Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman star in a potent adaptation of August Wilson’s play.

By A.O. Scott

  • Dec. 17, 2020

“White folks don’t understand about the blues,” says the pioneering singer Ma Rainey, as imagined by August Wilson and incarnated by Viola Davis. “They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that that’s life’s way of talking.”

Albert Murray, the great 20th-century philosopher of the blues, put the matter more abstractly. The art of the music’s practitioners, he wrote, involves “confronting, acknowledging and contending with the infernal absurdities and ever-impending frustrations inherent in the nature of all existence by playing with the possibilities that are also there.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Wilson’s 1984 play about a recording session in Chicago in the 1920s, both dramatizes and expresses that duality. Absurdities and frustrations abound, and the lethal, soul-crushing shadow of American racism falls across the musicians and their instruments. The specific and manifold evils of Southern Jim Crow repression and Northern economic exploitation are unavoidable. The members of Ma’s band swap stories of lynching, assault and humiliation, and Ma fights with the white owner of the record label (Jonny Coyne). By the end of the play — a swift hour and a half in George C. Wolfe’s screen adaptation — one man is dead and another has seen all his prospects evaporate.

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But the sense of play and possibility, the joy and discipline of art, are also, emphatically, thereThere in Ma’s big voice and smoldering, slow-rolling charisma. There in the tight swing of the players behind her — Cutler (Colman Domingo) on trombone; Toledo (Glynn Turman) on piano; Slow Drag (Michael Potts) on bass; and an ambitious upstart named Levee (Chadwick Boseman) on cornet. There in the voices and personalities of the actors: Turman’s gravelly wit; Domingo’s avuncular baritone; Boseman’s quicksilver; Davis’s brass. And there above all in the singular music of Wilson’s language, a vehicle for the delivery of vernacular poetry as durable and adaptable as the blues itself.

This version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” on Netflix, is part of an ongoing project to bring all of Wilson’s plays — a cycle representing aspects of Black life in the 20th century — to the screen. That makes it, in some ways, definitive by default, part of an archive of preserved performances that will introduce future generations to the playwright’s essential work.

From left, Glynn Turman, Chadwick Boseman and Michael Potts are the players behind Viola Davis’s Ma Rainey.
From left, Glynn Turman, Chadwick Boseman and Michael Potts are the players behind Viola Davis’s Ma Rainey.Credit…David Lee/Netflix

It’s also definitive because it will be hard, from now on, to imagine a Ma Rainey other than Davis, or a Levee to compare with Boseman. The rest of the cast is first-rate too, but those two carry the play’s meatiest, most complicated theme, and enact its central antagonism. Each character is an ambitious, inventive artist, and their inability to harmonize creates an undertone of tragedy that grows more insistent as the day wears on.

Ma, who rolls into the studio late, flanked by her nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), and her young girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), can seem almost like a caricature of the “difficult” artist. She insists that Sylvester, who stutters, record the spoken introduction to her signature song. She demands three bottles of Coca-Cola (“ice-cold”) before she will sing another note, and continually upbraids her nervous white manager (Jeremy Shamos). But this behavior isn’t the result of ego or whim. It’s the best way she has found of protecting the value of her gift, which once it becomes a commodity — a record — will enrich somebody else. The hard bargain she drives is the best deal she can get.

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Reclaiming Black Culture in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ ~ NPR


Chadwick Boseman as Levee, Colman Domingo as Cutler, Viola Davis as Ma Rainey, Michael Potts as Slow Drag and Glynn Turman as Toledo in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.David Lee/David Lee/NETFLIX

Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) wants her Coca-Cola, or she’s not gonna sing. Never mind that this recording session during the sweltering Chicago summer of 1927 is already running behind because she and her mini-entourage arrived to the studio an hour late. No matter that tensions are already simmering among her four-piece band, and that her manager and music producer are at their wits’ end trying to cut this blues record.

No Coca-Cola, no Ma Rainey’s voice. 

This is what some would deem Diva Behavior. Such demands would seem out-of-line, unreasonable, or – to use that loaded pistol of a word so often wielded to describe tough black women – difficult. But it’s not really about the Coca-Cola, or being a diva. It’s about reclaiming power. As Ma tells her trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), those white music producers want to make money off of her but are too cheap to buy her a soda. 

