebox at this bar, Louis Glass, dubbed the machine the “nickel-in-the-slot” player. It was a big hit at the Saloon, and word soon spread from city to city of this amazing song-playing machine. By putting musical choice in the hands of patrons, jukeboxes revolutionized the way people listened to music.
Inventions, Music, Popular Culture, Rock & Roll

Robert Johnson

Arts Days: November 27, 1936: Deal with the Devil
Revered amongst blues musicians and rock stars alike, Robert Johnson lived a life far too short to accommodate his ample talent. What’s more, there are few, if any, letters or other documents to give us a clear picture of the man. One thing is for sure: When the 25-year-old recorded this song, he fueled a powerful legend with which his name has long been associated.

Some say the song is about a pact Johnson made with the devil to give up his soul at a metaphorical crossroads in exchange for his amazing blues guitar skills. But other historians point out that the song is actually about the dangers a black man faces, walking alone after dark in the Deep South of the early 20th century, when the horrors of lynching were all too common.
Music Legends, Blues, Music, America, Musical Instruments, Folklore

Scott Joplin

Arts Days: November 24, 1868: The Ragtime King
Pianist and composer Scott Joplin was undoubtedly the best-known composer of ragtime, or “ragged time,” music. Ragtime’s main hallmark is its syncopated rhythms—marked by a stress on what would normally be an unaccented beat in the music, or a rest where there would normally be an emphasis. Popular in 19th-century dance halls, ragtime captivated music fans for a couple of decades before jazz became all the rage.

Audiences clamored for Joplin’s many compositions, like “Maple Leaf Rag,” “Pineapple Rag,” and “The Entertainer.” He even wrote a ragtime opera called Treemonisha. By combining natural piano talent and classical European training with the rich sounds of African American gospel hymns, spirituals, blues, and plantation songs, Joplin created a new American sound.
Composers, Innovators & Pioneers, Music Legends, Music, America, Jazz

John Philip Sousa

Arts Days: November 06, 1854: Strike Up the Band
Everyone loves a good march, especially one written by American conductor/composer John Philip Sousa. Sousa was musically gifted in several ways: He had perfect pitch, meaning that he could identify notes and chords without any external references (like a pitch pipe) to guide him, and he could play many instruments.

He is best known for composing 136 military and patriotic marches. Marches were once used to keep soldiers in line during maneuvers; the cymbals and others instruments were thought to have an intimidating psychological effect on the enemy. Sousa’s marches, however, primarily served to entertain listeners and inspire patriotic sentiments. His Stars and Stripes Forever, full of cymbal crashes and piccolo trills, is the official march of the United States.
Composers, Music Legends, Military, America, Music

John Barry

Arts Days: November 03, 1933: A Musical Bond
John Barry had been working as a composer and record producer for several years when he caught a lucky, career-making break—he was hired to work on the music for a new movie called Dr. No. This was the first James Bond film ever made, and Barry’s arrangement of the “James Bond Theme” was soon tied to the very successful string of movies, starring Sean Connery as the suave British agent named Bond. James Bond. 

Barry went on to compose the scores for 11 of the next 14 Bond films, as well as music for other popular movies, including The Lion in Winter, Out of Africa, and Dances with Wolves. For these latter three, Barry took home the Oscars® for Best Original Score.
Composers, Music, Movies & Movie Stars, Music Legends, Popular Culture, Science Fiction & Fantasy

Mickey Mouse

Arts Days: November 13, 1940: Animation as Art
This artful melding of classical music and animation, Fantasia is perhaps one of the most interesting experiments in the history of feature animation. Walt Disney, fresh from successes like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, wanted to stretch animation beyond its traditional cartoon roots.

The film interpreted classical music through short bursts of animation, creating such classic sequences as Mickey Mouse’s star turn in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the fire and brimstone dance of Night on Bald Mountain. At this premiere, audiences listened to the film through Fantasound, a sound system that enriched the music by making it fuller and more dynamic. In 2000, Disney released a sequel of shorts with similar pairings of music and animation, including Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Cartoons, Comics, & Animation, Innovators & Pioneers, Movies & Movie Stars, Music, Popular Culture

Rolling Stone Magazine

Arts Days: November 09, 1967: The Bible of Rock
Back then, it featured John Lennon on the cover and looked more like a newspaper than a magazine. The inaugural issue of Rolling Stone aimed to report not only on the performers and trends shaping rock and roll, but also, in the words of founder Jann Wenner, “the things and attitudes that music embraces.” As a result, the magazine has consistently printed long articles about politics, the environment, and other topics as well as influential record reviews and detailed question-and-answer pieces with top artists.

While on-staff at the magazine, photographer Annie Leibovitz helped shape the modern look of the publication. Her photos reveal surprising and controversial sides of world-famous celebrities, created through close collaboration with her subjects.
Rock & Roll, Music, Popular Culture, Literature, Controversial

Billboard Music Chart

Arts Days: July 20, 1940: Top of the Pops
It was called the “Music Popularity Chart,” when Billboard magazine started ranking songs in terms of their airplay and sales. Until then, there was no way to measure the popularity of pop songs relative to one another.

Suddenly record-company executives and musicians alike could keep track of how their songs were faring. They could cheer when their song hit number one—a thrilling moment for anybody. After all, the more a song is played, the more it is being purchased, and the more money the labels make. Well, you get the picture.

What was the first number-one? “I’ll Never Smile Again” by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, with none other than Frank Sinatra singing lead.
Music, Popular Culture, Rock & Roll

George Bernard Shaw

Arts Days: July 26, 1856: Voice of the People
Hmmm… could the fact that George Bernard Shaw started out as a newspaper arts critic have something to do with his interest in expressing his political and philosophical opinions freely?

In his 60 some plays, Shaw always found a way to criticize social mores by poking holes in the conventions of 19th century life. Pygmalion, upon which the smash Broadway musical My Fair Lady would later be based, examines class differences, while Major Barbara considers whether it is right to use money earned from the sales of weapons for charitable purposes.

Some of these satirical themes generated controversy among early theatergoers, but Shaw didn’t care. “My way of joking is to tell the truth,” he once said. Shaw’s “joking” earned him both a Nobel Prize for Literature and an Academy Award® for Best Adapted Screenplay for My Fair Lady.
Literature, Musicals, Playwrights & Plays, Theater

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