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Miles Davis

Arts Days: May 26, 1926: Miles Ahead
They’re called trailblazers: artists who test the traditional, the expected, and then break new ground by turning in new directions. Count jazz trumpeter Miles Davis as one such pioneer.

Perhaps the most influential musician in any genre of the 20th century, Davis bent the boundaries of jazz music into entirely new shapes. Working with saxophonist John Coltrane, Davis made stylistic advances featuring improvisations based on modal harmonies rather than chord progressions.

Davis later teamed up with Gil Evans, a gifted pianist, composer, and arranger, and produced Birth of the Cool, an influential recording that single-handedly kicked off the cool jazz movement. Davis’s fingerprints are everywhere on this and other jazz subgenres, including hard bop.
America, Innovators & Pioneers, Jazz, Music, Music Legends

Isadora Duncan

Arts Days: May 27, 1877: Something in the Way She Moves
Inspired by everything from ancient Greek art to the power of nature embodied in rushing rivers and rainy weather, Isadora Duncan poured all she had into dancing, which she believed to be the body’s expression of the soul’s innermost desires. She rejected classical ballet as too confining and controlled.

A true free spirit, Duncan brought a new athleticism to dancing; her choreography was full of leaps and jumps and skips. Barefoot, her long hair flying, dressed in Grecian-inspired flowing tunics, she was a captivating sight as she danced. She taught her students that the energy they need for dance originated in the solar plexus, a group of nerves in the body’s abdominal region.
America, Controversial, Dance, Dance Legends, Innovators & Pioneers, Choreographers

Orson Welles

Arts Days: May 06, 1915: A Reel Visionary
Whether directing films or acting on stage, George Orson Welles’s theatrical talents were unsurpassed. It probably helped that he was a creative child: He painted, played the piano, and performed magic tricks.

When Welles was a young man, important connections advanced his career. Playwright Thornton Wilder introduced Welles to directors who gave him his first stage roles. He also made a name for himself writing, acting in, and directing radio plays. His radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938 terrified listeners convinced that aliens were actually invading our planet. And then there were movies like Citizen Kane and many others now deemed American classics.

Welles also pioneered new filming techniques, such as using “deep space,” in which scenes in both the foreground and background stayed in focus. Using this method, action can take place in two parts of a single frame. He also would place the camera near the floor to shoot up at a person so he appeared to loom above, larger than life.
America, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Theater, Movies & Movie Stars

Paramount Pictures

Arts Days: May 08, 1914: Lights, Camera, Action!
Back in 1912, an entrepreneur named Adolph Zukor thought he could bring more movies to the middle class by contracting a group of actors to make a fixed number of movies every year. So he started the Famous Players Film Company. Famous Players partnered with a startup called Paramount Pictures Corporation to distribute its films to theaters; a few years later, it officially merged with Paramount.

Under Zukor’s leadership, Paramount owned all the components of the movie-making apparatus. It employed superstars of the day, like Mary Pickford and Rudolph Valentino, and acquired film production studios. Paramount even bought hundreds of movie houses around the country where the finished movies would be shown.

The company has been through many mergers since those early days, and has once or twice come close to closing up shop, such as during the Great Depression. Today, however, the company is still growing strong.
America, Movies & Movie Stars, Jobs in the Arts, Art Venues

Katharine Hepburn

Arts Days: May 12, 1907: Kate the Great
For the woman who carried home the Oscar® for Best Actress more times than any other, four times out of 12 nominations, Katharine Hepburn’s first forays into acting weren’t always successful.

She began acting in college plays from which she was fired more than once for stumbling over her lines. But her athleticism, beauty, and emerging talent got her noticed, and she soon began landing small roles. Big parts in Little Women, Bringing Up Baby, Woman of the Year, and other critical and commercial hits raised Hepburn to the level of Hollywood royalty, even as she shunned Hollywood’s glitz.

When she died at 96 years of age, the lights on Broadway went dim for an hour in honor of the woman many now deem one of the greatest actors of all time.
America, Movies & Movie Stars, Theater

Thornton Wilder

Arts Days: April 17, 1897: An American Wordsmith
His works are read and his plays performed around the world, but when Thornton Wilder started writing stories as a kid, he never dreamt he’d be an icon of American literature one day. While his seminal three-act play Our Town is arguably his best-loved work, with its timeless depiction of life and loss in the small town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, other plays including The Skin of Our Teeth and the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey are also literary classics (all three works netted Wilder Pulitzer Prizes for Literature).