“They don’t care nothin’ about me,” she laments matter-of-factly. “All they want is my voice. Well I done learned that, and they gonna treat me the way wanna be treated no matter how much it hurt them.”

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December 7, 2020


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Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan in 1965, when he was at the epicenter of the counterculture.Evening Standard/Getty Images

Nearly 60 years after writing such counterculture classics as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” Bob Dylan has sold his entire songwriting catalog — more than 600 songs — to Universal Music Publishing Group in a deal announced Monday morning by Universal.

The agreement was first reported by The New York Times, which said it is worth more than $300 million. The deal with Dylan may be the highest price ever paid for a musician or group’s songwriting rights. (Universal has not disclosed the purchase price.)

For Universal Music Publishing Group, which is owned by the French media giant Vivendi, there’s a lot of appeal in owning Dylan’s songwriting rights. The company will collect money any time another musician covers any of those songs, and it will earn revenue for allowing the songs to be used in commercials and movies as well as when the songs are streamed, sold commercially on such formats as CDs, or broadcast.

Songwriting rights — that is, ownership of a song’s melody and lyrics — are figured and paid out separately from recording rights. According to Universal, Dylan’s songs have already been recorded by other artists more than 6,000 times, including such famous versions as Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower” and Guns N’ Roses’ version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.

The Universal deal includes all of the 79-year-old artist’s songs, stretching back to his earliest compositions up to those recorded on his latest albumRough and Rowdy Ways, which was released in June. In all, Universal said, Dylan has sold more than 125 million records around the world.

Dylan is one of the most widely honored songwriters of all time, winning both a special citation Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and a Nobel Prize in literature in 2016.


An album of previously unheard recordings from the “Time Out” sessions in 1959 reveals the making of a masterpiece.

From left: Paul Desmond, Joe Morello, Eugene Wright and Dave Brubeck, the quartet that recorded “Time Out” in 1959.
From left: Paul Desmond, Joe Morello, Eugene Wright and Dave Brubeck, the quartet that recorded “Time Out” in 1959.Credit…Brubeck Family

By Giovanni Russonello

  • Dec. 7, 2020

Time Outtakes NYT Critic’s Pick

Listening to the alternate takes and behind-the-scenes recordings of any classic album will unravel some of its timelessness. But there’s something especially startling about hearing what went into the making of “Time Out,” the Dave Brubeck Quartet’smasterpiece, and maybe the ultimate example of a live art form being carved down and mapped out into an impeccably finished product.

Chances are this record lives somewhere in your memory, whether you can name it or not. “Take Five,” the single that sent the LP to No. 2 on the Billboard chart in the early 1960s, is among the most iconic records in jazz.https://www.youtube.com/embed/ryA6eHZNnXY

But from the sound of “Time Outtakes” — a collection of previously unheard recordings from the “Time Out” studio sessions, released last week in commemoration of Brubeck’s 100th birthday on the family’s new label — making the album was a sometimes fun, sometimes frustrating process, with the quartet feeling its way into a set of music that had not yet come to feel patented and perfected.

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“Time Out” would be the achievement that effectively quieted Brubeck’s critics. They had called the pianist’s music uptight, unswinging and mannered (it often was), and some listeners rightly bridled at the injustice of how swiftly he — a white musician whose path ran through the conservatory and the college touring circuit, not the jazz clubs of New York — had vaulted over other bandleaders and into a Columbia recording contract. Brubeck often told the story of how ashamed he had felt when, in 1954, he became the only jazz musician other than Louis Armstrong to appear on the cover of Time magazine. He was on tour at the time with Duke Ellington, who was clearly deserving of such an honor himself, and it was Ellington who first showed Brubeck the Time cover when it came out.

As he built out his niche in jazz, Brubeck found purpose in a kind of globalism. Fascinated throughout his life by rhythmic complexity, his ears were piqued during a State Department good will tour in 1958, when he heard odd-numbered folkloric rhythms in various parts of Asia. He committed himself to integrating them into his compositions, while also making sure to nest hummable melodies inside each tune. On “Time Out,” he and the quartet manage to do all this while maintaining an effortless feeling that could easily be adopted by the listener; this was all the more impressive given that Brubeck was not always a graceful, mellifluous pianist.

