Thursday, December 1, 2011

Live Review: Harry Belafonte in Conversation @ NYPL 10-12-11

Harry Belafonte in Conversation 
@ The New York Public Library 
10-12-11

As part of the excellent NYPL Live series the legendary Harry Belafonte was invited to the Bartos Forum in The Stephen A Schwarzman Building to discuss his legendary career and his new book, My Song. The event was hosted by Paul Holdengraber who at first had to ask the legend questions to get him started but then sat back as Belafonte reeled off stories from his past, and they would seem completely improbable if they weren't true.     

(RtBE went Muppets over Beetlejuice for this one)

Entering to "Day-O" Belafonte received a warm reception from the sold out crowd.  Most in the audience were older, but there were some young children brought along as well as mixing of all races and creeds.  Belafonte is 84 years old and seemed a bit lethargic at the start of the interview and needed some coaxing and the reading of passages from his memoir from Holdengarber.  He started by talking about his great love of Paul Robeson and how his spirit inspired Belafonte's whole career.  We he meet him the moment was the first of 2 epiphany's he ever had and he knew as to that is what he wanted to do/be .  Perhaps the coolest quote of the night was when Belafonte was asked what he would answer to how and why he chose his career path, he responded, "I do what I do...because I do it!"  So very hip hop.     

Speaking of hip-hop there was a moment when we were transported back to Jay-Z's NYPL Live event when the Jigga Man talked about owning a picture of Belafonte, next to Coretta Scott King and how, in his words "made me realize that musicians, movie stars, we have a greater responsibility to the world".  Belafonte was in the audience the night Jay-Z spoke at the library and he mentioned he was a great man.
Once he got rolling Belafonte couldn't be stopped as he talked for 2+ hours and never needed or took a break, the stories just poured out.  The ones that interested RtBE so much naturally occurred around the birth of his singing career.  While on break from stage acting in midtown he would stroll over to Royal Roost (now Birdland) and watch the shows, it just happened that this was the glorious apex of NYC jazz.  He became friends with the performers and he invited Max Roach and Lester Young to come see him perform in Of Mice and Men.  For this particular performance a new role had been written for him where he would sing songs from the era (Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly etc) between the dramatic scenes, the musicians loved it and told him to try to get a gig at the Royal Roost and that they would help him out.

Belafonte got a paying gig to sing between acts for a week, he would do a few songs to keep the crowd alive.  He got Al Haig to help him out on piano and arraign some standards so they could ease into the mid-show slot.  Before his first ever singing gig, he waited while Lester Young finished up, at set break he and Al took their spots and a few other artists decided to join in...Friend Max Roach eased in behind the kit, Tommy Potter picked up his bass and right as the band started up Charlie Parker strolled out and started to blow.   
    
Belafonte said he was completely dumbfounded and actually missed his first note because he was just listening to Charlie play.  The artists had decided to surprise Belafonte and make his debut memorable as they all really took a liking to him.  When the set was done he never looked back and embarked on his singing career.     

Another very effecting story he told was a life changing night singing at the Thunderbird in a still segregated Las Vegas.  He was disgusted with the whole scenario and wanted to quit it all after his first night's performance, but with some help, a rearrangement of his setlist to open with "Jerry (Timber)" and a determined sense of purpose he tore the house down on his second night and learned something valuable about himself.  He stated "My job is to be an artist, not entertain.  I was an activist who became an artist".   


He mentioned the thrill of getting a massive stadium crowd in Berlin to sing "Hava Nagila" and "what a trip it is hearing 40,000 Japanese people trying to sing along to "Day-O"!"  Belafonte went on to talk about his acting friends and he spoke at length on Sydney Portier.  Belafonte told some intriguing stories and said basically that they are friends and rivals and that theirs has always been a "complex" relationship but both "changed the face of blacks in America".  He also mentioned Marlon Brando briefly and that he "never met a a white man who embraced black culture" like Marlon did.

There was a good amount of time spent on Belafonte's second epiphany and that was when he met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  He told a fascinating tale how when Bobby Kennedy was appointed Attorney General Belafonte and others close to King were outraged and heartbroken feeling the work they had done would be undone.  King told those close to him that they need to "Find RFK's moral center".  They worked on him and said it was very successful, Belafonte obviously loved King and was very proud of knowing and working with him.
 

Belafonte hasn't shied away from controversy with old age either, he spoke glowingly of a per-communist Cuba and still having friends there and how "this country has never forgiven me for that".  He also mentioned the need to sit down with adversary's as opposed to ignoring them.  The night ended with a fantastic scene from the USA For Africa Sessions where and impromptu "Day-O" breaks out in Belafonte's honor. 


He is noticeably touched in the video and he said it was a great moment, this was a great night and it was a honor to be able to hear the man tell a few stories regarding his his wonderful life and he just barely scratched the surface.  You can purchase his book here.    

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