He also revisited and tinkered with old works from time to time. For example, he reworked his play The Merchant of Yonkers into The Matchmaker, which in 1964 hit the Broadway stage as Hello Dolly!, running for 2,844 performances.
Playwrights & Plays, America, Literature, Theater

Carrie

Arts Days: April 05, 1974: The King of Scary
Sitting at a desk and using an old typewriter in his trailer in Maine, Stephen King worked nights pouring over Carrie, a freaky story about a teenage girl. He threw the first few pages in the trash, but his wife plucked them out and encouraged him to keep at it. In the book, the title character is teased at school—but when she uses her special psychic powers in order to fight back, mayhem and murder result.

The book launched King’s career as a writer of really, really scary horror and sci-fi novels and short stories. Now, decades and dozens of books later, he’s still writing from his house in Maine, minus the trailer. King’s work ethic is famous; he forces himself to write thousands of words every single day. It’s that dedication that has translated into millions of books being sold to terrified readers everywhere.
America, Literature, Popular Culture, Science Fiction & Fantasy

Muddy Waters

Arts Days: April 04, 1915: The Father of Chicago Blues
While growing up in the deep South, Muddy Waters dabbled with the harmonica, but it was when he started learning to play the blues guitar that things really got cooking. Waters basically invented a whole new type of blues music, called “Chicago Blues” named for the city where he made his biggest mark. His unique performing style combined country blues with rock and roll electrification. He sang about hard times in the Mississippi Delta, heartbreak, and other subjects.

The “bottleneck” style of guitar playing that Waters mastered was more commonly known as slide guitar. It was dubbed so because Waters slid a piece of glass (sometimes from a bottle, hence the name) or other material against the strings. This created a whole new range of sounds for Waters. In Waters’ case, this sort of playing almost made the instrument an extension of his singing voice, complete with growls, slurs, and screeches.
Blues, America, Musical Instruments, Music Legends, Music

Marian Anderson

Arts Days: April 09, 1939: Let Freedom Sing

For more than 40 years, Marian Anderson’s supple contralto voice—lower than an alto or soprano—thrilled audiences the world over. She preferred singing in recitals to opera performance, though many opera companies tried to entice her to sing with them. However, it was the Daughters of the American Revolution’s refusal to let Anderson sing at Constitution Hall simply because of her race that set the stage for perhaps the most important concert of her career.

With an assist from President Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson gave a spellbinding public performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Some 75,000 people listened live in the chilly spring air, and millions more heard Anderson sing on the radio. In 1955, reconsidering her stance on singing in operas, she became the first African American to perform at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Her grace and beauty—to say nothing of that remarkable voice—made Marian Anderson an important symbol of the Civil Rights Movement.

For more on this historic concert, listen to Of Thee We Sing: Marian Anderson and the Music of the Early Civil Rights Movement.


America, Music, Opera, Controversial

The Great Gatsby

Arts Days: April 10, 1925: A Great American Novel
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about the roaring 1920s was not, shall we say, a roaring success when it was first published. Fitzgerald’s story of the young Midwesterner Nick Carraway, who moves to New York for work after serving in World War I; his mysterious and wealthy next-door neighbor, Jay Gatsby; and Daisy Buchanan, with whom Gatsby is obsessed, is a parable for the times in which Fitzgerald himself lived.

Just as some of his characters crash and burn in the book, Fitzgerald believed that the prosperity brought about by the thriving economy of the day had a dark side, from a spike in crime to plunging morals. It took some time and space from the era Fitzgerald memorialized in his book—the Jazz Age, a term he coined—for the book’s status as one of the great American novels to be recognized and appreciated.
Literature, America

Selma

2700 F St.: Selma: A Film and Live Music Event with the NSO, Jason Moran, and Others
Experience Ava DuVernay’s film on a big screen with Jason Moran’s acclaimed score for the film performed live by a full orchestra conducted by Ryan McAdams. This event coincides with the one-year anniversary of the opening of the National Museum of African American History & Culture.
Music, History, America

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