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The last track of “Time Outtakes” collects studio banter from throughout the recording session, and we hear Brubeck getting a little frustrated as he strives to capture a perfect take of the autumnal ballad “Strange Meadowlark.” It’s striking and disarming to hear him throwing around snippets of that song’s impeccable chord structure, sussing things out, playing one section here and a snatch of another there, while bantering with the producer Teo Macero.

Elsewhere in that track, we hear Macero encouraging the quartet to loosen up, reminding them to think of the session as nothing but a rehearsal. “You’re goddamn right it is,” one band member jokes, playful but sharp. “And I’m not getting paid for it!”

“Time Out” was recorded over three days spread across the summer of 1959. The eight tracks on “Time Outtakes” were all recorded on the first day, June 25, as the band was just breaking in the tunes. The album includes five alternate versions of pieces that made it onto “Time Out” and two tracks that did not (the show tune “I’m in a Dancing Mood” and the ad hoc “Watusi Jam”).

Paul Desmond had written “Take Five” partly as a gesture to the quartet’s drummer, Joe Morello, who wanted to show off his newfound confidence playing in 5/4 time. Listening to “Time Out,” with Morello’s broad rolling beat propelling the band and his concise, dramatic solo serving as the track’s centerpiece, he is in the driver’s seat.

But on June 25, the band tried nearly two-dozen times to get the song right, and still couldn’t. It was scrapped until a session the following week, when Morello apparently nailed it in just two takes. The “Time Outtakes” version is from June, and Morello’s part is far less developed; he taps out a sparse but somewhat obtrusive pattern on the ride cymbal, trying to perch on the end of beat one and the start of beat four. By July, he would figure out how do far more while sounding more efficient.

Still, there is an unfolding quality on the “Outtakes” version, a sense of reaching for what’s ahead, that doesn’t pertain to the final recording, maybe because it doesn’t have to. Morello’s solo on the early “Take Five” unfolds in a growing series of drum rolls, flicks of the wrist that slyly alternate their frequency and then seem to pull Morello’s arms across the whole kit. It is a far more cinematic and open display than what we get on the iconic “Time Out,” though not as built for posterity.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet
“Time Outtakes”
(Brubeck Editions)


Elizabeth Blair 2018 square
Elizabeth Blair

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Billie Holiday performs in New York City in 1947.Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Billie Holiday‘s life and artistry have been analyzed, scrutinized, interpreted and embellished more than any other jazz singer in history. But the first biographer to fully immerse herself in the world of Lady Day was a New York journalist and avid Holiday fan named Linda Lipnack Kuehl. For some eight years in the 1970s, Kuehl interviewed everyone she could find who had a personal association with Holiday — musicians, managers, childhood friends, lovers and FBI agents among them. Then, before she could finish her biography, Kuehl died: In 1978, her body was found on a Washington, D.C. street. Her death was ruled a suicide. 

Kuehl left behind a trove of notes, transcripts and some 200 hours of interviews on cassette tapes — mostly in shoeboxes, some labeled, some not. That archive is where director James Erskine first began pulling together the story Kuehl was never able to finish. His new documentary, Billie (out Dec. 4 on VOD and in select theaters), is about both Holiday — as told through the voices of people who knew her — and Kuehl’s obsession with crafting her biography.

“I’d like to write something that is real,” we hear Kuehl tell one of her interviewees in the film, “that is really Lady Day, and people who don’t see her in any sentimental way, you know? Really, as she is.”

Erskine describes Kuehl as “a brilliant interviewer” who tracked down everybody from various stages of Holiday’s life. “What was extraordinary was it felt like an archaeological journey,” he says, “because it felt like we were excavating voices lost to the past.” Those now-deceased jazz voices include Count Basie, Charles Mingus, John Hammond, Jo Jones and


Before her death in 1978, Linda Lipnack Kuehl spent eight years trying to write the definitive biography of Billie Holiday.Courtesy of the Kuehl family

“She excited me with just three notes,” drummer Roy Harte tells Kuehl. “She looked like a panther. It’s the only way I can describe it. With the most unbelievable face in the world,” marvels Syms, singer and Holiday’s friend. 

To give the documentary a cohesive structure — and to make sense out of the 200 hours of interview material — Erskine says, “We had a discipline that people speaking in the film should only be speaking about an event that they actually witnessed … because otherwise the material was just sort of overwhelming.”

One of most provocative moments in the documentary is Kuehl speaking with Jones, a jazz drummer who toured the country with Holiday when they were both in Basie’s band. Jones questions whether Kuehl, a white woman, is capable of understanding the racism they faced.

“Miss Billie Holiday didn’t have the privilege of using a toilet. The boys at least could go out in the woods,” Jones tells Kuehl. “You don’t know anything about it because you never had to subjugate yourself to it. Never.”

For Farah Jasmine Griffin, author of If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, Kuehl’s interview with Jones is “extraordinary.” 

“I found his passion, his truth-telling, all of his wisdom … his honesty, his courage — I found him so compelling,” Griffin says. “And I was very happy that the filmmakers gave him as much space as they did.”

Billie, directed by James Erskine.

Greenwich Entertainment

The film reaffirms some oft-told legends about Billie Holiday: She could curse up a storm; had affairs with men and women (according to some, Tallulah Bankhead among them); liked to get high from cannabis, heroin and cocaine; and often surrounded herself with men who treated her horribly. 

We’re also reminded that when Holiday sang “Strange Fruit,” she was “fighting inequality before Martin Luther King, Jr,” as Mingus puts it. (Holiday sang the haunting indictment of lynching to white and Black audiences as early as 1939.) Mingus tells Kuehl, “That might be why the cops were against her. Not just junk” — alluding to Holiday’s arrest, in 1947, for narcotics possession, another event in Holiday’s life that Kuehl probed.

In her interview with Jimmy Fletcher, the narcotics agent assigned to conduct surveillance of Holiday, Kuehl asks him whether a big star like Holiday “would have been a target because it would have been a lot of publicity for an agent.” Fletcher concedes, “Well, not just for an agent. For the Bureau of Narcotics.”

For Erskine, Kuehl’s tireless efforts to uncover the truth about Holiday lead to all kinds of revelations. “You certainly get the sense that the more interviews Linda did, the closer she did get to this sort of underground, seedy world,” he says. In the documentary, Kuehl’s sister says the family does not believe she committed suicide. Erskine isn’t sure. “You do start to wonder,” he says, “if she was maybe doing a lot more than just uncovering Billie’s life, but also the political forces that wanted to silence her.”

This story was edited for broadcast by Nina Gregory.


On Record Store Day (Nov. 27), Resonance Records is releasing “Rollins in Holland,” a set of the saxophone master’s expansive concert and radio performances from 1967.

Musicians including a saxophonist play onstage.
Photograph by Toon Fey / Courtesy Resonance Records

Though Sonny Rollins, at the age of ninety, is no longer playing the saxophone, his legacy is still growing. On Record Store Day (Nov. 27), an annual celebration of independently owned music shops, Resonance Records, a prime label for rediscovered jazz classics, issues the three-LP set “Rollins in Holland.” It features expansive concert and radio performances with the bassist Ruud Jacobs and the drummer Han Bennink from 1967, and showcases—in cuts up to twenty-two minutes—Rollins’s freely associative artistry liberated from studio norms.


PETER BRESLOWAudio will be available later today.

Pastor Juan D. Shipp is the radio personality responsible for The Last Shall Be First: The JCR Records Story, Vol. 1, a new collection of old gospel songs.Courtesy of the artist

This fall brings a new collection of some old spirituals and gospel music, first recorded back in the 1970s. The Last Shall Be First: The JCR Records Story, Vol. 1 aims to give a second life to some memorable performances that almost disappeared forever. It’s a story that really begins with a close cousin of gospel music: the blues.

In the late 1940s and into the ’50s, radio station KWEM in West Memphis, Ark., featured live broadcasts of future legends like B.B. King, Johnny Cash and Howlin’ Wolf. Eventually the station changed its call letters to KWAM, moved across the river to Memphis, Tenn. and started tilting in a more heavenly direction. 

In 1970, the station hired Pastor Juan D. Shipp, a clergyman from a local church that was known for its music. “Always wanted to be a DJ,” Shipp now recalls. ” I do have a music background: I was in the band in my high school and I sang in the choir. Music was just a part of my life.”

Shipp had a daily show on KWAM — 2 p.m. until sunset — and depending on the vagaries of the atmosphere, The Gospel Train could sometimes be heard as far away as Detroit and New York. “Gospel quartets” is the name of the style Shipp like to play — though the groups weren’t limited to just four people. The style features close harmonies, similar to doo wop.

At some point, Shipp, known on air as Juan D, noticed a disparity in the recordings he was playing: He realized that local bands were being shortchanged. The audio quality of those records — groups like The Spiritual Harmonizers, The Silver Wings and The Calvary Nightingales — didn’t match that of the national acts. 

So he went hunting for a good studio, where he could record area artists. One day, while picking someone up at the Greyhound bus station in Memphis, Shipp saw a hand-painted sign for Tempo Studios, owned by rockabilly drummer Clyde Leoppard.

“Up on the second floor, there was the most fantastic studio that I had ever seen,” Shipp says. “The way he had it laid out, each individual had [their] own cubicle. And the padding of it was so tight you had to just about holler in order for a person to hear you inside of it. It was just that good.” 

Shipp already knew how to run a mixing board and produce, so he got busy. He says he pushed his artists: “They considered me a pretty hard taskmaster when I was in the studio. I was very nice outside the studio; they said I was the perfect person. But inside the studio I became a monster.”

But Shipp was a monster who created a unique sound. “My signature thing was to put something in there that others didn’t have, so we went into the ‘wah wah’ sound,” he says. That distinctive effect, a bit controversial for church music at the time, became a signature of Wendell “Music Man” Moore, a guitar player Shipp met when the artist was around 16. 

“It was just a different sound, and the people was loving it — me being a young kid, doing my thing,” says Moore, now in his early 60s. “You know, you would have the older people — “What are you bringing up all that noise in here like that?” — but once they caught on, they loved it.”

Shipp eventually developed a first and second team of artists to split between two record labels: The best groups ended up on the D-Vine Spirituals label, while the the second string appeared on the JCR label. The collection released this September, The Last Shall Be First, features just second stringers. 

Music historian Michael Hurt, who wrote the liner notes for The Last Shall Be First, says the album almost didn’t happen, and these old recordings came within weeks of disappearing forever. “I feel like the whole thing was D-Vine intervention, as Pastor Shipp likes to say,” he says.

Hurt tracked Shipp down after stumbling upon some old D-Vine 45’s and loving what he heard. In 2011, the two of them set out to find the original master tapes. Eventually they did, in an old shack behind a house in Olive Branch, Miss. “The roof was caving in and it was just a real mess — you know, when nature starts to take back over,” Hurt says. “But somehow or another, those tapes were in incredible shape.” 

The shack had been a studio for Leoppard, Shipp’s old collaborator — and along with Leoppard’s former house, it was about to be foreclosed upon. Had Hurt and Shipp arrived just two weeks later, the tapes would have been lost for good, chucked out in the trash. Instead, there are now plans for many more releases of JCR and D-Vine artists.

As for Shipp, at 81 years old, he is back on the radio for the first time in more than 30 years, on WYXR in Memphis. “After all these years going back into radio, it’s fantastic, he says, “I’m really excited about it.”

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MOODY RICHARD … thinking of a friend this afternoon

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Moody Richard (The Innocent Bystander)

Moody Richard, he was always hangin’ round
Moody Richard, was the biggest square in town
Moody Richard, he was always on the scene
But his presence never really meant a thing

He was an innocent bystander
Watching his time go by
Mister Innocent Bystander
Doesn’t your time fly by?

Moody Richard, never had a thing to say
But his silence didn’t matter anyway
And his problem was an easy one to solve
Moody Richard never really got involved

He was an innocent bystander
Watching his time go by
Mister Innocent Bystander
Doesn’t your time fly by?

But he’s guilty of one crime
Must he ruin your life and mine?
For he’s always standing by
In the corner of your eye
Yes, he’s guilty! Guilty!

Just an innocent bystander
Watching his time go by
Mister Innocent Bystander
Doesn’t your time fly by?

Just an innocent bystander
Watching his time go by
Mister Innocent Bystander
Doesn’t your time fly by?